The show must go on

Cast and crew expected minor adversity — but not the lead actor’s illness — before the show’s opening
Friday, November 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Music blares as girls in curlers and half made-up faces scamper frantically across the room singing, dancing and nervously chattering.

Across the hall, anxiety fills the room as boys pace silently, rehearsing lines; a few talk among themselves as they dress. These are the typical scenes before the opening night of a play, but the preparation for this play was missing one key element: Its lead actor.

Three weeks ago, Ryan McNeil, the lead of the Hickman High School play, “My Fair Lady,” was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a tragic blow for cast and crew — but the show had to go on.

“I was shocked when I found out,” McNeil said.

Despite the news, McNeil has a positive outlook.

“I knew it wasn’t my fault and that this could have happened to anyone,” McNeil said. “I just have to accept it and go with the flow.”

After receiving the news, McNeil knew he had to inform the play director he wasn’t going to be able to perform. Fortunately, she had an attitude similar to his.

“He came and told me as soon as he knew,” director Kathryn Roberts said. “It was tragic, but when something like this happens, you have to do what you have to do.”

The cast had a few weeks to make the adjustments it needed before opening night Wednesday, and many of the cast members were dealing with the shock.

“It was an emotional event for me,” said Elizabeth Baldwin, who plays Eliza Doolittle, the female lead. “He is a really good friend of mine, and our chemistry on stage was great.”

McNeil’s illness caused the directors to do some shifting. Trevor Suich, who was Col. Pickering, was moved to the role of Professor Higgins, and Jonathan Grant replaced him as the colonel.

Switching from his original role required Suich to learn a new set of lines quickly.

“Generally, you have two to three months to learn your lines, but I only had three weeks to memorize a new set of lines,” Suich said.

McNeil sympathizes with the pressure Suich has had to face.

“Talk about stress,” McNeil said. “I am really impressed with how quickly he picked up on everything.”

The cast and crew pulled together to help their colleague learn the role.

“The cast has been a constant support throughout this whole process,” Suich said.

To Suich, mastering the lines of the six songs was the most challenging part of moving from one character to another. The change of roles was difficult for other cast members as well.

“It took some getting use to because I was so use to Trevor being Col. Pickering,” Baldwin said. “I would get confused as to who I should be talking to sometimes.”

Grant was not a part of the original cast, and last-minute accommodations had to be made so he could participate.

“His swim coach agreed to let him out of some practices to help us out,” Roberts said.

Despite the rearranging of the cast, the directors were confident the cast could pull off the change.

“We have such a dedicated group of students, and they really rose to the occasion and made this work,” said Robin Beach Steinhaus, the music director.

Even as the show continues, the cast supports its former star.

“So many people have come to visit me, and I have received tons of cards and posters that now decorate my room,” McNeil said. “The amount of support helps me know that everything is going to be OK.”

McNeil plans to watch the show’s final performance and attend cast party Saturday.

“This is my senior year, and I don’t want to miss out on anything,” McNeil said.

“Usually the final performance is only so-so because it’s almost over, but Saturday might just be our best performance,” Suich said. “We want to do a good job for Ryan.”

McNeil wants the cast to know that even though he could not be on stage with them, he wants them to remain focused.

“My advice to the cast would be to look at the big picture, find out the real reason you are on stage,” McNeil said.

The play will continue tonight and Saturday. Tickets are $4 for students and senior citizens and $5 for adults. The show begins 7:30 p.m.

The cast and crew have dedicated the show to their lead actor.

“We want to make Ryan proud,” Steinhaus said.

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