By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Easy Street Productions’ 25th anniversary season will reach its peak this weekend when several original members of the troupe return to take part in “Miracle on Easy Street.”
An annual holiday revue of spectacular proportions, “Miracle” will be bigger than ever this year, with about 170 performers and musicians.
It’s hosted by Easy Street co-founders Todd Hancock and Maureen Collins and features singers James McClellan, Colleen Chance, Eric McClellan, Natalie Sprouse, Candice Campana, Cortney McKay and Janeen Williams.
Among those returning for the Silver Anniversary edition are Easy Street originals Tania Grubbs and Tommy Smolko, as well as past performers Katie Collins, who is now a musician in Nashville, Tenn., and Marlana Lacivita, a dancer at Busch Gardens in Florida.
Earlier this year, Easy Street reunited the original 1991 cast of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” for its anniversary season, and decided to do the same for “Miracle.”
“We set out to reconnect with the people who got us started and were around from the beginning,” said Hancock. “Tania [Grubbs] was with us from the beginning. She will sing a song [“River”] she sang 20-some years ago in ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ when we were at the Uptown Theater.”
Grubbs, a Salem native, lives in Pittsburgh where she is music director of the Fairmont Hotels and also a jazz vocalist who performs several nights a week.
“One of the coolest things about Easy Street is the friendships we developed,” said Grubbs in a phone interview. “Todd and Maureen are the perfect example of professionalism, and I based my career as a singer on the methodology of East Street. They continually give back their love for the craft to the community. What a treasure you have in Easy Street, and I thank them for giving me my foundation.”
For co-director Collins, “Miracle on Easy Street” lives up to its name.
“I have been blessed to sing with the best, and to have returning friends is going to be heartwarming,” she said. “I always feel the support of this place I choose to call home at ‘Miracle.’”
Collins leads musical theater classes for children who inevitably become part of Easy Street’s Little Rascals youth corps. “Every child that does my workshops wishes they could be a Little Rascal in this show,” she said. “This year, 113 kids are part of the Rascals.”
The show also makes use of 48 young people as dancers.
Tommy Smolko, who is also returning for this year’s production, was 5 years old when he first auditioned with Easy Street in 1995. “He was a little hambone of a kid,” recalled Hancock. “They said, ‘He’ll steal the show,’ and I said, ‘If he can steal it from me, then good luck.’ But he sure kept me on my toes.”
Smolko is now a singer and songwriter in Nashville, Tenn. In a phone interview from Music City, he said he grew up with Easy Street and is fired up for his return. “I was ecstatic to be called back,” he said. “[Hancock and Collins] were role models for me my whole life, and now it comes full circle. They made me feel like family.”
Smolko became one of the original four Little Rascals. He would go on to perform in just about every Easy Street show for the next 11 years.
“It was an awesome experience to get up in front of thousands, and I loved it,” he said.
When he reached age 16 or 17 and was too old to be a Little Rascal but too young to be part of the adult cast, Smolko started doing high school theater.
After graduating from high school, he attended Lake Erie College where he was part of a musical duo called Southern Boulevard (named for the South Side thoroughfare) which toured the East Coast.
When that broke up about three years ago, he moved to Nashville.
Smolko writes music every day and collaborates with other writers. He also performs four or five nights a week.
“I was joking with Todd [Hancock] the other day and I told him, ‘I had to move to Nashville to start a songwriting career just to get enough street cred to be invited back to perform as an adult with Easy Street!”
Being a part of “Miracle” this year has brought back an old feeling for him. “I’ve been saying it finally feels like Christmas again,” he said. “When I was a kid, Christmas always meant ‘Miracle on Easy Street.’”
Musical director Jeff Sanders also will return to lead the Easy Street Little Big Band, as will choreographer Megan Cleland.
Easy Street always incorporates a charitable element to “Miracle on Easy Street,” and this year is no different.
All profits from this year’s program will be donated to St. Joseph the Provider School in Youngstown, and tickets are being given to all students at the school.
Easy Street also has a Share the Miracle ticket drive in which the company will match all tickets bought on behalf of a needy family and donate them to the charitable organization of the buyer’s choice.