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Bart Shatto returns home from Broadway to perform at Corn Stock

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Imagine being more than 25 years into a successful career as a musical theatre performer, only to come home to Peoria to find the toughest musical score you’ve worked on to date.

That’s why Bart Shatto, the Peoria native and veteran of Broadway and film, is working on making his already-outstanding tenor voice even stronger. He wants to do his best for the Corn Stock Theatre audiences who watch him perform in “The Secret Garden,” which opens next week under the tent in Upper Bradley Park.

“I just want it to be good, you know? We’re here for one common goal,” Shatto said referring to the show and his cast mates. “We are passionate about this show and we want it to do the best we can.”

Shatto is 50 and has performed some of the best music anywhere, including on Broadway as Valjean in “Les Miserables.” But it is just recently he began a voice training technique to improve the asset that got him where he is today, his singing voice.

“This is the perfect time in my life to do this show. Vocally, this is the hardest I have ever worked and it is the best I’ve ever sung. I feel like, after all this time, I’m really finding my voice. And it’s a good thing, too; this is the most difficult score I’ve ever worked on. I feel so lucky to be doing it,” Shatto said before a recent rehearsal.

He is here for “The Secret Garden” on a special guest star contract, required by Actor’s Equity Union for its members to perform in non-professional theatre. His appearance was arranged by Pam Orear, who is directing the show at Corn Stock.

When Orear was offered the show and accepted it, her first call was to Shatto. The reason was that the two of them discussed it 10 years ago, when Shatto was back in Peoria for a family matter. “I told him I loved the show and if I ever got the chance to direct it, I wanted him to be my Archibald (Craven). So of course, I called him. I’m so thankful he could do it,” Orear said.

Shatto was available, but one gets the feeling he would have done anything to make sure he could work with Orear again. She was, after all, the first director he ever had on a Peoria stage. The show was “Peter Pan” at a former community theatre in Bartonville. Shatto portrayed the title character. It was 1981; he was 16. Mike Reams, now his co-star in “The Secret Garden,” was in that show, as well.

Shatto only performed on Peoria stages a few more times before leaving for college  ̶  Western Illinois University after first graduating from Peoria Bergan High School, then transferring to Southern Illinois University. After leaving SIU, it was on to St. Louis, where he started his professional stage career. He became an Equity actor a year and a half later, then went to New York in 1989.

“I really wanted to do TV and film, but musical theatre became my bread and butter,” he said.

Film and TV work did come his way in between stage shows, including a co-starring role in the recently released Cuba Gooding Jr. film, “Freedom.” In the film Shatto plays a vagabond musician who helps the character portrayed by Gooding to get his family to the first station along the Underground Railroad in the 1860s. The role enabled to him sing in a scene where the musicians were trying to cheer up the family.

“It is a very ambitious film and the way they utilized the music made it almost become a character on its own. It was unique,” he said.

His theatre credentials are impressive, with four Broadway shows and numerous national and regional tours on his resume. The Broadway shows include “Les Miserables,” with which he also toured, “Hands On A Hardbody,” “The Civil War,” and “Dracula.” In “Dracula,” he originated the musical role of Quincy Morris. “It’s the only role I’ve ever originated,” he said.

He has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor for the touring company of “The Civil War” in 2010.

He also toured nationally with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for 10 years.

One of the experiences Shatto speaks most highly of when he became part of a cabaret group known as “The Wise Guys.” It was a featured group on Holland America cruise ships on which he worked and later performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. A year and a half later, the group was asked to perform with Rosemary Clooney, again at Carnegie Hall. “I mean, it was Carnegie Hall! Carnegie Hall! It was something,” he said.

It was after “The Wise Guys” that Shatto’s Broadway career started, with “The Civil War” in the spring of 1999. It was then, he said, he began to realize he’d made it; his dream came true.

After the show closed on Broadway, he joined the national tour of “The Civil War,” which starred Larry Gatlin and John Schneider. A year later, he was in the cast of “Les Miserables,” first as a cover for Jean Valjean.

Shatto eventually left the show on his own because of a couple different reasons. One was he became disenchanted with the prospect of a long-running show when he realized the performers were going through the motions every night, treating it like a 9-to-5 job. “It seemed to me they’d lost their passion. I got burned out,” he said.

Another factor was he was going to a divorce from his first wife, an actress named Ann Whitney whom he fell in love with when they were in St. Louis and with whom he’d moved to New York in 1989. “That left me a bit lost, rudderless. I kind of fell off the map,” he said.

After five years away, however, he landed the role of Quincy Morris in “Dracula.” It was 2005. “It was very seminal for me. I was a lead, plus covered two other leading roles, and I worked opposite Kelly O’Hara, who is now the toast of Broadway. It was a great experience,” Shatto said.

However, it was also during that time his father, Player Shatto, died in Peoria, which he said was very tough on him, his mother Sara and his family.

Then, in 2007, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer. He’d been dating a woman named Amy Bladen at the time. She’s a psychologist. When he told her she didn’t have to stick around, “she told me she wasn’t going anywhere, and we were going to find the best specialists around and beat this thing. She stayed with me.”

Just as he was about to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the latter on his vocal chords, his oncologist stopped him and said he wanted to try something different. Because of that, it was learned Shatto didn’t have Lymphoma after all; rather, he has a condition called Lymphmatoid Papulosis, a rare disease that masks itself as cancer. “It saved my life. He saved my life. It can lead to cancer, so I keep a very close eye on it. So does my wife. Oh. I should mention, Amy became my wife,” he said. They live in New Jersey.

Shatto also has a teen-age son from his first marriage, Conor, who is on his way to an acting career, as well.

The last time Shatto performed in Peoria was in 2004, when he did a one-night cabaret performance at the Apollo Theatre downtown. “It was hugely successful. I worked with Andrew Driscoll on it, and I wanted to do it again while I’m here,” he said.

That cabaret, called “From Peoria to Broadway and Back,” will be performed July 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. at the Waterhouse. Tickets are $15 a person.

“I not only to share my experiences with the community and allow the community to see some of its best talent, as well. I have local musicians playing and some other local performers. It’s going to be a magical night,” he said. Some of the other local talent includes Mike Reams, who is performing with Shatto in “The Secret Garden,” and John Huerta and Carmen McCarthy, who just finished “Les Miserables” at Eastlight Theatre.

The first half of the show will be various songs that denote the milestones in Shatto’s life, including popular hits from the 1970s and 80s. The second act will be Broadway.

First, there is "The Secret Garden," which opens a nine-show run on Friday, July 10. 

“I’m really enjoying being back right now. We’re doing a wonderful show at Corn Stock and everybody is so into it. I just know with Pam’s unique vision and talent as a director that it’s going to be special. I’m glad I’m here,” he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).