It all began with a backstage “hello” more than a decade ago following a performance of Hal Prince’s acclaimed revival of “Showboat” when leading lady Sarah Pfisterer met Bob Eagle, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Waltham’s Reagle Music Theatre. That brief greeting has led to an enduring personal and professional connection that lasts to this day.
A Metropolitan Opera semi-finalist with a master’s in Music from Northwestern University, Sarah has become a mainstay at Reagle in recent years, regularly appearing in summer musicals such as “Carousel,” “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music” and ”My Fair Lady.” She has also performed in the company’s annual Christmas production.
And later this month she will return to Waltham to sing in Reagle’s 17th annual St. Patrick’s Day revue, “A Little Bit Of Ireland,” on March 14 and 15.
The show is a dynamic celebration of Irish music, dance, and light-hearted comedy based on what Bob Eagle modestly calls “a little idea I had.” This year’s enthusiastic company of close to 70 singers, dancers, and musicians is scheduled to include everyone from Sarah and her husband Rick Hilsabeck (star of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera”) to the Celtic ensemble Comhaltas, Judith Ross and the Massachusetts Harp Ensemble, students from the award-winning Harney Academy of Irish Dance, comedian Jerry Walker, a full chorus, a live orchestra, and more.
In addition to her work on Broadway and in the national tour of “Showboat,” Sarah also starred as Christine Daae in more then 1,000 performances of “Phantom,” which is where she and Rick first met. Rick’s extensive credits include performing as principal dancer and choreographer with Hubbard Street Dance Company in addition to appearing in “Ragtime,” “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” “Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang” and Hal Prince’s “Parade,” among others.
Originally from the Midwest, Sarah and Rick currently live with their two children in Connecticut where they co-founded the Wire Mill Academy, a theater school for young artists where they teach. Despite their extensive work schedules, they both say Reagle Music Theatre holds a very special place in their hearts.
Chatting by phone from home, Sarah said, “We still work in New York, we do concerts, we have the performing arts school down here, but we talk a lot about the fact that I think we have closer friends in the Boston area because of Reagle Music Theatre than we do here. People are so wonderful up there. I can think of ten people right off the top of my head that I could call and say, ‘Gosh, I’m in this bind, would you mind X-Y-and-Z and they’d be there in a moment’s notice. … Bob Eagle has just created a lovely, lovely thing there.”
This year’s show is still being fine tuned, but Sarah said, “As far as I know, I think I’ll be doing ‘Come Back to Erin.’ Rick will be doing ‘Danny Boy.’ We’ll do ‘Great Day For The Irish’ and some sing-alongs to get everybody going . . . And then I’ll probably do ‘Mother Ireland’ (with an arrangement) Judy Ross wrote a few years back for her harps.”
She added, with a laugh, “One of our dearest friends is Jerry Walker. I remember the first year I did the Reagle Irish show, I (was backstage and) thought ‘Well I’m going to watch Jerry do his thing.’ I was laughing so hard I was losing my voice. And the audience just screams, which, of course, makes you laugh even harder.”
Sarah and Rick believe the popularity and longevity of “A Little Bit of Ireland” lie in the fact that audiences count on it as an annual family tradition that delivers a great night out. Said Sarah: “It does change a bit from year to year – sometimes we’ll add a new song, or Judy will write something new. Liam Harney will put some new dances in. But what a collection, what a talented group. I am always blown away. I stand in the wings and watch with my jaw on the floor because they’re all so talented. Rick and I are honored to be among them.”
They are also very proud of their school. “Education in the arts in our area (was lacking),” said Sarah. School budgets – always the first thing to be cut. We felt there was a real need. So along with a partner of ours, Mary Jo Duffy, a good Irish girl, we founded Wire Mill Academy. We’re in our fourth year and it’s going really well. We sit at the crossroad of four towns so we have a unique situation where kids from all four towns get to know each other. That normally wouldn’t happen. But involvement in the theater and the arts really kind of brings people together. It’s been a really wonderful, completely different experience in the arts for us. When you’re teaching, you really take yourself out of the equation. And that has been so rewarding.”
Both Rick and Sarah come from families of educators. “We love teaching and desperately want these kids (kindergarten through college) to have the same kind of experiences we had,“ Rick said. “Sarah and I were very fortunate growing up to have good teachers – good, solid, dependable people, inspirational people.”
Rick noted that the reality of financial uncertainty today sometimes limits what theatrical producers are able to do to ensure a fully staged production. However, he said, Bob Eagle “has maintained a wonderful tradition of keeping live music, a live orchestra and never skimping, never giving in to play things to a recording or hiring just five musicians.”
At the end of “A Little Bit Of Ireland,” Rick said, he and Sarah feel it’s important for them to acknowledge to the audience the gratitude and pleasure performers experience when singing with a live orchestra. “It’s something we hope never dwindles.”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Reagle Music Theatre’s “A Little Bit Of Ireland,” March 14 & 15, Robinson Theater, 617 Lexington St., Waltham. Tickets: reaglemusictheatre.com or 781-891-5600.