Evan Sullivan has a history with Christmas shows.
"My first real experience being up in front of people, I guess most people would say it was their Christmas pageant in kindergarten, and that's what it was for me," Sullivan says over a gingerbread latte at Starbucks. "I had my first line — it was one little line — in a Christmas pageant, and I was hooked."
Sullivan, 28, has put in a lot of hours onstage since then, performing iconic roles of Harold Hill in The Music Man and Curly in Oklahoma! (four times). But Christmas shows have been absent from Sullivan's résumé in recent years, primarily because of his former day job, managing his father's garden center, The Planter's Wort, in Richmond.
"We did Christmas trees in the winter, so holiday shows were always off the table," Sullivan says.
In the past year, Sullivan's father has shifted back to managing the garden center full-time, and Sullivan has taken a job doing pretrial work with the judicial system in Montgomery, Menifee, Bath and Rowan counties, freeing up his holiday-season evenings to work on shows. Starting this weekend, he'll play another iconic role: George Bailey in The Woodford Theatre's production of It's a Wonderful Life.
"Everybody knows George Bailey," Sullivan says. "It appeals to me because it has that wholesome feeling with an uplifting ending that makes you want to go home and drink eggnog with the family."
The show finds Sullivan in a comfortable place on the Woodford stage. He's under the direction of Beth Kirchner, with whom he has crafted several memorable performances, including Pseudolus in the 2005 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his most recent performance as Curly in Oklahoma in 2009.
On the other hand, It's a Wonderful Life takes Sullivan, who also has performed with Paragon Music Theatre and other companies, out of a comfort zone because it is not a musical. Since emerging in Lexington theater a little more than five years ago, Sullivan has performed exclusively in musicals.
"Doing a musical, I could always feel like even if I mess up a little bit, I'll get it back in the song," Sullivan says. In It's a Wonderful Life, "I don't have that safety net. It really is all on my acting.
"Beth and I discussed that I am a singer-actor. So to have the whole show rest on my acting means me getting a lot more serious, means me getting a lot more into the script and saying, what does this mean? What's the subtext? They're things that you do, but not to this extent."
Bailey, who is driven so low that he attempts suicide, is a character who goes into much darker places than most of Sullivan's musical leading men.
In many ways though, Sullivan identifies with Bailey, who stays in his small town of Bedford Falls rather than pursue dreams in bigger places, and who works at making life better for his family and community.
As a leading man of Lexington-area musical theater, Sullivan has been tempted to test the waters in New York and other big cities. But the bottom line is, he's not interested.
"I moved to Winchester because Lexington was too big for me," Sullivan says. "And now I'm thinking of downsizing again to Mount Sterling."
Sullivan says he investigated New York, particularly when he had a girlfriend who lived there.
"It was cutthroat," says Sullivan, who is contemplating going back to law school. "People are willing to take a bat to your knees just to keep you from auditioning.
"I'd rather stay here and just do what I do because I love doing it."