As a student at Libertyville High School, Ian Liberto he was more of a band geek than a theater kid. The double-bass player even got a scholarship. But when Liberto graduated from Decatur's Millikin University in 2005, he had a degree in theater and an eye on Broadway.
It took him a minute to get there. Before Broadway, the 2001 Libertyville High grad cut his teeth on shows at the Marriott ( 2007's The Producers ) and in 2009 nation-wide bus-and-truck tour of "A Chorus Line." Liberto was 27 when he made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of Promises, Promises.
Now 37, Liberto hasn't slowed down much since, forging a career in the ensembles of Broadway shows ranging from the short-lived Chaplin, The Musical to Billy Elliott to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Through Nov. 27, he's in Chicago performing in the national tour of Hello Dolly, starring Betty Buckley in the iconic title role.
The beloved musical about an 19th-century matchmaker might be set more than a century ago but, for Liberto, its optimism, comedy and gorgeously detailed period sets and costumes can be a balm for today's troubled times.
"The core of Hello Dolly is about loss, and trying to stay in the world after being dealt a huge loss," he said. "It's about finding yourself alone. Three of the main characters have lost their spouse, and much of 'Dolly' is about how they're trying to deal with that."
Liberto has been with "Dolly" long enough to pick up on the show's most subtle nuances. He did a reading of the show a few years ago, and then was cast in "Dolly" on Broadway, with Bette Midler playing the title role.
As the dance captain for the national tour, he's in charge of ensuring that the cast masters choreographer Warren Carlyle's steps, while also understudying the role of Cornelius Hackl, a Yonkers hay and feed store clerk who makes his way to New York City in search of love and adventure.
Liberto credited his bus-and-truck days as laying the foundation for his career. "Everyone should do a tour after college," he said. "You learn how hard the work is. You close a performance at 10:30 p.m., go to your hotel, get on the bus at 5 a.m., go into rehearsal that afternoon, and start all over again performing that night. You learn to get along with peopleyou're spending so much time with your cast in a confined space. You learn to deal with not having much personal space. You're living in an eight by 30 foot bus with 20 other people."
Liberto has been out for years. He married director Kasey RT Graham in 2009. Long before the marriage, Liberto's plans for revealing his orientation to his parents didn't go quit was planned.
"I was going to write them this long letter once I went away to college," he recalled. "That changed when my father found something in my room that kind of outed me. It was rough, but it ended up being fine. They needed time to process itwhatever their process was, I wasn't privy to it. But in a few months, everything went back to normal."
With "Dolly," Liberto is hoping to give audiences a sense of hope and a respite from the often grim barrage of current events. The 1964 score by Jerry Herman features songs infectiously cheery songs, including "Hello Dolly," "Before the Parade Passes By" and "Sunday Best."
"It has some of the most hummable melodies ever written for theater," Liberto said. "Without going into political specifics, I feel like we're at a time when people sometimes need a break from everything that's going one. They need a reminder that beauty and hope and kindness exist. 'Dolly' offers that."
Hello Dolly runs through Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets start at $30. Twenty-six winners of a daily lottery will receive $25 tickets. For more info, go to HelloDollyOnBroadway.com .