Survival Story: Cast recalls tornado that hit during musical rehearsal

Survival Story: Cast recalls tornado that hit during musical rehearsal

HATTIESBURG, MS - The cast and crew of The University of Southern Mississippi's production of Sweeney Todd showed up to their Sunday rehearsal on Feb. 10, 2013, as if it were any other day. However, the day would end far from normal.

The production of the Stephen Sondheim musical was supposed to mark the re-opening of the Mannoni Performing Arts Center at the University of Southern Mississippi after renovations. However, roughly four weeks before the first curtain, mother nature decided to intervene with the February 2013 tornado.

"It was load-in day and we were getting this enormous set, probably one of the biggest sets we've ever had in that space," said Mike Lopinto, the director of the production.

"We had a lot of the cast and crew there to help and we were playing some music to make it a nice day. Then I got a call from the director of our department and he said there was a tornado around his neighborhood near Main Street Baptist Church. It was after we turned off the music we were playing that we finally heard the sirens."

Lopinto herded everyone into the basement of the building to wait out the storm.

"My ears popped and I made eye contact with my stage manager because we knew that everyone needed to get down at that moment," Lopinto said.

The sounds of the tornado were what stuck with student Stephanie Miles while taking shelter that day.

"It sounded like a train approaching, like everyone says, but the scariest sound was when the tornado hit the door of the loading dock," said Miles, who played Joanna in the production. "All of the debris hitting that day made it sound like gunshots going off. I couldn't believe it was happening."

The building was left without a roof once the storm passed, causing rain damage to the stage and set. At one point, the School of Music canceled the show.

"However, I felt like after everything we went through, we needed this show," Lopinto said. "The Saenger Theatre came through for us in a pinch. University Baptist Church set us up with a rehearsal space in the mean time."

Another form of aid came from "Sweeney Todd" author Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a personal letter to the cast and crew of the production and made a monetary donation of $500.

"To the cast and company of Sweeney Todd, Michael Lopinto wrote me about your prodigious efforts in the face of catastrophe. I cannot tell you how touched I am. I hope you are all properly proud of yourselves, and I hope the enclosed will help you rebuild what you lost. Yours Truly, Stephen Sondheim."

"I had heard through Facebook that he responds to letters, so in my manic state I decided to write to him and let him know what we had gone through," Lopinto said. "Getting that response back was one of the more stunning moments in my world."

The cast had less than a month to adapt to the new stage and opened only a week later than originally scheduled.

"We needed to do this to move forward and be certain that the students didn't lose an opportunity to perform the show on which they had worked so hard," said Michael Miles, director of the School of Music, to Southern Miss Now.