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Still plenty of life in the stately old Folly

By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star

From the lower balcony, jazz singer Karrin Allyson and her band sounded close to spectacular last Saturday night.

Along with swinging and scatting highlights, there were stunning, stillpoint moments of quiet — the lightest touch of a brush on Matt Wilson’s cymbals, a soft, lonely note as Allyson sang one of the doleful tunes from her new CD.

That’s the Folly Theater for you. It can sound pretty fine and bring you close to some stirring music.

The night before, the same Folly stage fairly rocked with the high-energy, shiny and silly dance antics of the Aluminum Show, an out-of-the-box offering of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

A balcony perch didn’t prevent our encounter with an outbreak of big ? floating silver pillows in the middle of the troupe’s shtick, but, at the end, when aluminum slivers started flying from the air cannons onstage, the shards never quite made it our way. (I saw one little piece of silver foil flutter down from the flyspace during Allyson’s show, a glinting, mothlike memory in the stage lights.)

Yes, that’s the Folly, too, a place of great variety and memorable experience. But should we be worried about its future?

Week after week, anticipation and excitement grow about the coming of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The two-hall, $400 million complex will open in mid-September. The glories will be many there; the promise surely will be real. Even the seats, we expect, will set a new standard for comfort in our local arts world.

The Folly, with its antique home and burlesque past, plugs away quietly as something like a forgotten stepchild on the performing arts scene.

What will happen to it? people are asking.

What’s an old strip joint supposed to do when a fancy new twosome does a come-hither four blocks down the road?

“The Folly plans on being around for a very long time and continuing our rich tradition,” says Gale Tallis, the theater’s executive director.

Tallis is often taken aback when patrons express concern about the Folly, especially when they seem link its fate to the unplugging of the Lyric Theatre around the corner. DST owns the Lyric, at 11th Street and Central Avenue, and presumably will tear it down eventually in the name of economic development.

But the nonprofit Folly, known corporately as the Performing Arts Foundation, owns its building and intends to stay around for at least another 111 years, Tallis says. She is closing in on her first anniversary in the executive director’s chair.

Yes, the last few years have been tough, but, she says, the theater is winding up the year in the black, and the summer schedule — including concerts, corporate events and a fundraising golf tournament — is busier than it has been in a long time.

The Folly, like other arts organizations, is always raising money. It has a four-person staff and a century-old building that needs constant care. Among projects on the horizon: tuck-pointing on the east façade, upgrading the three display cases out front and a major overhaul of backstage production equipment. The last is a big-ticket item that will cost upwards of $100,000, Tallis says.

“We’re all feeling that we need to work harder,” she says, “to continue to provide the customer service and the product of the Folly Theater and to maintain that beautiful theater — that is our main mission.”

Tallis credits the Folly board with stepping up to the plate.

“Our board members have become extremely active in so many ways in trying to help us move forward,” she says.

Tallis sees the opening of the Kauffman Center as another catalyst for downtown vibrancy. And that helps everyone.

“It’s very exciting for Kansas City that the performing arts center is opening this fall,” she says. “We see that as an opportunity, frankly, as well. We are the oldest theater still operating. We are still having many of these wonderful artists.”

The Folly remains the performing home for much of the Harriman-Jewell Series, the Friends of Chamber Music, the Heartland Men’s Chorus and the biannual visit by the Ailey II dance company. (The main Ailey company comes back to town in November and moves from the Midland theater to the Kauffman for almost a week.)

Most of what the Folly has going for it is its size — about 1,000 seats in a relatively shallow space — as well as its stately, semiformal setting and its sound.

“It’s the only hall of its kind in Kansas City,” said Jeremy Lillig, marketing director of the Friends of Chamber Music. “It’s the only chamber music hall. We’re definitely conscious of that.”

The Friends of Chamber Music has presented in the Folly for more than 25 years, and, Lillig notes, its artists frequently hail the place for its wonderful acoustics.

“We have a very longstanding relationship,” he said, “and we want to make sure we maintain that.”

The Friends of Chamber Music will, indeed, present two special concerts at Helzberg Hall next season, but the Folly remains its main performance space. (See Page G4 for details of the Friends’ 2011-12 season, just announced.)

Karrin Allyson’s appearance was the final concert in the Folly’s annual jazz series, one of its main programming initiatives.

Kauffman officials say they have no intention of booking a jazz series as they fill the schedule between productions of its resident companies.

Still, on Oct. 1, as the Folly launches its next jazz season with popular smoothists the Yellowjackets, the Harriman-Jewell Series starts its own season at the sexy new Helzberg Hall with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

So our loyal but underpopulated jazz audience will be tested once again to turn out on one night in two big places (and countless smaller ones, too).

The Kansas City hoopla machine will be working overtime as summer ends and Kauffman begins.

Yet it would be a shame (a folly?) to think that everything worth experiencing will happen only there. If Kansas Citians really want to see our community as significant supporters of the arts, then let’s not lose sight of what else we have. Art and invention happen in interstitial spaces, too.

Let’s save some love for culture all over town, including, of course, the Folly.

Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor: 816-234-4762, paul@kcstar.com, twitter.com/sbpaul.

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