Lets review the facts as we know them:
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
The New Theatre Restaurant contracted with actor Judge Reinhold to star in Harvey, the classic 1940s comedy about an amiable Midwesterner who keeps company with an enormous imaginary rabbit.
Reinhold came to town and began rehearsals. Then, for reasons no one has seen fit to share, the Beverly Hills Cop star dropped out of the production just days before the first scheduled performance.
Craig Benton, a Kansas City-based actor and New Theatre veteran, memorized the script at warp speed and played Elwood P. Dowd for one week. The role was officially understudied by Kevin Fewell, who plays the cab driver in the show, but the producers thought it would be less disruptive to bring Benton in. Because he was essentially a local New Theatre star, Benton might win the good will of audiences expecting to see Reinhold.
In the meantime, the New Theatre asked Charles Shaughnessy, known for his role on The Nanny and many other television series and movies, to take over the role.
That pretty well brings us up to speed. In this critics humble opinion, Shaughnessy is so effective as Dowd that by rights he should have played the role from the beginning.
(Note: I received an email from a theatergoer who saw the show with Benton in the lead and sang his praises, suggesting that the producers should just keep him for the entire run.)
Ive never had to cram, other than in college for a test, said Benton. Ive never had to prepare or create a character from scratch that quickly.
Director Dennis Hennessy, co-owner of the company, said the producers considered keeping Benton in the show.
We did think about that, Hennessy said. But weve sold our theater on guest stars and thats what people have come to expect.
Recently Shaughnessy kicked his shoes off and stretched out on a sofa in the New Theatre green room before a matinee and talked about the experience of taking over a role in a show that was already running.
Shaughnessy said he took a call from Richard Carrothers, co-founder of the New Theatre, while he was in the middle of a workweek shooting a TV show in Los Angeles. The show wrapped on a Friday night, Shaughnessy flew to KC on Sunday and watched the show twice with Benton in the role. (Craig did an incredible job, he said). Then he hit the ground running Monday morning with Hennessy. The first day they went through the play with producer Joe Fox and stage manager Kathy Stengel reading all the other roles.
We did have the stage, which was great, he said. It wasnt in the rehearsal room. So we had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then on Thursday the rest of the cast came in at noon and we ran through some scenes. And then we ran through the play. And Thursday night, an audience. Ive never done anything as quick as that. It was kind of insane.
But Shaughnessy says he had great support.
They said, What do you need? How can we support you in every possible way to make this happen? I felt very well taken care of. My slightest whim, you know, was taken care of. I even had an assistant buy me groceries.
Hennessy said everything about the situation was unique.
Ive been directing plays for 47 years, and Ive never had anything like this happen, he said. It was a demoralizing experience for all of us. It was a real difficult situation. We wanted to make sure we could put someone in who could handle it. (Shaughnessy) works a lot in television, and hes used to going in and doing things on short notice. Hes a very fine actor.
Shaughnessy had worked at the New Theater once before, playing a smarmy TV host in the 2011 production of Game Show. His description for jumping into a show on short notice is interesting.
I love the rehearsal process, he said. I love having days to work on a character and build the process and rough it in and then sketch in details. You know, really work on a character and understand how he fits into the scheme of things. So that was really absent to a large extent or it was accelerated.
One thing he regretted missing was the two days of tech rehearsals a grueling process that some theater artists detest. Shaughnessy, however, said he uses the long days of adjusting and setting lights and working out the handling of props and scenic elements to his advantage. It gives him a chance to memorize lighting and sound cues so he doesnt have to think about them again.
The Thursday night was like getting shot out of a cannon and I must have no pun intended looked like a rabbit in the headlights, he said. Me and Harvey, the two of us, looked like startled rabbits. But we got through it. There were no major disasters, and Friday was the same. And by Sunday afternoon I kind of settled into it. And then we had Monday off and I was ready to hit the ground Tuesday, but ...
That was the Tuesday a major snowstorm basically shut down the city. The producers chose to go ahead with a matinee and evening performance the next day. The afternoon show was sparsely attended by intrepid theatergoers. The evening performance attracted a bigger crowd.
Clearly, Shaughnessy is a fast study. He said his years on Days of Our Lives, the long-running daytime soap, is the reason.
The training for this was the soaps, he said. You had to memorize a script every day and you had to telescope that process. You had to see a scene, figure out what your purpose was in the scene, what was going on, and finding a way of doing it sort of instantly. And make very instant adjustments. I think thats basically what I drew on. But these days in theater anyway, you dont get the luxury of long rehearsals. The most you get is 10 days.
Shaughnessy said the rest of the cast a mix of local actors and out-of-towners from Chicago and New York helped him ease into the show.
Its a lovely show, he said. And the cast is so good. Theyre so solid. And Elwoods an interesting character. Its almost like hes in a separate play. Hes in a separate world anyway, him and Harvey. So if you had to do a part (on short notice) this was a great one to do. Because you can actually rehearse Elwood sort of separately.