Think of Kansas City theater as a perpetual motion machine.
Most theater companies are ready to move into the second half of what they consider their 2011-2012 seasons, but theater in Kansas City never sleeps. There’s never much time to take a breath between the end of one season and the start of another.
Looking over the spring and summer schedules, I count at least 60 professional productions through September, including touring Broadway shows at the Music Hall and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. That does not include the annual Kansas City Fringe Festival, which has become a forum for experimental theater and new work.
And theater companies haven’t announced their 2012-2013 seasons, which means we’ll get even more shows in the fall.
So, scanning what’s coming down the pike, a few planned productions captured my attention. I never predict how good or bad a show may be, but the diversity says something about the health of professional theater in Kansas City.
• Kansas City Repertory Theatre offers a diverse spring lineup, including a new version of “Tom Sawyer” and the retro musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” but the piece I’m most eager to see is “The Whipping Man,” Matthew Lopez’s drama about the relationship between a wounded Confederate veteran and two newly freed slaves in the ruins of the family plantation home.
The former master and slaves are bound by one basic reality: They all are Jewish. Troubling family secrets are unearthed in a well-received drama that examines an obscure corner of cultural history. The show will run in March and April.
• In 2010, the Unicorn Theatre presented the world premiere of “Green Whales,” an unorthodox comedy by Lia Romeo that was as funny as it was unsettling. In March, artistic director Cynthia Levin offers another new Romeo play, “Hungry,” in which a high-school girl obsessed with losing weight so she can make the dance team meets a Minotaur in the backyard.
The Unicorn is presenting four spring shows, including “Next Fall,” a gay love story reputed to be a serious drama that also happens to be very funny, and “Time Stands Still,” about a reporter and a photographer coming to terms with injuries they received covering the war in Afghanistan. But “Hungry” is the piece that promises to be the least predictable.
• The Broadway Across America/Theater League season is an eclectic lineup, but in March it presents virtually back-to-back two popular shows making their local debuts. The hit musical “Jersey Boys” follows the career of the Four Seasons in the 1960s, and “Million Dollar Quartet” is another jukebox musical, this one about the legendary recording session at Sun Records that brought together Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
• Jim Korinke, one of the city’s most respected veteran actors, will spend about four months of his life this year collecting a paycheck wearing women’s clothes. First, in March and April, he plays Lady Bracknell in the American Heartland Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (a role played brilliantly last year by Brian Bedford in an impeccable Broadway revival).
Then, starting in June, he stars as Edna Turnblad in the New Theatre’s production of “Hairspray,” the musical based on the John Waters movie. Edna has always been played by male actors, beginning with the legendary Divine in the 1988 film; Lady Bracknell has sometimes been played by women but has become a more-or-less traditional drag role. It should be fun to watch Korinke stretch himself to the limit.
• Theatre for Young America has a full spring lineup at Union Station, but in April it revisits a musical it first staged in 2002 — “Pinocchio Commedia,” an interesting take on the familiar tale as it might have been performed by traditional commedia dell’arte characters.
• Starlight Theatre gets hip with its first show of the summer — “In the Heights,” the Tony-winning hip-hop Latino musical about diverse Hispanic cultures dwelling in the Washington Heights district of Manhattan. Hip-hop is just one element in an eclectic score that includes stirring anthems and romantic ballads.
Starlight, by the way, will be a presence downtown when it presents “Aida” in August at the Kauffman Center as well as the children’s musicals “Narnia” and “Aladdin” in the spring.
• The big news for the Coterie Theatre this year is that the young-audiences theater in March will take its charming production of the musical “Lucky Duck” to the New Victory Theatre in New York. Being at the New Victory is about as close to Broadway as you can get without actually being in an official Broadway theater. “Lucky Duck” will get a warm-up at the Folly Theatre before heading to the Big Apple.
The Coterie will also stage an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” which reportedly will feature Ron Megee in multiple roles.
• Kansas City Actors Theatre in February again teams up with UMKC and the National World War I Museum for a production of “Billy Bishop Goes to War.” The two-actor play with music traces the career of Billy Bishop, a Canadian pilot who became one of the top aces of the First World War. The Rep staged this piece back in the early ’90s, so presumably there may be an untapped audience of local theatergoers who never have seen the show.
• The Living Room, the downtown alternative theater company, has an interesting spring lineup, but the one that could be the liveliest is director Kyle Hatley’s “Titus” in June. Hatley thinks outside the box, and he’s drawn to the classics, so it should be interesting to watch him have his way with “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s most violent tragedy.
• Speaking of the Bard, the annual Heart of America Shakespeare Festival — a family-friendly affair where you’ll never see “Titus Andronicus” — this year will produce two shows on a rotating schedule: “Antony and Cleopatra,” which the festival has never staged, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which it has. The festival will be in its traditional venue, Southmoreland Park.
• Musical Theatre Heritage will present two concert productions of musicals, but the big one could be “Sweeney Todd” in April.
• Quality Hill Playhouse may have saved the best for last when it wraps up its season with “Pete ’n’ Keely,” a satirical musical performed in the guise of a 1968 TV special about a musical duo whose professional and personal fortunes peaked long before. The June production features Tim Scott and Molly Hammer.