Hot-weather theater is almost upon us.
Plenty of plays and musicals — mainly musicals — are in the works, most of them with a common goal: to put a smile on your face and send you home with a tingling afterglow.
Your humble theater critic, however, rarely finds himself in agreement with popular tastes and has been accused, not unjustly, of having a rather perverse notion of what “entertainment” is or should be.
So the show I’m most looking forward to this summer is “King Lear,” which will be produced in a hilly park by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. According to a certain line of thinking, the Bard’s frothy comedies play best under summer night skies, but “Lear” offers something altogether different: a monumental tragedy that many scholars consider Will Shakespeare’s finest work.
One thing you can’t deny about the play is its abundance of great roles for skilled actors. The story can be boiled down to this: The aging Lear, a pre-Christian king in ancient Britain, loses his mind but regains just enough lucidity toward the end to recognize the fatal consequences of his foolish, vanity-driven decisions. The play is a banquet of family dysfunction, torture, murder, delusion, love, hate, sacrifice and vengeance.
“Lear,” starring John Rensenhouse in the title role, runs June 16-July 5 in the festival’s traditional home, Southmoreland Park, between Warwick Boulevard and Oak Street just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The supporting cast includes many festival veterans, representing the best classically trained actors you’re likely to see anywhere in the region.
More summer theater:
▪ Starlight Theatre is offering its normal package of five subscription shows, plus two weekend “specials.” The first is “Million Dollar Quartet,” the story of Sun Studios in Memphis, which opens Friday and runs through Sunday.
The rest of the season includes a new tour of “Camelot,” June 9-14; “Annie,” the second weekend show, June 19-21; “Pippin,” June 30-July 5 (including a July 4th performance); “Cinderella,” July 7-12; Starlight’s own production of “Mary Poppins,” directed by Phil McKinley, July 24-Aug. 1; and “Cirque Eloize iD,” Sept. 8-13. Call 816-363-7827 or go to KCStarlight.com.
▪ At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Starlight is the Living Room, 1818 McGee St., which will reprise two shows from its inaugural season: “Love Song” and “On an Average Day,” both by John Kolvenbach, will be performed in repertory through June 28.
▪ The New Theatre, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park, usually offers a big summer musical. This year there will be two: “Hairspray,” running through July 12, followed by “The Addams Family,” July 16-Sept. 20.
▪ The Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre presents British actor Guy Masterson in his one-actor performance of “Shylock” May 30-31 and the musical “Shrek” July 11-26. Call 913-327-8054 or go to TheJKC.org. The center is at 5801 W. 115 St., Overland Park.
▪ Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St., continues its season with “Judy, Barbra, Liza,” an anthology of songs made famous by Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Performers will be Lauren Braton, Ashley Pankow and Christina Burton, with Brian Wilson on bass, Ken Remmert on drums and emcee J. Kent Barnhart at the piano. May 29-June 28. Call 816-421-1700 or check QualityHillPlayhouse.com.
▪ Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St., wraps up its season with “The Fully Monty,” a Broadway hit by Terrence McNally and composer David Yazbek about unemployed steelworkers who decide to become male strippers. The show, based on the 1997 cult hit film, runs May 28-June 14. Call 816-569-3226 or visit metkc.org.
▪ Playwright Rob Merritt’s drama “The Summerland Project” receives its area premiere June 5-21 at the Olathe Civic Theatre Association, 500 E. Loula, Olathe. Merritt will be on hand for talk-back sessions following the June 5 and June 12 performances. Call 913-782-2990 or go to OlatheTheatre.org
▪ The Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., wraps up its 2014-15 season with Nina Raine’s award-winning dramatic comedy “Tribes,” June 3-28. One of the summer’s rare nonmusicals, the play was staged to widespread acclaim in London and New York.
The story is about a young man born deaf into a family that has never bothered to learn sign language; his life changes when he falls in love with a young woman and discovers the larger deaf community. Performances on June 12 and 14 will be interpreted in American Sign Language.
▪ Musical Theater Heritage presents a big-cast concert version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” featuring one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best scores and great lyrics by Tim Rice. The shows runs June 4-21 at the MTH theater on the third level of Crown Center. Call 816-221-6987 or go to MTHKC.com.
▪ Theatre in the Park, the series of outdoor summer musicals sponsored by the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, has a five-show season planned: “The Wiz” (June 5-13), “West Side Story” (June 19-27), “The Secret Garden” (July 3-11), “Annie Warbucks,” July 17-25; and “Shrek the Musical” (July 31-Aug. 8).
▪ “Once,” the national tour of the hit Broadway musical about two young dream-chasing songwriters who fall in love but go their separate ways, will be Theater League’s final show of the season.
The show won eight Tony Awards, which is all the more impressive when you consider its innovative approach: actors playing their own instruments against a set that looks like a Dublin pub that a body could feel comfortable in fast. It’s based on writer/director John Carney’s 2006 Irish indie film with songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
▪ The city’s young-audiences theaters will present summer shows: “A Year With Frog and Toad” runs June 16-Aug. 2 at the Coterie in Crown Center (816-474-6552, TheCoterie.org), and “The Princess and the Pea,” produced by Theatre for Young America, runs June 9-27 at City Stage at Union Station (816-460-2083, TYA.org).
▪ Bob Paisley and his production company, Central Standard Theatre, will present the Invasion, his annual festival of solo and small-cast shows featuring British, European and American artists, July 15-26 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.
The lineup this year includes the American premiere of “An Audience With Henry VIII” featuring Ross Gurney-Randall of Britain; “Mata Hari: Female Spy,” also a U.S. premiere, with British actress Katharine Hurst; Paisley performing a reprise of Rachel Mariner’s “Bill Clinton Hercules”; Nicholas Collett of the U.K. performing the American premiere of “Nelson: The Sailors’ Story”; Gavin Robertson of Britain reprising his “Crusoe: No Man Is an Island”; Victor and Penny, KC-based entertainers, in a developing show simply called “Project X”; Jesper Arin of Sweden in “Evil”; and Collett and Robertson performing “The Six-Sided Man.”
Learn more at CSTKC.com.
▪ The annual KC Fringe, a festival of theater, spoken-word performances, music, dance and visual art, takes place at various venues in the midtown/downtown areas July 16-26. The schedule has not yet been announced. Find out more at KCFringe.org.