The year just past was remarkable for the quantity and quality of theater in Kansas City — comedies and dramas, big shows and small — and the new year is shaping up to be just as interesting and diverse.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the city’s leading nonprofit theater company, is one of the institutions we turn to when we’re in need of theater that challenges, provokes, excites and creates indelible memories. That’s been particularly true in recent years. No company bats a thousand, of course, but when the Rep is at its best, it can’t be matched.
Kyle Hatley, the Rep’s resident director who relocated to Chicago last year, returns this month to demonstrate his considerable gifts as an actor. Hatley will shoulder a big responsibility in “An Iliad,” a one-actor retelling of Homer’s epic about the Trojan War. The piece was written by Dennis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. O’Hare, an actor known to TV viewers for “True Blood” and “American Horror Story,” performed the show in repertory with actor Stephen Spinella in New York in 2012.
“Although the narrator throws out snatches of verse at moments of heightened drama, and occasionally even bellows a few lines in the original Greek, most of the story is rendered in casual contemporary language that puts both mortals and gods on our own level,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in The New York Times.
O’Hare, by the way, was born in Kansas City and spent the first two years of his life in the Red Bridge neighborhood. He and Peterson based their adaptation on Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Iliad.” The Rep production will be staged by Jerry Genochio and runs from Jan. 23 to Feb. 15.
Next comes one of the Rep’s most ambitious undertakings: “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” by Tony Kushner. Kushner’s monumental work, sometimes referred to as an “AIDS epic,” consists of two full-length plays: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.”
“Angels in America” claimed the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993 as well as the Tony Award for best play. It’s an unorthodox mix of high drama, satire and surrealistic images, and places lawyer Roy Cohn, a one-time aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy, amid a gallery of fictional characters. It focuses on the lives of a diverse group of people against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
“Angels” will be directed by David Cromer, who staged the Rep’s production of “Our Town” last year. The two parts of “Angels” will run in repertory from Feb. 20 to March 29. (Kushner, incidentally, will be the featured speaker March 12 at UMKC’s annual Pride Breakfast to benefit the LGBTQIA Leadership Scholarship and the Pride Empowerment Assistance Fund at the university.)
Also on tap this spring at the Rep: “Hair,” the prototypical rock musical, will be staged by artistic director Eric Rosen as something more than a concert and a bit less than a full production. The show runs from March 20 to April 12. Then comes a new play, “Sticky Traps,” by KC Rep’s resident playwright, Nathan Louis Jackson (author of “Broke-ology” and “When I Come to Die”). The show runs from April 24 to May 24. Hatley will direct. Call 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org.
The Unicorn Theatre kicks off the new year with Carson Kreitzer’s “Lasso of Truth,” a satirical look at the man who invented Wonder Woman. The show is part of a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Play Network, a consortium of small theater companies. The cast includes Martin Buchanan, Carla Noack, Vanessa Severo, Jamie Dufault and Laura Jacobs. This co-production with UMKC Theatre runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 15.
The Unicorn follows up with another “rolling world premiere” from the NNPN, this one called “Women Playing Hamlet.” The comedy by William Missouri Downs will be directed by Cynthia Levin and features Katie Karel, Kathleen Warfel, Cathy Barnett and Meredith Wolfe. It runs from March 4 to 29.
Next will be a romantic comedy for the 21st century, “Cock,” by Mike Bartlett. Jeff Church will direct a cast that includes Jacob Aaron Cullum, Shea Coffman, Molly Denninghoff and Matt Rapport. The show runs from April 22 to May 17.
The Unicorn closes out the season with “Tribes,” the award-winning New York hit by Nina Raine. Theodore Swetz will direct this offbeat love story about a young man born deaf into a comically dysfunctional family. It runs from June 3 to 28. Call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.
Starlight Theatre will try something utterly new in the theater’s history when it presents “50 Shades! The Musical Parody” as its first indoor show from Feb. 10 to 15. The show, recommended for viewers 18 and older, is one of at least three shows poking fun at the explicit best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Starlight will present the show on its enclosed stage.
Starlight also has its summer lineup in place: “Million Dollar Quartet,” May 22-24; “Camelot,” June 9-14; “Annie,” June 19-21; “Pippin,” June 30-July 5; “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” July 7-12; “Mary Poppins,” July 24-Aug. 1; and Cirque Eloize iD, Sept. 8-13. (“Million Dollar Quartet” and “Annie” are not part of the regular season and have shorter runs.) Call 816-363-7827 or visit KCStarlight.com.
Other theater companies
John Rensenhouse, one of the city’s most respected actors, will take on one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles when he plays the title character in “King Lear.” The show, produced by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, runs from June 16 to July 5 in Southmoreland Park.
“Lear” will not be the festival’s only production this year, because in March it will produce its first indoor show in partnership with the Jewish Community Center and Johnson County Community College. The production of “The Merchant of Venice,” with Gary Neal Johnson in the title role, runs from March 19 to 22 at the community center and from March 26 to 29 at the college. Call 816-531-7529 or go to KCShakes.org.
The Spinning Tree Theatre continues what has been a strong season so far with “Black Pearl Sings” by Frank Higgins. Higgins is based in Kansas City, and his work has been produced nationally, but this is the first local production of one of his full-length plays in some time. “Black Pearl Sings,” in fact, has been widely produced at resident theater companies. Respected actor Walter Coppage makes his directing debut with this piece, which depicts a 1930s white song collector for the Library of Congress who discovers a dynamic African-American singer serving time in a Texas prison. The show stars Vanessa Severo and Nedra Dixon and runs from March 5 to 22 at Just Off Broadway Theater.
Spinning Tree closes out its season with the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” scheduled to run from April 23 to May 10. Gary Neal Johnson and Julie Shaw star. Call 816-569-5277 or go to SpinningTreeTheatre.com.
The Living Room continues its season with an interesting lineup: “Eurydice,” a retelling of the Greek myth by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Natalie Liccardello, Jan. 23-Feb. 15; “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s classic, directed by Jeff Church, March 27-April 19; and “Love Song” and “On an Average Day,” performed in repertory May 22-June 28. Call 816-533-5857 or go to thelivingroomkc.com.
The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre begins the new year with Peter Oswald’s 2005 translation of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” an account of the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Queen Elizabeth. The show runs from Jan. 15 to Feb 8. The next show, “Jitney,” offers viewers a chance to see one of August Wilson’s plays in an intimate environment; it runs from March 5 to 22. The last two shows on the season are Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and the musical “The Full Monty.” Call 816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.
The Kansas City Broadway Series, presented by Theater League and Broadway Across America, continues with the Kander-and-Ebb classic “Chicago,” Jan. 20-25 at the Kauffman Center; the blockbuster “The Book of Mormon,” Feb. 24-March 8 at the Music Hall; “Peter and the Starcatcher,” March 31-April 5 at the Kauffman; and the hit folk/rock musical “Once,” June 16-21, also at the Kauffman. Call 800-776-7469 or go to TheaterLeague.com.
The New Theatre in Overland Park continues its current production, “Shear Madness” starring Richard Karn, through Jan. 18. Then it begins a succession of musicals: “Forever Plaid,” Feb. 19-May 3; “Hairspray,” May 7-July 12; and “The Addams Family,” July 16-Sept. 20. Call 913-649-7469 or go to NewTheatre.com.
Musical Theater Heritage, which performs at the Off Center Theatre, plans a spring-through-fall lineup of concert performances: “Guys and Dolls,” April 2-19; “Jesus Christ Superstar,” June 4-21; and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly: The Music of Lerner & Loewe,” Aug 13-30; and “Urinetown: The Musical,” Nov. 5-22. MTH also hosts other events, including its popular “Musical Monday” shows. Call 816-545-6000 or go to musicaltheaterheritage.com.
Other companies continuing seasons include the Quality Hill Playhouse (816-421-7500; qualityhillplayhouse); the Coterie (816-474-6552; thecoterie.org); the Theatre for Young America (816-460-2083; tya.org); and the Fishtank Performance Studio (816-809-7110; fishtanktheater.blogspot.com).