Performing Arts

July 24, 2014

Homegrown theater: Starlight tackles ‘The Sound of Music’

At Starlight this week, it’s like the old days: putting together a large-scale musical with a huge cast in record time.

At first glance, you might mistake the Berger rehearsal studio at Starlight Theatre for a basketball court.

With its vast expanse of polished hardwood, all that’s missing seems to be baskets at either end.

As it is, there’s no shortage of markings on the floor, but they have nothing to do with sports. Colored tape marks the dimensions of the set soon to be erected on the Starlight stage. And a row of black numbers borders each side of the floor with zero at the middle. Either side of that zero represents stage left or stage right, measured in increments of even numbers from 2 to 24.

The numbers help a director tell actors where to go. They help actors know where to stand. They help lighting designers know where to place lights and sound designers know where to place microphones.

“It’s all these little cheats you do so you can work quickly and efficiently,” director Phil McKinley said during a rehearsal break last week.

And no doubt about it — McKinley has been working fast. He’s in town to stage Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” the 1959 classic about the Von Trapp family fleeing Austria after it was swallowed up by the Third Reich. The show opens Friday after almost two weeks of intense rehearsals.

“They really don’t write shows like this anymore,” McKinley said. “What’s wonderful about this piece is the lyrics are truly extensions of the dialogue. … That’s why this endures. I love doing these Golden Age pieces.”

This is the only production Starlight is building from the ground up this summer, and it has to be done on a tight deadline. For McKinley, it’s a bit like coming home. This is his ninth season at Starlight. Only one other director, Jack Allison, has staged more shows at the outdoor showplace than McKinley.

McKinley was particularly busy at Starlight in the 1990s, when he staged more than one version of “The Wizard of Oz” and a lavishly produced “Peter Pan” with B.D. Wong and David Ogden Stiers.

Since then, he’s established himself as a Broadway director and a man who specializes in arena spectacles, such as “Ben Hur Live” in Europe. On Broadway he directed Hugh Jackman in “The Boy From Oz” and took over “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” after the producers fired Julie Taymor, the original director.

Last week McKinley, dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and a black ball cap, went through the tedious business on the fourth day of rehearsal of blocking the big wedding scene, using the numbers on the floor to guide actors to their correct positions and timing their movements to musical measures with the help of music director Anthony T. Edwards.

“Don’t make it fake,” he said to actresses playing nuns, who at one point must chatter among themselves, although the script gives them no lines. “Figure out what you’re going to say. Figure out what your dialogue is and repeat it every night. Otherwise, you’re just doing bad community theater acting.”

McKinley sometimes directed from a table where he and his assistants were seated, but often he was on his feet, showing actors where to move and sometimes coming up with new staging ideas on the spur of the moment.

“I never stop talking,” he told the performers. “You always have to listen.”

Later, staging a scene where Maria and the captain return from their honeymoon and are greeted by the Von Trapp children and the servants, McKinley told the actors they were standing too close to one another.

“There is no intimacy on the Starlight stage,” he said with a chuckle. “Stop trying to be intimate!”

Later, McKinley explained that you can indeed achieve intimacy on the big stage, but it’s the Starlight version of intimacy. Where actors might stand close enough to touch in a normal theater, at Starlight they may stand at softball-lobbing distance.

Out-of-town actors have been cast in the major roles: Analisa Leaming, who has performed in City Center Encore concerts in New York, as Maria; Broadway veteran Tom Galantich as Capt. Von Trapp; and James Judy, who has also appeared on Broadway, as Max, the family friend and music agent. Kansas City Repertory Theatre audiences may remember Judy as Jean Shepherd in “A Christmas Story.”

But a glance around the rehearsal hall shows that (a) some of the best actors in town have been hired for supporting roles and (b) some of the finest singers in KC are in the cast.

Bruce Roach plays an officious Nazi. John Rensenhouse (in his Starlight debut) appears as an Austrian admiral. Kathleen Warfel is the Von Trapp housekeeper. Kip Niven plays the butler. Lauren Braton will play Baroness Elberfeld, Capt. Von Trapp’s initial love interest.

Braton also happens to be one of the best singers in Kansas City, but she’s not alone: Musical theater veterans Cathy Barnett, Becky Barta, Molly Denninghoff, Sarah LaBarr, Kathryn Long and Melinda MacDonald are in the show. So are a couple of musical-theater dudes: Tim Scott and Shea Coffman.

The production will have more than 50 performers on stage, including all the professional actors as well as a community chorus full of kids and eager adults.

“It’s impressive,” McKinley said with a laugh. “When you see them all walk across the floor, you’ll think we’ve hired all of Kansas City.”

Donna Thomason, who is producing the show, said that once the decision was made to stage “The Sound of Music” and the budget was set, her first job was to find a director. She said the theater is lucky to get McKinley back.

“You really have to have your stuff together to direct (summer) stock,” she said in an upstairs board room.

Richard Baker, Starlight’s new president and CEO, declined to say what the budget is on “The Sound of Music.” But he did offer some general parameters. When Starlight books a touring Broadway show, he said, the theater will pay a guarantee that could range from $265,000 to $325,000, plus 10 percent royalties.

“When you’re doing it yourself, you can double that,” he said.

“For us, the quality is extremely important in what we present, and it takes a tremendous amount of money to put these things together,” Thomason said.

In the glory days of Starlight — the 1950s and ’60s — the theater produced most of its own shows, sometimes as many as 10 in a season. Baker said he’d eventually like to expand the number of self-produced shows as well as the length of the season, but that may take some time.

Every week a Broadway show runs is a week Starlight can’t book concerts. And the concerts have become increasingly important for the theater.

Regardless, Baker said audience can expect “at least one” Starlight-produced show.

“One thing I’m looking at is finding a way to expand our rehearsal space,” Baker said. “We want to use local actors and that sort of thing. … I’d like to get back to where we’re doing at least two.”

Thomason, an actor herself, said it was important to her to hire the best talent from the local acting pool. Even more important is Starlight’s mission to keep Broadway theater as its bedrock foundation.

“One of the things critical about Starlight is the memories that are made,” she said. “We had someone not very long ago who had been married 50 years and had their first date at Starlight. We hear those stories all the time. We still have Broadway to present to them, even if the concerts may be more lucrative. It’s important that we don’t lose the core art form at Starlight Theatre. There’s no place else they can see Broadway theater for 10 bucks a night, and it’s always been that way.”

Back in the rehearsal studio, McKinley said this production is the textbook definition of summer stock — producing a classic show in record time. On Broadway, directors get accustomed to bigger budgets, long rehearsal periods and weeks — if not months — of previews. But when you do summer stock, it’s back to basics.

“I’m fortunate because I used to do this all the time, and a lot of people hired me because they knew I get the show in on time,” he said. “But we can get spoiled. And it was like, ‘Man, do I remember how to do this?’ Fortunately I do. This is a great company, and there are some veterans in the (cast) who have done summer stock and can tell the others, ‘This is how we move.’ I’m pleasantly relieved that I can still work at warp speed.”

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to

On Stage

“The Sound of Music” runs July 25 through July 31. Call 816-363-7827 or go to

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