Riley Ewing was still in his freshman year at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland when he started mapping out his first summer vacation at home in Overland Park.
“I wanted to do one more show at The Theatre in the Park. And I wanted my mother in the show with me,” he said. “I’ll probably being doing summer stock the next several summers and this could be our last chance to do a show together.”
The plan to make a mother-son project of the show, which opened this week, worked out for Ewing, 19. The 2013 Blue Valley Northwest graduate, is majoring in musical theater at Baldwin Wallace and he plans to make theater his career.
“While I was home on spring break I learned ‘Honk,’ the story of the Ugly Duckling, was on The Theatre’s 2014 schedule. It’s a show I like. I told my mother I’d like to give it a shot and I wanted her to be in it with me.”
What did mother think about his plan? “I was thrilled. Riley’s my oldest son. He’s been away for a year and of course I’d missed him,” Julie Ewing said. “To have him home all summer then be in a show with him made it special, very special.”
They auditioned in March and both made the cast of “Honk.” Riley has the lead as the Ugly Duckling and Julie is in the ensemble. “It’s turned out great from the start, a lot of fun. We talk about the show and drive to rehearsals together. It’s awfully nice to have your mother there for emotional support,” Riley said.
When Julie Ewing was growing up in Olathe she spent summers at The Theatre in the Park. Her first show was “The King and I” in 1981. Later it was the University of Iowa where she majored in directing. She returned to Kansas City, where she worked on commercial films and was entertainment producer of the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in the ’90s.
Julie and her husband, Paul, met when they were in a show together. After they started a family with Riley’s birth, three more sons followed and Julie put her career on hold to concentrate on the family.
“Actually, Riley opened the door for my return to theater,” Julie Ewing said. “A family friend encouraged him to audition at The Theater in the Park in 2003 and he was cast in the ensemble of ‘Guys and Dolls.’ After driving him to rehearsals and watching his growth as an actor I decided it was time for me to get back on stage.”
Auditioning for “Honk” was a change of pace for Julie Ewing. In recent years she’s been directing at Christian Youth Theatre, Leawood Stage Co. and Olathe Civic Theatre.
“Auditioning for the first time in 10 years was a little unnerving, especially in front of my peers and colleagues,” she said with a laugh. “But it was certainly worth it. Riley and I have so much in common. It’s been a wonderful summer.”
The Ewings are just one of several family combos in the show.
There are the Secrest sisters of Olathe, Megan, 13, and Liz, 7, who are in the ensemble. “I’m glad my big sister’s with me. It’s more fun. We help each other,” Liz said.
The Nasche sisters of Overland Park, Emily, 12, and Megan, 13, have been taking dance lessons 10 years and enter competitive dance contests. They are in the show’s dance ensembles “We play different kinds of animals like chickens, ducks and frogs,” Emily said.
Katie Hulla, 12, and her brother Brendan, 14, of Overland Park are performing together for the first time at The Theatre, as the Secrests and Nasches are. “I’m a duckling and Brendan is in the ensemble,” Katie said. “It’s fun doing it together. We get along pretty good most of the time.”
Director Greg Shaw is working on the production with his 12-year-old daughter, McKenna, who Beaky, the Ugly Duckling’s sister. “I like being in a show with my dad,” McKenna said.
Matt Walberg of Olathe and two of his children, Willa, 11, and Wyatt, 15, have roles. “I play Captain Greylag and Willa and Wyatt are in my squadron of ducks. It’s special being with my kids,” he said.
Willa agreed. “It’s fun being in a play with my Dad.”
Chris Halford, also of Olathe, plays Drake, the Ugly Ducking’s father.
“This is my 11th show at The Theatre and several were with my daughter, Courtney,” Halford said. “We enjoyed doing shows together but not this year. She’s performing with a stage company on a Disney Cruise Line ship in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Rachel Adcock of Lenexa plays Ugly Duckling’s mother. This is her fourth show at The Theatre in the Park. She was in “Pirates of Penzance” last month.
“Honk” opened Friday at The Theatre in the Park in Shawnee Mission Park, 7710 Renner Road in Shawnee. It runs tonight and Sunday and again next week Wednesday through Saturday. Curtain time is 8:30 p.m. for all shows.
The Theatre in the Park is partnering with Reach Out and Read to collecting children’s books during the run of “Honk.” Patrons who donate a book at the gate will receive a coupon for free popcorn.