Growing up in Kansas City, Sarah Crawford saw her first theatrical production at the Coterie, was raised on the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” and first performed professionally at Starlight Theatre. But, like most aspiring actors, she saw herself moving to a bustling city like New York as soon as she could.
After getting her degree at Drake University in Iowa, it didn’t take her long to realize that her hometown theater scene was exactly where she wanted to stay.
“The moment I came back to Kansas City and got to work with those professional actors that I had been watching growing up, I knew that I was going to continue working with people who were better than I am. It was like a weight had been lifted; I could pursue my passion and stay in Kansas City,” Crawford said. “It’s just recent to me how good I feel about the fact that I’m a Kansas City girl.”
Crawford continues her 10th season as artistic director of Musical Theater Heritage this month with “The Who’s Tommy,” the Tony Award-winning musical based on the band’s 1969 rock concept album. While she has honed the semi-staged style that has become synonymous with the theater company, she said her mission these days is to expand the loyal audience with different works like this.
“Tommy” famously tells the story of a young boy — “deaf, dumb and blind” — who overcomes his adversities to become a successful pinball player (cue the song “Pinball Wizard”). The show opens Thursday in Crown Center, and Crawford said it’s a prime example of the works she’s looking for outside of Musical Theater Heritage’s classic canon.
“It’s really a tribute to Who fans. It’s essentially a rock concert written with a story around it,” Crawford said. “We want to reach out to people who don’t normally go to theater. We hook them with (The Who) because we think people who really love music will love what we do.”
Like all of MTH’s productions, this show will focus on the vocals and story rather than a fully formed set. Although Crawford’s direction style has been around since the company formed, this concept wasn’t actually her own.
Before she was the MTH artistic director, she went to see a performance of “Brigadoon” produced inside a garage in a minimalist style by none other than George Harter, who would go on to found MTH. Intrigued, she wanted to explore the same style herself. So she emailed Harter her resume and, before she knew it, she was the new artistic director of a theater company inside Crown Center. Since then, her audience has more than quadrupled.
Crawford thinks it’s because of the unique experience that MTH can offer, what she considers to be the future of theater.
“When you do a stripped-down format, you put your money into your performers, the rights of shows — but you’re really able to focus on what everyone is passionate about, which is the material,” she said. “It makes large-cast musicals more affordable. You don’t see large casts of 25 in this city doing musicals very often … but we’re able to do that.”
Beyond sustaining the classic musical experience MTH provides, Crawford hopes the theater can be a part of something new. While she tried to write a musical for MTH herself (“but that’s hard,” she said, laughing), she is instead looking to workshop a new musical. Her low-budget style and focus on the intimate parts of the show would be ideal for a workshop setting, she said.
“Our format exposes strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “When we do a show that doesn’t have a great book, you know right away.”
Also on Crawford’s wish list? A late-night, more risque production for the less-traditional crowds — think, “South Park: The Musical.”
Over her 10 seasons, Crawford said, her knowledge of what composes a good theater company has grown. While she came into the job with the background of a performing artist, now she knows more about the behind-the-scenes aspects: the marketing, the challenges of building an audience and other business dealings. In fact, as one of a few female leaders in theater (and known for her 2010 production of the first all-female “1776”), she was recently asked to provide insight for a graduate study into the challenges involved in her position.
However, she’s humble at any mention of her successes as a female director in a growing theater community, one that she doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
“It really is a gift that I get to develop my passion here living in Kansas City,” she said. “I have, on occasion, been asked to go and do shows elsewhere, and I haven’t really been tempted because I’m just so satisfied.”
Musical Theater Heritage presents “The Who’s Tommy” June 8-25 on the third floor of Crown Center. The musical is advised for ages 13 and up. See mthkc.org or call 816-221-6987.
Also opening this month
▪ “You’ve Got a Friend,” June 9-July 9 at Quality Hill Playhouse. Traveling back to the 1960s and ’70s, the cabaret features songs by James Taylor, Carole King, Bob Dylan and more. See qualityhillplayhouse.com.
▪ “Hamlet,” June 13-July 2 at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Nathan Darrow, of “House of Cards,” “Gotham” and “Billions,” stars in the title role of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy. See kcshakes.org. (Look for The Star’s story this Sunday.)
▪ “Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude,” June 13-Aug. 6 at the Coterie. The cartoon cat is grumpy as ever when he finds out his friends have forgotten his birthday and seeks out a new adventure outside the house. See thecoterie.org.
▪ “The Great Fourth of July Race of the Hare and the Tortoise,” June 20-July 8 at Theatre for Young America. Aesop’s fable is brought to life in a ragtime musical comedy with a farcical race. See tya.org.
▪ “Mamma Mia,” June 23-25 at Starlight Theatre. The tunes of ABBA come together in this musical comedy set on a Greek island, where one woman tries to discover who her father is in time for her upcoming nuptials. See kcstarlight.com.
▪ “Jersey Boys,” June 27-July 2 at Starlight. Follow the rise of the Four Seasons as the musical features some of their biggest hits. See kcstarlight.com.