In recent years Kansas City has become a hotbed of theater, with the holidays becoming the epicenter of activity on local stages.
At least a dozen productions are playing here in December, all but a couple of them celebrating Christmas.
The granddaddy of KC holiday productions, of course, is Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” now in its 37th year.
This year artistic director Eric Rosen has written a new script, going back to Dickens’ original 1843 story and incorporating scenes and elements usually omitted from adaptations.
Theatergoers still can expect a sumptuous physical production, fine acting and almost nonstop music.
Fresh from a stint at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Kansas City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is back to dazzling audiences with terrific dancing, spectacular sets and effects, and the big sound of a full orchestra.
According to the critic of The Washington Post, the colorful show “positively oozes charm.”
Over the decades “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 Frank Capra movie about a small-town businessman who is saved by a benevolent angel, has become a Christmas staple. But the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s new production, while largely based on the original screenplay, offers a new twist.
“You’ve got a cast of actors at a radio station on Christmas Eve,” explains director Karen Paisley, “and basically the show is a live radio play with its own little plot surrounding the story of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ We’re talking live sound effects, live music … just what you’d experience in a radio station in 1953.”
Musical revues are particularly big at this time of year.
What sets apart Musical Theater Heritage’s “A Spectacular Christmas Show,” according to director Tim Scott, is an emphasis on songs from Broadway and film: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “White Christmas,” “We Need a Little Christmas” from “Mame.”
“We’re always pressing for theatrical delivery, lots of dancing and movement,” Scott said. “The first act is a playground, lots of fun and athleticism. In Act II we class it up a bit with more sacred songs. But we still go for innovative arrangements, like Pentatonix’s version of ‘Silent Night.’ ”
MTH is also offering a three-night run of “A Crooner Christmas” with Salina native Les Lankhorst and his jazzy band performing seasonal favorites in the Sinatra style.
“Basically Les takes a cabaret/supper club approach,” Scott said. “Last year his show sold out, and we’re expecting that to happen again.”
A few blocks north the Quality Hill Playhouse is offering its 16th annual holiday cabaret, “Christmas in Song.” Expect the company’s innovative blend of the sacred and the secular — everything from traditional carols to a gospel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (in a bracing arrangement by Kansas Citian Mark Hayes) and songs by pop icons like Harry Connick Jr., Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.
“All year long I think about choosing songs for this program,” said company founder J. Kent Barnhart. “I start with a huge wish list, then break the possibilities down by sacred and secular, then pair the songs with the singers we have for that year. Then it’s about eliminating songs, keeping in mind that I always try to include music that will be new to our audience.”
Among Barnhart’s latest discoveries are a piece by Ervin Drake that melds his hit song “I Believe” with the Bach/Gounod favorite “Ave Maria,” and pianist Penny Rodriguez’s new melody for “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
For those who like their eggnog seasoned with a dash of irreverence, this month offers many opportunities.
There is, for example, Late Night Theatre’s “The Judy Garland Pill Popping Christmas Show,” now playing at Missie B’s.
In this rude and raunchy Christmas tale, teenage members of the Judy Garland Fan Club kidnap their idol and must keep her awake and alert through a snowstorm in order to put on the ultimate live Christmas TV show.
Among the celebs who join Judy for this celebration are Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Liza Minnelli and Ethel Merman.
Then we have the Living Room’s “Milking Christmas,” an original musical comedy written by locals Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, Seth Macchi and Ryan McCall and directed by our resident duchess of ditz, Missy Koonce.
The plot? Well, things are going south in Christmastown (toys are coming out defective, there are soldiers on the streets and coal production is at an all-time high) and it’s up to Macey the milkmaid to steer the holiday back to its position of perfection.
“In this version Santa is a bad guy, a capitalist Grinch,” Koonce reveals. “What’s interesting is that the show is super clean, with no sexual innuendo, no bad language. Nothing to offend kids. But you just wouldn’t want to take anyone who still believes in Santa.”
For the kids
Local children have a small cornucopia of seasonal theater to choose from.
The Coterie’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is based on the animated holiday TV special first aired in 1965. Not only does the production feature Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the other beloved characters, but it re-creates Vince Guaraldi’s memorable jazz score, which is performed live by local musicians Gary Adams, Sam Wisman and Jeff Harshbarger.
Company director Jeff Church says he worried that Charles M. Schultz’s cartoon characters — once featured in the “funnies” of every major American newspaper — might not be familiar to today’s youngsters. But salvation came in the form of the 2015 computer-animated feature “The Peanuts Movie.”
“I was dreading that the movie might not be any good. But it was very well received. In fact, it put ‘Peanuts’ back into the mainstream culture. Now a whole new generation of children has discovered it.”
The Coterie predicts that by the time the show closes it will have been seen by more than 23,600 theatergoers.
Theatre for Young America’s “Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Christmas Adventure” sounds like something out of the “Toy Story” franchise. Abandoned over the holidays by their human owners, dolls venture out of the playroom and into the nearby woods in search of adventure.
This is the fourth time TYA has staged the script by company founder Gene Mackey (who based it on Johnny Gruelle’s original tales from the 1920s). When it was first mounted in the 1970s, Mackey said, it embraced a “wacky style.” Over the years, though, it has acquired a patina of nostalgia.
“We set it in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. A more innocent time.”
The Mesner Puppet Theater’s “The Snowy Day” (Dec. 5-23) is an adaptation of Ezra Jack Keats’ Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book from 1962.
“It’s about 4-year-old Peter, who is experiencing his first snowy day,” explains artistic director Mike Horner. “He does what all kids do in snow … makes tracks, builds a snowman and gets into a snowball fight. It’s about the joy of discovery.
“Actually there are four episodes, each one taking place in a different season and each showing Peter growing from the age of 4 to 7.”
The production incorporates shadow puppets as well as articulated puppets designed to look like illustrations from the book.
Out of the ordinary
Not all theater unfolding in KC this month is Christmas themed. Theatergoers looking for something challenging and nontraditional will find it in the Just Off Broadway Theater’s production of “Sunset Baby.” Dominique Morrisseau’s three-character play focuses on two generations of criminals in a decaying urban neighborhood.
Nina is a canny and unsentimental drug dealer; Damon is her boyfriend and partner in crime; Kenyatta is Nina’s father, a former black-power leader who after decades behind bars has shown up to see what became of his only child and to reclaim a cache of old letters.
In his rave review of the debut production, The New York Times’ Ben Brandtley wrote: “The conversation covers vast acres of social and political ground. Among the subjects: the parallels between criminal acts in the name of revolutionary change and plain old street crime; the changing and unchanging face of paternal absenteeism; and the toll on trust — and the possibility of love — taken by a culture of survival.”
Meanwhile, classic Russian drama gets a modern update in the Unicorn Theatre’s “Stupid F***ing Bird,” Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Anton Checkov’s 1896 “The Seagull.”
Like the original, the new play is a round robin of unrequited love among the intelligentsia (characters include a playwright and a struggling actress), but this retelling melds the usual Russian gloom-and-doom with trendy absurdist comedy.
Reviewing a recent East Coast production, critic Tim Dunleavy wrote that “Posner has taken Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ and run it through a postmodern, post-theatrical shredder. The result is rude and crude — but startlingly emotionally resonant. You don’t have to know ‘The Seagull’ to appreciate the liberties Posner has taken with it, but even if you do know Chekhov’s play, you’re bound to be surprised and delighted.”
Farce in a somewhat more traditional vein is on display at the New Theatre Restaurant, where film and TV funny guy Jim O’Heir (“Parks and Recreation”) is teaming up with homegrown comedian Deb Bluford for Ray Cooney’s “Funny Money.”
The British-born Cooney is regarded as the most successful stage farceur in the modern theater, with 24 comic plays to his credit, some of which have played for years in London’s West End.
New Theatre audiences have already shown an affinity for Cooney’s brand of hilarity according to marketing director Rob McGraw, who points out this is the theater’s eighth Cooney show (other titles include “Run for Your Wife,” “Caught in a Web,” “Out of Order” and “Move Over, Mrs. Markham”).
“We’ve even done a play by his son, Michael Cooney,” McGraw said. “It’s a farce, too. It seems to run in the family.”
“Funny Money” centers on a middle-aged accountant who accidentally picks up a stranger’s briefcase and finds inside nearly $1 million in used bills. Trouble follows (two of the characters are called “Mr. Nasty” and “Mr. Big”).