Performing Arts

Theatre in the Park puts the accent on diversity for 2015 season

The musical version of the animated movie “Shrek” is part of the summer theater season.
The musical version of the animated movie “Shrek” is part of the summer theater season. FILE PHOTO

Look for more diversity in the Theatre in the Park’s 2015 season, opening with “The Wiz.”

“The diversity is by design,” said Tim Bair, producing artistic director. “The shows have a greater range in ages and skills for our performers and are more diverse and entertaining than we’ve had in the recent past. All but one of the five shows is on The Theatre in the Park stage for the first time and that show is a classic icon of American musical theatre, “West Side Story.” This season we have productions I believe will please our performers and our audiences alike, especially families.”

Theatre in the Park, located in Shawnee Mission Park at 7710 Renner Road, is a program of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District. The 2015 season opens June 5.

“The Wiz” is a version of “The Wonderful World of Oz” that includes all the favorites — Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Munchkins — but in different characterizations and high-energy Motown music. Dorothy is a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher born and living in Harlem and feeling unfulfilled and unhappy. Suddenly she’s swept away in a snowstorm while chasing Toto and is transported to the Land of Oz.

“I love the music in ‘The Wiz.’ It’s very Motown, very groovy,” Bair said.

“The Wiz” is directed by Bess Wallerstein Huff, founder and artistic director of One Time Productions, an environmental theater company that produces live theater in nontraditional spaces. She directed “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” at The Theatre in the Park last season.

“The Wiz” is followed by “West Side Story,” set in New York City with warring street gangs, Jets and Sharks, threatening Tony and Maria’s romance in a world of strong emotions and cultural clashes. The show is directed by Mark Swezey, director of theater at Shawnee Mission South High School.

Swezey directed “Sweeney Todd” in 2013 and “Ragtime” last year at The Theatre in the Park. The score is by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Barb Nichols returns after an absence of seven years to direct “The Secret Garden,” a musical based on the novel of the same name. Nichols, who lives in Leawood, directed her first show at The Theatre, “Oklahoma,” in 1988. Bair choreographed the show for Nichols.

“Barb and I go back a long way. Probably longer than either of us would care to admit,” Bair said.

“I directed ‘The Secret Garden’ at the Barn Players several years ago,” Nichols said. “It’s a beautiful story with beautiful music. I mentioned to Tim that I thought it would be a good show for The Theatre in the Park and he agreed. I’m looking forward to directing it at The Theatre.”

“The Secret Garden” is set in 1911 England and follows Mary, a young girl orphaned by an earthquake, who is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald in his English manor. She discovers a secret walled garden on the grounds and releases the magic and adventures locked inside. This ultimately leads to a family filled with love. Music is by Lucy Simon and lyrics by Marsha Norman.

“Annie Warbucks,” directed by Chris McCoy, picks up where “Annie” ended. Annie and Daddy Warbucks are celebrating their first Christmas together when the child welfare commissioner declares Warbucks has 60 days to find a wife to provide Annie with a proper mother. If he fails, Annie will be returned to the orphanage.

McCoy, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South, lives in Kansas City. He directed “Damn Yankees” at The Theatre in 2013. “When Tim asked if I’d like to direct ‘Annie Warbucks‘ I really didn’t know much about it. It isn’t well-known. After I read it and heard the music I liked it. It’ll be nice to direct a show where the audience doesn’t have a pre-conceived opinion about it.”

“We’re cashing in on the ‘Annie’ brand,” Bair said. “We hope people will want to know what happened to Annie. The characters are the same — including Sandy — but the music is new and beautiful.”

“Shrek,” co-produced by the Jewish Community Center and The Theatre in the Park, runs first in the White Theatre at the JCC, July 11-26, then moves to The Theatre, July 31-Aug. 8, to end the 2015 season. The theaters share the cost of costumes, sets and props and each keeps its own gate receipts. Bair will direct the show at both theaters.

“Shrek,” based on the DreamWorks animated movie, is a fairytale romance between an ogre and a beautiful princess and also includes a wise-cracking donkey, a short-tempered villain, a cookie with an attitude and other fairytale misfits. In the end “Shrek” emerges as an unlikely but lovable hero.

Auditions

Auditions for the 2015 Theatre in the Park season will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 28 and 29 at Blue Valley High School.

The 2015 Season

“The Wiz,” June 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13.

“West Side Story,” June 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 27.

“The Secret Garden,” July 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11.

“Annie Warbucks,” July 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25.

“Shrek,” July 11, 16, 18, 23, 25 at 7:30 p.m. and July 12, 19, 26 at 2 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center; July 31, Aug 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Curtain time at The Theatre in the Park is 8:30 p.m. for all productions. The box office opens at 6 p.m. Admission is adults $8, youths $6 and children under three free. The Theatre again is offering Thrifty Thursday pricing in which patrons receive a 20 percent discount on tickets bought at the box office for that night’s show.

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