Lee’s Summit native Katherine McNamara’s star is on the rise

Katherine McNamara just started graduate school. She’s all over cable TV. And she’s about to turn 18.

As a child performer, the Lee’s Summit native appeared at a number of professional theater companies in town: Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre and the Coterie, among others. And she appeared in a few films shot in the region.

But her career took a decidedly upward trajectory in 2010, when she was tapped to alternate with another young actress in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” Suddenly there she was, sharing the stage with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and finally with Bernadette Peters, who replaced Zeta-Jones after the Tony Awards.

McNamara has been busy since then. She was partially home-schooled and showed a startling facility for numbers from an early age. Just before her Broadway debut she had been accepted as a theater major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The late Gary Holcombe, who taught acting at UMKC, once described her as “so smart it’s scary.”

This year she completed her studies at Drexel University, where much of her course work was done by correspondence and online. Now she has a bachelor of science in business administration. And she has begun graduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — again, much of it online — with the goal of earning an MBA in business management.

“If I’m ever a producer, I’ll know how to allocate resources,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

Since her Broadway debut, McNamara has relocated to Los Angeles, where she has landed a succession of television roles. Most recently she appeared in “Contest,” a short film with an anti-bullying message that premiered on the Cartoon Network earlier this month (it re-airs at 10 a.m. today and will be released on DVD next month).

She has recurring roles on “Kickin’ It” for Disney XD and “Jessie” on the Disney Channel. She also appeared in a Disney Channel movie, “Girl vs. Monster,” which she expects will be rebroadcast for Halloween. She has been on “30 Rock,” “Glee” and “Touched.” And she expects the release this year of “Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn,” which was shot in Bulgaria and in which she plays Becky Thatcher.

That’s not everything, but you get the idea.

But she said at all times she keeps an eye on Broadway.

“Most of my work has been in L.A. or booked in L.A. and shot on location,” she said. “I’m always going back to New York for Broadway workshops or reading. So I always keep my foot in the door, I’m always on the lookout for the next Broadway show. I was just called back for a Broadway play, so we’ll see eventually if that works out.”

McNamara said she was proud of “Contest.”

“It was the director/writer’s first film and they approached me and said, ‘We have this really good story about bullying.’ They showed me the script and asked me if I wanted to be part of it, and I read it and absolutely fell in love with it. It covers verbal and physical abuse but also cyberbullying. It’s very true to life to what goes on in schools every day.”

The song she wrote for the film, “Chatter,” has been released as a single and can be found on YouTube as an official video for the movie.

“I’ll never stop acting, but music is another passion of mine,” she said. “I just love creating projects in the entertainment field and performing onstage or in front of a camera.”

McNamara wanted to underscore the importance of Kansas City theater in shaping her attitudes about a life in show business. The experience was invaluable, she said, and so were the role models.

“When I was little I always wanted to grow up to be like Jessalyn Kincaid and Vanessa Severo,” she said. “They showed me how much joy performing can give you. I miss the theater in Kansas City, and it instilled in me this amazing work ethic that people still notice.

“One of my first shows in Kansas City, everyone caught the flu. Everyone got sick and I saw all of these amazing actors almost passed out in the green room between scenes, but I’d see them go out onstage and give amazing performances and then come back to the green room and pass out. I owe it all to Kansas City theater. I really do.”