A 20th Anniversary Reimagining – KC STUDIO

Performers in the Ruby Room at the Music Theater Heritage, left to right: Ron Lackey, Courtney Germany, Misha Roberts, Nate McClendon, Ayana Tribitt, Kadesh Flow, Douglass Walker and Darrell Mayberry. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The new season includes musical theater classics, revisited with creative departures from the norm.

With a revised name and expanded focus, the Kansas City theater celebrates its 20th anniversary with a full slate of productions and a new Ruby Room performance space

A good story worth repeating: the company now known as Music Theater Heritage began 20 years ago with a live radio broadcast from a Belger Cartage loading dock in downtown city ​​of Kansas City.

Conceived as a way to promote founder George Harter’s longtime radio show, “A Night on the Town,” the nonprofit theater company grew and established itself as a place to enjoy music from classic Broadway shows. For several years the shows were staged as concerts which included theatrical elements, but were not quite full productions. MTH has withstood the COVID-19 pandemic through perseverance and innovation and has now prepared a season to mark two decades of existence.

“You know, this year is unlike any other for a number of reasons,” said Tim Scott, the company’s executive art director. “First of all, it’s our 20th anniversary. But, of course, you’re also trying to plan for the unexpected because of the coronavirus. »

Like any proud art director, Scott is not above indulging in justified bragging. In a press release late last year, he highlighted the company’s success in battling the pandemic. Let the record show: MTH was the first professional theater to produce a live show in 2021 with its rooftop production of ‘Music of the Night’. Since April last year, MTH has produced 14 live productions and served nearly 500 students through educational initiatives; in 2021, nearly 40,000 spectators saw performances at the Crown Center; and the company started the year with three employees but now has nearly 30.

In addition to presenting a few shows on the roof of the Crown Center, the company has also turned to concerts made for video and made available to the public virtually. Scott, who shot and edited the performances, delivered high-quality reviews that wouldn’t have looked out of place on public television.

In all, the company made 14 live productions in 2021.

“We did ‘Hair’ and ‘Camelot’ through the Delta variation,” Scott said. “With ‘Hair’, half the singers wore masks.”

The new season includes musical theater classics, revisited with creative departures from the norm.

Tim Scott, Executive Artistic Director, Music Theater Heritage (photo by Sophia Napoli)

The season:

“STEVIE: signed, sealed, delivered” is scheduled from March 24 to April 10. The production celebrates the music of Stevie Wonder and will be staged in collaboration with 2 Proud 2 Beg, bandleader Ron Lackey’s Motown ensemble.

“Song and Dance” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rarely produced two-act musical will run May 12-29. Half of the show is told in song, the other half in dance. The arrangements involve a rock band and a cellist. Webber wrote the dance portion of the show for his brother, cellist Julian Webber. It will be a regional first.

“Titanic,” June 16-July 3. The Broadway production of this show, with words and music by Maury Yeston and an accompanying book on the musical by Peter Stone, was a massive physical production with a huge cast and full orchestra. The MTH version of necessity takes a different route with a twist: the music will be performed by a small ensemble on instruments played by musicians on the doomed Titanic – a string quartet and a grand piano.

“Cabaret,” August 11-28. Kander and Ebb’s classic about decadent Berlin and the rise of Nazism before World War II will be staged with cabaret tables and stools arranged closer to the stage than the usual audience seats. “Those seated in this area will have a slightly more immersive experience than those seated in the theater seats,” Scott said.

“Man of La Mancha”, October 6-23. This 1965 musical by composer Mitch Leigh, playwright Dale Wasserman and lyricist Joe Darion is adapted from the classic 17th-century novel “Don Quixote.” Scott said the show will be produced in conjunction with the Kansas City-based Ensemble Ibérica, which performs music from Spain and Portugal. The idea, Scott said, was to adapt the score in a way that gave it a bit more of an authentic Spanish feel.

“A Spectacular Christmas Spectacular”, an original revue and annual tradition at MTH, December 8-23.

“Titanic” and “Cabaret” will be performed at the Grand Theater (formerly the American Heartland Theater). Other productions will be in the traditional MTH space on the third floor of the Crown Center.

Additionally, MTH will be offering what they bill as the Ruby Room Series in a revamped performance space just off the main lobby. The shows focus on artists who made significant contributions to American culture, including Sonny & Cher and other 1960s pop singers: jazz artists Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Louis Prima; Nina Simone, Sam Cook and Otis Redding; the Beatles; beat generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as well as bebop and cool jazz artists; and songwriters Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Although a casual observer might not notice it, the name of the theater company is in its third incarnation. What started life as Musical Theater Heritage became simply MTH. From now on, “musical” has been replaced by simply “music” – Music Theater Heritage. It’s a small change but it involves a broader definition of music.

From radio roots to live performance

George Harter said he formed Musical Theater Heritage primarily to fund his radio show, which originally aired for several years on KXTR and later on Kansas Public Radio. The show eventually aired on a number of stations across the country. He said he and tenor Nathan Granner had approached backers to underwrite the show.

“I formed MTH just to fund the radio show,” Harter said. “When I shopped around for funding, local funders weren’t particularly interested in funding something out of town. So Nathan and I decided we needed a local mission and started a (live) series.

At Belger, the band performed a series of shows – “Carousel” (which marked Tim Scott’s first appearance on an MTH show), “On the Town”, “Brigadoon”, “Guys and Dolls” and “The Fantasticks “, including the others. Eventually, Belger needed the loading dock space to prepare his Belger Arts Center, so Harter began looking for other locations.

Before long, MTH was performing live shows in what was then called the Off Center Theater (a former movie multiplex) on the third floor of the Crown Center. Eventually, Harter said, MTH became the most frequent user of the space, leading Crown Center to offer them a contract as a full-time tenant.

“They gave us a great offer on the rent,” Harter said. Many concert productions have been directed by Sarah Crawford, and some of them have been particularly memorable – an effective all-female direction of “1776” and an engaged performance of “Big River”, the show based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry” by Mark Twain. Finnish.”

Chad Gerlt joined the team early on. He had returned from Los Angeles, where he had moved with the idea of ​​becoming a voice-over artist. “I wanted to do cartoons and video games,” he said. But he got by as a singing waiter at a Macaroni Grill in
Thousand Oaks.

“I missed my family and wanted to buy a house,” Gerlt said. “I could never have bought a house in LA”

Gerlt retired from MTH a few months ago to pursue a career in real estate. But he was proud to be part of the team that grew viewership and made MTH a success. From time to time, Gerlt performed on stage.

“COVID has obviously changed a lot of things,” Gerlt said. “It didn’t kill us, and I promise you it won’t kill us. But it changed the dynamic there.

The radio show was retired in 2015. The rise of online streaming services – Spotify etc. al – made all the music Harter had released over the years instantly available. A few stations across the country continued to air reruns of the show.

These days, Harter directs his energies to the theatrical trips he organizes for fans and bands to travel to New York and see Broadway shows.

But the theater’s original mission, he said, was a direct result of the radio show.

“It was about appreciating American musical theatre,” he said. “People realized that rock-and-roll and jazz were uniquely American art forms, but no one thought of the American songbook and musical theater as an original American art form.”

For more information on the Music Theater Heritage season, visit www.mthkc.org.

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