‘Lucky Duck’ in New York: A fine cast struts its stuff in Broadway’s shadow

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

NEW YORK | First things first: This won’t be your typical theater review.

This will be an occasion to look back at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. And by “we” I mean professional theater in Kansas City.

Tim Scott as Wolf in "Lucky Duck" (Robert Trussell)

I saw the Coterie Theatre’s production of “Lucky Duck” in 2010 and was charmed as much by the material as by the fine comic performances that brought this musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” to life. Now the Coterie, with its cast and production team largely intact, has brought the show to New York for a limited run at the New Victory Theater.

The show is as good as it was in Kansas City and the actors are even better. Director Jeff Church and choreographer Ernie Nolan have restaged the piece for a conventional proscenium theater and scenic designer Ryan J. Zirngibl has created sets that are simple enough to travel but which also bring a light-hearted visual sense of humor to the production.

This musical is the creation of composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell, who co-wrote the book with Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s a very funny reinvention of the classic fairy tale about an ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan. They recast the story as a satire about a kingdom ruled by water fowl who have subjugated the canine carnivores, whom they regulate closely and attempt to pacify with “soy-based poultry substitutes.”

The central character is Serena (Jennie Greenberry), the dorky step-sibling to the smug Mallard sisters (Katie Karel and Emily Shackelford). Serena hopes to compete in the kingdom’s songbird contest on KLUC radio. Tired of the constant mockery she endures from the Mallard girls, she flees into the woods, where she’s befriended by the renegade Wolf (Tim Scott). Wolf claims to be a theatrical agent with the connections to make her a star.

As I watched the opening night performance of this show, with many of its creators present and moms with kids on booster seats experiencing “Lucky Duck” for the first time, what struck me was  how right it seemed for this show and these actors to be on a New York stage. From Georgianna Buchanan’s beautifully crafted costumes to the assured performances, this production was a declaration that Kansas City theater artists can hold their own anywhere – including New York.

Jennie Greenberry (Robert Trussell)

Greenberry is a thoroughly charming Serena, but the production is really anchored by Scott, whose honed timing, quickness and wit set the pace for his fellow actors. He gets every ounce of humor from the show’s amiably absurd jokes. But polished performances are also registered by Seth Golay, as Drake, the prince with an obsession for models; Kip Niven, who is first seen as the King and who later appears as Armand, a French fashion photographer; Julie Shaw, who triples as Mrs. Mallard, the star-maker Goosetella and the Queen; Greg Krumins and Tosin Morohunfola, who hilariously double as the Free Range Chickens and a pair of hustling Coyotes; and Francisco “Pancho Javier” Villegas as radio host Rudy Rooster and other characters.

Shackelford and Karel are a riot as the Mallard sisters, and Karel makes a huge impression with her brief appearance as Chicken Little.

What the future holds for this show and the artists involved is an open question. But there was a time, not so long ago, when a production originating in Kansas City and traveling to New York was such a rare event that it was regarded as an aberration. Not so much these days. Now it seems part of a natural progression – the logical consequence for a theater community that has worked long and hard to get where it is.

Read more arts news at kansascity.com.

Advertisements

More than luck takes KC’s Coterie Theatre to NY

Posted on Thu, Mar. 15, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

NEW YORK – Let it be written that the Coterie Theatre got here first.

Kansas City’s theater profile in New York has experienced some spikes through the years. A few local playwrights have had work produced in the Big Apple. Kansas City Repertory Theatre has earned a handful of rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal and Time. And Marilyn Strauss, founder of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, has some bona fide Broadway producing credits on her resume.

Jennie Greenberry as Serena in "Lucky Duck" (Robert Trussell)

But the holy grail has never before been grasped — a theater company taking a show handmade by Kansas Citians to an important New York venue where the mere fact of its existence is enough to command attention.

The moment has arrived. At 5 p.m. today, the Coterie Theatre will officially open a lighthearted musical called “Lucky Duck” at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street just off Times Square.

Actors based in Kansas City — graduates of the University of Kansas, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Stephens College — will perform next door to the playhouse where “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” unfolds each night and right across the street from Disney’s long-running production of “Mary Poppins.”

“This project is all Kansas City people,” “Lucky Duck” director Jeff Church said. “There is not a New York ringer inside this cast. These people are going to go back to their Kansas City lives.”

The New Victory, a 499-seat playhouse where Abbott & Costello once performed and Gypsy Rose Lee danced on a runway, isn’t officially a Broadway theater. But for the Coterie it’s about as good as it gets.

Mary Rose Lloyd, New Victory’s director of programming, said she had seen “Lucky Duck” in Kansas City and thought it was ideal for her theater, which specializes in entertainment for young audiences.

“We’re just looking for the best work,” she said. “We don’t care where it comes from. … We’re giving a cross-section of the performing arts for a cross-section of young audiences.”

Katie Karel, Seth Golay and Emily Shackelford (Robert Trussell)

“Lucky Duck” is the second consecutive show with a Kansas City connection to play the New Victory. The first was “Tom Sawyer,” a co-production from three regional theaters, including the Rep.

And another Kansas City production may be poised for a New York run. Kansas City Rep has remained guarded about plans for “Venice,” the hip-hop musical that had its world premiere in Kansas City, although artistic director Eric Rosen has already staged two workshops of the show in New York.

An announcement is expected eventually that there will indeed be a full production of the show at a major off-Broadway nonprofit theater company, perhaps as early as next fall.

That will further elevate Kansas City’s status as a performing arts town in a big way.

But the Coterie, the little, hard-working, young-audiences company that has operated for decades on the lower level of Crown Center, has earned a permanent distinction: It has made Kansas City theater history.

“Lucky Duck,” a satirical retelling of the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, was written by composer Henry Krieger, best known for writing the score to “Dreamgirls,” and Bill Russell, who worked with Krieger on the Broadway show “Side Show.”

“Lucky Duck” was originally called “Everything’s Ducky” and was envisioned as a piece for adults. Church persuaded Krieger, Russell and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to let him reshape the show, shorten it and tailor it to a young audience.

That’s the version that audiences saw when the Coterie staged the revised show in 2010, and that’s the one New York audiences will see for the next two weekends.

Director Jeff Church (Robert Trussell)

And the show isn’t exactly sneaking into town. The New Victory expects reviews and notices from The New York Times and other papers. As you walk down 42nd Street toward the theater, you can’t miss the enormous placards on the front of the theater promoting the show and featuring larger-than-life photos of Kansas City actors Jennie Greenberry and Seth Golay.

“It’s very surreal,” Greenberry said during a lull in technical rehearsals Tuesday.

Amy M. Abels Owen, the Coterie’s production stage manager, said running relatively small-scale shows at the Coterie is one thing. At the New Victory, a classic proscenium theater, it’s a bit more complex. But the show is a milestone for her personally and professionally.

“I’ve never been in New York before,” she said. “Every time I’m not in this facility, I’m trying to have an adventure.”

The cast includes talented artists familiar to regular Kansas City theatergoers. Kip Niven, a Broadway veteran, is in the show. So is veteran performer Julie Shaw, who has appeared often at Quality Hill Playhouse. And some of the brightest young actors in Kansas City are on hand: Greenberry, Golay, Tim Scott, Katie Karel, Emily Shackelford, Francisco Villegas, Greg Krumins and Tosin Morohunfola.

Veteran musical director Anthony Edwards is with the company and will be performing at the keyboards with a small group of New York musicians. Lighting designer Jarrett Bertoncin and sound designer David Kiehl are in New York to work on the show. And the vibrant costumes were designed by Georgianna Buchanan, whose work has often been seen at the Coterie.

But the hero of the production may be Scott Hobart, the Coterie’s technical director and master carpenter. Hobart had the job of loading all the sets, props and costumes into a 12-foot rented diesel truck, driving it from Kansas City to New York and backing it up to the New Victory’s loading dock on 43rd Street.

“It was all packed to the gills, by the way,” Hobart said.

Hobart, who has an alternative life as a musician, has spent a good deal of time on the road as Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, and he had experience driving a mini-school bus in New York traffic. Still, this was a daunting exercise. He knew he’d be driving the truck through the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.

“I had a steak dinner the night before,” he said. “It felt like my last meal.”

Sitting at the back of the house one day as the actors tested their body mics in front of a big red barn wall he had built, Hobart reflected on the significance of bringing a show to New York.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a little surreal, because our home theater is such a different animal in the basics. … It’s fun to look up there and know I made every cut in every single piece of wood. It’s kind of like I’m up on the stage.”

By any measure, New Victory’s Lloyd said, the Coterie is an exceptional company.

“If you don’t know what you’ve got there,” she said, “you should.”

Read more arts news at kansascity.com.

‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ shows its age but packs a punch

Posted on Sat, Mar. 10, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

The stage version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” like the novel, celebrates the chaos of freedom, glorifying the individual in his eternal battle against dehumanizing bureaucracies.

Scott Cordes (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

So it’s not surprising that the loose-jointed production at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is a bit chaotic, sometimes by design, sometimes not. But the artists involved find a way to turn any deficiencies into strengths. Director William Christie guides an able cast through this mythic confrontation between the rebel Randle McMurphy and the dictatorial psychiatric Nurse Ratched and ultimately delivers a powerful piece of theater.

Scott Cordes, one might argue, was born to play McMurphy, a decorated Army veteran who nonetheless received a dishonorable discharge. The actor’s persona dovetails beautifully with the character. As a result, McMurphy’s larger-than-life defiance never seems forced. He is what he is – a hard-drinking, brawling, gambling, hooker-loving misfit who can only be stopped by a sledge hammer.

After committing himself to a mental hospital to finish up a jail term (he reasons that the hospital will be a welcome relief from the drudgery of prison work details), he meets his formidable nemesis. Jan Chapman, whose tall stature, chiseled cheekbones and ice-queen smile make her the ideal physical embodiment of Ratched, plays the part with tightly-controlled reserve in counterpoint to Cordes’s loose-cannon antics. In the penultimate scene, her reserve is finally stripped away, and we see the unbridled sadist within as she and McMurphy grapple in a death struggle.

Playwright Dale Wasserman, whose adaptation was first staged just four years after the novel’s publication in 1959, sets the action entirely in the day room of a psychiatric hospital. The novel is told through the internal, surrealistic, perceptions of Chief Bromden (played by Ari Bavel), a mountainous and presumably deaf-mute Native American, and Wasserman tries to capture some of that imagery with dreamlike monologues. In this production, those are recorded voice-overs that might have worked better if Bavel had simply been allowed to speak them onstage. But for the most part Wasserman settles for a straight narrative, which gives the play a much more prosaic feel. Even so, it’s still a story that sucks you in. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ still fights the good fight; stage version of Kesey’s novel resonates now as much as ever

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Oh, how we love our rebels — even if we know they’re doomed.

Somehow, that makes us love them even more.

Thanks to Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, we can return to one of the most enduring themes of 20th century American literature: the eternal struggle of the individual to declare his humanity in opposition to the strictures of an oppressive society.

The MET’s intimate environment is giving theatergoers a chance to experience the genre up close and personal with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s classic novel. And as the epic antagonists — troublemaker Randle McMurphy and authoritarian Nurse Ratched — we have two of our most respected Kansas City actors, Scott Cordes and Jan Chapman.

Scott Cordes plays iconic rebel Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

Perhaps no author has articulated the rage-against-the-machine theme as famously as Kesey, whose book, published 50 years ago, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1975.

Its depiction of McMurphy, an authority-flaunting war veteran, and his conscious disruption of order in a psych ward ruled by a control-freak nurse, dovetailed perfectly with the 1960s youth rebellion and civil rights struggle. The book ultimately came to be seen as a statement on conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.

“He makes a lot of sense to me,” Cordes said. “You’ve got to fight the Man. You’ve got to question the Man. In this case, the woman. I just like the idea that he comes to this place that hasn’t heard laughter or singing, and he gives something to each one of these men. He helps them out. He gives something back to them that they had before but lost. The way this nurse treats these men, it just seems like she’s (castrating them), which doesn’t seem like a way to heal somebody.”

Jan Chapman as Nurse Ratched at the MET (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

“Cuckoo’s Nest” reflected a thematic streak that ran through much of the fiction and movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Donn Pearce’s chain-gang novel “Cool Hand Luke,” which became a widely seen 1967 film starring Paul Newman, owed a debt to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” And both followed Edward Abbey’s 1956 novel, “The Brave Cowboy,” in which an anachronistic cowhand unsuccessfully confronts the mechanized modern world. Abbey’s book was the basis of “Lonely Are the Brave,” a classic 1962 film produced by and starring Kirk Douglas.

Indeed, Douglas played Randle McMurphy when the stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest” opened on Broadway, but he could never get a film made. Eventually his son Michael produced the movie version but cast Jack Nicholson instead.

Nicholson’s work then was dominated by characters who were philosophical rebels — the doomed country lawyer in the iconic “Easy Rider,” a concert pianist working in the California oil fields to escape his past in “Five Easy Pieces,” a Navy lifer reluctantly escorting a kid to the brig in “The Last Detail” and a private eye confronting raw power in “Chinatown.”

But you could argue that “Cuckoo’s Nest” remains the most powerful distillation of the notion that to fight the good fight — to confront monolithic authority — rebels do so at their own risk.

Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces'

“When those in power are questioned, they come down on those who question and speak up,” Chapman said. “It’s a little microcosm of what’s going on in the real world, and I don’t think things have changed a lot.”

The talented Chapman, a MET company member, and Cordes, who has chalked up a series of memorable performances in MET productions, were cast even before a director was in place. Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said she often looks at actors’ schedules well in advance as she seeks windows of opportunity for them to do shows.

“I had thought of it for Scott a long time ago,” Paisley said. “I was thinking that it would be fun to do. … And of course we started planning it probably a year ago, so in some ways it was a vehicle for Scott. But we always try to pick really extraordinary plays that are going to create extraordinary experiences for our audiences and pick material for actors to do what they were meant to do.”

Douglas in "Lonely Are the Brave"

Paisley asked William Christie, the American Heartland Theatre’s resident stage manager, to direct the piece after she saw his staging of the quirky “39 Steps” for the Heartland.

“I appreciated the creativity he brought to ‘The 39 Steps,’ ” she said. “And it was a semi-minimalist approach, which is our normal mode of operation.”

Christie’s first task was to fill the rest of the show’s 16 roles through open auditions. That’s a huge cast by current standards, and the group includes a number of MET regulars — Alan Tilson, Priest Hughes, Sam Wright, Chris Roady and Ari Bavel, who plays Chief Bromden, the novel’s narrator. Other notable cast members include veteran theater artist Tyler Miller as Ruckley and Dan Hillaker as Billy Bibbitt. Read the rest at kansascity.com.m

A class act: ‘Earnest’ at the Heartland

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Terrific comic performances, creative direction and a handsome physical production make “The Importance of Being Earnest” one of the best shows I’ve seen at the American Heartland Theatre in 20-plus years of reviewing theater.

The witty, silly 1895 comedy by Oscar Wilde is a delight in the right hands, and director Paul Hough has assembled an exceptional cast to make this show fly. Wilde’s comedy of manners may be a trifle but its humor is couched as a satire on Victorian high society, allowing him to make clever observations and amusing asides about class distinctions, marriage, money and the idle rich. Considering the current state of the economy and the cries of condemnation against the “1 percent,” this determinedly frothy play actual gives viewers plenty to think about once you stop laughing.

From left, Todd Carlton Lanker, Emily Peterson, Natalie Liccardello and Rusty Sneary (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

The three-act play opens in the home of Algernon Moncrieff (Todd Carlton Lanker), a young man with a permanent sparkle in his eye, who at the outset is visited by his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing (Rusty Sneary). Ernest has come from the country, where he keeps a home, to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Natalie Liccardello).

But Algernon is able to deduce from an inscription in a cigarette case that “Ernest” left behind weeks earlier that his friend is leading a double life. Indeed, Algie’s friend confesses that he’s “Ernest” in the city and “Jack” in the country, where he supports his 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Emily Peterson). Indeed, Cecily believes Jack has a brother (whom Jack has invented) named Ernest, a wastrel whose excesses are continually getting him in trouble in London.

Algernon takes note of Jack’s country address, and appears at the country estate posing as “Ernest” just as Jack had decided to announce the “death” of the unseen brother.

Jim Korinke and Emily Peterson (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

Hovering over these activities is Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Jim Korinke), who is the final arbiter when it comes to marriage. Ultimately, Algernon (posing as Ernest) falls in love with Cecily and asks her to marry, but there can be no weddings until family secrets are unearthed in the third act.

Dominating the production is Lanker, whose Algernon is a marvelous creation. The performance is at all times crisp, specific, disciplined and unpredictable. Lanker’s handling of Wilde’s language is pitch-perfect and his sense of comic timing is flawless.

But then this show is full of good performances. Sneary is a memorable Jack and allows the performance to grow from reasonably restrained dimensions in the early going to absurd heights in Act 3. As Gwendolyn, Liccardello embraces the character’s ridiculous emotional expectations and creates a vivid, appealing performance. Peterson is sublime as Cecily, who lives in a fantasy world so rich that she writes letters to herself from a nonexistent fiancé. An extended scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily in Act 2 is a highlight of the production.

Cathy Wood is on the money as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor with secrets in her past. And John Rensenhouse has fun with some choice supporting roles. He first appears as Lane, Algernon’s dryly observant manservant; next we see him as the celibate Rev. Chasuble, who finds himself in a growing romantic relationship with Miss Prism; and, in some remarkable quick costume changes, he also plays Merriman, the ancient, hard-of-hearing butler at Jack’s country home. It’s as Merriman that Rensenhouse gets the biggest laughs with his tottering gait and ear-horn gags.

And Korinke, the old pro, brings his refined sense of comic timing to his impressive incarnation of Lady Bracknell. Watching Korinke play a Victorian woman is inherently campy, but the actor is smart enough to let Wilde’s writing generate the laughs. All he has to do is play the role, which he does with integrity. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

Lyric Opera brings ‘Nixon in China’ to KC

Posted on Fri, Mar. 02, 2012

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

James Maddalena figures he owes the 37th president of the United States.

Most significantly, the role of Richard Nixon in the groundbreaking John Adams opera “Nixon in China” became, literally, the role of a lifetime for the celebrated baritone.

He played the role in the 1987 world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, and he has played Nixon more than 100 times since. Maddalena will play him again when the Lyric Opera production opens Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

But Maddalena owes Nixon in another way.

James Maddalena reprises the title role in "Nixon in China" for the Lyric Opera. (Todd Feeback/Kansas City Star)

“I graduated from high school in 1972,” Maddalena said. “Because of when my birthday is, I was 17 when I graduated high school, and I was too young to be drafted. I had to register for the draft, but by the time I turned 18 Nixon had abolished the draft.”

Indeed, Nixon was and remains a complex and often contradictory historical figure — shrewd, smart, politically astute and tough-minded, but also paranoid, delusional, sometimes comically inept and emotionally vulnerable.

He was, among other things, a politician who rose in the ranks of the Republican Party as a rabid anti-Communist but who as president withdrew American troops from the Vietnam War. And, the same year Maddalena graduated from high school, Nixon became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China and establish relations with the most populous Marxist state on the planet.

Maddalena said his approach to the role in 1987 was pretty much as it is today: He immerses himself in all available information about Nixon.

“I did a lot of research,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on, and there’s quite a bit about Richard Nixon. And I have vivid memories of watching him on TV. …

“What I found really useful is that beautiful middle section of each biography where there’s all those black-and-white photos. And photos I think are so much better than video because you can study that frozen thought behind the eyes, you know. And if you look at many different photographs you can begin to develop a gestural vocabulary and to put it all together.

“Nixon is great because although he was famous for being a great poker player during the war, he had the worst poker face of any politician I’ve seen in my life. His emotions were just right out there in public. As a matter of fact, he made a comment once that he only really ever cries in public, which I thought was really amazing.”

Read the rest at kansascity.com.