More than luck takes KC’s Coterie Theatre to NY

Posted on Thu, Mar. 15, 2012
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.”

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