Summertime and the livin' is easy

Issue: 
June 2012

George Gershwin’s jazzy show tune “Summertime,” from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, could have been written about outdoor summer theater in Kansas City. From June through early September, city dwellers and suburbanites alike arrive with blankets, lawn chairs and coolers to create a patchwork community on park lawns, or claim a stadium seat under the stars. When dusk arrives, the curtains rise and the magic begins.

 
“All the world’s a stage…” 
 
Marilyn Strauss sits in a sangria-red leather chair – her “mommy chair,” she calls it – framed by bird-print drapes in the study of her luxurious, high-rise apartment on the Country Club Plaza. The effect is almost throne-like and complements her signature red mane. 
 
One wall of her study is covered in photos, framed magazine covers, posters and playbills spanning her years in New York on Broadway and in Kansas City. A poster and playbill for Da – the Broadway comedy by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, for which she won a Tony Award for producing in 1978 – joins a photo of her with conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom she brought to Kansas City in 1979. In other photos, she hams it up with cast members from various shows she’s produced for Kansas City’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, which she founded in 1993. 
 
Tears fill Strauss’ green eyes as she views a new promotional video for the 20th anniversary of the Shakespeare Festival. She attempts to conceal that she’s crying but then admits that the segment on the Shakespeare camps and school programs for kids touches her. Treachery, madness, star-crossed lovers and death aside – the tragic themes of many of Shakespeare’s plays – what appears to move Strauss are the hearts of children. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I just love the education component of the festival and what it means to all of these children.” She shares a letter a mother wrote her, saying how much her son loved the camp. “She then added, ‘P.S. My son is autistic.’” 
 
Strauss understands the power of literature and drama to uplift and heal. From age 7 until she was a senior at Southwest High School in Kansas City, Mo., she lived in boarding schools. She remembers feeling lonely. “To escape, I became an avid reader, and I made myself into a leader.” 
 
But it wasn’t until she was a senior that she fell in love with theater. Her parents were divorcing and she was heartbroken. “I’d envision the theater roles and become different characters in my imagination. Everything I ever felt in life was in Shakespeare.” 
 
It’s one reason she’s committed to offering the festival for free. “I believe a free, professional theater should be a right, as well as a privilege, and accessible to everyone,” she says. The festival, which employs Equity Union artists, attracts at least 30,000 people annually.
 
A question Strauss often asks herself, however, is, “How can something free cost all that money?” This year’s productions of Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will cost nearly $500,000 dollars to produce. Strauss has never accepted a salary for her work in the festival. 
 
But after 20 years and, unbelievably, in her eighth decade of life, she admits she’s weary of begging for money to fund the festival. She’s now searching for corporate sponsorship. “My real dream is for some big name here — like Hallmark, the Kauffman Foundation, the Helzberg Foundation, or Cerner — to own it. I can’t walk away until I know it’s been taken care of; that it lives on.”
 
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival takes place from June 19 to July 15 at Southmoreland Park, 47th and Oak streets, in Kansas City, Mo. For more information, visit kcshakes.org.
 
“There’s no business like show business…” 
 
Across the state line in Shawnee Mission Park, another opportunity exists to drag out the lawn chairs and bring the picnic baskets. The Theatre in the Park, under the auspices of Johnson County Park and Recreation District, boasts that it’s the largest, outdoor community theater in the nation. 
 
“We’re offering a season of never-ever-before-performed-on-stage shows to appeal to a wider demographic of theater-goers in the area,” says Tim Bair, producing artistic director. “People say, ‘We like Annie but we don’t want to see it tomorrow. Oklahoma is fine but please, give us something else.’” 
 
Among its typical family-friendly shows — “How much family-friendlier can you get with Mowgli and Sleeping Beauty all in one night?” Bair asks, laughing — the theater also offers the Tony Award-winning satirical, comedy musical Urinetown, which features a futuristic society where people forced to pay to use urinals finally rebel.
 
This year’s line-up at the Theatre in the Park, 7710 Renner Road, Shawnee, Kan., includes: Sweeney Todd, June 8-10 and 14-17; Legally Blonde, June 22-24 and June 28 to July 1; Disney’s The Jungle Book and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, July 6-8 and 12-15; Urinetown, July 20-22 and 26-29; and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Aug. 3-5 and 9-12. For information, visit theatreinthepark.org.
 
Never Never Land 
 
For a little magical pixie dust, head to the second-largest outdoor theater in the United States, Starlight Theatre, located in Swope Park in south Kansas City, Mo. A landmark since the 1950s, Starlight offers several levels of reserved seating and features a variety of Tony Award-winning shows for families, as well as more sophisticated fare for adults.
 
“The biggest thing about our season this year is that there are so many things here for the first time in Kansas City,” says Cindy Jeffries, vice president of marketing for Starlight Theatre. “This season’s shows have garnered 41 Tony nominations, 17 wins, and three best musicals.” 
 
Tony Award winners for Best Musicals, In the Heights (2008) and Memphis (2010) will make their Kansas City debut, as will The Addams Family. George Hamilton will appear in the revival of La Cage Aux Folles, while former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby will perform as Peter Pan. “And even though she’s older, they’ve really ramped up the flying for her even more,” Jeffries says, laughing.
 
The Starlight season line-up features: In The Heights, June 5-10; The Addams Family, July 3-8; Memphis, July 10-15; Peter Pan, July 24-29; and La Cage Aux Folles, Aug. 28 to Sept. 2. For details, go to kcstarlight.com.
 
Fringe it! 
 
If you want to escape the sauna-like temperatures that Kansas City summers are known for and expose yourself to experimental works, drop by more than 300 performances offered throughout the city during the Fringe Festival, July 19-29. 
 
This arts festival, now in its seventh year, features local, regional and national emerging and established artists presenting live theater, dance, performance art, spoken word, visual art, puppetry, storytelling, film, and fashion. “There’s something for everyone, from family fare to mature audiences, from kid shows to burlesque,” says Cheryl Kimmi, executive director of the Fringe Festival.
 
Youth also are encouraged to participate in programming. “We want to ... provide them with opportunities so they’ll become future artists,” Kimmi says. 
 
In addition, 70 percent of all ticket sales go to the artists and 30 percent to the venues. Last year, 455 primarily local artists appeared in more than 368 original, uncensored performances. For ticket prices and location information, check out kcfringe.org.
 
 

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