Heading into its 16th season, Musical Theater Heritage is in growth mode. Specializing in productions of American musicals, the Crown Center-based theater company has been a popular presence in Kansas City since its founding in 2003.
And no wonder. There’s a show for every taste, with the typical season offering one or two “heritage” musicals — think “South Pacific,” “Hello, Dolly” and “Gypsy” — as well as a couple of less well-known or untraditional shows like “Next to Normal” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Although MTH’s productions consistently win over audiences and generate committed fans, the theater is not resting on its laurels. In the last three years the organization has solidly expanded its mission and offerings, and seen audience numbers rise from 8,900 in 2012 to almost 34,000 today. Current season subscriptions are at the highest level ever.
It all started with founder and director George Harter, known for his award-winning “A Night on the Town” radio series. As MTH Executive Director Chad Gerlt recalls, “It was on a train car loading dock in 2003 when George Harter, Nathan Granner and I produced the first MTH musical, Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” (and) we performed it live on George Harter’s radio show.”
Now, 15 years later, “It would be easy to rest on our achievements,” Gerit said, “but we are always searching for exciting and innovative ways to impact our community.”
Among the changes: MTH productions no longer fit the description of “concert musicals,” with the performers standing at microphones in front of the audience. The shows are more fully fleshed out, with costuming and props and, most importantly, with greatly enhanced movement and scenic design.
The revamping of its staged musicals is only part of MTH’s reinvention. It has also expanded physically to become a whole complex on the third floor of Crown Center. The musicals are performed on the Main Stage, a comfortable, 244-seat venue. Next door is Stage 2, a smaller, more intimate 133-seat space, where performers have included Ensemble Ibérica, Mesner Puppets, Matt Otto, Fringe Fest and 12th Street Jump. And just beyond these two venues is the Studio Theater, a grand rehearsal space and home of the new Empire Dance Academy under the direction of Kenny Personett, who also choreographs MTH productions.
The Studio is available to a variety of performance arts organizations, which in 2017 included The Fishtank Theatre, Stephens College, The KC Ballet Guild and others. It is also a functioning cinema, where silent movie jazz sessions occur. In 2017, the complex presented more than 300 events and performances, supporting nearly 500 performers, technicians and musicians.
Unlike other theater companies, the MTH season follows the calendar year. The jam-packed schedule is managed by a small but mighty circle of theater heavy hitters, including Harter, Gerlt and Tim Scott, who regularly acts and sings with various area companies and, for MTH, produces, markets and supervises education efforts.
Jeremy Watson, music director, and Andrea Boswell-Burns, education coordinator, both have extensive academic and performance experience in Kansas City and nationally.
An important part of MTH’s growth is its increasing involvement with area youth. In summer of 2016, MTH ran its first theater camps, taught by recognized local theater professionals (unlike many other local arts camps). In summer of 2017, 180 kindergarten to 12th-grade students from Operation Breakthrough, the YMCA, and all over the metro area, thrilled to week-long explorations of Seuss, Hogwarts, Hamilton and more, with each week of activity resulting in a full production.
“The combination of personal creativity within group creativity is complex learning that is a useful life skill,” says parent Carol Webster. “Creative learning is memorable and long-lasting/permanent learning for the brain.”
In 2018, MTH will offer two fully underwritten student matinees on the main stage for the first time, treating 200 school-age young persons to the experience of musical imagination on stage.
The Main Stage will continue its regular Musical Mondays and Tuesdays, in which cabaret-like revues feature popular musical talent performing highlights and favorites.
And for those who like to mix their love of theater with a love of travel, MTH is a travel service as well, with Harter leading at least four theater-filled trips per year to New York, London and other popular destinations. Visit musicaltheaterheritage.com for information about Harter’s April 11-15 trip to New York and Broadway and upcoming shows at MTH.
Above: George Harter, MTH founder, and Chad Gerlt, MTH executive director (MTH theater at Crown Center / photo by Tim Scott)