Category Archives: Performing

The Big Bupkis

Kansas City Comedian/Magician Shane Baker Invigorates The Jewish Community Center with Yiddish Humor

Kansas City Comedian/Magician Shane Baker
Invigorates The Jewish Community Center with Yiddish Humor

From the moment prehistoric man laughed at his companion slipping in the mud while hunting for dinner, humor has been part of life. Humor has developed and matured throughout the centuries. One of the heights of this maturation came with the development of vaudeville.

Historically, vaudeville ran for about 50 years, the early 1880s to the early 1930s. During the early 1900s, vaudeville was running the circuit with musicians, singers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, jugglers, celebrities and more. Some of the leading entertainers in vaudeville also happened to be Yiddish. Much like American burlesque, Yiddish vaudeville is laced with unpretentious and sometimes crude humor. One individual bond and determined to make sure Yiddish vaudeville survives is an Episcopalian from south Kansas City, Shane Bertram Baker. He brings his show to Kansas City March 8 and 9 at the Jewish Community Center.

Krista Lang Blackwood, the director of cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, calls Baker’s show, The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville a perfect fit. “The 2013-2014 Season at the White Theatre is designed to have a little something for all ages and backgrounds. With Paul Mesner creating a Hanukkah puppet show designed to appeal to younger audiences, it just made sense to book Mr. Baker, with his throwback to the golden age of Yiddish vaudeville, and appeal to our older audiences. As a bonus, Mr. Baker’s act will provide a doorway to our younger audiences to this almost-lost art form.”

Baker has even spent time with some of the last Yiddish vaudeville stars including Fyvush Finkel, plus others such as Arthur Tracy, also known as The Street Singer. “The typical Yiddish vaudeville bill was shorter than what we think of on the American English stage, and usually with a little less variety, typically a comedian, a husband and wife team who would tell jokes and sing and dance, a solo singer, and then the body sketch – what we know as a tab show (shortened version of a popular play),” Baker explains. “The broader variety would be covered by the opening act, when they usually brought in a juggler or magician from uptown. In any vaudeville bill, the opening spot was a kind of throwaway, the roughest for the performer, because folks would still be wandering in.”

When Baker was about 13 years old, he had the chance to see Tempest Storm, the burlesque star, at the Folly Theatre. “I think the fact that we had my grandmothers with us was a little bit funny, but Ms. Storm is a good comedian and I saw that,” Baker says. “However, the real start came when I was about 5 years old and I heard Groucho Marx say a Yiddish word in one of his films. It’s not like I knew I had to study Yiddish, but it might have been an early signifier.”

The magician bug bit him first because of long-time neighbor Claude Enslow. “He was the Magician of the Year, but he was that kind man who taught me about show biz. He showed a number of routines and I still do many of them, with modifications.” Baker also learned some tricks from Whizzo the Clown. Whizzo, known as Frank Wiziarde, came from a circus family. In 1930 they created the Wiziarde Novelty Circus, a traveling act that made appearances at stores, shopping areas, and any place where a crowd was desired. But the circus life had its up and downs, and by 1947 he was working as a radio announcer in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he became known for his man-in-the-street interviews.

Baker knows the drive is not just in preservation, but in propelling the art form forward. When Baker moved to New York, he spent time with some of the legends of the Yiddish stage including Mina Bern, Shifra Lehrer, and Luba Kadison Buloff. Buloff actually played opposite actress and teacher Stella Adler. “Luba taught me to act,” he says.

Baker also spent time learning Yiddish. He studied the language for about three years, often juggling lessons from books and those from his friends such as Buloff and Bern. “Mina invited me for soup and I heard her story. I became friends with her. At the time, I understood about half of what I was hearing in Yiddish,” he says. “Then I started becoming a regular in her apartment. Being around Mina and Luba was being immersed in the Yiddish cultural world and I knew it was not just keeping a culture alive, but being inspired and seeing the relevance.”

So with that spark, the desire to work in the field of Yiddish entertainment and bring everything into the best possible light, Baker studied the language even more. “I find the work amusing today and I wanted to create a show that mirrored that light and humor. What I have put together may be called a kitchen sink show. There are routines I learned from Claude, Mina and Luba.”

By the way, in a means to clarify the title of his show, Baker defines “bupkis.” “It’s a rude way of saying nothing. It’s like saying beans or goat droppings. So my show is the Big Nothing.”

In New York, the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation and the Congress for Yiddish Culture often celebrate Yiddish vaudeville. It’s not only about the performance, but collecting the scholarly data. “Vaudeville was the industrialization of entertainment where performers were assigned specific tasks. That fascinates me.” Baker has also received support from David Mandelbaum, founder of the New Yiddish Rep.

When Baker brings The Big Bupkis: The Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville to the White Theatre in early March, he will bring in a refreshed show. He has been working with co-writer Lewis Rickman. “Families will be welcome. As with all vaudeville, good taste is stretched. I can remember Claude telling me that a person can work ‘blue’ – that sort of inappropriate humor – and get a laugh. The trick is not to look more at the humor that you don’t see on TV. Slapstick is fun and so is refined word play. I like to be a monologist.”

The show will be about 40 to 50 percent in Yiddish, Baker explains. “I will clarify jokes, but there are also supertitles. The material will be almost all vaudeville, but there is a modern, tongue-in-cheek feel. There is some self-lacerating humor. There is self-mockery. While vaudeville used to have a goal of a laugh every 15 seconds, I think I take a little bit longer for my jokes. However, there will be broad variety. I even dance.”

Finding new audiences for Yiddish, Baker said, requires showing people that Yiddish is a language of both the gutter and the academy, and everything in between. “I want to advance the language. We add color to our own language with Yiddish words like schlep, schlock and shtick. Yiddish is a full language, rich and real. That is one of my jobs to show that in roughly 75 minutes.”

In the end and at the end of the show, Baker wants to leave an audience with a smile. Baker is perspicacious. He has a unique understanding of the past and hopeful future. “The influences of acts that recycled their great skits, say such as a Burns and Allen, can’t be underestimated.  I’d say that first and foremost I want them to have a really good laugh as well as the desire to see more Yiddish theater. I like to laugh … I like belly laughs, side-splitting ones as well as knee slappers. I hope my humor delivers just a few of these.”

Learn more about The Big Bupkis! by clicking here.

 

Posted in Kellie Houx, Performing | Leave a comment

Enjoyable and Quirky …. Find Some Fun with Motherhood Out Loud

Julie Shaw, Kelly Main and Natalie Liccardello. Photography by Manon Halliburton

Julie Shaw, Kelly Main and Natalie Liccardello. Photography by Manon Halliburton

I had the chance to take my mother to see Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of Motherhood Out Loud on Sunday, Feb. 9. The play continues Feb. 13-16.  In the intimate space of the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center, we watched three women and one man move through the emotions and life experiences of being a child, being a parent, watching growth, leaving the nest and sometimes returning home.

The roughly 90 minutes weaves through moments in life. While different scenes will resonate with others, I want to share the scenes I loved.  Personally I loved Kelly Main as the adoptive mom who is trying to explain her love of a daughter from China. Her role as mother who sent a child to Afghanistan moved me to tears.  She is a strong woman with a beaming smile and eyes that pull an audience into the reality of the role.

For the lovely Natalie Liccardello, the condemning world of the playground was probably one of the most charming scenes for her. She’s an enchanting actress who has an impish grin and a coy style to her acting. She’s a delight to watch.

OK, Julie Shaw shines and her blue eyes are liquid. When the emotions of the character she is portraying bubble to the surface, the waves of emotions are so visible. One particular scene sticks with me. She plays a Jewish mother whose son wants to be Queen Esther for Purim and she decides to allow him to do this. It’s a rueful scene and a bittersweet relationship that comes to light with lots of love thrown in.

The other blue-eyed one is Rick Truman. He gets a couple of scenes that made me laugh and cry. His scene of impending parenthood as a gay man reflects on how families are put together in unique ways in today’s modern society.  The scene that brought tears to my eyes takes Truman in the role of a divorced son who moves back into his mother’s home and discovers she has dementia.

This is a play held together by the real emotions of being a parent … whether that role comes in the words mother, grandmother, father, daughter or son. We hold these roles in our hearts and Motherhood Out Loud puts it on the stage, under the watchful eyes and directions of Spinning Tree Theatre’s co-founders Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman. It is a mirror held up with all the humor and love that life brings us all.

Posted in Kellie Houx, Performing | 1 Comment

Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey Gets Boost for 30th Year

KCFAAMURIEL MCBRIEN KAUFFMAN FOUNDATION ISSUES HISTORIC CHALLENGE GRANT TO KANSAS CITY FRIENDS OF ALVIN AILEY $375,000, the largest grant in Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey’s history, will support new and established artistic, educational and community programming in the Kansas City region.

“The Muriel McBrien Kauffman challenge grant is an important milestone for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey as we enter our Thirtieth Anniversary Year, and we appreciate this significant support from Julia Irene Kauffman and the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation.” Tyrone Aiken, Executive Director KCFAA

“The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation strongly believes that KCFAA has the vision and potential to develop new audiences and leaders for the arts, and we challenge the Kansas City community to join our commitment and investment.”

David C. Lady, President & COO Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation

WHY IS THIS GRANT IMPORTANT TO KANSAS CITY?

Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and recognized authority in arts management, validates KCFAA’s unique role as a dynamic national force for bringing people together through the arts.

Consulting with KCFAA on a grant from Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, he has designed a 5-year strategic plan to expand the entrepreneurial strengths of the organization.

Kaiser began his arts management career as CEO of Kansas City Ballet, serving as CEO of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, American Ballet Theater and Royal Opera House before assuming his current CEO role at the Kennedy Center. He formed the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, and has been a consultant for more than 600 arts institutions world-wide, including Miami City Ballet, Penumbra Theater and El Museo del Barrio. The Institute also teaches arts management to board and staff members across the globe under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Knight Foundation, among others.

KCFAA’s strategic plan is designed to position KCFAA as a national model for bridging racial and cultural differences, thereby highlighting Kansas City as THE CITY that embraces diversity and innovative arts partnerships.

THE MURIEL MCBRIEN KAUFFMAN FOUNDATION AND THE KANSAS CITY FRIENDS OF ALVIN AILEY

The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, the premiere supporter of Kansas City arts institutions, has provided consistent major funding for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey at every significant juncture in KCFAA’s 30-year history. Previous grants have supported the establishment of a KCFAA endowment fund, World Premieres of new Ailey works by Kansas City choreographers, and the creation of KCFAA’s national award-winning AileyCamp, now replicated in 10 cities. Today’s Challenge Grant of $375,000, to be matched by $375,000 in new or increased revenue, is a testament to the Foundation’s philanthropic commitment to the entire arts community.

As an indication of her involvement, Julia Irene Kauffman, Chairman of the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, will serve as KCFAA’s Honorary 30th Anniversary Year Chair.

WHY KCFAA?

Unique tri-part mission:

  • Artistic – As the only official second home of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, KCFAA supports Mr. Ailey’s vision: “Dance came from the people, and should be delivered back to the people” through residency performances, new work commissions, and a broadening audience base that have extended the Ailey legacy, through the leadership of his immediate successor, Judith Jamison, and the current Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle.
  • Educational – KCFAA develops and delivers youth programming that uses the art of dance as a vehicle to improve knowledge, increase self-esteem, enhance critical thinking skills, and encourage positive role models and smart life choices. KCFAA reaches more than 30,000 young people each year through ten year-round programs. A complete list of youth programs is enclosed.
  • Community – KCFAA encourages diversity of people and ideas through its organizational structure, uniting people across racial, ethnic and social barriers to promote awareness, respect, friendship, and ultimately, community-wide social change.

THE 5-YEAR PLAN AND KCFAA’S VISION FOR THE FUTURE:

The five year strategic plan strengthens KCFAA’s role as a national leader for uniting people of diverse backgrounds through year-round activities of performance, educational and community programs.

KCFAA, while continuing its current year-round programs, will add several new components over the next five years. First to be scheduled are symposia, lectures, panels about multi-cultural partnerships in the arts, and a national on-line competition for aspiring high school arts visionaries. An exciting community outreach opportunity, “Ailey in Your Neighborhood” will bring the Ailey magic to schools, stores and streets – one neighborhood at a time.

KCFAA’s 2014 Thirtieth Anniversary calendar will be announced in detail at a community celebration this spring, and will culminate with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Residency performances October 21-25 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Posted in Kids, Performing | Leave a comment

A Valentine to the City

SpinningTree-KCS-OnlineGood theater, like a baby, takes time to develop. Spinning Tree Theatre co-founders Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst are not only nurturing their creative offspring along, they are looking at plays that can be as cultivated as the company. With that comes Motherhood Out Loud, presented Feb. 6 -16 at Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

STARTING OFF AND THE CURRENT SITUATION
As a matter of fact, this New Year’s Day marks the fourth anniversary of Grayman and Parkhurst’s decision to start a small professional theater company. The two men relocated from New York to Kansas City in late August 2010. They contacted Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts and by October had incorporated Spinning Tree Theatre. Parkhurst says the name conjures images of branches moving, strength through roots and diversity with leaves and their changing nature from buds in the spring to the vibrancy of fall.

Their non-profit status arrived just in time for their inaugural production, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, in April 2011. “We also enjoy letting the audience use their imagination and that use starts with defining the poetry of our name,” Parkhurst  says. Their goal is to present new, contemporary and classic pieces that are relevant,  thought-provoking and entertaining.

“The 3- to 5-year plan is to find our own theater space,” Parkhurst says. “Right now, we move among venues such as Off Center and Just Off Broadway. We even had Shipwrecked at Paul Mesner Puppets Studios. It was a great space to bring back childhood through the immersion of the story. Sure, we would love our own space, but we are moving and planning with deliberate steps. We have three shows this season and four shows planned for next year. We are growing our patron base.”

Grayman says the decision to move to a third show this year was in response to their fans. The two men are also ensconced in the business aspects too.  They write the grants and handle the day-to-day operations. “There’s always something to do,” he says. Parkhurst says they also seek out advice and have a cadre of honorary advisors who mentor the men. Locally one of the mentors is J. Kent Barnhart, founder and executive director of Quality Hill Playhouse. Managing Director Rick Truman has also given a hand in business operations. “Kent has been so generous. He believes in what we do, but he offers constructive criticism.”

The men also treasure collaboration. “The fact that we can rent a venue and then if someone has some resources we can share, they are most likely offered,” Parkhurst says. “It’s been a great help.”

Their shows have run the gamut from tried-and-true musicals such as The Fantasticks to the more avant-garde Hello Again. In November, a six-person cast offered up their best in Ain’t Misbehavin: The Fats Waller Musical Show. The season will end in May with Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. In February, they offer a Kansas City premiere with Motherhood Out Loud.

MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD
“Five out of nine of our shows have been Kansas City prem ieres and we have to continue to build on that. We believe our audiences crave this,” Parkhurst says. Motherhood Out Loud comes from the minds of 14 leading playwrights including such notables as Beth Henley, who wrote Crimes of the Heart; David Cale, whose Palomino was here at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre; and Theresa Rebeck, whose play Seminar was just on stage at the Unicorn. “Both of us have strong relationships with our moms,” Parkhurst says.  Grayman says he is thrilled to offer a Kansas City audience more Henley and Rebeck. “This is a valentine to our moms,” he says. “As adults, we are friends with our moms. Now we see our childhood and their parenthood as supportive and humorous.” Parkhurst calls it a “smart show.”

Four local actors are gearing up to play in Motherhood Out Loud: Julie Shaw, Natalie Liccardello, Kelly Main and Rick Truman.  The play has been around for a little more than two years.

Truman has been a friend and collegial help in his role as managing director at Quality Hill Playhouse, but Parkhurst and Grayman have seen Truman act. More of Truman’s responsibilities lean toward directing, but during past holiday seasons, Truman played in Kansas City Young Audience’s staged reading of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Christmas Carol. He played Tiny Tim. “It’s been a while since I have done an actual stage production,” Truman says. “I had lunch with the guys and we talked about me needing the right opportunity to go back on the stage. It had to fit in my work schedule.

Initially I didn’t think I would be the right fit, but after reading the play, I fell in love. It’s a funny, tug-at-your-heartstrings show that has the drama it needs.”

Natalie Liccardello also has a day job, but loves to act. She was in Spinning Tree’s Master Class in 2012. “It was my first experience with Andy and Michael. Then I had the chance to read Motherhood and I knew I wanted to be a part. I love monologue shows and have appeared in a few such as The Vagina Monologues. There is always an essential theme that ties all the individual stories together and the nice thing is that if you’re not immediately enraptured, just wait until the next scene. There is a need for the true female voice in theater and that is what drew me to this.”

Julie Shaw’s vocal skills often get her theater jobs, but the chance to present comedy really has appealed with Motherhood Out Loud, she says. “Plus I am the mother of two children, ages 10 and 5. They obviously give me that ‘real world’ experience to call upon … For me, the child who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum hits me as does the mother who has to lie beside her child’s crib so the child will sleep. I am familiar with that one. I did go through some of the pieces. Being a mom changes your perspective on everything.”

This will be her third show with Spinning Tree Theatre. She played in The Fantasticks and the spring 2013 show, Hello Again. “Andy and Michael take great care in casting and the rehearsal process. They feel so strongly to put on quality productions they love,” Shaw says. “From the first time I met them, I knew these were two people I wanted to be around.”

Kelly Main is the fourth actor to round out the cast. She is also the mother to two sons. It’s her first Spinning Tree show as an actor, but she has seen several of the plays including Shipwrecked!  “I’m not much of a singer so I knew working with this theater company would require just the right role. Motherhood is a tough lifestyle that is not always conducive to being an actor, but this spoke to me.”

THE FUTURE
Both men are thrilled with the talent in the metropolitan area. “We are still meeting great actors,” Grayman says. “That’s important as we look for the talent. We have a wish list of shows we would like to do and finding the right actors means we can try to program shows based around the right talent. It all has to fall in line.” The other joy is that people seek out Grayman and Parkhurst. “We had about 100 actors at auditions last May. The interest is growing in what we do.” Next season should include four shows. “Our goal is to produce shows that people talk about all the way home from the theater,” Grayman says. “We are constantly planning good choices today so we can move toward a prosperous tomorrow.”

 

Posted in Performing | 1 Comment

Musical Theater Heritage Presents Sixth Annual Holiday Show

Review by Kellie Houx

Musical Theater Heritage’s A Spectacular Christmas is a smorgasbord of sassy and sublime singers and storytellers, sentimental holiday favorites, straightforward and uncomplicated sets, which when all are rolled together produces a truly satisfying theater experience.

Musical Theater Heritage is a strong force in the theatrical and musical world here in Kansas City. I appreciate their approach to presenting musical theater. There are almost no set and limited costumes and props. The singers, for the most part, sing to the audience and the fourth wall gets very flimsy. Just for a quick refresher, the fourth wall is the imaginary boundary at the front of the stage in traditional theater through which the audience sees the action and the actors. It is that demarcation that separates the audience from the play. Another joy is how close the audience gets to be from the cast. There’s an intimacy that can be so appealing.

1398385_677282808972338_1345471017_o 1496580_679470428753576_586004099_oFor the Christmas show this year, singers Lauren Braton, Bryan LaFave, Justin McCoy and Stefanie Wienecke led the program. Braton is a fan favorite. Vocally she has a range that moves from operatic to seemingly being the direct descendant of the voice of Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. By the way, I truly believe she is as sweet and kind as she is lovely and talented.

McCoy is one of my favorites of recent months. I met him at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s rehearsal of Ragtime. I knew he was going to be a success. Here’s a handsome man who can play piano, organ and sing. He’s got this deep voice that fills the space and a charm that seals any little leaks. If I can make my predictions, McCoy will continue to develop his talents and be another strong force in town.

Wienecke and I have not met in person, but I am huge fan of her composing skills. She wrote some original music for the She & Her production of A Feminine Ending. She sent in a recording of the first minute of a piece and I was enamored. Hearing her sing just proved that Kansas City is blessed with people who can sing, act and play an instrument. Both she and McCoy got a chance to sit at the piano usually reserved for the wonderful Jeremy Watson, assistant music director. He does a mean version of The Nutcracker as a solo piano piece. It’s downright amazing.

LaFave is a new voice for me. However, I sure hope to hear more. He’s got that sort of cool, higher registered voice that is enchanting.By the way, LaFave was struck by a car on Dec. 10. He suffered serious leg and head injuries. He required surgery and by all accounts he is going to be just fine. However, in the true spirit of the theater, “the show must go on.” An understudy has stepped in. However, to help LaFave, donations are being accepted to help cover his expenses.

The other charmers came in the form of storytellers Marilyn Lynch and Richard Alan Nichols. I really enjoyed Lynch; she’s still that sort of feisty broad who tells just the right sort of naughty tales. (Of course there are no saucy tales here, but I am sure she could tell them.) Nichols, who is 79, told a lovely version of MTH founder George Harter’s 19 Cents Worth of Christmas. The other wonderful story came from Brendan Hulla who recited the story of The Bicycle of Julio Gonzalez. Maggie Marx, Willa Hope Walberg and Jordan Haas round out the youthful choir participants.

So sure, it’s a Christmas show and the Christmas songs are familiar such as What Child is This, Deck the Halls, White Christmas and Carol of the Bells, but as my father noted, the arrangements are different and a little bit unorthodox. As an example, Baby, It’s Cold Outside updates the gender roles. Of course, my favorite piece ends the show, We Are Not Alone, written by Pepper Choplin. This a cappella piece speaks to the heart and soul. It’s atypical for a Christmas show, but so moving. I dare anyone not to be singing this when they leave the show.

Subsequently go see the show. It’s a wonderful two-hour excursion from the creative mind of Artistic Director Sarah Crawford, Executive Producer Chad Gerlt and Executive Director George Harter. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 12-15 and 19-22. The show times are 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Posted in Kellie Houx, Performing | Leave a comment

Stirring Up Excitement

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson plays during rehearsal of Special Concert on the 200th Anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin?s Birth at Warsaw PhilharmonicAs founder of The Friends of Chamber Music, Cynthia Siebert plans the organization’s season, much like preparing a multi-course meal that is mixed with decadent flavors. She has burgeoning artists whose fledgling careers are taking shape on the world stage to veterans whose deftness at their musical craft is second to none.

The Friends of Chamber Music’s mission statement is a combination of seven ideals including: nurturing and refreshing the soul and mind; binding the community together with shared values; stimulating the public imagination; engaging the audience in conversations; and upholding the highest artistic standards of excellence and elegance, truthfulness and authenticity.

Throughout the years, The Friends has developed and grown to comprise three series: The International Chamber Music Series, The Master Pianists Series, and The Early Music Series. The Master Pianists Series is considered by many in the industry to be one of the nation’s leading series of its kind, and The Friends serves as the region’s primary presenter of early music. In addition to concert presentations, The Friends has presented more than 1200 performances through its Music Connection program, and more than 100 performances with Rob Kapilow. And now they have added the Music Alliance Series with University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance.

The second half of the season starts up in late January with the Horszowski Trio. The trio of Jesse Mills, Raman Ramakrishnan, and Rieko Aizawa formed the trio in 2011. Aizawa was the last pupil of the legendary pianist, Mieczysław Horszowski (1892-1993), at the Curtis Institute. The Trio takes inspiration from Horszowski’s musicianship, integrity, and humanity. Like Horszowski, the Trio presents repertoire spanning the traditional and the contemporary. On Jan. 23, the trio will be performing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s White Recital Hall. They will also work with Conservatory students in various master classes. They will play trios composed by Faure, Wuorinen and Schumann. The concert is a partnership with The Friends of Chamber Music and the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.

On Jan. 31, pianist Garrick Ohlsson returns to the master pianist series. He rose to fame as the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition winner and is regarded as one of the world’s leading exponents of the music of Frédéric Chopin. He will perform Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, The Fountain of the Aqua Paola by Griffes and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor.

While Siebert gets excited about all the acts she brings to Kansas City, there is a sort of double treat with the FORTE film offering Feb. 4 as part of film series at The Tivoli and the related performance of the Venice Baroque Orchestra with Philippe Jaroussky on Valentine’s Day. This concert is a partnership with the Performing Arts Series at JCCC and will be at the Carlsen Center. The 1994 film Farinelli explores the rise of castrato Carol Broschi (known as Farinelli) who was one of the most famous opera singers of the 1700s. The Italian film features the soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. The film series has been around for a few years, Siebert says. “We have such a good friend in Jerry Harrington of the Tivoli. By pairing films and concerts, we find that we can give an audience the taste of a composer and some of the history. It whets people’s appetites and encourages them to attend the concert and then learn more on their own time.”

Singer Jaroussky, born and raised in France, studied piano and violin at the Paris Conservatory, but he soon found fame as a countertenor, having studied with soprano Nicole Fallen. His current recording, paired with renowned soprano Cecilia Bartoli, is of Farinelli’s arias composed by Nicola Porpora. “Handel wanted Farinelli in his operas so the history of these composers is wickedly fun to learn. If a male child showed vocal promise, they could be stars, Siebert says. Castrati were often from poor and desperate families, and were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or some other narcotic, or were killed by overlong compression of the carotid artery in the neck (intended to render them unconscious during the castration procedure.)

“So, clearly classical music has a rich history. It is full of stories and sensuous music,” she says. “It was written and performed by men of bone, blood and marrow. There is courage in the music. If people get to see and hear these attributes when they come to a program, all the better. I heard Philippe Jaroussky for the first time about six years ago. The flexibility and range of his voice is so beautiful. His voice is lyrical and crystalline.”

Siebert says she makes decisions based on many factors. Certain groups or acts tour infrequently. Others such as chamber orchestras are harder to plug into a schedule, she says. “I am also not one to program prodigies. I believe these young musicians have to gain maturity. As an example, I first heard pianist Ben Grosvenor when he was 14 years old. He’s 21 now. His concerts and recordings have seasoned him.”

Another Music Alliance concert is the modern percussion group So Percussion Feb. 5. “Percussion instruments are often relegated to the back of the orchestra. At one time, they led people into battle, inspiring them to fight. It’s how we assign roles and So Percussion is determined to change that. I am excited to bring them here. I really believe people will be surprised as this quartet as they create many of their own instruments. It’s a learning opportunity not only for the students at UMKC, but for the audience.”

The Friends of Chamber Music marks their 38th anniversary with this season. Siebert says she has learned and still has more to learn about presenting concerts. She relies on many local experts to help her. Dr. William Everett, a retired professor from the Conservatory provides many of the pre-concert talks. “He helps an audience relate to the music better. He makes the music, the composers and the musicians that much more accessible. I don’t want classical music to stay in an ivory tower and neither does Bill. However, neither of us wants to present watered-down information.”

Siebert, because she lives in the city, gets to hear from audience members. “I get to hear what people enjoy. A police officer attended one of the master pianist series concerts and played for two hours when he returned home. He found some inspiration. We all bring our personal knowledge to what we hear and see. Our excellent program notes help in providing the mix of history and insight. And while we look back, we continue to plan. As a matter of fact I am working on the programming for our 40th anniversary season too.”

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment

Kansas City’s Own, America’s Own Fountain City Brass Band

Fountain City Brass Band

Image Courtesy Fountain City Brass Band

Kansas City’s Fountain City Brass Band will be performing their Christmas concert, Twas the Night Before Christmas, at the Bell Cultural Events Center, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Olathe, KS, on Saturday evening, December 14, 2013, at 7:30 p.m.

The Fountain City Brass Band was founded in 2002 as a volunteer musical ensemble based in the greater Kansas City area, and draws its membership from around the United States. The band is committed to a mission of cultural enrichment through the presentation of concerts that are both entertaining and educational. They perform a wide variety of music including opera, jazz, popular, and classical music, bridging the gap between the various musical genres.

Winners of multiple competitions in North America and the Scottish Open in 2009, they recently won their sixth U.S. Open Band Championship in November, 2013. They strive—and succeed—to keep alive the British and early American heritage of brass bands.

Music Director, Dr. Joseph Parisi, is a Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. He serves as chair of music education/music therapy and associate director of bands as UMKC. He has been musical director and conductor of Fountain City Brass Band since 2006.

Dr. Lee Harrelson, the founder of the Fountain City Brass Band, serves as artistic director and principal euphonium player as well as a frequent arranger for the band. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Music at Missouri Western State University.

Twas the Night Before Christmas will feature a wide variety of holiday favorites from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and O Holy Night and selections from The Nutcracker and Santa Claustrophobia. There will also be a guest appearance by members of the Fountain City Youth Brass Academy. A free reception will follow the concert with a chance to meet and chat with members of the Fountain City Brass Band.

Bell Cultural Events Center is a prime location for a concert by this prestigious ensemble. The 541-seat auditorium is as close to acoustically perfect as possible, allowing for an amazing musical experience with Fountain City Brass Band. There is easy access to the facility and free parking.

Tickets for this performance, and other performances at Bell Cultural Events Center, may be purchased at the box office – 913-971-3636 – or online at bellcenter.mnu.edu.

Bell Cultural Events Center

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment

Les Misérables to Open the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre 2013-2014 Season

The international hit musical Les Misérables will open the 2013-2014 season at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” said JCC’s Director of Cultural Arts Krista Blackwood. “Les Misérables has been a worldwide smash for more than 25 years, but only just now became available to regional theaters. We jumped at the chance to finally bring it to our stage. Les Mis at the White Theatre will be a must see for the 2013-2014 theater season.”

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables is an epic and uplifting story about the survival of the human spirit. The magnificent score includes the classic songs I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Stars, Bring Him Home, Do You Hear the People Sing? One Day More, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Master Of The House and many more.

Les Mis Brochure Page for Web 2Making their directorial debut at the White Theatre are stage director Barb Nichols and music director Martha Risser.  The dynamic team has worked together many times in the past, most recently to produce the musical Chess at the Barn Players.  “The White Theatre is a tremendous space and lends itself well to the power and expanse of a show like Les Misérables,” Nichols says. “Directing a show in a new space always comes with new challenges, but working with such a talented staff and crew has set the stage for a really special performance.”

The production team also includes prop design by Bill Christie, who worked for American Heartland Theatre until it closed in August.  “Les Misérables is a beautiful, thrilling show being produced by a very talented and giving company in the exciting and compelling White Theatre,” Christie says.  “I am so pleased to have been asked to contribute to this beautiful effort and be part of such a proud theater family.”

The cast is chock-full of local talent.  “Most of these local actors have been preparing for these roles since they first saw Les Misérables on Broadway 25 years ago,” Blackwood says with a smile. “We’re proud to be able to highlight the vast pool of local talent in the Kansas City area as we bring this show to life.”

Les Misérables opens November 9 and runs through November 24.  For ticket information, go online to www.jcckc.org/lesmis or contact the White Theatre Box Office at 913-327-8054.

Production Team

Director – Barb Nichols

Music Director -Martha Risser

Asst. Music Director  -Michalis Koutsoupides

Choreographer – Ann McCroskey

Asst. Choreographer   -Heide Harrelson-Williams

Prop Design -Bill Christie

Cast

Jean Valjean – Robert J. Hingula

Javert -Paul Secor Morel

Fantine – Julie Kaul

Marius -  Joel Morrison

Eponine – Jennifer Cannady Thezan

Cosette – Katie Bartow

Enjolras – Brian King

Thenardier – Reed Uthe

Mme. Thenardier – Jeannette Bonjour

Combeferre    -Milan Naster

Courfeyrac – Rob Reeder

Feuilly Cory  -James Dowman

Grantaire – Alex Bigus

Lesgles – Josh Krueger

Provaire – James Wearing

Bishop / Ensemble – Russ Barker

Gavrouche – Ryan Sanford

Young Cosette – Olivia Loepp

Young Eponine – Margo Roberts

Sniper / Asst. S – Don Arnott

Joly – Brad Clay

Ensemble -Kathryn Major, Chuck Chambers, Chip Buckner, Ali Watson, Lauryn Hurley, Andrea Strickler, Ron McKeown, David Martin, Rebecca Brungardt, Whitney Harper and Katie Meador

Students – Chris Gleeson and Michael Peterson

Lovely Ladies -Meagan Edmonds, Jessica Loschke, Whitney Armstrong, Stasha Case, Cara Hampton, Trudy Hurley, Rebecca Johnston and Vanessa Harper

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment

Classically Contemporary

KCS-OwenCox-NovDec13-2The story of The Nutcracker has been around for almost 200 years. In the hands of the dancers and musicians with the Owen/Cox Dance Group, the fairy tale takes on a vibrancy of movement that captures tradition and melds it with whimsy and charm. Like ribbons of color and light, the performers find energy and fun in this avant-garde rendition.

The contemporary dance troupe Owen/Cox Dance Group returns to the original E.T.A. Hoffman story dating from 1816 for their inspiration. As with other stories, the Nutcracker comes to life and battles the Mouse King and then whisks the female lead, named Marie in this tale, to the magical kingdom populated by dolls. It was another 76 years when Tchaikovsky turned Alexander Dumas’ adaptation into the ballet.

For choreographer and dancer Jennifer Owen and composer and musician Brad Cox, the strains of Tchaikovsky are always part of their holiday work, but the similarities really end there. Going on its fifth year, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King musically falls into the hands of Cox and the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. The first act is the battle scene with the second act with the divertissements arranged by different members of the band including bassist Jeff Harshbarger, percussionist Pat Conway and Cox. The costumes are as unique as the modern jazz phrases that run through the show. These numbers are the various dances of the sweets.

The costumes are as unique as the modern jazz phrases that run through the show. Distinctive designer Peggy Noland designed the costuming. Artist Peregrine Honig and Ari Fish’s creations can also be seen in the ballet.

“The costumes really represent her imagination and not a specific historical time period,” Cox says. Owen says the costumes are bright with stripes and checkered patterns that may harken to the harlequins. “It’s a fun project each year,” Owen says. Cox enjoys some of the expectations in rehearsal. “We know the show, but there are always revisions and improvisations,” he says. “That helps keep everything fresh.”

Nine professional dancers and six students from the Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts along with 16 members of the band will take to the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College Dec. 21 and 22. “The students are often juniors and seniors. I am fortunate this year that I have three returning students. It’s a lot of material and requires an incredible amount of focus.”

The two are serving as artists-in-residence at Johnson County Community College and Owen is working with teachers on how to incorporate movement into lessons.

As with musical improvisation, live performances bring about the unknown. “You are only offering up a few performances, but each time is in that moment and there is often an element of surprise,” Owen says. Horn sculptor and instrumentalist Mark Southerland is also part of the dance. He portrays the Mouse King. The move to the Polsky Theatre has given Owen and Cox a chance to return the musicians to the stage. “They are an important element and we present them visually too,” Owen says. Cox serves as the onstage narrator, playing the iconic Drosselmeier, the mysterious godfather to the children in the ballet.

As far as changing choreography, Owen plans on tinkering with the Russian dance and Cox will alter the overture. Ironically the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City took on The Nutcracker as a musical concert two years before dance was added. Then Cox says the first three years had an almost workshop like atmosphere. “Nothing really is ever static,” he says.

Owen says she has a difficult time identifying her favorite piece in the production. “However, I really like the waltz of the snowflakes. I love the music for the section. I also like that all the characters are involved. It is a section that builds and resolves. It’s definitely a highlight of the production, and I never get tired of listening to it come to life onstage.”

The ballet has been performed at such venues as the Folly Theater and Union Station. “With the move to Johnson County, we can expand our audience. We are serving as the artists-in-residence there,” Cox says. Owen is part of the continuing education at the community college and works with teacher on the use of movement in class.

As with Cox playing the narrator, Owen dances. However, her roles have been diverse. “My favorite role to dance is the role of Fritz, who also gets to do the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2. It’s simply difficult to choose when dance in the production is my favorite,” she says. “I enjoy watching the dancers put themselves into the work and make each
day special.”

Those unique qualities are a sort of signature to all that Cox and Owen do, but they still pay homage to the traditional.

“The importance of The Nutcracker is the appeal, that fascination with the fundamental fairy tale,” Cox says. “The trials and tribulations are there and in that regard, it’s similar to a Beauty and the Beast sort of treatment as there is a curse. That curse ends if he gains the love of a woman. He acts nobly and gains the required faith. It is transformative.” Owen agrees, but sees Marie as the character she understands. “This is a girl coming of age. She is passing through childhood and growing.”

In the future, Owen/Cox could tour the productions more. Expansion may be the name of the game as Owen and Cox have been partners not only in creating performing art, but in marriage too. “When you see our version of The Nutcracker, you will see things that you recognize and love. However, you will see many of them through a new filter. That keeps them fresh and exciting,” Cox says. Owens, flowing into her husband’s thoughts, calls their version accessible. “It is entertaining for all ages. There’s not a boring moment with the variety in music and choreography. It’s a thrilling and enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours during the holiday season.”

Other coming programs for the Owen/Cox Dance group include The Sonata Project with another collaboration with the Bach Aria Soloists. The performance April 5 will be at the Folly and look at dances teamed to the music of Maurice Ravel, Mark O’Connor and Sonata No. 2 by J.S. Bach. The Memory Palace is a performance to be scheduled in June and teams Owen/Cox with New Orleans cellist Helen Gillet. Again friends Southerland and Honig will join the performance. Cox is also working on scoring three silent films.•

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment

Dance Revelations

Ailey II Residency 2013, presented by Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, comes in to the community including performances Oct. 10-12 at The Folly Theater. Alvin Ailey saw Kansas City as a second home for his company almost 30 years ago. He laid down a mission and vision that continues today. The mission is “to make dance accessible to all people by presenting the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey II, teaching young people critical life skills through dance and modeling interracial and multicultural community partnerships.” The vision reflects Ailey’s personal vision to see a diverse community united by dance to inspire and change lives.

“The calendar includes the school programs, adult fitness classes, Ailey Trio and Setting the Stage, the wrap-up concert, Ailey Camp in the summer, and a partnership with the Upper Room that aids 3,000 kids at 18 sites,” says Executive Director Tyrone Aiken.
The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey has a broad reach. First there is a 25-year collaboration with the Kansas City, Mo. Schools. The Kansas City, Kan. School District is a more recent collaboration as is the Paseo High School for the Performing Arts. “We provide support to the dance department,” he says.

Next year marks the KCFAA’s 30th year. Aiken and the team have begun working with Michael Kaiser, who currently serves as president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Kaiser began his career as the general manager of the Kansas City Ballet In 1985. Subsequent jobs have included executive directorships with the Royal Opera Company, American Ballet Theatre, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Foundation.

As an arts management consultant, Kaiser has advised such institutions as The Jewish Museum, the Market Theatre (Johannesburg), Detroit Symphony, Glimmerglass Opera, New York City Opera, and many others. Aiken hopes that Kaiser can help reignite and re-energize the organization. “We are beginning this process. We will look at how we will continue to develop talent and exposure through more classes.”

Education and Artistic Programs Director Michael Joy says the need is to be ever-evolving with all the programs. With the Ailey Camp, Joy knows students are different and he and the teachers are mindful. “We have to find the ways to reach them and excite them.” This past year’s camp ran for four weeks and students explored dance, creative writing and drumming. The Missouri camp had 80 campers and the Kansas camp had 70.

“The underlying goal is to help create and shape world citizens,” Aiken says. “For most students, camp can be their chance to help inspire their imaginations and dreams. So often, they don’t stray far from the neighborhoods they live in, but we are hoping to spark that interest to see the world. The arts we offer are valuable to show that the world is bigger and these classes can provide that path for discovery and investigation.”

The design of the camp is to give a different experience than school, Joy says. “The teachers and artists who come in to help also share what they do and model behavior. Kids see everything we do and if we want them to be better people, we have to take that chance to challenge students and give them opportunities to dance,” Joy says. The future could hold expanded opportunities in partnerships and places to dance. “We also hope that there may be better access to public transit. If the street car plan moves forward, we need to be on the route,” Aiken says.

As part of a developing community, the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey wants to be part of the conversation about the arts and the benefits, especially in arts education. “In third grade, I started playing clarinet and joined the orchestra in fourth grade. It taught me a lot about working together; art makes a different impact that can stretch experiences on for years,” Aiken says. “For me, everyone is an artist. Art is freedom to imagine, think and breathe. The other joy is the shared experience with others who join in the arts as a community. We can always be inspired by the ways people present themselves.”

He says the way people participate in culture and expression is critical. Alvin Ailey helps with this. “There is enrichment and a way to learn about the American experience through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre,” Aiken explains. Ailey II is universally renowned for merging the spirit and energy of the country’s best young dance talent with the passion and creative vision of today’s most outstanding emerging choreographers. Founded in 1974, the company embodies Ailey’s pioneering mission to establish an extended cultural community that provides dance performances, training, and community programs for all people.

Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell leads the group. Aiken says the group may bring in Ailey’s own Revelations. Using African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul. Aiken suspects other numbers will include pieces from minority choreographers mixing ballet, jazz and Afro-Caribbean dance with hip-hop.

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment

Seasons Open with Vigor, Humor and Naughtiness

There’s something almost magical as the calendar year rolls toward September and October. Opening seasons for performing arts groups across the metropolitan area are getting ready for opening season. Some artistic directors and spokespeople for various venues offer their thoughts about the opening show or the shows early on that might just stand out for the audience.

Olathe Civic Theatre Association
Company by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
Directed by Jason Coats
Sept. 6-Sept. 8, Sept. 13-15, Sept. 20-22
The Olathe Civic Theatre Association, renamed from Olathe Community, kicks off its 40th season with Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY.

Coats says, “COMPANY is considered by many to be the first ‘concept’ musical. That is, there is a concept, or idea, that drives the show forward, rather than a linear plot. Events occur out of ‘real time.’ In our version, these occur in the main character Bobby’s memory, as he tries to process the consequences of turning 35 and being single. These memories, and the commentary that surrounds them, push Bobby through his personal crisis. The music was first produced in 1970 and was very reflective of the time’s culture. When it was revived on Broadway in 1995, some revisions were made to make it feel more current. There is still controversy among some as to whether the themes of COMPANY are too unique to the 70s culture to be re-set, or are universal and can surpass time restrictions. OCTA’s production is set in the present, and subtle elements of the design help accomplish this without altering the show itself.”

And Coats wants people to hear a jazz club with the sounds similar to Vince Guraldi Trio. “The orchestrations are going to lean this way for this show,” he says.

Unicorn Theatre
Venus in Fur
Sept. 4-29
KcStudioVenus NEWTo kick off the 40th season at the Unicorn, Director Cynthia Levin takes the 2012 Tony-nominated play and puts it on the Jerome Stage as the season opener. Actors Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary play the actress and playwright who take an audition to a whole new level.

“I will continue the mission to find the best, most interesting and most provocative plays. The trick is to grab them when I find them. First and foremost, I fall in love with the plays and then I go about getting the rights. With Venus in Fur, it was one of the first plays I got for the 2013-2014 season and I always like the opening show to be provocative.  It’s not the typical Broadway show, but when I saw it, 15 minutes in, I knew I had to do the play. Two-character plays are interesting and for these two characters, you have an actress who seems to be ill-prepared for an audition, but slowly through the play, this seemingly powerless woman shows how to use sex and power. It’s shifting roles and male and female relationships and as things get brought up, they are a surprise to the audience and to the characters.”

Levin knew she had to have two actors who trust each other and her. “I have worked with Vanessa and Rusty worked several times so I wanted to dive right in. … I have been doing this for 35 years because of what we get to learn about behaviors and situations. The journey is so exciting with this play. It’s not a safe and easy play, but it’s the perfect Unicorn Theatre show.”

City in Motion
Dance in the Park
Sept. 7
Artistic Co-Director Andrea Skowronek says City in Motion’s professional company has started its season with the Dance in the Park. “We are co-producers with five neighborhood associations – Volker, Roanoke, Valentine, Coleman Highlands, and West Plaza. The show in Roanoke Park marks our 15th anniversary. It’s really special because we have gotten to know the great people of the neighborhoods and because it is a free program.”

The dance program brings in different ethnic groups to offer up their cultural dances, Skowronek says. “In the past, we have had West African dance, Flamenco and Indian. We also had an aerial group, the Moon Drop Circus. It’s a way for local groups to get exposure.” The average attendance is about 1,000 people. “Some people may not be able to afford a dance performance, but with the wide variety of dance, we can inspire people, perhaps even inspire them to take a dance class. It’s a feel-good event to see all these people in the community enjoying the performance.” The children’s dance theater also performs, she says.

Posted in Performing | Leave a comment