‘Lots of music’ enlivens KC Rep’s 2024-25 Season

Alexis J. Roston as Nina Simone and Matthew Harris as Sam in KCRep’s 2024 production of “Nina Simone: Four Women” (photo by Don Ipock)

Upcoming productions include the acoustic folk musical “Once” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”

Stuart Carden, KCRep artistic director (Stuart Carden, KCRep artistic director)

Almost as soon as Stuart Carden became Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s fifth artistic director in 2019, he faced an unprecedented problem. It was called COVID-19. Shows were cancelled, the Rep closed its theaters to the public, and plans were put on hold.

But Carden persevered. He established an annual outdoor Halloween show, which was a first for the Rep. And he launched an ambitious plan to build stronger ties with the community. To do that, he programs one fully staged show for Rep audiences before sending a stripped-down version on tour to community centers, churches, libraries and similar venues. It reflects something Carden believes in deeply: That the company needs to reach out to under-served communities on both sides of the state line.

The show this year was “Nina Simone: Four Women,” a play with music that reflected the iconic jazz singer and her music — which includes powerful songs of the Civil Rights era, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” It turned out to be the Rep’s second-best-selling show of all time. In the coming season, the production slated for a community tour will be “Broke-ology,” the late Nathan Louis Jackson’s family drama set in Kansas City, Kansas. After the Rep production closes, a bare-bones version will tour in underserved communities, including KCK, where Jackson grew up.

So here’s the Rep season (based on shows that had been announced at press time).

Carden will direct the first production of the season: “Once,” the acoustic folk musical based on a 2007 independent movie about two young songwriters who meet, fall in love, create music together and finally go their separate ways. The movie was adapted as a stage musical, which became a hit in London, New York and on the road.

Carden’s resume, it should be noted, includes other acoustic shows rooted in folk music.

“I’ve been in love with this piece ever since it premiered,” Carden said. “It’s a piece that for me as an artistic director really hits a sweet spot… This is one of the best of all time, the way this play is constructed and incorporating music and making it an essential part of the story.”

Carden added that he plans to build a cast with local musicians as well as some out-of-towners.

“I want as many Kansas City musicians as possible,” he said.

The show runs Sept. 3-22 at the Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus.

Shamika Cotton and David Emerson Toney in KCRep’s 2010 production of Nathan Louis
Jackson’s “Broke-ology” (photo by Don Ipock)

Next will be another play with music, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” Lanie Robertson’s imagined final performance by legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. This will mark the second time the Rep has staged the show. The first production was in 1992.

Carden said the production will include a live jazz trio.

“It really stands out … just how well written this exploration of Billie Holiday’s last concert is,” Carden said. “This is a fascinating portrait of her last performance in her career and battling the demons she had experienced and lived with. It’s very well crafted.”

No director has been announced, nor has an actor/singer to play the lead.

Nathan Louis Jackson, KC Rep’s playwright in residence from 2013 to 2019 (KC Rep)

“In this role you’ve got to have an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary interpreter,” Carden said. The show runs Oct. 8-27 at Copaken Stage, the Rep’s downtown venue.

The third show of the Rep’s season will be “Broke-ology,” by Nathan Louis Jackson, who was for several years the Rep’s resident playwright and was 44 when he died. This will mark the Rep’s second production of the family drama rooted in memory.

Carden said Jackson’s wife, Megan Mascorro-Jackson, was actively involved.

“We’re working in really close partnership with his wife, who has been involved in this idea from the very beginning,” Carden said. “Megan says this is Nathan’s most personal play.”

The play’s theme, Carden said, is clear: “What you gain, and what you give up, by staying in your hometown.”

The production will run Feb. 11-March 2, 2025, at Copaken Stage.

Jason Chanos, associate artistic director – KCRep/UMKC Theatre Partnership (KCRep)

At press time, the fourth and final show had not been announced. But Carden said he hoped to present an intergenerational piece that would be “really delightful and fun” with “lots of humor and lots of music.”

Beyond the regular season will be the Rep’s annual holiday production of “A Christmas Carol,” which is easily the most popular show of any year for the company. Jason Chanos will again direct an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella written by playwright Geoff Elliott. The show, filled with music, humor and pathos, will again be anchored by veteran actor Gary Neal Johnson, who has played various parts in the show since 1982. Before moving into the role of Scrooge, Johnson had played Charles Dickens and other roles. “A Christmas Carol” runs Nov. 21-Dec. 24 at the Spencer Theatre.

And COVID? The Rep website tells us that the company continues to monitor community health data, and urges anyone with symptoms or who simply doesn’t feel well to stay home. Masks are encouraged but not required.

For more information and tickets, go to www.kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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