KC’s 2016-17 theater season offers more shows and more variety than ever.

As Kansas City theater companies open their 2016-2017 seasons, here’s what subscribers and prospective theatergoers can expect: Drama. Comedy. Dramedy (or, if you prefer, tragicomedy). Classics (or, if you prefer, old chestnuts). Musicals, new and old. And no shortage of local, regional and world premieres.

Some shows may strike you as safe and conservative, others as bold, risky and surprising. Some choices are smart, others dubious. But the bottom line is: theatergoers will have more choices than ever before.

Theater in Kansas City has sustained remarkable growth in the last 10 years and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

This season veteran actor/director Damron Russel Armstrong expects to open the musical Dreamgirls as the inaugural production of his new company, Kansas City Black Repertory Theatre. Armstrong says the show will open Labor Day weekend and run for three weekends at the Paseo Academy. Later he plans to stage Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III in collaboration with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

Kansas City Irish Theatre, founded by Katie Gilchrist, is also expected to come online. And another new group, Tradewinds Arts, is dedicated to pan-Asian theater and performing arts.

Now, theater comes in all shapes and sizes in the Kansas City area. Theater for grown-ups. Theater for kids. Cabaret theater. Drag-queen theater. We can see everything from G-rated to R-rated entertainment on local stages. Needless to say, the quality can vary widely.

So this article focuses on one question: What am I, your humble theater critic, looking forward to in the coming season?

With that in mind, I must admit I have high hopes for Evita at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. I never saw the original Broadway production but I have, like many, sat through under-rehearsed local productions and the occasional under-nourished tour. Artistic director Eric Rosen gives us a chance to see a professionally produced version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice classic in the relatively intimate Spencer Theatre.

Evita is by far the smartest show Rice and Lloyd Webber ever wrote together. It has cogent things to say about politics and populism. And its story arc — a modern fable about a radio actress who rose from poverty to become the beloved First Lady of Argentina — is irresistible. The show runs Sept. 9-Oct. 2 at the Spencer on the UMKC campus.

The Rep follows up with another piece on my must-see list — Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Pakistani-American playwright, novelist and filmmaker, wrote The Who and the What, a poignant comic drama about a Pakistani family in Atlanta which received a crisp, memorable production at the Rep in 2014.

The title of The Invisible Hand references Adam Smith’s 18th-century theory that pursuit of self-interest can have unintended social benefits. In the play, Akhtar uses the kidnapping of an American Citibank officer by Pakistani militants to explore international terrorism and finance as the captive teaches his captors how to make money in the international markets by manipulating offshore accounts and betting both for and against a company’s profit potential. The Invisible Hand runs Oct. 14-Nov. 13 at Copaken Stage. To be directed by Rep staff member Jerry Genochio.

Following the Rep’s obligatory holiday shows — A Christmas Carol and Santaland Diaries — the Rep will stage a new musical, The Fabulous Fitches, a purportedly Broadway-bound musical in the style of a 1930s screwball comedy and billed by the Rep as the “largest theatrical production in our history.” That alone is enough to get my attention. The show, directed by Josh Prince, runs Jan. 27-Feb. 19, 2017, at the Spencer.

Following that, Rosen will direct British playwright Nick Payne’s highly-regarded Constellations, a two-character, one-act piece that could be described as a metaphysical romance. It runs March 3-April 2 at the Copaken. Then, back at the Spencer, audiences will be invited to see another production of Lorraine Hansberry’s familiar but worthy A Raisin in the Sun, which the Rep staged in 2006. The director is yet to be announced. The show runs March 24-April 16, 2017.

The Rep closes out the season with two new plays performed in repertory — What Would Crazy Horse Do? by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse making her Rep debut, and Man in Love by Christina Anderson. Marissa Wolf, the Rep’s director of new works, will stage Anderson’s play. Anderson, a native of Kansas City, Kan., based in New York, began writing for the stage when she was just a kid and has now seen her work produced at theaters around the country.

The two plays run in repertory April 28-May 28.

For more information on the Rep season, call 816-235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.

The show on the Unicorn Theatre season I’m most looking forward to? An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a young African-American playwright who has adapted an 1859 play, The Octoroon, which, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sought to create sympathy for slaves in the South.

Jacobs-Jenkins uses the material to challenge perceptions of race and enduring stereotypes. The New York production used a multi-racial cast in which black actors played white characters and vice versa. It sounds like the kind of audacious theater we see too seldom. The show runs Nov. 30-Dec. 26.

The Unicorn season also includes Robert Askin’s acerbic comedy and Broadway hit, Hand to God (Sept. 7-Oct. 2), about a demonically possessed puppet who creates a havoc in a conservative Texas church; The Way We Get By (Oct. 19-Nov. 13), a relationship drama by the often controversial Neil LaBute; and Application Pending (Dec. 7-26), by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, described as a one-woman comedy about “the cutthroat world of kindergarten admissions.”

In 2017 the Unicorn season continues with Danai Gurira’s Broadway hit Eclipsed (March 8-April 2), a drama depicting the plight of women in the Liberian civil war; Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife (Jan. 25-Feb. 19), a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere”; I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard (April 19-May 14), by Halley Feiffer, daughter of Jules Feiffer; and the drag-queen musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert (May 31-June 25).

Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org.

Kansas City Actors Theatre, newly ensconced in their permanent new headquarters at Union Station, kicked off its season in August with a production of I’m Not Rappaport and continues with A Streetcar Named Desire (Sept. 7-25), the classic drama by Tennessee Williams receiving its first professional production locally since Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre staged it in 2007.

This play takes on a life of its own when you have committed actors. And KCAT’s track record includes superb productions of American classics, such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2013. Cinnamon Schultz plays the doomed Blanche DuBois opposite Thomas Gorrebeeck as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar. Bree Elrod plays Stella and Matt Rapport appears as Mitch. Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, directs.

The KCAT season continues with My Old Lady (Jan. 11-29) by Israel Horovitz, one of the country’s most prolific playwrights, who nonetheless is rarely produced in Kansas City. Darren Sextro directs David Fritts, Kathleen Warfel and Jan Rogge in this piece about an unsuccessful novelist who inherits a Paris apartment along with two eccentric residents.

The KCAT season concludes with The Realistic Joneses (May 24-June 11) by Will Eno. John Rensenhouse directs Brian Paulette and a cast yet to be announced in this offbeat piece about two families who live next door to each other and both share the name Jones.

Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.

Spinning Tree Theatre, founded by Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, has become a formidable creative force in its relatively short life. The company launched its sixth season of plays and musicals in August with a production of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill starring Nedra Dixon as Billie Holiday.

The season continues with the musical Nine, by composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and playwright Arthur Kopit. This show, based on a classic film by Federico Fellini, features Vigthor Zophoniasson, Lauren Braton and Judy Simmons. Drayman directs. The production runs Nov. 3-30 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St.

In January the company reprises its 2013 production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) again starring Charles Fugate with Bob Linebarger playing several supporting roles. The show will be at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central in Penn Valley Park.

Last but not least, Spinning Tree concludes its season in May with a show I’ve been waiting for a local company to produce literally for years: Assassins, the audacious 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman that takes an acerbic view of presidential assassins and wannabes. Sondheim’s music is mesmerizing and Weidman’s book finds a way for John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Guiteau, among others, to share the stage.

Assassins runs May 24-June 11 at Just Off Broadway.

Call 816-569-5277 of go to www.spinningtreetheatre.com.

The Living Room maintains its profile as an adventurous and bold downtown theater company. It opens its season in October with Annapurna by Sharr White. The two-character, one-act piece, about a divorced couple making peace a couple of decades after the fact, ran on Broadway in 2014. The production features Vanessa Severo and Charles Fugate and will be directed by Rusty Sneary.

The Living Room’s annual Writer’s Den will run periodically from November through January and will include a workshop production of Victor Wishna’s Shearwater, a week of plays by Ron Simonian, and No Sleep November, the company’s annual 24-hour playwriting festival.

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe, a 1920s-style musical by local theater artists Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, will receive an expanded, full-length production in May. The show was first staged at the KC Fringe Festival in 2015. Anyone who follows the trio’s Friend Dog Studios videos knows to expect the unexpected.

And in June, Kyle Hatley (KC Rep’s former associate artistic director now based in Chicago) returns with another of his typically audacious theater projects: The Tragedy of Macbeth, a new adaptation of the Bard’s Scottish Play, written and directed by Hatley with a cast of three — Hatley and Natalie Liccardello playing all the roles and Sean Hogge providing improvised musical accompaniment. Hatley won me over years ago by constantly thinking outside the box, and this show sounds true to form.

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre acquired the old Warwick Theatre near 39th and Main Streets and is in the process of rehabbing the space. If all goes according to plan, artistic director Karen Paisley will present The Man of La Mancha there next August. Until then, shows will continue be staged at its current home at 3614 Main St.

The MET’s season includes Steve Martin’s whimsical Picasso at the Lapine Agile, Sept. 8-24; Ira Levin’s vintage Broadway thriller Deathtrap, Oct. 20-Nov. 5; Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, described as a “science-history play,” Jan. 12-28; and Preston Lane’s Tennessee Playboy, March 30-April 15.

The one I’m most anxious to see is August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean in its first local professional production. Wilson’s poetic drama deals with history, fate and spirituality and is part of his legendary 10-play cycle depicting African-American life in the 20th century. The show runs Feb. 23-March 11.

Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.

Touring musicals are far from my preferred form of entertainment, but the Theater League/Broadway Across America joint season offers one show worth our attention: Fun Home, which will play the Kauffman Center May 30-June 4.

Fun Home, by composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron, is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir about her relationship with her gay father and her efforts to understand him. The show claimed the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical. Kron’s book and Tesoro’s score also won Tony Awards.

The Broadway series also includes The Illusionists, Nov. 15-20; The Phantom of the Opera, Feb. 8-19; Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, March 28-April 2; and 42nd Street, May 2-7.

The series is also offering The Book of Mormon, Dec. 6-11, as a season add-on, and Stomp, Jan. 28-29 as an add-on or swap option.

Call 800-776-7469 or go to www.theaterleague.org.

The summer musical next year at the New Theatre will be Million Dollar Quartet, an evocation of the legendary meeting in Sun Studios of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. This was a hit on Broadway and on the road. And the New Theatre always does a bang-up job with its musicals.

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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