NY based critic Peter Filichia on MTWichita

Music Theatre of Wichita: Where the Guys Are

I never got his last name, but I did learn that his first name was Earl.

His wife’s name I didn’t catch. What I did discover, however, was that they’d celebrated their 50th anniversary on May 25th – “and we’ve been coming here for about 15 years,” said Earl. “It’s one of the things we look forward to most each summer.”

And get this, folks: he’s talking about seeing musicals.

Thanks to Earl and his wife, I had a much better intermission talk than the ones the on-stage theatergoers experience in Me and Juliet. But I always do when I come to Music Theatre of Wichita, where attendees are quick to spend the interval sharing their enthusiasm for what they’re seeing. It’s happened each of the eight times I’ve come to this wondrous organization that Wayne Bryan has been heading for 25 years.

As always, I attended a Saturday evening performance before catching both Sunday offerings. This year, the show was 9 to 5, in the newer, leaner version of the Dolly Parton-Patricia Resnick musical that had briefly played Broadway in 2009. The estimable Paula Leggett Chase portrayed Violet Newstead, the secretary who had been quadruple-bypassed when her boss Mr. Hart was handing out promotions. The winsome Darcie Roberts was Judy Bernly, the housewife who had to go to work after being dumped by her husband for a younger woman. And then there was the cute Jenni Barber playing Doralee, the trusting secretary who can’t understand why her co-workers won’t socialize with her. She didn’t know that they assumed she was sleeping with the nefarious Hart.

What fun it was to watch Mark Madama’s fine production that moved with the speed of summer lighting. But I just as much savored turning around from time to time and taking a peek at the audience. The wives were smiling, yes, but the husbands were grinning just as broadly.

Needless to say, this doesn’t happen everywhere. But Music Theatre of Wichita is one place in the world where I find the husbands take to musicals just as much as their wives do. Even before the show begins, the lobby is filled with men and women whose faces show equal amounts of joyous anticipation. I must assume that some husbands aren’t remotely interested and are dragged here by angry wives (“We’re going, and that’s that!”). But I’ve never seen that walk-to-the-gallows look on any man’s face. And understand that most of these guys are big, beefy and corn-fed.

So Earl is not an atypical male MTW theatergoer. Well, in a way he is, because he and his wife live three hours away in Dodge City. And yet, at least three times a summer, they get out of Dodge for a day and see an MTW musical. To spend the time, gas and wear-and-tear on the car tells you how important this theater is to their lives.

I’m not implying that Earl and all the other men are rabid musical theater aficionados. Most of them undoubtedly don’t know The Man Who Came to Dinner from The Girl Who Came to Supper, or Billy Dee Williams from Billy DeWolfe. When someone mentions the 2008 champions, the U of Kansas Jayhawks basketball team must come to their minds and not In the Heights.

I’m not even saying that these guys look forward to the Tonys each year. But if they’d tuned in last year, I suspect that they would have been confused by the opening number that proclaimed that theater is “Not Just for Gays Anymore.” That musical theater could be so marginalized and appeal mainly to one group might well be news to them. Doesn’t everyone get a kick out of musicals the way we do?

Yes, the men in MTW’s audiences simply see musicals as another form of entertainment that pleases them. They enjoy sports, sitcoms, movies, blue movies – and musicals, too. For these guys, a great big Broadway show is just another way of having a good time. And so, all three performances of 9 to 5 were greeted with as much hearty masculine laughter as higher-pitched feminine giggles.

9 to 5 has a minor character named Margaret who is an out-and-out lush. Once Violet, Doralee and Judy take over the company by kidnapping the evil Hart, they put her in rehab. Near show’s end, she returns looking tan, rested and ready. On Sunday evening, the man sitting behind me exclaimed in glee “Margaret!” as soon she’d entered. It wasn’t the sound of someone who’d seen it coming, but someone who’d figured it out and had recognized her through the makeover. In other words, he’d been playing rapt attention.

Everyone did. There was a scene in which Violet returned to the office from shopping. Among her purchases were a box of sugar substitute for Hart’s coffee and a similar-looking box of rat poison that was meant to solve an office infestation. When Violet mistook one for the other, both feminine and masculine moans were heard at all three performances. These women – and men – were involved.

“Where is my hat and rope?” Doralee said during her fantasy sequence in which she wanted to to hogtie Hart. Suddenly, both items appeared on poles from the stage left wing. The women – and men – chuckled in approval, because they loved how such things are allowed to happen in musicals.

Everyone regardless of sex seemed to be waiting for every punch line and appreciated it when it came. A scene didn’t have to end with a song to get applause; a simple blackout started the clapping. But at Sunday afternoon’s performance, after a song had ended and the orchestra began to play scene-change music, I saw that the man next to me was tapping his hand on his knee in rhythm. That each of the three performances got a standing ovation won’t surprise you, but would you have assumed that a man started it each time? This doesn’t mean that the women weren’t into what was going on. After the show, as the couples filed out, many husbands and wives were grinning at each other and sashaying to the out-music.

And we’re talking about quite a few people, for The Century II Performing Arts Center has 2,000 seats. Most of them are filled for the seven performances that each musical receives. By and large, the productions are truly homegrown, down to the sets and costumes. While Bryan occasionally rents such goods from another theater, more often he’s leasing to other theaters his sets and costumes from previous productions.

Some might cynically say, “Big deal, they’re doing business. What else is there to do in Wichita?” Probably more than we might think, even if Wichita’s one and only burlesque theater is now closed. But here’s the point: why is it that a city in Kansas is able to get thousands upon thousands of a week to come and see a musical? Why isn’t it happening everywhere?

Why doesn’t every city have an audience that takes such civic pride from a theater? As soon as Karen L. Robu, playing Hart’s suck-up Roz, entered at each of the three performances, I heard a purr of audience approval and recognition. “Yes,” said Bryan, who’s very happy for his homegrown star, now in her 16th season at MTW. “Karen was our Rose in Gypsy. I was thinking about getting someone from New York to do it, but I knew that she’d be just as good as anyone I could find there. And she was.”

Wichita theatergoers also take pride in knowing that they’re a training ground for so many young performers. Rarely does any Broadway musical open without at least one MTW alumnus. Next time you’re passing by the Imperial and run into Kelli O’Hara, ask her about MTW, where she got her start in Brigadoon and Where’s Charley? The only thing is, you’d better not be in a rush, because O’Hara will tell you at length and in no uncertain terms what an important building block Bryan and MTW were in her multi-Tony-nominated career. Ditto Kristin Chenoweth, who was a beedle-deedle-dee Cabaret girl in 1991.

This year, Madama took a big chance by casting Ryan Vasquez as Joe, the thirtysomething who takes a romantic interest in the older Violet.  But Vasquez is a mere 19. Playing against Broadway veteran Chase – she was in the final cast of the original A Chorus Line – might have intimidated many young men, but Vasquez held stage admirably with her. He certainly came across as someone in his thirties.

Younger kids benefit from MTW, too. Before each performance a Teen Choir performs songs that preview upcoming shows. The kids used to sing in the lobby, but the event became so popular and congested that now they get to perform on stage. Dozens of alumni from the Teen Choir have eventually become genuine cast members in mainstage shows.

And even younger kids are welcomed. The recent production of Fiddler had 76 in the cast, what with all the tots who learned at an early age that MTW is a great place to spend time. Last year, 98 were in The Music Man. “And,” said Bryan, “we even went as high as 104 in The King and I.”

And so, Bryan has made MTW The Place to Be and The Thing to Do in Wichita. But none of this would be happening if the product didn’t appeal to his public. Long ago, Bryan found out what they liked, and how they liked it, and he’s been giving it to them just that way for a quarter century. “I can do one slightly maverick show each summer,” he says. “They’ll take that. But I can’t do two. Then they wouldn’t be happy.”

Kansas is a red state, after all, and Bryan doesn’t want his patrons seeing red. And while many of us outside Wichita may be surprised to hear that Bryan considers the relatively benign 9 to 5 as this season’s maverick, he knows his audience.

(Does he ever. While Dolly Levi sings hello to Harry, Louie, Manny, Danny and Stanley, I count seven waiters that she doesn’t address by name. Stand in the lobby before and after a show, and see how many dozens of patrons that Bryan can easily identify. Believe me, his batting average is substantially higher than Mrs. Levi’s.)

And Bryan wants all to return. As a result, all season brochures and advertising warned that 9 to 5 was PG-13. And just in case the people that had already taken their seats had missed that, Bryan took the stage 15 minutes before curtain to again stress the PG-13 rating. He also mentioned the salty language and the plot’s reliance on recreational drug use. “We, however,” he stressed, “are not condoning anything on this stage but singing and dancing.”

To be frank, the type of laughter I heard from the crowd at all three performances suggested that these people weren’t offended when our three heroines shared a “doobie,” as the script chummily called it. Indeed, the knowing sound of their laughter suggested that they had been no strangers to the weed in their wayward youths.

Throughout the show, I heard men laugh with the sound that let me know that they were concurrently wiping their eyes that were wet from laughter. But I also heard them and the women enjoy seeing the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Hart get his comeuppance every time it happened. Both male and female voices could be heard to moan after Violet complained and Hart muttered, “Must be her time of the month.”

Both men and women showed that they were for fair play in marriage, too. In the first act, Judy would have done anything to get her wayward husband back, but in the second, she wouldn’t have done anything to take him back. After Roberts sang that he should “Get Out and Stay Out,” she got cheers of NFL proportions from all. It wasn’t just Roberts’ delivery of the song; they were proud of her character for moving on.

Chase would have got a similar earthquake of applause had Parton given Violet an eleven o’clock “Rose’s Turn.” The role really demands it, but Resnick instead gave Violet a speech where she told the Big Boss that she and the other secretaries weren’t getting ahead because “We’re not the guys. We’re just the little guys.” Now that should have been a song, and a stunner. Even without it, however, Chase was marvelous in the role and got applause after the harangue – in equal parts from men and women.

And if we needed any additional proof that Earl came to love this medium, we got it when he said, “Because of here, I even got into doin’ some community theater.” There was great satisfaction in his voice when he informed me that “I delivered the penguins to Sheridan Whiteside.” So maybe men here do know the difference between The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Girl Who Came to Supper.

— Peter Filichia

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