We’ve all heard of The Seven Modern Wonders of the World, but what are The Seven Modern Wonders of the THEATRICAL World?
Music Theatre Wichita is one.
There are 48 cities in the country with a larger population than Wichita, Kansas. So why isn’t there, say, a Music Theatre Mesa, Music Theatre Milwaukee or Music Theatre Memphis? Those bigger cities can’t boast of one organization that locally produces musicals, annually requires 300 employees and pretty much fills a mammoth theater night after night.
This year, Music Theatre Wichita auditioned 1,092 performers. “And here are the ones we chose,” said producing artistic director Wayne Bryan before each performance of his five 2016 summer productions.
Bryan’s the main reason for the success. In 29 seasons, he’s found out what Wichitans liked and how they liked it, and has continued to give it to them just that way. (This season’s offerings ranged from 1943’s OKLAHOMA! to 2012’s NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT.)
More importantly, he’s made Music Theatre Wichita The Place to Go and The Thing to Do in this city of 385,000. How else to explain an annual attendance of 65,000 which includes – yes! – heterosexual husbands who look thrilled to be there?
Not all 65,000 come from Wichita. Take me, for example. I flew in the last weekend of the season when it would be easier to secure a seat – because Bryan had decided to add an extra week to MAMMA MIA! Getting a ticket to one of the usual seven performances of each show isn’t all that easy, because Bryan has a subscription base of 70% (yes, 70, girls and boys, 70).
So understand that NO tickets had been sold when the extra week of MAMMA MIA! was announced. And yet, at the three performances I attended, the houses sported more people here than HAMILTON does.
(All right, to be fair, the Century II Theatre does seat 2,130, approximately 500 more than the Richard Rodgers.)
Bryan’s audiences come expecting a good time and aren’t the slightest bit surprised when they get it. During MAMMA MIA’s title song, a chorus literally came out of the woodwork (the ensemble opened the shutters on Donna Sheridan’s Greek taverna), sparking the theatergoers to laugh indulgently. Having these ensemble members suddenly want to join in the song makes no logical sense, but the audience’s loud laughter suggests that no one even cares.
These theatergoers have long been educated on musical theater conventions and welcome every one.
Look what happened after Donna’s daughter Sophie (the excellent Lexis Danca) and her fiancé Sky (the rugged Quinn Herron) urged each other to “Lay All Your Love on Me.” A dozen or so of Sky’s pals, dressed in frogmen gear down to feet-flippers, were marching on in tempo – but only a couple had to stomp onto the stage for the audience to begin enthusiastically applauding. They knew that more young men — and a production number — were coming, and they wanted to greet them warmly sooner rather than later.
When Kim Huber was about to finish an astonishing rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” theatergoers applauded during the last note she was holding because they couldn’t wait to reward her.
Lest you think they only get the most obvious of jokes, their response to a gag that required a knowledge of OEDIPUS REX would have scored as high on any Laugh-o-Meter as any of the others.
None of this audience enthusiasm would occur if the productions stunk, but this one certainly didn’t (and the other 11 I’ve seen in years past have been sterling, too). Huber superbly played the long-suffering Donna, who looked as weathered as her overalls. She was clearly exhausted from running a tavern with less-than-magnificent employees, but she immediately came to life when her two ol’ pals Tanya and Rosie arrived for her daughter’s wedding. These three were once “Donna and the Dynamos,” so, in the grand tradition of FOLLIES’ “Who’s That Woman?” they soon replicated their signature number (“Dancing Queen”) for ol’ times’ sake.
That the three traded generous smiles while performing revealed how much the moment meant to them and how pleased they were that they hadn’t lost a step. Nice, too, to see music take Donna out of her troubles — just as MAMMA MIA! took the Wichitans out of theirs and allowed them to be “having the time of your life.”
Yes, one of the best ways of replicating one’s youth is through music. But so many times when young people see older people acting young, they’re either embarrassed or contemptuous. Bryan instead had the kids smile broadly, as if to say “I hope I’m that cool when I’m that age.”
In a musical theater world of Mames and Veras, Roxies and Velmas, seeing three female friends enjoying and supporting each other is one of MAMMA MIA’s considerable strengths. And yet, Tanya and Rosie endured a coin-toss to decide who’d get the one bed in the room while the other is relegated to the blow-up mattress. Tanya lost, but Paula Leggett Chase won the Battle of Big Laughs by pretending that she knew exactly how to maneuver the thing while she had no idea of where to start.
Leggett Chase had an even better moment when the question “What can we do with three men?” was airily asked – and Tanya said aloud but mostly to herself “Well, that takes me back.” The actress then went into her personal haze as she strolled through her memory bank that the audience actually applauded her.
Just because Rosie has become the most matronly of the three doesn’t mean she must play the class clown in order to be accepted. Karen L. Robu gave the character dignity; even when she made clear to Bill (a solid Damon Kirsche) that she wanted him as a mate, she (and Bryan) knew that desperation could only at best result in cheap laughs. Making Rosie seem worthy also made us understand why Bill would take the bait.
Bill was one of the three men summoned to the island by Sophie, for her mother’s diary revealed that any one of the trio could be her father. Thom Sesma adroitly played Harry, and we could see that he and Donna now had, as that marvelous song in A CLASS ACT goes, “the next best thing to love.”
But Sam is the one of the three for whom Donna has the most affinity. As tenderly played by Vincent Corazza, he not only showed that he’d never lost his feelings for her, but also that he’d make a good father. When he asked Donna “Is Sky good enough for her?” Corazza struck the proper paternal note.
You may recall that the crux of MAMMA MIA! is that Sophie needs to “feel like a proper bride when I walk down the aisle with my father.” Now that the three men are on the scene, Sophie could easily learn who is her father through a simple DNA test. But she becomes so fond of the trio that she doesn’t want to know for sure which is her real father. Why settle for the love of just one man when she already has the love of all three?
Besides, Sophie learns that the one who should really give her away is the mother who’s been there her whole life and not a man who just learned he sired a daughter years ago.
“There are all kinds of families,” says Harry, and we’ve all increasingly learned that as the years have gone on. MAMMA MIA! is in tune with our having realized that the standard-issue Mom, Dad, Children and 18 years together isn’t the one and only narrow option.
Neither is Broadway for the so-called “Broadway musical.” When Rose in GYPSY is told by Mr. T.T. Grantziger’s secretary that “New York is the center of everything,” she roars back “New York is the center of New York!” Music Theatre Wichita makes us see her point.