Turn off the stage antics of the Republican presidential nominee for a night or two…
Kansas City stages are offering up some serious, honest stories that will move you to tears
It’s not theater of the absurd but theater to be heard (and seen), created by some of our town’s most talented artists.
In LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL (now thru Aug 28 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee downtown), Spinning Tree theater co-founder Andy Parkhurst directs the winsome Nedra Dixon, one of our finest Broadway alums, in a 90 minute portrait of the celebrated Billie Holliday. Bereft of friends and wallowing in self-pity four months before her death, Holliday winds up in this tiny Philly club after a lifetime of abuse and disappointment that Dixon and Pankhurst make painfully clear.
But Billie keeps up pretenses, as long as she can, buoyed by a trunk full of great stories and the bottles of vodka placed strategically around the stage. Musical director Gary Green plays Billie’s onstage pianist and uncomfortable foil, trying to keep the over-the-hill celebrity on message (we’ve seen plenty of that this summer). Dixon channels Holliday wonderfully, bringing the singer’s unmistakable style to standards like “T’aint Nobody’s Biz-ness” and “Crazy He Calls Me” and Holliday standards “God Bless the Child,” “Don’t Explain” and the eerie “Strange Fruit.”
In the end, we’re moved by the sheer weight of all Ms Holliday has had to bear to become Lady Day, beloved but misunderstood jazz royalty.
Over at Crown Center, Musical Theatre Heritage has revived the Pulitzer Prize winning musical NEXT TO NORMAL (now thru August 21) about a bio-polar mother trying to keep her head and family together. MY FAIR LADY it ain’t; but director Sarah Crawford, musical director Jeremy Watson and a talented cast and orchestra make this NEXT TO NORMAL a touching, beautifully-rendered portrait of loved ones dredging up unhappy truths.
Ashley Pankow is terrific as Diana, the taciturn housewife at the center of the maelstrom. Robert Hingula as the shrinks in her life is impressive, pushing and pulling on Diana’s fragile psyche—if you’ve spent time in therapy, you’ll recognize his shtick.
Grown up kids Gabe and Natalie (Corbin Williams and Paris Naster) confound and complicate things further, and Ben Gulley as Diana’s long suffering husband brings a profound sadness and frustration to the piece. It really breaks your heart.
I know it’s fun watching Colbert or the Daily Show making light of what’s wrong with the world. But if you’ve had enough of that mirth for the moment, check out one or both of these great musicals.