Wichita theater audiences have proved to be more enthusiastic and sophisticated than some bookers have long suspected. As a result, Theater League's season for 2010-2011 is adding a third night of performances and not shying away from adult musicals like "Spring Awakening."
That show, which won the 2007 Tony Award for best musical, is a rock music exploration of awakening teen sexuality, incest, abortion and suicide, based on an 1891 German novel that was banned for nearly a century. And it opens next year's season in November.
"It was the audience response to 'Avenue Q' this year that gave us the confidence to book 'Spring Awakening' for next year," said Mark Edelman, president of the Kansas City-based Theater League. "Wichita is the only one of our markets we're bringing it to. It is a very sophisticated show but we feel the community can handle it."
"Avenue Q" dealt with such issues as racism, homosexuality, promiscuity and pornography in a colorful "Sesame Street"-type setting populated by both humans and puppets. It carried a "mature audiences" warning for language and themes, as will "Spring Awakening."
"Different theater entities have different missions, such as reviving classic Broadway or concentrating on family shows. We looked around to see what our place should be and we decided that it was to bring in the most current Broadway fare," Edelman said.
After "Spring Awakening" in November will come the family-friendly "Cirque Dreams Illumination" in December; Monty Python's superbly silly send-up of King Arthur, "Spamalot," in March; and the acclaimed (11 Tony nominations) musical version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple," in April.
Each will play three evening performances — Tuesday through Thursday — in Century II Concert Hall, up from the two-show schedule this season. The reason, Edelman said, is growing ticket demand in the wake of "Wicked," which opened this season in October and was here an unprecedented three weeks.
"The reaction to 'Wicked' was amazing with tickets sold to people from 47 states," Edelman said. "While that was a special event, it generated a lot of interest from western Kansas. We discovered that Wichita could easily draw from 100 to 150 miles to be the cultural epicenter.
"We are ultimately looking to expand to five performances for each show in Wichita. We think that is about right for the population. But we'll take it gradually to make sure," he said. "We started in Toledo with two performances each and have now built to six."
Current season ticket-holders will be notified of the new season and ticket upgrades in mailers this week. Season tickets, starting at $100 for four shows, will be open for new subscribers later this spring. Individual show tickets aren't available yet.
In the wake of "Wicked," Edelman said people from "The Lion King" will be examining Century II in coming months for a possible 2011-2012 slot.
"'The Lion King' is physically a much larger show than 'Wicked.' But the success of 'Wicked' proved what the community can do. It moved us right up near the top of the list."
Besides the regular four-show season, Theater League plans to drop in at least two and possibly three one-night extras like this year's Jim Brickman holiday show and "Jesus Christ Superstar" with original star Ted Neeley plus the upcoming "Lord of the Dance" in March.
"They will not be part of the season package and it will depend upon what's available," Edelman said. "For next season, we've penciled in 'Handel's Messiah Rock' for December, produced by the same people behind 'Superstar' and 'Cats.' We're also looking at the final tour of 'Riverdance' for February-March."
There's also a possibility that one of the Cirque de Soleil shows might be available as an extra.
Edelman said he does not worry about competition from Intrust Bank Arena. Rather, he thinks it will help grow the audience for Theater League.
"It focuses more attention and interest on downtown," he said. "It will also be a regional draw. People who come in from out of town for a concert, particularly if they stay overnight, will be interested in seeing what else there is to do since so many things will be within walking distance. The Coliseum was too far away to do that.
"This guarantees that downtown is the cultural epicenter for the region, which helps us."
If you go
Theater League 2010-2011 Season
What: "Spring Awakening" on Nov. 16-18, "Cirque Dreams Illumination" on Dec. 14-16, "Spamalot" on March 22-24 and "The Color Purple" on April 26-28
Where: Century II Concert Hall
How much: Season tickets start at $100 for four shows. Available at 800-776-7469 or at www.theaterleague.com. Individual show tickets not available yet.