Alumni return to celebrate Music Theatre for Young People’s 30th anniversary

07/13/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:34 AM

For Riley Bruce, a Minneapolis software company representative who teaches executives and customers about new products, his five years and 18 shows with Music Theatre for Young People was a “treasured time.”

“MTYP helped me in the corporate world because it gave me confidence to stand up in front of any group and feel comfortable,” says Bruce, who grew up in Wichita.

“It also helped socialize me, to draw me out of my introversion, when I didn’t have a whole bunch of friends in school. It was like a team sport, only artsy,” Bruce says with a laugh. “It encouraged me in the most productive way. I can’t think of a single thing – other than my parents – that helped me become who I am now.”

For Gavin Myers, a junior theater/dance major at Wichita State University with plans for a career on the stage, his years with MTYP “definitely molded me as a professional.”

“It taught me to learn quickly – choreography, lines, blocking,” Myers says of the short time to mount each full-fledged musical, such as “The Pirates of Penzance,” for which he mastered the difficult, tongue-twisting patter song “Modern Major General.”

Bruce and Myers will be back – along with 60 other alumni and current MTYP members – to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the group that opened new worlds to them. They are participating in a musical program called “S.T.A.R. – Super Thirtieth Anniversary Revue.” Under music director Matt Hanne, the past and present performers will perform favorite solo and ensemble numbers from the 100 or so musicals (based on three or four per year) that the group has presented over the past three decades.

As Myers puts it, the show will be a chance to thank backers and supporters of the nonprofit group and also to “pay it forward” to encourage the next generation of Broadway hopefuls.

MTYP was launched in 1984 by Cary Danielson Pandzik to be a “welcoming environment” and a “safe place” for kids to learn about theater. Her philosophy was to encourage individual talents while stressing the need for collaboration.

Pandzik moved to Overland Park in 1992 and launched another Music Theatre for Young People for the Kansas City area. Since 2003 she has run that group with her daughter, Julie Danielson, who grew up with MTYP. Last fall, Pandzik returned to Wichita as guest speaker at a fundraiser to launch plans for the local group’s 30th anniversary.

After Pandzik left, Karen Gale became executive director of and an active, hands-on worker with the Wichita group until she retired. Kim Gee Vines was named executive director a year ago after spending 14 years as a board member.

“Karen was executive director the longest, acting in that capacity even before she was officially named. She put in a ton of work, for which I will always be grateful,” says Vines, who streamlines the group’s formal mission statement to “The three E’s: Engage, educate and encourage youth through theater.”

The group conducts six week-long workshops – five in the summer and one between Christmas and New Year’s – that teach all aspects of music theater, from beginner to advanced, to about 100 kids per year. Divided into age groups from 6 through high school, most kids come from Wichita but others come from as far away as Pratt, Peabody, Eureka, Conway Springs and Clearwater. Workshops cost $105-$150, and partial scholarships are available through funds given in memory of Julie Anna Curfman and Beth Anderson.

Separately, the group also produces four full-length Broadway musicals per year in Mary Jane Teall Theater at Century II that are open to the public.

“These are not ‘junior’ versions cut down for young actors. These are the full-length shows,” Vines says of such titles as “Peter Pan” last November and the Wichita premiere of “Shrek: The Musical” this past May.

Directors, choreographers, designers and instructors are drawn from a pool of local professionals and national professionals with local ties, including Music Theatre Wichita’s Wayne Bryan, Crown Uptown’s Matthew Rumsey, Broadway veterans Nicholas F. Saverine and Karla Burns, Emmy-winning set designer Gregory Crane and longtime local husband-wife favorites Karen and Tim Robu.

“People who love working with young people are the only people considered,” Vines says.

Vines, who grew up in Wichita and performed in school plays at Southeast High under legendary teacher Ruth McCormick, says there was no group like MTYP at that time to bring together students from different schools.

“The theater scene wasn’t as connected when I was in school. We didn’t really know kids from other schools who were interested in theater like we were. MTYP provides that cross-pollination,” says Vines, who notes that kids from about 50 schools participated in “Shrek” two months ago.

Vines first became involved with MTYP because both of her children, Matthew and Christine, sang and acted in the group from the time they were 7 up to high school.

While neither of her children chose theater as a career, Vines says, “I see the fingerprints of MTYP on them because of their self-confidence. It taught them to use their ‘voice’ in effective ways. It gave them an important lifelong benefit, no matter what they do.”

Matthew Vines is the author of “God and the Gay Christian,” which made a national splash when it was published in April. Christine Vines, who got her undergrad degree at Vassar, is starting her master’s in fine arts at Cornell University with plans for a writing career.

Adding their anniversary well wishes, although not able to stay around to sing in the revue, are MTYP alumni Kevin Munhall and Ian Patrick Gibb, who both came back this summer to perform as guest stars with Music Theatre Wichita.

“When I caught the theater bug in high school, I needed a place to explore my passion. MTYP was where I learned the basics of my craft – discipline, punctuality, teamwork – that I still use every day,” says Munhall, who made it to Broadway in the revival of “Anything Goes” and will be joining the national tour of “Dirty Dancing” this fall. He just finished playing Riff, the Jets gang leader, in MTWichita’s “West Side Story.”

“So much of who I am today is because of the creative freedom I was allowed to have,” Munhall says.

Adds Gibb, who spent two years with the 25th anniversary national tour of “Les Miserables” and just played the title character for MTWichita’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”:

“MTYP was such an essential part of my theater experience growing up in Wichita. It gave me numerous opportunities not only to perform a wonderful variety of shows but also to work with kids from all around the city. The training I received definitely helped to prepare me for a career in the theater.”

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