When Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre at Douglas and Hillside closed its doors abruptly in June after nearly 35 years as Wichita’s largest and oldest dinner theater, longtime patrons feared they had lost a local landmark.
But Matthew Rumsey wants to make it clear that the new Crown Uptown, which reopens Thanksgiving weekend with the musical “White Christmas,” is back and better than ever.
“We don’t want to change a lot of things because it has been a local institution for 34 years under Ted and Karen Morris. We just want to take it to the next level,” says Rumsey, executive artistic director and assistant director of operations for new owners Ray and Diane Gans, also owners and operators of Kansas Dance Academy for 26 years.
“Even Karen Morris likes what we’re doing. She said that they had nurtured it and carried it along as far as they could and that it’s time to take it to the next level.” Ted Morris died in late 2008.
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That means, Rumsey says, a live pit orchestra of five to 13 instruments – today’s Broadway standard – for every musical rather than pre-recorded music or the occasional combo on stage. The original orchestra pit, long hidden under the stage the Morrises installed more than three decades ago, has been reopened.
Named as music director is longtime local composer-arranger-piano player Jesse Warkentin, who is also accompanist and vocal coach at Collegiate High and, for the past eight summers, has been assistant music director for Music Theatre of Wichita.
The new owners will be hands-on with managing partner/director of operations Ray Gans as executive producer of the shows and Diane Gans as artistic consultant. Filling out the staff are GiGi Gans Royle as choreographer and Joni Simonsen as costumer.
Other major investors are Scott and Lisa Ritchie and Robert Craig Park.
Also new are an expanded bar turned to face the stage for high-top table seating and a special VIP lounge up an elegant staircase in the long-unused balcony for private parties with its own designated servers. The VIP lounge also will be available to small parties or couples who don’t mind sharing space.
“It has the best view and the best acoustics in the house. You can hear a whisper on stage up there,” Rumsey says.
While most of the schedule will be familiar and beloved musicals, Rumsey plans to seek out new, sometimes cutting-edge shows, such as 2009’s Tony-winning “Next to Normal,” a rock-flavored look at mental illness, which will be a Kansas premiere in June. And he’s scheduled Stephen Sondheim’s ground-breaking “Sweeney Todd” about the murderous 18th-century London barber whose paramour baked his victims into meat pies to sell on the street for September 2012 as a showcase for powerhouse performing couple Tim and Karen Robu.
“We will do plenty of the traditional favorites, like ‘Wizard of Oz’ (February-April) and ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ (April-May), because people will always want to see them. But we want to introduce things people haven’t seen before. We want to be fresh,” he says.
Some things won’t change.
Crown Uptown will continue to offer seven shows per season with a mix of out-of-town guest artists and local actors. It also will continue weekend children’s “lunch theater” musicals, many of them the same ones that Crown founder Ted Morris wrote or adapted from fairy tales over the past 30 years.
This first season, Rumsey, a native Wichitan who studied acting in New York and directing under Charles Parker at Friends University, will direct all the shows.
Crown Uptown will also continue to offer three-course buffet meals before the show. Named as executive chef is Brian Mangers, formerly executive chef at Uptown Bistro, who also has experience with Empire Catering, Cibola and The Candlelight Club for more than 10 years. What’s new is that they’ll be baking in-house desserts.
“It will all look familiar, although it’s all been cleaned from top to bottom. There is some new carpeting, some new paint, some restoration touch-ups. But the original color scheme and curtain will be the same. They are in great shape because they’ve been well-cared for,” Rumsey says. “We’re ready for the next 34 years.”