Local playwright Tom Frye is shaking up gender expectations in his latest original melodrama for Mosley Street Melodrama by letting female characters be the chief villain and hero tussling over a hapless, helpless man.
“I like to mix it up to make it unpredictable,” said Frye, a longtime drama teacher and actor who has performed in national tours. “Maybe it’s my ‘NOW’ leanings coming out, but it’s been fun working on this role reversal. It fits with my twisted imagination.”
The satirical show, which opens May 31Friday is called “Butch Cassidy and the Can’t Dance Kid, Or, You Polka, You Brought Him,” and it draws only loosely from the Paul Newman/Robert Redford classic Western – actually to the point where the character names are the only recognizable connection, Frye said with a laugh.
Jenny Mitchell plays Butch Cassidy, a crooked politician who moonlights as a swaggering highwayman – er, highwaywoman. Yes, she’s the villain.
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Briley Meek plays Cecile, a tomboy who runs the telegraph office. She’s the hero who steps up to confront corrupt local officials.
Playing the new school marm named Harry is Steve Hitchcock, a bit of a wimp who will eventually be in dire need of rescuing. He’s the local one-room schoolhouse teacher, but he has a past as a dancer who became known as the Can’t Dance Kid.
Harry’s bratty students are twins JD (which many say stands for “juvenile delinquent”) and Amy, played by John Bates and Leah Swank-Miller. Rounding out the cast as the clueless sheriff is Scott Noah, who also slips into drag to play the kids’ Mom on occasion.
Frye has written about 25 melodramas in recent years, most of which have been published for other groups to perform. The biggest challenge, he said, is to come up with new ideas.
“It’s never strictly a formula. I take ideas from everywhere, like when I came up with a spoof on ‘The Mikado’ after a trip to Taiwan, or on another trip came up with ‘Jaws: the Musical,’ ” he said.
Directing “Butch/Can’t Dance” is local singer Cindy Summers, who had to give up a lot of her stage performing three years ago when she took a regular job performing in Oscar’s Lounge at the eastside Warren Theatre.
“I’ve always been a director, but I’m doing a lot more of it now because my singing gig cuts into prime weekend performance time for shows that I might normally be in,” Summers said.
“I miss the performing, but I love directing. This gives me the creative theater outlet that I need,” said Summers, who notes that there is a “style” to melodrama unlike regular drama.
“In a regular play, there is a fourth wall separating the actors and the audience, but in melodrama the performers break through it constantly with asides to the audience, getting them involved with what’s going on,” Summers said. “It takes a little getting used to the banter, which can be improvisational, for people who haven’t done it before.”
Following the 45-minute melodrama will be a musical-comedy-variety show called “Motown Mania” using the same performers from the melodrama, but in completely different ways. Music director is Broadway veteran and Wichita native Karla Burns, who is returning to her melodrama roots with this show.
“When I was a student at Wichita State, I tried out for the melodramas that the late Ted Morris (entrepreneur behind Crown Uptown) did in Cowtown. He didn’t have a role for me, but he discovered I could sing and put me on top of a piano belting out torch songs like ‘Hard-Hearted Hannah,’” Burns said. “That was really a lot of fun.”
Burns will not be performing in either this melodrama or the subsequent olio, but may take the plunge in some future show. She was approached about being musical director for this one by Mosley owner Patty Reeder because Burns had just finished a run in the Forum’s “The Full Monty.”
“The greatest joy of doing something like this is that the audience will know most of the songs and will be able to hum along. Actually, as we are rehearsing, I am so tempted to jump right in,” she said with a laugh.
Among the 12 to 14 songs to be performed are “Midnight Train to Georgia” (fronted by Mitchell) and “Ooh Ooh Baby” (Hitchcock). Also among favorites are the men’s medley built around “My Girl” and the women’s medley built around “Love Child.”
“These songs are not just about the lead singer but also the nuances of the back-up singers,” Burns said. “The marvelous singers have picked up those nuances beautifully.”