Arts & Culture

MTW’s summer season includes ‘Spamalot,’ ‘Betty Blue Eyes’

Now starting his 26th year at the helm of Music Theatre of Wichita, Wayne Bryan is gearing up for his biggest challenge this summer.

After successfully engineering rare regional premieres of blockbuster musicals like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” that met Disney’s exacting standards, Bryan is tackling the American premiere of a new British musical that won enthusiastic reviews in London in 2011.

That means local audiences are getting the first look at the new show before San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago or even New York.

And MTW’s producing artistic director said he’s not a bit daunted – at least, not these days.

“It’s not as scary as it might have been a few years ago. It’s always tricky to market something that nobody has heard of,” Bryan said. “But I feel the kind of production team we’ve assembled allows us to step out of our local comfort zone. Audiences have learned to trust us. We have earned our credibility.”

The show is “Betty Blue Eyes,” a rousing caper set in 1947 involving the upcoming marriage of then-Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, plus a prize porker named Betty and one village’s pig-napping scheme between the haves and have-nots to celebrate in meat-rationed, post-war Britain.

Based on the 1984 Maggie Smith/Michael Palin farce “A Private Function,” the story was adapted by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, best known for the clever Ugly Duckling musical “Honk!,” plus new music for Disney’s stage version of “Mary Poppins.”

“This is probably the first time I’ve directed a show that I’ve not seen before,” Bryan said. “But the script just spoke to me. It lines up with my own idiosyncrasies. All the hard-scrabble characters in the story foster lavish fantasies about how their lives might be different, and each fantasy is the basis of a terrific musical sequence.”

Oddly, despite rave reviews from the London Times (“A new smash musical is born”), Daily Telegraph (“It’s impossible not to fall in love with Betty”), Daily Mail (“This porker’s a corker”) and others, plus a cast album that “bore testimony to the show’s wit and melodic richness,” the musical didn’t seem headed to America, and Bryan wondered why.

“The feeling from London was that the show’s very British themes might not resonate with American audiences,” Bryan said. “I asked if they wanted to find out. ‘Where could you find a more American audience than Wichita, Kansas?’ I said. And in blessedly short order (they) okayed it.”

Bryan said he couldn’t be more pleased at the timing because it works perfectly with the “British Are Coming!” theme he was developing for this summer, built around Disney’s long-awaited permission for a regional premiere of “Mary Poppins” — one of only eight approved this year.

Once that was locked in, Bryan secured the MTW premiere of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and encores of the classics “Les Miserables” and “The King and I.”

Bryan said theater officials will be coming from New York to check out how MTW and Wichita audiences react to “Betty Blue Eyes.”

“But we’re not part of some grand scheme to get ‘Betty’ to Broadway,” he said. “Our intention is to just create something wonderful for a week in Wichita. We’re giving our audiences a chance for a first look at a new show.”

Thomas W. Douglas returns as music director for the entire season, assisted by Jesse Warkentin and Helen Griffin. All performances will be in Century II Concert Hall, and individual tickets are now on sale.

The season kicks off with “Monty Python’s Spamalot” from June 12 through 16.

“This hilarious show is a witty and raucous retelling of the legend of King Arthur, lovingly ripped off from the film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ ” said Bryan, noting it will be directed and choreographed by Billy Sprague Jr., an MTW alumnus who was in the Broadway and Las Vegas productions. “Instead of rethinking this show, we have arranged permission for Billy to re-stage this 2005 Tony-winning Best Musical exactly as it was performed in New York. We’ll also be using the spectacular sets and costumes from the Broadway original.”

Playing a sort of dazed and confused King Arthur is Bruce Winant (last year’s Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”) with Damon Kirsche (Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and the sexist boss of last year’s “9 to 5”) as Sir Galahad, Larry Raben (“Curtains,” “The Producers”) as Sir Robin, local favorite Monte Wheeler as Sir Lancelot and Brad Bradley as wisecracking servant Patsy, re-creating the role he played on Broadway. Making her MTW debut is Kansas City actress Jennie Greenberry as the luscious and volatile Lady of the Lake.

Next up is an encore of “Les Miserables” – June 26-30 – which MTW did in 2008. Bryan said he likes to wait at least a decade between revivals of classic shows, but that public demand brought this one back sooner.

“Of everything in our season this year, ‘Les Mis’ is the one most people stop me on the street and ask about,” Bryan said.

The show will be a “happy collaboration between familiar faces and new ones,” Bryan said. Broadway veteran Joseph Locarro will be back to direct and Nicholas F. Saverine returns as Jean Valjean, a mistreated prisoner who escapes and builds a new life and identity but lives in constant fear of being uncovered. It’s a role Saverine has played all over the world. Kevyn Morrow (last seen as King Triton in “The Little Mermaid”) will play the driven police inspector Javert, whose dogged pursuit of Valjean becomes a personal and destructive obsession.

Local couple Tim and Karen Robu will return as the scheming innkeepers, the Thenardiers, and Shaun-Michael Morse returns as the kindly bishop who puts Valjean on the road to salvation. MTW veteran Ian Patrick Gibb is taking a break from the “Les Miserables” tour (where he’s performed for over two years) to be the idealistic student Marius here.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1951 “The King and I,” last here in 2002, will be encored on July 10-14 with frequent guest leading lady Kim Huber (“My Fair Lady,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and most recently “Finian’s Rainbow”) as widowed British teacher Anna. Thom Sesma is the forward-thinking King of Siam, who hires her to teach his many children about the modern outside world.

“Kim and Thom charmingly played opposite each other 20 years ago in ‘Paint Your Wagon,’ and this should be a thrilling and electric reunion for them,” Bryan said.

Tami Swartz re-creates her role from 2002 as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife. New will be Kay Trinidad and Karl Josef Co as the forbidden lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and Alan Ariano as the King’s cagey right-hand-man, the Kralahome. The large cast includes 45 local children as the King’s brood.

Frequent guest director Mark Madama and choreographer Peggy Hickey will guide the show, with refreshed sets from the 2002 MTW production plus lavish costumes from the Broadway revival.

The American premiere of “Betty Blue Eyes” will be July 24-28.

“This show is so funny, touching and tuneful that I had to direct it myself,” said Bryan, who will be aided by the choreography team of Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith, best known for their work here with “Sunset Boulevard,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “9 to 5.”

Heading the cast are Tracy Lore (best remembered as the tipsy title character of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) as the domineering working-class Joyce, who enlists her mousy husband, Gilbert — Stanley E. Bahorek (the world’s tallest and funniest leprechaun in “Finian’s Rainbow”) — to “pig-nap” the main meat course of a local banquet for Princess Elizabeth when she discovers they are not invited to participate. Mary Stout (last year’s Yente in “Fiddler on the Roof”) is Joyce’s addled mum, who just might spill the beans.

Capping the season is the regional premiere of “Disney’s and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins,” which gets a longer-than-usual run by opening on Friday, Aug. 9, running five performances that weekend, then continuing for the usual eight on Aug. 14-18. Although children under 5 are normally not admitted because of show lengths that cause them to fidget, children as young as 3 will be allowed in the Saturday, Aug. 17, matinee.

Bryan also will personally direct this show, teaming up again with choreographer Linda Goodrich, who also did “The Little Mermaid.”

“Much to our delight, the Disney Company and co-producer Cameron Mackintosh have agreed to allow MTW to be one of eight theaters in the country to develop its own production of this all-family classic,” Bryan said.

Set designer J Branson, who created the exotic looks of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”) for MTW, is back in charge of this latest Disney, with historically adept George Mitchell (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Sunset Boulevard”) responsible for literally hundreds of period Edwardian costumes.

Lindsey Bliven, an MTW alumnus, will be the “practically perfect” nanny Mary Poppins, a role she’s played on the national tour. David Elder, who tapped his way into Wichita’s heart in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Crazy for You,” will be lanky Bert, the chimneysweep. Damon Kirsche, back for his second show this season after “Spamalot,” and Wichita State student Claire Gerig are stuffy George and ditsy Winnifred Banks, whose bratty children Mary takes under her magic umbrella. Playing the winsome bird woman is local favorite Karen Robu.