Nearly the only consistency from the last time Music Theatre Wichita staged a live show and now might be the name of the company.
“This year nothing is our norm – not our usual space, not our usual dates, and the fact that we’re doing concerts instead of just book musicals,” said Wayne Bryan who, after 32 years as producing artistic director now takes the title of producing director.
“It’s all different for us,” Bryan said. “We’re anxious to hear about what our public thinks.”
After taking a year away for COVID-19 precautions, MTW returns for a seven-show season beginning with a concert version of “Smokey Joe’s Café” for five shows beginning Wednesday. Four of the shows, including “Smokey Joe’s,” will be staged outdoors at the Capitol Federal Amphitheater in Andover, while three will be in the Convention Hall at Century II, down the way from the company’s 50-year home at the center’s Concert Hall.
“For 50 years, we cranked out five shows – June, July, August, fast, fast, fast,” Bryan said. “Now that cycle has been broken, and we are analyzing what was wonderful about that, what was a great learning experience about that, and what might we now stretch or bend in a different direction, as the world has been changing and we’re changing with it.”
Without live shows for live audiences in 2020, MTW spread its wings to new avenues, including online instruction and discussions with Bryan, new artistic director Brian J. Marcum and production director Mitch Southerland.
Bryan said he hoped those online components would continue this summer alongside live theater.
“A lot of theaters are feeling that the future is in a hybrid model of digital outreach and live performance. We’re all just feeling our way this year. We’re considering this a bridge to the future, not necessarily a done deal this summer,” Bryan said. “We’re all learning as we go.”
The choice of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which was nominated for five Tony Awards in 1995 and received a Grammy Award for best musical show album in 1996, was a sentimental one for Marcum, who is directing and choreographing the concert version.
“When it opened in New York, I was a newbie to the city, and I saw the show probably four or five times,” he recalled. “I loved the music, and I loved the staging of the show.”
Marcum said “Smokey Joe’s” was the best show to fit into all of the necessary parameters.
“When we knew we were moving outdoors for this year, we knew we needed to do concert stuff, we needed to be socially distanced. We needed to be safe. But we also wanted it to be great,” he said. “I knew the show was good and that it wouldn’t suffer from everyone being 8 feet apart.”
The stage of the amphitheater, which opened in 2018, is 44 feet from center in each direction, Marcum said, compared to 24-26 feet at Century II. A set design includes various platforms on stage and room for a nine-piece orchestra.
And it leaves room for social distance.
“There is one number that really should be a guy whispering in a girl’s ear,” Marcum said. “They will be 8 feet apart, having a very intimate conversation.”
Two large video screens, already in place, will be used to show closeups throughout the performance and give it a more intimate feel, Bryan said.
Audience members must bring their own lawn chairs, and parties are to stay 6 feet apart.
The new venue brings new perks, including opening acts – Roy Moye III, Injoy Fountain and Emily Orr — at 7 p.m., and food and beverage trucks set up outside the amphitheater. The show is scheduled to run 85-90 minutes with no intermission.
“Smokey Joe’s Café,” which MTW staged at Century II in 2010, is a jukebox musical featuring the works of composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who created hits such as “Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
“This is a show that celebrates the amazing song output of two white, Jewish guys who ended up creating some of the greatest songs for Black artists and launching so many careers through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s,” Bryan said. “For me, it’s a perfect example of what America does well when we do things well, which is bringing all talents to the table, showing them we can all work together in a really exciting, harmonious way, where we each bring something that none of us could have brought on his own. But together, we’re dynamite.”
The directors and three of the cast members were interviewed Tuesday afternoon, minutes before three guilty verdicts were announced for a white Minneapolis police officer in the death of a black man.
Bryan said the Leiber and Stoller music, as featured in the show, gives hope not only after the racial divide in the country but also with the aftereffects of COVID – especially in its finale, “Stand by Me.”
“We’re coming out of a time not only of great loss for the performing arts and a great challenge for people, but we’re also coming to a time where there is great strife in our country about our national character. There are divisions, politically and otherwise, and … (we can) get past the divisions and stand together as a community and as a nation. It just seemed perfect to us.”
For three of the Music Theatre Wichita performers, “Smokey Joe’s Café” marks their first time back on a stage in more than a year.
Tristen Buettel remembers being on her way to perform in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway when she got notification that the show and all of theater in New York was closing down for a month.
“I did not think it was going to be this long,” she said. “I’m just ecstatic to be here specifically and do this show and perform. It’s like being shot out of a cannon.”
Buettel had previously performed “Smokey Joe’s” for artistic director Brian J. Marcum in Montana.
“When I listen to this music, I am just transported. I could listen to this all day, every day,” she said. “It is just some of the best music ever written. I feel it in my body. I feel it in my soul. I am stretching and dancing.”
In her year off, she’s been working as a teacher, and getting into a fitness regimen of running, bicycling and yoga.
“We’ve all felt so disconnected. I personally have felt disconnected because we’ve had to be apart,” Buettel said. “The theater community is so special, and to be welcomed back like this is just incredible.”
The cast was scheduled to meet each other in person, after two days of rehearsals over Zoom, last Wednesday.
“I haven’t had a ton of time to reconnect to people in this way,” Buettel said. “To have human interaction, even though it is 6 feet and with masks on is incredible. I just want to sit in the rehearsal room and watch everyone. I just want to sit and be in awe the whole time.”
Julius Thomas III has been offstage for more than 13 months but said he’s made the best of the situation.
“For someone without a job, I was busier than I have been in my entire life,” said Thomas, a Wichita State grad whose MTW debut was in “Footloose” in 2003. “It’s been an interesting time for me to stretch myself in a way that I’ve always said, ‘If I had the time, I’d do it.’”
That included writing music and scripts, but Thomas said he was beginning to doubt his abilities as the first rehearsals drew near.
“I have not put a show together this fast in a very long time, probably since the last time I did a show with MTW in college,” he said. “Is my brain gonna take to this information as quick as I could back in the day?”
Thomas, who is also assistant director, said this was a show he has long looked forward to performing.
“There is not a show that’s better built for Julius Thompson III than ‘Smokey Joe’s,’” he said. “I have been singing this music since I was a kid. ‘Stand by Me’ has been in my (repertoire) forever. I was starting to get worried I was a little too old to do it, so here we are.”
Seeing “Smokey Joe’s Café” on Broadway for the first time at age 17 literally changed the life course of Altamiece Cooper.
“At that time, I was dead set on being a dentist,” she said. “That show, even though I had been performing since I was 3 … just started changing my mind. I thought, ‘I want to do this show some day in my life.’ Obviously, long story short, I’m not a dentist.”
Cooper’s credits for MTW include Mama Morton in “Chicago” and Mothermouth in “Hairspray.” She refers to her year off as an “intermission.”
“I’m a very optimistic person, that’s why I call it an intermission. That’s how I operated,” she said. “With everything going on, I just didn’t feel like singing. I didn’t feel like my voice was going to be heard, so why use it? The online platforms have been amazing for people who still want to create and also have a voice in the things that are going on.
“I’ve never given up that hope of ‘This is just an intermission.’”
She predicted that returning to rehearsals with other performers would make her emotional.
“I am not a crier, but I’m already getting emotional with the Zooms. I might just let it out,” she said. “When you miss somebody so much you get emotional, and you get to cry.
“Theater is my somebody, so I’m going to cry and I’m not going to be ashamed about it.”
‘SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 28 to Sunday, May 2; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2
Where: Capitol Federal Amphitheater, Andover
Tickets: $45, general admission only, at mtwichita.org or 316-265-3107