News Column

New powerhouse female singers are winning over KC theater audiences

July 10, 2013

YellowBrix

July 10--If you cover theater in Kansas City long enough, you accrue certain benefits.

One of them is a tangible sense of history as you watch theaters and people come and go. You see young actors become middle-aged, and lead players become character actors. And you witness one generation inherit a legacy created by those who came before.

And so it is with actresses who sing. At the moment Kansas City is overflowing with ladies who can belt out show tunes, torch ballads and flat-out rock 'n' roll.

"It's insane, the talent we have," actress Katie Gilchrist said. "There are incredible broads in this town."

But the young women with active musical-theater careers in Kansas City are building on a foundation that was already in place. Kansas City theater was memorable in the 1990s in part because there were so many gifted chanteuses.

Cathy Barnett and Debra Bluford became local stars in a succession of performances at the American Heartland, the New Theatre and other venues. Their formidably talented peers included Melinda MacDonald, Donna Thomason, Lori Blalock, Heidi Gutknecht, Alison Sneegas Borberg and Melanie Mays.

One singer in that group whose legacy continues to cast a long shadow was the late Karen Errington, an earthy vocalist who could easily hold her own in straight roles.

Barnett and Bluford continue active careers. Barnett is in "The Bikinis," which begins performances Friday at the Heartland, and Bluford will be in the Musical Theater Heritage production of "Hello, Dolly!' next month. MacDonald still performs occasionally. Mays moved away. Blalok's appearances have been rare in recent years, although she is in "America's Veterans," opening today at the Chestnut Fine Arts Center in Olathe. The others have more or less retired.

But in the last few years, theatergoers have seen the emergence of a new generation of actresses with serious singing chops. Ranging from their mid-20s to late 30s, these performers have repeatedly impressed audiences, gradually becoming recognizable talents with local followings. And they're seen in most major venues, from Kansas City Repertory Theatre to the Unicorn, from the New Theatre to the American Heartland.

They come from different backgrounds and perform in a range of distinctive styles. And some have acquired hyphenated job titles because they refuse to be pigeonholed. Gilchrist, who's appearing in "The Death of Cupid" at the Living Room, has sometimes performed burlesque and sings with the Vi Tran Band. In 2012, she made her directing debut with David Mamet's "Oleanna" at the Living Room.

Lauren Braton, who appeared in "Great Big Broadway" at Quality Hill Playhouse in June, received classical training at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory and has performed with the Civic Opera. But she has become one of the city's most admired musical-theater performers. She's also recording a jazz demo.

Molly Hammer was in "You've Got a Friend" at Quality Hill in May and is in "The Bikinis" at the Heartland. She has become a Quality Hill favorite, but she also performs in churches and does jazz gigs when she isn't in a show.

Jessalyn Kincaid, who is performing in the Coterie's summer production of "Lyle the Crocodile," grew up singing folk music with her parents but mainly played straight roles in college.

Jennie Greenberry, Molly Denninghoff and Katie Karel were classmates at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. They graduated the same year and all came to Kansas City to start their careers. Each is an exceptional singer. Even though Stephens didn't have a formal musical theater program, they've all made a mark in musicals.

"We're like a virus," said Denninghoff, who played Julie Jordan in "Carousel" at the Living Room and KC Rep. "We were so fortunate to come to Kansas City when we did. We've learned so much."

Despite the obvious talent among these performers, musical theater was not a self-evident career path for all of them.

"I always preferred straight plays," said Greenberry, who last month appeared as the Lady of the Lake in "Monty Python's Spamalot" for Music Theatre of Wichita and traveled to New York with the Coterie production of "Lucky Duck" in 2012. "I was scared to death of doing musicals until my second semester at Stephens. Straight plays were my comfort zone."

Kincaid and Hammer each said they were painfully shy when they were kids.

"Actually, musicals terrify me," Denninghoff said. "I always worry about forgetting lyrics."

Hammer thinks of herself as a singer who acts. The others generally identify themselves as actors who sing. Either way, it all boils down to the same thing: telling a story.

"I would say my background in theater has given me a huge insight into song as story and viewing every song as a story," Hammer said. "So you're not up there just making it sound pretty. They should see in your face exactly what you're singing about."

One of the rules of musicals is that characters burst into song only when they can express their feelings in no other way. So the songs are roughly equivalent to a Shakespearean soliloquy.

"I feel like I do my best acting when I'm singing," Karel said. "Music can elicit feelings without any words at all."

Gilchrist, who belted out "You'll Never Walk Alone" in "Carousel" at KC Rep, put it this way: "There are a lot of people who can sing beautifully. A lot. But it's our responsibility to tell the story and be true to the characters. You've got to sing from the gut. It's got to be real. I approach musicals the same way I approach straight plays."

Kincaid, who has appeared in farces as well as musicals, looks for opportunities to play straight roles but in no way thinks musical theater is inferior to drama.

"The reason I love musicals is that it adds so much to what you're saying," she said. "You can speak a monologue, but if you infuse it with music it adds so much. You're trying to convey a story. So I get on my high horse a little bit when people discount musical theater. Yes, there's some bad musicals, but there's bad straight plays, too."

Braton would like a chance to do straight drama as well. Often cast in ingenue roles or tapped to perform in revues, Braton last year had a small breakthrough when she played full-on comedy as Princess Fiona in the Coterie production of "Shrek the Musical." And in 2010 she worked alongside Barnett in the dramatically heavy musical "Grey Gardens" at the Unicorn.

"(Director) Nedra Dixon pushed me every day," Braton said. "I felt really great about that performance. It was physically and emotionally draining, that role. But I grew after that show as an actress."

The young singers agree: The women who led the way have become role models and inspirations.

Kincaid said Barnett's success showed her that it was possible to be a professional actress and have something like a normal life -- with a house, a car and a dog -- in Kansas City. When Greenberry was performing in "Lucky Duck," veteran actress Julie Shaw became a friend and mentor. Karel, who performed with Barnett in the Musical Theater Heritage production of "Sweeney Todd," also got to work alongside Karen Errington in the MTH all-female version of "1776."

"Cathy's a big one for me," Karel said. "We are so alike. I could see myself following in her footsteps in her town. I only got to do one show with Karen Errington, but she was just a lovely person. Even if I'm not asking their advice, I'm watching them."

And if these performers stick around, eventually they'll be the mentors.

"There are a lot of ladies with a lot of talent in this town," Karel said. "And there's more coming all the time, especially with girls graduating from Stephens College and moving here. The woman pool in this town is amazing."

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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