Whimsical world premiere musical puts KC on theatre map

By Bob Evans

Look no further for a great venue to launch a world premiere musical than Kansas City Repertory Theatre on the campus of UMKC because one production, “A Christmas Story” continued to Broadway and earned several Tony nominations; and, the newest production, “Between the Lines,” that opened Sept. 15 could follow that path.

“Between the Lines” a family-friendly new musical/comedy opened to the most enthusiastic audience response in recent years for the KC Rep. As the lights faded to begin curtain calls, the audience throughout the auditorium rose to their feet, many before lights up and bows officially began.

The story comes from a book by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer. Music and lyrics for the musical production were written by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Timothy Allen McDonald wrote the book for the musical stage production. “Between the Lines” is produced by Kansas City Repertory Theatre and by special arrangement with Daryl Roth and Columbia Live Stage.

The story unfolds as a teenage misfit finds her dreary life brings isolation and pain, so she turns to books to find adventure, escape, and a world where the words transport her to familiar and happier times. Her parents’ separation and her father’s new life causes even more strife for the teen and her overly-stressed mother. Books offer her escape and the promise that things always turn out in the end, and even children’s fairy tales can teach life’s most valuable lessons.

Delilah McFee wants more from life that she’s found. She wants acceptance and longs for respect, but happiness eludes her. Such is the torment of the adolescent maturation process, stunningly presented by Arielle Jacobs in her KC Rep debut. Dreams come true when she finds a mysterious note on an illustration on her favorite fairy tale, and later learns that the character she most admires finds a way to speak to her and enter into her world, albeit briefly, but regularly. As her romantically charged prince, Curt Hansen delivers a dimpled, fresh character, of Prince Oliver from between the lines of her favorite story. Let the teenage romance begin.

With no standout antagonist, “Between the Lines” charms its way into the hearts of the audience with bright colors, elaborate costumes, rich characters, lively songs, a splendiferous tap number, and supporting characters as rich and textured as any Disney character. The book by Timothy McDonald zings right along at a great pace to keep young and old engaged with the flashes into an out of happily ever after land. The music and lyrics follow suit. Several songs could become stand alone hits from the production.

Teenage angst could not be more pronounced than in the character of Jules, Delilah’s only real friend, skillfully presented by Morgan Siobhan Green. She brings the right amount of sarcasm to the show without the show going dark. Her character instills the idea she’s “been there/done that” and figured it all out. And she does it in a convincing, subtle performance. And when it comes to “man’s best friend”–even in a fairy tale–Danny Gardner epitomized the trusty companion bewitched into a dog by an evil curse. Gardner’s character breaks into a rousingly fun number that morphs into an overwhelming tap number.

“Between the Lines,” as customary for KC Rep, utilizes a combination of New York and local KC talent for their productions. This one also calls on the combined singing/actors of both locations to bring the production to Kansas City audiences. The New York talent shines, but so, too does the local actors in this production.

Emily Shackelford creates sparks as a mean-spirited, bully in the classroom, and sparkles as the self-centered princess in the happily ever after land. She’s mean and funny. She needs more stage time and more daft lines for her princess. As the kindly librarian with a penchant for Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame, Judy Simmons can steal the show when she breaks into her song about Mr. Darcy. Simmons is funny, endearing, and loving in her several scenes.

While teenage anger needs a love/hate relationship, expect to see Shanna Jones in a whole new dimension as Grace, Delilah’s mother. The scenes between Delilah and her mother bring out the love/anger that builds and fuels the conflicted relationship. Life’s responsibilities hinder Grace from being the mother Delilah wants, yet Delilah’s immaturity forbids her seeing what her mother does for their survival and life. The scenes between Jones and Jacobs are sublime. Their acting together is flawless and gives the story depth.

Other KC locals with nice parts are Tim Scott and Julie Shaw. Scott gets the chance to present a funny character so different from those roles in recent years. Scott is fun and lively in his character. Shaw’s dual roles in “Between the Lines” gives her the chance to play a funny and realistic role. Her sexy-dressed biology teacher is a hoot, and her part as children’s author is heartfelt character to move the play toward its climax.

“Between the Lines” stands out as one of the finest productions in KC Rep history. The sets, lighting, choreography, sound, costumes, props, projection, musical direction–all aspects just possess a sparkle to them. Credit Eric Rosen, artistic director for setting another and higher standard for KC Rep productions.  Directorial duties for “Between the Lines” comes under the experience and guidance of Jeff Calhoun.  Kudos to him and his entire staff and crew.

The only piece I would liked to have seen would be two short vignettes of mother and son singing a reprise of a song from earlier in the first act; and then, on the opposite side of the stage, a similar duet of the mother and daughter singing a similar reprise just to give the four characters a chance to cement their relationships for the audience before the show moves toward its finale.

Overall, KC Rep stunned KC audiences with a superb season opening show that’s destined to move forward. Word of mouth will spread quickly and sold out performances could make ticketing difficult. The show is fun yet thought provoking. It allows for many talk points without getting dramatic or deep. “Between the Lines” touche on teenage angst, isolation, bullying, fantasy, escape, suicide, mental illness, family crises, maturation, relationships, loneliness, depression, and other situational issues. None of these weigh down the show’s happy message. They are touched upon and the show quickly moves on. “Between the Lines” provides a family-friendly show that will not offend anyone. It’s fun, sweet, charming, melodic, and most of all, happy.

The show comes with the highest of recommendations. Advance ticketing is suggested to avoid shut outs at the box office. For ticketing, contact the KC Rep website. “Between the Lines” plays through Oct. 1.

Tags: KC Rep, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, “Between the Lines”, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment, Music, Kansas City

Images courtesy of KC Rep, Cory Weaver & KC Re and Cory Weaver & KC Rep

Author: Bob Evans

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