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Musical production revisits Leonard Bernstein's Broadway successes

Musical Theater Heritage’s “Bernstein’s Broadway,” running March 29-April 13, features the lead voices of Alison Sneegas Borberg, Justin McCoy, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Ben Gulley, Stefanie Wienecke, and the narration of George Harter.
Musical Theater Heritage’s “Bernstein’s Broadway,” running March 29-April 13, features the lead voices of Alison Sneegas Borberg, Justin McCoy, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Ben Gulley, Stefanie Wienecke, and the narration of George Harter.
Tim Scott

"Bernstein's Broadway" by Musical Theater Heritage

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Musical Theater Heritage opened “Bernstein's Broadway,” at Kansas City’s Off Center Theatre, located in Crown Center, March 29, with the show running through April 13 in a remounting of the successful, original review about the life of Leonard Bernstein and the music he wrote for the Broadway stage, specifically four shows.

A press release from MTH announced the return of “Bernstein’s Broadway,” written by MTH’s Executive Director and Broadway historian, George Harter, and MTH’s Artistic Director, Sarah Crawford. “Bernstein’s Broadway” celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s rarely-heard, music from “On the Town,” “Candide,” and “Wonderful Town.” His music from "West Side Story" is well remembered.

Harter explained that “On the Town” did not have a cast recording of its original Broadway run, so that may help explain why the music is not as familiar as other Bernstein works. He also said that "Candide" is the least known of the shows and just never seems to get a lot of support when it’s remounted on Broadway.

According to Harter, “Bernstein’s Broadway” was the first production by MTH at Crown Center’s new, Off Center Theater in 2008, and only ran for eight performances, but now the show will run for 15 performances.

“We’ve had many of our long-time subscribers asking to bring it back. So, we decided it was time to give our newest subscribers an opportunity to see this wonderful production. We are very proud of it,” Chad Gerlt, MTH Executive Producer, said.

Director Sarah Crawford managed to snare some of the best known and best voices in the KC Metro area for the show. The show showcases five of the best local voices with three men and two women taking center stage. Alison Sneegas Borberg, Ben Gulley, Stefanie Wienecke, Jacob Aaron Cullum, and Justin McCoy alternated as songs dictated as they worked through the four Broadway musicals.

While the dynamic quintet of voices belted out song after song, the back up cast added background harmonies and short solos to add more depth, texture, and sometimes comedy to the songs. And, the back up cast could easily fill any void in the spotlight should anyone be unable to perform at some time. In other words, the backup cast possesses equal talent and performance skills to step up at any time.

Act I covered the first two of Bernstein’s musicals, “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town.” The second was adapted from the popular play, “My Sister Eileen,” and starred Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams, Harter said. “Wonderful Town” ran for about 550 performances, opening in 1953, and “On the Town” ran for about 450 performances beginning in 1944. Both were fairly long runs for that time, Harter said.

This year’s MTH production is again hosted and narrated by George Harter, with a cast of 15 consisting of Alison Sneegas Borberg, Ben Gulley, Stefanie Wienecke, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Justin McCoy, Megan Herrera, Linnaia McKenzie, Megan Horsman, Kami Rodgers, Robert Hingula,Tyler Eisenreich, and Bob Wearing. On piano, the show features the MTH’s Jeremy Watson, with Brian Wilson on bass, and Kyle Brown on percussion.

The show opened with Cullum singing the first part of the well-known signature song, “New York, New York (It’s a Helluva Town).” The song introduced all five major performers to the audience. McCoy showed off more of his vocal prowess with a sensitive ballad, “Lonely Town,” and Gulley let his body groove to the Act I finale, “Conga.” Wienecke belted “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook, Too,” Not to be outdone, Borberg added a chorus of “I Can Cook, Too.” Act I gave all the leads a chance to show their vocal gymnastics at full tilt.

Act II began with selections from “Candide,” probably the least known show and score of Bernstein’s Broadway shows. According to Harter, the group spent about 11 minutes performing highlights from that show. McCoy sang the most rousing, “Make Our Garden Grow,” and drew enthusiastic applause from the audience with the help of some “surprise” chorus members.

From there, the well-known melodies from “West Side Story,” undoubtedly Bernstein’s Broadway masterpiece, sent jolts of energy through the crowd. “Jet Song” with Cullum leading reved up the energy. “Something’s Coming” by Eisenreich followed, and then, Gulley used his most powerful voice for “Maria.” After the applause died down from that, Wienecke belted out “America.” McCoy and Borberg sang the love duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” After that the next selection was ‘Quintet” where the subplots of “West Side Story” collide as the story reaches a climax. The power of the men’s voices really pushed this number to dizzying heights and the ladies matched their power with their own volume.

To add some comic relief to the drama within “West Side Story,” “Gee, Officer Krupke” allowed all the back up men to participate in the comic tradition of the stage version. The song drew lots of laughs and gave everyone a chance to “ham it up.”

No tribute to Bernstein’s Broadway success could be complete without his signature calling card, “Somewhere,” also from “West Side Story.” The entire cast participated in the number and electrified the audience, bringing them to their feet as the spotlight faded before the curtain call.

No musical production can succeed without the talents of the musicians that play the accompaniments. Kyle Brown on percussion and Brian Wilson on bass provided great back up support for the production. Jeremy Watson, on piano, stood out with his rapid-fire fingering of the ivories and his energetic approach to each song. While each of the soloists had their times to shine, Watson shone throughout each and every number. He is truly one of the best instrumentalists in the metro area. His skills are unmatched.

“I think our audience is going to be absolutely blown away by our cast and the powerful, moving, music that Leonard Bernstein has created. We are thrilled to bring it back,” Sarah Crawford , artistic director, said.

Bring it back, Crawford, Harter, and Gerlt did...and with spunk, power, and fizz. The show takes the audience along a timeline of one of America’s most famous and celebrated composers. Everyone will find something to enjoy in “Bernstein’s Broadway.” Musical Theatre Heritage hit a lead-off home run to open its season. Tickets will sell out fast.

An enthusiastic standing ovation began as the lights faded to black and even before the lights came up for curtain call and bows. That signifies the energy generated by the show and the positive response from audience. Several outburst of “Bravo” after individual songs just kept the audience energized awaiting the following ditty.

"Bernstein’s Broadway" runs Thursdays through Sundays, March 27 – April 13 at the Off Center Theater on the upper level of Kansas City’s Crown Center. Tickets are $17-$40, and student tickets are available for only $10. Box Office: (816) 545-6000. Online: www.MTHKC.com. Evening performances begin at 8. Matinees begin at 2.