Many roles prepare TIP for summer opening

Mark Sewzey, right, and Jeff Martin, music director/conductor of Something Rotten, are shown during recent auditions at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, Overland Park. Sewzey will direct Something Rotten.

Mark Sewzey, right, and Jeff Martin, music director/conductor of Something Rotten, are shown during recent auditions at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, Overland Park. Sewzey will direct Something Rotten.

By Gerald Hay

The 2022 season of Johnson County’s popular Theatre in the Park is featuring five productions for the first time in 53 years at large amphitheater in Shawnee Mission Park.

Most of the TIP shows are fairly new. Something Rotten, Disney’s the Descendants and School of Rock all premiered in 2015. The SpongeBob Musical had its theater debut six years ago. Zombie Prom opened in New York City in 1996.

Tim Bair, producing artistic director for the Theatre in the Park program since November 2010, says a season with all inaugural shows was purely happenstance. He also serves as the fine and performing arts manager for the Johnson County Park and Recreation District which manages TIP.

“It begins with a look back at our past seasons to remind ourselves what shows we have done recently, then some research into what new shows might be available to us, and try to come up with a good mix of new, classic, family, etc. It can be a challenge sometimes,” Bair said. “We don’t like to repeat a show inside of a 10-year window … even if it is really popular!”

A typical summer season involves more than 300 participants and volunteers in many and different ways. There are directors, choreographers, set designers and builders, stage crews, musicians and support staff either in front or behind the spotlight.

Aside from the performers on stage or in the orchestra pit, a TIP season requires scores of other volunteers and support staff in many behind-the-scenes roles before and during the new TIP season from the opening curtain in early June to final curtain calls in early August.

Becky Johnson is one of them. She staffs TIP’s information station in “front of the house” at the amphitheater.

“My work involves providing information, of course; selling a little merch; and keeping a supply of Band-Aids, bug repellent and a watchful eye on what’s going on around me, like lost parents, kids in trees and making sure people don’t wander where they shouldn’t,” Johnson said.

“TIP is perfect for families, with space for children to run and play, or for a pre-show picnic. It’s also a great place for high school students to find that first job, and, like me, to look forward to coming back the next season to reunite with friends, that’s part of the 'theatre family.'”

The 2022 summer season of Theatre in the Park begins June 3 with Something Rotten, a musical comedy set in the 1590s with William Shakespeare as a rock singer. It will be the 27th TIP show Mark Sewzey has directed.

The cast requires 20 actors who were chosen by Swezey during recent auditions at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in Overland Park. The auditions attracted more than 250 participants of all ages who showcased their singing, dancing or acting talents.

“Some are seasoned performers,” Swezey said. “Some have a strength in an area that is needed. Occasionally, we find rookies that are perfect for our production.” Marsha Canaday, music director for School of Rock, agreed.

“Some actors are double cast because they can be in the first and last show as long as both directors agree and there is some flexibility with the schedule,” she said. “There are some return actors that we know we can always rely upon, but it is also fun to see some new people get involved.”

Auditions are only the beginning for cast members. According to Swezey, rehearsals average five weeks, five days a week, 3½ hours a night. In addition, there are hours of pre-production planning, meetings with set design and technical staffs along with costume fittings.

In July, Canaday will be playing the keyboard and conducting School of Rock from the orchestra pit of only seven musicians near the stage. Most TIP productions have an orchestra of 15-20 musicians.

“I have gathered my pit and then will meet with them separately to prepare them. Once cast rehearsals start, I will teach the music, including solos, duets and ensemble work,” she said.

Both Swezey and Canaday have long careers in fine arts and public education.

During the year, Swezey is director of theatre at Shawnee Mission South High School. He has received numerous awards for his work in theater and the fine arts at Shawnee Mission South and local community theaters. He was named to the Kansas Thespian Hall of Fame in 2017.

Canaday became involved in TIP in 2001, serving as accompanist, music director or conductor and sometimes all three over the years. Her music career has spanned almost 30 years, including choral accompanist at various times at six high schools (four in Johnson County) and Kansas City, Kansas Community College. She also was the choral accompanist for the Midwestern Music Camp at the University of Kansas for 15 summers and worked with many renowned conductors.

“TIP attracted me because of the quality of shows that are produced, the outdoor environment and the chance for large numbers of people to see the shows we work so hard on,” she said. “These are the same reasons I feel that TIP is a valuable asset to the community besides providing a wonderful family atmosphere where picnics are enjoyed and games played before the shows start.”

Chris Halford is another a longtime TIP veteran, acting as many Zangler, Skimbleshanks in Cats, Doc in West Side Story and Reverend Moore in Footloose, which was his favorite character.

“My first performance was in 2003 in Anything Goes at age 44. I’m 63 now and I hope that in 20 years there's still a role I can play,” Halford said.

“The venue is super special, very large and I just love the ability to perform outdoors. Great staff, directors, choreographers, plus with five shows per outdoor season, provides many options. Plus, you can see great musicals onstage without spending much money.”

The biggest issue for outdoor theater, by far, is the weather, ranging from cool night air to warm sometimes hot, humid, muggy evenings. Threatening storms, rain and lightning also dampen productions. If a storm threat is evident early enough, the show is scrapped before it starts.

Last year, a storm caused an untimely ending in Curtains, a musical with a murder mystery plot. The murderer is revealed at the end, but within the final minutes, the show got called because lightning was too close to TIP.

“The audience all screamed and groaned because they never found out who it was,” he said. “All of us onstage at the time could only yell out ‘Oh no!’ The audience would have to come back another night to see how it ended.”

In April, Halford played Uncle Sig, the uncle of Jack Mandelbaum, the main character and Holocaust survivor, in the one-act play Surviving Hitler at the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre in Overland Park. The play, which tells Mandelbaum’s Holocaust experiences up to present times, was directed by TIP’s Bair and was the first play written by author Andrea Warren of Prairie Village.

Acting also now runs in the family with his daughter, Courtney. They performed together in West Side Story in 2005.

Halford cites his daughter for sparking his interest in acting. He also credits TIP for providing experiences and skills she needed in her current musical, theater and acting endeavors in New York City.

His daughter recently returned to the Big Apple where she had lived for almost 10 years. For the past several months, she had stayed with her parents due to the pandemic. In New York City, Courtney Halford has performed Off-Broadway, including about five years as a performer with Disney Cruise Line, and several TV shows.

“She followed her dream and her dad followed in her footsteps,” Halford said. “Our apples haven’t fallen far from the tree.”