After more than a year of COVID-19 related shutdowns and a near standstill for community theatre, Johnson County Park and Recreation District is bringing back a new season of Theatre in the Park.
The first show of the summer season, “Mamma Mia,” debuts Friday, June 4, at the outdoor theatre at 7710 Renner Road, as part of Shawnee Mission Park.
The musical features the music of ABBA! and will have seven performances with curtain time at 8:30 p.m. (June 4-6 and June 9-12). Tickets are available on the Theatre in the Park’s website.
With the lifting of Johnson County’s public health order requiring masks, there are no restrictions regarding masks or physical distancing at the performances. The outdoor theatre can comfortably fit hundreds of people when spaced apart. Five outdoor shows are planned this summer at Theatre in the Park.
“Mamma Mia” features Overland Park husband and wife team Mark Swezey, the director, and Kristi Mitchell, who plays the lead role of Donna. It’s the 22nd show for the couple as well as fellow performer Stasha Case at Theatre in the Park. (Fun fact: Swezey’s days at the theatre go back to “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1981.)
This production of “Mamma Mia” marks the first time that Theatre in the Park will use a revolving stage.
The cast will not be wearing masks since it’s outdoors, and Swezey noted that most performers have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Swezey said the cast and crew feel “pretty comfortable,” following a careful spring when cast members wore see-through masks during auditions.
“It’s tremendous to do theatre again,” Swezey said.
He noted that Shawnee Mission South, where he has taught since 1980, had five shows — four of them virtual — over the past year, but that was just a taste for theatre lovers.
“We’re so excited. This is just the kind of show I think you want to start at a time like this,” he said.
Mitchell, who is a music teacher at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Mo., said she’s “ecstatic,” like many of her fellow cast members, to get back on the stage for live performances.
“I think ‘Mamma Mia,’ with its fantastic soundtrack, its fun vibe, its story of love, story of hope, story of friendship, it’s like the perfect feel-good vehicle and a great opener for the season,” Mitchell said.
After juggling a school year with changing rules for singing, Mitchell understands being nervous to keep everyone safe. But she’s been impressed with how the cast and crew have been respectful of keeping each other safe.
“Even after the ban lifted, we decided you know what, one person gets sick, we have to cancel a show; no one wants that,” Mitchell said. “So we kept our masks on inside, and then once we came out here, we took them off. There is certainly freedom out here outside to perform without a mask.
“And I’ll tell you, this is the hardest working cast. If you’re not onstage performing, you’re offstage singing. We are start to finish working, and it’s great camaraderie. I’m amazed at the young talent, and then you’ve got the six veterans who are the older cast playing the fathers and three older women. We once were those young kids dancing around crazy, so it’s fun to see the two generations mix together.”
‘Jump on the being grateful bandwagon’
One day when nearly everything shut down in March 2020 is quite a vivid memory for Tim Bair, Theatre in the Park’s producing artistic director.
They were in rehearsal for “Be More Chill,” five days leading up to opening night.
It marked the beginning of what became the end of theater and live performances for 2020. Plans for community theater kept getting pushed back and back … and back, until eventually it became clear that it would be unsafe and the season had to be canceled.
“For us, it was just heartbreaking, and I think as most people have lived through it too, it touches everyone in a different way, of course,” Bair said. “For me, it was especially difficult because we had already auditioned our summer shows. We had casts for all of the shows.
“The time just kept creeping forward and forward, things kept getting canceled and canceled. We thought, ‘OK we’ll hold on until this, we’ll hold on until that. As we all know, there was never anything to hold onto. It just ended and was completely dark.”
It takes five weeks to get a show off the ground, so decisions in theater have to be made well in advance. That’s why Bair and his team eventually made the call fairly early on in the pandemic to cancel completely. Hundreds of preparation hours were lost.
Theatre in the Park did have some positives: they had movies with social distancing to fit 300 people. At the end of last year, they had an indoor show with two actors and COVID-19 precautions.
Throughout the pandemic, it has been a journey of mixed feelings for those in Theatre in the Park: fear, hesitation, sadness, and eventually, excitement for the new season.
“We’re at a place that feels better; vaccinations are happening, the world is opening up again, it feels like we’re slowly on our way to normal, if that’s possible,” Bair said. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same kind of normal again.”
This new season comes with changes, with some cast members returning from last spring intermixed with new faces. Some people are now unavailable, some people grew up, some people moved away and some people chose to leave the operation.
And auditions changed, too. While the number of people auditioning this year dropped by about 100, the number of video auditions jumped to 170 (up from 40).
Bair said he’s hopeful that this summer will draw people together again to an outdoor space for live entertainment.
“I hope that people are ready to get out of the house and feel comfortable and will come and enjoy the park,” Bair said. “I think it’s positive that we’re outside. And I think, whether people are vaccinated or not, I hope that people come. I hope that we’re all neighborly and just jump on the being grateful bandwagon. I’m really grateful that we are where we are and we’re able to move forward with this season.”