February 11, 2011

KC Stage

All about heart at Heartland
by Greg Boyle

The American Heartland Theatre (AHT) is one of three theatres in Crown Center, together with the Coterie for children and Off Center Theatre for edgy and innovative productions. AHT focuses on shows that are light entertainment with broad audience appeal, almost like a dinner theatre. Their current offering, Maybe Baby It’s You, fits into that mold, and it’s pure delight.

Jessalyn Kincaid and Chase Ashurst star in Maybe Baby Itís You (photo by Shane Rowse)

Maybe Baby It’s You was written by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, and first produced in 2006. They aren’t familiar names, but this effort displays some well-honed skills. The piece serves as a vehicle for one female and one male actor, and shows, in a comedic way, how people interact in love relationships. I specifically didn’t say male-female, because same-sex relationships have equivalent permutations, but that’s a discussion for another time.

This piece isn’t really a play, but a series of eleven sketches, mostly unrelated to each other, but with the common theme of the foibles of humanity in love.  The scenes each have titles related to the action, which follows projected onto the back wall. They are tied together during blackouts by what sounds like live street interviews of persons asked to comment on a topic related to the theme of the next scene. These quips are sometimes as funny as the scenes themselves.

The two performers, Jessalyn Kincaid and Chase Ashurst are under 30 years old and beautiful to look at, so Maybe Baby could have been a trite Gen Y puerile exercise in self-absorption. Not even close. These eleven vignettes all have specific points to make, and they are arrived at in often-hilarious fashion. We are treated to life and love lessons, which cover nearly every aspect of relationships. From first meetings, to first love, to love after 40 years of marriage, we recognize ourselves in the characters onstage. While their traits might be exaggerated for effect, a wide variety of the people we have known are portrayed. From the dreamers, the controllers and the drama queens, to the emotionally unavailable, the hardboiled, and the sadly bitter, we are ready witnesses to the reality of these characters.

A couple of the performances were especially noteworthy, with Chase Ashurst’s dancing fool being a spectacular display of apparently chaotic, but beautifully choreographed movement. His caped dreamer also moved wonderfully. This young actor has marvelous control of his athletic body. In addition, special mention needs to be made of the sound designer, Donna Miller, and the sound engineer, Dennis Coffman, for their part in the show-stopping Medea performance given by Jessalyn Kincaid. Trying to describe it wouldn’t do it justice.

Congratulations have to be given to director Paul Hough for allowing his actors to go over the top on the couple of times it was called for, and to rein it in and stay small at other times, even though the audience was howling at the insanity of the material. The moments of awkwardness in the scene of the 5-year anniversary are so real that they hurt at the same time you couldn’t help laughing. That wouldn’t have worked if the actors had been encouraged to play directly to the hugely appreciative audience.

The stage area at American Heartland is ¾ round, so the players have to work a broader than usual physical area. It forces the actors to be more aware of their positioning, but also affords them greater latitude for movement. The house holds only 420 patrons, and every seat feels close to the performers. When you add in the full bar, the comfortable lounge, the fact that you can visit the Crown Center shops, AHT is an excellent place to enjoy an evening of theatre. I especially recommend this production for anyone from teens on up.

Maybe Baby It’s You is running through Feb. 20 at American Heartland Theatre at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For reservations, call the box office at 816-842-9999, or go online at www.ahtkc.com.

Greg Boyle can be contacted at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.