The optical illusion that is Starlight Theatre’s new stage takes a few minutes to register. After $10 million and a marketing campaign that promises “you’ve never seen Starlight like this,” the initial perception is that the performance area is smaller, seemingly pinched on three sides by a rectangular proscenium arch. But as you move among the nearly 8,000 seats, a kind of architectural magic occurs. Even from the terrace seating, which has been maligned in the past as being acres away from the actors, your focus sharpens and reveals an intimacy not commonly associated with Starlight Theatre. The members of the construction crew still banging away toward the June 29 opening seem so close you can almost make out their brand of jeans.
From the first row of terrace seating, George Guastello, Starlight’s director of marketing, who ends most sentences with an exclamation point, proclaims, “And from here you can see Miss Saigon for $18!”
By capping the top and cinching the waist, Starlight’s long-overdue makeover is astonishing. She’s always been handsome; now she’s a beauty. What was once open to the elements and featured distracting views of backstage parking and storage sheds is now enclosed and as technologically advanced as any theater in the city. Where four-story twin towers once stood like castle guards to each side of the open-air stage, they are now mere stepping stones to the 10-story towers and copper roof that dwarf them. And where sets once had to be rolled on and off, perpetually breaking most shows’ momentum, they can now be tucked above the stage in the theater’s mammoth fly space.
“That fly space is going to allow us to close Prince and the Pauper on August 6 and open Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the very next night,” Guastello says of a turnaround time theaters would kill for. The other shows on the summer schedule are Fosse and West Side Story.
The local partnership overseeing the project — HNTB Architects Engineers Planners and J.E. Dunn Construction Company — has been augmented by a team of theater, acoustic, and lighting consultants with credits all over the globe — from Madison Square Garden to the Grand Ole Opry. The tinkering, says Starlight vice president and producer Bob Rohlf, allows the theater to “come out of 1940s technology and come into current technology.” That kind of technology brings a helicopter and the fall of Saigon to the second act of the theater’s opening production of Miss Saigon (June 29 through July 9), a show that will close its New York engagement at the end of this year.
Jerry and Jeanette Cohen, for whom the new stage will be named, launched the expansion with a nearly $1.3 million donation. Jerry Cohen has been on Starlight’s Board of Directors for a startling 50 years. At its inception, the theater was under the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Cohen sat on the Park Board, having been appointed by then-mayor H. Roe Bartle. He says bringing Starlight into the next century has been one of the highlights of his involvement.
“I’m damn proud of it,” he says of the stage bearing the Cohens’ name. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot of them.”
On opening night, the words “Tonight I will be Miss Saigon” will mark the biggest venue the show has ever played and the first time it has played outdoors. Guastello admits that the tour company had concerns about the amphitheater and its size. “But now that they’ve been here and seen the facility, they’re very excited.”
Reminded that Kansas City’s other importer of touring shows, Mark Edelman’s Theater League, is fuming about Starlight’s new capability (and, reportedly, more intensely pissed about the Fosse booking), Rohlf asks with the grin of a hunter with a big, new gun, “And this is news?”