The Mouths of Babes

Just last week, this paper toasted the Coterie Theatre as Kansas City’s best. Proud to celebrate what many think of as a children’s theater, we lauded the Coterie’s superior craftsmanship and the balance that artistic director Jeff Church strikes between whimsy and reality — his shows handle grown-up themes more thoughtfully than most ostensibly grown-up theaters.

No production should exemplify the Coterie’s approach more clearly than With Their Eyes: The View of 9/11 From a High School at Ground Zero. A collection of monologues culled from interviews with students at New York’s top-tier Stuyvesant High School, With Their Eyes is an informal oral history of the day and its aftermath. In appealing vernacular, on a stage teeming with schoolhouse life, the Coterie’s kids tell us what the New York kids felt and feared: how the air “hurt,” how an adult told the kids to grab hands and run, the way some boys laughed during the uncertain moments before the second plane hit.

This is honest talk from when the wound was fresh, before the signal event in recent American life had scabbed over and been exploited to sell us Chevys and candidates and 24-style torture and a meaningless war. With Their Eyes is often funny and surprising — exactly what you would hope for. Unfortunately, though, too many of the monologues are dry, despite their personal details.

The exceptions are highlights, moments as memorable as any you will ever see on a stage. Vi Tran is riveting as a smart kid skeptical of the sense of community fostered by the attack. As his character struggles to find words to explain why he’s infuriated at the tourists taking snapshots at ground zero, we hear painful truths that few have dared speak. Anastasia Zorin’s turn as a custodian is delicately wrought, suffused with a weary pride; and Victoria Willingham is priceless as both a dance-obsessed special-education student and a senior whose thick hip-hop lingo is already dated. Janelle Chu does smart, subtle work as the school’s building manager; in the months after 9/11, she’s both touched and overwhelmed by the gifts that schools across the nation have shipped to Stuyvesant. (A box on the stack behind her reads, wittily, “Toby Keith CDs.”)

Living history aside, the chief reason to catch this is Abdelhadi Baaddi, a young actor, sound-effects wizard and bona fide human beatbox from Amsterdam. He spits the kick and snare drums between scenes and sometimes backs up a monologue with incredible all-mouth renditions of “Drop It Like It’s Hot” or “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Equally impressive is his horrifying re-creation of the sound of jets slamming into buildings and his late-in-the-show performance as a Muslim student suffering persecution.

Too much of the show fades after final curtain, but Baaddi’s sounds and performance linger.

Like Antiques Roadshow or the mind of the president, Quality Hill Playhouse’s cabarets are entirely removed from modern life and culture. This season, bannered “The American Songbook: Broadway and Beyond,” finds J. Kent Barnhart and company dedicating themselves to decade-by-decade treatments of pop and Broadway. The first show in the series, a winning dash through the witty, romantic tunes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin, is a lark not much different from most QHP productions. It’s a routine that’s never routine.

No surprise that Music of the 1920s & ’30s showcases songs you know and some you don’t, with the most familiar — the ones so familiar, you dread them — enjoying Barnhart’s freshest arrangements. The climactic “God Bless America” inspires so fervent a standing ovation that, were he inclined, Barnhart could sign up the crowd for loyalty oaths.

The casts are similar from show to show. There’s always a roguish guy getting by on charm instead of vocal pyrotechnics; a big-voiced woman just quirky enough nail the comic songs; and an operatic dynamo who, once each act, comes on like the back end of a dragster, torching some innocent song to a cinder.

Luckily, our guy this time is the expressive James Wright. Crammed into his tux, he looks like a sitcom dad turned out like a swell, but his comic flourishes and light-touch baritone are easy and classy. He makes Cole Porter’s unpublished “I’m a Gigolo” sound like a hit. A moment later, when he tears into “Making Whoopee,” his eyes find jokes and entendre the rest of us have missed.

The comedienne is Sarah Mae McElroy. Singing funny songs, she’s hilarious. On sad tunes, she seems anguished. Either way, she’s worth savoring, her voice simultaneously deep and airy, tender and ringing.

The flamethrower is Lindsey McKee, who, for all her gobsmacking talent, can be a little much. When reined in, her gorgeous quaver stirs; when she cuts loose on some unsuspecting pop song, she hits these ears like an aggressive theremin. Perhaps it’s a generational thing: the AARPers in the crowd adore her.

They make up most of the audience, as usual — it’s the opposite of the Coterie. Years from now, maybe Quality Hill will embrace hip-hop, and I’ll finally stop being the youngest person in the audience.

Categories: A&E, Stage