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Blending, Bending Genres in 'Kansas City Choir Boy'

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Courtney Love in "Kansas City Choir Boy" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Rock operas have delighted listeners since the late 1960s, when The Who gave us Tommy, The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrow, and the British band Nirvana (not that Nirvana) invented the genre with The Story of Simon Simopath. In the intervening decades, rock operas have increasingly found their way to the stage as theatricalized adaptations, such as We Will Rock You and American Idiot, and original standalone musicals such as Hair and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the latter of which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008.

Into this storied tradition comes Kansas City Choir Boy, which plays the Douglas through November 8, 2015. Composer/lyricist Todd Almond, who is featured in the show alongside rock icon Courtney Love, calls Kansas City Choir Boy a “theatricalized concept album” or a “rock operetta,” which conjures up images of something particularly hip, fresh, and artistic. But what does this actually mean, and what does it sound and look like?

The production plays with a number of different traditional and contemporary forms, including rock, opera, musical theatre, and electronica. The form of the piece—with the performers coming from and going into the audience, impressive video design, and a pinpoint sound system—is designed to shake up the audience’s expectations and immerse them in a different kind of theatrical experience. “Kansas City Choir Boy is more than a rock concert, but not quite a traditional theatre show,” said Director Kevin Newbury, who calls himself a “musical omnivore” and is a genre-bending artist who has directed a slew of new operas, including The Manchurian Candidate, Doubt, and Galileo Galilei. Kansas City Choir Boy “draws on all the things I love,” said Newbury, and features “cross-pollination of every medium.”

Containing no dialogue except song lyrics, Kansas City Choir Boy has elements of an operetta, but lacks the spectacle features such as massive sets, large ensembles, and seemingly impossible special effects that have come to define traditional grand opera. Yet it also eschews definition as a rock opera-style musical. Using highly theatricalized elements, such as the “Sirens,” who function as a classical Greek chorus, the aesthetic is at once more mystical and serious than that of your typical Broadway show. And unlike operas and musicals, where the music is used to tell a larger story, Kansas City Choir Boy is staged in service of the story expressed in the music.

Kansas City Choir Boy is also a reflection of today’s art and entertainment culture. Just as concerts have become far more theatrical, many theatrical productions have taken on the qualities of contemporary music concerts. Kansas City Choir Boy’s runway stage is something you might find at a rock concert, as is its lighting. But it also borrows from contemporary art by using space, everyday objects, and highly stylized performances to tell its story. And, like contemporary experimental theatre, it creates an immersive experience for the audience, who feel alternately as though they are in “Carnegie Hall, a rave, or Central Park,” said Newbury. Ultimately, he sees Kansas City Choir Boy as “the future of performance—it can be categorized as an art installation, theatre piece, or concert, depending on the moment.”

Newbury and the cast and crew of Kansas City Choir Boy are experimenters and innovators in their fields, with bodies of work that have sought to shake up the status quo. Kansas City Choir Boy does just that, with a story that is unique and compelling, and a staging that abandons the expectations of opera, musical, and rock opera productions and instead ventures out boldly into unknown territory.

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