The American Songbook 2

Alive and Well at Quality Hill Playhouse

The Kansas City performing arts scene is a thriving, vibrant cosmos of stars – large and small. There are big names in our midst such as the Symphony, the Lyric, KC Rep, the Ballet, The Kauffman Center and many more. But there are also lesser-known gems such as Quality Hill Playhouse, located in the heart of downtown at 10th and Broadway, behind a marquis proclaiming its name and current show information. Shining brightly now in its 21st season, QHP (as it is affectionately known) and its commander-in-chief, J. Kent Barnhart are a force to be reckoned with in the musical landscape of Kansas City.

In 1995, Kent and his newly created non-profit, Quality Hill Productions, signed a lease on the Playhouse, which had previously been in the hands of Mark Edelman and Theatre League. With Kent’s musical theater history dating back to 1989 and his production of Music At The Simpson House (co-produced by Deborah Ausemus), and his off-Broadway work, it was time to produce a full-scale season of cabaret revue-style music for the masses. Since then, QHP has been dedicated to bringing musical theater, as well as fully staged plays, to this intimate 153-seat theater every year.

As Kent will happily relay through conversation and/or song, his mission and the mission of the Playhouse is to keep the American Songbook alive, and expose patrons of all ages to the magic of American composers and lyricists. In his view, the American Songbook is a group of standards, or a body of work, collected and performed since the beginning of the 20th century. They are songs that have been performed and recorded many times, and have now become a part of popular culture and an enduring musical legacy. According to Barnhart, “Keeping this music alive is about telling wonderful stories through music, and the live experience is living art.” And, indeed, the experience at QHP is akin to sitting in someone’s living room with talented singers and musicians on tap for one’s own enjoyment.

A typical season at QHP will find a theme of some sort… songs of Broadway; Century of the Songbook; Hooray for Hollywood; Songs That Wrote America; etc. And within each season, there are usually four cabaret revue shows, a Christmas show, and a fully staged show, such as The Dawning of Aquarius. The cabaret series highlights the best and brightest in American music history – Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, Rogers and Hart and Hammerstein, Frank Sinatra, Irving Berlin, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, etc.

Guests at the Playhouse are not only treated to the jewels in the crown of American music, but they are also treated to the banter of J. Kent Barnhart. He is quite simply the mastermind of the entire experience. He produces the shows, sometimes arranges the music, researches the stories behind the pieces, and then shares his expertise with his audiences. More often than not, that expertise is shared with keen humor keeping theater-goers in stitches between sets. Oh, and he plays the piano for nearly every show… more than 200 per year.

Besides being entertained by Kent’s wit and wisdom and talent, patrons are introduced to some of the most amazing local talent in the Kansas City area. Three singers usually accompany Kent, while recently the additions of a drummer and bassist have been a big hit at the Playhouse. In the most recent show, In The Mood: Songs of the Great Band Leaders, Kent was joined by four singers, drums, bass, clarinet and sax. Soaking in the great standards such as Stardust and Chattanooga Choo Choo left the audience reeling in the magnitude of the music and basking in the glow of the stars – celestial and human.

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