Wayne Bryan and Bets Malone in Me and My Girl(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
Wayne Bryan and Bets Malone in Me and My Girl
(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
Wayne Bryan is a little concerned. "I don't want people to think I'm one of those producing directors who schedules shows at his own theater so that he can perform in them," says the head honcho of Music Theatre of Wichita. "We're really here to train kids in musical theater."

Bryan tells me this just before he goes to make up for his lead role of Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl. True, at 56, Bryan would seem to be, shall-we-say, tooth-lengthy to play the young Cockney who's deeply in love with fish-cleaner Sally Smith. But, just last year, Bryan was asked by Music Theatre West in Long Beach, California to reprise the role he'd already done both in Wichita in 1990 and La Mirada, California in 1991. "For little guys like me," says the short and slight Bryan, "there's Bill, Littlechap, Cocky, and Kipps. I figured this would be my last hurrah with Bill."

In addition to replicating what he did last season, he also brought to Kansas from Long Beach Bets (yes, Bets) Malone to play Sally, Tracy Lore to portray the highborn Lady Jacquie, director Roger Castellano, and musical director Dennis Castellano. I don't blame him. At the three performances I attend, I see that the Castellanos make the show move with the speed of summer lightning. Lore has all the wonderful qualities of Gretchen Wyler. As for Malone, I check her bio to see if she's ever played the Star-to-Be in Annie, a part for which she seems very right. It isn't listed among her many credits, but no matter; she certainly uses the role of Sally to prove that she's a star to be.

For those who haven't been to Music Theatre of Wichita (and that's your first mistake), it's quite an operation. The 2,100 seat-house itself rather resembles the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, though this place is more than a third larger. Here, each summer, Bryan -- who's been on the job for 17 of the theater's 33 years -- hires 275 people to work on five handsomely produced musicals. He's done such a good job that when Disney was looking for theaters to present the first regional productions of Beauty and the Beast, Music Theatre of Wichita was one of the six selected. The show will play there August 4-8.

What? Only five days? Yes, there are only eight performances of each show. After all, 2,100 seats means that 16,800 tickets must be sold. What's astonishing is that many of them are already gone by the spring, for 10,000 people subscribe each summer. In a town of 250,000, pro-rated, one in every 25 Wichitans annually pledges his faith to Music Theatre of Wichita and Wayne Bryan.

Audiences who are used to seeing Bryan give a pre-curtain orientation speech before each show now coo in delight when they see him in costume and character. They love him as the Cockney who discovers he's the heir to a vast upper-crust fortune -- if only he can change his demeanor and become noble. Bryan doesn't just rely on his audience's munificence, however; throughout the musical, he shows that he's capable of much more than just leaning on a lamppost. He turns out to be genuinely astonishing in a truly great musical. (If you're wondering why I think it's "truly great," see my Monday, July 19 column.)

Tracy Lore and Wayne Bryan in Me and My Girl(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
Tracy Lore and Wayne Bryan in Me and My Girl
(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
For one thing, Bryan acts the part well. When expressing his love for Sally Smith, he can make the hoary line "I couldn't live without you" sound brand new. For another, he beautifully croons his songs, and for yet another, he's tops in his tap-dance numbers. But playing Bill also takes a great deal of dexterity. The show's high-falutin' characters have a problem with Bill's English but no audience member can fault Bryan's body English, which is indeed eloquent. He has a hands-in-his-pockets ease as he struts around the stage before deftly doing a somersault onto a couch where he'd left his hat; then he suddenly plows over the other end of the couch and onto the floor with the hat back on his head. He goes to sit on a chair that's taken away just before he parks himself on it and still manages to maintain a sitting position for quite some time. (He flawlessly does both of these maneuvers at all three performances.) No one would ever know that Bryan's been eligible for AARP for six years now.

But here's what makes Bryan extra-special in the role. Many Bills I've seen have laughed at their own jokes as if to say, "Ain't I just the funniest thing?" But Bryan instead seems to tell a joke in order to make someone happy, to bring a bit of sunshine into the listener's life, as if aware that a good laugh gets the circulation going. This really pays off later in the show, when Sally tells him, "You always make me smile." People have said this to their loves for centuries -- but here we nod our heads in agreement because, yes, we have seen Bill make other people smile.

If the stage isn't quite filled with hundreds of girls, there is a cast of 45 up there. Bryan, Malone, Lore, and two others are the only Equity performers. The rest range from recent graduates of CCM (the excellent Doug Barton) to current students at Michigan (the fetching Jennifer Barber), and these kids are glad to get the gig. Take a look at the program and you'll see in the bios that one person says she's "on cloud nine" to be here. Three say they're "excited," while another is "so excited" and yet another is "very excited." Two are "honored," three are "delighted," and no fewer than eleven are "thrilled" to be at Music Theatre of Wichita. It's one thing to rehearse a show for 10 days in a summer stock barn or tent but quite another, after that short rehearsal time, to play on a stage and in a house that's bigger than any on Broadway, in a show with production values that aren't far from that mark.

All three Wichita audiences greet Bryan, the show, and the production with over-the-moon enthusiasm. But what really impresses me is how well Bryan has educated his customers over the years. Deep into the musical, a character makes Sally an offer that will allow her to speak properly and keep up with Bill's newfound position: "There's an army friend of mine," he says. "He shares a house in Upper Wimpole Street with a remarkable man who could certainly do it. He's done it before." And at each performance I attend, a theatergoer sitting next to me says to the theatergoer sitting next to him, "My Fair Lady!" Frankly, I've always thought that the reference was oblique and felt that the authors should have had the character say, "There's an army friend of mine, Colonel Pickering." But the Wichita audiences made me think that the extra clue isn't needed.

Brenda Cox, Wayne Bryan, and Bets Malone in Me and My Girl(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
Brenda Cox, Wayne Bryan, and Bets Malone in Me and My Girl
(Photo © Jerry Fritchman)
Theatergoers aren't the only people Bryan's educating. After the closing performance, he has the cast and crew over to his house, not only to reward them with food and drink but also to show them a video in which the original Bill Snibson, Lupino Lane, appears. Alas, it isn't the 1939 Me and My Girl movie (which was renamed The Lambeth Walk). "I don't have that one," Bryan says mournfully, "but I do have The Love Parade." And how I love seeing a group of twentysomethings, eyes riveted to the screen, chortling loudly with glee and oohing in amazement at the deft footwork of a long-departed entertainer. Wayne Bryan doesn't have to worry that, in taking a leading role, he's abrogated his responsibility to train young people in musical theater.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]