Are We Live Yet, Downtown?

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The Broadway production of Mean Girls is scheduled to be part of the American Guild Broadway Series beginning this fall at the Music Hall. (Photo courtesy Kansas City Broadway Series)

By Kevin Collison

Live entertainment is slowly returning to downtown stages and sports venues, but that world isn’t expect to return to anything close to a post-Covid normal until September.

The T-Mobile Center was the first big venue to turn on the lights for live performances on Jan. 28 following a 10-month pandemic freeze when Disney on Ice opened for what was supposed to be a 15-show run.

While the 18,000-seat arena adhered to city-imposed guidelines, seating only 2,100 people for the shows, the experiment abruptly ended last weekend when the final performances were cancelled after several performers tested positive for Covid.

Next up for T-Mobile is the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament March 10-13. While nothing definite has been decided, organizers hope there will be an opportunity for a limited number of fans to attend.

“We’re still navigating that process,” said Shani Tate Ross, arena spokeswoman.

“Every event has to submit its own plan (to the City Health Department). We’ll be asking to allow fans, but we don’t have a number finalized yet.”

Kathy Nelson of the Kansas City Sports Commission said her office has been in regular contact with Big 12 officials for both the men’s tournament and the women’s, which will be held the same dates at Municipal Auditorium.

“It’s undetermined if there will be fans or not, but we’re working toward that (fans on a limited basis.) It’s exciting we’re having these conversations.”

The Big 12 Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament hopes to have limited seating for fans next month at T-Mobile Center.

As for non-sports live entertainment, the first post-pandemic musical event scheduled for T-Mobile is Grupo Firme, a Mexican pop band, on April 10. Other acts, including Justin Bieber on June 16, are following.

AEG Presents, which handles most of the bookings at both the T-Mobile and Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, also has two shows scheduled next month at the Midland, Scribble Showdown on March 13 and Adam Carolla on March 25.

Officials at other downtown live entertainment venues are taking a longer pause, waiting until after a substantial number of people are expected to have gotten their Covid vaccinations.

The city-owned Music Hall will begin stirring in late September, when The American Theater  Guild brings back the acclaimed Broadway musical Hamilton. It will be followed by the return of the normal season in late November starting with Tootsie.

“The Broadway tour industry producers are feeling optimistic about the vaccine roll out,” said Amy Hamm, spokeswoman for the Theater Guild.

“That’s behind the decision. Economically, it’s difficult to open a show with less than 100 percent attendance. We’re optimistic the vaccine roll out will allow us to do that by then.”

Chris Hernandez, spokesman for the City of Kansas City, shares her cautious optimism.

“We are all hopeful that by this fall, the pandemic will be under control enough to be able to safely enjoy the arts, festivals and other types of gatherings,” he said.

“We are starting to see more requests for site visits for future events, which is a sign that event planners are gearing up for the fall.”

As for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, it likely won’t be until late spring when live performances start returning, at least for its resident companies including the Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera, according to spokeswoman Ellen McDonald.

“There’s nothing to announce,” she said.

“We want to get the vaccine roll out under our belt. We all miss people and we can’t wait to come back when we feel it’s safe for everyone.”

Jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli is scheduled to perform at The Folly in September. (Photo from John Pizzarelli webpage)

The Kansas City Symphony also is waiting in the wings when it comes to any programming announcements, according to Jeff Barker, its marketing director.

“We’re trying to secure programming, guest artists and conductors,” he said. “We’re neck-deep in that now.

“We hope to be able to announce something in April, May and June, but we’re unsure if it will involve in-person audiences. We want to make sure what we do is safe for everybody.”

The Folly Theater has pushed the start of its jazz season back until September with the first performance scheduled Sept. 17 with jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli followed by Karrin Allyson on Oct. 9.

“Some of the artists are not currently ready to commit to traveling or performing, and with the current mandates, we can only have about 200 patrons in our 1,078-seat theater,” said Gale Tallis, Folly executive director.

“Fortunately, all of the artists and their management have been very accommodating and we have been able to reschedule all of the artists who had originally been planned for the 2020-2021.”

The Folly has been doing some smaller, invitation-only shows at its Partron’s Lounge for about 20 people featuring local artists, Tallis added.

While the Green Lady Lounge jazz club is open for cocktails, no decision has been made when live music will return.

“During Covid, I refer band-seeking patrons to The Chaz, The Phoenix, Corvino’s, The Majestic and Lonnie’s Reno Club in the Ambassador Hotel,” said owner John Scott.

One music venue has kept on trucking with limited seating throughout most of the pandemic, Knuckleheads Saloon in the East Bottoms.

“The performers are having a good time and the audiences are as well,” said owner Frank Hicks. “We’re doing social distancing with seating at 20- 25 percent of capacity. It’s been challenging.”

The toughest challenge was when the city required the music to stop at 10 p.m. Now that it’s been eased to midnight, things are beginning to improve financially for the club.

“I think you’ll see big changes this summer,” Hicks said. “People are rescheduling shows now that the vaccine is out. During the last week or so, I’ve had more offers than the last 90- to 120 days.

“It’s been a tough road, but are you going to do?”

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