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'Sweeney Todd' Brings Don Richard Back To Kansas City

With actor Don Richard's return to Kansas City in the starring role of Sweeney Todd, he's making a nostalgic visit back to the city where his career first took off.

For the Artists in their Own Words series, Don Richard talked to KCUR about his journey - from being a waiter in Omaha to appearing on nearly every stage in Kansas City to Broadway gigs and over twenty-five hundred performances of the musical Wicked.

No Place Like Home
At a recent rehearsal of Musical Theater Heritage's production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the cast is running through the opening number that sets up this tale of revenge and bloodlust. As the title character, Richard sings out a warning about "the play he wouldn't want us to give away." His role as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is his first in a Kansas City production in over a decade. He says he's returning to a community that feels familiar and continues to impress him.

"In a lot of ways, I feel very much at home," he says. "At the same time, these are the people who I'd always admired so much.

"Everywhere I've gone, these are still the theater people that set the bar for me, and I come back and see the stuff here and it's phenomenal what these people do and the amount of great theater that is produced here." 

A Nebraska Hiatus
It was in the 1980s that Richard first worked in Kansas City, in a small part at American Heartland Theatre. He had pretty much given up acting and was waiting tables in Omaha, Nebraska, but recalls how the bug was still in his system.

"I felt I was in the wrong place," he recalls. "There are times in your life where you go, somebody picked up the needle off of the record and put it in another place. This isn't where I'm supposed to be.

"But the doors would open for me to do it again. Theater doors would open. Every time I think I tried to get myself away from it, I would fall into it again. It kind of calls you back."

Working Relationships
He worked consistently all over Kansas City, including a 1991 production of Forbidden Broadway, where he co-starred with his Sweeney Todd co-star Cathy Barnett, who was then making her professional debut.

"I was the youngest and by far the most inexperienced," Barnett says. "I was probably doing a lot of bad stuff, and every time I'd get yelled at, Don Richard would reach over and squeeze my hand, and say, 'Cathy, I'll come over -  whatever you need.' We'll run it all night if we have to.

"And he would; he'd come over to my house and we'd move all the furniture in my tiny bungalow and do those numbers until the cows came home. I'm gonna start crying and I don't want to. It's a deeper feeling than just working with somebody. You just become very dear friends and you have memories with these people."

Wicked Games
Thanks to a combination of talent and serendipitous geography, Richard was cast in a Wichita workshop production of the musical version of Jane Eyre. And he was still in it when it opened on Broadway in 2000 and appears on the cast recording.

He stayed in New York longer than he'd intended, as it was very good to him.  He appeared in Urinetown for its entire run on Broadway. And of his seven years in both the touring and Chicago productions of Wicked, he says his favorite story involves the company's fundraising efforts for Broadway Cares,a disabled audience member, and the show's uplifting anthem "Defying Gravity."

"For $300, you could buy a signed copy of 'Defying Gravity'," he recalls. "One woman in an electric wheelchair had, and I remembered her because we had talked after the show, and she said, 'Well, you know, that's my song.'

"I could just see the wheelchair and that lovely lady and I realized how much those songs mean to people, and I went, wow, this is why we do what we do. You never know who's in that audience and you can't forget that."

Richard says that following Sweeney Todd, he's looking forward to new work in his new base, Chicago, Illinois. 

Musical Theater Heritage's Sweeney Todd continues at the Just Off Center Theatre at Crown Center through April 29th. The Artists in Their Own Words series is sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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