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How One Kansas City Composer Put A Jazz Spin On 'The Odyssey' For KC Fringe

The Kansas City Fringe Festivalbrings an edgy mix of theater, music, dance and comedy to Kansas City audiences. One production, "Silver: A Noir Ballet," gives a jazzy new life to an epic Greek poem. 

Christian Hankel, a Kansas City-based composer, producer and performer, says he looked for inspiration in the story of Odysseus and his decade-long struggle to return home following the Trojan War. 

"'Silver: A Noir Ballet,’ is a modern, urban retelling of 'The Odyssey' in one hour, with eleven original songs," he says. "We have an eight-piece jazz ensemble that is live onstage with nine dancers telling a story of pride and loss and ultimately redemption."

“Christian has huge ideas,” says Tara Varney, who directs the production. "There’s a ton going on. It’s been sort of hard to visualize, until the music was really finished. I could really immerse myself in the music when the vocals were laid down." 

As the lead singer, Shay Estes says it's her job to move the story along. "But I’m also, to some degree, singing the role of Penelope in her loose role as the wife of the main character Odysseus," she adds.

Kansas City audiences may be familiar with Estes's sultry voice through her collaborations with local musicians such as Mark Southerland, Jeff Harshbarger and Max Otto. But Estes says she also has a deep connection to theater and Greek literature, especially the tale of "The Odyssey."

“I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology since I was a child and studying theater, which is what I did before becoming a jazz singer," Estes says. "I was a theater student and of course you read a lot of Greek plays, but I have read 'The Odyssey' a dozen times at least, it’s so classic."

In retelling a classic tale, Hankel says he needed to find a new way to spin it.

“I couldn’t tell it as the ancient epic," Hankel says. "That doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t resonate, so I wanted to modernize it. So as I started writing the music for it, I immediately started hearing these influences of mid-century jazz and blues.”

What does that sound like?

“Our hero starts in the real world and he’s a warrior in the financial arena and he’s a jerk," Hankel says. "So circumstances happen and he ends up lost in the city. Then we dip into this noir sound, so it takes us from modern into the out-of-time place.”

Estes and Hankel have worked together on previous projects such as The Monocle and The Oil Boiler. Estes says she enjoys the wide range of musical influences Hankel brings to the table.

“Watching him grow as a composer, knowing how he continues to push himself," Estes says, "you know he’s crossed all of these boundaries. And so when Christian’s like 'I wrote a noir jazz ballet,' I’m like, 'I gotta hear what this sounds like' because it’s going to be amazing and true to form it really is."

The KC Fringe Festival presents the world premiere of “Silver: A Noir Ballet” starting Friday, July 17, at 6 p.m. at City Stage at Union Station, 30 West Pershing, Kansas City, Missouri. A complete listing of performances at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, July 16-26, ishere

This story is part of KCUR's Artists In Their Own Words series, supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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