Go see a Crossroads musical encore this weekend.

Big Time 

Go see a Crossroads musical encore this weekend.

For years, we've been hearing the same thing: Downtown's coming back.

Politicians and developers promise it's just one more ballot initiative away. We follow, dreaming, voting for unleased stadiums and it-worked-for-Baltimore "entertainment districts" that promise "an urban flare and creativity not found in the region" (at least according to the "Project Overview" page of the Power and Light District's Web site).

Even the Music Man knew not to insult the rubes he was fleecing.

Two truths missed by everyone from City Hall to local media to those glorified mall builders at the Cordish Company:

1. When it comes to making a city major, local spark and energy trump billion-dollar neighborhoods stuffed with prefab flava.

2. Thanks to an arts community in full flourish, this town already is god-damned major.

Theater is a benchmark for a city's creative life, and this summer's shows have thrilled, from the giddy fun of the Coterie's world-premiere Pinocchio to the Kansas City Actors Theatre's ambitious Talley trilogy, which has me seriously wondering whether I can use the adjective sublime without gutting my credibility.

And then there's the Crossroads Musical Theater Festival, a two-week shove into the big leagues that deserves applause even from those of you who couldn't be bothered into the seats last weekend. You have another chance this Saturday with four new shows.

The idea is simple. Defying the season of Grease revivals, we get first crack at seven new musicals — one from local chanteuse Amy Coady — performed concert-style by local actors and musicians at venues straddling the Crossroads. Happily ignorant of the financial logistics, I call it a win-win-win: The composers get to test their work before actual audiences, the performers get practice with characters not already shaped by original-cast recordings, and spectators get a chance to savor the new and different for just 10 bucks a weekend.

This last boon is important because great theater demands an audience that can keep up. "The more you accustom your audiences to new music, the more they begin feel that it's a thing to do," says Charles Leipart, an engaging left-coaster who penned sharp books and lyrics for two of last weekend's shows. He addressed the problem in "Things Can Change/Status Quo," a standout number from his riotous economists-on-Broadway musical, Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. In it, Fenny, a late-19th-century woman of privilege, sings I like the status quo/I like my changes slow/I like the things I know.

Those who braved the new last Saturday were rewarded. Theory of the Leisure Class imagines Veblen — the real-life economist famous for coining the phrase "conspicuous consumption" to describe our animal need to flaunt pricy products — staging a musical to get his theories across to the people. According to Veblen, economic barbarism destroys the poor and rewards the wealthy, so it's fitting that Leipart's script has the working-class actors hired by the professor bristling at their characters' fates. Richard B. Evans' rollicking music breezily mixes vaudeville and ad jingles, ragtime and tango, all with great heaps of turn-of-the-century show tunes. Witty, inventive and wonderfully hummable, the show makes fun of brutal Gilded Age capitalism and the doomed spirit of reform.

Or maybe they aren't making fun at all. Leipart and Evans might be making light.

Leisure Class was the show of the festival, but it suffered from the worst room, a sweltering studio at the Kansas City Ballet. The cast was hard to see from anywhere but the first row; sometimes, when I did get a good look, some seemed a little cranky. No surprise, considering that the heat had chased away much of the crowd. Everything else ran smoothly, so I assume that the Theater League staff will figure out a solution before this Saturday's Count of Monte Cristo.

A second highlight of last Saturday was the first production of To Good to Be True. Amy Coady, of Quality Hill and Musical Theatre Heritage fame, and Gerald Stockstill have spent the past four years working on this riff on the life of Elmyr de Hory, the master Hungarian art forger. "The man was a walking musical," Coady tells me. "Look at his world — the late '60s, the jet set, that kind of Latin and Bacharach music. I feel an affinity for the fabulousness of it."

Stockstill's score captures that romance, and the book (written by both) and lyrics (all Coady) pick at it and revel in it. De Hory's early songs swoon over Paris and Ibiza, but we later learn that the old liar once sang the same stuff about Minneapolis. The sumptuous "To Have a Home" at first seems similar to Broadway's many songs of immigrant displacement — until his friend Helka adds, after the I want a home chorus, or two, or three.

Just as pleasurable was Frog Kiss, Leipart's other show, this one a ribald fairy tale with a jazzy score from Eric Schorr. Based on Stephen Mitchell's Taoist novella, the show — as Leipart puts it — "is a good and healthy bawdy comedy" complicated by Eastern thought. This means that for every "horny toad" joke, there's a sprinkling of wisdom from the Tao te Ching. (Frog Kiss benefited from director Stephen Eubank, whose staging was always colorful and symmetrical.)

I could go on all day about any of these shows or about the four getting the go this Saturday. So no more waiting around for Kansas City to step up from the kids' table. The Theatre League's doing it for us, showing once and for all that it's the people who actually love a place who should be trusted to save it.

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