Lawrence High grad brings Broadway experience to gig at Baker University musical theater camp

photo by: Nick Krug

Thirteen-year-old Kelsey Fisher, of Leawood, is among the first to get stretched out before an afternoon of dance practice during Broadway at Baker, a musical theater training intensive on Monday, July 11, 2016 in Rice Auditorium. Fifty-three selected students from around the Midwest and elsewhere collaborate at the camp to produce a Broadway-style musical in one week. The program is in its 24th year.

When he sat down 26 years ago in the theater seat at what was then West Junior High School, Drew Starlin had no idea his life was about to change.

Up to that time, he was a ninth-grader crazy about sports, participating in football, basketball and track at school and playing baseball in the summer. As he watched the performance of a troupe former Lawrence resident Cary Danielson-Pandzik brought to the school, another passion began to take hold of his imagination.

“I was a sports guy — a big sports guy,” he said. “There was something in that show that was so much more fulfilling. It resonated with me. I had never done anything like that, but for some reason I was completely enthralled about the possibility.'”

photo by: Nick Krug

Choreographer Drew Starlin, a graduate of Lawrence High School who lives in Houston, demonstrates a leaping turn while working with others on the creative staff during Broadway at Baker on Monday, July 11, 2016 in Rice Auditorium.

Danielson-Pandzik told the West students of a camp for young performers she would have that summer at Bethel College in Newton. The newly enthralled Starlin decided to give it a try, convincing a friend to make the trip with him.

“It was just magical,” he said. “I worked so hard and found out so many things about myself. I did a show. I’d never done a show before. It was my first time on stage.”

This past week, Starlin’s life came full circle. Since July 10, he has served as the head choreographer for Broadway at Baker. The annual youth musical theater summer camp is a collaboration between Baker University and Danielson-Pandzik’s Music Theatre Kansas City.

Danielson-Pandzik said it was her 25th year of bringing talented teens to Baker since she moved from Wichita to Kansas City. Each year, she brings about 50 of the most talented students from northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri to Baker for each of two one-week long camps, using the same format that introduced a young Starlin to the stage.

After auditions on the first day of the camp, the teens are assigned roles and engage in a week of intense rehearsals before they put on a camp-ending performance of “Footloose” on Sunday at Baker’s Rice Auditorium.

The camp crams into one week the same amount of rehearsal time that students get in two months preparing for high school musicals, Starlin explained.

“Cary realized if the campers rehearsed 12 hours a day in three intense, four-hour sessions, she would have the same amount of time,” he said.

For Starlin, the intense week of camp 26 years ago was transformative, he said. He surprised those who knew him by not going out for any sports his first year at Lawrence High School until he joined the baseball team in the spring. Instead, he took part in the school’s theatrical performances. He started reading books on acting by the likes of Uta Hagen and Constantin Stanislavsky and watched movies and plays attentive to what the actors were bringing to their roles.

“It was a curious transition for my life,” he said. “When you think about the transition into high school, that’s when people stay with what they know. I was nutty enough to try something new.”

After graduating high school in 1993, he enrolled in Kansas University’s film and theater studies, Starlin said. It was a comprehensive curriculum, which introduced students to everything from directing to lighting. Wanting to concentrate more on his acting, Starlin transferred to a four-semester academy in New York City, arriving two days before his 21st birthday.

“It was an amazing sensory overload for a Midwestern kid,” he said. “I graduated in February of 1997. By August, I was in rehearsals for a national tour of ‘Damn Yankees.’ I hit the road for nine months on my first professional job. When it was over, I came back to New York and hit the streets, attending all the auditions.”

In 1999, Starlin landed the role of bad-boy villain Chuck Cranston in the Broadway production of “Footloose.” In the theater one night was Danielson-Pandzik, making her first of now regular trips to New York with students to watch Broadway productions.

He has since been cast on prime time television dramas, soaps, Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and “low-budget” feature-length films, Starlin said.

It’s a “feast or famine” existence in which the creative highs of the good times sustain him through the rough patches when he wonders if he’ll ever get another job, Starlin said.

photo by: Nick Krug

Dancers line up on stage to take instruction before rehearsing Footloose during Broadway at Baker on Monday, July 11, 2016 in Rice Auditorium.

“It’s those opportunities I really relish,” he said. “You get to be in the room with a lot of creative and caring people. There are these intense conversations during 12 hours of rehearsal. You become part of a big family. You are creating something that is supposed to be living and breathing. If you’re not connected with the people surrounding you, it doesn’t come off the way you want.”

For 25 years, Danielson-Pandzik has brought that same experience to her Broadway at Baker camp, Starlin said. That was why he “borderline begged” his first theatrical mentor to help with the camp.

It all came together when Starlin returned to the area to visit his mother for Christmas last year and watched a rehearsal of Music Theatre Kansas City’s annual holiday performance. Danielson-Pandzik told him this was the year to do the camp because she planned on performing “Footloose.”

Starlin jumped at the chance, bringing his 12-year-old daughter, Gabriella, with him. His only concern was his camp role.

“(Danielson-Pandzik) said, ‘We’re going to call you the choreographer,’ which is frightening because I’m not really a dancer, although I remember how the dances went,” he said. “I’m blessed to have two phenomenal assistant choreographers. Between the three of us, we’ll get the show choreographed.”

Late Wednesday evening, Starlin marveled at the progress made after three full days of rehearsals.

“We’ve taught the whole show,” he said. “We’re not ready to present it yet, but we’ve taught it. We will add in the music and the light and sound, but the kids will definitely be ready because of the work ethic and effort of both the campers and the staff.”

Danielson-Pandzik said the “Footloose” campers were blessed with a lot of very talented dancers, especially male dancers. After that show was presented Sunday, the camp is taking a week off before another round of teens visit Baker to rehearse and perform the musical “Bells Are Ringing,” she said.

Starlin won’t be around for the second camp. He and his daughter will be returning to their home in Houston, Texas, where he will help his wife, Michelle, open a yoga and Pilates studio. He will leave cherishing an experience that tied together some many elements of his life and career.

“Going to camp and meeting Cary and her family gave me direction in my life,” he said. “I’ve been part of Cary’s family in an extended way for a number of years. To be able to come back and introduce my daughter to this, it’s like the circle grows. And ‘Footloose’ is amazing because it was my Broadway debut. It’s been a magical week.”