Florida’s 2013-2014 Season Champions New & Newish Works

The missionaries face a bit of culture shock in The Book of Mormon coming to the Broward Center / Photo by Joan Msrcus

By Bill Hirschman

Encouraging trends emerge while poking among the entrails of the new season schedules for South Florida theater seeking omens and portents.

Yes, the boldface news is the eagerly anticipated arrival of the tour of hilarious The Book of Mormon, and, of course, the emergence of The Wick Theatre from the ashes of the Caldwell Theatre Company. But more on those later.

More significant is a continuing emphasis on new and newer works as producers and artistic directors try to seduce younger audiences, meaning people under 70.

There are the world premieres by local talents such as Michael McKeever, David Michael Sirois and Christopher Demos-Brown. There is a rasher of second or third or fourth productions of shows you likely never have heard of including the entire schedules at New Theatre, Arts Garage and Island City Stage. And across the region are the newish works — hits or near-hits from the last two or three seasons in New York.

Of course, there are still plenty of warhorses in the paddocks at the Wick, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and Broward Stage Door. While they all want to reach a wide demographic, they aim their fare solidly at the ol’ reliable audiences – and their children who are approaching retirement age.

Certainly, some theaters’ schedules will make a frugal theatergoer cherry-pick over their slates, but a few companies’ choices and track records are so promising that a season subscription might save you money in the long run: notably GableStage, Palm Beach Dramaworks, Zoetic Stage and Slow Burn Theatre Company.

There’s quantity as well, especially given the opening of the Wick and the fact that no company has folded recently. Counting professional, collegiate, community and children’s theater, there are more than 200 shows already scheduled and many theaters have not announced their seasons yet. (Please let us know your schedules ASAP so we can put them on our online calendar). On the other hand, a few companies such as New Theatre quietly have trimmed back their season by one show.

A cynic might carp that the same shows are slated for the same season in different counties (and with markedly different budgets). They include Monty Python’s Spamalot (Actors’ Playhouse and Lake Worth Playhouse, not counting this summer’s edition at Entr’acte Theatrix); My Name Is Asher Lev (GableStage and Broward Stage Door) and A Chorus Line (Broward Stage Door and Maltz Jupiter Theatre). There’s also a few shows that were mounted recently and returning this season, such as Other Desert Cities (at the Maltz this coming season and at Actors’ Playhouse last season).

So in no particular order, and apologizing that we’re inadvertently may be leaving out some worthy show or some theater, here we go.

caldwellzThe Wick Theatre: Anytime someone opens up a new theater with large-cast big-budget shows, obviously attention must be paid. Wardrobe impresario Marilynn Wick is taking what she has said is a million-dollar bet that there is an audience for familiar fare classily executed such as The Sound of Music and Steel Magnolias. She’s confident that the theater will benefit from the old Caldwell building also housing her Costume Museum. Perhaps she’s on to something: because of the Internet search engines, we get at least one call a week from folks wanting to book the museum/theater combo. We’re especially interested in 42nd Street, although naysayers question whether you can find enough truly top-notch tap dancers in the region. Break a leg, folks. (To read more about the Wick, click here.)

mccraney-tarrel-halfGableStage: Where to start? Well, the international spotlight will shine on Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in January. Reset in late 1700s Haiti, this production will bow at the Royal Shakespeare Company, move in total to Miami and then finish at the Public Theater in New York. Actors will be drawn from all three cities. McCraney’s minimalist reworking of Hamlet at GableStage last January was a critical success. (To read more about this Antony and Cleopatra, click here.)

But there is much more going on with GableStage.

Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on Broadway in several seasons. Some say the script about a comically dysfunctional group of siblings isn’t as strong as people think, but it was elevated by a top-notch Broadway cast including David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver. Anyone from South Florida who saw it instantly cast Sonia in their minds an actress who shall remain nameless. I’ll take everyone to dinner (at Krystal’s) if that isn’t who gets the part. (To read our review of the Broadway version, click here.)

Unless you read the New York Times religiously, you haven’t heard of Samuel Hunter’s play, The Whale. But I caught its world premiere a couple of years ago at the Denver Center and was deeply moved by its mordantly funny and heart-wrenching script about a morbidly obese writing teacher trying to reconnect with the family he abandoned before he succumbs to a fatal illness. In addition to the bravura central part of the teacher, Hunter creates a supporting cast of offbeat but credible characters that will give local actors some terrific opportunities.

Outré Theatre Company is in the running for gutsiest-season-on-paper award as this start-up group enters its sophomore season. It stumbled with its first show, The Wild Party, due to technical problems, but came back strong with tick…tick…BOOM and Avi Hoffman’s stunning tour de force, An Iliad. It will open with a one-weekend only concert version of the surreal and baroque fever dream of a musical, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson in September. This highly irreverent reimagining of America’s first populist president casts him as a rock star, and examines the thrills and terrors that populism brings.

Slow Burn Theatre Company is taking risks only a few millimeters further away from the precipice. In October, it mounts next to normal (the lower case letters are the authors’ idea), which had a triumphant production at Actors’ Playhouse a year ago with Jodie Langel. But this brilliant edition about a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and her family’s efforts to cope has a really promising cast including Sharyn Peoples, Matthew Korinko and Anne Chamberlain. They also have slated Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which likely hasn’t had a professional production here since Broward Stage Door’s production in 2003. Brown’s musical retells the true-life Leo Frank case in which a Jew was unfairly convicted of murdering a child in Atlanta and was lynched by the anti-Semitic community. This season, Slow Burn is expanding its reach to play an extra weekend of next to normal and the Tim Rice/ABBA show Chess at the Aventura Arts & Culture Center – which should finally make it eligible for Carbonell Awards consideration.

Road companies: Among the Mamma Mias and Sister Acts, there are four major draws from Broadway Across America and Kravis on Broadway. The Book of Mormon comes to the Broward Center after Thanksgiving, and, yes, it’s awfully damn funny, or it was on Broadway. It is as obscenely irreverent as you can imagine, even profane. Yet weirdly, all its merciless skewing of organized religion still endorses the value of faith itself.

Ten days before Valentine’s Day comes the truly lovely musical Once at the Arsht. It’s based on the indie movie, but has its own charm including a cast that doubles as the band in an Irish pub. (To see our review of the New York edition, click here.) War Horse is coming to both the Arsht and the Kravis, a stunning amalgamation of a dozen theatrical disciplines including life-size puppets of the equine heroes. The puppets are startling, but as a whole package, it’s perhaps the most superb exhibition of stagecraft in a mainstream production in recent years.

Notable in January at the Kravis is The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (as if you didn’t know who wrote it). The irony of the title is that the script and score were heavily altered by playwright Susan-Lori Parks and director Diane Paulus in the recent Broadway revival. But even the skeptics were won over by the glorious raw material superbly performed.

The rock musical American Idiot at Broward Center in March is based on the Green Day concept album. Online clips show that while the musical is a visceral experience, you might want to study up on the lyrics online if you don’t know them already.

Horton Foote

Horton Foote

Palm Beach Dramaworks: As reliable as an atomic clock, Dramaworks chooses thought-provoking and moving selections by playwrights rarely performed by professional companies in Florida including Harold Pinter’s Old Times and one of Horton Foote’s last successes, Dividing the Estate. Usually Dramaworks fans have at least heard of the playwright or the play, but the season closes with a relative unknown, Karoline Leach’s The Tryst. The psychological thriller depicts a coldly calculating, handsome con man who woos and marries vulnerable women, then takes all their money and runs – until he meets his match.

James Goldman’s stage play The Lion In Winter isn’t as famous as the superb film version starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. But this Dramaworks entry has been one of my favorite scripts for four decades with its no-holds barred battle among a dysfunctional family playing Risk with people’s lives and emotions. The kith and kin include King Henry II (post Thomas Beckett), Queen Eleanor of Aquitane, Richard before he became the Lionhearted and John, eventually to sign the Magna Carta at sword point. It is a notoriously difficult script to pull off and even the most skilled casts (e.g. Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst) have only wrestled it to “respectful” reviews.

Actors Playhouse
has an unusually varied slate even for this company. It kicks off with a local favorite, the return in October of Ruthless!, one of the funniest, spoofiest chamber musicals ever. This lampoon of The Bad Seed and scores of other shows centers on a wannabe child star, her obsessed stage mother with a secret and a monstrous female mega-agent usually played by a man.

Julia Dale

Julia Dale

Tiny Julia Dale, who has sung the National Anthem for the Miami Heat, makes her regional professional theater debut. Also in the cast are Amy Miller Brennan as her mother and Gabriel Zenone as the formidable Sylvia St Croix. Margot Moreland played the mother in a hilarious Hollywood Playhouse version back in the day. Can’t wait to see someone who would eat Honey Boo Boo’s lunch.

Kicking off the new year, Judy Garland is resurrected in the play with music End of the Rainbow. A modest success on Broadway two season ago (To read our review, click here), the soap opera script is frankly pretty mediocre as it traces the rickety run-up to one of her last concerts. But with the right actress playing Garland, like Tracie Bennett in New York, the evening undeniably soars as Garland sings her iconic numbers, albeit and appropriately with a voice ravaged by time, pills and booze.

Mark St. Germain’s fresh-off-the-computer Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah will be an unknown quantity to almost everyone here when it bows at the Playhouse in May because it has had only a handful of productions in its continuing evolution. But we caught its world premiere at the American Contemporary Theater Festival this summer and while it needed work at that point, there was a lot of promise in this fictional but plausible confrontation between real-life friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Adrift in Hollywood, wrestling with their various demons and each other literally, the two geniuses depict the agony behind creative souls. St. Germain is best known for his runaway hit Freud’s Last Session plus Camping With Henry and Tom (both done at Dramaworks). Once again, with the right actors, it’s likely to be an intriguing drama.

Maltz Jupiter Theatre
has become synonymous with well-produced and reimagined mainstream fare, notably its Cabaret and Hello Dolly! The Maltz does run for cover this season with Annie and A Chorus Line. But Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato is always nudging at the edge of his audience’s envelope as he did last season with Red. This year, we’re looking forward to Other Desert Cities, his company’s spin on Jon Robin Baitz’s Broadway hit play about a wealthy dysfunctional family. Cast members include local actors Andrea Conte (from Arts Garage’s Gloucester Blue) as the daughter upending her family with the threat of a tell-all memoir, Angie Radosh as her acerbic alcoholic aunt and Cliff Burgess as her disaffected brother. (To read our review of the New York transfer to Broadway, click here.)

Zoetic Stage’s co-op of actors, writers, directors and producers has established an enviable reputation for quality in a handful of seasons. And while it has mounted previously-produced work like last season’s I Am My Own Wife, the fact that two of its core members are playwrights Michael McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown means that Zoetic has become a reliable destination to see new work.

The most promising entry of the region’s season is Demos-Brown’s Fear Up Harsh set for November, a tale of an investigation into an Iraq War incident that led to a Marine being nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor. We saw a staged reading of it this year with Stuart Meltzer directing Clive Cholerton as the war hero, Stephen G. Anthony as various superiors, Arielle Hoffman as his daughter and an electric portrayal by Karen Stephens of a deeply disturbed comrade-in-arms arriving on his doorstep. It depicts how the potential recipient’s perfect post-war life begins to unravel in an examination of truth, war, our need for heroes, government, politics, and the corrupting effect of awards and commendations. “Fear Up Harsh” is a term used by the military to designate “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are part of the shared baggage of the protagonist and his visitor.

McKeever’s entry is Clark Gable Slept Here, described as “a jet-black satire on what it means to be a “man” in the make-believe world of motion pictures, where nothing is ever what it seems and closets are used for so much more than hanging up your tuxedo.”

And finally, Zoetic will try its hand for the first time at a musical, Stephen Sondheim’s contemplation of the dark side of The American Dream, Assassins, which was last done by Slow Burn.

Other New Works:  Outré is debuting in January a new musical, The Journey, by its resident musical director, Kristen Long. Set in present-day New Orleans, and featuring a bluesy rock score, The Journey shows us the differing lives of five individuals as they strive for what they desire and what they need. And David Michael Sirois gets a full-staging of a large cast comedy he wrote in college in 2003, Secrets of the La Croix, now slated for April by Main Street Playhouse, a community theater in Miami Lakes.

Arsht’s Theater Up Close: In addition to the Zoetic slate hosted at the Arsht, VP Scott Shiller has programmed two interesting options. Avant-garde director Mary Zimmerman is famed for her imagistic vision. In 1996, she staged a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses around a large shallow pool surrounded by an audience on three sides at Northwestern University. She retooled the show several times until it bowed on Broadway in 2002. I watched it recently on tape at the Lincoln Center library and was intrigued but not especially moved. But virtually anyone I’ve spoken to who saw it live was transported by its inventive theatricality. This edition will be directed by University of Miami Theater Department Chair Henry Fonte and features many of his students as actors and production staff alongside professionals, similar to way UM  co-produced the House of Bernarda Alba at the Arsht in 2011.

Additionally, Shiller has brought back for a fourth visit of our favorite carpetbaggers, The House Theatre of Chicago for another of their highly stylistic and theatrical ventures, Rose and the Rime. Given their track record with The Sparrow, Death and Harry Houdini, and The Nutcracker, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Florida Grand Opera: Following its last “greatest hits” season, the new CEO Susan Danis may fall back on Tosca, but she includes less populist entries like Verdi’s Nabucco and Massenet’s Thais. The slot likely to draw international attention is Mourning Becomes Electra in November. Based on the Eugene O’Neill play, Broward-based composer Marvin David Levy’s 1967 work was the very first to open the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Although it received some praise and had two more productions soon after, it was not revived for 30 years. It was heavily rewritten and different versions have been performed only three times since then. Very few people across the country have seen it or even heard it.

The Women’s Theatre Project will offer its fifth annual Girl Play lesbian playwriting event in June. In December, Nicky Silver’s wickedly funny and sometimes touching The Lyons depicts a family so contentious, they make the folks at August: Osage County look downright harmonious as they gather around the patriarch’s hospital room waiting for him to die. It gave Linda Lavin an acclaimed role as a monstre sacré blithely planning a life without her husband while he kvetches in his bed.

Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins

Penciled in on my calendar for the last day of February is a date with my favorite liberal columnist in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.  The late Texan had the wickedest and most dead-on commentary ever to warm the cockles of my bleeding heart. She frequently referred to former Texas governor and then president George W. Bush as Shrub.  The script is by twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel. (I went to journalism school with Margaret – then known as Peggy —  who then went to the Washington Post). The icing on the cake is Ivins will be portrayed by Barbara Bradshaw.

The Plaza Theatre, the successor tenant in Manalapan, upped the quality level again last season with Luv and Chapter Two. It also put black ink on the balance sheet with an insanely successful revival of founder Alan Jacobson’s WaistWatchers the Musical! that had to be brought back for a second run. The upcoming season is quite eclectic, but the title that caught our attention is a revival of the musical, Rags in February. The musical about immigrants in New York has a stirring score by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, including the unforgettable anthem “Children of the Wind.” The following month, Beverly Blanchette directs Dirty Blonde, the play about Mae West done at GableStage several years ago.

The Theatre At Arts Garage may not have the budget, the sweeping auditorium or most of the other resources that Florida Stage. But the two theaters, both led by Lou Tyrrell, share an affection for an adventurous quality. Neither fear to mount shows whose titles have no name recognition, although the playwrights may be familiar to theater aficionados.  In fact, two of the shows are ones that Tyrrell had scheduled for the season that never materialized, and three of the authors are those whose work appeared at Florida Stage.

Top of the list is February’s Fighting Over Beverley, a romantic comedy written 20 years ago by the famed Israel Horovitz (last season’s Gloucester Blue). In 2011, he revised his tale of a love triangle between three 70-year-olds.

Arts Garage starts off the new year with The Hummingbird Wars by Carter W. Lewis, another Florida Stage veteran of The Storytelling Ability of a Boy and the venue’s last show, The Cha Cha of a Camel Spider.

Composer/lyricist/librettist Daniel Maté was supposed to have his musical The Trouble With Doug premiere at Florida Stage in that ill-fated season. Now you can finally see it in April. It’s a contemporary comedy-drama re-imagining of Kafka’s Metamorphosis about a healthy young man who transforms inexplicably into a giant talking slug.

Maté’s musical The Longing and the Short has six actors playing a multitude of relatable characters, all struggling to find love and acceptance, or the nearest available substitute. It had a staged reading this summer at Arts Garage and has a full staging slated for November.

Naked Stage has delivered some of the region’s most impressive theater with no money at all, including the scorching 4:48 Psychosis and the stunning The Turn of the Screw. This season it has scheduled its 24-Hour Theater Project for Oct. 28 at Palm Beach Dramaworks. And, finances willing, we’ll see the Miss Julie it has planned for several seasons, sometime in May or June.

At Broward Stage Door, Dee Bunn and Dave Torres are still operating two auditoriums in Coral Springs and another in Miami Beach. They have slated a large number of reliable titles including Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo about Jews in Atlanta during the premiere of the film of Gone With The Wind. Given their production last season of Brighton Beach Memoirs, they should nail this one. But being Stephen Sondheim freaks, we’re most interested in Company (just performed as a staged concert at Palm Beach Dramaworks). The quality of Stage Door’s musicals vary wildly from an awful Guys and Dolls to a superb Light in the Piazza. So we’ll see. Dates are not available yet for the schedule at their Byron Carlyle venue in Miami Beach, but the plan is to move works from the Coral Springs theaters to the Miami-Dade house.

Boca Raton Theatre Guild is reviving They’re Playing Our Song, a lightweight two-character romantic musical comedy by Neil Simon, Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch with only a couple of standout numbers. But BRTG has wisely cast two of the most capable hands around, Margot Moreland and Oscar Cheda, as the star-crossed lovers whose romance is based loosely on Marvin and Carol’s real-life relationship. For its larger production, BRTG has chosen Pippin, this time a mediocre book but a fabulous score by Stephen Schwartz. A kinetic staging by Diane Paulus with a cast that doubles as circus performers has made this one of the hottest tickets on Broadway this past season.

New Theatre enters its third season at the Roxy across from FIU doing only four shows rather than the usual five. Two of them are entries in their Boomfrog series – edgier works with minimal productions values, meant to attract a hipper, younger crowd. The highlight, though, will be the season closer, Gidion’s Knot. A truly stunning script by Johnna Adams, this two-character play that bowed in the summer of 2012 has quickly become one of the hottest shows in regional theater. The premise is the mother of a boy who committed suicide confronts his teacher to try to figure out what might have caused the tragedy. But the profound secrets on both sides that tumble out make this a far more trenchant tale than simply an anti-bullying tract. It provides two great roles for actresses, but it’s far from easy – Adams scripts in a minefield of many, many long silences that the actresses and director have to fill with subtext.

Island City Stage has quickly developed a reputation for entertaining farces and thought-provoking shows with a LGBT theme. Housed in the tiny Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale, its shows tend to sell out the living room-sized venue. Hand it to Artistic Director Andy Rogow and Associate Artistic Director Michael Leeds for consistently unearthing gay-centric plays that few people have seen. This season’s titles include Secrets of the Trade, The Timekeepers, Have I Got A Girl For You and The Pride. The latter just had a revival in London where the actors held up anti-Putin placards at a curtain call.

Alliance Theatre Lab
has been struggling with some internal disagreements, but it still is offering a bracing slate of plays. It starts in November with Savage In Limbo. John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) sets his off-Broadway comedy-tragedy in a slightly seedy neighborhood bar in the Bronx, where a group of regulars (who all happen to be the same age—32) seek relief from the disappointments and tedium of the outside world. It explores the hopes and dreams of a group of rootless young “losers” who congregate in an anonymous Bronx bar, hoping to find respite from the drabness of their lives.

Anton Chekhov

University theaters provide one of the last places locally where you can see classic dramatic works from world literature, although Palm Beach Dramaworks throws in some Shaw and Ionesco on occasion. This coming season, Florida Atlantic University has scheduled Ionesco’s surreal satire Rhinoceros about a society hell-bent on conformity, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. That’s Anton Chekhov, kids, not Pavel Chekov of Star Trek. And

Pavel Chekov

Pavel Chekov

the University of Miami is not only doing the previously-mentioned Metamorphoses, but also Caryl Churchill’s classic time-shifting comedy Cloud 9 as well as one of the most soul-stirring and challenging musicals of the past two decades, Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins about a caver trapped underground during the Depression, his family’s reaction and the media circus that results.

Miami Theater Center, formerly The PlayGround Theatre, has expanded its purview to include adults, such as last season’s inventive reworking of The Three Sisters. But founder Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla are finalizing another major piece for younger audiences, notable for its theatricality and imagination, similar to the impressive The Red Thread from last year. Everybody Drinks The Same Water, described as medieval murder mystery plays April through June.

Children’s theater elsewhere in the region may still rely on mostly age-appropriate fare not much more challenging than Dr. Seuss. But older students are insisting on meatier fare, so take note that Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre is doing In The Heights, Showtime Performing Arts Theatre is mounting Les Miserables.

Now in its 17th season, community theater Curtain Call Playhouse is still producing a full slate of shows in such a multiplicity of Broward venues that you have to check our calendar or their website to know what, when and where. But the slate this year includes one of the finest musical theater pieces ever, Gypsy.

Anyone still want to argue that’s there’s nothing to see in South Florida?

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