Not Your Grandma’s Theater: The 2015-2016 Season In SoFla

Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson in Big Fish, a musical from Slow Burn Theatre Company opening this month / Photo by Patrick Fitzwater

Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson in Big Fish, a musical from Slow Burn Theatre Company opening this month / Photo by Patrick Fitzwater

By Bill Hirschman

South Florida theaters still mount familiar warhorses, but the 2015-2016 season is proof that companies realize the future of theater is to attract pre-retirement audiences with shows steaming fresh out of Manhattan, edgy intellectually challenging works, imaginative takes on familiar titles, regional premieres of shows you only read about in The New York Times over the past few years and some shows you have never heard of, period.

To see our subjective list of some of the shows we are most looking forward to this season, click here.

Above all, there is a surprising commitment to producing world premiere plays by local writers and visitors, as well as works that may be getting only their second, third or fourth production.

The coming season schedule cements South Florida’s status as a hothouse for developing fledgling work or providing a continuing life for newly-minted titles that have bowed elsewhere but now need subsequent outings.

Just a sampling:

.       * Unlikely Heroes by retired doctor Charles Gluck is a family drama about “ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances,” directed by and starring Avi Hoffman and an A-list cast playing at the end of January in Mizner Park.
.       * New Theatre has devoted the majority of its coming season to new and newish works by local playwrights Susan Westfall, Sandra Riley, Artistic Director Ricky J. Martinez and world-renowned Miami-based playwright Mario Diament whose Franz & Albert is making is U.S. premiere.
christopherdemosbrown.       * Zoetic Stage is giving a bow to company member Christopher Demos-Brown’s latest, Stripped. The author of Fear Up Harsh “explores new territory in the battle between a mother’s rights and the American legal system.”
.       * Island City Stage, which specializes in gay themes works, gave us last season’s world premiere of the shattering Daniel’s Husband. Two brand new works will be seen this season. Feeding the Bear by Michael Aman is about a gay, single teacher with body dysmorphia who has become the caregiver for his once disapproving father now suffering from Alzheimers. The second is Who Killed Joan Crawford, a comic mystery by the company’s Associate Artistic Director Michael Leeds. On a dark and stormy night, five men arrive at a cabin for a soap star’s surprise birthday party dressed as various Crawford characters.
.       * Punchline Theatre, a new company based at Coral Springs Center for the Arts, is mounting #Unhappy Hour in January featuring a team of local writers, including award winners Mark Della Ventura and David Sirois, who will merge original plays about love, life, and loneliness in South Florida into one night of comedy. It’s described as “while working their usual shifts at a rundown dive bar, co-workers Charlie and Claire try their best to balance their complicated relationship, unfulfilled desires, and the nightly happy hour rush full of Florida’s craziest customers.”
.       * The region’s newest company is Theatre Lab, a professional undertaking based at Florida Atlantic University and led by Florida Stage co-founder Louis Tyrrell. It will produce a season of staged readings of new works and works-in-progress.

New Girl In Town

Newness will also resonate in where you see a show as the carousel of venues spins. Try to keep track of all this on a flow chart depicting the last 18 months.

.       * Slow Burn Theatre Company formally left West Boca Community High School and Outré Theatre Company left Mizner Park, both surfacing at the Broward Center. Boca Raton Theatre Guild and the Women’s Theatre Project also based in Boca closed, as did The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan. Slow Burn also opened a rehearsal space/workshop in Oakland Park called Space.
.       * Primal Stages, which was based at Andrews Living Arts in Fort Lauderdale, closed but its founder Keith Garsson (late of the late Boca Raton Theatre Guild) is becoming the artistic director of Theatre at Arts Garage in the post left vacant by Tyrrell. Andrews, instead, is doubling the number of offerings this season.
.       * Island City Stage is leaving its home at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale to cohabitate with former Empire Stage resident Infinite Abyss, which has just opened in a space southeast of Five Points in Wilton Manors.
capcropsm.       * Thinking Cap Theatre, also an Empire alumnus, relocated to the Vanguard Sanctuary of the Arts, a brand new space in a converted church across from Broward Medical Center south of downtown Fort Lauderdale – and other companies may rent space there. By the way, the vest pocket Empire is still booking shows regularly; no need for tears for them.
.       * The Alliance Theatre was housed for years at Main Street Players’ space in Miami Lakes, but reopened this fall after a bit of a hiatus at Barry University’s tiny Pelican Theater just north of Miami Shores with a production of The Aliens.
.       * Meanwhile, Marquee Theatre Company opened its inaugural season of musical with Aida at Slow Burn’s old digs at West Boca Community High School, and the new Punchline Theatre Company is opening up its first season in the black box theater at Coral Springs Center for the Arts.

Seriously, we are probably missing a couple of newcomers.

Those who see trends may notice a bit of switch of theater concentration from the Boca Raton area to Fort Lauderdale. This will be an interesting gamble. Will Palm Beach audiences follow Slow Burn and Outré to Fort Lauderdale? They didn’t follow Florida Stage the nine miles from Manalapan to West Palm Beach in 2010-2011. Besides, “common knowledge” holds that Palm is more receptive to the arts with its snowbirds and wealthy patrons accustomed to theater. Broward, with fewer arts-supportive corporations and philanthropists to solicit support from, has always been perceived, rightfully or not, as a secondary market. Each of the newcomer troupes obviously wants an audience, but all of them have built their theaters around their self-selected aesthetic with the hope that it will attract an audience with similar taste—but no assurance the audience is there. That strategy did work for Mad Cat Theatre Company and Palm Beach Dramaworks. Cross your fingers.

“Something for everyone, a docu-serio-dramedy tonight…”

Lee_Roy_ReamsEven the old reliable titles this season might have a bit of an unexpected spin. The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton is producing Hello, Dolly! with Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams (last season’s Zaza in La Cage aux Folles) appearing in it and directing it. No surprise; Reams has appeared in different roles in the show and directed it previously. But this time he is playing Dolly, reportedly only the second time a man has done so in a major production (the other was in London). This adventure has been blessed by Miami-resident and composer Jerry Herman.

Conversely, some newer titles are so hot that they are being done by different companies in different counties. Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle Songs For A New World will be done in December by the new Marquee Theater Company and in July by Main Street Players in Miami Lakes. Circle Mirror Transformation, the attention-grabbing play by Annie Baker, the current hot playwright in New York, is slated by the Lake Worth Playhouse in October and Area Stage Company in Miami in December. Finally, the off-Broadway hit, the one-man play, Buyer and Cellar, will appear at the Red Barn Theatre in Key West in February and at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables in July.

For devotees of the master of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, this will be a bountiful season: West Side Story is Actors’ Playhouse’s big-blowout musical of the year and Sondheim’s first major assignment as a lyricist; Passion will be at Zoetic Stage, his most divisive work; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is currently playing at The Wick, his first show providing both words and music; Sondheim on Sondheim at Actors’ Playhouse again, is a multi-media revue that includes his later songs; Saturday Night at the University of Miami Ring Theater, his first full musical, which never opened on Broadway because the producer died; Putting It Together at Broward Stage Door, the second large revue of his works, and Gypsy also at Broward Stage Door, simply one of the best musicals of all time.

There is something for nearly every taste, interest, age group and pocketbook given that one rough estimate counts well more than 500 productions being offered by professional, Spanish-language, community, collegiate, high school and children’s theaters from the Waterfront Playhouse in Key West to the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach.

In fact, even with some theaters closing, the number of producing groups is growing. The South Florida Theatre League has 84 members (and that’s not all the troupes in the region) compared to 64 members three years ago and 46 five years ago.

“I’ve Got A Little List”

There is no way to reflect even a sliver of the 500 shows, although you can see nearly everything listed in our calendar by clicking here.

But here are snatches of what to expect:

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre must be doing something right; it keeps surpassing benchmarks each year. It’s four-week Les Misérables last season earned nearly $1 million in ticket sales. While it strives to please a conservative mainstream audience, Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato is always gently pushing at the boundaries of reliable patrons’ expectations with a view at growing a younger long-term audience and inculcating an appetite for edgier fare when they build a black box theater. This can be seen in the coming slightly schizoid season: the tuneful Cole Porter classic Kiss Me Kate; the recent Broadway hit Billy Elliot; the somewhat successful Will Rogers Follies, the oldest continuing piece of English-speaking theater still running, The Mousetrap, and the wild card, the play Frost/Nixon.

The courageous and adventurous Outré Theatre Company has an unofficial motto of “Go big or go home,” resulting in some stunning triumphs and some misfires. Now ensconced in the Abdo River Room at the Broward Center, its schedule includes a brief revival of its past musical success, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story; plus a modern-day riff on Medea, and Rooms: A Rock Musical, a surprisingly engaging show about two punk rock songwriters in Scotland.

As usual, Joseph Adler has snagged some of the hottest titles from the New York stages for GableStage. Prominent among them is his show that just opened, Disgraced, a shattering look at post- 9/11 relations for Arab-Americans and the fragility of assimilation. Upcoming is the recent successful two-character relationship play Constellations; plus The Royale, a drama by former Miamian Marco Ramirez (theater’s Broadsword and television’s Sons of Anarchy) about boxer Jack Johnson; Stalking the Bogeyman, a script that Adler has wanted to do for some time about the fallout from a sexual abuse case, and The Minister’s Wife based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida – the third full-scale musical GableStage has done in its history (not counting last season’s Choir Boy.)

Palm Beach Dramaworks, one of the region’s most reliable purveyor of fine theater, has an intriguing season that encompasses William Inge’s Picnic which just opened; Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout directing his own bio-play about Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at the Waldorf, and the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night with a promising cast.

This is a red letter year for Slow Burn, not only for its move, but for its offerings, some of which will tour, making it the only professional troupe performing in all three counties this season. Its slate in the Amaturo Theatre includes a cornucopia of modern musicals including Big Fish based on the imaginative film about a father and son; Violet, Jeanine Tesori’s early 1997 success about a young woman in the South hoping a tele-evangelist can cure her disfigurement; Spring Awakening, the 2006 rock musical based on the 1906 classic play often dubbed the successor to Rent; and Heathers, a hilarious 2014 off-Broadway musical based on the 1988 Wynona Ryder film. Slow Burn will also present two smaller pieces in the Abdo River Room and play them also in the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center and Crest Theatre in Delray Beach: Romance Romance, the charming chamber piece set in 1880s Vienna and 1980s New York; and Dogfight, a stirring 2012 cult musical based on the 1991 film.

Actors’ Playhouse has an eclectic season ranging from the aforementioned West Side Story to the about-to-open cult musical The Toxic Avenger with a comic book/B-movie vibe, with an array of other offerings as well, plus its children’s theater program.

It would be foolish to bet on a season sight unseen, but Thinking Cap Theatre consistently produced some of the best work seen in the past season including Church, Vita and Virginia, Always…Patsy Cline and Waiting For Waiting For Godot. So its proposed line-up should be penciled in on calendars, especially it’s take on Oscar Wilde’s immortal, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Mad Cat Theatre Company can always be depended upon to take you someplace you’ve not been. This season will include another deconstructed rock concert in Harry Nillson’s album The Point, a reconfigured revival of Gerald Ford Superfreak, and Tones on Tales, three plays by Samuel Beckett “that explore the diminishing light, the diminishing space and the diminishing sound of our lives” according to its news release.

The Theatre at Arts Garage, under Garsson, will offer three plays you’ve never heard of (Sex With Strangers, Reborning and The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith). Garsson has shown an intriguing bent for challenging work in his non-Theatre Guild productions, especially the terrific Sunset Baby. The multi-disciplinary venue will also host more of the acclaimed on-stage radio plays again from The Arts Radio Network Theatre Project produced by John and Caroline Breder-Watts.

The national tours at the related Miami and Broward venues and the separately booked Kravis Center are once again a mixture of some very very very familiar favorites and titles so new that they debuted on Broadway just last season.

The Arsht will host the bow of the highly popular Kinky Boots fresh off its Broadway run about a blue-collar factory making fashion footwear for cross-dressers. The rest are revivals and retreads: a new edition of The Sound of Music, the retooled Phantom of the Opera that played Broward last season, Cabaret and the return of Motown the Musical, which has a mediocre script but absolutely hypnotic recreations of the tunes you grew up with.

With its larger established subscription base, Broadway Across Fort Lauderdale will also have the runs of the lovely Once, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dirty Dancing, a welcome return of The Book of Mormon in case you couldn’t get seats last time, the aforementioned Kinky Boots and one of the biggest hits of last season, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.

The Kravis will host the first tour of Bullets Over Broadway, last season’s musical version of Woody Allen’s hit movie about a collision of the theater world with the Mob. It had some ardent admirers but not enough box office to go a second year. Also on the menu is Matilda, another highly popular musical still playing in New York based on the darkish children’s book by Roald Dahl. Interestingly, neither of those are playing in Broward and Miami. But the headliner is the musical version of Bridges of Madison County, which played only last season in New York, but featured one of the loveliest scores in years courtesy of Jason Robert Brown (Parade and The Last Five Years). Far, far better than the novel or the movie.

The Wick Theatre continues to grow its subscription audience and impress critics with its mainstream work. Unabashedly commercial, it keeps trying to find a season that will keep increasing its fan base. So it has on one hand, South Pacific and the aforementioned Hello Dolly! But it’s also doing Curtains!, a murder mystery musical comedy that was among the last shows written by Cabaret and Chicago’s Kander and Ebb (with Rupert Holmes) and will feature the company’s vice president, museum curator and head designer, Kimberly Wick, in a key role.

Area colleges are ramping up for interesting seasons. Nova Southeastern University has an unusually diverse line-up ranging from Hamlet to the cult musical Bat Boy, which recently closed, both about disaffected outsiders. FIU has the modern Kingdom City and the French farce A Flea In Her Ear. FAU is tackling Agnes of God and King Lear.

Broward’s home of familiar titles, Stage Door Theatre, has its usual sampler of brand name dramas like Dial M For Murder, gentle comedies like Same Time, Next Year, musical revues like a reprise of last year’s popular What’s New Pussycat and then some mild surprises like Evita. But the one show many will be looking forward to is Gypsy directed by Dan Kelley and starring Ann Marie Olson.

Three of the four shows at M Ensemble this season are by the late August Wilson: The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Fences. The titles have been penciled in for its new home at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center but the published dates might be changed.

Miami Theater Center, which performed two controversial re-imaginings of Hedda Gabler and The Seven Year Itch last season, will do one adult and one children’s show. The first is Outcry, a rarely done Tennessee Williams play about a brother and sister acting team trapped in a failing play, and the second is the return of its popular phantasmagorical Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – one of several plays it keeps in its active repertory.

Community theaters, some of which have been around longer than the most established professional troupes, continue to expand their horizons. Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts which recently mounted the epic-sized Les Miserables is planning Carousel. Lake Worth Playhouse in its 62nd season has its regular large-scale mainstream musicals on tap (as well as one of my favorite plays Inherit The Wind), but it has developed a black box series for chancier work such as Circle Mirror Transformation. Main Street Players in Miami Lakes is also ambitious in its schedule including one of most acclaimed off-Broadway shows in recent years, Water By The Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Algeria Hudes about the lingering effects of the Iraq War on returning veterans.

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