By Bill Hirschman
Ever since we left home for our first fall at college, there has always been something fresh and hopeful about September like Sondheim/Seurat’s blank page, clean and waiting for something new to entertain, provoke and amaze.
So it is with the local theater scene as audiences salivate at the new seasons from professional, touring, student and community companies previewed like the dessert cart at an upscale restaurant.
The 2012-2013 season promises a continued arc toward more new works and thought-provoking titles ripped fresh off the New York stages, sprinkled with enough perennials and confections to remind us that theater is as much about entertainment as catharsis. Check out our 2012 and 2013 season calendars (click here and here) which document about 250 of the even larger list of offerings.
The schedule reflects economic restraints with plenty of two-character works. Palm Beach Dramaworks opens with Talley’s Folly and GableStage kicks off with Venus in Fur. But some entries will reward audiences by putting every resource available on stage. Maltz Jupiter Theatre will mount the elegant Amadeus, Broward Stage Door has the equally expansive Showboat and Actors Playhouse’s In the Heights requires building and populating an entire urban neighborhood.
Despite the financial pressures on the community at large, some companies’ very existence celebrates long-term survival such as the Maltz Jupiter Theatre planning a blow-out 10th season and Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables chalking up a quarter-century.
At the other end of the longevity spectrum are sophomore companies that have sunk roots deep enough that they may be around just as long. Slow Burn Theatre Company in west Boca Raton and Zoetic Stage in Miami no longer qualify as the new kids on the block. While Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes has technically been around 11 years, this marks the third season since the company has found its stride. Quietly, tiny companies like the Thinking Cap Theatre and Andrews Living Arts Lab, both in Fort Lauderdale, are entering their third season as well.
Even younger, Outré Theatre Company, which held staged readings as fundraisers last season, opens its full-fledged inaugural season with an artistically ambitious schedule.
Some companies have been evolving before your eyes. Former community theater Boca Raton Theatre Guild was rewarded with unusually healthy ticket sales when it went pro last season. The PlayGround Theatre, the children’s theater gaining national recognition for its imagistic productions, is expanding its vision to encompass adult productions and serving as a nurturing host for other companies’ works in progress under the new name Miami Theater Center.
Even companies struggling with economic challenges like Broward Stage Door can find encouragement: While its Little Shop of Horrors and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill failed to excite its traditional audience, the crowds embraced My Fair Lady, and even more telling The Immigrant and A Shayna Maidel this season. That has led its founders to rethink the conventional wisdom that Jewish-themed theater is no longer a draw.
There’s even a glimmer of hope at this writing that the Coconut Grove Playhouse standoff may finally come unstuck, although we’ve heard that song before.
Everyone will have their own “must-see” and “that’s intriguing” lists. No story could encompass every show or every company. But here are the hot fudge-drenched brownies we’re eyeing on that dessert cart — in no particular order.
Maltz Jupiter Theatre, the most prosperous purveyor of polished mainstream fare, is continuing its gentle push toward more thoughtful work this season. Yes, it’s mounting Singin’ in the Rain and The Music Man (please, please remember that Harold Hill is a con man who steals people’s life savings and only later finds redemption). But it’s also slated the incisive straight play Doubt in February with a stellar cast featuring Tony nominee Maureen Anderman as the steely nun who suspects priest Jim Ballard of molesting the son of Karen Stephens while young nun Julie Kleiner agonizes over who to believe. But the one we’re looking forward to is the Halloween opening of Peter Shaffer’s truly brilliant Amadeus, which has a far better and thought-provoking script than the movie.
As usual, GableStage’s Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler seems to have raided most of the intelligent and provocative works from last year’s New York Times ABC directory of shows including the salaciously titled Cock. Most of the early attention will be on its season opener in November, Venus In Fur. We caught Venus in New York and felt David Ives’ script was only so-so, but it provides an actress with a stand-out bravura role, in GableStage’s case, Betsy Graver. The piece we’re eager to see is David Lindsay Abaire’s Good People in July. We caught this one last season in New York and were stunned by the superb script about the two-way class prejudice between a down-on- her-uck Boston mother and her former boyfriend who escaped Southie for an upscale life as a doctor. Once again, it has a dynamite role for a woman created in New York by Frances McDormand.
As always, a lot of national tours are coming to various South Florida venues for their first time (albeit on their second or third circuit of the country) thanks to Broadway Across America or the Kravis’ independently programmed slate. There’s also a cornucopia of one-night or three-night stands, especially at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, plus notable imports from the acclaimed Asolo Repertory Company in Sarasota at the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center and Aquila Theatre Company at the Kravis’ Rinker Playhouse.
The Miami tours include the driving Afro-beat of Fela, the irrepressible fledgling rock score of Memphis and the disco glam appeal of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The Kravis is the only local venue to schedule Broadway’s Catch Me If You Can, a 2011 musical based on the 2002 Spielberg film that never became a hit but enchanted some audiences. A bigger draw will be the pre-Broadway shakedown for a revival of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde starring Constantine Maroulis (oddly effective in Rock of Ages) and fellow rocker Deborah Cox as his lover.
But the one beg-borrow-or-steal ticket is War Horse at the tail end of the Fort Lauderdale schedule in May. The script is just adequate in this story of an English farm boy who follows his beloved horse when it is conscripted into the horror of World War I. And most of the press justifiably focuses on the amazing life-sized puppets of the two titular huge horses. But the true strength evident in its New York run was the skilled melding of every theatrical discipline into a stirring spectacle of stagecraft in service of story. Whether this will be as absorbing under a proscenium arch rather than atop Lincoln Center’s modified thrust stage will be the question.
Palm Beach Dramaworks will be making the most of its new digs with the kind of meaty schedule that brings a theater lover close to tears. The aforementioned Talley’s Folly next month is a particular favorite with its quirky romance between two damaged souls. Also anticipated is another entry from house playwright, Edward Albee –his surreal tale of suburbanites’ amorphous anxiety edging into terror, A Delicate Balance. This edition in December stars, once again, Maureen Anderman who starred in the world premiere of Albee’s Seascape and who lives part -time in Palm Beach. But for truly surreal, there’s Exit The King in late March, another absurdist masterpiece from Eugene Ionesco whose The Chairs was an artistic triumph in 2008 for Dramaworks. The adaptation by Geoffrey Rush and two colleagues will star Colin McPhillamy as an incompetent, 400-year-old king who has just 90 minutes to live, but refuses to be convinced of his imminent demise or cede control.
Actors Playhouse always tries to find works that will resonate with its somewhat conservative audience. But bless Artistic Director David Arisco and Executive Producing Director Barbara Stein for nudging their patrons successfully toward more substantial fare, notably August: Osage County and Next To Normal. So applaud that they give us the opportunity in January to see Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, the tale of a privileged family discovering that their daughter is about to expose their painful secrets in a book. And who else would or could undertake Lin-Manuel Miranda’s joyous hip-hop/salsa flavored musical In The Heights, slated for March?
Based on their staged reading last year of Buried Child, we fretted about what the fledgling Outré Theatre Company was capable of pulling off. But this year, it mounted an intriguing reading of the Dog Sees God and a kick-butt bare bones edition of Jonathan Larson’s tick…tick…BOOM. So we’re looking forward to their entire three-show series in Boca Raton that includes a full production of tick…tick in May, plus Michael John LaChiusa’s cult musical about Jazz Age hedonism, The Wild Party in November. Especially exciting is the prospect in April of Avi Hoffman in a one-man reimagining of The Illiad in contemporary language – a surprising artistic triumph in New York last season.
If someone made us artistic director of a theater dedicated to contemporary musicals, we’d… well, don’t bother. Our schedule would look like what Slow Burn Theatre Company courageously undertakes with little money but plenty of passion and talent. So cross your fingers as they plan Avenue Q with R-rated puppets in October; the moving cult musical Side Show about the heartache and sisterhood facing Siamese twins, written by the folks behind Dreamgirls; and for us Stephen Sondheim fanatics, Sweeney Todd in April featuring “Shepherd’s Pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.”
Mosaic Theatre Artistic Director Richard Jay Simon never settles for safe or same ol’ same ol’. This season opens this weekend with Ken Clement at the center of The Diary of a Madman, Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story satirizing bureaucracy. We’ve always said that if we ran a theater company, we’d have a Ken Clement season. Also breaking the mold, Simon has two plays by the up and coming
playwright Rajiv Joseph running in rotating repertory in February, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Animals Out of Paper.
Zoetic Stage: This year, this artist’s collective has no world premieres by members of the troupe’s core memberhips. But the schedule is impressive including the Gen X comedy All New People by Zach Braff in January. It opens in October’s with I Am My Own Wife, the ultimate acting challenge for Tom Wahl who must play a cross-dressing man who tells his/her life story while portraying 30 other characters.
We Can Vouch For It Category: First up, one of most pleasant surprises from last season was the world premiere of Terri Girvin’s Last Call at the tiny Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale. Now transferred to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 245-28, Girvin performs a one-woman memoir of her days as an actress, stand-up comedian and master bartender told to us as she opens up a New York City tavern and tends to a procession of quirky patrons through an entire shift. Normally, we avoid these when we can, but this is a terrific piece of theater combining delightful humor, psychological insight and a stunning example of acting mixed with sound effects. It requires two sound board operators to deal with the hundreds of sound effects precisely timed to Girvin’s choreographed actions in opening the bar and serving the crowd.
The second sure bet is the Alliance Theatre Lab’s revival of David Michael Sirois’ story of 20-something slackers trying to cope with impending adulthood, Brothers Beckett. The Arsht Center’s Up Close theater series is co-producing the revival bringing it downtown to a potentially larger audience. Sirois’ script is wonderfully funny, idiosyncratic and insightful, but the production benefits immeasurably in the acting byplay of Sirois and his real-life buddy Mark Della Ventura. If you missed this at Alliance’s tiny Miami Lakes storefront, catch it here, especially if you’re under 50 years old.
The newly-rechristened Miami Theater Center’s adult reimagining of Chekov’s Three Sisters in November is guaranteed to be intriguing if only for the visual imagination of creators Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla who impressed audiences last season with their original The Red Thread. The company spent part of last week testing its mechanical bleachers that move the audience around the stage.
Boca Raton Theatre Guild seems to be having a Patti Gardner festival featuring the actress as the harried wife in A.R. Gurney comedy Sylvia at the end of this month with Jacqueline Laggy as the canine who seems almost human. Then in March, Gardner will play Roxy in an ambitious mounting of Chicago featuring Avi Hoffman, Ken Clement and Sally Bondi, directed by Keith Garson, choreographed by Ron Hutchins and musical directed by Eric Alsford. Gardner will be on the same Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park stage in January with Harriet Oser reprising their roles in the Holocaust play The Interview for The Women’s Theater Project, which has moved its operations from Fort Lauderdale to Boca.
It’s too early to know how solid the quality will be at the new Plaza Theatre in Florida Stage’s old home in Manalapan. But it’s mixing legitimate plays into a previous slate of musical revues, featuring some especially strong casting. Among the talent, the aforementioned Harriet Oser and John Archie in Driving Miss Daisy in October, Avi Hoffman in Murray Schisgal’s Luv, in December, and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two with Wayne LeGette and Jodie Langel in January under Michael Leeds’ direction. Remember the Ocean Boulevard bridge is closed; come from the north or south on A1A.
The House Theatre of Chicago has stunned audiences with its two previous visits of stylized theater at the Arsht Center, The Sparrow and Death and Harry Houdini. It’s coming back for the holidays with its idiosyncratic spin on The Nutcracker. Its members have also written a new rock musical called Girls Vs. Boys that will be performed at the Arsht by students from the University of Miami’s Department of Theatre Arts, much as they did last season’s The House of Bernarda Alba.
New Theatre is trying out short play events and bare bones works for younger audiences, but keep an eye out for the comedy Happy by Robert Caisley who also wrote Kissing and Winter for “The New.” Happy is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere program.
Lou Tyrell’s first season at The Theatre at Arts Garage in Delray Beach didn’t attract large crowds but folks missed some solid work, especially the bracing Cabaret Verboten this summer. So it’s worth taking a chance on his upcoming season that opens with the revenge comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear in December, and includes Gloucester Blue, a dark comedy by Florida Stage favorite Israel Horovitz in January.
Side note: We’re proud of our season calendars as a way for both locals and snowbirds to plan their theatergoing either this week or six months from now. But circumstances change and we rely on the theaters to provide reliable information. We ask theaters to please keep us apprised of shows that are cancelled or extended, or when titles change. We’ll update the calendar as soon as we get the information. We know that some companies’ seasons are still being solidified and a few companies schedule shows on an ad hoc basis, but if your theater’s information is not here, please send it to us as soon as possible. Thank you.