By Bill Hirschman
As the music swelled Monday at Outré Theatre Company’s concert production of tick…tick…BOOM!, a thought kept interfering with my becoming completely lost in Jonathan Larson’s chamber musical.
Admit it, we’ve all been fighting off a pessimistic depression with the collapse of Florida Stage, the graceful exit of Promethean Theatre, the hiatus of Rising Action, Women’s Theatre Project and Naked Stage, and the limbo of the Caldwell Theatre.
But the past week of theatergoing in South Florida has provided several vital signs that our Fabulous Invalid shouldn’t be placed on the critical list, just kept under observation.
Exhibit one: Monday’s night fundraiser for Outré, a tiny company founded by Skye Whitcomb and Nori Tecosky who have the ridiculous belief that someone can start a theater company in this economy amid declining attendance, evaporating government support and miniscule patron donations.
Their moving edition of Larson’s pre-Rent tale of young people pursuing their artistic dreams forced you to admit that if they can pull off such a smooth, assured and no-excuses production, maybe it’s the doubters who should be hedging their bets.
Shout outs to director Whitcomb, musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman, assistant director Jason Fisher in the tech booth, guitarist Javier Urrutia, percussionist Nick Trotogott, Nova Southeastern University for providing the hall, but above all a trio of amazing performers: the affecting Michael Westrich as the hero in Larson’s semi-autobiographical story of a composer trying to find a foothold in musical theater, Sabrina Lynn Gore as his dancer girlfriend yearning for a more stable life and Clay Cartland as his gay best friend who has forsaken an artistic life for material success in an ad agency.
Believing (or just hoping) that an audience exists for thought-provoking theater, the company plans to open its first season of fully-staged productions sometime in November with Andrew Lippa’s cult musical The Wild Party. Even the company’s courageous selection of works is heartening.
Exhibit two: In the Outré audience Monday were Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko, co-founders of the fledgling Slow Burn Theatre operating in west Boca Raton. Last month, their financially challenged company produced a triumphant and rapturously received production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The fact that it was both an artistic and popular success once again puts the lie to the idea that the only market for theater are patrons afraid of anything written after 1965.
Exhibit three: This weekend, the new South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center imported the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of Hamlet, Prince of Cuba in an English version heavily redacted by Michael Donald Edwards and a separate Spanish translation by Miami’s Nilo Cruz. The English version didn’t feel especially Cuban-inspired other than the music and costumes, but the production that set the play in 1898 Havana was satisfyingly solid. And it was a real pleasure to hear actors with classical training giving Shakespeare his due, including former Miamian Frankie Alvarez as the Melancholy Cubano. The lovely new facility wasn’t exactly overrun with ticket buyers, but there was a reasonably healthy turnout Saturday night.
Exhibit four: The audience’s positive reaction this weekend to the offbeat comedy Becky’s New Car at Actors Playhouse showed that mainstream audiences will respond to shows they’ve never heard of, even ones that veer into darker territory, if they are carried off with style and skill. Equally encouraging was the conversation with Playhouse board chairman Larry Stein who confirmed that while Hairspray this season wasn’t the money-maker he’d hoped, the far more challenging musical about a bipolar housewife, Next To Normal, had been a hit with audiences who flocked to the show based on word of mouth as well as critical raves.
Exhibit five: We caught up Wednesday with Death and Harry Houdini, the stylized mesh of theatrical disciplines resulting in the kind of experience you can only have in theater. The entire run of the co-production of the House Theatre of Chicago and the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts’ Theater Up Close series had sold out and the production was shoehorning in two extra performances at the end of the run on May 20. Aside from Mad Cat Theatre, Thinking Cap and PlayGround Theatre, few local companies take a chance with such flagrantly theatrical work. We can hope that Houdini’s success (albeit helped along by the cachet of a magic show) will encourage more Florida theaters to attract audiences by indulging in what TV and film can’t deliver.
Exhibit six and beyond: It will be a few more days before we can get to see Thinking Cap’s two shows that opened this weekend on the Empire Stage, Love Burns and Radio Plays. But it’s yet another example of a tiny company trying to establish a beachhead against all sane odds. And while it’s far, far more mainstream, on Thursday we saw the Barry Manilow songbook revue I Am Music at the new Plaza Theatre in Manalapan. Producer Alan Jacobson, who plans to continue with such safe fare, also announced a season that will take on Driving Miss Daisy and the aforementioned Next to Normal.
And if you look back a couple of weeks, there’s GableStage’s production of Time Stands Still or the just-closed A Measure of Cruelty, inspired by the Michael Brewer burning tragedy, the first new play commissioned by Mosaic Theatre.
No one is wearing rose-colored eyewear. We also saw some pretty mediocre work as well in the last few weeks. No question, these are unnerving times for those who want to see the arts thrive, not simply survive.
But listening Monday night to Outré’s cast singing about theater as a kind of sacred pursuit, all I could think was how much I want to see what these folks do next. And how they might just be here to do it.