Long Hot Summer

I would be less than truthful if I said that the 1993-94 theater season in South Florida was anywhere near triumphant; in fact, it was not half as exciting as the two previous years I've spent here as a critic. Disregarding the few high points and the few dismal failures, the adjective that immediately comes to mind is boring. Most of the shows were barely competent productions of bland plays, some difficult to endure for two acts.

With that in mind I am heading into the summer months with guarded optimism. Several projects sound promising, and the return of the Acme Acting Company brightens my spirits. As for news of next year, most of the theaters are undecided, while the recently announced lineups from the major road houses or larger venues, such as the Jackie Gleason Theater, are certainly not tailored to lovers of dramatic art.

But first let's cruise into summer. From June 9-26, Teatro Avante is once again bringing to our area the finest in Spanish-language theater from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the United States for their ninth-annual Hispanic Theatre Festival. This event always marks the start of the summer season for me, and as I am fortunate enough to understand Spanish, I can savor its many varied fruits. While not all the plays are of equal interest A the sets are spare (caused by the constraints of presenting more than a dozen different works in about two weeks on the same stage) and Latin actors lean toward a melodramatic style of performance A there are usually many gems in the batch, some dealing with serious issues of terrorism versus civil rights. Acme Acting Company occupies the Colony Theater from June 30 to July 31 with Jeffrey, an amusing play about a promiscuous gay male who renounces sex and subsequently meets the romantic partner of his dreams. I have seen other productions of this piece and was not impressed, but if anyone can evince the poignancy and irony in the script, I trust Acme can. On the other hand Marie Osmond in The Sound of Music strikes me as the performing equivalent of adding sugar to Diet Pepsi. If this type of theater turns you on, you can hear the hills come alive at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts from June 28 to July 2.

New Theatre has announced "light summer fare" for its summer mini-season. Relationships, running from June 3 to July 3, is a cabaret revue developed by the company, composed of Broadway songs dealing with all kinds of interpersonal connections, from passionate love to broken friendships. From July 8 to August 7, Hollywood Canteen, another company-created revue, will feature songs from the 1940s. After Five A the brainchild of John Werkheiser, who stages New Theatre's entire summer lineup and brings with him "major New York credits" A is a romantic musical featuring hits from pop songwriters such as Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King. Werkheiser has no doubt realized that with the success of The Who's Tommy, this bunch will start writing their own musicals any minute now. With this show, he gives us a chance to see if milquetoast rock suits the stage. If this parade of singathons seems too sappy, remember that New Theatre has some excellent vocalists on board, and has often presented engaging revues featuring the work of Leonard Bernstein and Bertolt Brecht.

The Caldwell Theatre Company also plans a three-show summer, beginning on July 15 with Cowgirls, a new musical by the creators of Pump Boys and Dinettes, which runs through July 31. Avery Sommers (remember him?) will star in another revue called But Not for Me from August 12-28. The only dramatic note in this venue's season A John Patrick's The Hasty Heart, a reprise of an earlier Caldwell hit production A will run from September 16 to October 9.

Other summer highlights include Arthur Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi, the 1994 New Play Festival winner, staged at the Public Theatre of Fort Lauderdale's Main Library location from July 14-17, and the Public's presentation of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters at the Palm-Aire Social Club from June 10-19. Jerry Radloff's new play, Gone, will be produced by the Public at the Vinnette Carroll Theatre from July 7-31. The company's aim in occupying all these spaces over the summer months, producing a total of ten different shows in four locations, is to raise enough money to complete construction of a new permanent theater space in Fort Lauderdale.

If you need to escape South Florida's most physically challenging months, even for a short time, plan a trip to New York. There are several tickets you might want to secure. For drama my three top picks are Angels in America at the Walter Kerr Theatre; Broken Glass, Arthur Miller's new play, at the Booth Theatre; and the incomparable Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at the Cort Theatre. But don't wait too long. As pointed out by both Time magazine and the New York Times, plays as a form don't endure on the Great White Way these days. Even Sam Shepard can't raise enough dough for a dramatic production. On the off-Broadway scene I'm told to catch Edward Albee's Three Tall Women at the charming Promenade Theater, which brought the playwright his third Pulitzer Prize after so many years of theatrical disgrace.

The show that will undoubtedly run forever -- and enchant scores of tourists who love spectacle -- is New York's newest megahit, Beauty and the Beast, at the Palace Theatre. It was just a matter a time before Disney married Broadway, and Michael Eisner (CEO of Walt's empire) promises a whole series of cute, sanitized musicals for the entire family.

So it would seem that the hotter months both here and up North are tingling with frolic, melody, and a meager drop of substance. Still, the Acura Broadway series at the Jackie Gleason Theater on Miami Beach for the 1994-95 season makes this column's previous listings sound like a summer of Shakespeare. We begin with The Great Radio City Musical Hall Spectacular featuring Susan Anton (the actress who used to date Dudley Moore) with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes from October 11-16. Next is another revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, Jesus Christ Superstar, running from November 8-13 and containing Webber's hard-rock score. Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing rolls in to the Beach from December 20-25. I caught this show when I was a little girl with Ms. Channing as the star; the concept of seeing the same musical with the same lead today is profoundly disturbing.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, another Webber-Rice collaboration, plays from February 14-19. Widely regarded in the past as one of Webber's flops, he and producer Cameron Mackintosh poured millions of bucks into publicity for the show when it reopened two years ago in London. The hype worked and the crowds flooded in, proving that products you couldn't cram down audiences' throats in the Sixties and Seventies can easily be marketed today, providing you hire a crafty publicist. It also demonstrates to me that Mr. Webber does not take failure of any kind graciously.

For those who missed the Pinball Wizard last year, The Who's Tommy returns from March 21-26. And the final road show entry of the season, running from April 18-23, is the only major production I'll be sure not to miss: Blood Brothers, a dark original musical about twins separated at birth, written by the talented Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita) and starring Sixties pop icon Petula Clark.

As of this writing I'm not certain whether the groundbreaking and lengthy Angels in America will open at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts or possibly one of the road houses, as negotiations are still in progress. The opening and future of the Miami Skyline Theatre are similarly in question, with funds so limited after such high expectations. Questions abound for next year. Will Acme find a permanent home? Will the Public Theatre finish building its new space? Will New Theatre and the Caldwell Theatre Company continue to produce entire seasons of excellence? And what the devil is the Coconut Grove Playhouse planning?

I sit with fingers crossed and breath slightly held. I believe in optimism, in spite of circumstance.


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