If it’s autumn, it’s time for the new South Florida theater season to kick into high gear.
And among more than a dozen regionally produced shows opening this month in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are two world premieres: Michael McKeever’s #MeToo-influenced take on the horror classic “Dracula,” for Zoetic Stage at Miami’s Arsht Center, and the Broadway-targeted “Havana Music Hall,” which is getting a lavish first production at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre.
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With music and lyrics by Richard Kagan, a producer-composer based in Los Angeles, and a book by Miami playwright-actor Carmen Peláez (whose new play “Fake” will get its own world premiere from Miami New Drama in January-February), “Havana Music Hall” is having an extended preview period Oct. 10-18 before its gala opening Oct. 19. The poignant, resonant piece about married Cuban performers whose lives are upended by the revolution had an earlier workshop presentation in Los Angeles, but close-to-Cuba Miami seemed the perfect spot for its world premiere.
As with several other New York-aspiring productions at Actors’ Playhouse in the past, the show is the work of a largely out-of-town creative team; director-choreographer Maria Torres, for example, was associate choreographer of Broadway’s “On Your Feet!” and the choreographer of Off-Broadway’s “4 Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria.” And the cast is a blend of New York-based actors (many with Miami roots) and area performers.
McKeever’s “Dracula,” on the other hand, has pure South Florida running through its veins.
The playwright, whose Carbonell Award-winning “Daniel’s Husband” opens at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre Upstairs a week after “Dracula” begins artfully terrorizing audiences in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater on Oct. 11, is among three Miami playwrights whose work is in the national spotlight this season.
Christopher Demos-Brown, like McKeever one of the founders of Zoetic, is making his Broadway debut with “American Son;” starring Kerry Washington and directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, the play opens at the Booth Theatre on Nov. 4. On Jan. 10, “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney makes his Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with “Choir Boy,” an Off-Broadway hit that was subsequently produced at GableStage in 2015.
Stuart Meltzer, artistic director and another Zoetic Stage founder, says of McKeever and Demos-Brown, “You work at it and the doors open up. And they write good plays.”
The play-writing landscape in the region has changed since trailblazer Nilo Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Anna in the Tropics,” which had its world premiere at tiny New Theatre in 2002. (Cruz, too, will have a presence in New York this season when his Spanish-language “Exquisita Agonía” rejoins the repertory after its world premiere last spring at Repertorio Español; the play will also be presented by Arca Images production at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box Nov. 15-18.)
Given the success of these breakout playwrights, initiatives such as the Playwright Development Program run by the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs, and developmental programs including Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Dramaworkshop in West Palm Beach, Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Jan McArt’s New Play Readings series at Boca Raton’s Lynn University and Miami Light Project’s Here & Now Festival, it’s clear that South Florida has become a place where new work — and playwrights — can flourish.
Juan C. Sanchez, for example, is putting the finishing touches on the second edition of Juggerknot Theatre Company’s immersive “Miami Motel Stories,” which will run at a Biscayne Corridor motel Nov. 30-Dec. 23. And three of Miami New Drama’s four productions at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach this season are world premieres.
Says Carbonell Award-winning actor Karen Stephens, who plays a decidedly different Van Helsing in “Dracula,” “South Florida is fecund, a fertile place for new work, a breeding ground for original works.”
McKeever, whose script for “Dracula” is his 30th full-length play since his 1996 debut with “That Sound You Hear” at New Theatre, has seen a significant evolution for the region’s playwrights since his career began.
“The world has changed for playwrights here, more specifically in the last seven years or so,” he says. “Not only are new works a normal part of the landscape, but they’ve been embraced by artistic directors and audiences. People want them.”
“Dracula,” for which McKeever also designed the tri-level set, has been percolating in his imagination for five years or so. But the #MeToo movement gave him fresh ideas about how to approach the Bram Stoker vampire classic.
“Dracula is the ultimate predator,” McKeever says. “But I wanted to redefine things. What better way to turn the play on its head and empower the women? Now Van Helsing is a woman of color, a Johannesburg-born scientist with this great strength and resolve. The character of Mina Murray was set up to be a victim, but here she starts off talking about equal rights and finds her confidence. It’s really Mina’s play.”
In “Dracula,” Meltzer is directing a cast that includes Carlos Orizondo as Dracula, Lindsey Corey as Mina, Daniel Capote as Mina’s fiancé Jonathan Harker, David Kwiat as Dr. Edmond Seward, Isabella Lopez as Seward’s ward Lucy (and as the maid Bridgett), Caleb Scott as the disturbed Renfield and Stephens as Van Helsing. The director is savoring his first-ever experience at directing a horror classic with so many thematic colors.
“I want to play with light and sound, so there’s an almost continuous soundscape that will get the audience into a hypnotic state,” says Meltzer, who is working with lighting designer Rebecca Montero and sound designer Matt Corey. “Then it wakes you up, and there’s blood spurting everywhere. This is gothic, comedy, drama and horror, all larger than life. You need a balance.”
Orizondo, who teaches drama at Gulliver Academy, has gone beyond research (reading Stoker’s novel, watching “Dracula”-related movies) to physically transform himself for his Zoetic debut. The slim, muscular actor grew his hair longer, pierced his ear and deliberately lost 20 pounds on a ketogenic diet.
“Dracula is the essence of the id. I see him as a tall, thin man – a wolf, an animal,” Orizondo says. “He’s the ultimate predator and ultimate egotist. It’s all about satisfying his urges. He has no boundaries.”
Kwiat, who quips that he’s “enjoying sinking my teeth into the horror genre,” is impressed by McKeever’s reimagining of a familiar story.
“He took the bulk of the material and turned it into his own entity. He knows the audience knows the story,” the actor says. “Michael is truly a renaissance man. He’s a writer, a designer, a manager, an artist….As a writer, he rolls around in so many genres. He’s a chameleon who takes on the hues of whatever he’s working on….It’s a joy to watch his writing get deeper and deeper.”
Corey, who graduated from Miami’s New World School of the Arts a decade ago, said yes to playing Mina before she had seen a word of the script. This is her first McKeever play but her third world premiere, after playing leads in Kim Ehly’s “Baby Girl” and Demos-Brown’s “Stripped.”
“It’s rare when a man writes a play like this about women,” Corey says. “He’s really mapped out her journey, which includes heartbreak and the promise of a different life. He has such a grasp of how people talk to each other. In a period piece, you can get lost in the language, but he writes so it’s a natural flow.”
Stephens, who also appeared in McKeever’s Zoetic world premiere drama “After,” concurs regarding the playwright’s skills.
“He does his research, and the way he constructs the language of a piece is a strong point,” she says. “Whether it’s a comedy or a drama, he has an ear for the rhythms of language and a facility for moving the story along to its conclusion.”
In “Havana Music Hall,” a story devised by Kagan was turned into a script packed with joy, tension and loss by Peláez, author and performer of the successful solo show “Rum & Coke.” Set in Havana in 1958 and in the present, the musical is a love letter to Cuban music and musicians, as well as a heartbreaking examination of the personal toll exacted by the revolution. Here, director-choreographer Torres is the artist who keeps the absorbing story moving along to its conclusion.
“This musical is about love, hope and redemption,” says Torres of a show that features more than 30 characters. “I wanted to create something seamless … to feel the story’s coming from everywhere…to immerse the audience and make them feel they’ve traveled to Cuba in 1958, then to present-day Cuba.”
Kagan, a longtime friend and professional associate of the late composer Marvin Hamlisch, says he has loved Latin music from an early age and that the “Buena Vista Social Club” documentary affected him deeply. He took piano lessons from a Cuban musician. And when he met Cuban performer-musicologist Jose “Perico” Hernandez, who has translated lyrics and been part of the creative team for four years, Kagan knew his “Havana Music Hall” story rang true.
“Jose told me that in 1958 he was working at the Capri Hotel in Havana, making $20 a week to support his wife and three kids. The regime came in and said, ‘We’ll tell you what to play and how much you can make,’” Kagan says. “The first part is a story of what happened. Then the core of the musical is everyone singing together. This is an old-fashioned musical. It has songs you’ll walk out humming.”
Larry Blank, a Tony Award-nominated orchestrator and the show’s music supervisor, was drawn to “Havana Music Hall” because he saw it as a musical about “roots, displacement, home and family. … To me, it’s a basic ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
Two sets of actors play the musical’s focal couple, married musicians Rolando and Ramona Calderón. Owners of the late-night spot Havana Music Hall and parents of a baby daughter, they’re about to break through with a gig at the famed Tropicana when the revolution changes everything and they must choose exile or the cost of staying in their homeland.
Alexander Pimental, a Miamian who now lives in Los Angeles, plays the younger Rolando. John Herrera, who played Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” at Actors’ Playhouse and who came to the United States from Cuba when he was 6, is the older Rolando. Linedy Genao, who appeared on Broadway in the Gloria and Emilio Estefan bio musical “On Your Feet!,” is younger Ramona. Miami native Isbelia Duran, the older version of Ramona, says she and Genao have found “situations in which we can mirror each other. The common connection is love.”
Other than Herrera, the leads in this large Latinx cast have family roots in the Dominican Republic. But, says Genao, “you don’t have to be Cuban to feel this music in your heart and soul. The message is: Never forget where you came from.”
Observes David Arisco, the Actors’ Playhouse artistic director who previously worked with Torres on the company’s production of “Four Guys Named Jose,” “Obviously it’s a Cuban show. But so many families have been torn apart through exile and immigration throughout our entire audience base. The main message I saw in the piece is what happens when governments intervene and hope is torn apart, families are torn apart, musicians and artists are unable to do their work. And somehow, through it all, we find the chance at some later point for families to reunite, hope to be restored and the potential for a new future for the younger generation.”
Herrera has been sharing his fragmented memories of Cuba with his fellow actors, savoring the chance to originate a role in a world premiere he sees as a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
“There is nothing like being part of a new show,” he says.
Adds Pimental, “We’re in the place where we should be to test out a show like this.”
If you go
“Dracula” by Michael McKeever
- Where: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
- When: Previews Oct. 11, opens Oct. 12; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees 3 p.m. Oct. 13 and noon Oct. 24), through Oct. 28.
- Cost: $55.
- Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
“Havana Music Hall” by Richard Kagan and Carmen Pelaez
- Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
- When: Through Nov. 18.
- Cost: $30 to $75.
- Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.