TO SAY THAT KEY WEST is proud of Tennessee Williams’ choice to spend the last 34 years of his life in our tropical paradise would be to grossly understate our collective esteem of a man known as one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. One need only peruse the perennial Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Key West Business Guild to see a physical demonstration of our love (and forget about the nearly annual performances of “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “The Rose Tattoo” by our versatile local theater groups).
That said, although many who knew Williams during his 30-plus year residency in Key West considered him no more than an occasionally drunk and mercurial bicycle-riding neighbor, his theatrical fingerprint lives on in much more than the occasional presentation of his seminal works.
In 1980, The Tennessee Williams Theatre opened its doors for the first time in conjunction with the world premiere of Williams’ play, “Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?” The modern, multi-use facility has three performance spaces, auditorium seating for 480 and a waterfront outdoor performance space that seats 2,500.
Since its opening, it has remained the premier spot for Key West’s grandest concerts, plays, symposiums, expos and dance performances.
This year, the Tennessee Williams calendar revs up in early January, beginning with “Something Rotten!” on Jan. 3. Set in 1595, this hilarious smash tells the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, brothers who are desperate to write a hit play. When a local soothsayer foretells that the future of theater involves singing, dancing and acting at the same time, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s very first musical. Called “Broadway’s big, fat hit” by the New York Post, “Something Rotten!” is sure to kick off the 2019 season with a roar.
The South Florida Symphony Orchestra, a longstanding contributor to the Tennessee Williams Theatre’s illustrious musical program, will be returning for a four-show series spanning the season. The first performance, on Jan. 19, is the legendary American opera “Porgy and Bess.”
A star-studded cast joins the SFSO, presenting a bold mix of modernist classics, ragtime, blues, jazz and spirituals. In the masterful hands of the SFSO, the great Gershwin standards reach notably eloquent, heartfelt and genre-crossing heights. On Feb. 20, the symphony will present “Masterworks II,” an installation in its four-part Masterworks series. Under the flawless direction of conductor Sebrina Alfonso, the orchestra will perform Moncayo’s Huapango, Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” featuring pianist Natasha Paremski and Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.”
On March 10, the orchestra will continue the Masterworks series with “Masterworks III,” performing Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat Minor featuring pianist Svetlana Smolina, Rimsky Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol” and Debussy’s “La Mer.”
Last on the symphonic calendar is “Masterworks IV,” the April 18 culmination of the Masterworks program. To conclude its Tennessee Williams schedule, the orchestra will perform “Ballet Music” from Holst’s comic opera “The Perfect Fool,” Liebermann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra featuring Julian Schwarz on the cello and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.
Jan. 20-21 find beloved local cabaret star Bobby Nesbitt back in the Cabaret Theatre with “Bobby in the Lobby,” his lighthearted original cabaret series. Joining Bobby will be the stunning chanteuse Carmen Rodriguez, everyone’s favorite girl singer, and — in his only Key West appearance — former director of the Waterfront Playhouse and Broadway star Danny Weathers, who will be gracing us with his presence for the first time since moving to California last year.
On both Jan. 27 and March 31, the Paradise Big Band (a 17-piece Key West musical institution) will celebrate its 21st anniversary on the Main Stage at the Tennessee Williams Theatre. Featuring local vocalists and guest musicians, the Paradise Big Band runs a high-energy show that will please even the most discerning theatergoer.
Feb. 1 brings us Neil Berg’s “50 Years of Rock & Roll,” a tribute to the glory days of the genre. With a cast of stars from Broadway’s greatest rock musicals and incredible rock ’n’ roll singers, Berg shares the often-unknown stories from the 50-year history of the music that changed the world forever. From the progenitors of rock in the 1940s, through the glory years of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, up until MTV’s debut in the early ’80s, “50 Years of Rock & Roll” uses stories and music to pay tribute to iconic rockers such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.
If “50 Years of Rock & Roll” doesn’t delve far enough into music’s past for your tastes, you mustn’t miss “In the Mood” on Feb. 7. The look at America’s Swing Era pays homage to our Greatest Generation through the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra and other idols of the 1940s. It recreates defining moments from the ’30s’ and ’40s, from the happy-go-lucky era before WWII to the start of the war when thousands of young men were shipped abroad to defend our freedoms. Swing music inspired America with a vision for the future filled with hope, promise and prosperity. “In the Mood” promises to take you right back to that optimistic era.
Trading bobby socks for electric guitars, the Little River Band is sure to draw a raucous crowd on Feb. 13. The late Glenn Frey, founding member of The Eagles, knew what he was saying when he dubbed Little River Band “the best singing band in the world.” Through the ’70s and ’80s, the band enjoyed huge chart success with multi-platinum albums and hits like “Cool Change,” “Lonesome Loser,” “Take It Easy on Me” and “It’s A Long Way There.” Bringing vocal and musical energy along with some cool arrangements to timeless classic hits, each show creates new memories for the audience. The band enjoys watching fans fall in love with the songs all over again as they are swept up by the powerful performance and the volume of hits from Little River Band’s history. Little River Band is hotter than ever, selling out shows and making music nationwide as it continues its legacy of being the best singing band in the world.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Theatre will host “Stayin’ Alive,” one night of the Bee Gees, on Feb. 23. Back at the Tennessee Williams by popular demand, “Stayin’ Alive” offers the songs and sights of a full Bee Gees playlist, performing blockbusters such as “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love” and “You Should Be Dancing.” “Stayin’ Alive” is the largest and most definitive production of its kind, capturing the excitement of live performance and the tender subtleties of the human voice.
On March 4, Key West cabaret artist and female impersonator Randy Roberts brings his unique blend of effortless vocal performance and clever, acidic repartee to the stage along with Broadway, television and film star Lucie Arnaz in “We’re Singing Our Songs.” Created just for the Tennessee Williams Lobby Cabaret, it’s a night of songs of love, songs of life and songs of laughter. The second act will be a mini concert of “They’re Playing Our Song,” in honor of the 40th anniversary of its Broadway opening. Don’t miss what promises to be an intimate and touching evening of music by two world class talents.
Broadway favorite musical “The Sound of Music” comes to the Tennessee Williams for a limited two-night run March 18-19. The spirited, romantic and beloved musical story of Maria and the von Trapp Family will once again thrill audiences with its Tony-, Grammy- and Academy Award-winning Best Score, including “My Favorite Things,” “Do- Re-Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and the title song.
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the movie version, which continues to be the most successful movie musical in history. (We promise not to sing along too loudly. No promises regarding dressing in traditional Austrian garb, though.)
On March 23-24, the Lobby at the Tennessee Williams Theatre will come alive with “Haley, Mulligan, Robinson: Singing the ’ 60s.” Eric Haley, Michael Mulligan and Michael Robinson (all frequent Tennessee Williams performers — solo and as a trio) are back in the cabaret, this time taking audiences on a musical journey through one of the most sonically diverse decades of all time. With songs from the stars our parents loved and hits that rocked our radios and record players, this show will touch your heart and reach all the way down to your dancing feet. You’ll love this night of great musical memories. Dancing in the aisles is allowed and encouraged.
If you haven’t yet had your fill of Broadway heavyweights, brace yourself for one of the most iconic rock musicals ever created. “Rent” comes to the Tennessee Williams Theatre for two nights only on April 15-16, rounding out another show-stopping season.
In 1996, an original rock musical by a little-known composer opened on Broadway and changed the landscape of American theater. Two decades later, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world.
The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning masterpiece returns to the stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary touring production. A re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” “Rent” follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters — love. ¦