Key West is full to bursting with entertainment options every minute, every day of the week. Drag shows, live music, comedy shows, critically acclaimed plays … choosing can be a daunting task if you don’t know where to start Those in the know, however, typically begin their planning by checking out a tried-and-true option for world-class entertainment: The Waterfront Playhouse. Located in a gorgeous brick historical building located on Mallory Square, the Waterfront Playhouse consistently features shows and performances of a caliber one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate finding on a two by four-mile island, yet every season is consis- tently more exciting than the last.
Dubbed “the Best Professional Theater in Florida” two years in a row by Florida Monthly Magazine, the Waterfront Playhouse, a nonprofit professional theater, has been at the forefront of bringing cutting-edge theater straight from Broadway to Monroe County since its inception. This season marks the theater’s 79th year running and the Waterfront shows no sign of stopping its award-winning performances anytime soon.
The Waterfront Playhouse began in 1939 when the Key West Players, the original producers, formed a troupe that included locals and Navy personnel who put on theatrical productions wherever they could find space to perform. This often included unconventional locations, such as the submarine tender U.S.S. Gilmore, which was docked in Key West after World War II. The Key West Players moved into their current location on the historic Mallory Square in 1960, into a building that served as an ice warehouse in the 1880s.
This year, the Waterfront will be able to attribute its almost certain success to new Artistic Director Tom Thayer, the former business and box office manager of the Playhouse. Mr. Thayer will be filling the giant-sized void left by the departure of former Artistic Director Danny Weathers, who managed the Waterfront for 15 seasons. Along with his partner, John McDonald, Mr. Thayer created the Roxy Center for Arts and Education in Clarksville, Tenn., which they ran for 33 years before moving to Key West in 2015. Mr. Thayer has directed award-winning productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and Sandy Wilson’s “The Boyfriend” as well as Green Day’s “American Idiot,” “Spring Awakening,” “The Secret Garden,” Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” and the world premieres of “Life on the Mississippi,” “Bessie,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Magnificent Amberson’s” and “Red Badge of Courage,” all adapted for the stage by Mr. McDonald.
The Waterfront Playhouse begins every season with a grand kick-off concert that features local vocal talents and typically adheres to a particular theme, often highlighting a musical artist or cultural event like the Academy Awards. This year, the highlighted musical artist is Key West’s own “Conch Diva” Carmen Rodriguez. “Carmen by Request” kicks off the season on Nov. 16 and 17 and Ms. Rodriguez will be joined onstage by Bobby Nesbitt, Michael Thomas and Dave Bootle accompanied by Robert Strickland, Skipper Kripitz and Joe Dallas. Tickets for Friday’s show cost $70, but they come with a catered post-performance party in the Sculpture Garden. Tickets for Saturday’s show, sans snacks, are $50.
As the Waterfront grows and expands its repertoire, every season becomes the most ambitious season in the storied history of the Waterfront Playhouse. After this weekend’s “Carmen by Request,” the first official production on the Waterfront’s calendar is “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. A five-time Tony Award winner, this rollicking tale upends the century-old story of how a miserable orphan comes to be The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. From marauding pirates and jungle tyrants to unwilling comrades and unlikely heroes, “Peter and the Starcatcher” playfully explores the depths of greed and despair and the bonds of friendship, duty and love.
In a refreshing move, Mr. Thayer has cast some newer faces to the Key West theater scene, namely Dillon Feldman, Arthur Crocker, Alan Gillespie and Steve Miller, alongside many of Key West’s most revered comedic talents, including Susannah
Wells, John McDonald, Trey Forsyth, John Reynolds, Matt Hollis Hulsey, Bob Woods, DJ Mills and Ross Pipkin. “Peter and the Starcatcher” will run from Dec. 13 to Jan. 6 every Tuesday through Saturday (with a performance on Sun. Dec. 30 in lieu of one on New Year’s Day), with preview tickets available for Dec. 11 and 12.
The next show on the schedule is the award-winning “A Doll’s House Part Two,” by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Murphy Davis and featuring Maribeth Graham, Joy Hawkins, David Black and Jessica Miano Kruel, this comedy takes place 15 years after Nora Helmer shockingly decides to leave her husband and children at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 novel, A Doll’s House. Called “the best play of the year” by The New York Times, it dares to wonder what Nora has been up to in the intervening years and the turmoil she left behind. “A Doll’s House Part Two” will run from Jan. 24 through Feb. 9 every Tuesday through Saturday with low-priced previews on Tuesday Jan. 22 and Wednesday Jan. 23.
Typically, the most anticipated show of every Waterfront season is the show-stopping musical, and Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” will surely stop a show or two. Based on the movie of the same name, Mel Brooks and book writer Thomas Meeham have ingeniously augmented the movie with such musical blockbusters as The Transylvania Mania, Please Don’t Touch Me and He Vas My Boyfriend. The cast is massive, but notables include Alan Gillespie as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Trey Forsyth as The Monster, Jeffrey Harwell as Igor and Marjorie Paul-Shook as Frau Blucher. Young Frankenstein runs from Feb. 28 through March 23 every Tuesday through Saturday, with preview tickets available for Feb. 26 and 27.
One of the most produced plays of last season, “Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason heats up the stage in April.
Confronting the dark side of ambition and the trouble of reinventing oneself when the past is only a click away, star sex blogger and memoirist Ethan (portrayed by Tim Torre) and his idol, a gifted but obscure novelist named Olivia (portrayed by Melanie Keller), find they each crave what the other possess. Sex with Strangers will run April 11 through April 27 with previews on April 9 and 10.
The last production of the season will be Lucas Hnath’s Obie Award winning “Red Speedo. “This red-hot evening of theatrical fireworks will star Cody Borah as Ray, who has swum his way to the eve of the Olympic trials. If he makes the team, he’ll land a sponsorship deal with Speedo. When someone’s stash of performance enhancing drugs is found in the locker room fridge, it threatens the fate of not only Ray, but the entire Olympic team. “Red Speedo” runs May 16 through June 1, with previews on May 14 and 15.
In addition to the mainstage shows, this season will feature a range of smaller productions, such as Bertolt Brecht’s “The Jewish Wife.” Directed by John McDonald and starring Stephanie Miller and Stephen Kitsakos, it will play for two nights only, Dec. 16 and 17.
During Pride Week, the Waterfront will host a staged reading of The Laramie Project on June 7 and 8.
This season, Mr. Thayer has gone above and beyond to bring the funny to Key West’s theater scene and, come May, anyone lucky (and smart) enough to catch a performance at the Waterfront Playhouse will be smiling a little wider and laughing a little louder than the rest.
You can read more about the Waterfront Playhouse’s upcoming performances, purchase tickets, and learn about membership opportunities on their website at www.waterfrontplayhouse.org.
And if you’re spending an evening at Mallory Square, don’t forget that “when the sun sets, the curtain rises at the Waterfront Playhouse.” ¦