BRADENTON -- When he was picking shows for the 70th Manatee Players season, Rick Kerby wanted to find out what show had been the most popular in the company history.
It turns out the hottest show in Manatee Players history was "Cats," which will kick off the 2015-16 season in April.
"This is our 70th anniversary season so, with that in mind, we're trying to go big or stay home," said Kerby, producing artistic director, at an event Monday announcing the coming season.
"Cats" is just one way Manatee Players are going big. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on poems by T.S. Eliot, was such a gargantuan production Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre required extensive expansion to accommodate it in 1982. It went on to become the longest-running show on Broadway until another Webber show, "The Phantom of the Opera," surpassed it.
"Phantom" is another show on the season schedule but it's probably not the version you know.
This "Phantom" was written by Maury Weston and Arthur Kopit, the same team who created "Nine." It predates Webber's "Phantom of the Opera."
Kerby said he and many theater connoisseurs consider the Weston/Kopit version to be "fuller and richer" than the Webber version.
It's the only musical version of the story approved by the estate of Gaston Leroux, who wrote the 1910 novel, and it takes a very different approach to the story than Webber took. It's the second time Manatee Players has staged "Phantom." The first was in 1996 at the company's older space.
Joseph P. Oshry is lighting designer of the production, which will close the season in May 2016. "The story is very well written, the music is excellent and it's very true to the novel," said Oshry. "It was an excellent production and with the new space it could be even better this time."
Oshry works frequently with the Manatee Players and designed the lights for the running production of "Brigadoon." Other shows scheduled for Stone Hall, the larger of the two theaters at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, are "The Secret Garden," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Disney's The Little Mermaid," "A Chorus Line," "Chess" and "Bye Bye Birdie."
In the more intimate Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theater, the 2015-16 season is marked by three consecutive history-based dramas beginning in December: "The Miracle Worker," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Yank! A WWII Love Story."
Yank is by far the most obscure. The 2005 musical with a gay theme had a commercially successful and critically praised New York run in 2010.
Other shows in the smaller space include "The Boys Next Door," a drama about a group of mentally challenged adult men; "Bark! The Musical," which concerns a day in life of six dogs; and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Here's the entire schedule, and, as always, titles and dates are subject to change:
"Cats," Aug. 13-30
"The Secret Garden," Sept. 17-Oct. 4
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" Oct. 29-Nov. 15
"Disney's The Little Mermaid," Dec. 3-20
"A Chorus Line," Jan. 7-24, 2016
"Chess," Feb. 11-28, 2016
"Bye Bye Birdie," March 17-April 3, 2016
"Phantom," May 5-22, 2016
BRADENTON KIWANIS STUDIO THEATER
"The Boys Next Door," Sept. 10-27
"Bark! The Musical," Oct. 22-Nov. 8
"The Miracle Worker," Dec. 3-20
"The Diary of Anne Frank," Jan. 14-31, 2016
"Yank! A WWII Love Story," Feb. 18-March 13, 2016
"To Kill a Mockingbird," April 14-May 1, 2016
The Manatee Performing Arts Center is at 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.
Information: 941-748-5875 or go to manateeperformingartscenter.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.