Arts & Culture

Don't overlook those lesser-known plays and musicals

The two major community theaters in the Bradenton-Sarasota area unveiled their 2015-16 seasons recently, and both theaters are offering a strong selection of familiar musicals and plays that are sure to draw crowds.

The Manatee Players are opening their season with "Cats," the most popular show in the company's history and one of the most popular Broadway shows of all time. They'll also stage "A Chorus Line," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," one of the most popular musicals in theaters around the country over the past few years.

In Sarasota, the Players Theatre offers "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "La Cage aux Folles."

They're good shows, all of them.

But look beyond the familiar titles and the seasons and both theaters have some really intriguing offerings. They're shows that you may not have a chance to see often, but they're every bit as exciting as those big-name shows.

A lot of people will think of "Phantom of the Opera" when they see the title "Phantom" on the Manatee Players' schedule. But this "Phantom" is a different show. A lot of people who know both prefer this one to the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster.

"Phantom" (May 5-22, 2016) comes from Maury Weston and Arthur Kopit. They wrote the great musical "Nine." Kopit won Pulitzers for the brilliant plays "Wings" and "Indians," but his best-known title is "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad."

"Phantom" actually predates "Phantom of the Opera," and the histories of the two shows are intertwined. But "Phantom" adheres more closely to the novel, and the story is more powerful and music more engaging.

Another lesser-known, but promising show on the Manatee Players schedule is "Yank! A WWII Love Story" (Feb. 18-March 13, 2016). The 10-year-old musical is about a naïve young Midwestern man who is drafted and finds love in the military. It's, in many ways, a traditional love story, even though the central love affair is a same-sex one. It's a show that caused a splash -- in a good way -- during its New York run, but it's one that doesn't make it to local

theaters very often.

Other lesser-known shows on the Manatee Players schedule that shouldn't be overlooked are "Bark! The Musical" (Oct. 22-Nov. 8), a show with a dog's point of view that is one of the longest-running shows ever in Los Angeles, and "The Boys Next Door," (Sept. 10-27), a funny, moving and powerful play about a group of mentally challenged adults.

The Players Theatre in Sarasota has "Hands on a Hardbody" ( Feb. 17-March 6), a show with an unlikely source. It sprung from a documentary about a group of contestants who have to try to keep their hands on an automobile as long as they can. Doesn't sound like much, but a book by Pulitzer-winner Doug Wright and music co-written by Trey Anastasio of Phish (music that even Phish-haters won't hate) make the show a complete winner.

It's also worth looking forward to "The Smell of the Kill" (April 27-May 8, 2016). The non-musical comedy has a reputation as being lightweight, dark and very funny. Someone said it seemed as though Quentin Tarantino had written a sitcom.

People who pick shows for theater seasons have to keep one eye, and most of the other, on the bottom line. They have to make sure they bring in lots of shows that will attract ticket-buyers.

So when you see a show on their schedules that you've never heard of, it's often an indication that it's one they're eager to stage, that they're actors are eager to perform, and that they'll be proud of even if it doesn't sell out. They're often the kind of challenging and inventive shows that theater-lovers love, and they can be a better buy for your theater dollar than those familiar Broadway musicals you've seen 10 times before.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.