Before COVID reared its ugly head, a big part of my job involved covering theater in the area — Venice Theatre, of course, but also ones in Sarasota: The Players Centre, Florida Studio Theatre, Asolo Rep, the Asolo Conservatory of Actor Training, the Historic Asolo Theater within The Ringling, Urbanite.
And the Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet and some special shows at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
People have always paid me not to be on stage, but I have been active in theater since high school, where I was president of the drama club, and in college, where I was invited to join Paint and Patches, the college drama honorary. I was always a patron in the Cleveland area, on every trip to New York, and of course down here once I had moved to Venice.
To end up in a job in which I actually had to cover theater has been great. I have gotten to know actors, directors, set designers, lighting and sound folks. This area is filled with so much talent.
Of course, I have gotten to know the other reviewers, such as Jay Handleman, who was smart enough at 12 to know that he wanted to be a critic. He is another area treasure.
I have watched kids grow up at Venice Theatre and expanded my list of theaters to Fort Myers because, as it turns out, people in this area will drive to a dinner theater with dinners as good as its shows. Thank you to the readers who convinced me that I had to add that one to my list.
And then came the coronavirus pandemic and overnight, there was no theater.
The arts are so important to this area that the longer theaters had to remain closed, the more we all could lose, even those who rarely if ever go to the theater or opera or art center.
Now that a few theaters are beginning to reopen, albeit to smaller audiences, with temperature checks and such, things are looking up.
No one knows how long the pandemic will continue, or when and if there will be a vaccine or better yet a cure, but at least as of Sept. 10 and 11, there was a weekend show at Venice Theatre. I went and wrote about it in my column the following Wednesday.
This past weekend, it was almost like things were back to normal: “Mamma Mia” at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre on Friday and “Love Letters’ starring Lori and Murray Chase on the main stage at Venice Theatre Saturday.
Maybe the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned on. Let’s hope it is a long-lasting light.
But how would the Broadway Palm mount a show with such a huge cast in the midst of this pandemic, with social distancing and such?
As it turned out, less is more.
Half the tables were missing, temperature checks and masks were required for admittance and paper tickets were gone. You gave your name and then were escorted to your table.
On Friday and Saturday nights you can order your entire meal at the table. Or, on those nights and at all other performances you will have your choice of salad brought to you at the table and you can go to the buffet table, where you will be served your selections.
The entire theater has been cleaned and sanitized with new procedures, including ultraviolet lights and new chemicals to superclean all surfaces.
It is easy to remain 6 feet away from other patrons thanks to floor signs almost everywhere. They lead into the theater but also to each of the restrooms and almost anywhere else a patron might go.
Servers are not just wearing masks but also gloves.
A bipolar ionization system has been installed within the A/C units to deactivate harmful substances such as bacteria and viruses, theater owner Bill Prather wrote in the program book.
Friday night, my friend and I opted for the prime rib over the chicken and fish selections on the table service list. Everyone has a choice of three salads. Your choice will be delivered to you.
If you opt for the buffet you will choose entree and sides but a server will add those items to your plate. Sorry if you are one of those who likes to examine everything and possibly even return one piece of chicken for another you deem bigger and better.
Rolls and butter also are brought to the table, as well as your choice of beverage.
As for the other reason to visit this dinner theater, that too is leaner and meaner.
While cast members do not wear masks on stage, I discovered online at the theater’s website the rigorous rules for cast members on and off stage. When the producer is presenting a show such as “Mamma Mia,” he can’t afford to allow cast and crew to take chances. While they are very close on stage, offstage they live nearly a monastic life to stay well.
“Mamma Mia” is a big musical with lots of scene changes and, in the film especially, a gigantic cast. Even last year’s Venice Theatre production had a really big cast and a set right out of the Greek island where the story takes place.
The Broadway Palm production has a cast of just 20. The orchestra is backstage and the modular set is smaller but designed to handle all the scenes from the dock where everyone lands to the hillsides to the inn run by Donna Sheridan (Kate Turner), where a wedding is about to take place featuring her daughter, Sophie (Jennie Nasser), and Sky, (Kyle Southern).
The plot moves into overdrive when Sophie mails invitations to three men who could possibly be her father. She discovered the names in her mother’s diary from 21 years earlier: Harry Bright (Victor Legaretta), Bill Austin (Andrew Scoggin) and Sam Carmichael (Nicholas Carroll).
In the film Sam was played by Pierce Brosnan, who is good looking but cannot sing his way out of box. That is not the case with Carroll, who is pure matinee idol with voice and moves and looks.
Also in the cast are Mamma Mia’s two former singer partners, the priest for the wedding and lots of local folks who work at Donna’s inn.
The singing and dancing are superb thanks to director/choreographer Amy Marie McCleary, who has been serving in those roles for many a show at the Broadway Palm. When she is part of the team, the show will be as good as it can be and when she does both, it is not to be missed. “Mamma Mia” is that show.
Evan Adamson’s set worked amazingly well to handle the myriad scenes this show requires, and with the music by Abba and additional songs by Abba songster Stig Anerson, what a way to reopen the theater.
With all that theaters have to undergo to reopen during the pandemic, the Broadway Palm has done it as well as it could be done, in my opinion. As for “Mamma Mia,” while the swim flipper dance had fewer dancers, it still brought down the house
Broadway Palm is about an hour south of Venice in Fort Myers. The payoff for the trip are a great show and really good food.
“Mamma Mia” plays until Nov. 14 and will be followed by Irving’s Berlin’s “Holiday Inn,” which takes place at a country inn in New England at Christmas time.
For reservations or information go to BroadwayPalm.com or call 239-278-4422.
Saturday night, I really felt almost normal as a friend and I had dinner at Gold Rush and arrived at Venice Theatre precisely at 7 p.m. just as the doors were about to open.
Outside the entrance an employee asked questions about our recent health and took our temperature. We were then handed off to another theater employee to escort us to our seats.
There are no tickets. Our names and seat numbers were on a master list — the same system used at the Broadway Palm. It saves paper and lessens the chance for passing on those nasty germs.
Any time you can see Lori and Murray Chase on stage is a good thing
It was especially nice this weekend as Venice Theatre continues to get up and running while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to push us into a new normal.
The play was “Love Letters,” written by A. R. Gurney. There were just two performances, on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
With just 132 seats available, parking is easier and, for the safety of one and all, there is no milling in the lobby nor is the bar open.
After a recorded curtain speech that the show would have no intermission and last about 75 minutes, Lori and Murray came through the curtain and took seats at desks that represented their homes from childhood to adult. The story is about the ever-changing relationship of the two.
She seems to be from the wealthier family, although both went to summer camps and eventually to boarding schools and then off to the “right” colleges — Briarcliff (and several others) for her and Yale for him.
While the entire work may not speak to everyone, there are moments that may bring back a memory or a “what might have been” thought for audience members.
He graduates, enters the service and on his return gets a law degree and ventures into politics.
The moneyed background does not make her life any easier. They both marry but not to each other, yet they continue to stay in touch even as their lives seem to take them farther apart.
It is not all wine and roses, although at times it may be too much wine and no roses
The play is considered easy for busy actors, yet without their ability to convey a lengthy list of emotions this would be a waste of stage time.
In the hands of Lori and Murray it became an interesting evening — and, more important at this time in the nation’s history, an excellent reminder that “the show must go on.” At Venice Theatre, it did indeed.
No one knows when the theater will be able to open up more seats, but at least after so many months there are shows and the promise of more to come.
Some will be like this, with just two performances on a weekend, but others will have longer runs as the season progresses.
Visit VeniceStage.org for the latest information and to order seats. While the box office remains closed to foot traffic, you can call with questions but to order tickets, go to the website.
Venice Theatre is at 140 W. Tampa Ave.