Actors appearing in the premiere of Aunt Jack, including three UM graduates, rehearse in Fort Lauderdale. Photos: Evan Garcia/UM News.
By Maya Bell

Actors appearing in the premiere of Aunt Jack, including three UM graduates, rehearse in Fort Lauderdale. Photos: Evan Garcia/UM News.

Taking Center Stage

By Maya Bell
Three recent UM musical theatre graduates star in the world premiere of new play in Fort Lauderdale.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—As Aunt Jack moved from page to stage last week, director Michael Bush was concerned about setting the proper comedic tone for the new play that opens with a death in the family of a drag superstar.

“These characters actually hurt,” Bush reminded the cast members gathered for their fifth rehearsal in Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage theater. Remember, Bush continued, this comedy doesn’t hew to the old tradition of drag performance humor “where the pain is as phony as the wig.”

But for Bush, the artistic director of the University of Miami’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre who joined the Department of Theatre Arts as guest director in 2016, there was no real pain on stage. There was only the unadulterated joy that comes from watching three recent UM musical theatre graduates shine in one of Aunt Jack’s lead and two supporting roles.

To Bush’s immense delight and by his own doing, Daniel Barrett, Shannon Booth and Bobby Eddy, who all earned their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in May, make up half the cast of the small play with a big message about sexuality, identity and family. Written by New York playwright S.P. Monahan, it premieres at Empire Stage on July 19 and runs through August 12.

“They are not just good actors, they are sensational and they are going places,” said Bush, a four-time Tony Award-winner who over his 26 years at the Manhattan Theatre Club guided scores of new plays and musicals. “I feel like the luckiest man in the world that I didn’t have to say goodbye to these three people. I get to work with them all summer and I gave them their first professional roles after graduation.”

The feeling is more than mutual for the three actors and a fourth UM alumna, Kelly Zahnen, who as Aunt Jack’s production stage manager essentially runs the show. All four ’Canes count themselves as fortunate to be mentored by Bush, who has worked with the likes of Julie Andrews and Bernadette Peters over his illustrious career, as they are to land roles in the world premiere of Monahan’s new charmer. Starring veteran New York actor Charles Baran in the title role, Aunt Jack centers on Jack’s stepson Norman who, after months of silence, returns home to his famous and famously gay fathers with an unexpected new partner.

“It’s meaty. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of conflict, and it’s all played through humor,” said Eddy, who started acting as a child but was a tad nervous accepting the role of Norman in his first job out of college. “Aunt Jack is a challenge to navigate but it’s also beyond artistically fulfilling. We’re so lucky that Michael is so at home in the theater. Not only does he have vast experience but a natural talent for telling a story.”

“As a director, Michael is a dream,” added Booth, who plays Norman’s new love interest and, having worked on UM prop and wardrobe crews, knows her way around power tools and sewing machines as well as the stage. “He is clear, concise, and encouraging. He creates an environment where you aren’t afraid to make a bold choice. This is a new chapter of my life and it’s exciting and scary, but I am thankful to be ushered into the professional world by such a kind and talented human being.”

Barrett, the winner of his class’s top theatre arts award who plays Norman’s still-besotted former boyfriend, often finds himself jotting down the many pearls of wisdom Bush casually shares. He’s confident that, under Bush’s “thrilling” direction and Monahan’s “brilliant” writing, audiences will hold their families a little tighter after seeing Aunt Jack. “If anything, we make it clear that family can be just about anything, and what makes families different is what makes them special.”  

Last Thursday, as Zahnen, who is earning her fifth professional credit, sat behind Bush, keeping track of the script, cuing missed lines, and calling breaks, she and the cast still had a lot of imagining to do. Rather than the sunken living room in the stylized apartment in New York’s West Village where Aunt Jack takes place, they practiced their dialogue, movements and timing in a drab, old apartment—the backdrop for another play currently running at the Empire Stage.

Yet with just half of Aunt Jack on its feet, Bush was already seeing the right comedic tone emerge in the tiny venue that has launched a number of national LGBTQ-themed hits. He was hardly surprised.

“Good plays stage themselves,” he said. “And this one’s so well cast, it all falls into place.”

Tickets for Aunt Jack, which also stars veteran actors Merry Jo Cortada and Harry Redlich, are available through the Empire Stage.