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Miami Theater Productions Affected by Omicron Surge

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Despite widespread vaccinations and implementation of state-of-the-pandemic safety measures, the latest COVID-19 surge caused by the Omicron variant is forcing several Miami-Dade County theater companies to alter their seasons in ways large and small.

The key moves:

  • GableStage has pushed the run of Claudia Rankine’s The White Card to February 25-March 27; delayed the world premiere musical, Me Before You, to the 2022-2023 season; and added Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to the current season at Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel.

  • Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables is delaying On Your Feet!, the biographical Broadway musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, by two weeks; the show will now run February 9-March 6.

  • Zoetic Stage is presenting its world premiere run of Hannah Benitez’s GringoLandia as planned January 13-30 in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center. But the company has opted to switch out its large-cast production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music for the intimate revue Side by Side by Sondheim, which will run March 17-April 10.

  • Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach is winding up its world premiere run of the Louis Armstrong musical, A Wonderful World, on January 16, with plans to stream the show soon. But the company is pushing back the runs of the rest of its season by two weeks, with Winter Miller’s When Monica Met Hillary now set for its world premiere from March 3-27 and the world premiere of Carmen Pelaez’s The Cuban Vote from April 21-May 15. Dates for the fourth show, Papá Cuatro, are still to be announced.

Changes and delays have not, of course, been limited to these four companies in Miami-Dade.

Not Ready for Prime Time, a play by Erik J. Rodriguez and Charles A. Sothers about the early days of Saturday Night Live at the new Westchester Cultural Arts Center, moved its run dates from December 31-January 16 to March 17-April 10. And Prelude to 2100, an immersive, futuristic, multidisciplinary piece created by Susan Caraballo and more than 30 artists, has shortened its planned run at Miami’s Deering Estate by a week and will now welcome outdoor audiences February 3-4 and February 6.

Theaters in Broward and Palm Beach counties have been affected as well — with some delaying opening dates; Boca Raton’s Theatre Lab postponing its 2022 New Play Festival; and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre making major changes due to COVID-related construction delays on its $36 million building renovation.

The bottom line: Throughout South Florida, artistic directors have been challenged yet again to figure out ways to keep their colleagues, artists, and audiences safe and their seasons financially viable.

Bari Newport, navigating her first season as GableStage’s producing artistic director, was concerned about having The White Card director Lydia Fort, the cast, and creative team in rehearsal during the Omicron surge for the previously planned January 14-February 13 run.

“At the end of the day, it turns into a financial decision on par with questions of health, in terms of capacity and conditions,” Newport says. “There’s no way we could afford an understudy for every role, and I don’t want to put anyone in the position of having to start and stop a production.”

The GableStage South Florida premiere of Claudia Rankine’s The White Card is moving to late February.

Photo courtesy of John Lucas

The White Card, a searing play about a Black photographer and wealthy white arts patrons, also has a vital post-show audience engagement element led by Katie Christie of Voices United. Unlike the rest of GableStage’s productions, The White Card will not be streamed and must be experienced in person.

Moving The White Card into the slot intended for the world premiere musical Me Before You prompted other changes. The Janece Shaffer-Kristian Bush musical, about the effects of the hearings over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination on a long-married couple, will instead get an intensive nine-day workshop. Donors and potential sponsors will be able to get a first look during a staged reading at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach on February 2. The show would get its world premiere production next season.

The Florida premiere of Jessica Provenz’s Boca will go on as planned April 22-May 22, then GableStage will present the solo show, The Year of Magical Thinking, from June 3-26 in tribute to author Joan Didion, who died last month. In collaboration with the Abre Camino Collective, GableStage will present Cuban-American actor Ruben Rabasa in Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend from July 14-31. Tanya Saracho’s Fade, a Teo Castellanos-directed dramatic comedy about class and culture within the Latino community, is scheduled to close out the season from August 19-September 18.

For Newport, making most of the season available through streaming is significant in several ways.

“I think it is wildly important. There are a thousand reasons why people cannot physically come to the theater. Many have immune-compromised systems, or someone doesn’t want to come without his or her spouse,” she says. “It’s also a fantastic way to introduce a company’s work everywhere. Theater tourism is a real thing.”

Making changes to the season was a difficult but necessary decision, she adds.

“I need to make sure the marathon can be run, not just the sprint,” Newport says. “I’ll have to manage the company’s ambitions long-term vs. making pragmatic moves going forward.”

According to artistic director David Arisco of Actors’ Playhouse, pushing the start of On Your Feet! performances was also a matter of safety and numbers.

“We’re back in pause-and-pivot mode,” he says. “We had planned a six-week run, so now we’ll do a four-week run, with the option of extending a week if sales are great.”

The musical — directed by Miami native Andy Señor Jr. (who was associate director of the Broadway production) and choreographed by Natalie Caruncho (a member of the Broadway and touring casts) — will feature actors from Broadway, the national tour, and South Florida, as well as musicians from the Estefans’ Miami Sound Machine. Claudia Yanez, who played Gloria’s younger sister and understudied the lead role on Broadway, will play Gloria at Actors’ Playhouse, and Jason Canela will portray Emilio.

On Your Feet! is the largest show Actors’ Playhouse has produced since COVID-19 hit, with 21 adult actors and two children, two swing performers, and each role understudied by others in the cast, as well as a ten-piece orchestra.

“We’ve had time to get all our COVID safety protocols in place, and I think everyone feels better about coming here,” Arisco says. “Everyone in the company will be tested three days a week and will wear masks at rehearsals. I’m optimistic we’ll get through the season with quality and safety.”

GableStage producing artistic director Bari Newport has shuffled her first season.

Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark

The Actors’ Playhouse season also includes Murder on the Orient Express (April 6-24), Hank Williams: Lost Highway (May 18-June 12), and Now and Then (July 13-August 7).

At the Arsht Center, Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer didn’t consider moving the world premiere of Benitez’s GringoLandia because other productions (including Area Stage’s Be More Chill from February 4-27) were already booked into the Carnival Studio Theater. But he did decide that doing the large-scale A Little Night Music from March 17-April 10 wouldn’t be the best move during a pandemic that had first shut down the show during rehearsals in March 2020.

“I was looking at what was happening at my colleagues’ theaters, at the challenges and realities,” Meltzer says. “I decided that something smaller and a bit more controlled would allow us to continue on the path of the Sondheim work to which we’re so committed.”

Hence the scheduling of Side by Side by Sondheim, which includes three actors and Meltzer as the narrator. The show features songs from Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, and other shows by the profoundly influential Broadway composer-lyricist, who died on November 26, 2021. As planned, Zoetic will wrap up its season from May 5-22 with Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.

“These are incredibly challenging times. You have to remain agile and have a sense of humor and be prepared,” Meltzer says. “If not, you’ll land a little too hard.”

Being agile helped Miami New Drama cofounder and artistic director Michel Hausmann and his colleagues navigate through the world premiere run of A Wonderful World. Despite daily COVID testing, the musical about jazz legend Louis Armstrong, with a book by former Miamian Aurin Squire, had to cancel performances during a run that will end January 16. Understudies and swing performers sometimes had to step in for ailing actors — and Hausmann was impressed.

“We sometimes performed with four swings, and the show is so solid you couldn’t tell. It was an eye-opener about the amount of talent here. They killed it with a few hours’ notice,” Hausmann says.

At the same time, not extending the run and giving the company some breathing room before the world premiere of When Monica Met Hillary seemed prudent.

“Not canceling, not pushing anything to another season was a matter of implementing systems and moving everything two weeks later,” he says, adding, “I’m trying to work to develop outdoor performance spaces, with the understanding that there’s a chance our world has changed for good. We have to pivot. We need to be doing more experiments to see what event-based storytelling will work.”

– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com

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Despite virtual classes, students pack the Watsco center against UNC

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UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men's basketball team in their win over North Carolina.
UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men’s basketball team in their win over North Carolina. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan

More than 100 students stood lined up outside the Watsco Center, clamoring to get in to catch the end of the first half.

Miami men’s basketball, now 6-1 in the ACC, tore through North Carolina 85-57 at home Tuesday night, the same night classes started, virtually.

UM students, though extremely appreciative to be allowed inside the Watsco Center to cheer on the Canes, expressed a degree of confusion.

“I’m confused as to why I’m not allowed to go into an academic setting wearing a mask with my peers but I am allowed to go into an athletic school-spirit setting doing the same thing, because it seems to me like both things are important but at the core level of what this school is about, shouldn’t we be focusing on academics?” said Jack St. Hilaire, a senior majoring in computer science, during halftime of the game.

President Julio Frenk announced in December that the first two weeks of classes would be conducted exclusively online because of COVID-19, with students allowed to move into their on-campus dorms anytime during that period. The dining halls on campus currently are available for take-out only, but the Wellness Center is operating with no added restrictions. All indoor activities for the first two weeks were moved to a virtual format and student organizations are only allowed to hold meetings virtually.

However, Tuesday night, roughly 1,200 students packed the student section of the Watsco Center.

“I’m a little confused why the only thing in South Florida that I can’t do is go to class in-person,” said senior Brett Nemetz.

Frenk reiterated many times in the fall semester that COVID-19 transmission in classrooms is essentially nonexistent.

“Working together, we have achieved zero in-classroom transmission and have found effective ways to manage cases on campus so we can provide an enriching experience for our students, faculty, staff and community,” Frenk said in an email to students on Dec. 14, 2021.

The decision to have virtual class the first two weeks upset many students that were hoping for a continued sense of normality after a relatively uneventful fall-2021 semester.

“It seems like their messaging is really confusing and makes the decision to go online seem unsure,” said Katie Devore, a senior majoring in marine science and mathematics.

This Saturday, the Canes take on Florida State at the Watsco Center in a highly-anticipated rematch of their first matchup on January 11, which the Seminoles won 65-64 in Tallahassee. There will undoubtedly be more students in attendance at that game than Tuesday’s game.

Miami’s players and coaches acknowledge how much of a difference it makes to play a game when there’s a big student section.

“That makes a huge difference for our players to have the support from the community and the student body,” Miami head men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga said after the win over North Carolina. “I give a lot of credit to the student body, they were terrific. Our players went into the stands to thank them for that.”

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A Canadian restaurant had to close its dining room because it accepted dog photos in lieu of proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests

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(CNN) — A restaurant in Alberta was forced to briefly close its dining room after the health department found patrons were showing photos of dogs instead of proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test, as mandated by the Canadian province.

Alberta Health Services ordered The Granary Kitchen in Red Deer to temporarily close last Friday after the department received complaints and launched an investigation January 11.

During the investigation, the health department sent two test shoppers at different times and both were able to enter and dine in after showing a photo of a dog and personal identification, in lieu of meeting requirements, the health agency said.

As part of the Restrictions Exemption Program, restaurants and bars are required to ask Albertans 12 and older to show proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of service or documentation of a medical exemption.

Canada has seen a steep rise in cases as the Omicron variant spreads. The country recorded 294,437 new cases for the week ending January 9, according to Johns Hopkins University figures, its highest weekly total of the pandemic.

“In both instances, facility staff used a tablet to make it appear as if they were scanning a QR code when in fact the staff member was presented with a photograph of a dog,” the Alberta Health Services order said. “The staff member then proceeded to ask the test shopper for personal identification and offered dine in services.”

The Granary’s indoor dining area was ordered to remain closed until the owners took steps to ensure that the restaurant would implement the Restrictions Exemption Program in full compliance, provide training to all staff on how to implement the program with written confirmation that training had been complete and to attend an administrative hearing with Environmental Public Health to demonstrate that all steps have been completed.

“To our valued guests, we had an unfortunate circumstance at our front door which involved one of our underage hostesses, and the requirements for the REP program,” The Granary Kitchen wrote on Facebook on Friday. “We are taking the weekend to retrain and regroup. We look forward to serving you again as soon as we are ready to reopen.”

“In closing we would like to remind everyone of the tremendous pressure being placed on front staff, and please remember to be kind.”

Alberta Health Services rescinded the closing order Monday, according to a letter from the department, and the Granary Kitchen reopened its dining room the same day. Patrick Malkin, one of restaurant’s owners, told CNN on Wednesday that Alberta Health Services was “very pleased” with the actions taken to move forward.

“These are difficult time for restaurants in Canada and abroad,” Malkin said. “We look forward to better days ahead for the industry as a whole.”

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Amazon is opening a clothing store next to Nordstrom and JC Penney

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(CNN) — Amazon has a new venture outside of e-commerce, cloud computing, content streaming, smart devices, Whole Foods, cashier-less technology or anything else you’ve come to associate with one of the most successful companies in American history.

It’s a physical clothing store. Like, you know, a real brick-and-mortar space where you go try on stuff, buy it and then bring it home. An IRL store. Google it if you’ve never been to one.

Amazon announced Thursday that it will open Amazon Style, its first clothing, shoe and accessories’ store later this year at a posh shopping complex in Los Angeles. The 30,000-square-foot store’s next door neighbors will be some of the traditional clothing and department stores Amazon has pressured over the last decade — Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, H&M and others. There’s a JCPenney across the street, one of the most prominent casualties of the transformation of US retail spurred by Amazon.

It may seem surprising that Amazon, which has grown to become the largest clothing retailer in America since it started selling clothing in 2002, wants to open a physical store. But in-store purchases still make up more than 85% of US retail sales, and shoppers often want to see how clothes look, feel and fit before they buy. It can also be more difficult to find new clothing brands and styles browsing online than in person.

“Customers enjoy doing a mix of online and in-store shopping. And that’s no different in fashion,” Simoina Vasen, the managing director of Amazon Style, said in an interview. “There’s so many great brands and designers, but discovering them isn’t always easy.”

There are some novelties to Amazon Style and ways the company hopes will make shopping quicker and more personalized for customers. However, many of the ideas Amazon is using in the store are not new to the retail industry.

Most of the clothing will be kept in the back of the store and only one sample of each item will be displayed on the sales floor. To buy it, customers will scan a QR code using a mobile Amazon shopping app and then retrieve it at the pickup counter. If they want to try it on first, they can get it sent to a fitting room, which has touchscreens where customers can request different sizes or colors. As customers browse the store and scan items, Amazon’s algorithms will recommend other items they may be interested in buying.

Vasen said the store is a “truly unique experience,” but similar technology can be found at other retailers. At Nike flagship stores, for example, Nike app members scan codes on sneakers and clothes and those items are sent directly to a fitting room. Clothing brand Reformation displays only one of each item in its showrooms, and whatever customers want to try is delivered straight to dressing rooms that have different lighting options. American Eagle and others have tested interactive fitting rooms, where shoppers can request different sizes and styles on a tablet located in the room.

Amazon Style will offer a mix of hundreds of well-known brands (Vasen didn’t specify which) and its own private-label brands. Retail analysts have said a brick-and-mortar presence in clothing could help Amazon reach customers who want to shop in person and also drive growth of Amazon’s more profitable— but lesser-known — private labels.

Other advantages to a physical store: Customers can also drop off their Amazon returns at the store, or order online and pick them up there.

Amazon has been working on this clothing initiative for years, said Vasen, who has helped build out Amazon’s physical store presence and also directed Amazon’s Prime Now grocery delivery service. She did not say when the first Amazon Style store will open this year or how many Amazon plans to add in the future.

Amazon Style will be the company’s latest attempt to move into physical retail, an area it has struggled to crack.

In 2015, Amazon opened its first physical store, Amazon Books, in Seattle. Two years later, Amazon bought Whole Foods’ 471 stores for $13.7 billion. The company also has dozens of 4-Star stores, where it sells its highest-rated merchandise, and Amazon Go cashier-less convenience stores. It’s building a new, separate line of grocery stores, called Amazon Fresh, to chase a mid-market shopper, different from Whole Foods’ high-end customer base.

As of December 31, 2020, Amazon had 611 physical stores in North America, including Whole Foods, according to its latest annual filing.

Amazon has not enjoyed the same level of success with physical stores as it has online. Sales at Amazon’s physical stores dropped 0.18% in 2019 from the year prior to $17.2 billion and 5.6% in 2020 as more shoppers ordered online in the pandemic.

During its latest results in the nine months ending September 30, Amazon’s sales at physical stores ticked up 1.5% from the same stretch a year prior.

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