Michael Bush knows a hit when he sees one. The former associate artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club predicts “Muscle Bears the Musical,” receiving its world premiere production at Empire Stage this month, will be a hit.
Bush might be a little biased—his husband, playwright Michael Aman, wrote the book and friend Matthew Doers composed the score. And Bush is directing the first full-fledged production at the tiny Fort Lauderdale theater that caters to South Florida’s sizeable LGBTQ theater audience.
The show was inspired during a bear night at Hunter’s nightclub in Wilton Manors.
“Matthew turned to me and said he could totally envision it,” recalled Bush, who connected Aman with composer Doers.
Within a year, the first draft was completed. Island City Stage, which had produced two of Aman’s plays, “Poz” and “Feeding the Bear,” then hosted a staged reading last year that quickly sold out.
“The title alone had its attraction,” explained Bush, “and David Gordon at Empire Stage agreed to co-produce the production based on the title alone.”
Advance ticket sales are already strong, Bush noted. “It is a musical that was inspired by and created for Fort Lauderdale.”
While the initial appeal might be primarily with the local bear community, many of the themes of the musical are universal, touching on love and acceptance.
A young cub (Ian Thomson) who is unsuccessful at finding a partner picks up a razor to shave his chest when his Furry God Daddy (stand up comedian Peter Bisuito) suddenly appears and orders him to “stop the madness.” The older bear then takes the cub on a guided tour of the “stimulating and sensuous world of muscle and fur” where he must embrace his identity and destiny.
Along the way, he encounters three suitors, including a single father, and the show concludes with a moving anthem, “Let’s Call it a Family.” Several gay men’s choruses across the country have already expressed interest in performing the song.
There’s also a twist: At the end of the first act, the audience must make a match for the young cub. Aman and Doer wrote three different duets for the show to accommodate each possible result.
“It’s a bitch for me. The duets are the three best songs in the show and I really want the audience to hear all of them,” Bush said.
In addition to Thomson and Bisuito, the cast includes Mike Dinwiddie, Will Kennedy, Harry Redlich and Ed Sparan. The creative team includes Peter Lovello, costumes; Christine Kellogg, choreography; and April Sirocco, set design.
“The show definitely has a life outside of Fort Lauderdale. I could see it on cruise ships and every bear festival around the world,” said Bush, “but the moment at hand is to entertain audiences in South Florida and that’s what we’re out to do.”
“Muscle Bears the Musical” will be performed Aug. 24 – Sept. 24 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 at EmpireStage.com.