The Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to upend the performing arts community across South Florida, just as most producers, performers and organizations were beginning to believe “normalcy” had finally returned.

The Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida was forced to cancel their holiday concert at Hard Rock Live! due to concerns about the rapidly spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant. The performance featuring recording artist Deborah Cox was canceled just hours before doors were set to open. More than 1,300 ticketholders had to be notified.

Miami New Drama canceled six performances of its Louis Armstrong biography, “A Wonderful World,” during the holidays and relied on understudies in key roles during the world premiere. Soon after, performances of touring productions of “Hairspray” at Miami’s Arsht Center and “Summer” at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach were canceled or rescheduled due to positive tests among their casts and crews.

The Maltz Jupiter Theater was forced to cancel its second performance of the season because of construction delays due to COVID and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. The theater was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion to its Palm Beach County facility.

Arts organizations continue to respond with a mix of caution and confidence. As local arts venues began to reopen last fall, most already enacted fairly strict masking requirements for audiences and testing schedules for performers.

But the arrival of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and rising breakthrough cases affecting fully vaccinated people has fueled continued uncertainty.

The Arsht Center and the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale successfully transitioned to electronic ticketing and required temperature checks and proof of a negative COVID test, or alternately proof of vaccination, to enter their facilities.

The Arsht Center provided a statement expressing its continued commitment to the scientifically driven protocols already in place, but added, “Any changes to entry policy or performance schedule will be sent directly to ticketholders and updated regularly” at the center’s website.

Jacqueline Lorber, president of the South Florida Symphony, noted the orchestra follows similar protocols adopted by the Broward Center and at its main concert venue, The Parker in Fort Lauderdale. More than 1,200 people attended the symphony’s December and January concerts.

She praised the level of caution exercised by the Broward Center and the venues the center manages: “Excellent protocols are in place and those are the things to have in place for everyone to be comfortable. It’s the most that you can do, plus we’re masked,” referring to masks worn by audiences and the musicians during rehearsals and performances.

Similarly, Slow Burn Theatre Co. employed rigorous and regular testing throughout rehearsals and the uninterrupted run of its critically acclaimed production of “Kinky Boots,” even with a large cast of 25+ performers.

Theater producer Ronnie Larsen was one of the first to resume live performances following the March 2020 shutdown, offering plays, readings and cabaret performances at the Foundry in Wilton Manors since July 2020.

His comedy, “Sauna,” which played in two runs last fall was the highest-grossing show ever at the intimate Blackbox theater. He tests his cast and when they receive positive results, they are replaced, but he has no intentions of making immediate changes with the rise of Omicron.

“We’re not going to shut down,” he said. “It really feels in my heart that this is a time for a segment of us to put our foot down and say we’re going forward. It’s also time for all those people who haven’t been vaccinated to get their [expletive] shots!”

At Island City Stage next door, Managing Director Martin Childers agreed. “This is something we’re going to have to live with. It’s not going away.”

Other companies have taken a more cautious approach. In Coral Gables, GableStage postponed its January production of “The White Card” to February and Actors Playhouse followed suit with “On Your Feet,” the jukebox musical based on the hits by local artists Gloria and Emilio Estefan. In Palm Beach County, Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton also pushed back or postponed activities.

Temporary and longer-term closings have become commonplace on Broadway — even though audiences are mandated to present proof of vaccination and performers are tested regularly — and omicron has completely disrupted the triumphant reopening celebrated a few months ago.

Swings and understudies have been called in at short notice to replace cast members who test positive, while some producers have begun temporarily shuttering productions until March. A number of other shows have closed permanently, rather than sit out the current wave or respond with sporadic closings.

While local organizations may have greater flexibility, “we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with omicron now,” said one South Florida producer who asked to comment anonymously. “We’ve been taking all sorts of precautions, but until everyone is vaccinated, I’m afraid we’re never going to get ahead of COVID.”

Audiences have certainly taken notice. On Broadway, tickets are suddenly available for hits like “Hamilton” and “Moulin Rouge,” shows that would have been sold out months in advance. In Fort Lauderdale, opening night of the touring production of “Tootsie” filled only about half of the cavernous 2,500 seats Au Rene Theater. Pre-pandemic, the two-week Broadway in Fort Lauderdale runs typically sold out.

“It’s so important for audiences to support us,” added the local producer, “if we’re going to get through this. We’re doing everything we can to make it an entertaining and safe experience, but if audiences aren’t comfortable, that will be a problem.”

In the meantime, he said schedules and programming could change at a moment’s notice and encouraged audiences to confirm their plans, even if they have tickets in hand.


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