Ben Harrison’s New Musical Showcases an All-Star Band
It’s December 1921 and business has never been better at The Red Rooster Tea & Coffee shop, Key West’s local speakeasy and sporting house. Love, Lust, Ragtime and Jazz fill the air until a fated night with a mackerel sky.
El Isleño 1921: The Untold Key West Story, which opens at the Fringe Theater next month, is the legend of Manuel Cabeza (El Isleño) reimagined by musician/playwright Ben Harrison. With opening night already sold out, Fringe Theater is looking at a booming two week run of this roaring ragtime musical production, February 15-25th at 600 White Street.
It all began when Ben volunteered to be a Friends of the Cemetery tour guide. His assignment one chilly Sunday in January 2019 was El Isleño’s grave:
R.I.P. Manuel “El Isleño” Cabezas, born New Years Day 1887; died Christmas Day 1921.
Ben, who has lived and performed in Key West since the 70s, has a fondness for storytelling and a keen interest in the history of the island. Through research in the archives of the Monroe County Library and conversations with master local historian, Tom Hambright, Ben discovered the story of that one fateful night on the eve of Christmas Eve in Bahama Village in 1921.
By 2021, exactly one hundred years after the original events took place, the project of creating the musical was well underway.
“I was excited about writing music from this era because it is filled with enthusiasm, movement, and life’s promise. On the other hand, writing songs for a moment this intense was like going from light to dark and back again,” says Ben, “The rough and tumble history of the island in 1921—this was like putting a human puzzle together—riveting. It’s taking the available facts and walking the streets of Key West in the character’s shoes.”
The large all-local cast will share the stage with a live band that incorporates piano, traditional Afro/Cuban drums, guitar, upright bass, trombone, and flugelhorn. Local musicians, Michael Robinson (Musical Director/Piano), Larry Baeder (Guitar) and Paulie Walterson (Percussion), will be joined by accomplished New York City jazz bassist, Santi Debriano, and Grammy award winning trombonist, Xito Lovell. Together, they are the Red Rooster Ragtime Band.
In fact, the local members of the Red Rooster Ragtime Band regularly meet each Monday and have been doing so for months. “We musical compadres believe what we are doing is more than just reliving the past. To get ready for the show, we sing and play the songs of the character’s lives determined to tell their —untold—story to the best of our abilities. I care about these characters. I want to do them justice,” says Ben.
On the topic of his musical compadres, Ben states, “Michael has the patience and ability to work with my strengths and do what I can’t— arrange and expand the music. Paulie’s groove shapes the songs. He knows the musical history and persuasions of Key West percussion, which has a lot to do with the Afro/Cuban rhythms. Larry is a serious musical historian and period player.”
El Isleño: The Untold Key West Story is Ben Harrison’s third fully-produced musical based on Key West history. Its story of mystery, grit, tragedy, and redemption makes this show a must see!
Tickets are $35 and $50 and are available at fringetheater.org or by calling the Fringe Theater Box Office at 305-731-0581. Seating is limited, so audience members are encouraged to get their tickets early.
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