By Amy Patton

He’s a character you’ll love to hate and hate to love.

I’m talking about the true saga of Joseph “Bum” Farto, the 1970s Key West fire chief whose side hustle — along with a handful of city officials — appeared to be allowing the unfettered flow of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. using the tiny island city as a unique port of entry.

Reportedly, Farto was selling the illegal drugs quite casually from a bench beside the Key West firehouse and using his lime-green Ford Galaxy as a kind of drive-through dope market. Yet the chief was also seen as a folk hero of sorts; he was a fervent fan of local high school sports and his madcap antics were generally embraced by the community. That is, until the feds finally caught up with him. After a trial and conviction on narcotics trafficking, Farto, free on bond, vanished without a trace in the mid-’70s and was never found.

Now onstage in its two-week run at the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street is the brash and bold production of “Bum Farto, The Musical,” a dance- and music-driven tale directed by Pamela Stephenson Connolly. The show is scored by Dan Krysa and Connolly along with collaborator La Mexx (Juliette Chavarria), a Latin lyricist and singer. 

Tybalt Ulrich shines as the anti-hero Farto.

“Farto’s” narrative tells the story of Key West’s funky history. The fun, flashy production is a grand approach to musical entertainment featuring dancers and stage performers from Connolly’s local studio, Pasión Project. Among them is Ronnie Dutra, who plays FBI special agent Gary Silva, a character who doggedly pursues Farto with his seductive associate agent, Janice Miller (played by Lena Thieme).

Are you craving a little lambada, salsa or bachata for a night out? It’s all about Latin dance in this production, remarked Connolly. “Master Braz Dos Santos (as agent Rodrigo Ferarri) is the leading lambada dancer in the world. People come from all over the world to train with him at Pasión.” 

The 90-minute “Bum Farto” production is a blazing time capsule of a musical, with solid production values and mesmerizing dance moves. Broadway star Aaron LaVigne (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) is a guest performer. He plays the aberrant character Brutus, an opiate-addicted hippie who also happens to be an FBI informant funneling information to law enforcement, a move that leads to serious complications for Farto and his gang of corrupt 1970s Key West officials.

Enthusiastic audience members gathered outside the theater at intermission on opening night Oct. 13 for a gabfest. “I’m totally blown away by this show,” remarked Key West local Lisa Daley. “I’m coming back to see this again. The acoustics in (the San Carlos) are amazing. I’m not really one to go to the theater, but I just love this.”

Dan Krysa, the musician behind “Farto’s” score, is particularly proud of two songs he wrote in tandem with choreographer and lyricist Connolly. “Smoke Your Tuna Here” and “Conch Life” are iconic tunes about the freewheeling Key West that existed decades ago. It became common for fishermen to reel in bales of marijuana that were dumped in the ocean by South American smugglers headed to this country’s Southernmost Point whose borders were – to say the least – porous in those days. When pursued by U.S. officials, the drug runners would ditch the then-illegal weed cargo overboard. The “caught” bales were jokingly referred to as “square grouper.”

Krysa said he was partially inspired while scoring the show by the catchy riffs found in children’s music. “I love the hooks in simple songs. My aim was to write songs that are quirky yet simple in structure. I love that.” Krysa credits front-of-the-house sound engineer Ethan Davis for the smooth transitions between numbers and the pacing of “Farto’s” sound effects. “(Davis is) phenomenal in toning down the resonant frequencies in this performance space,” Krysa  said.

The three-piece onstage band includes lead guitarist Myles Mancuso, drummer Drew McKeon (who has played with stars like Michael Bolton and Hall & Oates). Singer Joey Trambino shines with an incendiary stage presence. A background screen provides visual elements and support for the story.

“Bum Farto, The Musical” brazenly exposes the myths and truths of Farto, whose hubris seemed to know no bounds in a decade when the Conch Republic seemed immune to the country’s rules, regulations and pesky things like federal drug laws. Yet somehow we identify with the character’s charm despite his flawed moral compass. We root for him and his long-suffering wife, Esther (Jessica Lamdon). 

“I’m very proud of this product we created,” said Connolly. “I began this project during COVID so it was a difficult endeavor, but it’s very exciting to do an original show. It says something very lovely about Key West with its rich yet insane history,” she laughed. “It seems to attract very interesting people, some of them downright eccentric. The unusual tapestry of this place, that’s the real message of the show.”

At the end of the Oct. 13 performance, theater fan John Costa said, “We’re enjoying the dancing and all of the tomfoolery, but the music is what brought me here,” citing the talents of guitarist Mancuso. “He’s killing it.”

But don’t expect a tidy dénouement from this intoxicating blast from the past. The truth is that Farto’s legendary misdeeds may never be fully understood. If the former Key West fire chief were alive today he would be nearly 100 years old.

So his fate – or fortune – will likely remain a mystery forever.

“Bum Farto, The Musical” runs through Oct. 27 at the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St., Key West. Visit for ticket information and show times.