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As one Tampa Bay area theater veteran leaves, another starts new venture

To steal a quote from the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, as well as from Sir Paul McCartney: "Hello, Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye."

First the goodbye, to Avenue Players Theatre founder and former St. Petersburg Times Hometown Pasco coordinator Diana Forgione, who, after 20 years of outstanding theatrical productions in the Tampa Bay area, has closed the theater troupe and sold off lights, props and costumes and is moving to San Antonio, Texas.

She'll be here until her condo in Holiday sells, but then it's off to the state of my birth and to new adventures, probably including some live theater.

Diana and her productions are going to be sorely missed. Hers was one of the very few companies in the Tampa Bay area brave enough to tackle classics by Anton Chekhov, Tom Stoppard, Clifford Odets and Noel Coward, as well as challenging productions such as Amadeus (she took this one on the road) and Shakespeare's The Tempest — and still do zany things by Ken Ludwig and Ray Cooney and a right-on Deadwood Dick.

The troupe performed at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center until 2000, when it moved to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art and became part of the Decades Series of shows, matching a production to the era of the current exhibit.

Diana herself is a theater legend, performing professionally and in community theater and directing at various theaters, including Stage West Community Playhouse, where six members of her cast and crew won HAMI Awards for their performances in Carnival.

Even as Diana closed down her theater company, Tom Orr was moving his recently formed Now & Zen Public Theater to new digs.

For the past couple of years, Orr has done small, well-received shows at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center. Come Feb. 16, he's opening at a new venue at Riverside Grille House (formerly Pappas Riverside Restaurant) at the corner of Alt. U.S. 19 and Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs.

The idea is that people can go upstairs to dine indoors or in the Veranda rooftop room overlooking the Anclote River, and then go downstairs to the 125-seat theater to see a show.

"We're opening with Snatch a Falling Star," Orr said. Yes, Orr directed that show at the cultural center a couple of years ago, but, "We had to turn away a lot of people — 50 to 75 a night — so we're bringing it back by popular demand," he said.

It's about a sister and a brother who kidnap a boozing comedian, chain him to the floor and try to rehabilitate him. The sister and the brother will be played by siblings Jenny and Jonathan Henkel (who appeared in several of Diana's shows, by the way) and the comic by Rick Butcher, who is also fire chief of Tarpon Springs.

Plans are to do the show on Wednesday and Thursday nights from Feb. 16 through March 10, adding or subtracting as needed.

Tickets are $10; Orr is setting up a website for advance purchase for reserved and open seating and will announce a telephone number within a couple of weeks.

Orr is already making plans for future shows at the new Riverside Grille space, most of them small and short to accommodate the space and the needs of the new venue and, he hopes, most of them by Florida writers.

Familiar faces

It was like old home week when Stage West opened the musical Man of La Mancha this week (see a review at

When the theater first did the show in March 1996, Dalton Benson played the role of Sancho Panza, and, sure enough, there he was on Thursday doing it again — and just as appealingly as he did it the first time around.

I've seen La Mancha including a couple of professional productions — in at least six different theaters, and Benson has always been my favorite Sancho. He has the character down pat, and his slightly nasal falsetto matches his comedy moves just right.

In the 1996 production, Karen Doxey played the sexy Gypsy Dancer; in the current show, she plays the housekeeper who longs to marry the wealthy Alonso Quijana in the play within the play.

And in 1996, Wayne Raymond was musical director, playing the piano unseen in the orchestra pit. This time around, Raymond plays the Padre and gets two very nice solos, To Each His Dulcinea and The Psalm, as well as some trios, quartets and quintets.

I spoke briefly with Benson after the show, and he agreed that it doesn't seem as though nearly 15 years has passed since the last time … though my aching bones tell me otherwise.

As one Tampa Bay area theater veteran leaves, another starts new venture 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 8:38pm]
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