freeFall Theatre Company throws 'Wild Party' for debut at Studio@620

The Wild Party actors David Foley, playing Burrs, and Lee Anne Mathews, playing Queenie, rehearse for freeFall Theater’s play to be presented at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.

LARA CERRI | Times

The Wild Party actors David Foley, playing Burrs, and Lee Anne Mathews, playing Queenie, rehearse for freeFall Theater’s play to be presented at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.

There's an ambitious new theater company in the Tampa Bay area, freeFall Theatre Company, and it hopes to make a splash with its opening production, The Wild Party, a musical by composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa. Not only is the score challenging — a mix of opera and jazz and art song, rhythmically complex and often dissonant — but freeFall is staging it in a St. Petersburg art gallery, Studio@620.

"I wanted to do something for our first project that would set the company apart from things that are being done,'' artistic director Eric Davis says. "I wanted to do something either site-specific or in a nontheatrical space of some kind.''

The Wild Party is based on an epic Jazz Age poem by Joseph Moncure March, whose tabloid yarn of small-time theater folk and grifters on a binge was banned in Boston when it was first published in 1928. It's about a vaudeville dancer named Queenie and her thuggish boyfriend, Burrs, a blackface clown. When they throw a party, the raffish crowd that shows up includes a faded diva named Dolores, a pair of Jewish producers, a lesbian stripper, a prizefighter, a gay piano duo and a "third-rate Valentino" who takes a shine to Queenie.

The bathtub gin flows, and there are lots of drugs to be had in this "room full of strangers who call themselves friends."

And the audience of about 100 will be "immersed'' in the debauched scene at the gallery, which has presented theater in the past. There will be a preshow cocktail party and late-night performances on Fridays and Saturdays. "I think the strength of this concept is that the audience will feel like they're inside the party instead of voyeuristically looking at these people,'' Davis says. "I think it gives them more of a stake in what happens when things start to fall apart.''

In one of the oddities of theater history, two musicals were made from the March poem, not just the one by LaChiusa but also another by Andrew Lippa. Both were called The Wild Party and premiered in 2000, both with starry casts in New York. Neither did particularly well with audiences, who may have been understandably confused. There was a production of the Lippa show in 2006 at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.

"I think the LaChiusa version makes the party an allegory or a microcosm of the world outside of the party in a way that is stronger than the Lippa version, which focuses more on relationships of the characters and their personal stories,'' says Davis, who has acted with many bay area theater companies and was director of musical theater at Blake School of the Arts in Tampa for five years.

The Wild Party has a budget of between $40,000 and $60,000, according to Davis. Music director Luerne Herrera leads a five-piece band (piano, bass, drums, trumpet and reeds). Most of the 15-person cast are members of the Actors Equity union and will be paid $444 a week. The company — whose principals are Davis, executive producer Kevin Lane and managing director Jim Sorenson — has a Web site at freefalltheatre.com that says it raised more than $27,000 in online donations.

"We set out to show what we think theater should be and what you need to do to claim that you're doing professional theater,'' Davis says. "It's an investment in showing the community what we intend to do and the level of work that can be done if you put those resources into a production.''

Other plays Davis wants to do include such off-the-beaten-path works as The Firebugs by Swiss playwright Max Frisch and Caroline, Or Change, a musical by Tony Kushner. "We will take risks in both our selection of material and the way we present the works we choose,'' he says in a program note.

The Wild Party has previews Wednesday and Thursday and opens Friday and runs through Sept. 28 at the Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. $20 for previews; $24 for students, seniors; $34.50 general admission. (727) 895-6620; studio620.org.

Local's laurels

Bass-baritone Todd Donovan, who recently appeared in St. Petersburg Opera's production of Don Giovanni, scored a third-place finish last month in the Altamura/Caruso International Voice Competition in New York. Donovan, a fixture on the local opera scene who in the past year has sung Wagner in Tarpon Springs and soloed with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, won the $3,500 prize after performing arias by Puccini and Verdi. The St. Petersburg native received his bachelor's degree from Eckerd College and his master's from the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.

The competition, now in its 20th year, was founded by soprano Carmela Altamura, who was among the judges, along with Opera Tampa conductor Anton Coppola and St. Petersburg Opera artistic director Mark Sforzini. The first-prize winner was baritone Lawrence Harris, a onetime NFL lineman turned opera singer.

Sarasota Orchestra

Florida West Coast Symphony, based in Sarasota and celebrating its 60th anniversary this season, has changed its name to the Sarasota Orchestra. The change "strengthens our link to the international recognition of Sarasota and its reputation as a cultural community," president Joseph McKenna says. It was the result of 18 months of research through surveys, personal interviews and focus groups.

Leif Bjaland, artistic director of the orchestra, is introducing several programs in connection with the name change, including family concerts and "Pixel Pops,'' which combines music with synchronized video projected on a large screen.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

freeFall Theatre Company throws 'Wild Party' for debut at Studio@620 09/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 3:22pm]

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