ST. PETERSBURG — Raymond Andino pressed the handlebar moustache against his lip.
"It’s kinda itchy," he said, his mouth barely open so as not to disturb it.
The faux finish completed the look for one of the thugs in Sister Act, the spring musical at St. Petersburg High.
Raymond, 16, had the coiffed hair, loose button-down shirt and distressed leather jacket.
He also had, according to his theater teacher, charm, rhythm and a nice falsetto. Plus, he spoke Spanish. The perfect Pablo.
But he kept pressing his upper lip, worrying the piece would slip off.
The musical director reminded him to look up.
It was, after all, his first show.
His co-stars knew Raymond mostly for his role. Some knew he was Puerto Rican. But until a heart-to-heart at the last dress rehearsal, few knew that he had fled after Hurricane Maria ravaged his home in September.
If he could survive 200 miles-per-hour winds, food shortages and power loss, and then starting over in a new high school, he could survive a night on stage.
Raymond spent three hours holding the front door as the storm battered his family’s home in the northern coastal town of Vega Baja.
Despite his efforts, the home flooded.
His family was forced to live without gas, power or communication. What water they had was shared with neighbors.
His mother, Elba Acosta, grew impatient. She didn’t want her son, an honor roll student, to miss any more school.
She decided they would move to St. Petersburg, where he was born. Her husband would stay behind to run the family’s cafe inside a grocery store.
The pair arrived in October and stayed with a family friend. Acosta scoured the Internet for a suitable school.
She had a good feeling about St. Petersburg High.
Unlike in Puerto Rico, Raymond could choose electives. He picked theater.
It was a chance to fulfill a dream.
His teacher, Trish Grunz, had been on the hunt to fill the role of Pablo, and then Raymond showed up.
If any good came from Hurricane Maria, she thought, this was it.
Raymond aced the audition, nailing a song written by a Puerto Rican musician. He diligently came to rehearsal. His mother brought pizza for the cast one time.
The day before the show’s opening night on Thursday, Grunz asked her cast and crew to reflect on how much they had grown to know each other.
The students, sad and emotional, opened up. Raymond had something to say, too.
He shared what it was like to live for a month without power and water. How it felt to move to Florida "blind." How choosing theater had been his big break. How he considered them all family now.
He told them, "After all I’ve been through, I’ve never been this happy in my life."
On opening night, the backstage quieted with whispers of "Break a leg!"
Raymond put his arms around the other two thugs, then tapped his moustache one more time.
The curtain split, and he bobbed along to the beat. Every time he was offstage, he pressed his lip.
But during a bar scene, it happened.
"Is your moustache falling off?" said one of the others, pointing at Raymond. He peeled off the piece and looked at it quizzically.
The trio played it off. Not a stir from the audience.
At intermission, Raymond ditched the disguise.
His big moment was next.
He jumped center stage, and his arms opened toward the audience as he sang "Lady in the Long Black Dress."
The crowd cheered.
"That’s everyone’s favorite song," whispered the monsignor between the curtains. "Everyone’s."
After it was over, Raymond unbuttoned his top button and panted.
Moustache blooper aside, "I thought I did great," he said.
Mother superior rushed over with a hug.
Raymond then popped through the curtain and made his way downstairs to meet his mom, who dashed toward the stage with her mother-in-law in tow. She squeezed her son tight.
"We were laughing at that moustache," she said.
Acosta, 47, will soon be a regular in the audience. She plans for them to stay in St. Pete until Raymond graduates.
Grunz’s class is so much better than the drama classes in Puerto Rico, the kind Acosta took when she was in high school. And Raymond now wants to study theater in New York someday.
"Everything changed when he came here," Acosta said. She took videos on her phone to send to her husband, who will someday join them in St. Petersburg.
Raymond’s 71-year-old grandmother skipped church to see him perform.
She was proud of him and proud of what he represents.
"People think that when Hispanic people come here, we do something wrong," Anarosa Hernandez said. "That’s not us. When we come here, we do something good."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.
IF YOU GO:
April 5-7, 7 p.m.
St. Petersburg High School
2501 5th Ave N, St. Petersburg
Tickets are $10 for students, $15 for adults and $5 for International Thespian Society members
For more information, contact Trish Grunz at 727-893-1842 or email [email protected]