Friday, September 21, 2018
Stage

Fredricksen: Area theaters gear up for season's promising second act

One of my favorite sayings about theater is, "As with life, the second act is usually better." Barring some calamity, of course.

I say that to people who are edging toward the theater exit after a less-than-stellar first act. (This seems to happen most often during the marvelous, wonderful musical — and my all-time favorite — Into the Woods, when many people genuinely think the show is over at the end of Act One; either that, or they just didn't get what it's all about. After all, it is by the often complicated, enigmatic Stephen Sondheim.)

In most plays and musicals, in the first act, you meet the characters, get the gist of the plot, get a good idea how capable the actors are and whether the essential parts are working. Most of the time, the first act ends with a setup for the second that will make you want to stick around to see what happens.

Just like life itself. Think about it.

And, indeed, this can apply not only with productions, but also with theater seasons: Will the second half be as good as or even better than the first?

This will certainly be a challenge for some of the five theaters with their own permanent homes in Pasco and Hernando counties — some to do better, others to try to match what they've already done.

Richey Suncoast Theatre started out its season with two big bangs: the hilarious musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the comedy farce Leading Ladies, both with terrific casts and crews. Who could forget the talented Patrick Moran as the awkward gigolo Freddy Benson or Michael McGuigan as suave ladies' man Lawrence Jameson in Scoundrels, or Miguel Rodriguez as cross-dressing Leo in Ladies? Three terrific roles and three marvelous actors giving delightful performances. How can it possibly get any better?

Richey Suncoast will certainly give it a try with three new-to-the-area shows in the second half of its season: the comedy Shakespeare in Hollywood, where two Elizabethans time-travel to modern Hollywood and get cast as themselves in a modern show (Jan. 11-29); the mellow George and Ira Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It (March 2-19), and the feminist comedy Legally Blonde, where the "dumb blonde" outsmarts everyone (May 11-28).

And the first show at Richey Suncoast's new satellite theater, the Charlie and Marie Skelton Cabaret Theatre on Main Street (in the former Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatre slot), Proof, set the performance bar so high it will take the theatrical equivalent of record-setting pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie to top it. The cast and crew's presentation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama was as solid as I've seen in ages — poignant, sad and funny, all at the same time.

The new venue's three second-half shows are as eclectic and adult as executive director Marie Skelton promised: the controversial Stop Kiss (Feb. 17-26) about the vicious attack on a same-gender couple sharing a kiss; Shakespeare Abridged (April 21-20), a wild and zany condensed version of every play the Bard wrote, done in 90 minutes, and Eleemosynary (June 9-18), focusing of three generations of women reluctantly sharing space.

The relatively new Dreamhouse Theatre in Lutz, founded by members of one of Tampa Bay's best-known theater families, the D'Onofrios — this one by Bryan and Darci — will follow its run of audience favorites that started with Oklahoma! and Little Shop of Horrors in the fall by continuing in 2017 with three more pleasers: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Feb. 3-19); Andrew Lloyd Webber's colorful, delightful Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (March 24-April 9), and the sweet and sentimental tale Shrek (May 12-June 2).

Yes, that's a lot for a small theater. But if anyone can do, it's the D'Onofrios and their theater partners, Chris and Melissa Van Schaik.

Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill started its 2016-17 season with three rather modest productions: the fiery jury room drama Twelve Angry Men, the two-person musical I Do! I Do! and the murder mystery/comedy (is that possible?) The Butler Did It, with varying success both in production and attendance.

They'll follow in 2017 with two big, blockbuster musicals — the perennial favorite Fiddler on the Roof (Jan. 12-22) and the Andrew Lloyd Webber winner Evita (March 9-19), the fictionalized tale of Argentina's Eva Peron, closing the season with a two-characters tribute to a legendary country singer, Always . . . Patsy Cline (May 11-21). All three should be well-received.

In the smaller Stage West Forum are two comedies, the return of Over the River and Through the Woods (Feb. 9-19), about a young Italian man who wants to leave his New Jersey home for a good job, but is pulled back by his doting grandparents, and Always a Bridesmaid, a comedy by the writers of The Dixie Swim Club, which was a hit with audiences at both Stage West and Richey Suncoast in recent seasons.

The biggest challenge for Stage West will be to find two super-talented women to play the title roles in Evita and Always . . . Patsy Cline. Although Evita has a relatively large cast, both shows center on strong, powerful women who must be played by highly accomplished singers. Fortunately, such women abound in the area (I can name a half-dozen off the top of my head), so the mission of each show's casting director will be both to find the right women and to convince those women to invest a huge chunk of their time to capturing the essence of two iconic women.

The North Suncoast's only full-time, all-professional theater, the Show Palace Dinner Theatre, started the 2016-17 season with three smallish sort of jukebox shows — My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, Route 66 and The Marvelous Wonderettes — plus the big Christmas spectacular, but will go into high gear come Jan. 7 with Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Jan. 7-Feb. 12) and Saturday Night Fever (Feb. 25-April 2), wrapping up with The Great American Trailer Park Musical (April 15-May 21).

Beauty and the Beast played for nearly 13 years on Broadway, a popular choice for tourists, especially tourists with kids. It is, indeed, a feast for the eyes. Not surprisingly, Beauty and the Beast won a Tony Award for costumes, launched two national tours and played at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2002, 2011 and 2015 and at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2012. Saturday Night Fever played Eckerd in March and the Straz in 2002 and just completed a national tour.

Even so, I'm guessing the audience favorite will be The Great American Trailer Park Musical. It's set in the Armadillo Arms Trailer Park in North Florida and takes potshots at all of Florida's sacred cows. Playbill described it as "a new show about agoraphobia, adultery, '80s nostalgia, spray cheese, road kill, hysterical pregnancy, a broken electric chair, kleptomania, strippers, flan & disco" — in short, all things held dear by us Floridians.

It played Off-Broadway in 2005 and did a national tour in 2008, but not before it made its regional debut at the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville in 2006. Since then, it's gone international, playing in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. It even got a semi-rave review in the New York Times.

So far this season, area theater has been very kind to theater lovers, and it looks as though much of the best is yet to come.

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