Friday, November 24, 2017
Stage

Tampa Bay area community theaters tackle ambitious plays

RECOMMENDED READING


Erica Sutherlin prefers "theater for the community" as opposed to community theater when discussing the play she is directing at St. Petersburg City Theatre, To Kill a Mockingbird. "I think community theater can have a negative connotation that says nonprofessional, and what we're doing here is putting on the best production with the resources we have of an important story," Sutherlin said.

To be sure, the production of Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is community theater in the sense that the actors are not paid, but it is still an ambitious undertaking, with a cast of 17.

To Kill a Mockingbird opens this weekend along with two other notable productions at community theaters in the bay area, The Producers by Eight O'Clock Theatre in Largo and Luv by West Coast Players in Clearwater.

"Community theater seems to be really active," said Ben Taylor, playing Max Bialystock in The Producers, his first role in the area since moving to St. Petersburg from Tallahassee in November. "In Tallahassee there were two community theaters, and already here I've come across half a dozen close by me."

Theatre Grapevine, a monthly publication that has chronicled the Suncoast community theater scene since 1978, lists 17 companies in its directory.

Sutherlin's direction of To Kill a Mockingbird is a landmark: She is the first black director at the venerable theater, which was founded in 1925 and bills itself as the oldest continuously operating community theater in Florida.

"It's 2013 and I'm the first black director — I think that's kind of cool," said Sutherlin, 33, who teaches theater at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.

To Kill a Mockingbird has several iconic roles, such as Atticus Finch, the lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the movie, and his precocious daughter, Scout, from whose point of view the story is told. Mike Menszychi is Atticus, who defends a black man against a charge of rape by a white woman, and Calista Bodimer is Scout in the production.

"I think it's interesting to have a black female director to explore a play that deals with a racial situation," Sutherlin said. "But I'm not here to play white vs. black, even though that's in the play. It's about how we grow and change and evolve. How do we get to today from 1935 (when the play takes place)? How do we evolve into our greater selves?"

The Producers is another big show, and Eight O'Clock Theatre has assembled a cast of 23, directed by Rocco Morabito. It is the first community theater in the area to do the Mel Brooks musical that starred Nathan Lane as the wily impresario on Broadway.

"Max is a bear of a role," said Taylor, 51, whose favorite roles include Uncle Archie in The Secret Garden and another Max, the opera company factotum in Lend Me a Tenor. "He's onstage 85 percent of the time and is in 11 musical numbers. It takes a lot of stamina. This is definitely the biggest thing I've ever done."

Eight O'Clock has done other big musicals like Beauty and the Beast, Urinetown and Funny Girl, but The Producers is this season's largest. There is so much dancing — including a famous number with little old ladies on walkers — that it takes not just choreographer Ronnie DeMarco but also assistant choreographer Sandra Robinson. It features a 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Emi Stefanov.

Luv is not a big show, with just three characters, but the offbeat comedy by Murray Schisgal is typical of what West Coast Players does. "We pride ourselves on doing shows that are unusual for community theater, not the usual musicals and comedies," said Jason Freeman, 47, president of the company. "It's the niche we have."

A hit on Broadway in 1964, Luv is directed by Domenic Bisesti for West Coast. It concerns an encounter on the Brooklyn Bridge between Harry (Tom Jay) and his old college chum, Milt (Rand Smith), who is contemplating committing suicide. Absurdist hilarity ensues when Milt, who wants to run off with his mistress, seeks to hook up his wife, Ellen (Francesca G. Jay), with Harry.

West Coast's programming has brought it respect from peers. At last fall's STAR Awards ceremony — the local community theater version of the Oscars — it won nine awards. A recent show, The Red Velvet Cake War, set an attendance record for the company.

"Comedies are more well-received than dramas," Freeman said. "But we try to mix them up. The Red Velvet Cake War was a slapstick comedy, set in Texas. Luv is very different and has a feminist theme running through it."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

     
                   
Comments
‘Fun Home’ opens at the Straz, ‘The Little Prince’ at Freefall

‘Fun Home’ opens at the Straz, ‘The Little Prince’ at Freefall

LIFE AND DEATH: FUN HOMEEvery year, the Straz Center tries to mix it up a little, injecting a not-quite-so-safe show into an otherwise bankable lineup. Last year, that was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This year it’s Fun Home, a ...
Published: 11/22/17
Powerstories’ latest production strikes a personal chord with founder

Powerstories’ latest production strikes a personal chord with founder

In the upcoming musical Twelve, Powerstories Theatre will present a holiday story revolving around a single mother who’s working as a waitress in 1950 San Diego.For Powerstories founder Fran Powers, the production represents an account she crafted fr...
Published: 11/21/17
Updated: 11/22/17
It’s a Doo Wop holiday at the Show Palace

It’s a Doo Wop holiday at the Show Palace

HUDSON — Music brings the Rudolph family together in A Doo Wop Christmas, which opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 25 at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre.This new production, directed by Peter Clapsis (The Great American Trailer Park Musical) with m...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/22/17
What’s on stage this week: Benji Brown, ‘No Man’s Land’ on screen, Florida Orchestra does Bruch

What’s on stage this week: Benji Brown, ‘No Man’s Land’ on screen, Florida Orchestra does Bruch

KIKI OR BUST: BENJI BROWNWherever Benji Brown goes, Kiki follows. The comic, known for his work on the Rickey Smiley Morning Show, created the fast-talking female character on the fly when he called a girl’s house in high school and her boyfriend pic...
Published: 11/15/17
American Stage’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just what the love doctor ordered

American Stage’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just what the love doctor ordered

ST. PETERSBURG — A centuries-old template for the rom-com as we know it and one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, Much Ado About Nothing comes to us at a time when we can really use some love conquering all. Just what the love doctor ordered, ...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/15/17
Review: With a fine script, Stage West cast puts on a great show in ‘Baggage’

Review: With a fine script, Stage West cast puts on a great show in ‘Baggage’

Okay, I’ll admit I went into the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill on opening night of the comedy Baggage expecting another June/moon/spoon romance-comedy. And sure enough, that’s just the way it started.A man and a woman grab ea...
Published: 11/10/17
Updated: 11/16/17
From stickup to stand-up, bank robber's second act is comedy

From stickup to stand-up, bank robber's second act is comedy

TAMPA — He had dreamed about returning to comedy in odd moments, between meetings with the lawyer, the lonely trip to the correctional institute, picking up trash on state roads while a guard stood by with a rifle. This nightmare would make him...
Published: 11/10/17
Updated: 11/12/17
Sammy Hagar talks Clearwater concert, tequila and Van Halen drama

Sammy Hagar talks Clearwater concert, tequila and Van Halen drama

The Red Rocker calls on time, and he is all kinds of fired up."Hey, Jay, Sammy Hagar here. Are you ready for me?"Is anyone ever truly ready for a phone call from Hagar, the flame-haired, motor-mouthed ex-Van Halen singer who once dubbed himself the C...
Published: 11/09/17
Updated: 11/12/17
What’s on stage this week: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Key West, Travis Wall Shaping Sound

What’s on stage this week: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Key West, Travis Wall Shaping Sound

AMERICAN STAGE: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHINGTwo couples nearly come apart at the seams for different reasons, the premise for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, opening at American Stage. This version is set in Key West in the 1940s, the end of World Wa...
Published: 11/08/17
Updated: 11/15/17
Review: ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ at Stageworks

Review: ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ at Stageworks

At the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion acknowledges that the audience might not want to hear her story because we don’t think it could happen to us."It will happen to you," Didion says with a rueful smile, and of course she’s r...
Updated one month ago