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"Crossing the Bay' goes slightly off course

Tampa Bay area history and Jane Austen are yoked together with uneven results in Crossing the Bay, the latest musical by playwright-director Bill Leavengood and composer Lee Ahlin for the LiveArts Peninsula Foundation.

Pride and Prejudice, Austen's novel of 19th century English manners, supplies the story, transplanted to 1880s Florida. Instead of headstrong Elizabeth Bennet and her snobbish suitor, Mr. Darcy, the romance is between Lizzie Tippetts, daughter of a Pinellas citrus farmer, and Colin Plant, nephew of the Tampa railroad tycoon, who meet at a square dance in a primitive settlement that will become St. Petersburg.

Crossing the Bay, which opened Thursday night in the Janet Root Theatre at Shorecrest Prep School, is obviously a labor of love, with a big cast and handsome staging. Ahlin's score represents some of the finest work he has done as the bay area's answer to Stephen Sondheim. Big numbers like Beautiful Florida Night and Social Event of the Season are infectiously hummable, and many lyrics are wonderfully witty.

But too often the show founders on jarring juxtapositions of Austen and frontier Florida.

Jennie Eisenhower plays Lizzie with appealing spunk and charm. Her singing is polished and expressive, if not showstopping, in the sweet ballad Ordinary Evening. Eric Davis sings stiffly as her aristocratic heartthrob, but he comes to life in Colin's hilarious rejected marriage proposal (taken verbatim from Austen) on the Tampa wharf. The Lizzie-Colin duet Not Me is musical theater at its best.

Tara Moore, as Lizzie's sister, Jane, has one of the prettier songs, Days Remembered, though she strained at the top of her voice. Jane's paramour, Frederic Disston (the Mr. Bingley character in Austen), is the excellent Brian Shea. Bonnie Agan, as the social-climbing Mrs. Tippetts, is not the most colorful singer, but she had a good comic number urging her daughters to Marry Well. Jeff Norton is her long-suffering husband, a wounded Civil War veteran, Capt. Tippetts.

The book often gets the blame when new musicals don't work, and Crossing the Bay is a good example why. Austen had more than 300 pages to work out the Bennets' situation, and all her nuance contributed to the novel's effect. Leavengood tries to streamline the story, but he still commits the cardinal sin of loading down the dialogue with "too much exposition" (as preached against in Urinetown's sendup of bad musical theater).

One culprit is the Rev. Adnoyd (David Powers), the Tippetts' stepcousin, whose ownership of the family farm drives a subplot that quickly becomes tiresome. Local lore, such as where the railroad should go, either to Disston City (now Gulfport) or St. Petersburg, plugged into the Pride and Prejudice story is hopelessly confusing.

There's a civics class quality to Leavengood's book, with forced references to things like the discovery of phosphate near Dunnellon. And let's face it, dramatizing the likes of St. Petersburg founders Peter Demens (a farcical Russian as portrayed by Jon Van Middlesworth) or John and Sarah Williams (Matthew Ruley and Colleen McDonnell) is a tall order.

Lino Toyos' set, with palm trees painted in lavender, orange and green, looks great in Joseph P. Oshry's lighting. Costumer Amy Cianci had fun with the vintage garb. Jim Wilson's sound design left something to be desired, with spotty miking on Thursday.

Cheryl Lee's choreography can be inventive, as in a fantasylike restaurant sequence in When the Rail Is Finally Through, but the ensemble seemed to be just standing around too much of the time. Ahlin, on guitar, led a six-piece band in the pit, and his orchestrations took shrewd advantage of the woodwinds and violin. In a CD of the show, on sale for $10 at the theater, the composer does all the singing, accompanying himself in a studio production, and really brings out the satire of his lyrics.

Crossing the Bay is the second Leavengood-Ahlin musical on a local theme, following Webb's City, based on the career of St. Petersburg drugstore magnate Doc Webb. LiveArts also produced Manhattan Casino, set in the black nightclub in St. Petersburg. These projects deserve credit not just for their theatrical ambition but perhaps more importantly for their effort to bring mythological scale to an area with precious little historical sense of itself.

Opening night included self-conscious cameos by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as part of the crowd in the opening number; then there was Tampa "arts czar" Paul Wilborn as the first passenger to disembark from the initial journey of the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg. All this was meant to embody the hands-across-the-bay theme, but it gave the show a boosterish, provincial feel that was unfortunate.

REVIEW

Crossing the Bay, a musical by Bill Leavengood (book) and Lee Ahlin (music, lyrics), runs through Jan. 23 at the Janet Root Theatre on the campus of Shorecrest Preparatory School, 5150 First St. NE, St. Petersburg. It transfers to the Falk Theatre, 428 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, Jan. 26-30, with a preview Jan. 25. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. $27-$30; $17 for the preview. (727) 490-7367 or (813) 426-3416; www.crossingthebay.com.

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