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A FIRST STAGE OF GRAND AMBITIONS

New Tampa Players isn't content to be a usual community troupe.

Community theater often looks like this: A dozen amateur actors on a shoestring budget and a cramped stage, staging murder mysteries to audiences of 60.

Meet the New Tampa Players, a theater company that's exceeding all the old limitations.

In May, the 6-year-old group held a black-tie, $175-a-plate dinner with Broadway stars singing for 240 guests.

A year ago they staged The Wizard of Oz to crowds as large as 300. They hope to break that record with Oliver!, which opened Friday night with a cast of nearly 80.

Last month, County Commissioner Ken Hagan zeroed in on 13 acres in New Tampa that could include a theater site. But the county is slashing spending. So Doug Wall, co-founder of the Players, has agreed for the group to raise $7-million for the project.

All this, even though the New Tampa Players can't play in New Tampa. The booming suburb's only stages, in public schools, are too busy or costly to rent for a month of rehearsals and performances.

Instead they are exiled to the University Area Community Center, which has a state-of-the art stage- in a gym, in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood.

"It's somewhat difficult because we don't have a location in New Tampa," said Shelley Giles, costume designer for Oliver! "It's not that far away, but people consider it to be far away."

Which is why the Players want to amass $7-million to own and operate their own playhouse.

"Once we're actually there, we'll really start growing by leaps and bounds," said Pamela Cohen, the troupe's artistic director.

Cramped cartwheels

Tall and broad, Dennis Duggan has played the Cowardly Lion in three local runs of The Wizard of Oz. He is a high school football coach who loves working with kids.

When Duggan signed on to direct Oliver!, he envisioned a cast in the 40s, including 20 orphans and 12 pickpockets.

Looking at the photos of children's hopeful faces, stapled to their application sheets, he thought, "okay, okay, okay." The cast wound up with 35 orphans and 20 pickpockets.

"If I've been in town, I've been sewing," said Giles, who spent half the summer at her sewing machine.

Two weeks ago, 30 children belted out Food, Glorious Food to their imaginary audience. But, with full use of the gym unavailable until the last week of rehearsals, they really were singing to a wall, only feet away from many of their faces.

Kid actors weaved among one another in a claustrophobic space on the stage - with curtains at their backs and a tall partition at their faces, with basketballs bouncing on the other side. The flying heel of a cartwheeling orphan whacked the face of a singing one, knocking her to the floor in tears.

People, props and all else associated with the Players could occupy the center only three hours a night, to be cleared out afterward.

So the Players staged a set-making Saturday in a building owned by Todd Wiener, a New Tampa dentist. To conserve stage space and simplify the back-and-forth hauling, they focused on designing the biggest pieces with hinges for double duty. An early scene would be painted on one side; a late scene on the other.

The Players dream of their own orchestra pit, front and center.

In the gym, their eight musicians play at the audience's left, raising a dicey question: Do you set the volume for the left side or the right side?

'Launching pad'

In sprawling New Tampa, the Players blend two subcultures: a family crowd and a theater crowd.

"You hear about them in any sort of social gathering of people our age who have children," said Shawn Harrison, whose 10-year-old daughter, Sarahcate, plays a pickpocket in Oliver! "People who are active in soccer and baseball leagues all know about them."

Oliver! is a family affair for Giles. Son Josh, 16, plays clarinet in the orchestra. Dan, 14, works a spotlight. Allison, 12, portrays a pickpocket and a lamplighter. Cameron, 7, is a pickpocket.

"There are a lot of families that participate as a family," Giles said. "There's something for everybody there."

Then there are the theater lovers.

Emily Morehouse, 16, who plays the Artful Dodger, has performed in 42 shows since she started at age 4, portraying a munchkin at Temple Terrace's Masque Community Theater. Duggan has acted since high school. Cohen, the artistic director, has sung professionally with Mickey Rooney.

Community theater can be a launching pad, Cohen said. "All professional actors, that's where they got their start."

Stunning goal

Harrison, who recently finished eight years as North Tampa's representative on the Tampa City Council, believes the family side will form the Players' fundraising strength.

"I've bemoaned the fact that New Tampa doesn't take much of an interest in local politics, and they don't vote," Harrison said. "But when it comes to issues about their children, they are highly engaged. If there's a hearing about school boundaries, you'll have standing room only."

This is a community where youth sports leagues have full-time directors, Harrison said. "Those groups raise tons of money."

Theater veterans view $7-million as a stunning goal.

M.A.D. Theater, which rents space in Ybor City, sent letters to 500 patrons a while back and raised $150, said its president, Cathy Hooten.

"When we do a show, we just hope to make enough money to do the next show," she said.

Wall, the Players' co-founder and chief fundraiser, understands. But he's thinking about big-bucks donors such as corporations.

And he's thinking about his cousin Neil.

On Broadway, composer Neil Berg has hit the big-time. He wrote the music for The Prince and the Pauper and, recently, Grumpy Old Men. Berg travels the world staging concerts by Broadway singers.

One such concert is Broadway Comes to Tampa, the Players' extravaganza. It has helped them accumulate about $100,000.

Wall plans to call on Berg again.

"He's known for five years that I need to raise millions of dollars to build a theater."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

If you go

The New Tampa Players production of Oliver! opened at the University Area Community Center on Friday.

Showtimes:

- Today: 3 p.m.

- Friday: 8 p.m.

- Saturday: 2 and 8 p.m.

- Aug. 5: 3 p.m.

Where: University Area Community Center, 14013 N. 22nd St.

Cost: $14 for ages 18 to 54; $12 for ages 55 and older and students with ID.

Information: Call (813) 386-6687 or visit www. newtampaplayers.com.

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