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SOME GRAND AMBITIONS

New Tampa Players sets itself a lofty goal for community theater.

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.

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

Shawn Harrison, whose 10-year-old daughter, Sarahcate , plays a pickpocket in Oliver! and 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."

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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