ST. PETERSBURG — Late in Freefall Theatre’s musical production of War of the Worlds: A Live Drive-in Radio Experience, a lyric from an R.E.M. song in the score feels particularly poignant.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
One of the many ways the pandemic changed our lives profoundly was forcing theater companies to go dark in March, marking the end of live theater as we know it — at least for a little while.
While some local theaters pivoted to virtual performances, Freefall cleverly took advantage of its ample parking lot, built an outdoor stage equipped with lighting, installed large monitors and created a drive-in model for a series of live musical performances that people can watch from the safety of their vehicles.
Dancing and cheering inside those vehicles at an October performance of War of the Worlds, it was evident that the audience felt more than fine.
Upon arrival, viewers are directed to a numbered parking space chosen on a first-come, first-served basis. The parking lot accommodates 30 vehicles. The performance can be broadcast either through car radios or an app. Because the app can be glitchy, the theater offers small digital radios.
Viewers are permitted to bring chairs and sit outside of their cars if they wear masks. At the performance we attended, a few did.
Concessions come to you, with card-only purchases. Appetizer platters can be preordered.
Engines must stay off, so windows stay rolled down. Bug spray is a serious consideration.
Not only does it feel safe, it’s a comfortable way to enjoy the return of live performance. And the production created jobs for theater cast and crew.
This strife-laden year feels like the perfect time to resurrect War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells' 1897 science fiction work about a Martian invasion on Earth that Orson Welles adapted for a 1938 radio broadcast, which caused public mass hysteria.
Set in 2021, the adaptation by artistic director Eric Davis and music director Michael Raabe is a fresh, witty, delightfully searing hourlong romp that brings War of the Worlds right up to this moment.
It’s set up as a variety radio broadcast — called Green Bench Radio Hour — and four gifted performers (Heather Baird, Robert Spence Gabriel, Eileen B. Lymus and James Martin Roberts) flex their vocal chops, individually and together. They’re separated on stage by long plastic shields.
Raabe’s score is an impressive mashup of medleys, with swing reimaginings of contemporary songs, from the Doors to Beyoncé. There’s a mashup of theme songs from Friends and Golden Girls and music from the Spice Girls. It’s clear he had a blast arranging it. Raabe and fellow bandmates Burt Rushing, Kenny Walker and Melanie Downs play live, socially distanced from inside the theater.
Early on, the broadcast is interrupted by a news report on the monitors by actual local TV news reporter Josh Sidorowicz, reporting a spaceship crash in Plant City. As details emerge, news reports break into the show, including interviews with alien experts and other characters, played by local theater favorites including the inimitable Matthew McGee. No spoilers, but a prominent St. Petersburg figure also has a cameo.
The radio show also includes vintage-style commercials that promote local businesses, another way in which the show is a love letter to Tampa Bay.
As the invasion happens, current social issues including climate change are raised. And there is a very funny nod to COVID-19.
The energetic show flies by and ends on a surprisingly sweet, emotional note. The audience showed their appreciation with an ovation of honking horns.
If you go
War of the Worlds: A Live Drive-In Experience
$75 per vehicle with up to four occupants. Runs through Dec. 6. Freefall Theatre Company, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.