3 reasons to see Opera Tampa’s Tosca at the Straz Center this weekend

Tosca

Straz Center of the Performing Arts’ Carol Morsani Hall

Tickets start at $66.50
Performances Saturday, April 8, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 9, at 2 p.m.
Visit strazcenter.org for more details.

 

This weekend, we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to see a first-rate production of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini (La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Turandot).

The distinctive emotional melodic sweep of Puccini’s score is interpreted on point by the highly accomplished Maestro Daniel Lipton, who leads the Opera Tampa Orchestra and Chorus with Jeffrey Buchman directing the production.

Principals include Lisa Houben as the titular diva Floria Tosca, Cesar Antonio Sanchez (Mario Cavaradossi) and Mark Walters (Scarpia). The company also includes Kevin Thompson (Angelotti), Peter Strummer (Sacistan), Peter Joshua Burroughs (Spoletta), Christopher Holloway (Sciarrone), Franco Rios-Castro (the Jailer) and Louisa Ramirez-Flynn (the Shepard).  Presented in Italian with English translations projected above the stage, the production is sponsored in part by Dr. Zena Lansky and Mr. Warren Rodgers.

Whether you’re already an opera aficionado or are willing to experience the classic performing arts genre for the first time, there are at least three compelling reasons you should experience Opera Tampa’s production:

Of course, the musical and vocal talent.

Houben and Sanchez fill the room with their pitch-perfect belt-outs. Coupled with the Maestro Lipton’s expert timing and his impeccable orchestra’s gut-socking crescendos, the climaxes of favorite arias like E lucevan le stelle leave the viewer almost literally shaken and stirred.

The production value: From the elegant gowns and historically accurate uniforms to moody lighting replete with fog for mood-setting affect and its clever backdrops, there is nothing cheap or amateurish about the look of Opera Tampa’s production.

Its timeless sociopolitical relevance — especially resonant today as we fear shifting political regimes and the impending oppression of art and free speech, and other civil liberties.

Tosca and her beloved Mario aren’t the only Puccini principals to deal with oppression. The composer became legendary for his characters struggling against oppressive forces — whether it’s Madama Butterfly’s concubine Cio-Cio San or the struggling poet Rodolfo in La Boheme, we’re entreated into the world of artists and fringe dwellers in turbulent times. They live out allegories to power struggles on the world stage.

Writer Lisa Kramer Reichel reminds us that Tosca to be the only grand opera tied to a precise time and setting. Puccini’s  historical opera takes place during a critical time in the military campaigns of the French general (and later Emperor) Napoleon Bonaparte. During the final years of the 1700s, Napoleon’s invasion of Italy by and his French armies resulted in the expulsion of the old dynastic rulers, including the Papacy.  Radical French republics or states set up in northern Italy and in Naples. The city of Rome became the Roman Republic, of which, in Tosca, the political prisoner/fugitive Angelotti was a former consul.

While Napoleon was far away in Egypt in 1799, another movement was brewing. Queen Maria Carolina of Austria — wife of the defeated King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, and sister of Marie Antoinette — began a regal coup to bring back dominance to wealthy imperials. Her forces took out anyone in opposition — which included thousands of republicans and free-thinking liberals and anyone who had supported French rule. Meanwhile in Floria Tosca’s Rome, Napoleon’s army regained ground with the help of General Desaix who, in real life, lost his life in the effort. During the second act of the opera, news arrives of the defeat of the monarchy. Mario belts out “Victory” in front of  monarchy police chief Scarpia, who orders Mario to be dragged off to prison.

Also during the second act, we witness the attempted rape of Tosca.  Amid the melodrama, we can relate to the urgency of Tosca fighting off the advances of Scarpia and Mario risking his own life to help his fugitive friend.

Flash forward to today. PBS, which helped many of us first fall in love with opera with its televised programming from the Met, is at risk of running out of federal funding as our President grants favor to friends with both new and old money. Women are losing their medical rights and are protesting for equal pay. Organizations like Opera Tampa themselves are struggling to stay funded to maintain a standard of excellence.

The ongoing struggle against stubbornly cyclical socio-political movements initiated by old money are ingeniously and artfully crystallized in the struggles of Puccini’s tormented tenors and sopranos.  This couldn’t be truer in Tosca.

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5 reasons to see Good People at American Stage

American Stage’s first full-scale production of the new season and the first in its In Search Of … America play series, Good People delves into class differences and the struggle to make ends meet in South Boston.

With a spoonful of salty-sweet humor, Good People makes an all-too-relevant examination of The American Dream — how much more does it have to do with hard work than it does straight-up good luck. The 2011 play is the first hand-picked production by new American Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte, who also directs this production.

“I find David Lindsay-Abaire’s play to be one of the most exciting plays of the past 10 years,” Gularte says. “It is such a fulfilling journey for audiences because it is funny and intense and surprising and ultimately lends itself to some great post-show conversation.” (Read more about about Gularte’s edgy and exciting play choices for the 2016-17 American Stage season in Creative Pinellas’ revamped web magazine next month.)

Other reasons to see Good People:

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Stevie (Britt Michael Gordon) awkwardly fires Margie from her job at the Dollar Store. Photo by Kara Goldberg.

 

1.) Good People effectively shifts from sassy humor to intense drama:  When Dollar Store manager Stevie (Britt Michael Gordon) fires Margie (Rebecca Dines), an old acquaintance of his mother and mom of a mentally challenged adult, Margie will try anything except working at the Gillette factory — even if it means hitting up Mike, a high school flame (Peter Reardon), who pops up at a local fundraiser after a long absence from the neighborhood.

29558859821_4b6ab4f6ca_zVickie Daignault (Jean), Rebecca Dines (Margie) and Bonnie Agan (Dottie) engage in amusing tete a tete. Photo by Kara Goldberg.

From Margie’s apartment to the bingo hall, we’re treated to feisty exchanges between daffy landlady Dottie (another great turn by local actor Bonnie Agan) and Margie’s best friend, Jean (played hilariously by transplant Vickie Daignaualt). There’s something a little shifty about Dottie, and Jean doesn’t let up on her with that tough-as-nails Irish sarcasm that doubles as a coping mechanism in South Boston, and Southies like Jean wield it like a billy club.

Jean suggests that Margie approach her erstwhile preppy Romeo. Margie resists at firsts and then consents.

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Peter Reardon (Mike) and Rebecca Dines (Margie) play an awkward game of catch-up. Photo by Kara Goldberg.

Margie unceremoniously barges into Mike’s office. (Mike: “I’m a reproductive endocrinologist.” Margie: “I don’t know what you just said, but I just got a little excited.”) Mike treats her with both nostalgic affection and awkwardness as he reluctantly invites her to birthday dinner party in his tony Crescent Hill home. Kudos, by the way, to Gularte and the actors for making this difficult and highly nuanced interplay work.

In Act Two, we meet Mike’s wife, Kate (played exquisitely Renata Eastlick). She’s a poised, educated foil to off-the-cuff dropout Margie. As Mike and Margie go down memory lane and some uncomfortable and upsetting subjects arise involving a past incident, we see Kate tested, but her integrity remains intact. Life goes on after this encounter, but a realization that Mike, Kate and Margie are no longer the same hovers over the performance.

2.) Good People stays on course without avoiding complex subject matter: South Boston has a widely publicized history of racial tension. The neighborhood violently resisted school busing in the mid-1970s, and in Good People, we learn that one of the central characters was involved in bullying incident that casts a pall on his character. Pulitzer finalist Lindsay-Abaire handles some horrific revelations  with the appropriate weightiness needed but is never too heavy-handed. Ambivalence, wrong choices and unfair advantages come into play, too, as the central Southies deal with how they and their lives changed after high school.

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Peter Reardon (Mike), Rebecca Dines (Margie) and Renata Eastlick (Kate). Photo by Kara Goldberg.

3.) Impressive lighting, stage management and set changes: With backdrops on casters and nimble prop changes, American Stage takes us from graffiti-sprayed back alley to kitschy 1970s apartment to bingo hall to doctor’s office to a luxurious upscale home. Credit goes to Gularte for both her overall direction and sound design, scenic designer Frank Chavez, lighting designer Dan Covey and the production designer/manager Jerid Fox and stage manager Rachel Harrison.

4.) The on-point performances: The entire cast kicks ass. Rebecca Dines gives us a Margie that’s part Laverne Di Fazio, part Sally Field in Norma Rae. Though she’s endured a great deal of misfortune, she’s no martyr.  Margie’s flaws make her more interesting and endearing, Of course, a great performance helps in this regard, too. Dines, an Australian-born Equity/SAG actor who played in the same role with Gularte in a past production of Good People at the director’s former home, the Capitol Stage Company, conveys the spunkiness and frustration of her character without making Margie too cartoonish. She, and the other ladies pull off a convincing Southie accent, and Reardon, an Irish-American Mass. native, provides just the right shade of a brogue covered up by decades of yuppie shame.

5.) Good People stays with you long after the play is over:  American Stage’s production strikes a chord for anyone who’s felt like a misfit in America’s class hierarchy or has experienced a disconnect between their potential vs. their achievements. Lindsay-Abaire’s script reminds us that our society places too much value on appearances, and that it’s the job of a great stage play like Good People to excavate the inconvenient truths that lurk beneath our most commonly held perceptions.

Good People runs through Oct. 2 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg. Visit americanstage.org for showtimes and ticket info.

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8 reasons to see Jobsite Theater’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Jobsite Theater continues a tradition of unconventional theater offerings with Christopher Durang’s conventionally lauded Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play that is no less weirdly wonderful than Jobsite’s other offerings.

The farce by satirist Christopher Durang endeared Broadway for the same cynical and cathartic reasons  Iñárritu‘s Birdman won the Oscar last year: It’s a non-stop riff on stage and showbiz life — its pitfalls, embarrassments and pet peeves — that satirizes  everything from narcissism to elitism to lame auditions to fading celebrity while managing to convey poignant insights on aging, mortality and family bonds.

Vanya and Sonia works on many levels if you can approach it with an open mind, sense of humor and let go of preconceived notions about how a play should play out on stage.

Here are some other reasons to see the latest production of the Straz Center of Performing Arts’ resident theater company:

Anton-Chekhov1.) It’s a treat for Anton Chekhov fans: If you didn’t figure it out reading the title, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an absurd and affectionate send-up of works by the Russian playwright and his famous plays, including  The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The story centers on siblings raised by a theatergoing parents (hence the character names) and offers similar eruptions of neuroses in a rustic setting. There’s even a scene when Roz Potenza’s Sonia professes, “I am a wild turkey!” which is a humorous homage to Chekhov heroine Nina’s famously self-actualizing line, “I am a seagull!”

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From left: Roz Potenza as Sonia, Jonelle Meyer as Cassandra and Brian Shea as Vanya. Photo by Crawford Long.

2.) Jonelle Meyer as a wacky psychic: She is one of the funniest women alive and we’re lucky to have her here in Tampa Bay. As the hippie housekeeper Cassandra in Vanya and Sonia, Meyer lives up to her mythological name as a seer no one takes seriously. She plays the role big with her signature bug-eyed, animated physicality and verbal dexterity that endeared us in past productions of Almost an Evening and The Divine Sister, recalling our favorite uninhibited comedy heroines from yesteryear like Madeline Kahn, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett but with a fierce ownership of the stage that is all her own.

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Potenza, Elizabeth Fendrick as Masha, Shea and show-off Spike played by Jamie Jones. Photo by Crawford Long.

3.) Jamie Jones as a ridiculous boy toy: The nimble and deep-voiced Jamie Jones is one of our area’s most versatile actors. One moment he’s the handsome love interest of celebrity Masha, the other he’s a self-absorbed, IQ-deprived aspiring celebrity and exhibitionist peacocking all over the stage in tighty-blackies, thrusting his junk in Brian Shea’s face. Like Meyer, he delivers comic relief with brilliant physicality and ingeniously meta overacting. It takes boatloads of talent to deliver over the top performances without grating on the audience’s nerves, and both Jones and Meyer elicit big laughs as their ridiculous characters.

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Potenza and Shea as Sonia and Vanya. Photo by Crawford Long.

4.) The sensical relief of Brian Shea’s Vanya: Brian Shea plays the rational if inhibited older brother who brings sanity to the play. He’s a skilled actor with an enviable ease once again, and in the second act, he delivers an epic monologue (too long by conventional standards, an “in your face” to critics) that laments the good old days of rotary dial phones and wholesome sitcoms, pre-ADD-enabling bursts of device-driven communication.

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Elizabeth Fendrick as Masha shows her disappointment after being showed up as the belle of a costume ball. Photo by Crawford Long.

5.) Elizabeth Fendrick as a diva: Okay, so this list is basically praising all the performances in the play, and rightfully so. Fendrick starts out arrogant and shallow but undergoes an arc that eventually makes her sympathetic to the audience. When her costume party Snow White is confused for Norma Desmond, we simultaneously laugh and feel a twinge of sympathy.

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Emily Belvo as Nina and Jones’ Spike. Photo by Crawford Long.

6.) Emily Belvo as the spazzy neighbor Nina: As with her animated castmates, it takes a certain measure of talent to pull off an over-the-top role, and Belvo is adorably perfect as the aw-shucks, adulating young neighbor and aspiring actress. Durang belies her supposed naivete with more sense and inner equilibrium than her older counterparts, showing us that people are often more than their “type.”

7.) Another first rate set and exceptional lighting by Jobsite: Kudos to Patrick Barnhart (Lighting Assistant Intern), Ryan Finzelbar (Lighting Designer), David M. Jenkins (Sound Designer) Amara Manickchand (Associate Lighting Designer), Brittany Reuther (Costume Designer) and Brian M. Smallheer (Scenic Designer). Together, they re-create a believably homey cottage porch in the backwoods of Pennsylvania replete with tree branch shadows  and nostalgic Beatles tunes.

8.) The Potenzas: One of local theater’s most beloved couples collaborate to make this show great. Paul Potenza, the award-winning actor who wowed us with his kpaul-and-roznockout performance as a dying curmudgeon in Jobsite’s Annapurna directs this first-rate production that includes wife Roz as Sonia. Roz’s Sonia is a bit awkward and stares at the ceiling as if she’s ruminating on a million things while she’s speaking, but we begin to get to know her as much more than a reclusive eccentric. She comes out of her shell at a costume party portraying Maggie Smith on Oscar night, accent and all. Come to think of it, the world would be a better place if more Sonias were given a second look the way Durang lovingly unravels this sweetly flawed heroine. Paul lends his acting intuition to his direction by humanizing a play that tinkers more with ideas than the nuances of interaction, but ultimately succeeds in doing both.

All photos above by Crawford LongShow times are 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday, through March 20 at the  Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $28 (discounts available); call (813) 229-7827; visit strazcenter.org or jobsitetheater.org

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Broadway tour of Matilda the Musical brings the endearingly twisted wit of Roald Dahl to the Straz Center

The winner of four Tony Awards continues its run through Sunday. Review by Julie Garisto.

Matilda the Musical, a Dickensian-lite tale of a young genius who uses the power of her mind to defy unfortunate circumstances, can be seen through Sunday at the Straz Center of Performing Arts in downtown Tampa.

From its first note, the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel charms with ear-wormy Oliver!-style anthems and darkly cartoonish characters, like those in Tim Burton (Nightmare Before Christmas) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children) movies. Skewed Scrabble tiles pile high in a surreal backdrop as a mostly young cast entertains with impeccable choreography and vocal harmonies.

Matilda the Musical follows the childhood of precocious and imaginative British girl born to boorish parents (Quinn Mattfield and Cassie Silva) who horribly mistreat her. Their crass neglect and verbal abuse, and the scowling and ridiculously mean headmistress of Matilda’s school (portrayed hilariously by male actor David Abeles) are over-the-top funny.

The show’s star Lily Brooks O’Brient belted out admirably in the title role. (The actress alternates dates with Sarah McKinley Austin in the title role.) Jennifer Blood as sweet Miss Honey gives the show’s most heart-rending turn and also gives a mighty vocal performance. The only disappointment performance-wise is that we don’t see more of Jamaican librarian Mrs. Phelps (Esther Antoine).

Matilda‘s adorably talented ensemble of schoolchildren make the musical a must-see for families and anyone who grew up reading Dahl books. The show rouses with a spirited rebellion and mischievous defiance of a miserable status quo — and a tongue-in-cheek dash of satire Dahl fans have enjoyed in classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. The verbal cleverness of Dahl is abbreviated in the theater version, of course, but the musical has more heart than the film adaptation starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Sound technical issues marred Wednesday night’s production at the Straz’s Morsani Hall. Volume and high-end distortion made the British accents a little tougher to follow.

Future audiences should be dazzled by the special effects in Matilda the Musical. Pyrotechnic lights, explosive sounds and a beautiful silhouetted cut-out animation are some of the show’s highlights. There’s one more audience-involved complement, but I won’t give that away. The surprise is too special (and colorful).

The orchestral score is a star of the show that deserves mention. The tunes are catchy and incorporate gypsy jangle and classic melodies — one even rocks.

Sadly, the book feels somewhat slapdash. This touring production is a little too long, like so many of Broadway’s family-friendly, commercially driven productions these days. Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers (!), it could use some serious tightening up.

Some takeaways : You can always rewrite your own story, everyone needs a little love and tenderness, and perhaps, most relevant, ignorance should never be tolerated from our authority figures.

Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Tampa’s Event Show Productions performers (inspired by Matilda’s imagination) who perform outside the lobby pre-show. They were a surprising treat.

Click here for showtimes and ticket info. 

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