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


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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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!”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Strange Corners & Surprising Detours — Clearwater pt. 1

The second in a destination series,  Strange Corners & Surprising Detours is a recurring feature that highlights unusual, compelling and less-visited sites around Tampa Bay, and, occasionally, other places encountered while traveling. Photos and words by Julie Garisto; additional pics by Daniel Veintimilla.

Clearwater conjures only a couple of bits of imagery to to most. Just about everyone loves or knows about the overcrowded, overdeveloped but still fabulous Clearwater Beach. Downtown Clearwater is still under-appreciated, known primarily for its Church of Scientology buildings, and maybe the Capitol Theatre or Coachman Park, but almost no attention is given to the eye candy between the gulf and the bay.

The Harbor Oaks neighborhood, located just south of downtown, is one of the prettiest and oldest neighborhoods in the city, and up the road, a collection of neighborhoods known to residents as “Greenwood” is a post-segregation but still-pretty-much segregated community, avoided by most white people. The area’s charms, however, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here’s a look at some of the above interesting and pretty Clearwater places you won’t find in the tourist brochures.

Nauti-Nancy’s is an Old Florida-style seafood cafe conveniently located next to the Pinellas Trail. Photo by Julie Garisto.


Church of the Ascension Episcopal Church lets its presence be known with a majestic bell tower dedicated to a Clearwater civic leader whose name I mainly recognize from local car dealerships. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
On Gasparilla Day, this was our one and only pirate boat adventure. No beads or boobie-flashing here.  Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
Northwest view from the little Clearwater park pier. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
View from atop the stairs. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
I did some digging around on the web and found nothing on this  little no-name park (not mentioned in city or county directories) but it does have an actual city park sign that lists hours (closed after dusk) and allows dogs on a leash. Dog owners, of course, must clean up poop (which should go without saying but unfortunately doesn’t). Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
The Harbor Oaks neighborhood isn’t just made up of gorgeous mansions and villas. There’s a cluster of beautifully quaint apartment buildings along Oak Avenue — one of my first choices if I were to rent. The above porch belongs to Mike Post, a retired florist. Photo by Julie Garisto.
Mike Post amid his greenery. Photo by Julie Garisto.
In Greenwood area — an old church-turned-community center, originally St. John the Baptist Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1921. Photo by Julie Garisto.
The beautiful bell tower at the Church of Ascension. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
Remember Dimmit Chevrolet?
Bottom-up view by Daniel Veintimilla.
Close up of the bells, bells, bells, bells … photo by Daniel Veintimilla.
Church of the Ascension Episcopal Church lets its presence be known with a majestic bell tower dedicated to a Clearwater civic leader whose name I mainly recognize from local car dealerships. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.


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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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Wednesday2 begins a new tradition of storytelling and performance in Gulfport

Gulfport favorites: At the 2014 Gasp! with Ciara Carinici and Wilson Loria. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla.

When I was arts and entertainment editor, I wrote about a collective of theater talent in Gulfport, who have remained in the shadows of the Bay area’s theater scene at large. Tonight, a few of these local fringe-dwellers — who have successful performance careers beyond the Bay area — will be spearheading Wednesday2 (pronounced Wednesday Squared), a showcase of words and theater at the City of Imagination in Gulfport.

Renaissance Man: Peter Suarez has been known to wield a sword, fire and acoustic guitar at ren fests and elsewhere around the world.
Peter Suarez, a veteran New York actor and international flamenco dancer, will be reading his “El Traje de Luces”, a bullfighter’s tale. Wilson Loria, who was recently honored for “Best Text” at the Montreal Fringe Festival, will be reading his “Accordion” and “Subway” pieces.
The night of theater and prose will also include lit scene favorites Cathy Salustri, Creative Loafing’s new arts and entertainment editor, and Tiffany Razzano, founder of Wordier Than Thou. Suggested donation is $10.
If you can’t make it tonight, a new showcase of will take place every second Wednesday of the month featuring short plays and prose written and read by local authors. Visit  the Wednesday2 Facebook page for details.
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