Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

[title of show]
The Players Centre
William S. Oser

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Brian Finnerty, Debbi White, Jennifer Baker,
and Andrew Smiley

Photo Courtesy of The Players Centre
In 2004, two budding theatrical writers, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book), wrote and starred in a musical for a new musical competition/festival and named it [title of show], taken from the form where they were supposed to enter the title of their submission. It met with some success, was chosen for presentation at the competition it was written for, and was revised for Off-Broadway and later Broadway.

In the current Players Centre production, the opening night audience laughed in all the right places and seemed to love it in ways I never have. I think the many references to musicals past don't always land with general audiences. There are two direct quotes from the narrative of Into the Woods and in a musical number called "Monkeys and Playbills," close to 40 musicals, most obscure, a few at least somewhat known outside theater geek circles, are grouped based on commonality in a title (Oh Coward! and Oh, Kay!, for instance). The song leads off with The Golden Apple, which draws some knowledge in the Sarasota area because for many years there was a well regarded dinner theater by that name which had been named after the musical, but in other areas without that history, how many people in the average audience have any knowledge of the Jerome Moross/John Latouche 1950s retelling of The Odyssey? Posters from (mostly) flop musicals (Merrily We Roll Along,Oh, Kay!, Carrie, and Steel Pier) form the back drop of the set and I wonder how many in the audience knew anything about any of them. Extraneous vulgarity (there is actually a running gag about how many times the F-bomb has been dropped, and MF-bombs appear frequently as well) is something that doesn't endear me, and the score doesn't contain even one song I have ever heard extracted for outside use. I feel all of these things have dampened this musical's popularity.

The Players Centre is in the midst of trying times, above and beyond what this country and the world are going through. They sold their old theater for the land value and are homeless for the next few years while they build a facility out east, currently scheduled to (hopefully) open in 2023. They performed a few shows at The Bazaar on Apricot & Lime and other locations last year, but that vagabond existance imposed severe limitations on what could be attempted. They have scheduled six smallish shows to be produced in a vacant former store at a struggling mall, but materials delay forced the movement of this production to a different location somewhat late in the game. Because the show makes very limited technical demands, the impact is minimal.

For the cast of four, The Players Centre has cast two regulars and two less familiar faces. Yet another problem with [title of show] is that the characters are underwritten, hard for me as an audience member to emotionally connect with, so all the performers are at a disadvantage. Brian F. Finnerty as Hunter (and choreographing) and Andrew Smiley as Jeff are talented performers. Both display fine singing and dancing skills. Jennifer Baker, new to me, is Heidi and she gets the best song at the end and makes the most of it. Her acting chops are also excellent, and she presents the most defined performance of the evening. Debbi White, always a major talent, is Susan, but the part doesn't play well to her emotional sensibilities or the best parts of her voice. In my head I hear her legitimate singing in The 1940s Radio Hour a few years ago which sent chills up my spine for its beauty, but the belting required here is not what she does best. Still, I look forward to future terrific performances from this talented lady.

As director, Cory Boyas does stalwart work, probably even more so than shows what with the chaos. Brian Finnerty's choreography is good, but maybe playing one of the major roles and choreographing is too much of an undertaking. Michelle Neal is the intrepid music director, even feistily delivering a few lines here and there. The score, even if not one of the great ones of Broadway history, still has some quite complex moments and she keeps everything on track. Technical elements and scenic design by Michael Newton-Brown, lighting design by Ralph M. Murmela, and costumes by Ethan Vail all are fine, but belie the behind-the-scenes difficulties.

The Players Centre [title of show] runs through October 17, 2021, at The Art Center, 707 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information visit www.theplayers.org or call 941-365-2494.

Cast:
Hunter: Brian F. Finnerty
Jeff: Andrew Smiley
Heidi: Jennifer Baker
Susan: Debbi White


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