COLLEGE PARK — In 2012, two residents of Orlando’s College Park neighborhood, Denise Badger and Bob DiCerbo, started work on a dream they shared: to open a performing arts center in College Park that could host theatrical productions and art exhibits.
Having spent the past two years in the planning stages, raising funds and scouting for locations to build the performing arts center (in 2015, they hope), Badger and DiCerbo took a monumental step forward on their ambitions this week.
The College Park Neighborhood Arts & Theatre Center, as the project has been dubbed, launched their first theatrical production, “You Can’t Take It With You,” which opened on Wednesday at the Princeton Elementary School auditorium, and continues tonight at 8 p.m. before concluding with a Mother’s Day matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m.
It was not held in their performing arts center, obviously, but the play was intended to demonstrate the talent available in College Park, since their production was directed by a local resident – director, playwright and actor Larry Stallings – and performed mostly by folks who live in the neighborhood. Anyone who knows College Park, with its elegance restaurants and nightclubs along Edgewater Drive, and popular hangout spots like the Downtown Credo coffeehouse, must instinctively believe that College Park seems like the ideal place for a community theater.
So now the question is: what did the CPN’s first production say about the talent behind these grand efforts?
Sitting in the school’s auditorium, in the moments before the show started, my initial thought was to wonder why the group selected a comedy from the 1930s for its inaugural show. Granted, it’s a classic comedy, and the Academy Awards winning 1938 movie version by Frank Capra still pops up on television all the time.
Still, there’s no question the George Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy may strike some as quaint and clever — but rather dated by today’s standards of comedy, in a style that doesn’t have much connection with what audiences can find on a weekly basis on television, with a far more explicit and in-your-face approach to comedy from the likes of “2 Broke Girls” and “Family Guy”, for example. Was “You Can’t Take It With You” chosen simply because it is clean and family-oriented entertainment? Is it simply a nostalgic look back at a very different approach to charming an audience?
Then, checking the director’s notes in the program, I noticed Stallings makes an interesting point. When the play first opened, “It was 1936 and America was beginning to come out of the Great Depression,” Stallings wrote — not a bad parallel to today, as the U.S. continues to make a slow and sometimes rocky recovery from the Great Recession, which had a particularly brutal impact on Florida.
What the play about a whacky family that refuses to conform to acceptable social standards does offer, the director added, is “a heart-felt optimism about the days and years to come. In the same way, the College Park Neighborhood Arts & Theatre Center feels a great optimism about our future.”
The play concerns the Vanderhof family, who at first glance probably seem more than a bit eccentric. Mom writes plays all day, daughter has ambitions to be a ballerina, and grandpa hasn’t paid his income taxes in 24 years – he just doesn’t like the government that much.
When daughter Alice starts dating a young business executive, Tony, she frets that her oddball family might scare him off. Then when Tony brings his very conservative and strait-laced parents over to meet the bunch, it all gets a bit zany from there.
CPN actually took on something of an ambitious first production, since it requires a cast of 18 actors; but they deliver nicely, with a professionally designed set for the Vanderhof home, and a talented cast that brings the entire family quite humorously to life, with particularly good performances by Eric Kuritzky as Grandpa Martin, who shrugs off the thought of doing something so illogical as paying his taxes; Missy Miller as Penny, the mom who always has a wild play in her head waiting to be written, and can be found typing away at her typewriter; and Barbara Solomon as the family’s sassy maid, Rheba.
The play’s ideals – that we all have a brighter future if we simply follows our dreams and ambitious, as well as the personality quirks that make us unique from the crowd – is a fitting symbol for the CPN’s fledgling efforts to start their own local theater.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to see why “You Can’t Take It With You” was chosen to start their efforts. If you have dreams, the play seems to say, chase them, regardless of what the squares say is practical or common-sense. Happily, CPN’s founders seem to have come to a similar conclusion.
Princeton Elementary School is at 311 W. Princeton St. For tickets, call 407-674-2684.
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