Festival On New Musicals Scores Home Runs

WINTER PARK –Sitting in a relaxing seat inside the Winter Park Playhouse, the lights went down and then I got a sinking feeling. The first show of the day at the Florida Festival Of New Musicals was called A Beautiful Place, and you instantly know what’s about to happen. It’s 1942 in Czechoslovakia, and two local Jews are being forced to abandon their home and report to a train station for deportation. Sure enough, they’re being transported to the notorious Terezin death camp.

I felt a slight urge to cringe. The concept of a musical set in a concentration camp, I presumed, was likely to backfire badly, to be horrendously insensitive and misguided.

I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.

But the time the hour was over, I was as in awe of the play as the rest of the audience, which lavished it with sky high praise for its sensitive, gripping, harrowing, and heartfelt depiction of two people coping within the greatest horror imaginable.

If there’s one thing the show reminded me of, it’s that truly creative minds and strong talent can make any scenario work, which was certainly true of all three shows I caught today — a historic drama about the Holocaust, a second historical drama about the relationship between poverty and morality, and a zany comedy about video dating. Not a single dud in the mix, it was proof positive that the Winter Park Playhouse had a fantastic idea when they first launched the Florida Festival Of New Musicals six years ago as a showcase for new musicals still in development.

In each case, the audience was given an opportunity to provide feedback to the writers and composers, and judging by the comments from the audience, all three shows have a promising future.

A Beautiful Place

Written by Linda DeArmond Grady and Michael Grady of Pheonix, Arizona, with music and lyrics by Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn, A Beautiful Place is based on a true story, about a Czech Jewish woman in Terezin who tried to shield the children in her dorm from the horrors of the camp by working with them to create art. She would eventually hide their paintings in a suitcase, which was discovered years later and told a sobering and heartbreaking story about the Holocaust.

Regardless of whether the story is true or fiction, though, A Beautiful place is a powerful work. Friedl and her husband Pavel must give us virtually everything they own as they get transported out of the Jewish Ghetto, and she decided to take her art supplies, something that held the most meaning in her life. Once at Terezin, husband and wife are separated, and Friedl finds herself in a dorm with a lot of children. She’s warned not to ask useless questions such as what is your name, because it could get them killed.

When one small child gets sick with a fever and there is no medical care available, Friedl decides to use art as a means of therapy.

It’s a play that holds tightly onto your emotions from the very start, with songs that passionately cover what the children would like to see in their art, from cats to luxurious meals, to a moment when the Red Cross is invited to tour the camp by the Nazis, with all inmates required to pretend it’s nothing more than a pleasant summer camp. Even while emotions are conveyed in song, every moment rings true.

There are some excellent performances in this one, but none more so than Mahalia Gronigan as Friedl, who becomes the leading voice in a torturous situation.

The Useful Citizen

This play by Katya Stanislavskaya is an ambitious work with a huge cast set in New York right after the Civil War. Initially it focuses on Effie Lowell, a Civil War widow who doesn’t want to simply to be the forgotten wife of a fallen soldier. Instead she moves to NYC where she decides to join a group of other women who create charities to help the poor and downtrodden. Effie seems initially to be a courageous figure who has become a bold reformer, and for that matter a “useful citizen” as the nation recovers from the war.

But looks can be deceiving.

The play also parallels Rebekah, a woman with a young daughter who becomes mired in poverty after her good for nothing boyfriend loses his job and abandons them. Rebekah is forced to beg her boyfriend’s old employer for his job, which means long hours at a factory, and little time to care for her daughter. That’s when her neighbors become judgmental, and seek to have her daughter removed from the home and put into an orphanage.

Threatened with the permanent loss of her daughter, Rebekah travels to New York City to seek help from the charitable organizations run by Effie. The response she gets is a shocking one.

A fairly potent drama about how our personal sense of morality can lead us astray and destroy the lives of others, the show has some strong characters that are brought to life by a very talented cast, especially Gronigan as the stern Effie and Hannah Laird as the desperate Rebekah. Their scenes together are electric.

The Couple Company

A very funny look at the early days of video dating, this musical by Jeff Patrick Johnson of Boston is set in 1976 — yes, kid, the pre-cell phone and internet days — with film school grads Sonny Wells and Chanelle Williams earning a living videotaping bar mitzvahs as they try to produce a screenplay they’ve written. But their lives take a radical shift when Sonny’ mom dies, and he becomes the owner of her matchmaking agency, designed to bring together lonely hearts in the days before Tinder.

What they discover is a huge clientele, but it’s no easy task getting these lost souls to appreciate one another. From stoners to a Jewish princess to the gal about town to a lunkhead who doesn’t want a girl who interrupts his ballgames, there are few matches made in Heaven here.

It’s a hilarious setup, and Johnson pulls it off nicely, from whiny singles with too many demands to poor Sonny, running around like a chicken with his head cut off, wondering how he’s going to make it all work. The songs have some real catchy zingers, too.

The large cast was uniformly spot on, particularly Adam Fields as the befuddled Sonny and Hannah McGinley Lemasters as one of the applicants for the matchmaker. Funny stuff!!

What is the Festival Of New Musicals?

The annual Florida Festival of New Musicals was created to advance and elevate the original American art form of musical theater by fostering the development of new musicals. The Playhouse, which frequently brings in brand new musicals making their Central Florida debut, also aims to boost the artistic growth of writers and composers.

This four-day event will showcase six new musicals that are currently in the development stage and haven’t been produced on stage yet. The Festival also enables the writers and composers to get exposure to not only the public, but the news media and to regional theater producers and directors.

Tickets for these live performances are $10 each, while a “Festival Fun Pass” is available for $50 and gets you in to see all 6 shows. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 407-645-0145.

The other shows being performed this weekend are Bats On The Moon, Gabriel Blow Your Horn, and Young Dr. Jekyll. The festival concludes on Sunday.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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