Festival Of New Musicals

WINTER PARK — When it comes to new musicals, it seems like bigger is better.

During this week’s 2022 Florida Festival Of New Musicals at the Winter Park Playhouse, the idea of a new musical built around a couple of actors was non-existent. All of the playwrights and composers who had their new musicals given a reading at the Festival created shows with 10 or more cast members, introducing not just leading characters but minor ones with brief roles designed to help move the plot forward. Big was definitely in.

The other theme in this year’s Festival was that the creators wanted us to laugh — a lot — and perhaps divert our attention away from the trials and tribulations of daily life. Humor was a major theme in these musicals, a desire to fill the theater with as much laughter as possible.

This four day festival concludes today with four final performances of musicals that are now in development, and there were some standouts this year. Freeline Media was back at the Playhouse on Saturday for more readings.

Ciao Bambino!

Sweeping in its vision, romantic and touching in the way it so accurately captures heartfelt emotions and the ambitions of the human spirit, this musical about a young girl who arrives in NYC from Italy looks virtually guaranteed to find a major audience in the future.

The play written by Elizabeth Allen Turner of Miami, who also wrote the lyrics and composed the songs, tells the story of young Elizabetha, who moves in with her aunt Zia and uncle Zio, owners of an Italian restaurant in New York’s Little Italy. They happily take her in. Initially finding work at a local gelato shop run by their neighbor Angelo, Elizabetha nurtues a love for music, and when she learns about an opening for a music teacher at a nearby Catholic school, she quickly applies — although Angelo warns her that the school has a rough reputation.

Elizabetha meets the school’s administrator, Mother Marie, who decides to give the young Italian immigrant a chance. But it turns out Angelo was right: once Elizabetha tries to engage she students, she gets a very rude awakening.

Stories about the dreams and ambitions of immigrants arriving in America have captivated audiences for decades, because it’s easy to relate to a likable character who wants to succeed, confronts plenty of obstacles, but is determined to keep going. The show is intelligently written by Turner, who expertly navigates the audience through the various opportunities and challenges an immigrant might face. She’s also a superb composer, and with orchestrations and arrangements by Andreas Haberlin (who came to Winter Park from Berlingen, Switzerland), this show has some of the most gorgeous songs of the Festival.

It also has a stunning lead performance by Sarah Middough as Elizabetha, and terrific support by Natalie Doliner (Zia), David Thome (Zio), Todd Allen long (Angelo) and Monica Titus (Mother Marie.)

In my view, this was definitely the best production of the Festival.

Thirty Seconds

This side-splittingly funny comedy about two young admen in the 1950s hoping to land a job at a top ad agency is everything a great musical should be: funny, clever, fast-paced, and with some wise thoughts about the way life has changed in the past few decades.

Adam Biner and Monica Titus are an exceptionally engaging couple of leads as Bill and Rosie, whose initial work at the agency gets poo-pooed by the suits who run it. They’re given one last chance to prove their can do creative marketing: by writing slogans for a true ugly duckling project, Hitler’s car. If they fail, they’re out on the street.

And there’s a subplot: Bill and Rosie are falling in love, but there’s a hitch: Rosie is Catholic and Bill is Jewish, and Bill has a domineering Jewish mama who thinks relationships outside their religion are sacrilegious, even if Bill’s more understanding Dad insists all Jewish guys like a nice shiksa. It gets worse: Mama knows a nice Jewish girl who would be perfect for her son and decides to play matchmaker. It’s just too bad that her choice, Naomi, tends to burst into tears at a moment’s notice …

Rounding out the fun is the growing rivalry at work between Bill and Rosie, since in a male dominated world, he starts to get all the credit for their work — even if Rosie is the genius behind their slogans.

This delightful play written by Michael Rogers, with music by Bill Wandel, should have a glorious future, because it’s a non-stop parade of clever quips and hilarious situations. The Festival reading was a real treat, because in addition to the leads, few could resist the charms of watching Kelly Wells play that overbearing mama.

Naked

The title refers to the woman depicted in Edouard Manet’s painting “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” which is loaned out to a small art museum in Denver, where Grace, an aspiring artist, is married to the curator. This play by Germaine Shames with music by Tareg Abuissa is an often enchanting fantasy about art versus reality, as the women in Manet’s painting comes to life and begins interacting with Grace. Other characters depicted in painting do as well, including Manet himself, and Grace finds herself trying to explain modern sensibilities to characters reflecting the values of women a century ago.

It’s a fun concept well executed in this show, which balances humor with some passionate thoughts about pursuing one’s dreams, even if they initially seem unattainable. Good casting, especially Rebecca Jo Lightfoot as Grace and James Berkley as Manet.

Stone Crossed

The Festival has featured plays about immigrants, advertising execs, Star Trek and Goldilocks, a pretty eclectic mix — so why not a show about cavemen?

This play by Philip David Stern, who also wrote the music and lyrics, takes place in the prehistoric land of Arkose, inhabited by different tribes that have been taught to fear one another. But that rivalry gets put to the test when one tribe member, Stoney, wanders into enemy territory and quickly falls for an attractive young woman, Jewel. They have eyes for one another, but the men on Jewel’s side are none too happy about this. Can love conquer all, including Stone Age rivalry?

This show is light and silly, with plenty of over the top gags and opportunities for actors to do some real mugging, which talented actors like Chase Williams as Stoney and Jordan Gago as his pal Tuff do exquisitely.

The Festival continues today at the theater at 711 Orange Ave. Suite C in Winter Park, and tickets are $10 per show. Call the box office at 407-645-0145 to book tickets.

The schedule for today’s Festival is:

The Goldilocks Variations at 11 a.m.

Naked at 1 p.m.

Stone Crossed at 3 p.m.

Ciao Bambino at 5 p.m.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com

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