Festival Of New Musicals Offers Diverse Shows

WINTER PARK — One of the great pleasures of spending the day at the 7th Annual Florida Festival Of New Musicals is recognizing that no two shows are in the slightest way similar. The new talent that the Winter Park Playhouse taps into when they select the shows for the 4 day festival is enormously diverse. The three musicals I watched today touched on literature, aging, politics and faith, family and justice, even unspeakable cruelty. What’s remarkable about the festival is it’s like getting an entire season of musical shows in one afternoon.

The writers’ and composers of these three shows, who were in attendance at the Playhouse today, enjoyed a stage reading of the first act of their musicals-in-progress, plus the benefit of supremely talented performers doing the readings, and a packed house each time, a highly receptive audience that seemed thrilled to be there. Quite a gift to the playwrights on hand.

One other thing surprised me: all three shows had very large casts. The days of shows with two or three characters is perhaps a bit passe these days, I guess. Bigger is better.

In Emily’s Words

This musical by Jessy Tomsko, who wrote the play and composed the score, was originally intended to be a musical version of her favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, until it slowly transformed into something else: a look at how English novelist Emily Bronte developed this classic novel. While she certainly had a very gifted imagination, Emily was writing at a time when women were hardly being encouraged to become authors. The play follows Emily’s life with her two sisters, and how she created the legendary characters that populate Wuthering Heights.

A lyrical, rather magical show, the reading got a major boost from the charming performance by Lizzie Wild as Emily, and she made the author seem just as fascinating as any of her literary characters. Tara D. Deadly as Charlotte Bronte and Kaylee Robinson as Anne Bronte we’re equally compelling, and it was fun to see Emily’s fictional characters come to life. Dragomir Page was particularly dashing as Heathcliff. It’s like a engaging episode of Masterpiece Theatre with a captivating score.

In Emily’s Words will have its final performance on Sunday at 3 p.m.

Promise You’ll Shoot Me

Possibly the first-ever musical about euthanasia, this pitch-black comedy takes a look at a retirement home, the Four Seasons, where a group of seniors live out their golden years. Since aging ain’t for sissies, the seniors form a secret club known as the Kevorkians — yes, you got that right, the Kevorkians — who pledge to end one another’s suffering if the going gets too rough.

If it sounds like it’s in exceptionally bad taste, it’s actually quite hilarious, as the larger-than-life characters cope not only with the miseries of being 70something, but also one another. Fart gags, hemorrhoid humor, and other testimonials to questionable taste seem to pop up every few minutes to keep things lively, and authors Michael Rogers and Bill Wandel make no pretense to offering a serious look at the pros and cons of assisted suicide. This is crude laugh-a-minute humor, performed to perfection by a rollicking good cast that included Cami Miller as Mildred, who spends most of her days seeing multiple doctors; John Cavazos as Ed, a crafty senior who enjoys stealing women’s purses; and Dustin Cunningham as Arnold, who is wheelchair bound and very grumpy. Adam DelMedico has a grand time playing an aging loan shark with a fading memory and a passion for public nudity.

Despite the subject matter, it hardly seemed to offend the audience, which was in hysterics.

Promise You’ll Shoot Me will have its final performance on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Carolina Rising

A kind of musical version of the movie Norma Rae, this show by playwright Bryan Leys with music by Kevin Kuhn looks at a mill in a small North Carolina town, and the union organizer who shows up to encourage the workers to join the union. The union organizer, Virgil Jackson, is black, and has no trouble convincing the mill’s black workers, now making rock-bottom low pay, to consider forming a union. But he has a harder time getting the white works to move in that direction, so he enlists Crystal Ann McKay, who is sassy, not easy to push around, and seems intrigued by Virgil’s message. Her pro-union activities get Crystal suspended from her job, but that only makes her more determined to keep fighting.

An intriguing political drama, this one benefits from a country & western-style score that also taps onto bluegrass, blues and a truly spectacular gospel number. It has the most fleshed out characters of the three shows, and the reading benefited immensely from the performances by Mahalia Gronigan as Crystal, James Berkley as Virgil, and Kelly Wells as Crystal’s mom Mabel.

The politics of union organizing (and busting) work surprisingly work in a musical setting, and Kuhn has a definite talent for rousing, toe-tapping catchy numbers. It’s easy to imagine this one heading off a very successful future.

Carolina Rising will close out the Festival of New Musicals on Sunday with a 5 p.m. final performance.

What is the Festival Of New Musicals?

The 7th Annual Florida Festival of New Musicals was first launched in 2018, 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 theater writers and composers.

This four-day event will showcase six new musicals currently in the development stage. 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.

A one-hour version of each chosen musical gets fully read and sung concert-style, without staging, by professional actors and musicians.             

Where Can I See The Festival Of New Musicals?

The 7th Annual Florida Festival Of New Musicals is being held now through Sunday at the Winter Park Playhouse, 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park. 

Tickets cost $10 per show and a 6-show “Festival Fun Pass” is available for $50. To purchase tickets, get the Festival schedule and receive more information, visit online www.winterparkplayhouse.org or call the Box Office at 407-645-0145. 

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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