ORLANDO — If you had the opportunity to go back in time and change what you felt were disastrous decisions you had made, would you do it?
It’s moot point, obvious, since time travel only exists in H.G. Wells novels. But it doesn’t much matter, since as the production Melina A Steampunk Musical Tragedy so defectively points out, sometimes stepping back and reviewing your most important decisions, step by step, can be strikingly revealing.
Melina, the engaging new musical performed by some of the most gorgeous voices you’re likely to hear on stage in Orlando, is being presented by Central Florida Vocal Arts, which knows a thing or two about unleashing stunning vocal talent into a high energy melodrama. You see it’s a love story — no, scratch that. It’s at least four love stories, most of them problematic as all good romances are, and this 3-hour musical, now being performed at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, probably couldn’t have come up with a moment where your interest sags even if it tried. Happily, the writer and stage director, Gretchen Suarez-Pena, keeps her cast moving at a speed that guarantees you stay mesmerized until the very end.
So, what exactly is Melina A Steampunk Musical Tragedy?
Set in a medieval and rather primitive village in a much earlier time, we follow Jacob, heir to the family throne, who falls deeply in love with Mara, a talented aspiring singer who has one little problem: she’s from the wrong side of the tracks (hint: not royalty or bathing in riches), but it seems like Jacob’s family is willing to overlook that. The one odd thing about Jacob is that he only comes around to Mara’s house at night … when it’s dark … and he seems a bit reluctant to announce to the village that they’re a couple headed for their glowing nuptials. But Mara is patient.
Jacob’s reluctance to make that announcement seems far more understandable when he falls for another woman, Melina. What can we say about Melina? Well, in some gothic novels, she might have been called a seductress. It would not have been a charitable term. As Melina seems to cast her spell over Jacob and his interest in Mara wanes, it might have helped if he had listened to Mara’s very outspoken and opinionated friend Aimee, who sees right through Melina and knows her desire for Jacob’s heart is, well, less than it appeears. Before you know it, several hearts have been painfully broken. And that’s just the first half hour!
The play follows our cast over the next several decades, as Mara and Jacob move on — happily, it seems, for Mara, and less so for Jacob. But as we move into the second act and both of them now have grown up children, there’s plenty more tragedy and heartbreak awaiting everyone.
The story does exactly what melodramas are supposed to do: it draws you intimately inside the lives of these everyday characters, who come to life under the captivating acting by a real dream cast. Both Matthew Fackler as Jacob and Allie Kaye as Mara are terrific leads, Mara with her fierce passions and Jacob with his suddenly outbursts of anger. They do everything possible to put a flesh and blood face on these characters.
But oh! Those supporting players! Giovanna Ciccone Ess as Melina, Lindsay Nicole Steinberg as Aimee and Christy Rodriguez De Conte as our wry, spirited narrator do what supporting actors are supposed to: aggressively chew that scenery, inspire fiery passions in the audience, set our hairs on fire at times.
Toss in Kenny Nisbett as Mara’s eventual husband Jeremiah, Jose-Manuel Lopez as her son Darien and Ashley Van Kirk as Jacob’s daughter and you’ve got not only 8 spectacular singing voices but a cast that makes you sit there thinking, “No — tell me she’s not going to do that. Stop! I’m going to jump on the stage and scream” and other such I’m-wrapped-into-this-story emotions.
Truly, this is a beautiful production, which continues next weekend, with tickets you can purchase here. By the way, Friday, May 6 is Steampunk Cosplay Night hosted by Jaimz Dillman, so show up dressed to impress and you could possibly win a prize.
But please go, I think you’ll love it.
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.