WINTER PARK — The 2021 Florida Festival of New Musicals was in full gear today. With torrential rains soaking the region, crowds flocked to the warmth and comfort of the Winter Park Playhouse to watch more readings of musicals still in development. Here are two of the shows that were performed today.
The Golden Door
There are some gorgeous songs in The Golden Door, a musical by playwright Michelle Van Doeren, who co-wrote it with writer and lyricist Andrew Swensen, with the music composed by Scott Anderson. Set at the turn of the century, we follow the passengers of a ship that’s set sail from Europe and is bringing five young people to Ellis Island to pursue their dreams of a new and better life.
They include Marie-Louise, who has been reluctant to leave her beloved Paris, as her parents demand; Patrick, a young Irish lad full of ambition; and Yael, a Russia Jew who is escaping the horrors of a Pogrom in her village. Along the voyage, they reflect back on the life they’re leaving behind, and their hopes and fears about what the new world might bring.
This is a truly first-rate production filled with passion, humor, and plenty of emotion to spare — both strong emotions, and subtle, quieter ones. Roy Alan, the artistic director of the Winter Park Playhouse, noted accurately during the audience talk back session following the reading that the production not only had some exceptionally well composed songs, but its theme were “very timely today.”
Anderson agreed, and said that the show, which has been in development for numerous years, only recently moved in that direction, after the three artists originally considered writing a more historical piece aimed at young audiences.
“It did begin as a rather small tale on the boat,” Anderson said. “It was just going to be a bit of an educational show for young people.”
Eventually, he, Van Doeren and Swensen recognized the potential to make a stronger statement about the journey of today’s immigrant.
“It went very beyond a musical for young people,” Anderson said.
He’s absolutely right. After a while, you forget entirely about the historical nature of the settings and focus on what it means to be a stranger emigrating into an entirely new — and potentially hostile — nation. This reading was bolstered significantly by some exceptionally strong performances, including by Wesley Evan Slade as the boisterous Patrick, Caila Carter as the more introspective Marie-Louise, and Leigh Green, who has a fairly harrowing scene as Yael.
The Golden Door will be performed on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Zach Hill & The Rocket Blaster Man Adventure
If you grew up loving comic books and adventure stories, you’re going to love Zach Hill, a family-oriented comedy about a nine-year-old boy, Zach, who lives with his widowed mom Jan, who survives by running a boarding house. Zach isn’t wild about this; he’d love to have the entire second floor to himself, rather than share space with Vince, who meditates a lot, and Carl, who doesn’t have much of a life at all. Then there’s Mrs. Belmont, who is not only old and cranky, but has a thing about getting Zach to apply a hairbrush to his head. Then there’s Winona, the girl next door who constantly wears black and insists Zach is her boyfriend — but ewwww gross, he doesn’t like girls at age 9!!
Zach’s biggest passion is watching Rocket Blaster Man, a superhero show that he and best buddy Henri Lee never miss.
What’s such fun about this show by Werner Trieschmann is the way it captures how critically important the indignities facing a 9-year-old boy seem at that age. He missed his show — the horror! Mom wants to date — yuck! Winona won’t leave him alone — it’s torture!
Zach’s world eventually gets a brutal dash of cold water when mom makes a major announcement — the kind of thing that adults worry about all the time, but kids blissfully get to ignore until it’s too late.
In addition to some very upbeat and catchy songs (by Thomas Tierney), the reading benefited from a terrific cast, with Melissa Whitworth as Jan and Monica Titus as Gloria, her next door neighbor and Winona’s mom, having a hilarious scene together revolving around a new dress.
But the show really belongs to the kids, and Tyler Price as Zack, Aiden Szubinski as Henri Lee and Kaylin Rayne Gines as Winona were simply fantastic, singing like the most consummate pros and providing some of the best laughs in the production. The scene where Winona demands that Zack pretend he’s taking her to a fancy restaurant, with Henri Lee posing as the waiter, is priceless.
Zach Hill & The Rocket Blaster Man Adventure will be performed on Sunday at 3 p.m.
Where Can You See These Shows?
The Winter Park Playhouse, 711 N. Orange Ave. in Winter Park, is hosting the annual Festival Of New Musicals through Sunday. Tickets are $10 per show and a 6 show “Festival Fun Pack” is available for $50. To buy tickets or for more information call the box office 407-645-0145.
Sunday’s festival will begin with an 11 a.m. reading of What Have They Done With Lolana Lamour.
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.