WINTER PARK — The new play “The Stranger From Seville” is about love and passion, about nature and the mysterious and wonderous world of birds, and about revolution — both highly familiar and also exotically original themes for musical theater.
Set in the Yucatan on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, it has heroes and villians and a world that proves to be irresistable to theater audiences. And it was a real pleasure to have the first act of this exciting new play get its premiere here in Central Florida, as part of the Second Annual Festival of New Musicals at the Winter Park Playhouse.
The festival not only put a happy spotlight on new musicals that get an early test run, hopefully, on their way to finding audiences in other cities and nations but also introduces the artists behind the work.
“The Stranger From Seville” was the creation of Victor Kazan, who wrote the book and the lyrics, and Kevin Purcell, who composed the score.
Both men came here from Melbourne, Australia to see their work produced in an elegant reading as part of the Playhouse’s Festival — although “reading” sounds a bit misleading, since the cast of 11 performers, working under superb musical director Shane Ffrench, gave it the feeling of an extravagant and emotionally gripping full production.
What Was The Inspiration For This Play?
As Kazan noted during a talkback session with the audience after the show, the play had its origins in a long flight that Purcell was preparing to board. He stopped in the airport bookstore and found a novel called “The Mapmaker Opera” by a Spanish-Canadian author, Béa Gonzalez.
By the time his plane had landed, Purcell had read the book, and he quickly contacted Kazan to say he’d found the perfect vehicle for their next musical.
Kazan read the book and agreed that the story was ideal for a musical drama.
“We’ve been collaborating for 25 years, and we realized we worked very elegantly together,” Kazan said. “Kevin and I were looking for a subject for a musical, and I fell in love with it as much as he did, and it lent itself to a musical adaptation.”
They were also thrilled with the opportunity to fly to Orlando and have an opportunity to be among six new musicals presented to the Playhouse’s audience during this festival.
Because the festival had the challenge of juggling six productions over a four-day schedule, it was mandatory that the musicals be confined to about an hour, so the authors opted to present the show’s first act.
Set in 1909, on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in the City of Mérida in the Yucatán region of Mexico, the play presents a contrast between the townspeople joyously celebrating the happy sounds of their Mariachi with the Mayan slaves who labor miserably in the open fields. The plantation owner Don Victor Blanco owns a lot of the area’s land, and is also an avid collector of rare birds.
That attracts the attention of Edward Nelson, an American Naturalist with a passion for birds who arranges a meeting with Blanco in the hope of convincing him to liberate his birds from their cages.
But Blanco quickly refuses; there is no point in having birds to admire if they can simply fly away, he says, while adding that the same logic applies to his slaves.
We soon meet others, including Diego Clemente, a handsome young man who has just arrived from Seville to work with Norton, and who can draw and paint birds; Sofia Duarte, the beautiful young woman who becomes Diego’s love interest; and the comical Very Useful — who insists that’s his real name, as opposed to, say, Very Handsome — who is Nelson’s personal assistant.
At the same time, revolution is in the air. The cruelty inflicted on the Mayans by plantation owners like Blanco means that bubbling under the surface is a radically explosive situation.
What Was The Playhouse Production of this Musical Like?
The Playhouse staged the production without sets or costumes, but the music was so intoxicating at times, and the singers so uniquely talented, that you hardly noticed.
And while the cast did in fact read lines from their production books, that didn’t matter much either, considering that the audience got a cast that included some of the Playhouse’s most captivating singers and actors from earlier productions.
That included Zach Nadolski, who used completed a marvelous run in the Playhouse’s production of “Gigolo: The New Cole Porter Musical,”, here playing the wide-eyed, innocent, and decidedly love struck Diego; and Dave Thome, who charmed Playhouse audiences in productions like “The Fantasticks!” and here has a commanding presence as Norton, the naturalists who feels a heavy weight on his shoulder while coping with the intricate situations in the Yucatan
So many others were excellent, including Brandon Martin as the comical but wise sage Very useful; Ashley Rodrigues as the fiercely independent young Sophia; and Dustin Cunningham as Blanco, whose charm and suave manners mask his vicious ruthlessness.
Watching just the first act made me long to see more, to find out where the emerging passion between Diego and Sophia takes us, to see how the cast copes with the revolution, and to learn whether Norton’s often cynical musings about life prove to be correct.
Interesting, “Gigolo,” the musical by Paul Gilger, was originally part of the Winter Park Playhouse’s Festival Of New Musicals, and then they invited him back for a full-scale production of his clever and enchanting show.
Hopefully, “The Stranger From Seville” will make a return to the Playhouse in the future, this time so audiences can see this production in its entirety.
And kudos to the Winter Park Playhouse for introducing these new musicals to local audiences, giving the patrons a terrific opportunity to discover a new work before it “makes it big,” while also allowing audiences to offer feedback on a work in progress.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.