Theatre Jacksonville opened its spring show with Bruce Graham’s The Champagne Charlie Stakes on stage at 2032 San Marco through May 14. Call 396-4425 for reservations.
Everyone is familiar with the expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, the same thing could be said about play titles, especially The Champagne Charlie Stakes. It sounds like a fluff comedy. Indeed, it has a lot of humor, but in the hands of five excellent cast members and the definitive direction of Michelle Simkulet, this show has some real substance, making it a play worth remembering.
The action takes place on Memorial Day in 1990 at a race track near Atlantic City. The title refers to the central character, a senior citizen, well over seventy, who is known to everyone as good old Charlie. He is a gregarious outspoken guy, friendly with all the employees and track regulars. His best friend, Jackie, a middleman for a bookie and also well known at the track, has arranged for Charlie to be honored by having the sixth race named after him. To celebrate the occasion, his wife Mary Lee and his grown drama-teacher daughter Mary have joined him. The day is going to be even more memorable because Mary’s latest boyfriend, Paul, is joining the party to meet her parents for the first time.
Charlie springs a sudden surprise on everyone, when he announces he is going to bet $6,000, a lifetime of savings he has squirreled away in secret, on his pick for the sixth race. He will use his winnings to take the family to a fancy casino and to finance the big party he wants at his funeral. His friend refuses to accept this large bet unless Charlie’s daughter approves of it, mainly because Charlie’s record at picking winning horses has been dismal, although his usual modest two-dollar bets never broke the family financially.
So the audience is set up for Act II. Will Mary approve the bet? Will his horse win and produce the expected riches? Here the playwright throws some interesting turns in the play. Suddenly Mary learns things about her parents that make her change her plans for a trip to Portugal with boyfriend Paul and the play becomes a drama about relationships.
As we said at the start, the cast is outstanding. Allen Morton is hilarious as Jackie and provides most of the laughs with his excellent comic timing. He plays a friendly, folksy character to perfection.
Theatre Jacksonville audiences are treated to the award winning talent of Cee Cee Hayes for the first time. She has done many outstanding roles at Players and ABET over the years. Cee Cee gives the role of daughter Mary an inner strength and beauty as she struggles to come to understand her parent’s plight.
Jason Collins as the handsome and understanding boyfriend Paul adds another impressive credit to his resume on local stages. Jason has also established himself as a fine director of comedies and dramas.
Sue Pope is marvelous as Charlie’s wife Mary Lee, and spends her entire time on stage in a wheelchair due to the character’s need for a hip replacement. This is one of the most demanding roles she has done on local stages. We remember her as the lead in Auntie Mame with Players and in Company at Jacksonville University with her husband John. A very versatile actress, she recently directed Murder by Natural Causes at OPCT.
It is always a joy to watch Roger Lowe on stage because he always puts so much into every character he portrays. He makes every role very special, and he certainly has accomplished this with Charlie. Lowe with a white beard looks and moves like a man in his seventies and his charismatic personality comes across the footlights.
The uncluttered set by Kelly Wagoner, also with the lighting design by Jeff Wagoner, is visually striking and creates a perfect setting for this show. Simple outdoor furnishings are used to create three separate areas, with grandstand terrace seats at the right rear, a small park at the left rear, and a viewing and picnic area that fills the entire downstage.
Tracy Olin’s costumes reflect the 90s with simple casual attire, that includes straw hats for the guys and feminine clothing for the ladies.
Two Douglas Anderson students make important contributions to this production. Bradley Akers is an actor making his debut as Stage Manager and Sound Board Operator. Tori Richmond-Davies is the Assistant Stage Manger and Properties Manager.
Michelle Simkulet’s superb casting and attention to the nuances of this script make this Triple Crown winner of a play. Don’t be fooled by the rather silly title. This play is a real sleeper, and delightful. Don’t miss it.