The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET) opened the United States premiere of “Clarinda – The Musical,” by Scottish artists Mike Gibb, Playwright, and Kevin Walsh, Composer. The musical debuted in Scotland eight years ago and this is the first time it has crossed the ocean for American audiences. While this is quite a coup for ABET, it’s not surprising, as they have lived up to their name a number of times over the years by presenting original plays and musicals that were well received by North Florida audiences.
This musical about the life of world-renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns was discovered by Chrissy Verdin, a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of Jacksonville, and it was through her efforts and those of her sister, Judy Hulett, Vice President of ABET, along with the generous sponsorship of the Society, that the premiere was made possible. Ms. Hulett is the Stage Manager for the production.
ABET’s production of “Clarinda” is a real treat for Jacksonville audiences, with a superb cast, excellent direction by Rob Taylor, and music to delight the ear combined in a fascinating two hours of pure entertainment. Taylor is well known in the beaches area for his many years of association with the Youth of the Beaches Art Guild (YBAG).
The story is centered around the love life of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns and opens when he has just begun his climb to fame with his first book of published poems. This was in the late 1700s, a time when the written word was revered. People turned to reading and thoughtful discussion for pleasure and entertainment; radio and television would have been beyond imagination.
The heart of the play is the story of the platonic four year love affair he has with Nancy McLehose, married (although separated) and a poet. They corresponded throughout the course of the affair, using pseudonyms – Clarinda and Sylvander – to conceal their identities and prevent scandal in case the letters were intercepted. The marital status of Burns was in question when they met; he had previously married Jean Armour, a young woman who had become pregnant during their courtship. However, her father refused to accept the marriage and had it annulled. They were legally married later, when her father withdrew his opposition. Nancy, who had been estranged from her husband James for many years, left Edinburgh to join him in Jamaica hoping for a reconciliation, which failed; she remained secretly in love with Burns for years after his death.
David Paul is masterful in his portrayal of Burns. He has the looks, which was one of the assets Burns used to seduce a legion of women in his lifetime. Paul brings an impressive resume of musicals to this role, including ABET’s original “Aussie Song.” He is a charmer and so is his singing.
David Jon Davis is an active musical theatre performer in this area who appears on stage frequently and with good reason; he sings well and is a fine character actor. He just finished “Forbidden Broadway” at Theatre Jacksonville in December and last summer was the lead in Orange Park Community Theatre’s ‘Carousel.” Davis performs two roles. He is James McLehose, Clarinda’s abusive husband, then changes his appearance completely as Gavin, a drinking buddy and very humorous friend of Burns.
Two very talented and attractive actresses are making their debut with ABET and are also appearing in their first roles in the North Florida area. Kate Powell , whose previous stage experience was in musicals in the Tampa Bay area, is wonderful as Nancy/Clarinda. Not only does Powell sing well, but she is a fine actress, well cast in a role that requires sensitivity and skill in dealing with the emotional ups and downs caused by the two men in her life.
Leanne Elizabeth Brereton as Jean Armour is delightful as Burn’s wife and the mother of a number of his children. She is a truly unusual wife in that she knows about Burns’ numerous affairs, which he readily admits, but is so enamored that she tolerates his promiscuity. Ms. Brereton is certainly an outstanding asset to this show, not only for her singing and acting, but also as a native of Scotland, having moved here with her family in 2012. You can’t beat having a dialect coach for the Scottish accents in your cast.
Rounding out the cast in a very important role is Isabel Dondero as Jenny Clow, Nancy’s maid. The Dual Critics first became aware of this talented Ponte Vedra High 10th grader in “Xanadu” at Players by the Sea; she was recently in ABET’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in a pivotal role as Beth Bradley. Ms. Dondero obviously has had excellent vocal training, as she sings well. As Jenny, she insightfully portrays a young innocent woman who succumbs to the charms of Burns, becomes pregnant, and raises her son alone.
The excellent band is tucked away out of sight backstage and is led by Musical Director Aaron Marshall on piano, with Erik DeCicco playing second keyboard and Damon Martin on bass guitar.
You are going to love the music. There are sixteen songs, none of them are over two minutes long. The songs all move the plot along and some are lots of fun as well.
A question you may ask is “Will I be able to understand the Scottish accents?” Yes, indeed, the cast has done a noteworthy job of presenting understandable Scottish accents.
The set by Jen Fortune is exceptional in capturing the ambiance of the late 1700s and portrays a carefully detailed rustic setting for Burns’ home, with a more sophisticated interior for Nancy.
The costume design by E. J. Taylor includes farmer’s garb for the men, as well as more elaborate city wear, complete with tapestry waistcoat and a long jacket. The women appear in interesting and colorful period attire .
ABET is located at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach. The theatre seats less than 100, so reservations are highly recommended to insure a seat in this very intimate venue. Call (904) 249-7l77 for reservations or visit