As part of its March Madness theme, Players by the Sea brought in [title of show], a musical new to Jacksonville, for three performances beginning March 19, 2015. The musical was previously staged at Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine in August, 2014. Due to a heavy reviewing schedule, the Dual Critics were not able to see it in the Ancient City, so we were delighted that it was coming to the Jacksonville Beaches.
We have to admit we did not know anything initially about this show, but had seen most of the cast elsewhere on stage, and so were inspired to go. Of note, the current cast presented the play in the Florida Theatre Conference last November in the Community Theatre Division with great success, winning Best Ensemble, Best Production, and Best Direction.
This delightful musical was written by two New Yorkers: Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) and is based on a true story. In 2004, Bowen and Bell agreed to collaborate on writing an entry for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and decided to write a musical about writing a musical within a very short time period. They not only wrote a musical which was accepted for the festival, but also cast themselves as the stars of the production. The musical appeared off-Broadway in 2006, and made it to Broadway in 2008, where it was on-stage at the Lyceum Theatre, and received a Tony nomination for Best Book. A number of regional productions have since been staged.
The play was done on an open stage with four chairs, which were moved frequently. It opens as Jeff and Hunter decide to enter the festival competition and start humorously tossing around ideas, and then decide to write about two guys writing a musical. Two friends, Susan (Ameena McKenzie) and Heidi (Chloe Cordle), join them and toss in their ideas, along with a lot of humor.
They had many ideas for new songs. We liked the idea of calling the show “Rentt” (with two‘t’s). Another idea was “Writing a musical is like a monkey driving a speed boat.” One clever song, “Die, Vampire, Die,” addressed the doubts and fears that writers and composers have about their work.
The original script for the musical was obviously rewritten to include its successful production. We found [title of show] an exercise in high-octane pleasure, relatively free of deep thought, but most certainly able to satisfy anyone who loves theatre. Just don’t expect to walk out singing; the songs are clever, but not memorable outside the context of the show.Christopher Pritchard, who played Jeff, also directed the production. A St. Augustine native, he now is pursuing his BFA from NYU Tisch School in New York. We remember seeing Mr. Pritchard previously in “The Crucible” at Limelight. Butler Robertson is Hunter, the writing half of the duo. We have seen Mr. Butler in a number of productions on the Limelight stage including leading roles as Huck Finn in “Big River,” and Hysterieum in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He is currently a student at Florida School of the Arts in Palatka, where he was most recently in “Les Misérables.”
As Heidi, Chloé Cordle used her big voice to advantage. Appearing in lead roles has become a habit for this Florida School of Arts Student, where she recently portrayed Fantine in “Les Miz.” At Limelight, she was in the spotlight as Nancy in “Oliver.”
This was a first look at Ameena Mckenzie, who appeared as Susan. She has a great voice and is a fine comedian; she is also a student at Flo Arts in Palatka.
The lighting design by Kris Opperman and the technical direction by Jim Wiggins added much to the zany proceedings onstage. Zeek Smith, Musical Director of the show, has compiled an impressive resume since graduating from Jacksonville University. However, we may only be seeing Zeek during the summer, as he has been accepted for graduate work at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Next up for Players by the Sea to complete March Madness is the comedy “Almost Maine,” directed by Bradley Akers, which is on stage during March 26 – 29, 2015. For additional information and tickets, call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.