ABET CELEBRATES 25 YEARS WITH “Hallelujah Girls”

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The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre closes out its 25th season with an ensemble production celebrating the bond of friendship. Directed by ABET’s artistic director Celia Frank, Hallelujah Girls by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten is a southern comedy about five feisty females from Eden Falls, Georgia who come together in SPA-DEE-DAH!, an abandoned church-turned-day-spa to overcome their obstacles and launch their new, improved lives.

“This season has been an important landmark season for ABET. I’m extremely proud of the cultural enrichment we have been able to bring to the audiences over these past 25 years,” said Frank. “In planning this season, I wanted it to be varied, challenging, uplifting and relevant. The directors we’ve had and the casts we have put together on our stage speak for themselves.

The show Hallelujah Girls opens at 8 p.m. Friday at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, 716 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach. The show runs at 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through May 21. Matinee performances are held at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $20. Visit www.abettheatre.com or call 249-7177 for reservations.

“We had such a wonderful large group of talented actors and actresses auditioning for this show making casting extremely difficult. I think this proves that when you do a show with great roles for “mature” women, they will come out in droves to audition for it. However, at the end of the day, the choices I made were very clear. I look for the essence of the character, along with the technical ability to execute the performance,” said Frank.

“These six actresses really embody the characters that they are playing. Also, there are two males in the cast, and I feel they also have absolutely become their characters. Many of these actresses had already worked together before, and everyone knew at least one or two other cast members. They have really bonded as a group over the course of rehearsals, and it’s been loads of fun. I’m sure this sense of fun will infect the audience as well.”

Frank said she was looking for a script for a specific group of women who wanted to work together when she discovered “Hallelujah Girls.” When the logistics of that group did not work out, Frank opened the audition process and was pleasantly surprised with the result.

“[This script] which is really hilarious as well as being well-written. Being Southern myself, the Southern comedy has always been near and dear to my heart,” she said. “It’s where I feel absolutely most comfortable, having directed several Southern comedies in the past including one of my favorites “Crimes of the Heart.”

Sugar Lee is the central character played by Jen Latka, although the production is very much an ensemble. She has purchased an old, abandoned church with the intention of turning it into a day spa. Frank said Latka, who was last seen in ABET’s Bay at the Moon and Love, Loss and What I Wore, is just as full of life, and “piss and vinegar,” as her character. She is also an award-winning playwright and her original plays have been performed around the first coast and in Orlando.

Actress Olivia Gowan plays Carlene who is Sugar Lee’s best friend and the voice of reason. Frank said Gowan has “just the right tone” to pull off the comedy while remaining more down-to-earth. She returns to ABET’s stage after having played the role of Alex in last season’s production of On The Verge. Other roles include Ivy in August Osage County, Jessie Mae in Trip to Bountiful, Odessa in Water by the Spoonful, and Talthybius in Trojan Women, all at Players By The Sea. Gowan is also a playwright and last season her play, Cotton Alley, was produced at Players By The Sea.

Frank said Toni Philips was perfect for the role of Nita Mooney, who is way too sweet and accommodating, with her head in the clouds. “She has the sweetest voice on earth,” Frank said of Phillips, who is a regular on Ian Mairs’ Swamp Radio. Phillips has been on ABET’s stage in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and Once On This Island. Prior performances include Cotton Alley, A Lesson Before Dying, In the Blood, and Dividing the Estate at Players By the Sea; and Good People and Loveisloveislove with Live Ink Theatre.

Ms. Tracey Gallagher plays Mavis Flowers, a role Frank said suits her “to a T”. Previous performances include The Christians at Limelight and 5th of July at Players By The Sea. Gallagher directed The Miss Firecracker Contest at Limelight and Sylvia at ABET.

When casting the role of Crystal Hart, Frank said she needed a multi-dimensional actor. She found her in ABET veteran Rebecca Williams. “We needed someone with a zany side, who could also sing, to carry off the role of Crystal, and Rebecca has all of those qualities and more,” she said.

Williams has taken on many roles through the years with ABET, directing The Foreigner, Social Security, Home Games, on stage as Gillian in To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday, Kate in Sylvia and Monica Breedlove in The Bad Seed, choreography for The Fantasticks and Once Upon a Mattress) as well as portrait painting and artwork for Harvey, Social Security and Celebration. She also serves on ABET’s board of directors.

Longtime ABET veteran Karen Garrett plays the role of Bunny Sutherland in her 19th production with ABET. “She is extremely versatile and one of those actresses who can handle any role that’s thrown at her,” said Frank. And she plays the “evil” Bunny like no one else could.” Previous roles include Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Esme in Amy’s View, Lenny in Crimes of the Heart, Serefina della Rose in The Rose Tattoo, Lizzie Bordon in After the Murders, and Maria Callas in Master Class. In addition to extensive theater credits, Garrett has performed in over 350 professional video, film, and voice productions.

Not to be outdone by the women, Brian Johnson plays the part of the good-looking handyman Bobby Dwayne. Johnson is a retired AF Colonel with 26 years of active duty service. He most recently played the role of King Triton in Theatre Jacksonville’s production of The Little Mermaid. Johnson has previously been onstage at ABET in Blood Brothers and Working.

Actor Allen Morton plays Porter Padgett and it’s a role Frank said he was born to play. He has been seen in Christmas Belles, Memphis, All The Way, and Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge at Players By The Sea and The Champagne Charlie Stakes, A Vampire Reflects, and Love Goes To Press at Theatre Jacksonville. Morton has previously been onstage at ABET in Tuna Does Vegas and The Savannah Disputation.

“The female characters in this show are supportive of each other, regardless of the circumstance and they truly adore and appreciate each other. I hope men will enjoy seeing the way women bond, but also the sheer fun they have together,” said Frank. “I think the audience will be uplifted to see good triumph over evil and realize that when friends stick together, they can accomplish anything.”

Friendship is at the core of ABET’s success. When Frank took over for founder and Director Emeritus Carson Merry Baillie, she looked to her friend and mentor for guidance and support. Frank said she was thrilled at the opportunity to welcome Baillie back to her home stage for a reading of The Waverly Gallery last summer and she remains grateful to Baillie for bringing live theater to the community of Atlantic Beach for the last 25 years.

“When Carson Merry was requested by then-Mayor of Atlantic Beach Bill Gulliford to start a theatre in the Adele Grage, who knew that we would still be here doing this level of theatre in the heart of Atlantic Beach 25 years later. She instigated the creation of the lovely theatre it is now from the very mundane room that it was at that time. I have great admiration for her and all she did to start and keep ABET going for those first 13 years,” said Frank, who nods at a possibility of Baillie returning to the stage next season.

“It’s an inspiration to see the caliber of talent ABET has presented this season, and over the years. And, of course, we could not have done it without the dozens of amazing volunteers, who so generously give of their time and talent on a regular basis. We can’t express enough our heartfelt gratitude to our hundreds of loyal patrons who come on a regular basis from the beaches communities and far beyond in every direction. We are proud to have been of service to the City of Atlantic Beach, the entire beaches community and far beyond for this past number of years. We have a deep appreciation for the previous Atlantic Beach mayors and city council members for their support and recognition of ABET and the asset we are to the community.”

About Liza Mitchell

april, 2022

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