St. Petersburg – American Stage in the Park, one of St. Petersburg’s most beloved annual traditions, is back for its 29th year, and with its biggest production yet. Starting on April 11 and running through May 4, the seven-time Tony Award winning musical The Wiz will take over Demens Landing Park along the city’s waterfront.
“At its basis, it’s the story of the Wizard Of Oz, and it actually more closely resembles the original story from the books than it does necessarily that first movie,” says director Karla Hartley, one of the only lesbian directors in Tampa Bay. “This particular iteration of it is seen from a multi-cultural perspective, which we thought was valuable in this day and age. It’s told with a different sense of music, it’s got more of a soul and R&B feel to it.
“In its inception it was meant to be an all African-American version of this story, and it was built in the 70’s so it has that particular kind of groove to it, and we’ve made some adjustments with respect to some of the music, just to give it a little more drive and a little more force.”
Stepping into the lead role of Dorothy is Whitney Drake. No stranger to musical theater, the Miami native has had roles in Cigar City Chronicles and Little Shop of Horrors, and spent the last seven years entertaining internationally onboard several Royal Caribbean ships.
“Whitney and I worked together many moons ago and by happenstance got reacquainted last summer,” says Hartley. “I knew she would knock it out of the park. Literally, actually, because we’re in the park.”
Sara DelBeato returns for her second performance as part of the annual American Stage in the Park event, previously playing the role of Ronette in Little Shop of Horrors. This time around she takes on the character of the Lion, a role traditionally played by a male. Hartley addresses the reasoning for the gender flip in this production.
“I’m your girl if you want to do some gender-bending, cross-casting, that kind of thing,” Hartley says. “I had known Sarah’s work from around town and we worked together on the Vagina Monologues, and I thought it would be really interesting to see that dynamic.
“The story is typically these three men who surround Dorothy and guide her through this adventure, but I thought it might be interesting to see some more estrogen in that mix and see what that did for us.”
DelBeato had no problem adjusting to the idea of a female lion.
“I thought about it for a second, about the male/female aspect, but really it’s just ‘Lion’ to me, it’s not he or she, it’s gender-neutral, if you will,” says DelBeato. “So when I was building on that, it just happened naturally. There are masculine moments, there are feminine moments, and Karla has this awesome ability to think outside the box. When you introduce bold ideas, new and very interesting things can happen.”
It’s up to the audience to decide if the gender of the lion is important, which Hartley believes is secondary to the story.
“It’s a passive psychological thing, because she really isn’t playing boy or girl, so you’ll take away your own opinion of what that is,” says Hartley. “Some people may take a sisterly bond between Dorothy and the Lion, others might take a surrogate mother, some may take girlfriends, friends, it really depends on your personal lexicon of experience as to what you take from it.”
The fact that the three theater veterans are acquainted is a lucky happenstance. Hartley says she was glad to not only be working with familiar talents, but that they ended up being the perfect fit for their respective roles.
“Everyone auditioned, and if there had been someone in the room that I felt would have been a better choice, that would have been a decision for me to make,” says Hartley. “But there really wasn’t, everyone who I cast, I feel, were the absolute best choices.”
Likewise, the actors have a profound respect for Hartley and her attitude towards the creative process.
“Karla is great,” Drake says. “The first time we worked together the relationship between us wasn’t as close as we are now on this project. Now that we’re closer, I actually end up going to Sara when I have questions because I feel like I don’t want to disappoint her [Hartley]. Like she said, this job was open for anyone, anyone could have landed this job, I don’t want her to ever feel like she hired an amateur.”
DelBeato feels like she’s in good hands on this production.
“She never makes you feel like you’re making bad choices in your acting, she encourages you to make choices,” says DelBeato “And honestly not a lot of directors anymore, I feel, really do that. But she goes on this journey with you and she’s all about exploring. As an actor it makes it that much more enjoyable.”
The actors and the director are also anticipating the pitfalls and advantages of performing outdoors. Hartley previously directed Rocky Horror Show as part of American Stage in the Park, and recalls some of the perils she encountered during production.
“At one point there was a plane crash at the nearby municipal airport and so there were news helicopters and all,” she says. “Another night, across the street there was this gigantic gospel revival night going on at the same time.”
“And the heat,” Drake and DelBeato chime in with a laugh.
“But it’s fun,” adds DelBeato.
This production of The Wiz is theatrical, of course, but the music and the setting turn it into a concert, DelBeato says.
“It has a concert vibe, you’re telling this story but yet it has this rock show atmosphere, it’s really cool,” DelBeato says. “There’s nothing like watching the sunset while you’re singing.”
In the end, Hartley, Drake and DelBeato all agree that any hardships that come from outdoor performances are well worth the payoff.
“I’m looking forward to the theme nights, and I’m interested to see how we’re going to do a show with dogs in the audiences,” says Drake, referring to “Pets In The Park Night,” which allows guests to bring their pets to the show. “I’m looking forward to the reactions of the people. The music in the show is very different, we ask the audience to sing and clap along with us, we have some tearjerker moments, it should be interesting.”
And it’s that immediate audience feedback that is so important to the cast of The Wiz.
“I like to see how a show impacts people,” says DelBeato. “I’m fortunate enough to be able to do what I’m passionate about, so it’s always great to get it out there for people and create this beautiful thing for them.”
An outdoor setting and a production based on a beloved story is also a way to lure in new theater goers, who may not attend traditional productions.
“We do get people who come to the park that don’t really come to American Stage,” says Hartley. “And I think they’ve been shaping the work that they are doing with these shows to really engage a new audience.”
And with opening night fast approaching, the cast and crew are ready to bring The Wiz to life and share an important message.
“Dorothy goes out on this journey, and when she starts out she’s just this young brat, and by the end of it she has learned so much from everyone around her, and throughout the show everyone keeps telling her to believe in herself,” says Drake. “Believing in yourself, that’s what this musical is all about.”
For more information on this year’s American Stage in the Park, ticket information, and descriptions of the theme nights as well as the Instagram contest “Easel On Down The Road,” visit AmericanStage.org.
WHAT: The Wiz
WHERE: Demens Landing
WHEN: April 11-May 4
SPECIAL PRODUCTION: LGBT night, April 26