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History through music

Posted: June 8th, 2018 | Arts & Entertainment, Theater, Top Story | No Comments

Albert H. Fulcher | Editor

Diversionary’s groundbreaking musical premiere

When Diversionary Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Matt Morrow said that “The Loneliest Girl in the World” was a “beast” of musicals, he wasn’t exaggerating. This world premier musical has everything you could ask for, including an amazing story that has you addicted from the first scene and leaves you wanting more.

Working with writer Gordon Leary (books and lyrics) and musician Julia Meinwald (composer) for six weeks while putting this musical together was an astute move on Morrow’s part. After seeing, I truly believe the coordination amongst these artists solidified this, which I dub as a groundbreaking, spectacular piece of theater. Its ability to teach a catalytic part of the gay rights movement makes this chef-d’oeuvre of a musical an integral relevancy to the world that we currently live in today.

(l to r) Tommy (Sam Heldt) and Anita Bryant (Allison Spratt Pearce) (Photo courtesy of SIMPATIKA)

And, after opening-night being such a success, “The Loneliest Girl in the World” is already extended to July 1, so there is no excuse not to see this revolutionary work.

Based on the lives of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and Tommy (Thom) Higgins, a pioneer in the gay rights movement, the platform links the two together in a touching and memorable way.

Tommy, played by Sam Heldt, is captivated by Anita Bryant as a young teenager and becomes her biggest fan after she is crowned the second-runner up in the 1959 Miss America pageant. Their relationship begins with a letter from Tommy, encouraging her that she should have won, and that he related to her in so many ways.

When her first single comes out, Tommy’s admiration and devotion for her grows even stronger, a bond that later in his life will be difficult to sever.

I grew up watching Anita Bryant in my home as a young child, not really understanding the significance of her campaign. The casting of this musical helped connect the dots for someone less aware of the history.

Allison Spratt Pearce (Anita Bryant) completely transformed into this role in her look, mannerisms and in many ways, I believe she touched the true heart of Bryant’s life, dreams and struggles. As long as she was on stage, it was uncannily Bryant on the stage. Adding her magnificent voice to the arrangements, I cannot see a better pairing for this role. Her innateness as a performer shined “all Anita” from beginning to end.

What I loved most about this musical is the tenderness and compassion that was shown for both Tommy and Anita. They paired them so well — even though they were on opposite spectrums of gay rights, they shared many of the same hopes, convictions, and in many ways, the same struggles of their daily lives moving forward into their politically active roles in history. Though they never met in person, their common bonds threaded together throughout the performance.

(l to r) Bob (Steve Gouveia), Anita Bryant (Allison Spratt Pearce), Tommy (Sam Heldt), Lauren King Thompson (Mary Ann Mobley, Et Al) and (back) Kyle (Shaun Tuazon) (Photo courtesy of SIMPATIKA)

Tommy (Heldt) was undoubtedly a young man afraid of his sexuality, coming out and then later being thrust into the middle of becoming a gay activist leader. Like Anita, his heart was not really dedicated to the movement at all times. Through the music, this emotional turmoil that both shared in this part of history is clearly seen in an endearing way.

This was evident early with the song “That’s Okay, Anita/Dear Tommy.” The music, words and the imaginative choreography (Stephen Brotebeck) drew you in to both worlds effortlessly and set the visionary intention of this drama early — and the journey began.

Heldt’s performances throughout the evening not only stood out, but also enriched the performances of Pearce and the other key actors. It carried the aptitude of story-telling to the forefront, a fresh and pleasing sight to see.

As Tommy starts understanding and seeking out his own sexuality, he meets Kyle (Shaun Tuazon), inspiring the number “Twin Bed,” which stood out in my mind due to the substance of the lyrics. It made you feel, relate and respond; everything a piece of music should do.

Tuazon, who acted multiple roles, was wonderful as Tommy’s first love, had a stunning clear voice, and was also extremely funny. “Let Her Let You Down” left me in a stupor with its lyrics being a pivotal point in Tommy’s adoration for Anita, a distinctly strong performance of the night.

The beautiful voice and different roles of Lauren King Thompson (Mary Ann Mobley) had me in stitches all night long. She popped in and out throughout as many characters, but without her witty enactment as a ditzy Mary Ann, the experience would not have been complete.

The entire casting was faultless, with Bob (Steve Gouveia) who played Bryant’s overbearing husband and had some clever and hysterical cameos. In particular, Lawrence Welk caught me off guard in the best of ways.

Also, Marci Anne Wuebben (Tommy’s mother Kay) was solid as a mother who struggled with her son’s sexuality, yet her love for her son overcame her fears, doubts and beliefs.

For such an elaborate production — and a small theater — the stage setting really added a reality to the storyline. Its television targeted setup created a believable atmosphere for the many scenes that were based on TV appearances and shows.

The stage crew did a remarkable job with little props, and the background blended with the transitions from television to home. The crew seamlessly changed scenes without any disruption or distraction, a difficult task to master.

It is no wonder that this has already been extended. There are numerous reasons why everyone of all ages should take the time to go see this wonderfully arranged musical. Although not documentary styled, it is full of real history in a relationship that was a catalyst of the early stages of the gay rights movement. Even if you know the history, the way this story is told will make you look at it in a completely different way.

Striking in absolute sonata, it touches the very soul of human conflict at the heart of the characters. Even though Anita Bryant is on the wrong side of gay history, her story is told with compassion, love and truth of her convictions which fuses together with the life of Thom Higgins. In many ways, their stories are the same.

Powerfully and poignantly written, produced and performed, this world premier has an impact that can journey further than Diversionary Theatre. But thanks, Diversionary and the theater’s entire team for tackling such a challenging piece of art. I believe it will be another sparkling gem in its repertoire of groundbreaking performances.

— Albert Fulcher can be reached at albert@sdcnn.com.

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