WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – The Garden Theatre’s return to live performance after a six-month hiatus came with dirty jokes, rock ‘n’ roll and a confetti cannon.
The Winter Garden establishment rose from the ashes left over from a public feud between its board and employees last summer with a burst of energy in “Rock of Ages” Thursday night.
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The jukebox musical brought the audience to their feet multiple times throughout the night, as they fist pumped and sang along to the cast’s renditions of such ‘80s rock anthems and power ballads as Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’” the rousing finale which demanded an encore.
“The other thing I love about the show, which is encouraged, is for people to sing along. You know, there are some big rock anthems, you know, so when the ensemble’s singing, if you feel moved to do so, sing along,” said Fernando Varela, president and executive producer of Victory Productions, a local entertainment company.
The show takes you on a journey—the small town girl, city boy kind—as wannabee rock ‘n’ rollers try to save their musical haven, a bar on the Sunset Strip, from demolition.
It’s also the first show under the theatre’s new partnership with Victory Productions.
“I want to bring in talent from out of town that has a world-class experience, and mix that with our local talent and let them collaborate,” Varela said.
He does just that in “Rock of Ages,” where we see 2005 “American Idol” runner-up Bo Bice as Dennis Dupree, the owner of the Bourbon Bar, sing and dance on stage alongside “The Voice” Season 22 finalist Omar Cardona as Drew, the aspiring rocker.
A cast of Broadway stars and regional performers, including the standout Sherrie, played by Diana Huey, round out the show with an enthusiasm that’s impossible to contain to the stage, complete with light shows, aerial choreography, a smoke machine and a live band to rock out with.
The contagious energy, however, doesn’t overshadow the raw talent on display—made even more impressive by the fact this production came together within a month.
“We signed on in December to produce shows here and of course we want to get started right away,” Varela said, adding his first phone call was to Justin Matthew Sargent.
He’s the director, in addition to playing Stacee Jaxx/Father in the show, and was tasked with assembling “Rock of Ages” veterans to play a part in this production given the short amount of time they had to put it all together.
And it resulted in some powerhouse performances.
“It’s an incredible honor to have (this cast) be a part of this so far,” said Sargent, who starred as Drew in “Rock of Ages” on Broadway.
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This comeback follows a six-month hiatus in live performances after professional differences between the theatre’s board and its employees came to a head.
Theatre officials issued a public statement back in August detailing the friction.
“(We) made the decision to leverage the near-term programming gaps and temporarily shift our operational focus to the organizational health of the Theatre,” the Garden Theatre Board of Directors said in a Facebook post. “The Board and Staff will spend this time conducting an in-depth review of our organizational structure and operations.”
It’s a controversy that has caused a ripple effect in the theatre community, provoking responses from organizations such as Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy, which in a letter issued in January called into question the “problematic leadership” at the helm of the Winter Garden establishment.
“My first hope is all the powers that be listen to the pain of the community. The Garden Theatre has been extremely harmful to the path of diversity and inclusion,” CFEA’s founder and leader Meka King said. “We think the step forward is for (the Garden Theatre) to step back.”
She said the new partnership with Victory Productions presents “a unique opportunity to facilitate a changing of the guard, but they have to be willing to hold the old guard accountable.”
“We are not in the business of burning down theatres,” King said. “We just want to burn down harmful behavior.”
“Rock of Ages” marks the first live performance the theatre has put on since this summer, when the criticism of the theatre’s board of directors first went public.
“I wasn’t here when that happened, but I know a lot of people in the community. Honestly, one of the reasons why I chose to get involved was to help build a bridge to help heal that. And I know it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight,” Varela said.
The production company president went on to say he admires the previous artistic leaders at the theatre, namely Joe Walsh and Roberta Emerson, and their fight for equality and inclusivity, one he hopes to continue.
“I think that’s one of the greatest things that happened at this theatre and I admire Roberta and Joe for pioneering that and really creating that, so I know that I’m not inventing that,” Varela said. “I’m really trying to build upon that and honor that because I think it’s important and I think it’s needed.”
He pointed to the “Rock of Ages” cast as an example of the progression toward that vision.
“You see two of the lead people that are normally played by white characters that are people of color, and it’s powerful, you know, I want to continue that. And, you know, I want to be the change that I want to see in my community,” Varela said.
Those interested can see “Rock of Ages” at the Garden Theatre through Feb. 26. More information can be found at the theatre’s website.
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