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America’s theater community demonstrated the power of performing arts to transform ugliness into unity



It's been two months since the Pulse Nightclub tragedy, and while Orlando's wounds are far from healed, the rawness has finally receded enough to recognize some silver linings to that calamitous cloud. Shortly after the shooting, I wrote about the healing role of Central Florida's theme parks. Likewise, late last month America's theater community stepped up with a world-class double feature demonstrating the power of performing arts to transform ugliness into unity. If you wanted to experience the best musical theater in the world on July 24 and 25, the place to be wasn't the Great White Way or West End, but our own Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

It began on Sunday night with the concert staging of Fun Home featuring the entire current Broadway cast and crew – including playwright Lisa Kron, composer Jeanine Tesori and director Sam Gold – who flew down (with funding from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Wyndham Orlando) during the New York production's dark day to perform. Their efforts raised $113,000 for the benefit of Equality Florida, which received 100 percent of the evening's proceeds for distribution to Pulse victims, their families and others affected by gender discrimination.

I had resigned myself to being unable to attend the show in NYC before its final bow on Sept. 10, so when the benefit was announced I snapped up seats, despite being blissfully ignorant of Fun Home's content beyond a bare outline. That turned to be a smart decision, because even stripped of all sets and props I found the story and music almost unbearably moving, and perfectly apropos to the moment. Based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir, the adaptation explicitly addresses the destructive danger of internalized homophobia, entwined with the universal human issue of parent-child interaction.

While the topicality of Fun Home's themes was a draw, the real reason I was so eager to attend was Michael Cerveris, who I first saw as Tommy in the 1993 Broadway version of the Who's rock opera, and again enjoyed as Sweeney Todd in John Doyle's 2006 revival. Cerveris didn't disappoint in completing my personal trifecta, showing Orlando exactly why he earned the Best Actor Tony for playing Bechdel's closeted father with his excruciating aria "Edges of the World." But it was the trio of Alisons – Emily Skeggs, Gabriella Pizzolo and especially Beth Malone – who proved the biggest delight. Despite not looking alike, the three actresses' emotional energies ably embodied their shared character's evolution from adolescent to adult.

My balcony seats for Fun Home were worth every penny, but they drained my disposable funds only a day before From Broadway With Love was announced for the following night. Directed and produced by Kenny Howard with Joyce Arbucias, Andrea Canny, Van Dean, Sarahbeth Grossman, Chris Yakubchik and musical director Michael J. Moritz Jr., the benefit concert sold out in an hour based on its all-superstar lineup. I was only able to attend thanks to the assistance of local playwright-producer Michael Wanzie, who helped me gain entry to the press room, where I rubbed elbows with legends Chita Rivera (still doing a mean Fosse strut at 83) and Andrea McArdle (who told me her daughter had asked to go to Pulse during their Orlando visit only weeks before the attack).

The show itself was like an idealized awards ceremony without any of the boring speeches, consisting of an unending parade of Broadway's biggest voices interpreting inspirational showstoppers, supported by the Orlando Philharmonic and a hundred-plus-strong choir of local singers. Every number was a knockout, but highlights included Jessie Mueller's rocking invocation of Carole King on "Beautiful"; Brian Stokes Mitchell's seat-rattling recitation of "The Impossible Dream"; Wilson Cruz and Voces Latinas' a cappella mashup of "Over the Rainbow" and "For Good"; UCF alumni Justin Sargent's sing-along "Don't Stop Believing"; and Darren Criss' acoustic "Sugar Daddy," delivered to a burly auction winner seated on stage. But for me, the peak was watching Blue Star and the cast of VarieTease dance to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," proving Orlando talent can proudly stand on the same stage as Manhattan's best.

By the time the full cast finale of "What the World Needs Now" arrived around the three-hour mark, I was raring to pre-order the Blu-ray recording, which I'm assured will be remixed to repair the egregious microphone problems that plagued the production; ironically, the sound engineer was an out-of-town import instead of an experienced local tech. Still buzzing from being around so many great artists, I broke my usual pattern and paid a visit to the VIP after-party at the Abbey, arriving in time to witness the once-in-a-lifetime sight of a dozen Tony winners dragging their own luggage off a bus. I was too tongue-tied to say much to my idols as they snacked on sushi, but I did made a point of snapping a photo with MC and pianist Seth Rudetsky, if only to prove we are different people. (You'd be surprised how many times I've been asked.)

In the end, we'd all give anything to make the Pulse shooting un-happen. But barring that, I can't imagine a more fitting consequence emerging from that agony than Broadway's brightest lights coming to our town and learning that Orlando feels just like home.

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