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Orlando Story Club joins composers with an orchestra to interpret Joyland in words and music

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A century before Universal built Volcano Bay, Central Floridians flocked to the shores of Lake Ivanhoe to frolic at Joyland, Orlando's original water theme park. Opened in 1910 as Russell's Point, the amusement park's water slides and dance hall lasted less than a decade before disappearing, but it continues to lurk in locals' imaginations like a submerged city half-glimpsed beneath the surface. The latest artifact of Joyland's lingering impact was last month's ambitious eponymous collaboration between the Orlando Story Club and Central Florida Composers Forum, which featured six true-life tales set to original scores, performed live by five members of the Alterity Chamber Orchestra.

Inspired by the Moth, a live storytelling event launched in 1997, Orlando Story Club kicked off in 2014, hosting semi-monthly evenings featuring randomly selected speakers in the Downtown Arts District. Jan. 29's Joyland event at the Abbey represented the first time the Club had pre-selected performers and paired them with composers to create original works of aural autobiography, and the outcome of their experiment exceeded all my expectations.

Although none of the six resulting pieces was explicitly related to Ivanhoe's extinct attraction, all were inspired by its theme, as Danielle Ziss (who has served as Club host and producer with Bobby Wesley since 2017) explained to me while we waited for the performance to begin. "Joyland is meant to be broad and general, so that the stories can take on very different arcs of emotion," Ziss says. "We wanted a tie-in with Orlando, but we also wanted a theme that allows for the absence of joy, of the struggle to find joy," producing both "stories that are playful and youthful, and stories that are very difficult."

The Joyland project arose after CF2 composer Charles Griffin attended an Orlando Story Club event, and later sought out Ziss to suggest a collaboration. Although the idea was initiated more than six months ago, the final product came together quickly. "In October is when we really started writing the stories, and then in November they were given to the composers," says Ziss. "The composers then created the music, and in December we gave that to the players from the Alterity Chamber Orchestra, and we just did our rehearsal last week."

Following a welcome from Ziss and Griffin, the program kicked off with Madeline Potts' "Coming Home," a tale of automotive misadventure from her time as a traveling pottery artist; her icy anecdotes were interspersed with music by Paul Austin Sanders, who told me that composing for Alterity's wind quintet took him back to techniques he learned in college. Griffin himself scored the cinematic soundtrack to the second entry, Jessie James' emotional journey to the Old West, in which a horse ride in a hurricane became a metaphor for mental illness. The first act concluded with Orlando Story Club co-host Bobby Wesley's ambivalent ode to the Greyhound Bus, aka "the Cadillac of desperation," backed by Mark Piszczek's bouncy Bernstein-esque orchestral jazz.

After intermission, Aquanza Cadogan electrified the room with a passionate plea for human interaction peppered with pop-culture references, which Holly Cordero reinforced with interpolations of Bob Marley and Super Mario music. Then Ziss returned to the stage to share the story of the traumatic injury that derailed her dance career; composer Alex Burtzos joined her at the piano to help perform his appropriately painful pizzicato-heavy score.

The final piece of the evening, and my personal favorite, came from longtime Orlando Story Club member Logan Anderson, who described his tale of hitching a bike ride to class with "A Girl and Her Banana Seat" as being "all about hanging on, and the strangeness of being seduced not just by the person but the image." Anderson teamed up with first-time participant Erik Branch, who is best known as a theater and opera performer, but has a background in composition. They were the only pair that already knew each other prior to the project, and though Anderson wrote his script first, the final work required some back-and-forth. "It's continuous music underneath," says Branch, "so as he revised the text, I revised the music."

Anderson's nostalgia-soaked story brimmed with animated imagery that took the listener on an emotional "roller coaster without seat-belts." Better yet, Branch was the only composer of the evening to conduct his own music, a Stravinsky-meets-Sondheim underscore full of complex, shifting time signatures. His use of Anderson as another instrument in the orchestra helped make for the night's best integration of words and notes by far.

Joyland was a one-night-only event, but Orlando Story Club returns to the Abbey April 1 with a "Fish Out of Water" theme. They're also appearing at SAK Comedy Lab on Feb. 27, and will participate in May's Orlando Fringe Festival. For more information on their upcoming season, visit osc2020.eventbrite.com.

This story appears in the Feb. 5, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.