By JANEL STEPHENS
ST. PETERSBURG -- Sixteen-year-old Monica Raymund is much like the lead character she plays in the Manhattan Casino, a musical based on the famed nightclub on 22nd Street S, which debuted last week.
The St. Petersburg native plays Althea Dunbar, a 17-year-old girl who dreams of being a singer and sneaks into the Manhattan Casino with friends in hopes of getting her big break. Her parents disapprove.
The high school junior loves to sing, too. She's enrolled in the theater program at Shorecrest Preparatory School. She's beautiful and intelligent, and like Althea, is a straight-A student.
Bob Devin Jones, who wrote the play and co-wrote the lyrics to the musical, said he shaped Althea with Raymund in mind. Jones worked with her in a stage reading of the musical Thom and Sally, based on the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
"There's a moment in the end song You Welcomed Me Home where she sings that song and embraces the entire journey of the two years of walking this play into being," said Jones, who also directs the musical. "To see a song exceed how you imagined is really a treat."
Raymund joins a cast of experienced actors including Michele Lamar Richards (The Bodyguard/Top Dog), Sharon Scott, Gloria Bailey and Nathan Burton.
Raymund, who played Sally Hemmings in Thom and Sally at the Palladium Theater last year and was a member of the choral ensemble in Webb's City: The Musical, admits working with the actors was intimidating at first.
"But they make you feel so much more at home and so much more at ease with your performance," Raymund said. "They don't walk around with this pompous attitude of being a professional. ... Everyone is equal."
When asked if Raymund had a love interest in real-life, the young actor blushed and giggled. She's a low-key type of girl who loves theater and science. She started playing the piano at 4 and took voice lessons at 13.
The most striking resemblance Raymund says she has with Althea is her relationship with her father, Calvin Dunbar (Paul Stewart), who is authoritative but loving.
"I can't tell you how many times my father has been telling me to concentrate on this or that and to set your priorities right," Raymund said.
Her father, Steve Raymund, is chief executive of Tech Data Corp., a Clearwater-based distributor of computer components and software. Raymund was ranked No. 5 in a recent survey of Tampa Bay area's top business leaders.
The father of two remembers watching a much younger Monica walk on stage, curtsey and climb onto the piano bench before playing a piece for one of her recitals. Even now, sometimes it's hard for Raymund to watch his daughter perform because of the anxiety for her to do well.
"It's a thrilling moment for a father to watch your daughter out there on stage showing so much talent," Raymund said. "It's a joy because she really likes it on stage."
Manhattan Casino runs through March 2 at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: $15, $25, $35. Call Ticketmaster at (813) 287-8844 or the Coliseum box office at (727) 892-5202.
For an interactive graphic of the Manhattan Casino and audio of the musicians who played at the club, go to Jon Wilson's special report, "The Deuces," at www.sptimes.com/deuces.
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