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Historical play's lead adds touch of history

Jennie Eisenhower, a descendant of two presidents, will star in the musical drama Crossing the Bay, about frontier times in the Tampa Bay area.

Published November 21, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - A member of one of the nation's most prominent Republican families has won the lead role in a play about Tampa Bay haves and have-nots during Florida's frontier era.

Jennie Eisenhower will play the role of Lizzie Tippetts in Crossing the Bay, produced by the St. Petersburg-based LiveArts Peninsula Foundation.

The show, a musical drama, opens Jan. 6 for a three-week run at Shorecrest Preparatory School's Janet Root Theater. It continues for a week starting Jan. 26 at the Falk Theater in Tampa.

Mayors Rick Baker of St. Petersburg and Pam Iorio of Tampa will play cameo roles on each opening night.

Eisenhower, 26, is the granddaughter of Richard M. Nixon and the great-granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, both former U.S. presidents.

LiveArts' Bill Leavengood, who wrote the play and will direct it, said he knew about Eisenhower through theater circles. High praise followed her.

"We figured it would be worth the price of a plane ticket to bring her down here and see if she was as good as they said she was," Leavengood said.

At the audition, Eisenhower sang I Don't Know How to Love Him, from Jesus Christ Superstar.

"She had a fabulous singing voice and she was wonderful in the reading" from Crossing the Bay's script, Leavengood said.

Eisenhower, whose parents are David and Julie Eisenhower, also tried a song from the play, with lyrics about love coming along when one least expects it.

"She just learned it instantly. And she was able to put herself into it instantly," said Harry Chittenden, LiveArts' executive director.

Born in San Clemente, Calif., Eisenhower grew up near Philadelphia and attended Northwestern University as a dual major in theater and communication. After graduating summa cum laude, she moved to New York City and has credits including Suburb, a world premiere musical at the off-Broadway York Theater; Annie at the Helen Hayes Theater; and Godspell at the Gateway Playhouse.

In Philadelphia, she has performed at the Wilma Theater, the Arden, the Media Theater, Act 2 Playhouse, Bristol Riverside Theater and the Peoples Light and Theater Company.

Other regional credits include Catherine in Proof, Louise in Gypsy, Lizzie in The Rainmaker and Julie Jordan in Carousel. She also had a small role in the movie Mona Lisa Smile, starring Julia Roberts.

Crossing the Bay is about the struggle to bring a railroad to St. Petersburg in the late 19th Century.

It plays off the rivalry that existed even then between thriving Tampa and its little sister village across the bay. Its plot follows that of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Magnates who brought Tampa its railroad looked suspiciously at competitors seeking to develop the Pinellas peninsula.

And, said Chittenden, "There was definitely a society fault line between the haves and the have-nots" both in Austen's novel and between the post-Civil War settlers and developers here.

Many LiveArts veterans have been assembled for the show. Besides Leavengood, there is Lee Ahlin, who wrote the music and lyrics. The pair teamed for Webb's City: The Musical, whose choreographer, Cheryl Lee, also returns.

"We have sort of a dream team in designers and technicians," Leavengood said. "All the best from Webb's City and Manhattan Casino," another LiveArts production.

Shorecrest's Janet Root Theater, which opened about two years ago, is named for the school's head of arts and humanities.

[Last modified November 21, 2004, 00:15:26]

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