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Eight O'Clock Theatre has worked darned hard to bring Damn Yankees to the Largo Community Center starting tonight.
By EILEEN SCHULTE
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001
LARGO -- It's been hell week for the Damn Yankees -- literally.
That's what the last stressful week of rehearsals is called in the theater game.
Fueled by a surge of opening-night anticipation, many of the 38-member cast of Damn Yankees have practiced dancing and singing songs like You Gotta Have Heart until 12:30 a.m. in front of the "fourth wall," an invisible partition that mentally separates actors from audience.
They have done it each night at the darkened Largo Cultural Center theater, spotlights shining in their eyes. Director Kevin Archer has watched their every move, just a shadow giving directions from somewhere near the top row. Members of the 18-piece orchestra play from the pit.
The theater is a palace for the Eight O'Clock Theatre troupe. Twenty years ago, the city's artistic director, Diane Forsha, helped organize the theater, which put on plays at the Largo Community Center. Then 13 years ago, on Thanksgiving night, the building burned down, and the city "didn't rebuild as good a place," said Judy Becotte, Eight O'Clock Theatre production manager and its only paid employee.
"They built a low ceiling. (So they had to) do musicals at Largo High School and plays in the community center," she said. "It set them back a few years."
Forsha said working in the community center "was a nightmare, but it brought us together -- we were a family."
Five years ago, the Eight O'Clock Theatre moved to the Largo Cultural Center.
The theater will host a yet-undefined 20th anniversary celebration in the fall. In the next two years, the theater will separate from the city of Largo and become its own entity, Becotte said. It plans to offer more children's programs and hold William Falkner and Tennessee Williams plays at the old Feed Store. Director Archer, who works in the marketing department for AAA Auto Club, said he came out of retirement to put on Damn Yankees because the musical is "fun, fun, fun."
He has been putting in long hours for the last six weeks to get ready for tonight, opening night of Damn Yankees, a 1950s Broadway musical about aging baseball fan Joe Boyd, who makes a deal with the devil so his beloved Washington Senators can win a pennant.
The devil does his part, transforming Boyd into a young, talented hitter who is tempted by sexy Lola. But in a classic good-versus-evil plot, he eventually realizes his errors and returns to his old life, and wife.
The play will use authentic equipment and costumes. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays loaned the theater some bats; the Philadelphia Phillies loaned the actors spare uniforms.
"We got something from everybody but the damn Yankees," Becotte quipped.
The costume designer covered up the Phillies logos with white felt and wrote "Senators" on them.
"(Actors) without (stage) names took names of Phillies players," Becotte said.
Singer-dancer Richard Evans, owner of West Bay Supply, which sells industrial gasses, plays a shortstop named Sohovik. He said Damn Yankees will be his second show with the Eight O'Clock Theatre. The first was South Pacific, the first time he acted since "playing a sheep in the first grade."
"I love it," he said. "It's a lot of work, but when you get out there and there's the audience, there's nothing like it."
Yankees is Matthew Michael Schiel's first show with the Eight O'Clock Theatre, and could be his last. The 20-year-old plans to move to Los Angeles in June to try to make it in the movies.
"Community theater is something I do for fun, to let loose, relax," said Schiel, who has been acting since he was 14. "The new people I've met is the best part."
He means people like Carl Vonn, who calls himself a 20-year snowbird from Ontario, who plays the ball team manager. He played a part in last year's sell-out production of Arsenic and Old Lace by the Eight O'Clock Theatre.
"It's being part of a community theater, meeting people who are like-minded," Vonn said.
Alan Mohney Jr., 20, who plays the male lead character, Joe Hardy, calls community theater a "good base" for his chosen career as a director, something he plans to pursue in New York in the fall.
"Theater is pretty much my life," said Mohney, who began acting at Seminole High School and has worked professionally.
In addition to playing young Joe Hardy, Mohney also built the set.
"We don't have any prima donnas here," Becotte said.
Only a few seats remain for the Eight O'Clock Theatre production of Damn Yankees. Show times are 8 tonight and Saturday night and 2 p.m. Sunday. Other show dates are March 29 to April 1 and April 5-8 at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. For information, call (727) 587-6793.