Honk Your Horns for Leonard Bernstein’s New York at freeFall Theatre

April 27, 2021 | By Talia Fish

Through May 9
Details here

Emanuel Carrero and Julia Rifino in Leonard Bernstein’s New York

Let me set the scene for you – it’s March of 2020, I’m gearing up for the spring break of my junior year, and I’m fleshing out the itinerary for a trip to New York City on the 28th of that month. Show tickets booked, my bags as good as packed, and a global pandemic knocking at our doors – I’m sure you know what came next.

I’ve mourned my trip and cut my losses and even welcomed the time spent holed up at home, but I can’t help the aching in my heart for that insomniac city. Like any theatre lover, I looked forward to watching the wonderful talent on Broadway – though it surely left my pockets light. An interesting fact I learned from Leonard Bernstein’s New York, currently playing at freeFall Theatre, is how low an orchestra ticket was on Broadway in the ‘60s – $4.85, not $485. Can you believe that? Even adjusted for inflation, your orchestra ticket would only be around $45 bucks, which is still cheaper than the farthest seat in any Broadway theatre today.

It’s been a good while since we’ve been able to travel around the U.S. without guilt or anxiety. If you haven’t had the chance to visit The Big Apple in the last year, take a moment to remember with me what it was like to grab a slice of pizza that burnt the roof of your mouth – in the best way – or the line that formed as you waited for a rainbow bagel. Not to mention all the other Instagram-worthy dining the city has to offer.

Walking through the avenues, shopping and souvenir bags in hand as the sun sets and those famous twinkling lights start to flicker on compares to no other. What more could you want?

I know travel envy is rampant right now, but there is a way to reminisce about the magic of NYC from your own backyard – and what’s better, you can still see the stars!

If you’re missing Broadway, the city, and all it has to offer, you can itch that scratch at freeFall Theatre through May 9 with their current drive-in concert experience – Leonard Bernstein’s New York!

You may be unfamiliar with his name, and I’ll let that slide, but you’re sure to have heard his music in shows like West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town. This fun drive-in concert runs for about an hour and paints a sweet story of a man who’s new to the city, played by Emanuel Carrero, and a woman who’s accustomed to the city’s speed, Julia Rifino. As the plot comes together, the audience is brought along on a ride through upbeat duets and entrancing ballads alike that almost transport you 1500 miles away to the city we’re all missing a little extra right now.

“This joyous concert revue explores the music of Leonard Bernstein and the city that inspired so much of his life and work,” and even highlights the famous friendships he forged with Comden and Green, Sondheim, Robbins and Copland!

Leonard Bernstein solidified his spot in history as one of America’s greatest composers and you can sing along with “Maria” and “I Can Cook Too” and tap your toes to some tunes you may not have heard before at freeFall for two more weeks.

With any outdoor theatre venue, you run into some obvious hazards – rain, bugs, and outside noises being just a few of them. April has been temperamental with whether or not it wants to warm up or stay cool, so there have been some final rehearsals and shows where the performers were shivering a bit. On the flip side, there were also nights where the humidity got to them and bugs wanted to have their moment to shine, too.

FreeFall has some of the strongest performers, especially when you add the Florida elements to their performance. Julia Rifino was wearing a wig for this show – imagine having that as part of your costume on a warm Florida Spring night! Julia helped share some of her tips for combating the weather with me, saying, “The unpredictable Florida weather and surprise bug encounters absolutely force you to be adaptable as an actor! Last night, Emanuel had a run-in with a June bug during his gorgeous ballad “Lonely Town” and he played it off like a pro!”

It takes a lot for performers during a normal show indoors, but keeping
calm and collected onstage with some added visitors takes hyper-focus. “Hydrate, prepare, communicate, and keep an open mind. And BUG SPRAY!” Julia made sure to remind me, always keeping a positive attitude.

As a theatre major at USF, I’ve come across many of Bernstein’s songs and music throughout my schooling, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for the performers to perform such well-known songs. Julia helped enlighten me a bit, “Getting to perform some of the most beautifully classic Bernstein songs is such a privilege. Even I was unfamiliar with some of the numbers in the beginning, so being able to learn and share Bernstein’s bright energy with audiences – whether it’s their first time hearing it or they’re singing along – is such an honor!”

In their interview with Day Time Tampa Bay, Emanuel also mentioned what it means to sing “Maria,” sharing that “it isn’t a song I would normally get to sing if I were doing the show in real life. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to get to sing it.”

Attending any show is contingent on what grasps your attention as an audience member. The best way to do that is by casting a show where the performers have good chemistry. This came easy for Emanuel and Julia, especially since they went to college at the University of Tampa together.

“This show is extremely precious and special to me. After a year away from performing live due to the pandemic, I was overjoyed to know that I’d get to be back onstage! Being able to perform with him onstage is a gift every night. This is something we will treasure forever,” Julia shared in a heartwarming response.

. . .
We all miss doing what we love, whether we’re tuning into board meetings on Zoom, taking classes online or performing from a screen. FreeFall bringing theatre to audiences through drive-in experiences really brings joy and music back into our days.

Now, how do stage lights work if we’re watching a show in a parking lot? FreeFall isn’t relying on streetlamps alone, I’ll tell you that. For one, instead of just stage blocking and lights, we have the added choreography of video closeups and cues through large overhead screens.

Joseph Michael-Kenneth, the stage manager at freeFall Theatre, mentioned to me that a lot of the process is the same as “normal theatre,” or what we remember it being. Stage managers’ jobs entail exactly what the job description sounds like – they manage the stage! All jokes aside, they make sure the show goes without a hitch – calling cues, scheduling, paperwork, communication between the director, actors, designers, and making sure everyone is on time.

What changes in an outdoor setting, you might ask, and Joseph has the answer – “It’s interesting in this case as well because we don’t have a booth outside where I can see everything going on. So, I call many of the cues based on audio stimulus rather than visual.”

. . .
Watching a show from your car may be a bit different than your old night at the theatre, but freeFall makes the experience one to remember. Maybe it brings you back to nights of drive-in movies!

A highlight for Julia is, “While there is a barrier with most of the audience being behind windshields, their honking is always a good indicator that they’re enjoying it! And now that audiences can sit outside of their cars has helped bridge that gap a LOT! We can hear laughter, see smiles, and make those connections little by little again.”

I’m sure the concessions freeFall offers help a little, too. You can even order platters of food beforehand when you order your ticket, or you can request it up to 11:30 a.m. the day before the performance you’re attending. You can order a falafel platter or a bagel and lox platter for two, or dessert with a single portion of delicious New York cheesecake!

What makes this concert experience different than any other you’ve frequented before – audience members watch from their cars and listen through FM radios. When you turn into the freeFall parking lot, you give your name to the ushers and are guided to a numbered parking spot where you turn your engine and lights off. All you need is a clear view of a screen to enjoy this experience, so the audience doesn’t have to fret if the stage is partially blocked from view.

You can leave your windows down and enjoy the breeze, but there may be a winged visitor that flies in to watch with you. You can even camp out in your favorite comfy lawn chair as long as you’re spaced out from other theatregoers.

A note from Eric Davis, the show’s director explains that, “This performance has been conceived as an audiovisual multimedia experience. Remember, this performance does not happen on that stage. It happens in your car.”

You get the added privilege of seeing the band on screen as they play the music, though you can’t actually see them if you’re looking at the stage. A good many shows hide the band from the audience using a backdrop or the set, but the way that Eric Davis crafted this drive-in theatre experience allowed the audience in on the action.

Where “business as usual” in theatre usually involves smoke and mirrors and wonderful stage tricks, some of that becomes difficult in an outdoor theatre experience during a pandemic. While theatres aren’t exactly ‘stripping’ shows down to bare bones, they have welcomed audiences into their processes through lovely and creative avenues. The screens the audience watches are how the drive-in concert experience is meant to be seen and paints a story. There’s even one moment in the show where the performers are put inside a taxi on screen!

FreeFall Theatre lets you drive right up to the action on North Central Avenue in St. Pete. While the sun sets, you can kick back and remember what it’s like to trek around the city again.

And while you may not have to call a taxi to see the sights and meet the people of New York City, you won’t miss a beat of the genuine heart and soul of the city through Lenny’s wonderful music.
. . .

Photos by Thee Photo Ninja

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