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Despite massive funding cuts, the show goes on at American Stage

Bill DeYoung



"The Producers" from American Stage: James LaRosa, left, Gretchen Bieber and Matthew McGee. (Photo: Joey Clay)

In January, American Stage unveiled an ambitious program, the Under 20 Passport, in an attempt to entice teenagers – a desirable demographic – into the theater. It offered free tickets, for anyone under 20, to any of the theater’s mainstage shows for the entire calendar year. In addition, people under 30 could see all the shows for a small monthly fee.

Money’s on everyone’s mind as American Stage, like all Florida nonprofit arts organizations, deals with the recent news that the state cut its annual arts appropriations by nearly 90 percent. American Stage received a grant of less than $10,000 for 2018, down from $48,000 the year before.

In 2016, American Stage received $92,000 in Florida funding.


“It really doesn’t help when the state rips away our funding, when we’re doing all we can to make the work that we bring to our community accessible to young people,” said Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte. “But we’re not going to give up on that initiative. We have to get creative with our inventory management, and really look to our partners in the community to help support the initiative so that we can keep it going.”

The St. Pete professional theater, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in the fall, begins its annual “In the Park” series April 20 with Mel Brooks’ musical comedy The Producers. The Under 20 Passport does not apply, as “In the Park” shows are presented not on the mainstage but outdoors, at Demens Landing Park on Bayshore Drive. Those signed up for the “Under 30 Pass” can attend.

American Stage’s annual “In the Park” shows, Gularte said, bring about 15,000 people to Demens Landing, where a full-sized stage and a temporary theater infrastructure – not an inexpensive proposition – have to be constructed. The productions broke even for the first time in 2016 and 2017.

“And that’s inclusive of our sponsorship support, and the other partnerships that we rely on to help fund the park series. It certainly doesn’t support itself on ticket sales.”

On opening night, April 20, the curtain rises on The Producers at 8 p.m. Two hours earlier, dinner is served at the 2018 Gala Under the Stars. It’s American Stage’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

“We’re very diversified in our funding, both from an earned and contributed income standpoint,” Gularte says. “So significant reductions in any of those is extremely impactful and puts pressure on the other areas. So definitely, our gala becomes all the more significant – that we not just meet our goals but surpass them significantly.”

In addition, Gularte adds, the bad news out of Tallahassee took the wind out of her sails when she recently announced American Stage’s 2018-2019 season.

“It’s a really short-sighted decision on the part of the state, and frustrating for me as I’m trying to be more progressive in our programming, and innovative in our efforts. And inclusive. But I’m still motivated to push on in this direction, because I believe our community cares.

“Frankly, the ignorance expressed through this decision, in terms of the arts’ overall impact on a community’s quality of life, and the economy and overall well-being of a community – shows that the government does not value our industry. Our arts are where innovation should happen.”

More about The Producers

For actor Matthew McGee, taking on the lead role of shady Broadway producer Max Bialystock was a way of staying in the town where he lives. Since February, he’s been commuting to Sarasota, where he was appearing in two shows, Shakespeare in Love and Rhinoceros, at Asolo Repertory Theatre.

McGee also has a day job, as Director of Community Outreach and Marketing at freeFall Theatre in St. Pete. He also performs a popular drag act in the Tampa Bay area.

“It’s a juggling act,” McGee smiles. “I’m very humbled to be as busy as I am, and I appreciate that so much. And not everybody gets these opportunities, so I don’t take it for granted.”

In American Stage’s 2017 outdoor musical Hairspray, McGee played Edna Turnblad, a singing, dancing woman.

The Producers tells the story of Bialystock and his unwitting partner, accountant Leo Bloom, as they set out to bilk investors by producing a Broadway show that’s so bad it’s guaranteed to lose money. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played Bialystock and Bloom, respectively, on Broadway.


“I’ve done the show before, and I’ve always played Roger DeVries, the flamboyant director,” McGee says. “And while it’s a great role, it’d be another ‘man in a dress’ role for me. I would have done it … but I’ve always loved this show.

“When The Producers came out in 2000, I was living in New York – and I listened to the soundtrack all the time. I lived and breathed the show.

“I stood in line forever for rush tickets to go see Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick, who were both brilliant. I’ve always loved Nathan Lane, even before he was a super well-known performer. I looked up to him.

“When I was younger, people said I reminded them of Paul Lynde. I didn’t even know who Paul Lynde was. Now, it’s the same thing with Nathan Lane – I get compared to him quite a bit.”

Not that he’s doing an impersonation, mind you. “It just seemed like a natural fit for me. There’s a lot that really plays in my wheelhouse.”

Tickets and more information here










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