In the second production of their 2017-2018 season, UrbanArias brings the world premiere of Florida to the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Based partly on true events, Florida follows the 16-year-old Florida Fandango as her summer vacation tragically turns from one of young love and self-exploration to a wrongful murder charge. With music by Randall Eng and libretto by Donna Di Novelli, Florida explores the criminalization of female sexuality and the power of the court of public opinion to interpret events even before they’ve happened.
New in town, the attractive Florida (Sharin Apostolou), and her mother, One Dead Mother (Nancy Allen Lundy), find themselves under the prying eyes of their neighbors. Florida, with her red nails and red lipstick, is immediately criminalized for following the womanly desires awakening inside of her. In “There’s a Scream Inside Me” Apostolou beautifully shifts between the confusion, curiosity, and outright hunger battling within Florida and sets the stage for a musically flawless performance the entire evening. The young love she experiences with her boyfriend Marc (Daniel Rowan) is exciting and makes her feel both newly alive and a part of something bigger.
Marc, on the other hand, spirals from love into an unhealthy obsession both with Florida and their relationship. Rowan’s soft tenor perfectly played the fine line between young devotion and unhealthy fixation in “Eighty-eight Steps.” And in “Looking out the Window” he goes so far as to openly questions Florida’s devotion, confused at why she looks to the sky and not to him after they have been together.
Nosily opposed to this youthful exploration is the Redwood family. Constantly handing down judgement from their backyard deck, Redwood father (Ethan Greene), mother (Hannah Hagerty), son (Ian McEuen), and daughter (Katherine Riddle) view Florida with scorn in “Run the Red Light Red,” while also losing sight of their own family in “Where Are Our Children.” Greene’s rich baritone dueted wonderfully with the warm, rounded tone of Hagerty, and the wry facial expressions of McEuen and Riddle, while overhearing their own insignificance delightfully added to more than a few scenes.
After witnessing Florida’s relationship grow with Marc, One Dead Mother decides to send Florida away for the rest of summer vacation. Allen Lundy’s worn Mother bitterly reflects on her life, seeing too much of her younger self in her daughter, and tries to save Florida from her own used, expired fate. Florida’s friction with society’s conventions continue, however, first with “My First Champaign” and then with “Madly in Love.” Society prescribes her guilt and collects evidence against her innocence, while they wait for a crime to be committed.
For Marc, the summer apart rekindles his feelings of anger and desire to right the wrongs he feels Florida and her mother have inflicted upon him. In “Heal Thyself,” Rowan’s eyes deaden into resolve and, in a fitful and deconstructed retelling of “The Shattered Night,” the dreams that haunt Florida become prophetic and the scarf wrapped around One Dead Mother’s neck becomes her end.
The remaining scenes show a world turned upside down as the course of justice twists and ensnares Florida. Is she Temptress and Master-mind, or Innocent and Naïve? The accusations come swiftly and confusion swirls throughout, particularly in “Readily Available” and “A Yellow Legal Pad.” Here the agility of company members McEuen and Riddle are again wonderfully on display, they shift from biased Cops to Technicians performing invasive autopsies to Attorney and Press, further surrounding Florida.
Shaping much of the production’s success was the skillful direction of Kevin Newbury. Intricate, layered blocking choices reflected the twisted course of justice that ensnares and blames Florida while pitying and excusing Marc, and took wonderful advantage of the evolving, primary colored set by Andrew Boyce.
This constant flow of movement was highlighted by Abigail Hoke-Brady’s dramatic lighting design and the fantastic Inscape Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Robert Wood. Subtle costume design by David C. Woolard also underscored the cultural norms at bay with a mix of traditional (the Redwoods) and ostracized (Florida, One Dead Mother, and Marc) wardrobe choices by Megan Risley.
Tackling far too many weighty subjects to be comedic, Florida lays bare the grey area that exists for teenage girls between childhood and womanhood, and society’s disparate reactions to male and female innocence when exploring those desires as teenagers. The delightful mixture of opera and jazz infused into the score leaves you on wonderfully unsure footing and the incredibly strong cast make this production a must see. With piercing themes and dramatic interpretations, Florida will make you take another look at the world before you too decide who is guilty and who is innocent.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Florida presented by UrbanArias is playing through April 17, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.