A Risqué, Rapturous Tribute
Josephine, a Burlesque Cabaret Dream-Play is a tribute to Josephine Baker, the flapper-era burlesque chanteuse who overcame racism in her own country and became a wartime heroine in another.
“She was a pioneer of her day, and I just fell in love with her,” says Harris. “She was very much an adventurer, and so am I. Also, I don’t mind being naked.”
Well, yes. There’s that. Harris spends a good deal of her time onstage just this side of au naturel in a production that is, like its inspiration, both bawdy and beatific. The sultriness is supplemented with scenes that reflect the spirit of a woman who was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work in the French resistance (while performing in Paris, Baker smuggled messages past the Nazis in her sheet music and lingerie); adopted a mixed-race bevy of orphans, calling them her “rainbow children,” after becoming the wealthiest black woman in the world; and marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights activist in her later years.
The tribute developed after Michael Marinaccio, producer of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, spotted Harris in a Fringe burlesque revue.
“I thought, how is she not a star?” he says.
After landing on the idea of a Baker tribute, he drafted Orlando playwright Todd Kimbro as its scriptwriter and musical director. Because it would be a conflict of interest for Marinaccio to present a show of his own at the Orlando Fringe, Josephine premiered at San Diego’s festival, winning best show and best solo performance—and winding up as a selection for the 17th Annual Fringe Encore Series at Soho Playhouse in New York City, which culls the best shows from Fringe Festivals all over the world.
Next step: reworking the play into a full-length production. In Baker, there’s no lack of material, says Harris. “This is a woman who broke through so many barriers. I’m in awe of her. How could I not be?”
A Jazz Wizard Sharing the Magic
At 53, Grammy-winning jazz musician and educator Jeff Rupert was born too late for the heyday of swing or the advent of bebop, but he can time-travel to Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1939, or Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue sessions, and literally not miss a beat. A thoughtful and passionate performer, the tenor sax player has shared the stage with legends and has stories to tell about them all (“When I played with Mel Tormé…”).
His job as director of Jazz Studies at UCF keeps him busy. Yet he finds time to record, tour, and play in venues intimate (Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, Timucua white house) and impressive (Carnegie Hall, the Montreux Jazz Festival).
“You know how it is,” Rupert says humbly. “I’m just always working.”
His latest gig is conductor of the newly formed Florida Symphony Youth Jazz Orchestra. The fresh-faced players come from middle through high schools across Florida to learn the art of playing in a big band, and at their first rehearsal they’re greeted with a smile and an enthusiastic handshake.
Rupert compliments a trumpet player on his tie, looks over his glasses at a late arrival, and then opens the sheet music.
“We’re here,” he says, “to see how beautiful we can make the music sound. And here we go.”
Reading of the Minds
Husband and wife flamenco dancing team Ernesto and Jenny Caballero know each other so well that they can read each other’s thoughts through facial expressions.
“We can see what’s going on with the other person. If one of us makes a mistake, we telepathically [work together to] fix it,” Ernesto says.
The duo, known professionally as Alboreá Dances, has been together for more than 20 years. They met at a school for flamenco dancing in their native Bolivia. As friends, they moved to Orlando together for more dancing opportunities, which included stints at Universal Studios, Walt Disney World and Café TuTu Tango on International Drive. Three years later, they started dating. Now they perform two to three times a week together, practice daily in a studio inside their home and raise their 7-year-old daughter.
“We were meant to be,” Jenny says. “Sometimes the person you are looking for is right in front of you.”
Both Ernesto and Jenny started dancing ballet when they were young but fell in love with flamenco because of its raw, passionate and expressive nature.
“I think for me, all dances have their way to express different emotions, but when you dance flamenco you can see the emotion,” Ernesto says. “It explodes.”
It’s not just the dancers who “feel” flamenco. The Caballeros say their job is to create emotions in their audience, too.
“You wake up something in the people who are watching,” says Jenny.
At 16, a Talent on the Rise
With her expressive eyes and powerful voice, actress and Boone High School junior Sofia Deler seems a natural presence on the stage.
“There’s no theater experience in my family,” the 16-year-old says. “But my father is really into music and always shared that with me.”
Deler has already built an impressive resumé, performing at Orlando Repertory Theatre, Winter Park Playhouse and for her classwork at Boone. She has played everything from Ursula the sea witch in The Little Mermaid to Addams Family daughter Wednesday, and lead roles in Mary Poppins and The Children’s Hour, for which she won Southeastern Theatre Conference and Florida Theatre Conference awards for Best Actress. The Lillian Hellman drama “was my first real non-musical play. I got to fall in love with the acting portion.”
The young star’s latest brush with fame came upon winning the National High School Musical Theatre “Jimmy” Award, presented by the Broadway League Foundation, this past June in New York City. Deler and fellow Orlando high-schooler Tony Moreno won Best Performance by an Actress and Actor, the first time in the award’s history that both winners were from the same city.
Her determined plans for the future include a performing arts college (“Juilliard,” she says), a career in theater, and a simple credo. “Go in, give what you have to offer,” she says. “That’s when you’re most successful.”
Electrifying Melody Maker
The septet of strings, percussion and keyboards begins to play, and your brain processes something familiar: Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” But in place of Christine McVie’s alto rises the dulcet yet edgy tone of Michelle Jones’ violin. The melody line gets bounced around from string to string in a mesmerizing fusion of classical gone classic rock.
This is Violectric, Jones’ childhood brainchild, inspired when she heard Led Zeppelin’s strings-infused song “Kashmir.” It was then that young Jones, a classically trained violinist, knew she would apply her training to reinventing rock.
“What we do that’s different is we completely remove the vocals and guitars." Instead, everything is orchestral, says Jones, who arranges songs with upright-bass player Paul Cuevas. Jones also heads up Fretless Rock, a string-based group that ranges in size and in the level of production.
But classical still holds Jones’ heartstrings: She has played in orchestras and symphonies worldwide under such top-name conductors as Anton Coppola and Marvin Hamlisch.
Often opening for or touring with such acts as Sting, Twenty-One Pilots, Adam Levine, Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman, Jones also finds time to volunteer extensively. Her efforts, such as at the Pulse Day of Remembrance, have earned her the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
“I’m thrilled that I get to make a darned good living making music, but I also love when I’m playing for a reason and a cause,” she says.
Evan Taylor Jones
Music Becomes the Balm
When Evan Taylor Jones’ mother died when he was 13, he was left with what seemed an insatiable grief—until his stepfather gave him an acoustic guitar that gave way to hope and an unexpected career.
“Music was a catalyst for healing,” says Jones, who was on track for a basketball career until he was sidelined by a shoulder injury. He began to dive into the music of his childhood home—soul, rock and disco—until the self-taught musician created a sound that melded the music he grew up loving.
Jones recently returned from a tour to promote his third and latest release, Denim Heart. He wrote, recorded and produced the three-song EP and played every instrument. “I recorded Denim Heart at my house in my office,” says Jones, following the lead of such favorites as James Taylor and Foo Fighters.
Often compared vocally with John Legend, Jones likens himself to “ ’90s Lenny Kravitz, when he had the dreadlocks,” along with Gary Clark Jr. and the late Richie Havens, whom Jones describes as “a great writer and storyteller and poet. He was very aware politically in his lyrics. That’s something I abide by.”
While in Orlando, Jones and his band play regularly at Disney Springs and other local venues while continuing to write and promote new material. “I like to say I song-write and record by day, pitch the song in the middle of the day, and at night I’m playing shows on the circuit.”
The Reluctant Performer
Like many writers, fiction author Ryan Rivas is more comfortable in front of a keyboard than an audience.
“I carve time out to read,” he says of spoken word performances. “When I’m asked.”
An affectionate and engaging speaker, Rivas is surprisingly insecure about being the public expression of his work. And like any creative person, he can justify his reticence.
“You might argue that poetry is meant to be read aloud,” he says. “But fiction isn’t. It can’t be too long, or dialog heavy, and you have to consider the audience.”
At a past reading, Rivas enthusiastically presented a work that some in the audience considered impolite and, to his surprise, some people walked out. “I don’t know if that bothers me or not,” he says. “I’m not necessarily against offending people, but it should be intentional.”
He has no qualms, however, in presenting other writers’ performances for his quarterly Functionally Literate reading series, celebrating its fifth year this month. “FuncLit” showcases local lights such as Vanessa Blakeslee and Susan Lilley, alongside celebrated writers like Padgett Powell and Kathleen Glasgow, in a mix of poetry, literature and narrative nonfiction. It is the outreach of Rivas’ publishing house, Burrow Press, which releases four books with a Florida focus each year.
Whether behind the scenes or at a podium, Rivas’ literary voice can still be heard.
A Mirthful, Meditative Musician
Donning bare feet and cozy Rastafarian garb, Susie Trewick strums her acoustic guitar as softly as she can. She sings just above a whisper, choosing a quiet song from her repertoire called “My Medication.” You are my medicatio-on. You are my inspiratio-on. You have made me want to thri-i-ive, ooooh.
Her audience isn’t just listening to her music, they’re flowing with it. Trewick—known on stage as Susie Cool—plays several times a month for yoga classes at L.A. Fitness in Oviedo and Waterford Lakes. When her yoga audience ramps up their tempo, she ups her pace as well, with tunes such as “Let’s Go Dancing.”
“I’m watching what people are doing and I’m imagining myself in that pose,” says the 10-year yogi.
Trewick was raised in Jamaica by a Jamaican mother and English father, which resulted in a unique accent, made even more complex by the years she studied architecture in Scotland. She moved here in 1987, working as a design technician for the city of Orlando for 17 years before retiring to focus on her music, which she writes with husband Kent Trewick. She also performs as a member of Central Florida Folk, an organization promoting local folk music.
Many of Susie Cool’s more than 300 songs are humorous in nature, such as “Tissue Police,” inspired by the warning label on the back of a tissue box stating that it is illegal to use the tissues anywhere other than your face.
“I can’t take myself seriously. I’m known for the humor,” she says. “I like to see the twisted side of things.”
Merriment Amid the Memories
If you had asked Richard Peeples—best known as Mr. Richard—to write a song about nose-picking a few decades ago, he would have gone for it. But now Orlando's kid-friendly rock star shies away from such "gross" topics.
It's not that the 56-year-old has suddenly matured—something he says he'd never do. Rather, it’s a nod to his late wife, Danielle, an elementary school teacher whom he says always kept him in check.
"We were a perfect match. She was very pragmatic whereas I'm very flighty," he says. "Every album, at least one or two songs, she inspired or gave me the idea."
Normally, Peeples—who does around 300 shows a year, sometimes several in a day—avoids anything educational or preachy in his music. "That's why grownups listen to music, because it's fun, so why not for kids? It's good to educate, but there's enough people doing it," he says. "I don't need to."
Although it deviates from Peeples' songwriting moral code to evade morals, he recorded tunes about homework, littering and animals for local television station WUCF-TV last spring. "That was for her," he says about Danielle.
That experience gave him the incentive to start writing songs again, something he hadn't done since Danielle was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. He recorded his first new song in June about a country/western girl and hopes to record his sixth album soon.
"It's still in there," he says of his ability to write. "I just have to reach in and get it."
A Creative Voice Returns
David Lee actually took a break this year. Who could blame him? As a wide-ranging playwright, director, educator, actor and overall trouper who goes all the way back to the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival’s first year—“It was in the old McCrory Building downtown. No air conditioning”—he deserved it.
Lee needed the respite after working for a year on O-Town, Voices from Orlando, a series of monologues he created based on interviews with people who emerged as heroes in the Pulse tragedy. Over the years he’s created, directed, and acted in projects ranging from a musical about Kurt Cobain, to a spoof of Anita Bryant, to an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story about a stranded astronaut. He’s also taught at the University of Central Florida and helped to develop and stage new plays at Orlando Shakespeare Theater—most recently directing Ada and the Memory Engine, Lauren Gunderson’s play about Ada Lovelace, a brilliant British countess who became the world’s first computer programmer after recognizing the algorithmic potential of a 19th century mechanical computer.
Now he’s writing a play about Truman Capote’s childhood friendship with his equally famous neighbor, Harper Lee, the party they staged in a treehouse, and the legendary Black and White Ball Capote would throw decades later, in 1966—with a guest list that included his friend Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, along with Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Vanderbilt and the Maharani of Jaipur.
Says Lee: “I’ve always been fascinated by the Black and White Ball.” Among other things.
— Michael McLeod