Cigar City Chronicles looks back

How Tampa became Tampa — sort of

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click to enlarge THE OLD SOUTH: Cigar City Chronicles takes a trip through Tampa's history. - ©rob/harris Productions
©rob/harris Productions
THE OLD SOUTH: Cigar City Chronicles takes a trip through Tampa's history.

It's too bad that there's not a major Welcome Center for new arrivals to the Tampa area. That would be the perfect place to stage Cigar City Chronicles, the busy, earnest but not very entertaining revue now playing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. After all, new residents wouldn't mind so much that the music is prosaic and the lyrics uninspired; they'd just be grateful that someone had gone to the trouble to show them how their new home had become the way it is, from the very beginning (when a projected title reads, "Florida rose out of the Atlantic during an Ice Age 20 million years ago") to the present day (when a filmed Mayor Iorio talks about what makes a city great).

Especially useful would be those segments that show who put the Ybor in Ybor City, the Davis in Davis Islands, the Plant in Plant Park and the Ashley in Ashley Street. African-Americans would be encouraged by the few minutes devoted to Central Avenue's heyday; Cubans, Italians and Jews would find themselves implicated in Ybor City's history, and everybody would understand why the University of Tampa has minarets.

Sure, the show's a little pallid, but what do you expect from educational theater? At the end of two hours, all the newbies could drive home feeling acculturated.

But Chronicles isn't just meant for fresh arrivals. This would-be extravaganza, composed by Stan Collins and written and directed by Claude McNeal, wants to please longtime residents as much as wide-eyed newcomers, and it's here that it comes up short in too many ways. Not only are the melodies and lyrics mediocre (How's this for a catchy line: "They say the conquistadors are coming to take us as slaves"), but the history goes by so quickly that we hardly have time to figure out who Narvaez is before he's dropped for Hernando De Soto, who's superseded by a certain Fontaneda. The scores of drawings and photographs that are projected on an upstage screen are more interesting than the performances, but even so, there are so many of them that it's hard to be sure which Native American is being illustrated or whether the Andrew Jackson in front of us is the Territorial Governor or the President.

And then there's the strange imbalance of the spectacle: The role of "lector" in the cigar factories is depicted at some length — and with emotion-stirring realism — while the presence of mob figures in Tampa history is reduced to a brief and not-funny comedy sketch featuring a couple of guys in trench coats.

In fact, the minutes devoted to the cigar industry are among the best in the show, featuring enough detail to reach us emotionally as well as intellectually. But the impact of World War II on the Tampa area is ignored, while long minutes are devoted to the making of a Cuban sandwich (accompanied weirdly by a salacious dance) or to an Ella Fitzgerald impersonator singing "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

True, some aspects of Tampa history are given appropriate weight — the building of H.B. Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel, for example — but it's usually difficult to understand why one sequence lasts only seconds and another for five minutes.

And you'd never guess, watching these Chronicles, how much the city's self-esteem skyrocketed with the acquisition of an NFL football team or to what extent the University of South Florida brought arts and culture to this sleepy town.

I was born in Tampa General Hospital, and I remember when the Florida State Fair was the main cultural event of the year, when Archway on Florida Avenue was about it for bookstores, and the Tarpon Tournament was our greatest local sports event. You wouldn't know this from watching Chronicles — though you might, mistakenly, imagine that our indigenous Native Americans feature strongly on the local mindscape.

If the words and music aren't all that fascinating, at least the performances are usually top-notch. I saw a show featuring Jorge Acosta, who was fired from the production on Saturday (see Editor's Note below). Among the men in the cast, he stood out most, investing his characters with emotional depth and a touch of irony that was welcome in a script that's mostly transparent and on the nose.

The rest of the players — Alison Burns, Rick Criswell, Steven Dorian, Whitney Drake, Scott Hamilton and Vanessa Sotomayor — all have appealing stage presences and satisfying voices. Of the women, Drake most wins our admiration: She possesses a beautiful voice and a charismatic personality.

The three-man band, consisting of Collins on keyboards, percussionist Dan Smith and bassist Joe Grady, achieves Herculean results as it sweeps us from prehistory to the present day, but Ricardo Melendez's choreography is usually just adequate. Michael Chamoun's set is basically a bare stage — backed, of course, by that indispensable large screen.

Unlike Boston or San Francisco or other cities with a glorious past, Tampa's still ripening: Its culture, its character are still being formed. Only over the last 30 years or so have we become a professional sports town; and we're still developing an arts presence, a business presence, a meaning that we all agree upon.

So the main problem with Chronicles may be one that's fundamental: This city is more oriented toward the future than toward the past. Hernando De Soto's all very nice, but what matters to most people I know is the new construction downtown or in the Channel District or on 56th Street.

Where we came from is an interesting subject, and Cigar City Chronicles tries to address it.

But where we're going is the question that's really on local minds.

Editors Note: Acosta was dismissed from the production after admitting to having had sexual relations with at least three teenage boys as a teacher and cleric at Tampa's Mary Help of Christians school in 1983. He's been replaced by understudy Jonathan Gonzalez.

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