Guys and gals take the stage at West Port
Two alternating versions featuring male and female casts revive “The Odd Couple.”
A white fence frames the stage in West Port High School’s auditorium. Long tables are set up right onstage for a cabaret dinner theater-style experience, and three stages surround the tables to the left, right and center, immersing audiences in the timeless laughs and acerbic wit of one of America’s most beloved comedies, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
If you’re not a diehard thespian or theatergoer, you might not know that Simon wrote two versions of his beloved comedy.
Most know of Simon’s initial script about two male roommates with opposite personalities — one is a fastidious newswriter and the other is an uptight and slovenly sports reporter — which was published in 1965. The script was adapted into an award-winning film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and as a popular TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
The female version by the famed, award-winning writer behind “Barefoot in the Park,” the “Brighton Beach Memoirs” trilogy and “The Goodbye Girl” hit the Broadway stage 20 years later, starring Rita Moreno of “West Side Story” and Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” reprise, and Sally Struthers of the all-time classic TV hit “All in the Family.”
“We made the decision to set both casts in the 1980s,” said Kate Messenger, the play’s director/theater instructor. “The kids are having a fun time with it because they love the aesthetic.”
Messenger shared that West Port High School’s production by its Omega Theatre Company will continue the theater department’s annual dinner theater fundraiser tradition while presenting the female and male versions during alternate performances. The young women will take the school’s stage at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and 11 and 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 12. The guys will perform at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and 12 and at 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
“Be sure to bring your appetite along with your sense of humor because this special dinner theatre fundraiser will feature chicken, pasta and salad from Claw Mamma’s catering,” said Messenger. Tickets are $25 each and include dinner.
The Ocala Gazette visited the dress rehearsal of the gals’ version. The senior playing Olive Madison sported an angular striped windbreaker you’d expect to see on Blanche in the “Golden Girls” and Florence Unger’s white jumpsuit-like getup looked like it was borrowed from Suzanne Somers in “Three’s Company.”
The cast’s energy and timing were on point, impressive for thespians their age. Elizabeth Connelly, the sophomore portraying Florence, credited teacher/director Messenger for giving them the latitude to find their voice and make choices about their characters while giving them much-needed guidance.
This is Messenger’s first year at West Port. She has taught performance in traditional and nontraditional settings for the better part of two decades. A 2005 graduate of Flagler College, she once worked at Ocala’s Discovery Center and has taught performance to students who wouldn’t otherwise experience the art form.
“I had a grant where I went into public schools earlier in my career to help rural and inner-city public schools use drama as a way to upbringing comprehension,” Messenger explained. “So, I had a program that I did kind of independently for several years, but this is my first time on the public-school payroll.”
Leading the Omega company students in the tech and design aspects of “The Odd Couple,” is West Port High instructor Shannon Singley, who graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, with a double major in theater and psychology. She has done extensive work in theater tech and graduated with a master’s degree from New York University’s educational theater program. She has studied internationally in London and Dublin.
Talking to both instructors, we get a sense that the West Port theater students, like other students in the school’s magnet programs, go above and beyond in their efforts and extracurricular activities. Morgan Vanderlaan, for instance, the senior who plays Olive Madison, has added the responsibility of co-leading a nonprofit for victims of domestic violence called Purple Handprint.
As president of the debate team, Vanderlaan placed fourth internationally in television production through the SkillsUSA organization, was named the best petitioner attorney at the Moot Court State competition in 2020 and placed third in the state at the FCDI 2022 finals in extemporaneous speaking. She has interviewed at Ivey League schools and is considering Georgetown University, where she’s thinking about a double major in theater performance and political science.
West Port High School is headquarters for the Marion County Center for the Arts Magnet School, which draws dedicated performers countywide, so theatergoers can most likely expect a higher-than-usual caliber of teen talent at this immersive comedy production. A silent auction will be featured as part of the event.
“Our group is very much team-oriented,” Messenger said. “We have a lot of team players. They’re all very encouraging, with a willingness to jump in with both feet into the deep end and go whole hog.”
Visit wphs.seatyourself.biz to reserve tickets to The Odd Couple.