Theatre South Playhouse lies outside the orbit of downtown Orlando’s arts scene, but it’s surviving — and thriving

"Nunsense" runs Feb. 10-20 at Theatre South
"Nunsense" runs Feb. 10-20 at Theatre South photo by Angie Bond/Theatre South
Feb. 10-20
Theatre South Playhouse
7601 Della Drive, Suite 15

"Nunsense" opens at the Theatre South Playhouse Thursday, Feb. 10, and runs through Feb. 20.

Amid the endless parade of tightly scripted presentations I attended at Disney's Destination D23 convention last November, one of the few presenters on stage who cut through the corporate double-speak and managed to sound like an actual human being was live entertainment creative director Tom Vazzana. So when I recently had the opportunity to interview him, I naturally had dozens of questions I wanted to ask him about his 25-year career directing shows for Walt Disney World, working on everything from the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland to the upcoming refresh of Fantasmic! But Vazzana humbly insisted that our conversation focus on Theatre South Playhouse, where he's been volunteering his time directing the company's return to presenting professional theater with this weekend's opening of a musical he's had a long history with: Nunsense.

To be honest, Theatre South Playhouse has largely flown under my radar, as it's located in the Dr. Phillips Marketplace shopping plaza that lies outside the orbit of downtown Orlando's arts scene. But the company, which was founded by executive director Hillary Brook in 2009, opened its Antoinette David Theater in 2016, which it uses as both a professional stage and academic conservatory. Vazzana lived in the Dr. Phillips neighborhood and recalls, "I was intrigued with how this little theater that's [about] 100 seats was able to survive, when others are struggling."

"I went to a show [and] I was very impressed by the whole thing, but more impressed that Hillary is able to tap into a community and offer educational courses, summer camps, multiple theater shows for children and young adults, and build an audience with what I saw as a faithful parental support system," Vazzana says.

Like most theaters, the COVID-19 pandemic put Theatre South Playhouse's mainstage productions on pause, but when the time came to relight the footlights, Vazzana enthusiastically offered to helm the classic Catholic comedy Nunsense, going so far as to pitch the project in character wearing full nun drag.

Vazzana came to Central Florida in 1995 after working in New York City and on national tours, where his credits included assistant directing Evita under the legendary Harold Price and acting in the original opening night cast of Annie. In 1995, a musical director friend offered him a stage management gig on a new show she was sure was "going to tank." Instead of going on unemployment, Vazzana decided, "I love a good bomb," and ended up as part of the original creative team for writer-director Dan Goggin's Nunsense: The Musical, which went on to worldwide acclaim. "I just remember ironing nuns' habits on opening night going 'What on earth have we got ourselves into?'" says Vazzana. "And then, poof: It was a hit!"

In the decades since, Nunsense has spawned a half-dozen sequels and several spinoffs, including the all-male A-Men version coming to Winter Park Playhouse next January. But for Theatre South Playhouse's production, Vazzana is returning to the show's roots by re-creating Goggin's and choreographer Felton Smith's original staging. In the process, he hopes to tap into the heart and soul beneath the habitual humor that made the original incarnation so enduring.

"It doesn't matter if they're nuns; they're talking about themselves and an inspiration from their life that made them become dedicated to something," Vazzana says about the script's key emotional scenes. "These moments are so strong that the zaniness around the farce is grounded in these moments. And these moments resonate with everybody, because I don't have to be a nun to tell you about my greatest inspiration and how I'm going to move that forward."

For this production of Nunsense, Vazzana has assembled a cast that includes Tay Anderson, Hillary Brook, Kristie Geng and Virginia Roebuck. Leading the ensemble as Reverend Mother Regina is Orlando cabaret icon Andrea Canny, whom Vazzana has been performing with for more than 25 years. "Andrea Canny and I would get an accompanist, and we would go to one of those empty rooms that there were so many of on Orange Avenue," remembers Vazzana. "We would set up tables and we bought wine, and we did $10 benefits for [the AIDS service organization] CENTAUR."

When I spoke with Vazzana, the Omicron variant was still raging, but Tom remained optimistic about theater's future despite the disease. "There's a panic button, and we need this pendulum to swing back, and we need the crazy around it to stop," says Vazzana. "When we stop panicking will be when theater is able to survive, and theater has always survived."

In the meantime, Vazzana urges everyone to attend Nunsense and support the "great work" Theatre South does "garnering, gathering, educating and instilling enthusiasm in young people" for the performing arts. "You will laugh and be moved and laugh again," he promises. "And you just might walk away slightly better."

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