Coiled and Ready to Strike Up the Band

If you were to turn Jim Tommaney upside down, chances are a play would fall out of his head. The prolific South Beach multihypenate -- who has written, produced, directed, and acted in "five or six" of his own plays since opening EDGE/Theatre in early 1995 -- gives birth to a new project this month. Unlike his previous endeavors, which tended to be lower-key satires and social commentary, Snake! A Musical with Bite! will be the first full-scale musical -- seven actors, nineteen songs -- to squeeze itself into the tiny third-floor theater on Espanola Way.

But like many a theater project before it, Snake! almost didn't happen. The story is about Ginnie, a musical-variety star who has a breakdown onstage and then confronts a tragedy in her past. The tale of how Tommaney tried to find a musical director might inspire a melodrama of its own. "The first composer I tried wrote an interesting country-western song that was totally inappropriate to the lyrics," he recalls.

"I had another composer who had the bad luck to pass away on me. I had a third composer who worked on Snake! -- then, two years later, nothing," he adds. Enter Adam-Ray. The Oregon-born Miami transplant, who grew up performing in a family gospel group on Christian radio and television, auditioned for the role of Steve, husband of the beleaguered entertainer. "He played me one of his CDs," says Tommaney, who then realized he'd struck gold. Adam-Ray got the part and also assumed the duties of composer/musical director, eventually bringing in colleague Ron Bruni to help score the show.

Neither Adam-Ray nor Tommaney is daunted by the notion of staging a musical in a space that is 13.5 feet at its widest and 20 feet deep. "To me a small stage is an asset," Tommaney asserts. "Intimate dramas are hard to stage on a large stage. It just means we can't do Agnes de Mille choreography."

What you can do, according to Tommaney, is "a play about recovery in redemption." Here Adam-Ray jumps in: "There are no twelve-step programs. Our star is not plagued by substance abuse." Tommaney notes that Snake! was inspired by the writings of New York psychiatrist and author Peter Rosenfels, who says there are two kinds of people. While Rosenfels labels the types "masculine and feminine," Tommaney calls them earth people and sky people. "The sky people are the achievers and the doers, and the earth people are the nurturers and sources of wisdom," he explains. "The trick is for the sky person to accept the earth person's nurturing." Another trick, it would seem, would be relating a philosophical construct to the story of Ginnie. Perhaps that's where the music comes in.

Adam-Ray describes the score as a melange of Top 40 radio, with "some romantic ballads, some jazz tunes, some standard musical-type tunes." Oh, and there's also a disco version of "Ave Maria." It's possible that setting the Catholic hymn to a dance beat might have occurred to more than one composer, but it's safe to say that Snake! will be the first show in which the song is performed by a Jewish cantor.

Tommaney and Adam-Ray weren't looking for a liturgical singer; they already had one. Jennifer Kuvin was an attorney studying to be a cantor when she was cast as Ginnie. "I know all the services. I was looking for a synagogue to do an apprenticeship with," she says. The singer had always gravitated toward musical theater and is happy to take a short leave from cantorial studies to appear in the show, though Kuvin admits she doesn't quite know what to make of the show's bizarre rendition of "Ave Maria." She does realize, however, that Snake's score is unique: "It's not like doing another Chorus Line."

-- Robin Dougherty

Snake! A Musical with Bite! previews August 24 through 30; then opens September 4 for an open-ended run. Performances take place Friday through Sunday at 8:00 p.m. at EDGE/Theatre, 405 Espanola Way, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $12 to $15. Call 305-531-6083.

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Robin Dougherty