LARGO - Audience members at the Largo Cultural Center's newest production gasped as they watched swashbuckling pirates brawl across the stage Sunday afternoon, falling into a deafening hush when their charismatic captain proclaimed that "all run, but only the brave return."
For the actor behind "Captain Blood," 24-year-old Brent DiRoma, those words are truly brought to life through his homecoming performance of "Lost at Sea" with the Eight O'Clock Theatre group. DiRoma has performed in the national touring companies of Tony Award-wining musicals Avenue Q and Jersey Boys, but jumped at the opportunity to return the stage of the Largo Cultural Center to work once again with the people that helped mold his career.
"Our first performance was in front of friends and family who are going to laugh at the jokes and say you were wonderful no matter what, so it's been pretty nerve racking," DiRoma said. "You want to impress your friends and make sure you're doing a really great job. You're first time in front of an audience is almost like learning to walk for the first time and feeling out what you can stand on."
The original musical "Lost at Sea" runs through July 21 and follows the story of Alex Jones, a 13-year-old from Pensacola dealing with the recent death of her father. When she returns with her family to one of her father's favorite dinner spots, a moored pirate ship turned dinner theater, she discovers that the mechanical pirate show is actually a crew of cursed pirates frozen on their ship. Jason Tucker, 39, wrote the play with his wife, Amanda Eland. Tucker, who now lives in Nashville and runs LTM Productions, also got his start with Eight O'Clock, and took "a total shot in the dark" when he asked DiRoma to be in his show.
"There's no reason he should have said yes, he's well beyond our level," Tucker said. "I really lucked out because I feel like part of him is ready to move on from musical theater, so it's like I got him for one last hoorah."
DiRoma said the offer came just when he was looking for a reason to stop touring with Jersey Boys and is "the most humbling experience" he's had. Tucker directed DiRoma when he was a senior at Seminole High School for a 2007 performance of Urinetown and wrote music for his grandmother's various musical groups while DiRoma was growing up. Playing lead character Bobby Strong in Urinetown was the best theater experience DiRoma ever had, he said, and coming home to Indian Rocks Beach and performing with old friends for the summer will help him return to New York City "refreshed."
"It's just what I needed right now," he said.
Since his days staring in community theater performances, DiRoma has become a member of the Equity actors' union, earned a nomination for a Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his portrayal of Princeton and Rod in the national tour of Avenue Q and is auditioning to be on the next season of reality television show, The Voice. The future includes a move to Brooklyn to get away from the daily grind of city life and, ideally, two successful albums fusing big band, horns, pop music and his guitar, DiRoma said.
But for the summer, his focus is on helping other budding actors, such as "Lost at Sea" star Maggie Musco, help bring Tucker's fantasy of "Pirates of the Caribbean after the park has closed" to life.
"It's been incredibly inspiring working with Brent," said Musco, a 13-year-old from Tampa. "When I grow up I want to move to New York and audition for Broadway, and knowing that he came from the same stage I'm on now definitely gives me hope."
Though Rand Smith, who plays restaurant owner Jean Pinot in the musical, is happy with his home in St. Petersburg and job as a systems analyst for the state, performing alongside DiRoma again has helped him "feel like a part of something truly special," he said. Smith performs in community theater productions throughout the Tampa Bay area, and has performed alongside DiRoma in every Eight O'Clock Theater production he was in.
"We really are a family," Smith said. "Even after going on to New York, Brent has never let it go to his head. He doesn't have a diva bone in his body."
Though it's a hard feat to bring in an audience for community productions, let alone for a show no one has ever heard of, Tucker said, between 200 to 400 seats have been filled each night.
Lost at Sea shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. Tickets are $25.50 for adults, $12.50 for students and $23 for groups of 10 or more.