Shortly before opening night, director Ralph Ambrosia faced a tough choice.
“It was either shave off the mustache or cancel the show,” he said.
The female lead in the short play he was directing had to drop out at the last minute. Ambrosia decided that rather than cancel the show, he would step in and play the female role himself. The show had to go on. And that meant that the mustache had to come off.
He didn’t really know the part — he jumped around so much that even prompter Melanie Rader had a hard time keeping up with him to feed him his lines — but the performance went over well. The audience thought the drag performance and the flubbed lines were written into the script.
“But,” Ambrosia said, “I was one ugly woman.”
Ambrosia is one of about 34 current members of Grey Pretenders, a volunteer theater group at Colony Cove, a manufactured home community (“It’s not mobile homes and it’s not trailers,” one resident cautioned a visitor) in Ellenton. The community is for people age 55 and older, and a few of the members of the Grey Pretenders have been with the group since its founding.
The Grey Pretenders — whose name is a play on the old doo-wop song “The Great Pretender” by the Platters — perform in a community center called Harmony Hall. Lots of local theater groups would envy such fancy digs. There’s a raised stage, professional quality theatrical lighting, high-quality sound equipment and good acoustics.
The group’s most recent show, a collection of short plays under the umbrella title “Spring Fling,” drew about 600 people over two nights, March 25-26.
I may be partial, but I think we do a bang-up, professional job.
Grey Pretenders president Bernie Peterson
“People came from Sun City, Parrish, Bradenton, even Sarasota,” said Bernie Peterson, who’s just finishing up her third year as the president of the Grey Pretenders.
Back in the old days, the Grey Pretenders would stage a full-length play every year. These days, they perform a collection of six or seven 15-minute plays. That makes it easier to remember the lines, one of the actors said.
They joke like that about getting older, and about the occasional “senior moments” that insinuate themselves into the productions. But putting on their annual show is hard, year-’round work, and the Grey Pretenders have the energy and dedication to do it all, and enjoy it all.
“I may be partial,” Peterson said, “but I think we do a bang-up, professional job.”
Until recently, the group did only that one show every year. Two years ago, they added a second show in which Pretenders who are so inclined dress as their favorite singers and lip-synch their songs.
“I was one of the Dixie Chicks,” Peterson said.
Even though a retirement community may conjure up images of old folks who listen to laid-back music from the days of yore, there was one group of Great Pretenders who performed as KISS. They re-created the band’s iconic makeup and rocked out with a stage show that included dry-ice smoke effects. They were so convincing that at least one audience member truly thought the actual members of KISS had dropped into Colony Cove, Peterson said.
These days, they perform a collection of six or seven 15-minute plays. That makes it easier to remember the lines, one of the actors said.
The big show is that collection of short plays, though. It’s always in March, partly because Colony Cove and the Grey Pretenders include a lot of snowbirds, so the show has to go on before they head back north. As soon as the show is over, the group starts working on the next year’s show. They look for a new batch of scripts, usually focusing one plays specifically written for seniors. They find a bunch they like, and then their play-reading committee selects six or seven to be performed, and then auditions begin. The company has a penchant for shows that are funny, but often with just a bit of an edge. Usually it’s just implied by an actor’s wink or gesture.
Occasionally the Grey Pretenders can be a too hip for their own room. A couple of years back, the women in the audience got up and walked out when a character in one of the plays uttered the phrase “simultaneous orgasm.”
But this year, all 600 audience members stayed from beginning to end, even through one of the plays concerned a customer trying to return a rectal thermometer to a store.
Membership in the Grey Pretenders is open to everyone, not just Colony Cove residents. Dues are $5 per year, call Bernie Peterson at 941-962-9311.