Local Composer Pens “Diva Diaries” at Broward Center

Keagan Tanner, Ryan Brown and Johnny Butler star in “Diva Diaries” at the Broward Center, opening Jan. 6. Submitted photo.

Fort Lauderdale lyricist and composer John Mercurio is part of the creative team behind “Diva Diaries,” opening Jan. 6 in the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center.

“Diva Diaries” chronicles the sentiments and aspirations of three dynamic drag queens, Randee, Damsel and Cleareen, who show up for a performance only to learn the club where they’ve worked together for 25 years is closing. Six actors portray the girls as both their younger and older selves in the sentimental musical.

The show actually got its start 14 years ago. Mercurio teamed up with Andrew Kato, now artistic director at the Maltz Jupiter Theater, and James O’Conner-Taylor, a.k.a. Jem Jender, when the trio lived in New York.

Each brought unique skills to the production: Mercurio, the composer; Kato, the story concept, theatrical production and contacts; and O’Conner-Taylor, a veteran of the gender-bending dance troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the female impersonation expert.

The show received its premiere in 2003 at the Broward Center, along with subsequent productions in Tampa and Chicago, but was shelved until this year, when the creative team undertook major rewrites, including new music from Mercurio.

The original production featured lipsynced numbers that were replaced with original songs that relate more closely to the show’s story. The pop score evokes club music of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Despite the clichés about how gay men get bitter with age, a dozen years actually resulted in a more heartfelt show from the creators.

“As we got older, it didn’t become more serious. The show is actually lighter. It’s certainly dramatic—there’s even a cat fight on stage—but there’s a gentle humor,” he explained.

Much of the drama occurs in the club dressing room, where the drag queens share their pent up thoughts. Feathers fly as the divas spill secrets, fall apart and eventually come together, Mercurio promised.

“As they review where they’ve been and come from, they realize where they’re going,” he said.

The new production has reminded Mercurio of his youth, too. He met Kato at the old Burt Reynolds dinner theater at the age of 17, where he first started writing music.

“I fell in love with theater, but never thought it could be a career,” he recalled.

Mercurio completed his undergraduate studies in classical music at the famed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, before making the move to Manhattan and graduate school at NYU, “right in the heart of the musical theater world,” he said. After 20 years, he returned to South Florida.

In 2012, Kato produced the world premiere of Mercurio’s musical, “Academy,” at the Maltz. Recipient of a prestigious ASCAP Cole Porter Award for Music and Lyrics, the composer is also currently writing the music for a Broadway-bound production of “Green Acres,” based on the cult ‘60s television sitcom.

And this production of “Diva Diaries” is sure to enjoy a longer life this go-around. Other interested theater companies will be attending the production, “to check it out,” and the creative team built this production to move. All the sets will fit in a truck.

“I think it has that potential,” Mercurio speculated. “I feel really good about where we are and we’re definitely ready for that next stage.”

“Diva Diaries” will be presented in the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, Jan. 6 – 31. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets are $45 at BrowardCenter.org.

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