All His World's a Stage

Earlier this month actor and director John Fionte could have used a couple of clones. Through mid-September he starred in the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim at the Broward Stage Door while directing another show, Scotland Road, at the Academy Theatre, while also rehearsing for his lead in High Society at the Royal Palm Festival Dinner Theatre.

The only reason Fionte could catch his breath at all between theater-hopping car trips was that two of his three projects were on autopilot. "I'm lucky," he said during an interview at the time. "Side by Side and Scotland Road are only up on weekends."

That left weekdays for rehearsing High Society, the stage version of the 1956 Bing Crosby/Grace Kelly film, itself a remake of the 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, which starred Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The Royal Palm is the first theater outside New York to acquire the show, which ran for a short time on Broadway in April 1998. New York actress Beth Covell plays the Kelly role -- the heiress about to remarry who realizes she's still in love with her first husband, played by Fionte. The show, like the movie, features a Cole Porter score, including such favorites as "Let's Misbehave" and "Just One of Those Things."

Fionte isn't intimidated by taking on the role made popular by Crosby. "You get to wear great clothes and say snappy lines and sing Cole Porter songs," he says. "How can you go wrong with that?"

Fionte should know. His current Sondheim gig also involves sophisticated lyrics and snappy patter. Theatergoers familiar with Fionte as a musical-comedy star (he's won Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Carbonell Awards for roles in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and H.M.S. Pinafore) might be intrigued to discover the more intellectual side of the performer. As the recently appointed artistic director for the Academy Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, Fionte chose to direct Scotland Road, Jeffrey Hatcher's enigmatic 1993 work about a woman who may or may not be a survivor of the Titanic. "It's the Academy Theatre. Part of its purpose is education," says Fionte. "I didn't have to worry about marketability." Nonetheless the show is a hit for the small playhouse.

The play's success came on the heels of another winning project featuring Fionte, the Actors' Project production of Love's Fire. In that anthology work, Fionte acted, but he also directed the evening's two most memorable skits, one a manic comedy by Tony Kushner, the other a nearly indescribable short epic by John Guare partly based on the Old Testament. "I have a fondness for epics," says the actor-director.

He also has a feel for cutting-edge material. "I would have given my eye teeth to direct One Flea Spare," he says of the much-talked-about Naomi Wallace piece, which premiered in Florida recently at Coral Gables' New Theatre.

Fionte isn't making it his mission to reshape the face of Florida theater, but he's certainly had an impact since he got here. The actor, age 45 and a native of Boston, arrived in South Florida in 1988 after the cold weather drove him out of Wisconsin, where he worked for the American Players Theatre. Once here he and now-ex-wife, Linda Fionte, ran Fionte Productions, an acting school, for several years. During that time he landed roles in the TV series Maximum Bob and in the movies The Evening Star and Up Close & Personal.

These days Fionte not only juggles multiple acting and directing jobs, he also designs sets in his spare time; his scenery appeared in recent productions at the Broward Stage Door and the Florida Grand Opera.

Even with steady work, he laments, "I remember at the end of last year being on the frustrated side. I had worked a lot, for many of the area's top companies…. You can work all the time and still not make a lot of money."

But you can make your mark on audiences. Fionte's favorite fan is his daughter, seven-year-old Gabi, to whom he recently gave a toy theater. He says: "Her first words as she opened it up were, 'I get to be the director.'"

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Robin Dougherty