‘Doin’ the Divas’ at Vero Beach Theatre Guild helps By the River

VERO BEACH – She growled, she crooned, she shimmied, she vamped, she joked, she belted, generating non-stop energy that flew from the Vero Beach Theatre Guild stage and ricocheted off the walls.

For two-and-a-half hours Saturday night, powerhouse vocalist Jennifer Patty charmed and engaged the audience who had come to support By the River, a 2-year-old residential community for “economically challenged” seniors, located on the Sebastian River. With roller-derby energy and pipes made for major league belting, Jennifer, known locally as the former Director of Theatre and Administration of the Waxlax Center for the Performing Arts at St. Edward’s School, gave her all in a one-women show “Doin’ the Divas.”

The current economy has heightened the challenge of non-profit fundraising, and By the River certainly feels the pressure.

Board member Gundula Hargraves said she has discovered that it is often difficult to sustain a conversation about “old people. People don’t like to talk – or think – about aging. They like to think about being young. But it’s a journey we’ll all take.”

By the River Public Relations Director Sita Harrison agreed. Causes involving children or animals do generate more warm fuzzies and less personal discomfort, but, Sita said, there is a great need within this segment of our county’s population – lower-income folks, the “frail elderly or disabled,” who might not have a spouse or children to help them, but who desire the freedom to make independent decisions and retain some privacy – and dignity.

Founded by spiritual teacher Ma Jaya (also founder of Roseland’s Kashi ashram) the facility sits along the Roseland Road Corridor in Sebastian, one of the loveliest areas of the county, on over five acres of pine forest near the St. Sebastian River, where residents can enjoy the natural environment.

Joe Coakley, well-known champion of local causes, is By the River’s Director of Charitable Gifts, and has known Jennifer since they worked together on last year’s Dancing With the Vero Stars.

Impressed with her talent and energy, Joe said he was pleasantly surprised when he received an e-mail from Jennifer offering her services to help the cause.

“I had just retired from teaching to spend more time with my three kids,” Jennifer explained, Bryce, 7, Peyton, 13, and Garret, 14. “I missed singing for people.”

She added that, in November, she knew what she could do.

Jennifer had performed for veterans and their families as Miss U.S.O. of 1997, and found she could, through music, bring some joy – and even healing. She watched the veterans respond to the music she sang from “their era.”

So she e-mailed Joe and offered to sing for the By the River residents. Joe instantly agreed and, grabbing the opportunity, asked whether she’d also like to do a fundraiser.

Ever the teacher, Jennifer researched super nova songbirds, chose 40-plus songs from 32 best-of-the-best over the past 100 years, and interspersed the songs with funny and fascinating tidbits from their lives and careers.

Then, one by one, she stepped into each persona, opening with the silky dressing gown, diva ‘tude and bawdy, gravelly delivery of Sophie Tucker. The songs were theirs, but the delivery was all hers, rendered with humor, love and respect.

“I’ve known Jen forever and ever,” said Mark Wygonik. “It’s nice to see her performing out in the community.”

This kind of facility “is much needed. We’re very glad to support it,” Jeff and Shelley Luther agreed.

“We like the concept and we came to support the cause,” Mark Buice and John Treadwell.

“I’ve heard her when she performs for us. She’s great,” said Vietnam-era Navy veteran Bruce Lennon, an outgoing resident of By the River.

Taking tickets was long-time friend Jackie Solari (husband Bob is County Commission chair). Jackie looked absolutely smashing in her LBD and short, sophisticated silvery haircut, and, with the rest of the audience, thoroughly enjoyed the show, laughing and softly singing along.

After intermission, Jennifer, still running in fifth gear, returned to the stage as mini-skirted, go-go booted Cher (“The Beat Goes On”) and proceeded to pull out whatever stops remained after the first act.

By the time she had wrung every drop of pathos, heartbreak, anguish, and unrequited whatever out of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” she could have collapsed in a pile of emotion had she not been clinging to the mic stand. But on she sang, giving every note her all.

“The rest of Vero missed an amazing evening,” Wygonik said.

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