Shaping the local theater scene: JL Rey and Cyndee A. Dornblaser at Spanish Lyric Theatre

 Fate, or fortune, often works in unexpected ways. That is the case with JL Rey, the artistic director of Tampa’s Spanish Lyric Theatre. 

“I found theater by accident,” says Rey, who was born in Cuba and brought to the United States at age ten.
Rey, who goes by Jorge, was singing in a church choir when someone told him he had a beautiful voice. He ended up getting hired by Mark One Dinner Theater in Lakeland.
Spanish Lyric Theatre’s President and Producing Director Cyndee A. Dornblaser is a Tampa native and a 1982 Miss Tampa. A few years after winning that title, she started performing. She recalls that she was once scheduled to perform in a production of “West Side Story,” only to realize that the show would not be performed in English.

“Oh my God!” she remembers exclaiming. “It’s in Spanish!
Dornblaser moved past the language barrier and continued to work in the theater. Over the years, she and Rey have performed together many times, including a production of “Evita” at the Florida State Fair.

When COVID hit, Dornblaser and Spanish Lyric tried to adapt. 

“We tried to figure out how not to go broke,” she says “We didn’t do shows for a while. We lost board members. We lost sponsors.”
They tried virtual productions but that didn’t catch on. Then they tried pop-up concerts using speakers and microphones and performing on the back of a utility trailer. 

“We just showed up and started singing,” Dornblaser says.
For those performances, they used the Centro Asturiano parking lot on the campus of Hillsborough Community College.
“That brought in a little money, but not much,” Dornblaer says. “Luckily for us, we don’t own a theater of our own so we had no mortgages or rental leases. We downsized our warehouse where our costumes and sets were kept.”

Founded in 1959, Spanish Lyric Theatre is billed as Tampa’s oldest community theater company. It was started by Rene Gonzalez when he was a student at the University of Tampa. That’s where Gonzalez staged his first zarzuela in the university’s Plant Hall. The company later moved to Ybor City’s Centro Asturiano.
“Zarzuelas originated in Spain,” Rey says. “They are equivalent to American musical theater.”
Rey, who recently directed the Stageworks production of “Anna in the Tropics," is committed to staging more zarzuelas in the future.
But next up for Spanish Lyric is Lin- Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for best musical, best score, best choreography and best orchestration. It is a logical choice for a company dedicated to serving the diverse Tampa Bay community by staging productions in both English and Spanish. The musical is set in New York City’s bilingual Washington Heights neighborhood and reflects Spanish Lyric Theatre’s ideals of diversity, inclusiveness and preserving the Latino heritage.
“In the Heights “ was originally slated for June 2020. Now it hits the stage this summer, July 29 through August 7 at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Performing Arts Center.

It’s a huge show for us,” Dornblaser says.
For more information go to Spanish Lyric Theatre, email [email protected] or call the box office at (813) 603-6221.

This is the sixth in a series of stories on the talented people who lead local theater companies. To read more follow the following links:
Owen Roberts
on at Lab Theater Project.
Avery Anderson at American Stage.

Emilia Sargent at Tampa Repertory.
David Jenkins at Jobsite.

Karla Hartley at Stageworks.

Read more articles by Joanne Milani.

Joanne Milani is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former art and theater critic for The Tampa Tribune. After leaving the Tribune, she served as the executive director of Tampa’s Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and remains a member of the International Art Critics Association (AICA). She graduated from Vassar and worked in New York museums before moving to Tampa.