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Peter Pan and Wendy found love in real life

ST. PETERSBURG — He first saw her onstage, dancing in a silver sequined dress.

He whispered to his friend, "That's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."

Taylor Simmons, then 23, had just moved from California to Florida, to play Jack in freeFall Theatre's Into the Woods. Some cast members were being honored at the 2014 Theatre Tampa Bay awards, so he had gone to clap for them at the Palladium.

Afterward, he crashed the cast party, hoping to introduce himself to the petite blond dancer.

She never showed.

• • •

She first saw him onstage, wearing torn trousers, crying about a cow.

She thought, "He has the cutest dimples I've ever seen."

Gabriella Guinta, then 22, had just graduated from the University of Tampa and was singing in Busch Gardens' Christmas show. A friend was playing the wolf in Into the Woods, so she had taken her family to see him.

She was sitting in the front row. Of course, Taylor saw her. He tried to concentrate on his performance. But it's hard to be Jack on the beanstalk when the girl of your dreams is watching from a few feet away.

"That's her!" he told cast members after the first scene. "That's the girl I'm going to marry!"

After curtain calls, Gabi's friend introduced her family to the handsome boy with the magic beans.

Her mom and brother did most of the talking.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Last summer Taylor and Gabriella Simmons were visiting Disneyland together when emails beeped onto their phones. Both had been cast in freeFall Theatre's production of Peter Pan.

In this age of cyberdating — answer an online questionnaire, let an algorithm pick your perfect partner — there is still the age-old possibility of Kismet.

Or, as Broadway's Sweet Charity puts it, "the fickle finger of fate."

Taylor and Gabi grew up on opposite coasts of the country. He was just starting theater while she was giving up. But their love of performing, and commitment to support fellow actors, brought their worlds together.

They believe they were meant to meet.

Their story is such a sweet fairy tale that when freeFall's announcer introduced the cast of Peter Pan last month and told the audience that in real life, the actors playing Peter and Wendy had just gotten married, he rolled his eyes and thrust his finger into his mouth as if he were going to gag.

• • •

Taylor was adopted in California, home-schooled with four siblings.

When he was 6, like that character in A Chorus Line, his sisters started ballet lessons and he joined in.

He gave up dance to become a runner at 14 and earned a scholarship to a Catholic high school. But in 10th grade, the drama department announced auditions for Into the Woods, so he skipped track practice, got kicked off the team, landed the part of the baker — and went back to ballet.

In his senior year, he auditioned for the Orange County High School for the Arts and, to his surprise, was accepted.

After graduation, he toured Europe and Japan with a performing group called "The Young Americans." Impersonated a Toy Story alien in Disneyland's Pixar Parade. Played Barnaby in the Santa Ana Playhouse production of Hello, Dolly! He spent a summer as a lost boy in a touring show called Peter Pan 360. And when the leading actor, then the understudy, got hurt, he started flying.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Gabi and Taylor Simmons found out they had been cast as Wendy and Peter in freeFall Theatre's Peter Pan during a trip to Disneyland last summer. They moved to St. Petersburg in the fall.

Gabi was born in Boston to a business investor and a voice teacher.

When she was 3, her mom took her to see her first show, Into the Woods.

She started ballet that year, went on to play piano and sing in her church choir. She was in seventh grade when her mom got hired as musical director for the State College of Florida and moved the family to Bradenton.

During her senior year at a small Episcopal school, Gabi auditioned for musical theater programs at a dozen colleges across the country but didn't get in.

"I'd been doing this my whole life, everyone pushing me to be a performer," she said. "Well, after that, I didn't want to do that anymore."

She got an academic scholarship to the University of Central Florida and enrolled in the event planning program. She didn't audition for any college plays. But when she went home to see her mom's students perform Into the Woods, she couldn't stop crying.

"Why aren't I still doing theater?" she asked her mom. "This is such a mistake!" So she auditioned for the University of Tampa's musical theater major and, to her surprise, got in.

• • •

He messaged her on Facebook a few hours after they met. They typed until 3 a.m.

They both want to move to New York City. Make it big on Broadway. Win Tony Awards.

On their first date, he brought her a sunflower. They were supposed to play miniature golf, but it poured. So Taylor found an indoor putting course in a strip mall, which was "kind of janky." Then they went to IHOP and shared a pile of pancakes.

"She's not only the prettiest girl I've ever known, she's the smartest," Taylor said.

"He's so motivated, such a go-getter, extremely positive and himself, all the time," Gabi said. "And he's the sweetest, kindest, most selfless person I've ever known."

• • •

They spent months apart, working in different shows on different coasts.

Last summer they were visiting Disneyland together when emails beeped onto their phones. Both had been cast in freeFall's Peter Pan.

In the fall, they moved into a three-room apartment near the theater that they shared with two pirates from the show. Every night they escaped together to Neverland.

Peter Pan, the eternal boy who ran away, didn't know what a kiss was. So in the play, when Wendy tells him he can give her a kiss, he hands her an acorn.

"For our first anniversary, I had this grand plan," Taylor said. He stole the acorn from the show, screwed in a hook and strung it on a silver chain. At sunrise, he led Gabi to the edge of Tampa Bay and told her to close her eyes.

"My kiss!" she exclaimed when she opened the necklace. Then she gave him a real one.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he said, "I have one more thing."

Warning: They're both actors, prone to the dramatic. Here's how Taylor described that next moment:

"All morning, it had been cold and cloudy. But as we sat on that bench, the sun came through the clouds and hit her eyes at the perfect moment."

He handed her a box from Tiffany. She asked, "Is this what I think it is?" And started to cry.

• • •

Their love, like them, is young. Barely tested by turmoil or time. Filled with hope, promise and endless possibilities.

"When you say you love someone, you're telling them that no matter what happens, you're always going to be there for them and you're always going to support them and encourage them to pursue their dreams," Gabi said.

"I trust her completely," said Taylor. "We always have each other's backs. We just need to look into each other's eyes and be like, 'We got this.' "

"Now we just have to figure out life," Gabi laughed. "But with him, it's going to be okay."

On a clear, cool Friday in December, they exchanged vows on a patio overlooking the Bradenton River. A friend from freeFall performed the ceremony, one of the Peter Pan pirates baked the cake, and the entire cast went to the wedding. The director kept the theater dark; that night, reality trumped make-believe.

Taylor wore a charcoal gray suit, Gabi, an ivory, vintage lace dress. Inside the hem, she had pinned the little acorn kiss.

At sunset, soap bubbles swirled around them as they danced to Summer Nights from Grease.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Gabriella and Taylor Simmons were married on Dec. 30 on a patio overlooking the Bradenton River. A friend from freeFall performed the ceremony, one of the Peter Pan pirates baked the cake, and the entire cast went to the wedding.

Last week, when Peter Pan's run ended, they packed their Prius and headed to New York to find an apartment and start auditioning. They hope one day to do another show together, one where they actually get to kiss onstage. "Like West Side Story!" said Taylor.

Sometime, years from now, they want to have four or five kids. And start a regional theater company. "Maybe in Waco, Texas," Taylor said. He wants to contact that couple from HGTV's Fixer Upper. Surely, he said, there's an old theater there that needs rehabbing — and audiences that are craving quality shows.

For now, he's working on his new role, the most important part he's ever played. Every morning when he wakes up, every evening before he goes to sleep, he runs through his list of what he thinks a good husband should do:

Hug her every day. Kiss her every night.

When she's in the shower, set out her slippers.

Never let her water bottle go empty.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.

Peter Pan and Wendy found love in real life 02/02/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2017 10:18pm]
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