The Red Bank High School Casey Players transported guests “Under the Sea” as they performed Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” March 24-27. Facebook photo.
The Red Bank High School Casey Players transported guests “Under the Sea” as they performed Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” March 24-27. Facebook photo.
After nearly two years in the dark because of the pandemic, stage lights switched on again this spring in high schools across the Diocese. Audiences settled in their seats and sat transfixed as hundreds of student actors, musicians and technicians raised the curtains on the vibrant return of the annual live musical theater season.

And what a season it was for this hallmark component of Catholic education, said performing arts educators who directed the revivals. The show gave a boost to their communities, they said, commending the support of high school administrators, parents and the community at-large in helping the programs kick into high gear again.

From Notre Dame High School’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” which resonated through the Lawrenceville auditorium March 5, 6, 11 and 12, the lineup of shows included: “The Little Mermaid” at Red Bank Catholic High School, March 10-12 and “Freaky Friday” at St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, March 31 through April 2.

The weekend of April 1-3 saw “Legally Blond” entertaining audiences at Mater Dei Preparatory, Middletown and “Godspell” sharing a musical version of the Gospel at Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, Delran.

Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, is drawing the season to a close with a full-scale production of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma” April 7-9.

The Show Must Go On

With safety guidelines like social distancing and mask wearing limiting indoor group activities since COVID-19 and its variants began arriving in March 2020, theater arts suffered as much as any other element of the curriculum said educators including Cindy Dwyer, longtime director of the Seraph Players at Mater Dei Prep.

It was so important to keep the program going that Dwyer, like many of the directors, found innovative ways to keep the students before audiences including putting shows on an outdoor stage constructed with the help of alumni. There, on the main lawn of the campus, cabaret-style reviews were well attended and caught the attention of the local press.

With restrictions lifted, the Seraphs were happy to get back inside with a cast of 30 and a large crew of students, parents and other volunteers, freshman and sophomores who had never performed on an indoor stage and had a wonderful experience.

When Red Bank Catholic had to cancel its scheduled performances of “Legally Blond” in 2020, Kelly Gemellaro, performing arts director, filmed a video of “Footloose” “all over” RBC’s campus to help compensate for the loss. “Now, we’re back on stage for the first time in two years. I picked a Disney show that would pack the house,” she said of “The Little Mermaid.”

“The casting was good, it needed a minimal set and it allowed our seniors to shine. The students were so excited. For the juniors, it was their first time on stage. That is big!”

With careful staging and a lot of concentration, performing arts at Notre Dame, though scaled back, went on in 2021, said Lou Gibilisco, the school’s performing arts/music director. The spring concert was performed by the orchestra in the gym and livestreamed into the audience in the auditorium.

“It was a small cast,” he said of Godspell. “The masks were part of the costume. We did quite a few shows with masks and never really took a break.”

This spring, as restrictions lifted, the Notre Dame produced “Bye Bye Birdie” the “same way we had done it in 1994” with the help of alumni. “We were able to get some of the (original) cast back,” Gibilisco said. “We had a 35-piece orchestra. Lots of help from the backstage crews who built the sets. It was a lot of fun and the folks who came were ready for it!”

Encore, Encore!

The excitement is palpable when the artistic directors share their sense of how much it means to the students, volunteers and audience members to be back on stage.

Mary-Kate Schmidt, director of performing arts at St. John Vianney High School, was overjoyed to produce “Freaky Friday” this year.

She described this year’s cast and crew of “about 50” as “feeling another level of gratefulness and we’re not going to take it for granted. It’s just such a happy, positive vibe from the adults and the kids,” Schmidt said.

Brenda Bacon of Delran’s Holy Cross Preparatory Academy echoed Schmidt. “It was a labor of love,” Bacon said about “Godspell.” “After a two-year gap and then a year of trying to think about sets and costumes and doing theater again, we were looking for something to ease back into things.”

“Everyone was getting their [theatrical] life blood back after a tough two years.”

As the countdown to opening night of “Oklahoma” continued at Donovan Catholic, Ron Heitmann, the artistic director, reflected on the 124 students involved in the production.

“This is their sport and the kids so appreciate it,” Heitmann said. “Even through the restrictions when everything had to be done with a mask and social distancing, the camaraderie was wonderful,” he said.

“… The kids just love, love love, the show,” he said of “Oklahoma,” which turns 79 this year.

“I said to them, ‘the world needs ‘Oh, what a wonderful mornin’” noting one of the show’s signature songs. “This whole show is a happily ever after!”