By Lori Anne Oliwa | Monitor Correspondent
The 50th anniversary of the performing arts program in Mater Dei Prep, New Monmouth, was no ordinary celebration as returning alumni, current students, parents, staff and friends of the school gathered for a star-studded evening May 18.
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The celebration, which was also a fundraiser to refurbish Memorial Hall, featured a 50-year retrospective and musical review of productions staged by the school’s performing arts department. The main attraction was the live vocal performances by original cast members spanning 50 years of musicals, beginning in the 1960s with the production “Jenny Kissed Me” and ending with the 2014 performance of “The Addams Family,” Many, if not most of the performers, were returning alumni. Several have attained a high level of success on Broadway and in Hollywood.
The event was conceived by Cindy Dwyer, director of performing arts in Mater Dei Prep. She explained in an interview that she always tries to host an alumni cabaret every summer. In April, she realized that the summer of 2014 would be her 25th anniversary of teaching at the school as well as the 50th anniversary of the very first production. She also thought about the improvements needed to Memorial Hall, a gymnasium where the productions are staged. “So the idea was born,” Dwyer said., adding that she wanted to plan some type of event which would bring alumni back to the school to perform while at the same time raising needed funds to upgrade the acoustical systems in the performance venue. “I look for any excuse to bring my old students back. Memorial Hall is a gym with the typical gym acoustics. Although we spend thousands of dollars renting sound equipment for our musicals, we can never get a decent sound,” noted Dwyer, who was the accompanist for the evening and planned ’50 Years of Musicals’ with assistance from some very famous faces and voices that once graced the Mater Dei stage as members of The Seraph Players.
The word ‘star-studded’ was no exaggeration. Emcees for the evening were David Meenan, a Broadway star with credits such as “Chorus Line” and “42nd Street” to his name, and David Cruse, who owns Coastal Artists, a production company in Ocean Grove. Meenan agreed to research and assist Dwyer with musical compilations from the first 25 years, from 1964 to 1989, while Dwyer completed work on the next 25 years, from 1989 to the present.
Meenan graduated in 1980 and credited the school for his success on Broadway. He reminisced about his first role in the school production “Oliver” in 1977 as a freshman. “It all started with Oliver. That production has led me to a career in stage, film and screen and has taken me all over the world where I have performed in seven languages,” Meenan said. He emphasized, however, that he is not the only success story. “The performing arts program at Mater Dei has produced a tremendous amount of talent,” Meenan added, noting the names Mary Kay Adams from television series “The Guiding Light”; Mark Lamura from “All My Children”; Ted Kurdyla, a producer and director in Hollywood; Kerrianne Spellman, a Broadway actress; Robert Harper; Emmy and Grammy Award-winner Trudy Craney; Hollywood actor and musician Bob McEvilly; Joe Rapolla, musical legend and current chair of the music department at Monmouth University; Robert Waldron, a well-known director; musician Robert Marriner, and actresses Kathy Smith Logan and Catherine Tarpey.
"I loved, loved, loved, loved seeing and hearing my own former students again. Every one of them has grown and improved as a performer since high school, and so many of them have stayed in the theatrical world, which makes me very happy. I was extremely impressed with the caliber of performances,” Dwyer said enthusiastically.
During the event, Joe Rapolla reprised his role in the 1978 school production of “Sound of Music” with his own rendition of the song “Edelweiss” and was emotional as he dedicated the song to his brother, Danny. Waldron had everyone laughing with a soliloquy branded with his unique sense of humor. Craney, the opera star, performed to a rousing standing ovation when she sang several songs from the production “The King and I” including “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Summertime” and “Getting To Know You.”
Craney addressed the crowd and offered assistance to those wanting to enter the world of show business, encouraging them to reach out to her. “It is not an easy business. I am available and there for any of you who want to speak to me,” she said.
The attitude of giving exemplified by Craney and evident in all the performers, explained Meehan, is really what underscored the event. “The desire to help and to give back because people gave to us during our time here is what this event is all about,” Meenan said.