By Karen Zautyk
If you are in need of a bit of inspiration, look at the faces in the photos accompanying this story. These are among the young people, and their adult mentors, who invested all their talents, and their hearts, in the West Hudson Arts & Theater Co.’s recent marathon “Musical Challenge.”
From 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, until 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26, cast and crew worked virtually nonstop (there was time to eat or take a quick nap) to stage a production of “Rent.” From scratch. No prior rehearsals. No prior script memorization. No prep work at all. A monumental task for anyone, but especially for performers aged 16 to 22.
They entered the W.H.A.T. theater on Midland Ave. “cold” and for 24 hours studied lines and rehearsed and worked on music (with a live orchestra) and costumes and lighting and all the other essentials required to put on a show.
When the curtain went up that Saturday evening, it was to the applause of an audience of 100 or so people who knew they were about to witness something extraordinary.
The director, Michele Sarnoski of Lyndhurst, summed it up: “It was a blessing to be part of this experience.”
Sarnoski, a founding member of W.H.A.T. and an English teacher at Paramus High School, noted that although she has been involved in theater for about 10 years, it was mostly in choreography and production. “This was the first time I had directed a show of this scale by myself,” she said.
Sarnoski said she had first seen “Rent” on Broadway in 1998 and it had “become a huge part” of her life. “But I had always looked at it from a dancer’s perspective. As the director, “it was like seeing a whole new show.”
She called the 24-hour challenge “a truly impossible task,” but the result “was just astonishing.”
It was also “exhilarating” although ““emotionally and physically challenging.” When the performance was over, “we were all spent,” she said. “We were laughing and crying — there was such a wave of emotion.”
“We had not been asking for perfection,” Sarnoski explained. “But we were asking them (cast, musicians, crew, etc.) to give us the best of themselves, and they gave just that. They gave 100%.”
One of those doing the giving was Faith D’Isa of Kearny, a senior at High Tech High School in North Bergen. She had approached W.H.A.T. with the idea for the challenge as a fundraiser for the group and served as junior director, as well as performing in the ensemble.
D’Isa had a little bit of an advantage. “I’ve seen ‘Rent’ seven times on Broadway and I know it inside and out!” she said.
Still, when they began their work that Friday evening, “all of us were a little concerned” — especially about staying up all night and then performing.
“But it got to a point where the hours no longer mattered,” she said. “Some of the people we had never met before, but it was such a nurturing atmosphere that we started to bond. And when the time came to perform, the community we had formed really showed. Everyone in the cast was helping everyone else on stage.”
Two others in the production (their first with W.H.A.T.) were Kearny High School seniors Michael and James Berko. Michael played drums in the band, and James had the lead role of “Mark.” (By the way, they are two of triplets; the third, sister Mary, was away auditioning at a college. Show biz must be in their genes.)
“It was a lot of fun. It was an amazing experience,” James said. It was also, he noted, “a challenge trying to learn everything, but we pulled it off.”
Michael, although he was offstage, still faced “a lot of work” but “it’s good to push yourself.”
And the brothers agreed that W.H.A.T.’s presence in town is enriching the lives of both those in its productions and the audiences who come to see them.
“It was just great to see the community come out,” James said. What W.H.A.T. “is doing for the community is awesome.”
And the community is also helping W.H.A.T. The group’s publicist Linda Kraus D’Isa (Faith’s mom) cited “the support we received from our mentor volunteers, as well as the wonderful donations in food from local vendors.”
Those donors included Midland Dairy, Lily House Chinese Restaurant, ShopRite of Kearny, Entenmann’s and Wawa of Kearny.
“We are so very appreciative of their support,” she said. “Twenty-five teenagers can consume a great deal of food!”