‘Once on This Island’ coming to Kearny

Photo by Catherine Astrella Playing deities in “Once on This Island,” from l., are Gabe Navia, Mary Berko, Jimmy Simoes and Future Vereen.
Photo by Catherine Astrella
Playing deities in “Once on This Island,” from l., are Gabe Navia, Mary Berko, Jimmy Simoes and Future Vereen. Scroll down for gallery.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


Kearny High School will usher in spring by welcoming visitors to an enchanted tropical isle where, it is hoped that “Once on This Island,” they won’t want to leave.

Or at least, not until the play of that aforesaid name ends.

The KHS players have selected this 1990 Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, to offer theatergoers on March 21, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. nightly. Tickets are $8 for students and the elderly, $10 for adults.

Local senior citizens will be treated to a special preview dinner and show on March 19. The meal will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the show follows at 7 p.m. at no cost but reservations are required.

For reservations and/or tickets, call Sally Sprague at 201-955-5048.

To convey what he described as a mixture of “Romeo and Juliet” with “The Little Mermaid,” KHS chorus teacher Brian Toal, the show’s director, has assembled a cast of 23, backed by an orchestra of eight professionals and two students – wind player senior Jennifer Gilker and percussionist junior Aislynn Sroczynski – conducted by KHS Band Director Ed Gargiullo.

If you’re one of those types that demand a plot summary before you venture into a theater, here is a capsule version: A young peasant girl falls in love with a rich guy who is badly injured but whom she nurses back to health but … well, I don’t want to be a spoiler. You’ll hear from those players shortly.

And, oh yes, complications abound, thanks to intervention by the local deities. More about them later.

During a break at a rehearsal a few weeks ago, The Observer was granted an exclusive interview with the show’s co-stars, junior Cassie Shea, who plays the peasant girl Ti Moune; and senior James Berko, who has the role of rich guy Daniel.

After prior supporting roles in “Les Miserables,” “Pippin” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” 16-year-old Cassie is going about the business of preparing for her “most challenging” assignment to date.

“I’ll be singing songs in a higher range than what I’m used to and I have more solos,” she explains. So, aside from normal two and a half hour rehearsals Monday through Thursday, she’s plugged into a karaoke recording at home to achieve the desired effect.

“The music’s amazing,” she says.

As for showing up as Ti Moune, that’s part of her new challenge. “She’s naive but hopeful and determined – I think I’ll be good playing that,” Cassie maintains.

And being disappointed in love? “I’m a teenager,” says Cassie. “I have had heartbreak before but I think I can tap into those feelings.”

James, 18, a seasoned veteran of five shows at KHS (including Seymour in “Little Shop …”), finds himself in a conundrum with this role.

“Daniel is rich and has an arranged marriage but falls in love with Ti Moune, a peasant girl, but the rules of the island say that the rich and poor can’t marry and that’s a hard concept for me to accept,” says James. “I’ve never been in that position so to get into that mindset is very difficult.”

His character’s willingness, ultimately, to accept that principle is a true mindbender for James who recognizes, “I have to get over that [feeling]” to nail Daniel.

Post-graduation plans find James on the path to studying to become an educator, preferably as a high school history teacher, while Cassie confesses to being “torn between pursuing a career in musical theater or forensic psychology.”

And now, lest we forget, an introduction to the island gods, starting with senior Mary Berko (sister of James), who plays Asaka, goddess of earth. (By the way, you should also look for senior Michael Berko – the third member of the Berko triplets – on stage: He’s Armand, another rich guy.)

Mary’s been singing for KHS audiences since her freshman year but she admits she’s up against it with Asaka. “This role is very much out of the [vocal] range of my previous roles,” she says. “The songs are in a lower register than what I normally do, plus my character’s personality is really big. I’m trying my best to be someone I’m completely not.”

By contrast, senior Gabriel Navia, 17, is quite comfortable in the role of Papa Ge, demon of death, who he describes as “very out there, menacing – he wants to take lives of others.” (That may evoke memories of last year’s role as Audrey II in last year’s “Little Shop…”). “It’s fun,” Gabriel says. “I feel this part is perfect for me. Big and outgoing.” He’s projecting a future in “risk management.” No fooling.

But, by the way, Mary, 18, is absolutely confident about a future before the footlights. “I’ve decided to pursue musical theater the rest of my life,” she says. “I like the fact that you can use [your character] to portray strong emotions through song and dance that people wouldn’t ordinarily see and then can relate to that.”

Senior Jimmy Simoes, 17, cast as Agwe, god of water, plays trumpet in the KHS Marching Band and tested the thespian waters last year with the town’s Teen Drama group. “I enjoyed it because you can not be yourself,” he says.

Now that he’s got the bug, Jimmy wants to continue singing and horn playing in postgrad years but not as a lifetime gig. His career choice? “I want to be a S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) officer.”

Last of the deities is senior Future Vereen, 17, who plays Erzulie, goddess of love. “It’s my first time in theater,” she says. Still, Future already knows she’s “going to have a career in music as a singer.” She’s been singing “since I was five” and currently her voice can be heard at the Revival Temple Choir in Newark.

Her vocal talent apparently runs in the family: Her cousin is the professional actor, Ben Vereen, a Tony Award winner for his Broadway work in “Pippin” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Alas, she says they’ve never met.

Rounding out the cast, other supporting players are: freshman Carly Hull as Little Ti Moune, senior Devin Wason as Mama Euralie, senior Adrian Yllatopa as Tonton Julian, sophomore Leslie Hassanein as Andrea, freshman Stephanie Herrera as Madame Armand, senior Chris Doran as Gatekeeper and seniors Shawn Carlos, Karine Nunes, Nicole Olivares and Kathereen Pablo, juniors Michael Oliveira and Stephanie Pinto, sophomores Lilah Orengo, Kevin Steinmann and Julia Truskolawski and freshman Kayla Santana, all as Storytellers.

Behind the scenes, scattered through the “island,” are several others contributing to the production. Among them are: junior Joana Marmelo, stage manager; Garfield School teacher Milagros Gonzalez, choreographer; KHS A.P. studio arts teacher John Bednarczyk, set/light designer; and KHS counselor Catherine Astrella, business manager.

They’re all waiting for you on the “Island.”

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