ELIZABETH, NJ — What makes theater irresistible to those who perform? Beyond the lights, music and thrill of embodying a character, it’s the energy of creating art as a team.
Teamwork is making magic possible for the CAU Community Players’ tenth-anniversary show. “The Wizard of Oz” runs June 24, 25 and 26, streaming live at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at www.caunj.org/events/.
Starring in “The Wizard of Oz” are Mackenzie Modero as Dorothy, Melody Lucas as the Wicked Witch, Tyler O’Neil as the Scarecrow, Gerard Russomanno as the Tin Man, James Smith as the Cowardly Lion, Milena Lavin as Glinda and Jonathan Wiener as Professor Marvel. They join a cast of more than 50 performers, including special-guest Munchkins from Elizabeth Public Schools.
Formed at Community Access Unlimited in 2012, the troupe was created to include everyone in the art of theater and fight the disadvantages and stereotypes people with disabilities often face. CAU is based in Union County and supports people with disabilities and youths at risk with services and assistance with housing, life skills, employment, personal finance, relationships, civic engagement and more.
Everyone has the opportunity to audition; the group features performers with and without disabilities.
Smith, who is playing the Cowardly Lion, said that acting with CAU has helped him tap into his creativity and grow his confidence. He is currently writing his second script for a musical that he hopes to stage someday with the troupe.
“I think CAU provides an excellent place for people to (be in theater) regardless of what their limitations are or what they can or can’t do,” Smith said.
He previously starred as Genie in the troupe’s production of “Aladdin.”
“That’s a role I’ve wanted to do since childhood, and Mrs. Modero was able to make it happen for me.”
Marguerite Modero said audiences should watch the show to change their expectations of what people with different abilities can achieve.
“In our population of people with challenges, many times the general population feels like ‘they could never do that’— and you’re going to see that they can do that and more,” she said. “In some cases, they far surpass people who have taken acting classes and acting lessons. … My job is to try to bring that out in them and give them the confidence. We’ve gotten some really high-class performances over the years.”
“Oz” is the troupe’s second virtual performance due to COVID-19 safety restrictions — they showed “Elf” in December — and the group is excited to add more professional details and special effects in the show with the help of videographer Michael Lefton and choreographer Jensyn Modero.
Dianna Sims is one of many performers who return year after year — she has participated in nine of the 10 shows and said she feels secure with her castmates as a visually impaired performer. They can show her exactly where to stand on stage.
“I make sure my accommodations are met,” she said. “With a disability you can do anything. … I recommend people watch it to see what people with disabilities can do.”
Other cast members said they love the opportunity to try new things and showcase their skills.
“I like being able to play characters and roles that are outside my comfort zone,” said Russomanno, who is playing the Tin Man. “What’s also special is the bond I have with people. Since I’ve joined I’ve made a lot of new friends, and being able to see each other every year to put these on has truly been a great experience.”
“We all encourage each other,” Marguerite Modero added. “If someone feels frightened, we try to pump them up. And I think that having CAU provide this is so important, because there are so many creative people whose souls get crushed from being discounted, and no one here is discounted. Everyone has a talent, and they’re getting to reach their fullest potential.”
Sponsorship opportunities are available and include advertising in the show’s playbill. Email [email protected] to inquire about sponsorships.
Proceeds from “Oz” will support next year’s production, which the troupe hopes to perform live and onstage.
Photos Courtesy of Erin Jerome