SPRINGFIELD, NJ - The playbill lists all 80 characters in “Shrek, The Musical, Jr.,” as cast members. Erin Hernon, who portrayed Princess Fiona in the CAU Community Players production, prefers to call her fellow thespians family.
“Shrek The Musical, Jr.” was the fifth production for this special troupe of actors, with three performances June 26 through 28 at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, that drew more than 1,100 guests. Formed in 2012, the CAU Community Players blends individuals with developmental disabilities and actors and actresses from the broader community. About half the cast are members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), some of whom have participated in the troupe’s prior productions and others who take the stage for the first time. The annual show allows CAU members to engage in the pleasures of acting, singing and dancing and to be judged for their talents rather than disabilities.
CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing programs and services to more than 6,000 adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families to enable them to live independently in the community in areas including vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services.
“We have become a family working together on something so beautiful,” said Hernon, a veteran actress and junior at Ramapo College who plans to become a special-education teacher. “I’ve become a mentor to them. It's really put a smile on my face and made me realize I really love what I do.”
Director Marguerite Modero chose “Shrek” as this year’s production because it carries a message of inclusion, acceptance and believing in oneself. "That’s our message,” she said. “I want this to be magical for them.”
“Shrek The Musical, Jr.” is based on DreamWorks Animation film “Shrek” and is the story of the lovable ogre finding his swamp invaded by fairytale misfits – the Three Bears, Pinocchio, Snow White, Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and others – all of whom have been banished to the swamp by Lord Farquaad.
Shrek sets off to face Lord Farquaad and is given the task of rescuing Princess Fiona from the dragon-guarded tower to regain his swamp. Romance between the princess and Shrek ensues and the play draws to a happy conclusion.
Tyler O’Neill was a commanding presence on stage in the lead role as Shrek the Ogre. He said his character taught him to be strong and confident.
“No matter how sick or how scared you are, you can be anything,” said O’Neill, who is a person with disabilities. He attends CAU's Academy of Continuing Education and has participated in the show for the past two years.Few in the audience knew Saturday night that O’Neill was under the weather with a cold and sore throat but, as he noted, “The show must go on.”
The entire troupe closed out the performance singing, “This is Our Story,” featuring the lyrics, “We are different and united. We are us and we are you.”
A tangible sense of pride and accomplishment shifted from the auditorium to the backstage area immediately after the curtain came down on the finale. There was a genuine feeling of sharing in something special as the costumed actors and actresses embraced one another in the hallway and family members handed off bouquets of flowers and balloons.
“I feel like a star being on the stage,” said Dipen Trivedi, a CAU member who portrayed one of Lord Farquaad’s knights. This was his first experience on stage and he said he is looking forward to next year’s show.
"Shrek” was the fifth CAU production for Megan Modero, a CAU member who portrayed Mama Ogre and the Wicked Witch of the West. She had previous roles in “Seussical Jr.,” “Beauty & the Beast, Jr.” and “Fiddler on the Roof, Jr.” She explained that the opportunity to portray so many different characters has helped her grow.
“Each year, I get better,” she said. “I loved it,” said Joyce Cargle, dressed in her Snow White costume. This was her fifth production for the CAU member. Beaming with pride, she revealed that she had survived ovarian cancer last year. “I made it through,” she said.
The show was supported with a grant from the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities. All proceeds support CAU programs and its members. Funding was made possible in part by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, through a grant administered by the Union County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 36th year of success in 2015, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society. CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. CAU serves more than 6,000 individuals each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us at 908.354.3040 or www.caunj.org, or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.