The CAU Community Players, a very special troupe of actors both with and without disabilities, will be performing "Shrek the Musical Jr." Friday, Saturday and Sunday June 26-28 at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield. Tickets are available online at www.caunj.org.
The CAU Community Players, the first of its kind in Union County, was formed in 2012 to allow CAU members with developmental disabilities to engage in the pleasures of acting, singing and dancing side-by-side with people from the wider community and to be judged for their talents rather than disabilities. This year's cast of 80 includes members of the community from as far away as Essex, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic and Hunterdon counties.
"Shrek the Musical, Jr." is based on DreamWorks Animation film, "Shrek," and is the story of the lovable ogre finding his swamp invaded by banished fairytale misfits who've been cast off 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 ensues.
"With Shrek, all his life was shaped by society believing he is mean and ugly, but once he finds that he is capable of loving and standing up for the rights of others, it is an epiphany for him," said Marguerite Modero, the production's director. "He says, 'I am a good person with feelings and not a monster and I don't have to be the way people judge me.' It speaks to our members here at Community Access being allowed to test their wings and fly and do great things other people maybe didn't think they could do."
CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to more than 6,000 adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) 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.
The show's cast of about 80 is half members of CAU and half members of the wider community, with ages ranging from 4 to their 80s.
Tyler O'Neill of Scotch Plains is a member of CAU who attends the agency's Academy of Continuing Education, where he is taking classes in math, theater and jewelry-making. He is playing Shrek.
"When my mother told me I got the main character I could not believe it," he said. "It's not every day you become a star in a play. The tough part is singing while in character and having a Scottish accent. But I know I'll make it. This is an opportunity I'll never forget."
This is O'Neill's second CAU performance. He played the less central character of Fyedka in last year's production of "Fiddler on the Roof, Jr." Modero saw he had a great understanding of theater and tremendous potential, which she watched blossom in theater class. She was thrilled he gained the confidence to show his talents during auditions and won the lead.
Playing opposite O'Neill as Princess Fiona is Erin Hernon of Milburn, a junior at Ramapo College studying theater and education, with an eye toward special education. This is her fourth CAU Community Players production, acting as Cat in the Hat in the 2012 production of "Seussical Jr." and as a stage manager the last two years.
"It's such a rewarding thing to perform with all the members," she said. "I love how there are people from all over and we come together and make this terrific show. It's a terrific experience. I love the Community Access members, putting on shows with them and how we all work together. I'm so passionate about theater, witnessing a cast becoming a family."
Alok Sarwade comes from Lebanon in Hunterdon County to rehearse for the show. His mother heard about the CAU Community Players and wanted her son to have the chance to participate. He is playing a knight and a member of the pitchfork mob and said he enjoys being part of a cast.
"It's fun. I like the parts and the dancing," he said. "I get to act and the audience claps after every scene."
Edwardo Droz of Hillside has been a CAU member for three years but this is the first year he is participating in the play.
"I was invited last year but I was worried I wouldn't be able to act," said Droz, who uses a wheelchair. "Now I know I can. Also, I'm enjoying making friends.
Before joining the show Droz preferred to stay at home, rarely going out.
"Now I'm out and about. Now I'm busy," he said.
Modero always has a favorite line or sentiment from each play. This year's favorite comes at the end when the cast sings to the crowd, "What makes us special makes us strong. We are different and united. You are us and we are you."
Show times for Shrek the Musical, Jr." are 7:30 p.m. June 26 and 27 and 2:00 p.m. June 28. Tickets are $10 and are available by visiting www.caunj.org and going to the News section on the home page, or by emailing Cara Pavia, CAU coordinator of marketing and fundraising, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Advertisement and sponsorship opportunities also are available by contacting Pavia.
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.