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Very Special "Music Man, Jr." Features Performers with and Without Disabilities

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Appearing in a scene from the play are (left to right) Dianna Sims, Tonya Hopson, Sara Law, Annie Johnson and Will Zimmerman.  Credits: Gregory D.V. Holmes
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The cast of a very special "Music Man, Jr." consisted of more than 80 performers with and without disabilities. Credits: Gregory D.V. Holmes
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Joshua and Melody Lucas. Credits: Gregory D.V. Holmes
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 “The Music Man, Jr.” is not only a familiar and foot-tapping stage musical. The production is a challenge for the performers, as well. Dialogue is rapid-fire, many songs require intricate syncopation and tight harmonies and the large crowd scenes when all of River City is seemingly on stage call for exact timing.

For three nights last weekend, June 24-26, the CAU Community Players rose to the challenge and delivered rousing, crowd-pleasing performances at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield. What makes their performances even more remarkable is that the troupe is made up of actors with disabilities and those without.

The CAU Community Players was formed in 2012 to allow members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) 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 and dedication to performing rather than their different abilities.  This year's cast included more than 80 members from Union County and neighboring counties, some of whom receive services from CAU and other participants who live in the community.

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CAU is a statewide Elizabeth-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to 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, providing supports in areas including housing, vocational skills and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.

“The Music Man, Jr.,” based on the award-winning musical by Meredith Wilson, was the CAU Players’ sixth production. The play, set in the early 20th century when women wore long dresses and wide hats, men wore tailored suits, spats and bowler hats and news traveled by stage coach and train, centers around the efforts of “Professor” Harold Hill, a traveling salesman with a shady reputation, to form a band in River City, Iowa.

Hill plans to sell uniforms and instruments to the townsfolk then abscond with the money. Yet when he falls in love with Marian Paroo, the local librarian, his motives change and he wins over Marian and the town while helping Paroo's younger brother overcome his lisp and social awkwardness.

From the opening scene of “The Music Man,” which features a crew of traveling salesmen speaking in rhythm of a steam train picking up speed, cruising and then slowing down, to the frantic yakking of the towns’ women  in “Pick-a-Little,” or the rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” the cast expertly delivered strong performances that elicited cheers and standing ovations from the audience.

“The dialogue is rapid-fire and difficult,” said Marguerite Modero, director the CAU Community Players and the agency's Academy of Continuing Education. “But they accepted the challenge and succeeded.”

More important, she said, each actor was personally challenged to raise their skills to higher levels and the play became “a transforming experience for each of them. Through their stage work, they learn more about themselves and become braver, more secure in themselves and more willing to take a risk.”

Modero said “The Music Man, Jr.” was chosen for this year's production because of the transformative nature of the play. Characters learn about themselves and grow and change, she said. This is a play that celebrates personal  growth, social awareness and change, she added.

Actor James Crawford, who played a Townsperson, was excited about having his first opportunity to dance on stage.

“Dancing was great," he said. "I practiced my part."

Brother and sister Joshua and Melody Lucas both performed for their first time with the CAU Community Players. Joshua, with his costume resplendent with suspenders featuring musical notes, was excited by his singing role.

Melody, one of the River City women, costumed in a flowing long dress and straw hat, said she enjoyed her role as one of a group of women whose importance to the play was measured by their ability to gossip (“Pick-A-Little”) and grow and change as they saw the band become real.

Strawberri Lucas, Joshua's and Melody's mother, said, "Both loved working in a group, enjoyed the teamwork, loved changing costumes and memorizing lines. Both definitely want to be in the next show.”

Sara Law, a veteran of all six of CAU’s musicals who portrayed Alma Hix, one of the Pick-a-Little ladies, said the part called for concentration and attention to detail because of the speed at which the group’s key song is performed.

William Zimmerman said the role of Professor Harold Hill was challenging.

“I had to find the balance between playing him as a sneaky, untrustworthy salesman and still show his good side,” he said.

His performance displayed this understanding. Hill’s swaggering walk was bolstered by the schemes that rolled so easily off his tongue before being replaced with humility and tenderness when his feelings for Marian became evident.

For Modero, the success of the play is not just the audiences’ enthusiastic response but the excitement and growth shown by her performers as they faced the challenges and succeeded.

About Community Access Unlimited

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 37th year in 2016, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives 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 right. CAU currently serves more than 6,000 individuals and families, with the number served growing each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.

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