Durham musical theater program for people with special needs gives classic new life
DURHAM Sarah Austin pretends to be sewing in Anita’s bridal shop as she listens to Heather Porter talk about meeting her boyfriend that night.
Suddenly, she gets up from behind the cardboard sewing machine. She wags a finger at her lovestruck friend. She scowls.
She’s worries about this relationship, but no, she won’t spill Maria’s secret.
It’s a familiar tale being told with a twist (Spoiler alert: Tony lives!) as Broadway Unlimited, a musical theater group serving young adults with special needs, rehearses “West Side Story” for a single-night’s show in Durham.
“I make Anita really spunky, funny,” Austin said after rehearsal.
The 27-year-old sang “As Long As He Needs Me” as Nancy in last year’s “Oliver.” But her real-life friendship with “West Side” co-star Porter, 22, has put extra feeling into her new role
“We have been best friends since (Special Olympics) tennis,” she said. “She helped me make Anita more alive.”
This production is a step up for Broadway Unlimited, which is mounting its first show with dialogue. Its previous outings were just songs, which makes sense, says founder Sandy Levy, if you’re putting on “Fiddler on the Roof” with a cast of two, like they did in 2011, the group’s first year.
“It was a lot of scenery,” she said of the tale of life in a Russian shtetl. “Somehow it worked.”
‘The happy times’
Levy, 70, a classically trained pianist, works the keyboards as the young performers rehearse, their lines posted on cue cards against the wall just in case.
She worked as a special-needs teacher for seven years and ran a special-needs preschool for 19 years. When she retired, she said, she wanted “to get back to the happy times” of music. She spoke with longtime friend Paula Scicluna, director of Rhythm and Rehab, a Durham-based music therapy program that became the home base for Broadway Unlimited.
“Music is the only thing that engages the whole brain,” Scicluna said. “Even just listening to music gets the brain working, but nobody realizes it because they’re too busy having fun.”
The “West Side” cast is having fun, but Levy doesn’t cut the performers any slack. She briskly runs through stage directions in a small, cluttered room before their show at Reality Ministries, 916 Lamond Ave., at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 19.
As Tony, Billy Porter (no relation to Heather), 18, carries a lot on his shoulders. The 11th grader at Durham School of the Arts has two solos and two duets.
If you tell him your birthday, he can also tell you what day of the week you were born on.
Asked why he wanted to be in “West Side Story,” he answers simply, “because I’m Tony.”
But Levy said she wasn’t sure the teenager could handle the signature “Something’s Coming.” And not because he has autism, she said.
“I had initially decided not to do it because it’s a very difficult song to sing,” she explained. “And he learned it like that. I burst into tears.”
Levy’s quick to say she’s not a therapist, but she’s giving these young people and their families more than the music.
“Every parent of a special-needs child wants normalization,” she said. Broadway Unlimited helps show “we can perform like everybody else. We can put on a show.”
Pam Dixon’s son Christopher, one of the Jets, has gained poise on stage.
The 24-year-old loves music, especially opera’s Three Tenors, and sings around the house. But he’s also very shy, and it can take a long time for him to get to know someone and to talk.
“Everybody with autism is different,” said Dixon, who has two sons on the spectrum.
“I believe for Chris, and for both of my kids, that exposing them to different types of things in the community is really good,” she said. “They should be able to enjoy life and doing things like everybody else.”
Today the young man who one stood stiffly sings with a broad smile.
“It’s such a joy to watch his face,” Dixon said, “and see how proud he is to be part of a group.”
Shyness is not Austin’s problem.
But a trip for acting lessons when she was about 16 almost derailed her.
“My mom took me to this place where you become actors,” she said. “When I tried that they called me the R-word. Some woman came up and asked, ‘Why are you acting like a retard?’
“Me and my mom just left,” she said. “I was really mad. I started crying.”
“I don’t believe in people saying that word,” she continued. “I’m in Best Buddies (a program for people with intellectual and development disabilities), and we’re trying to stop people calling people retards.”
Austin got over that day a long time ago and today lives in a group home in Durham. Like Billy and Christopher, she has a job.
But acting’s her passion. She’s been doing it since Girl Scouts and describes her Anita as part evil queen Regina in “Once Upon a Time” (“I love that show.”) and part Fran Drescher in “The Nanny.” She writes screenplays for fun.
Asked how long she plans to act, she thinks for just a moment, then says, “Until the day I die.”
“I just love it.”
If you go
Broadway Unlimited, a musical theater serving people with development disabilities and others, presents “West Side Story.” at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 19, 2015, at Reality Ministries, 916 Lamond Ave., in Durham. Free, but donations welcome.