Inspired by St. John School of the Arts co-founder Sis Frank’s fervant attendance of many Broadway theater performances and events, Ronnie Lee looked to share a bit of his own passion with St. John youth, while supporting arts education on the island.
“I was very, very impressed with Sis’s love of Broadway,” said Lee, who started a Broadway group ticket sales company in 1960, which his daughter runs to this day. “Every time she came to New York, she made it a point to see Broadway shows.”
A former child and adult actor, Lee, vice president of St. John School of the Arts board of directors, drew upon his love of the theater and his Great White Way (nickname for New York City’s famous Broadway district) connections to bring Broadway to St. John students with an exciting program launching next month.
Michael Shawn Lewis
After seeing a performance of John Tartaglia’s original production “ImaginOcean” on Broadway, Lee approached the Tony-nominated actor with his idea of doing something with St. John students.
“John has been to St. John on his own before and he loved the idea of doing something with the children here,” said Lee.
Tartaglia, who was nominated for best actor in a musical for his role in “Avenue Q,” immediately jumped on board, recruited several equally talented friends and created an original musical production.
The actor and puppeteer — Tartaglia was one of the youngest Sesame Street actors, joining the cast when he only 16 — along with Michael Shawn Lewis, Donna Drake, Rhonda Miller and Laura Barnao, will teach “Dream, Wish, Believe” to fourth graders at the Julius E. Sprauve School, Guy Benjamin School and Gifft Hill School as well as SJSA students.
With a deep affection for St. John, Tartaglia was excited to do something for the island.
“We’ve been to St. John a lot and we’re huge fans of the island,” said Tartaglia. “We call it heaven. Every time we’re there we have this feeling of wanting to be a part of the community in some way.”
The actors are definitely going to be a part of the community in a big way in February. They will work with the students at each school every day for two weeks teaching singing, dancing, puppetry, choreography and production.
And then it’s show time! At the end of the two weeks, on Friday, February 18, the students will perform “Dream, Wish, Believe,” for the community at a specially-constructed stage at the Westin Resort and Villas.
“Planning this, you go through a conversation of ‘how much is too much,’” said Tartaglia. “But we’re big believers that kids always rise to the challenge. These kids are so excited and we know they can do this and it’s going to be amazing.”
For all of their time and energy, Tartaglia, Lewis, Drake, Miller sand Barnao are not getting a dime and are even paying for their own travel expenses.
“Honestly, when we talked to Ronnie he told us to come down for three weeks, enjoy the weather and the sun and all we ask is you to teach the kids a few hours a day and put on a show,” said Tartaglia. “Who could argue with that.”
The SJSA program is the first time Tartaglia and his associates are doing something of this kind and despite a few doubts, it really was a no-brainer, according to Tartaglia.
“We’ve never done anything like this before and I definitely had a moment of ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he said. “But we can do this and we just have to take a chance and do it. Because we love St. John so much it’s an exciting thing to be able to give back to a place that has given us so much.”
For Lewis, a talented singer who has performed in a variety of Broadway and touring production hits from “Phantom of the Opera” to “Nine,” the key will be awaken a passion in the students.
“Right off the bat you have to wake up something inside of you that is ready to come out and play,” he said. “Singing uses the same tool you use to speak with, to have fun with, to yell. It’s all the same voice.”
Lewis, who has experience teaching arts to children around the world through a New York City-based non-profit, the whole production revolves around one simple, but profound concept.
“This is all about kids discovering new ways to express themselves,” said Lewis. “That is all it takes. If you can challenge a child to perceive themselves differently, you can expand their possibilities. You challenge them to be smarter emotionally and intellectually.”
In addition to the excitement of working with Broadway actors, puppeteers, singers, choreographers and producers, the program will also be raising money to support St. John School of the Arts.
The students will stage two performances of “Dream, Wish, Believe” on February 18. The first show is for SJSA sponsors at 6 p.m. at the Westin and will be $200 a ticket. That ticket price includes a champagne reception as well as dinner at one of Love City’s finest restaurants.
The night’s second performance will be at 8 p.m. at the Westin and will be open to the entire community for any donation.
“All we’re asking is that people donate whatever they feel they can give,” said Lee. “We expect that show to be standing room only.”
SJSA is also raffling a once-in-a-lifetime New York City trip to raise additional funds for arts education on St. John. The prize is two round trip plane tickets and two orchestra seats to three top Broadway shows, “Chicago,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” And that’s not all.
The raffle prize also includes a back-stage tour of a Broadway theater, dinners for two at Sardi’s and Etcetera Etcetera and a three-night stay at a top mid-town hotel. Only 200 tickets will be sold for $100 each, and will be on sale soon at SJSA and Connections.
The whole program is also a way for SJSA to honor the school’s founder, Ruth “Sis” Frank, who passed away in November.
“I’m thinking of this as the year of Sis,” said Lee. “This is a great way to honor her.”
The entire project would not be possible without the magnificent support of the Westin Resort, according to Lee.
SJSA is still looking for someone to be a “star-sponsor” by making a major contribution and hosting a final farewell dinner for the New York guests on February 19. Anyone interested should call SJSA at 779-4322.