Vanguard, that starts with V, and that rhymes with T, and that stands for ‘theater’

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — In unique ways, local families are coming together both onstage and off in the Vanguard Theater Company’s production of “The Music Man,” for two shows this weekend at South Orange Middle School on N. Ridgewood Road. The shows will be Saturday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 17, at 3 p.m.

Vanguard Theater Company, founded in 2015, is known in the community as a company that strives for both diversity and meaning in all its shows and programming; this latest musical is no exception.

“When it comes to Vanguard, a lot of the productions that we have done in the past are what are considered more contemporary in the theater world, because they are post-1960s and they address more contemporary issues,” Vanguard founder and artistic director Janeece Freeman-Clark said in a recent phone interview. “This piece we are currently doing takes place in 1912, at a time when people from different backgrounds did not live together in the same community. The casting for this show is normally monochromatic in terms of what you see on stage. But when we decided to do this show, we wanted it to reflect where we live, and we wanted it to reflect the way we want more of our community theaters to look, and Broadway, which is really just the way America looks.”

Freeman-Clark said that this show had meaning not only because of the opportunity for diverse casting, but also because there is a timely aspect to issues that arise from the storyline.

“In the show, we have all of these families on the stage that live in the same town and feel that they have done their part — because we all live here and we are very diverse so we’ve done our part — but they are very much divided, and the same thing has happened over the past year in our country,” she said. “We are taking real families from the community and putting them on stage together. In the show, one character is able to bring the entire town together through a shared love of art and music.”

West Orange resident and New Jersey City University sophomore Branden Mangan couldn’t agree more about the community aspect of Vanguard’s work.

“I’m a musical theater major, and being a part of a community theater company like Vanguard has helped me build up relationships with other people and I’ve taken what I learned from Vanguard and used it in school,” he said. “Vanguard is one of the best community theaters in New Jersey just because they are all about the mission statement and they are very diverse and include everyone and they definitely love to give back to the community as well.”

But the casting of “The Music Man” isn’t the only aspect of the show the Vanguard Theater Company was looking to transform. During auditions, Freeman-Clark and her team specifically recruited families to come out together for roles.

To accommodate the schedules of having multiple family members in the show, the company took another gamble and chose to hold once-a-week rehearsals for several hours instead of a regular schedule of meeting a few times in a week.

“We thought long and hard when we chose the show and we knew we wanted to have a family show,” Freeman-Clark said. “What’s great about this production is that it has brought families closer together, and they have been able to practice together during the week at home. It’s great because there are many parents on the stage who have never been before and also kids who have never been but their parents have and it’s a supportive environment and we are all pulling each other along.”

The Ridley family, longtime West Orange residents, has been able to come together in the name of musical theater; Jonathan and Erica will be performing in the show with their daughter Olivia.

“This is my first production with Vanguard, and my daughter Olivia was in a summer camp with the company. My husband sings in gospel choirs but had never been into musical theater. I was in plays when I was younger and was a musical theater major for a couple of years in college but I haven’t been on a stage in years,” Erica Ridley said in a recent phone interview. “We took our daughter to the audition with no intention of trying out ourselves, and next thing we knew Janeece asked us to both audition and we found out we made the cast.”

Jonathan Ridley has a singing background, including performances with several church choirs in addition to serving as choir director. He was a part of The Ric-Charles Choral Ensemble of Plainfield for several years and is also a skilled voice-over actor, being featured in a promo for Sesame Workshop. He is the former co-chairman of the West Orange Public Relations Commission, former PTA president of Hazel Elementary School and former vice president of the Valley Community Watch Association. Erica Ridley is an Emmy Award-winning producer in digital media and television production.

“My husband works in HR, and I work in digital media. Sharing this with my husband and my daughter has been a wonderful experience and I never thought I would be doing it again,” she said. “This is one day that the three of us spend together and have a great time. Janeece is just amazing and a genius. The thing that makes it so special is all of the families. There is community theater, but this is real community.”

South Orange residents Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and daughter, Justice Muhammad, have also been able to share a special experience by performing together in “The Music Man.”

“This is my first ever theater production and I decided to audition because I used to do singing with a blues band when I was younger. When I saw the flier for family auditions, I thought it would be a fun experience for myself and my younger daughter to do it together,” Lawson-Muhammad, a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, said in a recent phone interview. “I felt really glad to be able to do this with her and because we don’t normally get to spend this time together as mother and daughter and being able to spend this time together every Sunday and see her in action has been an amazing experience. It gives us time that we wouldn’t have together normally. Being on the school board also made it a nice experience for me to get to interact with all the different people in the community in a different way.”

According to Lawson-Muhammad, in addition to seeing her daughter become better acquainted with fellow South Orange Middle School classmate and cast member Rowan Wechsler, seeing Justice connect with others her age who have a passion for theater has been rewarding.

“Vanguard’s commitment to diversity and getting people like me who have never done theater before is admirable, and I will definitely be a part of their family and support their programs and missions,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “Meeting families from other communities has been amazing for me because not just South Orange and Maplewood are diverse, the whole of Essex County is diverse and it’s been great to see that reflected in this show.”

South Orange resident Rowan Wechsler, a sixth-grader at South Orange Middle School, is making his Vanguard debut with “The Music Man,” but he is no stranger to the stage, having been in 12 productions in the past several years. Wechsler, who was recently elected vice president of his class at school, said Principal Lynn Irby first connected him with the Vanguard Theater Company.

“Principal Irby introduced me to Janeece and Vanguard and I sang for them and was asked to audition,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s been an amazing experience working with adults; the adults are incredible and it’s awesome how you can work with people with huge age differences and have so much fun doing it.”

Maplewood resident and Columbia High School junior Franca Rosenblatt agrees that for both seasoned stage veterans and those who have never acted before, Vanguard is the place to be.

“I had never done community theater before — only school productions and dance — and it’s been an awesome experience for me. I got the part I wanted, and everyone has been super fun and is super supportive,” she said. “Even if you’re not a theater person you should definitely audition for a Vanguard show. It’s an awesome community theater and many of the people in the show have never done theater before but they are here having the time of their lives.”

Developing a great show while building strong community bonds is the core of what the Vanguard Theater Company is all about, and it’s a mission the organization takes seriously.

“The beauty of the story is that it’s important to appreciate and embrace difference and at the same time embrace our commonalities because we are not so different after all and we all want the same thing for our families, and that is to be happy contributing members of our community,” Freeman-Clark said. “What I have found most gratifying is that both on the show and behind the scenes families are creating lasting relationships and that to me is what’s key for Vanguard. That’s what’s important to me for our company. I can’t speak highly enough of my cast members and how welcoming they have been.”

Photos Courtesy of Jessica Sporn and Gregory Omar Osborne