Berkeley School wins grant for theater program

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Cast and crew from the upcoming ‘Aladdin’ musical at Berkeley Elementary include, foreground, from left, cast members Zianne Glaude, Kiara Carrera, Layla Williams, Mateo Rivadeneira, Alissa Rivera, Elijah Boydston and Daniela Durate; background, crew members and teachers, from left, Kristin Graziano, Jennifer Noto, Caitlin Kest, Marialisa Montgomery and Katie Koury.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Berkeley Elementary School has been awarded a grant from Disney Theatrical Group, in participation with NJPAC, to build a sustainable musical-theater program. The grant will provide the school with licensing permission, and two NJPAC teaching artists for 17 weeks, to help produce a children’s version of “Aladdin” in the spring. The grant will be repeated for the next two years to further establish the program.

Fundraisers will provide funding to help pay for material to make costumes and scenery. Parents will be invited to participate in mounting the show.
“This is a big deal,” said Jennifer Noto, an interventionist at the school who will be directing the show.
“A huge deal,” added Principal Natasha Baxter.

Speaking last week in the principal’s office, they said an application for the grant was submitted earlier this calendar year. NJPAC representatives visited the school and determined that it was a good choice for funding. Baxter and Noto then traveled to Newark in September and visited NJPAC. They were given six scripts to consider and chose “Aladdin.”

“We thought it would be a good fit,” Noto said. “The kids identify with the characters and it has a good message, to make the world a better place.”
“The story fits into the school’s goal to empower children to speak up and make a difference,” Baxter said.

Wednesday and Thursday rehearsals have been under way since September with 50 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in the cast. Music for the show will be recorded, but the singing will be live. The running time is about 90 minutes and the show will be staged in March. How many times it will be performed has yet been determined, but Baxter and Noto thought two or three times was about right. But before the curtain goes up at the school, the students will give a performance on Feb. 25 at NJPAC of an “Aladdin” musical number. A number will also be sung in February during a Bloomfield Board of Education meeting.

The Berkeley students were also in the audience for an Oct. 25 performance of “The Lion King,” in NYC.
“What is special,” Baxter said, “was when the show was over, we were allowed to meet some of the cast members for a Q-and-A session to inspire them for their own production.”

The professionals told the children that if you make a mistake, keep going because no one will know you made one. Noto was grateful to the Bloomfield BOE for providing transportation to the musical. She said the board will also be paying for transportation to NJPAC when the children give the Feb. 25 performance. Their parents will accompany them.

“That is a huge piece,” Baxter said.
Although sixth-graders are not cast, Baxter said they can be part of the production.
“They will be moving on to the middle school where they will have an opportunity to participate in theater,” she said. “We wanted to include them here.”

The director of Bloomfield elementary school education, Joseph Fleres, said the grant is a great opportunity for Berkeley students and staff to experience a first-rate theater program from start to finish.

“It will provide the students with a unique opportunity to fully immerse themselves into the arts to help to develop the whole student, which is our goal in Bloomfield schools,” he wrote in an email earlier this week. “Thanks goes to the Berkeley staff and administration not only for seeking out this grant, but for putting in the extensive work to actually attain it and to see it through all the way up until the production. We are all very excited.”

Joining Noto on the production staff will be third-grade teacher Kristin Graziano, as producer; fourth-grade teacher Caitlin Kest, stage manager; fifth-grade teacher Marialisa Montgomery, choreographer; and special education teacher Katie Koury, musical producer.
Noto said she is already impressed by the work of the students.

“I feel our students have a lot of hidden, untapped talents,” she said. “They are excited and talk to me about the show every day.”