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The Great Divide: A Second Act In Suburbia

By Tina Traster

August 19, 2009 -- I was culturally weaned on the Great White Way. My mother fed me a steady diet of Broadway plays and musicals from the time I wore Mary Janes. How thrilling at age 9 to watch the cast of Hair stand stark naked right before intermission. I wished I had binoculars.

I had to see A Chorus Line more than once. I was convinced I'd be begging a choreographer for a chance to prove my greatness one day. Meanwhile, back in Canarsie, Risa and I were preparing a troupe of lithe, youthful bodies to dance in the year-end high school show we called "Sing." Every day after school we gathered in my basement, where my mother had pushed furniture to the perimeters of the room to make space for our "dance" studio. We rehearsed until we were as synchronized as the North Korean army. We dripped with sweat until someone finally said "I have to go home and do my homework."

When I grew up I traded dancing slippers for a typewriter. Disney elbowed out peep shows and XXX-rated movies in Times Square. I kept attending the theater, adding frequently to a silo-high pile of curled playbills.

Moving to suburbia four years ago and buying a house and becoming saddled with mid-life responsibilities significantly slowed Broadway theater attendance. But it never occurred to me to patronize local performances. I was like a wine snob: it's either going to be the best vintage or nothing at all, thank you.

So when my husband suggested we take our seven-year-old daughter to see a local performance of Beauty and the Beast, I had to duel with my demons. Community theater? Me? "Shouldn't I rear my daughter on the Great White Way?"

"C'mon," he said. "Don't be a snob. Open your mind."

And he pointed out that a night at the theater for three would cost $45 rather than $500.

We arrived 20 minutes before the performance at Riverspace in Nyack. There was a sea of available seats: first come, first serve. Sisters, brothers, grandparents and parents clutching digital cameras and photo-copied playbills shifted anxiously in their chairs waiting for the curtain to rise.

The teen thespians were players in the Helen Hayes Youth Group, an equal-opportunity theater troupe in Rockland County that gets kids juiced on the arts. A conceptually awesome idea - but I wondered if the performance would hold my attention for 90 minutes.

As the piano player pounded the first notes my daughter wriggled to the edge of her seat. I unfolded my arms.

I was hooked from the start by the fresh-faced Belle, who belted songs with great heart and a big voice. Gaston did a good job portraying the smarmy but comical suitor. Lumiere the candle had the fake-French accent down pat and Cogsworth the clock jiggled like a campy Nathan Lane. The cast at-large (remember this is equal-opportunity theater) was a bit stiff and clumsy but as I watched these kids sing and dance and perform I began to remember what it felt like to be on stage at 17.

One young dancer in particular shuttled me back to my youth. She had long brown hair pulled away from her face and a petite body. She danced with a verve that reminded me of me.

Transported, I could feel things I had not experienced in three decades. I remembered pre-show terrors, fretting about forgetting steps, and peering from stage left waiting for the music to cue us on stage. I remembered the eruption of thunderous applause in the auditorium. I remember searching for my parents in the audience when we took our bows.

Joy mixed with a sense of accomplishment. That's what dancing was. This show made me recall that, not intellectually, but down my bones. Reliving it with a lump in my throat and a thrill in my heart.

Early on in the performance, my daughter leaned in and whispered "Are those kids on the stage?"

"That's right," I said.

"That's so cool," she said.

Driving home, we reprised our version of "Be Our Guest." I squeezed my husband's hand and thanked him for prying open my hard-wired mind. Broadway may be a storied land but my night at the community theater had a fairy-tale ending.

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