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Play Group Theatre, a season of making connections

Cast members Lilly Claar of Scarsdale as Cinderella, Michael Gorka of Greenwich as the Baker, Dani Cohen of Scarsdale as Little Red, Aviva Abusch of White Plains as the Baker’s Wife.  Rear: Noah Weiner of White Plains as Jack.

By Jackie Lupo
Scarsdale Inquirer
May 11, 2012

It’s a challenge for any theater company to mount one Broadway-style show complete with sets, costumes, musical numbers and a cast of dozens. The Play Group Theatre of White Plains is producing three shows this spring—two musicals and a Shakespearean play. Ambitious? Yes, especially when you consider that all the performers are between 8 and 18 years old.

The Play Group is a theater program that draws young performers from all over Westchester and surrounding areas. Of the 87 kids in the theater program, 24 are from Scarsdale.

“Some kids are here because they want to be actors, and they go on to conservatories and careers in theater,” said artistic director Jill Abusch. “Some are here because it’s opening up something in them. They’re finding something inside themselves. They’re all incredibly dedicated and work incredibly hard at the craft when they’re here at the building.”

This spring’s main stage season opened with “The Wizard of Oz,” based on the MGM movie musical. On May 13 and 20, the troupe will present Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” The season concludes on June 3 and 10 with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“The Wizard of Oz” was the biggest show we’ve done in our 17-year history,” said Abusch. “We had 49 actors in it.”

The actors are in rehearsal for several hours a day. “Every rehearsal is like a master class,” said Abusch. “Our job is to give them the skills to be successful actors.” To enter the main stage theater program, performers must audition with a monologue and a song. The Play Group, a nonprofit organization sponsored by private individuals and donations from corporations and foundations, offers lessons in acting and musical theater, and puts on shows throughout the year. It has long been one of the go-to groups for theater-obsessed kids in the area, but two years ago the program became even more ambitious, when the company opened a 20,000-square-foot drama school and theater complex under one roof, at 1 N. Broadway in White Plains, on the site of what had been a health club. The gym area was transformed into a main stage theater and another space became a black box theater for smaller productions.

It’s a happy coincidence that all three shows share several themes.

“We are enjoying the game of finding the many connections between these three seemingly very different shows,” said Abusch. “Between the three shows, so far, we have found three enchanted forests, two magic flowers, three witches, two lions, two magic pairs of shows, two talking trees, and lots of magic spells.”

Because so many ideas, locations, motifs and moods repeat in all three shows, the producers decided to design one set to serve all three shows. The basic set is a five-foot rotating platform; separate scenic elements rotate in and out for the three plays.

“We loved this idea of reusing and recycling,” said Abusch.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” is full of fairy tale characters, but the themes are not all kid stuff. In Sondheim’s version, the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk are intertwined in an enchanted wood. By act two, the characters have had their “happily ever afters” and now must find out the consequences of having their dreams come true. Lilly Claar, a senior at Scarsdale High School, plays Cinderella. “It’s not at all like the Disney Cinderella, which is confusing at first,” Claar told the Inquirer. “She’s a girl who has a terrible life at home and dreams of having a fairy tale ending. She has a good head on her shoulders and knows it’s more important to be happy than to be rich and powerful.”

Claar, in her fourth year at the Play Group, likes the intensity of the rehearsals leading up to opening day.

“They’re so nurturing and the community is so great,” said Claar of her fellow actors and teachers. “Everybody encourages each other all the time. As it gets closer to the shows, the rehearsals get longer. We usually have three four-hour rehearsals a week, and for tech week it’s every day from 4:30 to 9:30. It’s so much fun it doesn’t feel like work.”

Claar said she has been singing and dancing since she was “very little.” In addition to her acting at the Play Group, she is in the Drama Club at Scarsdale High School and studies at the JCC of Mid-Westchester dance studio. She plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, where, she says, she will definitely stay involved in the theater. In the meantime, she is getting into character for opening day at the Play Group.

“It really is a rags-to-riches story,” she explained. “There is a scene with the shoe. But the Cinderella I play is really indecisive. She isn’t sure whether she wants her prince or not.”

“Into the Woods” will be presented Sunday, May 13 and Sunday, May 20 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Play Group Theatre, 1 North Broadway in White Plains. For more information or tickets, visit playgroup.org or call 946-4433.

The Play Group Theatre is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization made possible in part by generous donors like you. Thank you for your support!