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Seniors take to the stage


    From left to right, Sylvia Pilar, Rebecca Marks, Ruth Halberg and Beverly Hagaman perform in “Into the Woods Sr.” at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, N.Y.

NEW YORK >> It’s a half-hour to curtain, and a wicked stepsister in an emerald dress and an updo dashes through the lobby of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

It’s a distinctive run: a cautiously teetering, toe-heavy canter you might resort to when you’re in heels, on the far side of 60 and about to take the stage before your friends and family at your musical’s opening night.

The actress, Sylvia Pilar, has been locked out of her dressing room. As she jogs back in the other direction a minute later, crisis averted, an old man in line reaches for her hand and gingerly kisses it. Then she’s off, faster than — well, Cinderella after the stroke of midnight.

Auditions, callbacks and three months of rehearsals had led to that opening night late last month for the cast of “Into the Woods Sr.,” an abridged version of the classic musical performed entirely by Lenox Hill’s senior members.

The show — a witty yet melancholy blend of fairy-tale stories that was adapted into a 2014 film with Meryl Streep — was a pilot production for both the community center and licensing company Music Theater International. “Into the Woods Sr.” and other musicals tailored to older casts are the brainchild of Freddie Gershon, the company’s co-chairman, who first developed similarly shortened “Junior” productions more than 20 years ago for elementary and middle schools, earning him a Tony Awards honor.

Lenox Hill’s cast represented a wide range of abilities. Some read lines and lyrics off their scripts; others performed from memory. One performer sang and danced while using a wheelchair; another, playing Rapunzel, stood perched on a ladder for much of the show. Most relied on the pianist’s vamping to keep them on track with the rhythmically intricate songbook by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

“We didn’t lay back on challenging them to do a good job,” the director, Scott Klavan, said. “I don’t want to coddle people, and I think people respond to that really well, because it’s a form of respect.”

The idea is not to show off Bernadette Peters-level talent or an extravagant Broadway staging, said Gershon, who turns 80 this month. It’s about reinventing yourself in a character — and the joyful whimsy of putting on a show.

In the past several years, Gershon has worked with a Pennsylvania nursing home and a Nebraska community theater to adapt “Guys and Dolls” for older actors. Theater for seniors has picked up steam elsewhere, too; a senior cast at Theater 55 outside Minneapolis did a relatively hairless “Hair” earlier this year.

“Into the Woods Sr.,” however, is the first such production in New York — and perhaps the first where the writers themselves showed up at rehearsal. When Sondheim and Lapine peeked in about a week before opening night, neither expected to be quite so moved.

“Theater is kids’ play. It’s all, ‘Let’s put on a show,’” Lapine said. “Giving people permission to do that at the other end of their lives, it’s perfect.”

The actors signed on for different reasons: to reconnect with their past theater background; to experience performing for the first time; to look for new ways to feel healthy; or just because it sounded fun.

“I took care of a lot of people for a lot of years. I took care of my husband, who was ill; his four kids, my two kids, work full time,” said Rebecca Marks, the show’s purple-­haired Cinderella, whose son and daughter-in-law came to watch her debut. “I’m making up for lost time.”

Aside from the social benefits, there seem to be significant health benefits to performing, too. A 2014 study by researchers at Coventry University found that seniors can experience a growth in confidence, as well as general improvement to their physical and mental well-­being, from participating in a theatrical production.

Linda Creamer, who played the Baker’s Wife in a wheelchair, is a case in point.

“I’m telling you, ever since I got involved in this, I’ve been like —” She sat up straight, grinning, and waggled her wrists in the air with splayed, outstretched fingers — jazz hands. “I’m recovering because of this show.”

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