Performers with special needs steal the spotlight through TA-DA! Productions

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BY KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — Three years ago, Debbie Goncalves’ dream came true with the creation of TA-DA! Productions, a place where those with special needs shine in the spotlight.

The mission of TA-DA!, or Theatre Adapted for Different Abilities, is to provide teens and adults with special needs a unique, creative drama experience in a supportive setting that celebrates music, movement and theatre.

Goncalves was the first person in New Jersey to receive a $1,000 grant from the Pollination Project to help seed the beginning of the project. The Pollination Project started in 2013 and has awarded more than 1,400 seed grants in 93 countries.

“I saw it featured on the CBS Sunday morning show,” she said.

Goncalves has been a special needs teacher in the Old Bridge School District for 26 years.

“I had these kids when they were little,” she said.

Now, most of the students who have Down syndrome are adults and have graduated from the district.

“There are not a lot of programs out there with different activities so I opened a drama club,” Goncalves said, adding that the club has not only provided these students with an outlet to challenge themselves but a social activity as well.

Laughter, camaraderie, dancing and singing filled the air as the group of 12 — Thomas Antoniazzi, Matthew Arvelo, David Bocian, Michael Hahn, Mai Vy Nguyen, Stephanie Puccio, Dana Rafferty, Steven Scardilli, Vanessa Shoham, James Smith, Nicholas Torre and Bobby Vig — put in the last preparations for their showcase performance “Best of Broadway,” which was held on June 7 at Old Bridge High School.

A rehearsal was held on May 31 at the Camp Robin building located in Geick Park.

With colorful props, the group sang numbers from “Mamma Mia!,” “Jersey Boys,” “Grease,” “Annie,” “Aladdin,” “Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King”.

The cast also created music videos for the performance.

Goncalves said the program meets once a week during two eight-week sessions during the school year and the showcase performance is their year-end event.

“I brainstorm during the summer, and this past summer, I had them think of what their favorite Broadway show is and favorite song,” she said.

Goncalves said she does not have any dance experience.

“I listen to the songs and kind of add things as I go along,” she said.

Carol Scardilli of Spotswood and Linda Bocian of South River said their sons, Steven Scardilli and David Bocian, respectively, are best friends.

Carol Scardilli said Steven loves music and theatre, especially doo-wop from the 1950s.

She said it is only fitting that he was cast as the Four Seasons’ Frankie Valli singing “Walk Like a Man.”

“He has made a lot of friends. … We live in a small town and there are not a lot of programs like this there,” she said, adding her son, like his friends in the program, loves the stage and the spotlight.

Linda Bocian said David couldn’t wait to get his costume. David is casted as Bert from “Mary Poppins” singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

Bindu Vig of Old Bridge said TA-DA! Productions is a great program that her son Bobby looks forward to participating in.

“He loves music and it’s an opportunity for him to learn something and gain confidence,” she said.

Vig said that her son’s confidence exuded during their family trip to Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic, last summer.

“They called him up onto the stage and he was not shy,” she said.

Vig said that her son posted those pictures to Facebook and made sure all his aunts and uncles “liked” the pictures.

Goncalves said the program is run by volunteers who are Old Bridge school staff members, including Susan Ahearn and Debbie Perodeau, who are both paraprofessionals, and Bernadette Romatowski and Camille Quarto, who are both special education teachers.

Quarto’s two daughters, Kasey and Kelly Focazio, are the show’s co-stage managers.

Also working with Goncalves are past Old Bridge students who now, from working with the various groups of special needs children in the school district, are pursuing a degree to teach students with disabilities. They include Dan Antoniazzi, Jennifer Antoniazzi and Anthony Manduca.

Goncalves said her parents Al and Maria help with the props and costumes.

Alex Rubin served as master of ceremonies for the final show.

“He was my student when he was three years old and he is in his 20s now and does a great job as an announcer,” Goncalves said, noting that this was his first time participating in the program.

Each group member received their very own “Tony” award at the end of the performance.

For more information, visit tadaproductions.wix.com/oldbridge.