Former cast members to reprise roles from 19 years ago


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OLD BRIDGE — It all started with the fab five — Jimmy Smith, Nicky Torre, Matthew Arvelo, Dana Rafferty and Tommy Antoniazzi — 19 years ago.

At the time, Debbie Goncalves was a special education teacher at James McDivitt Elementary School in Old Bridge.

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“The kids, who have all special needs, wanted to participate in the schoolwide talent show so I took on the challenge and came up with a skit for them,” she said. “They all liked Disney so I had them perform ‘Belle’ from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I created roles and choreography for them.”

Goncalves said the students were not only in rehearsals, but they also assisted with sets and costumes. She said they were first to perform at the talent show.

“They were a big hit and for several years I created a performance for the kids for the talent show while I was at the school,” she said.

Fast forward to 2014 when Goncalves created TA-DA! Productions (Theater Adapted for Different Abilities), an organization providing teens and adults with special needs a unique, creative drama experience in a supportive setting that celebrates music, movement and theater.

“This is where their dreams come true and they made my dreams come true,” Goncalves said, adding it is gratifying to see the interaction with the students helping each other out.

This year marks the fifth year of the organization’s spring performance. Five of the original cast members of “Belle,” who are now in their late 20s, reprised their original roles during the performance on June 6.

Goncalves said the group had to find a new Belle since the former Belle and her family moved away. Vanessa Shosham, who will play the role, said she loves the music and she loves singing.

Jimmy Smith reprises his role as the book seller.

“I am a superstar,” he said with a smile.

Mai Vy, who has a starring role in the “Moana” number in the show, shared her friend’s sentiments.

“I want to be a superstar,” she said, adding it is nice to be part of the performance.

The performance will be the opening number of “Destination Disney — A Day in Magic Kingdom.”

“We have 16 performers and each of them have a role,” Goncalves said. “We have doubled in five years. Many of the kids are non-verbal and their roles are based on their needs.”

Goncalves said the spring production is a community and family effort.

“My mom is a seamstress so she makes the costumes,” she said. “My dad provided the bamboo sticks, which he grew.”

Goncalves, who now is a special education teacher at Southwood Elementary School, said many of her volunteers have been with her from the beginning, from co-workers to high school students.

Theresa Vassallo travels from Pennsylvania to volunteer her time with the spring production.

“My sister is friends with Debbie and I would come and watch the shows,” she said. “Now that I have time, I just wanted to be part of the show because it is just wonderful.”

Debbie Perodeau said she works as a paraprofessional in the Old Bridge School District and worked at one point with Goncalves in her classroom.

“This has been Debbie’s dream for a long time and she asked me if it ever were to get going if I would be willing to help,” she said. “The show has grown into something very big. The kids are just so sweet. … It’s the best day of the week when I come to TA-DA.”

Perodeau said when she sees Shosham perform as Belle, she cries almost every time.

“She thinks she’s Belle, it’s amazing,” she said.

Melanie Minch-Klass, who is a retired supervisor in the school district after 40 years, said she has known some of the students since they were three years old.

“Just seeing them help each other is amazing. It’s a team effort,” she said. “Once in a while I will tear up because they are so kind.”

Goncalves said she has high school students who volunteered their time when they were in school and who have now come back as college students and/or graduates. She said many of the students have gone on to work in the field of occupational and speech therapy and special education.

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