By Jim Nelson | January 4, 2024
The lights fade up as the scene opens with several people seated in a black-box theater setting. The room is full of fans — the first of two sold-out shows — eagerly awaiting this reader’s-theater style performance of a classic. Today, the actors and actresses will recreate an adapted version of the 1950 multiple Tony Award-winning “Best Musical,” Guys and Dolls, which also got its turn on the big screen in a 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
The gangsters, gamblers, and assorted New York underworld types in the cast will be played today by Juniper Communities Perennial Players, an upstart troupe out of Paramus, New Jersey. John Docke will star in the Marlon Brando role of Sky Masterson, with his neighbor, Angela Wunderlich, co-starring in the Jean Simmons role of Sister Sarah Brown.
Docke and Wunderlich, along with a dozen of their fellow Juniper Village at Paramus assisted-living residents, are seated, putting on Guys and Dolls in reader’s-theater style because of mobility constraints. A narrator sets up the dialogue, dramatic readings of the script material.
And of course, who doesn’t know those songs by heart? “Luck Be a Lady,” for instance, sung by Brando in the movie and a staple for Frank Sinatra. In today’s performance, John Docke is singing it.
“It gives you a sense of purpose, sense of achievement,” said Docke of his role as Sky Masterson. “I acted in grade school and was a member of choir for 15 years, I really enjoyed getting to sing again.”
Juniper Communities Perennial Players is a program for older residents to perform and present classic Broadway musicals.
“The success of the show is undoubtedly due to the dedicated team of our outside partners who contribute their expertise as music directors, scenery designers, lighting specialists, and tech directors,” said Shain Cohen, the executive director at Juniper Village at Paramus. “Their direct involvement allows our residents to experience the magic of live theater.”
The Juniper Communities Perennial Players traces its beginnings to 2018, when Juniper partnered with theatrical licensing organization Music Theater International; similar to MTI’s Broadway Jr. series for young children, the plan was to adapt and condense scripts to Broadway musicals for older adults. These adaptations feature, among other things, shorter running times.
“Research shows that creative expression can improve the quality of life for older adults,” said Director of Marketing Katie Kensinger, who oversees the Perennial Players. “We have witnessed that impact firsthand, from improving mental clarity to reducing awareness of pain. But most importantly, the Perennial Players program builds a strong sense of camaraderie and community among the cast and the outside partners who make it all possible. Some of our resident actors were involved in the performing arts earlier in life, but most are discovering their talents for the first time — some at the age of 90 and beyond!”
For the 14 residents of Juniper Village of Paramus, today’s performance will be just plain fun.
“Great thing to do with the team,” acknowledged Wunderlich. “I love to sing so it was a great outlet for me. This was my first time performing but according to my cousin, I’ve been preparing for it my whole life being a ham.”
“This is the first job I have ever done and very proud of the work,” remarked resident Pinky Burgos, who is playing Agatha/Liver Lips Louie. “We practiced hard for three months.”
“I used to do faculty scholarship shows at North Bergen High School with the students,” Eileen “Big Julie” Gerber remembered, “so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to act in the past. I love doing this.”
“This is the first play I have ever been in and it’s all brand-new to me,” exclaimed Richard Stange of his role as Arvide Abernathy, “and it was good.”
“It’s heartening to see residents like John Docke, Angela Wunderlich, Pinky Burgos, Eileen Gerber, and Richard Stange sharing their experiences and expressing pride in their performances. The variety of musicals performed, including Singin’ in the Rain, adds to the richness of the cultural experiences offered at Juniper Village,” said Cohen.
Exit stage left.