Theater Group Ready For A Funny Thing

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Actors including Floral Park's Paul Mastrella (center) rehearse a scene from the upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
Actors including Floral Park’s Paul Mastrella (center) rehearse a scene from the upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

Show marks four decades for Herricks Community Players

John Hayes has seen the curtain rise and fall on the Herricks Community Center Stage many, many times. But when the lights go down in the theater this weekend for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, it’ll have a special significance, as this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Herricks Community Players.

What began as an effort of the Herricks PTA has grown into a nonprofit organization that puts on two Broadway quality shows a year, drawing both talent and audience members from all over Long Island and the city, as well as out of the state. Proceeds from the shows go toward the Herricks Community Fund, which benefits senior citizen, Alzheimer’s and youth programs, as well as the Herricks school district and scholarship fund.

Over the years, the Players have entertained audiences of anywhere from 250 to 500 people a night with top-notch productions of shows like Annie, The Miracle Worker, Oklahoma! Anything Goes, Fiddler on the Roof, Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Ensuring that these productions go off without a hitch is Hayes, who marks the 69th direction of a show with A Funny Thing.

“I was 37 when my little daughter Michelle came home and said the school was asking if anyone wants to help put on a show at the theater,” the now-78-year-old theater maven said.

Hayes and his wife Carol were newcomers to the neighborhood, but John had experience directing community theater in Brooklyn and Queens for many years and decided to check out what the Players were doing. He went down to the theater and though he was a newcomer, was put in charge of directing.

Members of the Herricks Community Players are set to shine in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Members of the Herricks Community Players are set to shine in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

“I put the first production of Oklahoma! on in five weeks. It was very difficult but very well-received and magnificent,” John said.

And John has been helping the shows, which have had casts of up to 90 people, go on smoothly for the last 40 years. This month, he and the other Players are gearing up for their upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical comedy set in ancient Rome that tells the story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempt at earning freedom by helping his young master win the girl next door. John describes the show as a “real comedy personified,” mixing vaudeville and slapstick. Playing the lead is Warren Schein, who was last seen as Igor in Young Frankenstein.

“It’s crazy characters, comedy and mayhem,” Schein said. “Everyone is as big as life. It’s like a musical comedy in a cartoon version.”

Also in the cast is Floral Park resident Paul Mastrella, who plays the role of a Roman captain named Miles Glorisus. It’s Mastrella’s second time in a Herricks Players production, with his first go-round as a cast member in a 2004 revival of The Music Man. The veteran actor, who has also been cast in shows staged by Floral Park’s Theater Box and the Holy Spirit Players of New Hyde Park, is excited to be working with the Herricks Community Players again.

“They have a beautiful theater and dedicated staff for everything. As an actor in a lot of places, you come in and help build the set, do some painting and get your props. Here, they provide the costumes for you, there’s a separate crew to build the sets, so you don’t have to work with that. They have choreographers, overall directors, music directors and the show has a full orchestra,” he said. “I’ve never done a show with a full orchestra before. The level of professionalism, the size of the staff, amount of the budget and the quality of the productions are really above the ones I’ve done before.”

For Hayes, the family atmosphere of the theater is one of the best parts about it and is what has kept him involved for so many years.

“People come to me and say they did a show at other places, but when they step on the stage at Herricks, they feel at home,” John said. “Nobody tries to outdo the other person, it’s a family. I’ve been blessed by the people that come and the talent is magnificent.”

Hayes’ wife, Carol, who has taken the helm as producer for the last eight years agrees, saying that being a part of the Players is an invaluable part of life, largely because of the people who make up the group.

“They’re a great bunch, and several of them have been with us since the very beginning,” Carol said. “They love what they’re doing. They enjoy it, we enjoy it, and we love doing it. It’s become part of us.”

While the family atmosphere and caliber of the shows has remained the same over the last four decades, some elements have changed. Herricks, and Long Island as a whole, has become much more diverse; residents have different tastes and preferences on what they would like to see. That’s affected attendance, which fluctuates based on the show. There’s a lot more competition for local theater nowadays as well, John noted.

“Attendance has been good, but it’s not as good as it was years ago,” he said. “Forty or 30 years ago, we didn’t have as much community theater on the island as we do now. Now it’s very competitive, and we have to show people a good time and make sure what we’re doing and producing is the best. We try to do top quality shows.”

Top quality shows often carry with them a hefty price tag, and though they’re a local company, they don’t skimp on anything. John said that musical theater is getting very expensive, as there are rising costs associated with buying a show’s rights, lighting, paying an orchestra, and other elements needed to make the show Broadway-quality.

While there is no monetary compensation for the many hours John, in addition to the rest of the cast and crew, put into each production, he says that being a part of the Herricks Community Players has given him more than money can buy.

“This comes from my heart. I’ve gotten so much out of my community, I don’t know what I could put into it but this,” John said. “This is what I am most happy doing. The people have been magnificent. The love, camaraderie and friends—that’s why I do the shows every year.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum takes place on the Herricks Community Center stage at 999 Herricks Rd., New Hyde Park, May 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. and May 15 and 22 at 3 p.m. For more information visit www.herrickscommunityplayers.org or call 516-742-1926.

—Additional reporting by Dave Gil de Rubio

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