The bright lights of screen and stage came to Parker Avenue on Sunday night, performing show tunes to benefit a makeover of Columbia High School's auditorium—but none shone brighter than Columbia graduate and hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill.
"Columbia, what's going on? Long time, no see," said the award-winning artist from South Orange. In 1999, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" won Grammys for album of the year, best new artist, best female R&B vocal performance, best R&B song, and best R&B album.
[Patch and other media were asked not to photograph Hill and other celebrities—a request that we honor although photos are showing up on various non-media Facebook pages.]
The Night on the Towns benefit was the opening night of a three-year project by the South Orange-Maplewood Education Foundation to raise money for renovations for the CHS hall. The auditorium feels like a mini-Broadway theater. It can seat 1,000 and has seen some of the school's most renowned performers hone their skills on its stage. But it is 83-years-old now, long past its prime when its grandeur made mention in the Encyclopedia Britannica for the architecture triumphs.
The restoration will include new seats and curtains, better lighting and sound. Last night's opening number, "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, Gotta Give," borrowed from memorable musicals to remind the audience of the evening's mission. In the adaption of "Big Spender," the chorus asks, "Wouldn't you like some new lights?" Even schools Superintendent Brian Osborne got into the act, pining to the tune from Fiddler on the Roof for what he could do "If I Were a Rich Man." Technical difficulties during the show only underscored the deficiencies with the sound system.
The show was directed by Tricia Benn and Bethany Pettigrew, who devoted hours to recruiting the talent, drafting scripts, and creating choreography. Performances ranged from two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole accompanied by David Synder (noting "what a difference a leaf makes" of their moves from Hollywood to Maplewood), to baseball banter by Emmy-winner Andre Braugher and his son Isaiah, performing Abbott and Costello's ageless comedy routine "Who's on First." The celebrities were joined by performers from the high school's performing arts troupes.
Journalist David Brancaccio trumpeted the variety show as a series of perfect moments. There were the magical illusions by CHS Assistant Principal Michael Healy (and his seventh-grade assistant Hannah Nye); jugglers Jonathan Schneider and Gregory Wenoker, and buglers Peter Bauer and Don Tighe.
Choreographer Lydia Johnson, whose work will be shown in coming weeks at SOPAC and Alvin Ailey, collaborated with Columbia's special dance company to present—with the professional dancers of Lydia Johnson Dance—a witty performance to songs recorded by Dean Martin.
Mezzo-soprano Lori Mirabal; jazz vocalist Heidi Burgermaster (CHS '04); and theater stars Catherine Brunell, Gayle Holsman Seay and Kim Shiver, Matthew Shepard Smith provided the song. The multi-talented and much-admired Suzzanne Douglas and Jeff Foote, the principal dancer with NJ Tap, supplied song and dance. An all-star cast from the CHS past performed the finale "He Lives in You" from The Lion King.
Columbia High School was recently honored as just one of 13 model schools in the arts, a prestigious honor by the N.J. Arts Education Partnership and state education department. Hundreds of students take part in the performing arts program and the evening featured students who performed in the all-school musical, who play instruments or sing in choirs, including the Half Step a cappella group. Many of the students on stage or in the crew paid tribute to their arts education at CHS.
In a video produced by Duncan Pettigrew, CHS students Seth Wolin and Phoebe Padget said they find inspiration to chase their dreams from the alumni who have made it big: Actors like Roy Scheider ('50), Andrew ('85) and Elizabeth Shue ('81), and Zach Braff ('93); and musicians, including drummer Max Weinberg ('69) and the influential Lauryn Hill ('93).
Hill made a rare appearance to sing two of her biggest hits, the Grammy-winning "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," and "Killing Me Softly," a top-selling cover she recorded with the Fugees.
The evening was presented by the SO-M Education Foundation, which this summer will formally change its name to ACHIEVE Foundation. The non-profit group strives to provide private funds for public education. CBS sportscaster Otis Livingston announced the Take A Seat campaign to raise extra funds for the renovations, which are estimated to cost upwards to $2 million.