Oceanside High School sophomore Rebecca Goldfarb went to school as a cheetah. About an hour later, she took the stage as a bird.
Drama students performed “Seussical the Musical” earlier this month for the annual “road show” production, a student-directed theatrical event that tours elementary schools before opening at OHS for a Friday-night show and a Saturday matinee. But as the young actors hurried among schools No. 2, 4 and 8 to stage three 45-minute performances on Jan. 4, two of the leads were home sick.
The night before “Seussical’s” debut, senior Dean Klebonas — elected by his peers to direct the play — received a text from Carmine Elvezio, who had won the role of the Cat in the Hat, informing his classmate that he was very sick.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Klebonas recalled. “This has never happened before.”
The next morning, it was official. Elvezio would not be able to make it.
“You know it better than anyone,” Laura Gallo, the district’s theater adviser, told Klebonas, who had choreographed the play and guided the performers through rehearsals for more than a month. “Can you go on?”
The answer was yes: Though Elvezio had no understudy, Klebonas would step into the lead role, and the last-minute problem was solved. Or so he thought. Just minutes after he went to Elvezio’s house at 6 a.m. to retrieve the Cat in the Hat costume, he got another call. Sarah Romanelli, slated to play Gertrude McFuzz, was also fighting an illness and could not leave her house.
Once again, there was no understudy to look to, so Goldfarb, who had previously played the role in a production outside school, was the only realistic candidate. She was listed in the program as a “jungle citizen,” but the audience of elementary school students and teachers would instead see her as a gawky, determined little bird ashamed of her one-feather tail.
“She came in with her cheetah costume and cheetah makeup,” Gallo recalled. “I said, ‘Go wash your face. You’re being a bird today.’”
The musical, based on Dr. Seuss’s many books — including “Horton Hears A Who,” “Horton Hatches the Egg” and “Miss Gertrude McFuzz” — debuted on Broadway in 2000. Goldfarb had performed in a full 2½-hour version a year ago with Second Stage Productions in Merrick, and some of her friends began texting her when they found out about Romanelli’s sickness, hoping she could take over.
But because she had never rehearsed the role in this abridged variant of the play, Klebonas pulled Goldfarb aside and quickly went through the choreography and other details before it was time to head to their first performance of the day.
“We were basically both like, ‘You know what, just make stuff up if you don’t know what to do,’” Goldfarb giggled, “and I was like, ‘OK, I’m good at that.’”
With the cheetah-print marks wiped off her face and replaced by blue eye shadow, it was showtime. The play went on as scheduled, with the 75-member cast and crew executing just as they had rehearsed.
“The audience had no idea,” Gallo said, adding of Goldfarb, “She played it perfectly. She didn’t mess up one line, one dance step, and she knew it all backwards and forwards.”
Though Klebonas and Goldfarb made it look easy, it was anything but. Goldfarb said that because she had never practiced with the tracks used for background music, she had to figure out a number of things on the fly, like how long to hold notes and when to breathe as she sang.
Klebonas, who had expected to be watching from the audience, said the transition was a challenge. “Jumping in there and trying to remember all the lines, and trying to remember where to go after never doing it before was just really crazy, and something I’ve never really had to do before,” he said.
But the pair pulled it off, and Goldfarb said that the mouths of many audience members dropped when they were informed that she and Klebonas were last-minute fill-ins who stole the show for a day. Elvezio and Romanelli returned to their roles for the Friday and Saturday shows, offering stellar performances as Klebonas looked on — this time from the crowd — as a proud director.
Klebonas, who had dreamed of directing the road show since ninth grade, said that although the experience was crazy and different, it was equally unforgettable to see what was in his head come to life.
Gallo lauded the resiliency of the students, who produced the show, made the costumes and built the sets. Though she directs the drama every year, and music teacher George Grossman oversees the spring musical, the road show is up to the high-schoolers to make their own, and the talent and dedication of the group, she said, helped them work through what they had labeled “the plague.”
“We have so many great kids that we could cast it eight times over and we’d still have amazing performers,” Gallo said.
Though a few more illnesses created minor speed bumps for the weekend shows, Goldfarb and Klebonas had already helped the actors overcome the biggest problem on opening day.
“A great cast can go on and put on the best show the high school has ever seen,” Klebonas said he told the group. “But only a truly professional cast can really go through all the stuff we went through and still put on the best show the high school’s ever seen. It was really just a special experience.”