Local playwrights bring Puerto Rican teen theater group to Cherry Hill

Last week, the Colegio Ponceno Musical Theater Group twice performed “Homeroom: The Musical,” for audiences at Cherry Hill High School West.

Long-time Cherry Hill resident Andrea Green and Selma Tolins-Kaufman had seen dozens of schools perform their play “Homeroom: The Musical” since they wrote the original show in 1989.

However, when they visited Ponce, Puerto Rico, last winter to see Colegio Ponceno School perform the show, it was unlike any performance they had seen before.

“I thought to myself, this group really shows what ‘Homeroom’ is at the highest performance level sense of it,” Green said. “I wanted people to see this.”

Last week, about 30 actors from the Colegio Ponceno Musical Theater Group got the opportunity of a lifetime. They visited the Philadelphia area from June 4 to June 9, performed songs from “Homeroom: The Musical” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and performed the musical in its entirety twice at Cherry Hill High School West last Tuesday. Colegio Ponceno students performed one show last Tuesday morning for a couple hundred high school students and another show last Tuesday evening for the community.

“Homeroom: The Musical” depicts a typical high school homeroom and examines each of the individual characters and the troubles they face in their teenage lives. In the end, the show connects all of the characters, despite their many differences.

Tolins-Kaufman got the idea for the show during her time working as a school psychologist. She had met Green when attending another show.

“She didn’t know me at all,” Tolins-Kaufman said. “I went up to her after seeing one of her shows and I said ‘Would you write a musical with me?’ She didn’t know who I was.”

To come up with themes for the show, Tolins-Kaufman surveyed high school students and asked them about what themes are most emotionally impactful in their high school lives.

“These are the things that reoccurred: competition, acceptance, self-esteem, academic achievement, lost, love, lockers,” Tolins-Kaufman said. “This is all what we dealt with as kids in school.”

Though the show was originally written more than 25 years ago, the storyline and themes are still relevant today. Sofia Zayas, playing the role of Jenny for Colegio Ponceno Musical Theater Group, said the show really connected with their cast.

“After a couple of rehearsals and really getting into what the musical was all about, we realized, wow this is amazing,” she said.

Performing “Homeroom: The Musical” was a huge accomplishment for Colegio Ponceno. In the middle of 2015, the theater group found out they may not be able to have a show at all because of financial difficulties with the school. After the school’s board of directors said they would be unable to fund a musical, the students, parents and other community members went ahead and funded the show themselves.

“We don’t have a theater at the school,” said Hector Zayas, production manager for the Colegio Ponceno Musical Theater Group and father of two actors from the show. ”We had to get a place, we had to hire a director, managers.”

After a few months of rehearsals, the students performed the show for the community in February. Among their audience was Green and Tolins-Kaufman. The play’s co-creators said they always try to see the musical whenever a high school is performing it. However, unlike in the past, Green was completely blown away with what she saw at Colegio Ponceno.

“I’ve seen this in other places, too,” Green said. “But I think I found people who really cared about their kids, wanted them to have this opportunity, and they were working so hard to give them this chance.”

Green conversed with Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn, who thought Green’s idea of bringing the group to Cherry Hill was great. He and school officials worked with Green to have the students perform at Cherry Hill West.

When the Colegio Ponceno students found out they would be performing “Homeroom” in the Philadelphia area, they were ecstatic.

“It was amazing,” said Julio Betancourt, playing the character, Jeff. “The person who wrote it is the person who should have the most say whether something is faithful to the original. When we found out that (Andrea) really liked it, we felt like we achieved what we always wanted.”

Bringing the Colegio Ponceno actors to Philadelphia proved to be a tough task. The theater group put together a fundraiser to purchase flights to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. However, Green had to figure out how the rest of the group’s expenses would be paid for.

“I became the producer,” Green said. “That included fundraising, buses from airports, then the shuttle buses, all the food for six days, getting donations, the hotel, the program. All of the details. The good part was I knew they could put on the show.”

In the weeks leading up to the show, donors and businesses stepped up to support the theater group. Donations helped pay for the students’ travel and hotel accommodations, while local eateries and restaurants pitched in to provide some of the food for the students during the trip.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Green said. “I do take on big projects, but to bring this group here is huge.”

The Colegio Ponceno students enjoyed every aspect of the trip. On June 5, the students performed a few of the songs from “Homeroom” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Two days later, the actors were blown away after receiving a standing ovation from the student audience who came to see their show at Cherry Hill West.

“We got to meet all these new people,” Betancourt said. “We got to perform on this stage, which is huge. It’s a lot bigger than the one we performed on in February.”

“We were actually really shocked, because in Puerto Rico, with our classmates, we didn’t receive the same energy these kids made,” Sofia said.

The students also got to socialize and spend time with students from the Cherry Hill schools. Students from Cherry Hill and Colegio Ponceno collaborated to make a music video of the song “Stand Up for Yourself” from the musical.

As the trip began to wind down, the students realized they could have an impact on other teens, even those who live more than 1,000 miles away.

“It feels like we have changed lives,” Betancourt said.