Maryhaven Performing Arts in Port Jefferson Station appears unassuming from its exterior. Nestled away on a side street off bustling Route 347, a simple, rectangular brown sign displays its bolded title alongside tiny music notes, a paint palette and comedy-tragedy masks.
Take one step through the inviting automatic doors, and you’ll see it’s anything but ordinary. You’ll likely be engulfed by a wave of music.
“Can you feel the love tonight?” a huge chorus sings triumphantly. “It is where we are!”
These are the Maryhaven players: 50 people who live throughout Long Island, all with various disabilities. At this day habilitation facility, they come together six hours a day, five days a week, and put on two to three musical productions a year. They sing, dance, act, paint props, design sets, research and sometimes write each musical over the course of about four months.
The program is a part of Maryhaven Center of Hope, a member of Catholic Services of Long Island. The multi-service agency offers housing, rehabilitation and educational opportunities to clients of all faiths, and was founded in 1930. The performing arts branch was added in 2002. The clients' ages range from 20, to the oldest participant who is 78.
Maryhaven will be putting on an adapted version of “The Lion King” from Nov. 28 through Dec. 9. The musical was rewritten by the staff after one of the performers, Craig Varga, 35, voiced his aversion to the Disney movie. According to his father, Ed Varga, Craig has felt this way ever since the film premiered in 1994.
“It was a little unusual because he loves Disney movies and anything that has to do with Disney,” Varga said. “He knows all the characters, who does the voices, who wrote the script. So when ‘The Lion King’ came out, there was a scene that set him off. He wouldn’t stay to watch. There was something in it that frightened him.”
Whether his fear came from a scene involving meerkats or the death of the beloved king of the jungle, Mufasa, is unclear. For years, though, Craig simply didn’t like the film.
Craig has been at Maryhaven for over a decade, and his father said he’s wanted to be a producer his entire life. But as an actor, he’s taken on several leading roles at Maryhaven, so many that his father cannot decide which one he enjoyed watching the most.
“My favorite role was in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ the very first production of Maryhaven, and he played Ebenezer Scrooge,” Ed Varga said. “He had to change costumes on stage, which was amazing for us to see just how he could do it by himself without making a mistake on stage. Another favorite is when he played Willy Wonka … He also played Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Those three were great.”
It took time for the Maryhaven staff to warm Craig up to the idea of putting on a show like “The Lion King,” but after some conversations and a few script revisions, Craig will be taking on the role of Mufasa this fall.
Each Maryhaven production comes with memorizing lines, choreography, lyrics, and stage cues, just like any other theater. But for these individuals, this routine not only ignites a creative spark, but also imparts social skills and practical lessons. For instance, the performers learn how to do laundry when washing costumes between shows and initiate conversations during acting exercises, all while taking part in the theatrical process.
Program manager Angelique Anzini has seen this individual growth firsthand during her nine years at Maryhaven.
“There’s a sense of productivity,” she said. “We get it from our jobs, we get rewarded with a paycheck. It’s a little different for them. They get rewarded by the audience and it’s huge for them. It’s a motivator. They’re constantly motivated by performing on stage for their families and friends.”
Maryhaven staffer Christine Schibelli added, “They encourage each other. They’ll get that pride and they’ll get that joy [from performing], but they’ll also distribute it to their peers and cheer them on.”
The staff also loves serving as an audience during rehearsals. Miguel Altamirano directs each production and has witnessed transformations. It happens every time a performer with disabilities steps on stage.
“It’s amazing how they can be as funny as they are, their facial expressions and body language … When they have a live audience, the stuff that I don’t see them do throughout the rehearsals, it just comes out,” he said. “I guess that’s part of being a performer. Every time I see a show, I sit back and I’m like, wow. These guys are very talented. The fact that they are handicapped doesn’t mean they don’t have that talent. They have that inner performer.”
Ed Varga considers himself blessed to have found Maryhaven for his son.
“Maryhaven has given [Craig] the opportunity to be in theater arts,” he said. “Even though he’s not a producer, it’s always been something he’s expressed an interest in. He loves researching the plays and the characters and scenery, and everything else connected with it. It has fulfilled his desire to be in theater arts.”