Hard work brings ravaged Surflight Theater back to life

 Volunteers played a key role in helping the theater bounce back from $750,000 in damage caused by Sandy. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Volunteers played a key role in helping the theater bounce back from $750,000 in damage caused by Sandy. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

They say “the show must go on” but that wasn’t an easy feat for our Beach Haven hosts, the Surflight Theater. It took a lot to get the theater ready for summer after clearing out three feet of water left by Sandy.

The Surflight Theater’s 60-year run of doing summer stock was never in danger of ending because of Sandy’s toll, but it took all winter and spring to recover.

Broadway veteran and theater executive director Ken Meyers says the damage was substantial.

“We lost the integrity of the stage, so we had to rebuild that. We had to remediate the seats, we lost carpeting,” he said.

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Altogether, it left $750,000 worth of damage. Some 4,000 costumes accumulated over the years couldn’t be salvaged.

An army of volunteers and donations saved the theater, according to Bill Lawton, director of facilities.

“We would never be where we are today if it wasn’t for the volunteer support we got,” he said. “From after the week we got back. We’ve had Boy Scout troops, college students, we’ve had construction workers, painters all help us put the thing back together again.

“I think that after this whole thing we are going to be better off than we were,” said Lawton, who wears many hats, including sometimes running the refreshment stand.

Surflight is more than just a theater. It includes housing for the actors and other staff, a children’s theater and even an ice-cream parlor where performers serve and sing at the same time.

An almagam of youthful energy, Broadway veterans

Living with the young performers who even rehearse shows in the summer heat is energizing, said stage Manager Bill Gilinsky, who acted and been a crew member on many Broadway shows.

“When we go into a situation of being in a professional theater like the main stage, it all comes to life. Everything we’ve done outside has now been brought underneath the lights,” Gilinsky said. “It gives us great hope, that’s the wonderful thing about it — you go from one extreme to the other.

“On Broadway, sometimes, you have the comfort of the rehearsal, comfort of travel,” he continued. “This is a great training ground for young professionals and it’s a great place to return after you’ve been that professional for 40 years. You come back and it reminds you of how you got started and what really brought you into the profession.”

At Surflight, Broadway veterans are brought in as the stars, and young aspiring actors and actresses fill the rest of the roles. Actress Betsy DiLellio, who has performed in Tony award-winning plays on Broadway, says the challenge comes in changing shows in short order.

“At this point, I’m just working on ‘South Pacific,’ but once we open ‘South Pacific,’ a few days after that, we’ll start rehearsals for ‘Les Miz,’ and that’s when my life will get a little screwy,” she said. “I will be rehearing ‘Les Miz’ in the daytime and performing ‘South Pacific’ at night. So it’s a little bit of back and forth between the two characters, but again that’s part of what makes summer stock fun.”

The performers get only 30 hours to rehearse each play. Aspiring actress Amanda Fannon it’s almost like “boot camp.”

“In the time that most people might do one show, you are pumping out three or four or five — and that builds the resume so much faster and you get to work with so many people.

‘Lovely little magical place’

“We’re getting all of these Broadway veterans and people who have done national tours and Tony-nominated people and people who have been in Tony award-winning shows,” Fannon said. “It’s really great to make those connections and do that networking because that one of the biggest parts of the business.”

The glue that keeps the productions together is director/choreographer Norb Joerder who has worked with every Lancelot in “Camelot” from Sir Richard Harris to Robert Goulet. In order to have a special season at Surflight this year, he’s called in just about every favor he’s accumulated over his career.

“This is a lovely little magical place that I hope stays around forever,” Joerder said.

Since its origins as a tent theater in the 1950s, the Surflight has had a lot of homes, including a former garage next to a bowling alley. Now, its members are thankful to provide a bit of an escape as the Shore continues rebuilding post Sandy.

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