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Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Charity comes first for St. Thomas More Summer Theatre Magic's 'Seussical'

When St. Thomas More Summer Theatre Magic was launched as a charitable outreach of the St. Thomas More Adult Choir in 1999, the response was overwhelmingly positive to its production of "Man of La Mancha." It was enough to make the summer theater an ongoing charitable venture, with full support from its pastor, the Rev. Msgr. John P. Murphy. Since then, nearly $350,000 has been raised for local charities in the Lehigh Valley, with its mission of raising funds through quality family entertainment. This year will be no different, as Summer Theatre Magic presents "Seussical the Musical," Aug. 15-18, to benefit Mary's Shelter, The Cay Galgon Center, in Bethlehem. The charity serves homeless pregnant women in the Lehigh Valley.

During the summer months, Natalie Seng Pionegro, artistic director and managing director of Summer Theatre Magic, witnesses all ages willingly give of their time and talents in providing entertainment for the entire family. Productions are held in the parish's air-conditioned gymnasium, 1040 Flexer Ave., Allentown, Salisbury Twp., Lehigh Co. Year-round, Pionegro is director of music and liturgy for St. Thomas More Parish/School and maintains strong relationships with those she serves.

In some cases, she said there are generations of a family who have enjoyed working together on past productions of "The Wizard of Oz," "Camelot," "Peter Pan," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Oliver!" "The Music Man," "Brigadoon," "Godspell," "Annie," and "Bye Bye Birdie."

Parishioner Tim Clark of Lower Macungie Township serves as co-director of Summer Theatre Magic. Known for his vocals, he has taken the St. Thomas stage in portraying Tevye, King Arthur, Fagin, and Sancho Panza. Clark is executive vice president of global sales and marketing at Precision Medical.

Summer Theatre Magic conductor is Nancy Schwartz, a customer support service analyst with St. Luke's University Hospital. Lighting designer is John Musarra, who has worked with Disney on Ice and Cirque de Soleil productions.

The cast of "Seussical the Musical" includes Nick Nelson as The Cat in the Hat, John Monahan as Horton the Elephant, Sofia Groves as Boy/JoJo, Dr. Maryann Hartzell-Sado as Mayzie LaBird, Emily Hausmann as Sour Kangaroo, Crystal Husser as Gertrude McFuzz, Dave Swaintek as The Mayor, Elizabeth Schaub as The Mayor's Wife, and Dr. Tom Koch as General Genghis Khan Schmidt.

"Seussical," a musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, made its Broadway debut in 2000. It is based on many of Seuss's most famous books, with the plot mirroring "Horton Hears a Who!" and Horton's efforts to protect the people of Who-ville who reside on a tiny speck of dust on a clover.

"The dialogue of ‘Seussical' fits this year's charity," Clark said, "…about being lost, trying to find yourself. It's Horton the Elephant who cares about a baby coming into the world. It's Horton guarding Who-ville and believing ‘a person's a person, no matter how small.' "

Pionegro said the challenge of "Seussical" is in the diction and "sing-song" delivery of the music. "It's the Dr. Seuss rhyme, and people have to get the story," she said. Songs that touch her heart, she said, are "Solla Sollew," "How Lucky You Are," and "Alone in the Universe."

Bill Bauman is costumer for Summer Theatre Magic. He also costumes Pa. Youth Theatre in Bethlehem and is involved with the Moravian College Theatre Company. Bauman is business manager for Moravian's music department.

He described "enhanced clothing" for the "Seussical" cast of nearly 70. "They'll be very colorful and very cartoon-y, as the musical involves little side stories in locations of the Dr. Seuss mind," he added.

Former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns, Jim and Barbara Vogelgesang of Kempton, Berks Co., have been leading the children who appear in "Seussical's" Circus McGurkus scene through a series of exercises in juggling, spinning, tumbling, and even walking on stilts. They also rehearse ribbon dancing and how to form a human pyramid.

"They're an amazing group, quick learners," Barbara Vogelgesang said of her young students. "We like passing on the skills."

The Vogelgesangs conducted a Clowning and Comedy Camp for Pa. Youth Theatre earlier this month for students in grades 3-12. (To learn more on this talented couple, see Arts Roundup below).

"Production costs are offset by the sponsorship donations of generous friends of the summer theater," Pionegro said, "allowing us to funnel every cent of profit from ticket sales to the designated charity. Each year's proceeds provide assistance to our brothers and sisters around the Lehigh Valley."

She added that ground was broken in the fall of 2001 for a home to be built from the proceeds generated by that year's production and channeled through Habitat for Humanity, and that completed house has now been home to an Allentown family for more than a decade.

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Jim and Barbara Vogelgesang happened to be driving through the Berks County area some 22 years ago while touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as professional clowns. They liked what they saw, recalled Barbara – wide open land that had a peace about it. It was a quiet place apart from a hectic touring schedule to settle and raise a family.

The Vogelgesangs have four children: Nicholas, 20; Libby, 19; Sarah, 12 and Alex, 11, all of whom were or are currently being homeschooled and all of whom have clowned.

"It was easier to dress them and bring them along with us on the road rather than arrange for babysitting," Barbara said. "They all know circus skills like juggling and riding a unicycle."

Barbara, who hails from New York City and Jim, from Lima, Ohio, met while Barbara was doing public relations in New York when the Ringling Bros. Circus came to Madison Square Garden. Part of her special-event promotion involved the circus animals coming through the Midtown Tunnel to the Garden venue. Jim was already a Ringling Bros. clown who taught at Clown College in Venice, Fla. It wasn't long before the two got together and Barbara was headed for a clowning role. With the circus, they have toured the United States, Canada and Japan. They marked their 25th wedding anniversary last December.

No longer with Ringling Bros., the Vogelgesangs perform as "Mr. and Mrs. Bumble" and mostly for corporate parties and community events. Their two younger children are involved with Pa. Youth Theatre, where Barbara helps with costumes. She also is involved in Touchstone Theatre's Young Playwrights program in Allentown and Bethlehem schools.

As a clown, Barbara said she looks at life "a little different. You find humor. You're a little more sensitive to how people feel about things." In teaching comedy, "It's getting people to laugh together, not at each other. …Children are amazed at how much they can learn. Every child can do something. They believe if you believe."

Husband Jim is a graduate of Ohio State University and holds a master's degree from Alvernia University. He is a special education teacher at the Children's Home of Reading, while Barbara is a certified public speaker and conducts workshops on how parents and children can make strong connections in their relationship with one another. She holds a journalism degree from St. John's University in New York and is the author of "Boredom Busters" (Zondervan Publishing Co., 2001), a resource in stimulating creativity and strengthening the parent-child bond.

"Parents need to make connections with their children," Barbara explained. "They need to make that fun. When we were touring with the circus, we had families around us who were from all over the world. The focus was always in passing a legacy. The family was a team."

The Vogelgesangs even worked for a while with the famous Wallenda circus family. Barbara said Nik Wallenda's mother would often babysit her children on the tours.

"Families traveled together and helped each other on the road," Barbara said.

When the couple watched the live TV broadcast last month of Nik Wallenda completing a high-wire walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge in Arizona, Barbara said, proudly, "We cheered him on as one of the family, as one of our own."


Notre Dame Summer Theatre Company, Revelations Productions, presents the Tony-winning musical, "Les Miserables," based on the novel by Victor Hugo, beginning Friday through Aug. 4, at Notre Dame High School, 3417 Church Rd., Easton. Director is Rod Gilkeson.

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Pennsylvania Playhouse presents the Tony-winning "Aida," based on the Verdi opera, with music by Elton John and Tim Rice, beginning Friday through Aug. 11, at the Playhouse, Illick's Mill Road, Bethlehem. Director is Laurie Zane Wieder.

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