Fans of musical theater have a reason to rejoice in North Bergen. The newly launched Ghostlight Productions has announced plans to stage local musicals for residents at venues around town.
Ghostlight is actually not entirely new. Formed two years ago by music teacher Melissa Welz, they were previously known as the North Bergen Public Library Theater. Under the auspices of the library, they staged one play each summer for the past two years.
Now established as an independent entity, they hope to branch out and increase the number of productions.
Bringing musical theater to North Bergen
Welz has been a music teacher and choir teacher at Horace Mann School for seven years. A native of North Bergen, she said, “Growing up I wanted to be in more shows around where I live.”
And so she made it happen. Enlisting her students as well as those from other schools, she established an acting troupe to produce musicals. That left just one problem: where to put them on.
Her answer came from Library Director Sai Rao. “I went to her two years ago and I said ‘Listen, I don’t have any money to put on a show, would you help me out?’” said Welz. “Because it costs a lot. And she helped fund us for the past two years. If it wasn’t for her I would’ve never been able to do this.”
“We’re setting out to provide Hudson County with a safe place for kids to go where they can be off the street, where they can learn a skill.” –Heather Zahn
“Since it was free, we had a huge majority of North Bergen come out to see this is how musicals are,” said Welz. “So it opened a lot of eyes. And that’s why this year I decided to establish myself because I want to charge for tickets. I want to do things in New York and I have to start charging.”
In addition to expanding into new venues, she hopes to feature more adult content, actors, and audiences. Recently they held auditions for their next production, Rent.
More than 70 people turned up for auditions, despite the lack of advertising. The only notification was word of mouth and flyers in the schools.
On June 5, Ghostlight Productions held a launch party/fundraiser at Marinero Grill in West New York. Friends and supporters of the arts turned out to contribute to the cause.
At the same time, they were treated to a selection of musical numbers from some of the Ghostlight troupe. Many of the numbers had been featured in a performance two weeks earlier at a cabaret showcase in New York.
“These were my past students, about three-quarters of them,” said Welz of the singers. “A lot of them go to North Bergen High School so I’ve had some of them since they were in sixth grade. They’re all North Bergen residents.”
“I’ve lived in North Bergen all my life and I’ve had numerous music teachers that helped me so much in my life and I want to give back to the community,” Welz added. “One of my jobs that I like very much is to seek out talent. Like Chelsea. She was the shiest person in fourth grade. If it wasn’t for music she would never come out of her shell. I taught her at Horace Mann. She was in my chorus for I think three years.”
Chelsea Mesa sang at the launch party. A member of the troupe for three years now, she joined in seventh grade. “I started off in an ensemble,” she said. “With other people from other schools, other residents. Different age groups, which was pretty cool. We were pushing ourselves to sing better and learn how to read music, and dance, which I really needed.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. “I had stage fright, like nerves. It was so bad,” she said. So why did she choose to get up on stage? “I’m pushing myself, trying to face my fears. And everybody helped each other. We all supported each other.”
Now she sees a career in the arts. “This has actually inspired me to write,” Mesa said. “I want to pursue something in music. Whether it’s writing, directing, or being in it myself. I just know music is it.”
Teaching kids skills
Welz has big goals for Ghostlight. In addition to more performances, she envisions holding workshops for budding performers. A former Broadway performer herself—she was in Mary Poppins for two years—Welz hopes to tap into her network to help out.
“I know some of the Broadway actors and I could see if they want to come to our community and give a workshop,” she said. “For High Tech students, for North Bergen High School students, just students who want to learn what it takes to be on Broadway. I’m trying to get Idina Menzel.”
Partnering with Welz in Ghostlight are two longtime friends. Paula Ribeiro and Heather Zahn know Welz from college and grammar school respectively. Zahn reconnected when she auditioned for Fame and got the part… then gave it up.
“We wanted to make sure we got all kids so we ended up replacing me with kids,” said Zahn. “And I stayed on as stage manager. And she hasn’t been able to get rid of me since.”
Describing Ghostlight’s goals, Zahn said, “We’re setting out to provide Hudson County with a safe place for kids to go where they can be off the street, where they can learn a skill, like public speaking. Even if they don’t want to become actors.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.