The moment Paul Iacono, 13, of Secaucus, heard that there was another Secaucus kid, Lindsayann Collazo, attending the Paper Mill Playhouse's special summer program, he sought her out.
"When I heard Lindsayann was there, I was so happy," Paul said during an interview a few days after his return to Secaucus. "I thought I was going to be the only Secaucus kid there, and I felt kind alone."
Lindsayann, 16, said Paul approached her with the idea that the two Secaucus kids hang out for a few days until they got to meet other people.
"He came up to me one day when we were still in school," she said. "He said he heard I was going to the Paper Mill Playhouse."
"We were different ages," Paul said. "But we didn't know anybody. So we figured we could stay together until we met other people our own ages."
Lindsayann and Paul shared the ride to Kean University in Union five days a week for the five-week acting program.
The two Secaucus kids were among 97 youths statewide who had been invited to join the Paper Mill Playhouse's "New Voices" program, part of the Paper Mill Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory.
Paul said he had heard talk of the conservatory for years, but because he was too young, he could not pay attention.
"When I was in the play 'Children of Eden,' I heard all the kids talking about the conservatory," he said. "I wanted to go, but I was eight then, and not old enough. You need to be 12 to attend."
A couple of years later, however, Paul got a special invitation to join.
"I was doing a lot of shows and Paper Mill said I could attend if I wanted to," Paul said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't do it then. I got caught up in other things."
Paul said he feared that he would not be able to attend this year either because he had to do an off-Broadway show just before the conservatory was slated to start in June. But he finished the show in time to make the trek to the summer program.
Paul is one of those natural talents who had already impressed his family with his singing by the time he was 3 years old. By age 6, Paul was already a prominent player in the Park Theater's yearly production of "A Christmas Carol," playing the role of Tiny Tim. And over the years he has developed a string of accomplishments few people twice his age could brag about, from singing the national anthem before a New Jersey Nets basketball game to playing side by side with Mickey Rooney in a national tour of "The Wizard of Oz."
He has performed several times at Paper Mill Playhouse in plays like "Mame," "The Will Rogers Follies," and "Children of Eden."
Paul has also appeared numerous times on television, including several appearances on the Rosie O'Donnell show. Yet with all this under his belt, Paul said the summer program at The Paper Mill was one of the highlights of his young life.
It was an experience of a lifetime
Lindsayann came to the summer program by a whole different route. She had been nominated as part of the playhouse's Rising Star Awards for her role as Maria in the Secaucus High School production of West Side Story.
While she didn't win the best actress award, she did get to take part in the summer series, something she called "a great honor" in itself.
Lindsayann's family moved to Secaucus about five years ago. She was 11 and attended Clarendon School. The family had lived in Westchester, New York, and moved to Secaucus partly because they heard the school system was so good. The theater program was a pleasant surprise. Her school district in Westchester didn't have such a program.
Since then, Collazo has appeared in the school productions of Oliver, Mame, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, and Carnival. Last year, she played the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I. But West Side Story was the crowning achievement that led her straight to Paper Mill Playhouse.
Both students were part of what was called the Junior Conservancy at the Playhouse.
Lindsayann said she took classes in musical theater, musical theory, jazz, and tap dancing.
"There were guest workshops with people from New York who came in to talk," she said. "We had a full schedule."
Paul also took numerous classes, which included acting, dancing, and musical performance as well as private lessons.
All the classes were about Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows, he said.
"We learned about their shows and the dancing in those shows," Paul said.
Paul said he was surprised by the fact that among the first things they had to do when they got there was audition.
"We had to audition for parts in the finale," he said, noting that he got the part of "herald" in the play Cinderella.
Lindsayann said all of the students were selected through the auditions for the showcase performance at the end of the summer. She said none of the 97 kids seemed to know that they were auditioning for a part in New Voices of 2001 Celebrates Rodgers & Hammerstein. The event, which concluded the five-week stay, featured scenes from Oklahoma, South Pacific, Cinderella, The King and I.
Lindsayann said she would have taken a role in the chorus - so happy was she to be involved at all - but oddly wound up getting the same role she had played in a Secaucus production of the play.
"It was one of the featured roles and it was an honor," she said. "I got the same role in King and I that I had in Secaucus and I got to wear my grandmother's China dress, one that she wore in a cabaret show 30 years ago."
Lindsayann called the whole thing an experience of a lifetime.
"Doing the show was awesome," Paul said. "That was the coolest part. I'm not much of a dancer - I mostly sing and act. But it was great."