After High Tech High School's student-run production of Oz won the Paper Mill Playhouse's prestigious Rising Star Award - symbolizing the best New Jersey high school theater production of 2002 - theater arts teacher Alex Perez just knew that the final curtain had not fallen on the impressive show.
"I just felt that the run wasn't over," Perez said. "The reaction from everyone who saw the show said the same, that it was not just a good high school production. Everyone said they could actually see it as an Off-Broadway venture."
High Tech is the county's public vo-tech school, based in North Bergen.
The show, which ran at the school in April of 2002, was a revamped version of The Wizard of Oz, complete with brand new music and lyrics, with the storyline updated to the present. It won unilateral praise from the Paper Mill Playhouse judges, who saw the unique production as an innovative step for high school theater.
Since Perez was not content in letting the show expire and become a piece of history, he started to do what he dubbed "homework and research" to do the unthinkable - take a high school production and bring it to a professional stage in Manhattan.
"I always tell the kids that if you want to get something done, you do it yourself," Perez said. "So over the course of the year, I checked into different theaters, to see if they would be interested."
To pull off the show, Perez was going to need funding - and without a big-time producer supplying the money, it meant that the kids from High Tech were going to have to raise funds.
"We raised money and had some money saved," Perez said. "True, it was a gamble to rent the theater, but we felt that there would be an audience."
Perez contacted the people who run The Producers' Club, a multi-theater facility that is just a stone's throw from Times Square.
"What drew me to it was that it was right in the heart of Times Square. It's perfect to invite the general public. Ultimately, it's all about giving the students the experience of what it's like to be in a professional show," he said.
The Producers' Club is a site for fledgling productions to get a small run with audiences, with the hopes of getting spotted by a slew of regular Broadway and Off-Broadway producers who frequent the club.
"They said that they would love to see if they could do one of the first high school shows," Perez said. So Perez had a theater, the Producers Club's theater No. 2 at Ninth Avenue and 44th Street.
The High Tech administration, namely Superintendent of Schools Frank Gargiulo and Principal Karol Brancato, were supportive of the idea, and Perez approached the students to tell them of the news.
"I thought he was kidding at first," said Michelle Matrachia, a senior from Jersey City. "I had no clue that we could actually go off-Broadway. But when we realized Alex was serious, we all got so excited."
While some of the students first doubted the thought, North Bergen native Gio Perez, a graduate of High Tech now studying at NYU's School of Theater Arts, has come back to reprise his role of the "Cowardly Lion." He never questioned it.
"It really didn't surprise me as much as other people would think," said Perez, who is no relation to the teacher.
Oz: A Twisted Musical will have a four-week run at The Producers' Club Theater 2. Opening night was July 16 and it will run through Aug. 9, with a possibility of an extended run if ticket sales are brisk.
Perez, who has directed and choreographed the show, has been working full-time getting it ready for its Off-Broadway debut. In fact, the students have been taking the professional approach, working all hours in rehearsal for opening night.
"I think it intrigues people to see a show of this quality done entirely by the students," Perez said. "They're so far beyond their years."
The students have also been promoting the show. Two weeks ago, the main characters went to Manhattan in costume to the famed TKTS booth in Times Square, to perform a few numbers from the show and to drum up interest.
The show has been getting its share of attention, with features posted on www.Playbill.com and www.theatermania.com.
Seven shows a week
The students will perform seven shows a week, with shows Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
Perez said he is confident that people will want to come to see the show. It is a gamble trying to fill a 100-seat theater 26 times with a high school production.
"But it's a family musical," Perez said. "I've seen a lot of Off-Broadway shows and without hesitation, I can truthfully say this can be done Off-Broadway. I can't see why people won't come to support us. It's definitely a first. I don't know if there's ever been another high school show to go Off-Broadway. But we're doing something positive, representing the school, representing Hudson County."
Oz: A Twisted Musical can be seen at The Producers' Club Theater, 616 Ninth Avenue (at 44th Street) in New York, from July 16 through Aug. 9. Tickets are $30. For further information on tickets, call the box office at (212) 868-4444, or visit www.smarttix.com. For information on the show visit www.ozmusical.com. q