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'Mrs. A' to be honored at ND-BG's 'Evening of Stars II'

'Mrs. A' to be honored at ND-BG's 'Evening of Stars II'

Many of Melanie Anchukaitis' students returning to perform at Saturday event
'Mrs. A' to be honored at ND-BG's 'Evening of Stars II'
Melanie Anchukaitis with her director's chair; right, Gwyn Sise (left) and Tara Strichman in "White Christmas" at ND-BG in 2014.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber and provided photo

SCHENECTADY — Melanie Anchukaitis will know all the songs. She'll know all the performers.

The longtime codirector of musicals at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School will also know an emotional, sentimental Saturday night at the Schenectady school.

"Evening of Stars II" on April 6 will celebrate Anchukaitis' contributions to song-and-dance shows staged at the school from 1996 through 2017 — she was co-director for those productions. Twenty-three former actors and actresses will return to the stage in the school gymnasium and reprise 25 numbers from years ago.

The benefit show is a sequel: Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons honored the late Tom Maguire, the school's longtime musicals director, during the 2017 "Evening of Stars."

The salute to Anchukaitis, a 70-year-old Niskayuna resident known as "Mrs. A" in school corridors, will begin at 6 p.m. The gym will be decorated to look like a nightclub.

"We are going to have kind of a festival, we're going to have a silent auction," said Paul O'Brien, who taught English at the school for 47 years and retired in 2014. "We're going to have food from a number of area restaurants, many of the restaurant owners are connected to Gibbons, they're donating all of their food."

"We will have the dinner and then at 7 o'clock we will begin the show," O'Brien added. "We have two former students as masters of ceremonies, they will introduce the night. Melanie has been working diligently preparing the whole program for the night."

Maguire began directing shows in 1976, and later was joined by Anchukaitis and Linda Neidl. Like the first "Stars" show, money raised will be used for school improvements. Maguire's tribute raised $27,000 for the stage sound system.

"There are still some things that need to be done, so some of the money we gain from this will finish that project," O'Brien said. "The rest of the money will go to upgrading the technology and science programs here at the school."

Tickets for the fundraiser will cost $65 each and are available by calling the school's development office at 518-393-3131, Extension 106.

Anchukaitis began her teaching career at the former Notre Dame High School in 1970, and stayed until 1975 — the year all-girl Notre Dame merged with all-boy Bishop Gibbons. She took time off to raise her family, and returned to teach — Spanish was her subject — in 1988.

While Anchukaitis retired in 2017, she remains a familiar face to ND-BG students. She is chairing the Spanish Department, is a co-coach for the school mock trial team and recently helped out with a school stage production.

"It's hard to leave this school," Anchukaitis said.

She is proud of her 21 shows, and excited that her "kids" will sing songs from their personal glory days. Some will be solo, some will be duets, some will be group performances — selections from 10 different musicals.

The opening will be "Consider Yourself," from "Oliver." The closing number will be "Blue Skies" from "White Christmas."

Anchukaitis said it's hard to choose a favorite show.

"Almost every one we've done has been my favorite," she said. "I certainly absolutely loved 'Fiddler' and 'White Christmas.'"

There are also fond memories for "Man of La Mancha," "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls," "Hello Dolly" and "Cinderella."

And there are fond memories of boys and girls who are now men and women.

"For me, it is so gratifying because it's something I always dreamed of doing," Anchukaitis said. "We talked about the fact that some day these kids would come back and so something on our stage again.

"When they graduate, you miss them terribly," she added. "We never fail to remember things they have contributed. To think they're going to be here and they're putting themselves out — some of these people haven't sung in years and have decided that somehow, they're going to step on that stage and do this."

The actors and actresses can't wait to get into makeup.

"The first show I ever did was at ND-BG," said 2016 graduate Tara Strichman, who will return for several numbers. "I saw my brother perform in a fall musical and he’d told me what an amazing director-teacher Mrs. A was.

"I hadn’t had her as a teacher yet. but I’d heard from countless students how nurturing she was," Strichman added. "Once I started doing shows at school it became clear that she really was like a mother to all of us. If it weren’t for Mrs. A, I’d still be deciding on a major in college. Thanks to her I’m currently pursuing a double major in Spanish and theater.

"When I was accepted to study abroad in Madrid last year, I’m pretty sure I called her before my parents."

Guilderland's Ryan Kanai, who graduated in 2014, participated in all the school's musicals during his high school years. He said stage work helped him overcome a shy nature.

"I have kept in touch with her, she's a dear friend of mine," Kanai said of Mrs. A. "When she asked me to participate in this show, I wasn't going to say no to her."

Adam Weatherwax, who graduated in 2005, said Anchukaitis was the teacher who had the most impact on him during his school years.

"I lovingly refer to her as my 'school mom' because she was a constant source of support and guidance," Weatherwax said. "I felt like ND-BG was the amazing community that it was because it was comprised of people like Mrs. A. Throughout my years at ND-BG, Mrs. A taught me to believe in myself and to have high expectations even when there were obstacles in my way."

Weatherwax played the lead in three productions.

"My favorite role was Col. Pickering in 'My Fair Lady,'" he said. "Pickering is a gentleman in every sense of the word. I think Mrs. A has been coaching me for that role on stage and life since I met her in seventh grade. On stage that year she even coached me through a passable English accent and a fake mustache."

Weatherwax currently teaches middle school math at the William H. Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"I try to emulate her balance of high expectations and support in my own teaching," he said. "I also direct our school’s annual musical ... whether in the classroom or in the theater, when I’m faced with a question, I often ask “What would Mrs. A do?”

"It gave you a chance to step out and try something different," said Steven Baldwin, a 2014 graduate who now teaches Spanish at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons and helps coach the mock trial team.

Kids also got the chance to develop presentation and public speaking skills. Playing parts like Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls" or Betty Haynes in "White Christmas" also helped boost confidence for young actors and actresses. In preparation for some shows, such as "Fiddler of the Roof," students learned about Jewish customs.

Mickie Baldwin, who is helping to organize the show, said Anchukaitis has influenced students on both stage and in classroom.

"When you look at the number of our students who because of having her as a teacher go on to if not major in Spanish, minor in Spanish in college, that's innumerable, that's a significant impact Melanie has in a classroom but outside of the classroom," she said.

Baldwin also said that through opportunities Anchukaitis has offered students on stage, many continue with scripts and speech in community theater productions.

Baldwin added that the first "Evening of Stars" sold out. The organizing committee hopes to raise $30,000 with the second edition.

Nostalgia will help sell tickets; Neidl loves the idea that the show will take place in the Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons gym.

"It's a true homecoming," she said. "Our stage is the vital part of our gala."

"The nostalgia makes the event," Baldwin added. "It just really touches people. It's like an alumni reunion that goes across all classes."

Neidl is looking forward to the salute to her co-director.

"I'm so excited about it and I'm so proud," she said. "I loved working with Melanie in every one of those shows. We worked well together."

"We used to laugh that when one of us was missing a brain the other one had it that day," Anchukaitis said.

Neidl now co-directs with Adam Biggs. Mike Purcell, a 1974 Bishop Gibbons graduate, remains music director.

Anchukaitis said sons Kevin and Jeff will travel from Arizona and Washington, D.C., respectively, for the show. Her sister Rosemary Sutton will leave her home in Maryland for the big night.

The emotions have already arrived.

"I don't think there's any way you can act when you have people who are standing on the stage doing things," Anchukaitis said. "I'm going to get emotional just thinking about their willingness to put themselves out there to say 'Thank you.'"

Performances at Saturday's "Evening of Stars II" at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School will include:

(Brenna Casey, 2001 and Adam Weatherwax, 2005, will serve as masters of ceremony)

1. "Oliver" (1997) 

* "Consider Yourself"   - The Ensemble

* "As Long as He Needs Me" – Sandra Klose Dawes, 1998

2. "Oklahoma" (1998, 2015)

* "Kansas City" – Jessica Michael Harrell, 2000, Christian Decker, 2017

* "The Farmer and the Cowman" - Steven Methe, 2017,  Gabriela Giordano, 2017, Jessica Michael Harrell, 2017

3. "Cinderella" (2011, 2017)

* "Do I Love You?"  - Natasha Sookrah, 2018 and Noah Decker, 2020

4. "Anything Goes" (1996, 2013)

* "It’s Delovely" – Perrie Rose Megyeri, 2015 and Dillon Strichman, 2014

* "Let’s Misbehave" – Ryan Kanai, 2014

* "Heaven Hop" – Rebecca Scorzella, 2014

* "Friendship"  - Steven Baldwin, 2014, Tara Strichman, 2016, Dillon Strichman, 2014

5.  "My Fair Lady" (2003)

* "Loverly" - Kimberly Hawkey, 2006

6. "Hello Dolly!" (2000, 2016)

* "It Takes a Woman" - Steven Methe, 2017, Christian Decker, 2017, Kyle Dikeman, 2017

* "Ribbons Down My Back" - Natasha Sookrah, 2018

* "Hello Dolly!"  -  Theresa Tokarowski Guirola 2002, and The Men


7. "South Pacific" (2002)

*  "There is Nothing Like a Dame" – Sam Dikeman, 2007, with Kyle    Dikeman, 2017 and Steven Methe, 2017

* "I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy" – Theresa Tokarowski Guirola, 2002

* "This Nearly was Mine"  - Taylor Jarvis, 2013

* "Bali H’ai"  - Kimberly Hawkey, 2006

8. "Man of La Mancha" (2006)

*  "The Impossible Dream" – Sam, 2007 and Kyle Dikeman, 2017

9.  "Fiddler" (2012)

*  "Sunrise, Sunset"  - Steven Baldwin, 2014, Dillon Strichman, 2014, Tara Strichman, 2016, Gabriela  Giordano, 2017, Taylor Jarvis, 2013

*  "Now I Have Everything" - Taylor Jarvis, 2013

*  "If I Were a Rich Man" – Steven Baldwin, 2014

10.  "White Christmas" (2009, 2014)

*  "Count Your Blessings"  - Sean Baldwin, 2010, Tara Strichman, 2016

*  "Let Me Sing"  - Abby Jones, 2010

*  "Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me"  - Tara Strichman, 2016

*  "Blue Skies" – The Ensemble

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]


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