Former Surflighter Wins Tony Award

Meanwhile a One-Time Singing Waiter at Showplace Earns Second Nomination
By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 12, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill Ali Stroker performs at the ‘Meet the Surflighters’ gala at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven in 2006.

Beach Haven — Surflight Theatre may have been the biggest winner in Sunday’s 73rd annual Tony Awards. One former Surflighter took home a Tony; a former singing waiter at the adjacent Show Place Ice Cream Parlour, owned and run by Surflight, had been nominated for one.

Ali Stroker, 31, who lost the use of her legs when she was 2 years old due to an automobile accident, became the first person using a wheelchair ever to win a Tony Award. She took home the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony for playing Ado Annie in the revival of “Oklahoma!”

The character is best known for the song “I Cain’t Say No,” with which Stroker electrified the audience at the Tony Awards ceremony. But it was her acceptance speech that really blew away the crowd gathered at Radio City Music Hall.

“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena – you are!”

Stroker has already had an illustrious career. The New Jersey native trained with the Summer Musical Theatre Program Conservatory program at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, earned a degree in fine arts from New York University’s Tisch Drama Department, and starred in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” She was a finalist in the second year of “The Glee Project,” earning a guest star appearance on the popular Fox network show, and has given solo performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Town Hall as well as concert performances at Lincoln Center. In 2015 she became the first actress who uses a wheelchair to appear on Broadway, originating the role of Anna in a revival of “Spring Awakening.” And now a Tony!

But it appears Stroker’s first paid acting job was in 2006 at Surflight, where she was offered a position as a performing intern.

The SandPaper published an article about Stroker after she had appeared on Surflight’s stage for the first time, in the opening weekend galas early that June. Her family had vacationed on LBI for years and typically took in a couple of Surflight shows every summer.

“When I was little I would come see the shows, and it was always a dream to perform there one day – ‘they’re so good, they’re so professional, I could never do that, but one day I would love to do that,’” she said at that time. “Then this spring, I decided to audition at the open call. I was the first person at the audition.”

Surflight Artistic Director Steve Steiner was impressed with the then 19-year-old college freshman-going-on-sophomore’s dedication, her bubbly personality and her wonderful singing and signed her up for the season.

As The SandPaper reported at the time, that was pretty darn impressive considering nearly 1,700 persons auditioned for about 20 Surflight company slots. It was almost a perfect gig for Stroker.

“It’s so ideal. I know the Island, I have a house here; it’s not like being caught someplace like New Hampshire where I have no idea where I am and not be near my family. All of my family can come down to all the shows, I’ve got a place to stay; I’ve got every advantage,” she told this reporter back in 2006.

Stroker had to work twice as hard as other Surflighters in dance scenes. That’s right, dance scenes!

“What’s been really fun is that I’ve had to be very creative as far as the dancing,” she said at the time. “A choreographer comes in and they don’t know what to expect, so usually they don’t give me anything; they do the steps and I have to make it work. I developed a really good relationship with Joe (Francisco, who directed the “Meet the Surflighters” gala shows in 2006), but there’s going to be a new choreographer in about a week. So, it’s great for me – I have to be creative and be willing to problem-solve to make the dancing and the movement work.

“If we have step-step-turn, I’m gonna have to take off on the turn earlier (than the rest of the performers). But it’s cleaner to finish at the same time than to take off at the same time.”

Sure enough, it worked.

An acting career wasn’t an easy choice for a girl in a wheelchair in 2006 and, in many ways, still isn’t. The Tony organization has taken some grief because there was no ramp from the audience to the stage that could have accommodated Stroker when she accepted her award. She had to enter from the wings. But back to 2006 ...

“At the audition, people were staring, really pretty rude,” said Stroker at that time. “It was so bizarre. I guess people in the business really don’t expect someone in a chair.”

Luckily for her, Steiner and Surflight were developing a reputation at that time for non-traditional casting – African Americans, for example, might fill a traditionally white role. And Steiner had already cast Anita Hollander, who had lost a leg to cancer, in numerous roles, with the most memorable being Grizabella in “Cats.” After hearing of Stroker’s award I spoke with Steiner and said, “Wow, if Broadway wants another sensation they should do a reboot of ‘Cats’ with Anita.” Steiner agreed, saying, “She’s the best Grizabella I’ve ever seen.”

Actually, The SandPaper had discovered Stroker much earlier than 2006.

“I started singing down here (LBI) when I was 6 years old,” she had said during her 2006 interview. “My neighbors and I put on a production of ‘Annie,’ and I was Annie, and it was in my back yard. The SandPaper came to that and wrote a little article. We charged $1 for people to come see it, and we did it to a cassette tape or something ridiculous. ... My next door neighbor was the director, she was 12 years old at the time, and we thought it was the biggest deal. From then on I knew what I wanted to do.”

Stroker wasn’t the only performer associated with Surflight to be at the Tony Awards on Sunday. Alex Brightman was nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Musical for his role in “Beetlejuice.” It was Brightman’s second Tony nomination; he was a contender in the same category in 2016 for his role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock.” Brightman has also appeared on Broadway in “Wicked,” “Big Fish” and “Matilda the Musical” – which, by the way, will be produced at Surflight later this year.

Not bad for a former singing and dancing waiter at an ice cream shop.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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