In The Drowsy Chaperone, a Broadway extravaganza comes to life in a lonely fan's imagination.
And in the Ritz Theatre Company's current production of the hit musical, a showbiz dream of a different sort is coming true at every performance.
Just ask Joe O'Malley, Nancy Cocozza, and Rita Wood, who each won a chance to appear onstage at the venerable Haddon Township playhouse. They are among 17 people taking turns in the brief but crucial role of a building superintendent; The Drowsy Chaperone opened April 18 and continues through next Saturday.
"It was great!" says O'Malley, 59, of Washington Township, whose previous acting gig was playing St. Joseph at St. Clement's elementary school in Southwest Philly.
Cocozza, a retired Neshaminy School District teacher and lifelong theater buff from Langhorne, says she had a "fantastic" experience on the boards - complete with a bouquet of red roses from her husband, Michael.
"A star is born!" proclaims Wood, 68, an Atco resident who is set to appear in Sunday's matinee. Going onstage, she adds, has been one of her longtime goals.
"It's an opportunity most people don't get," observes Ritz board president Ken Funkhouser, an experienced player and Haddon Heights resident who gets his turn as the superintendent Wednesday.
Bruce Curless, the producing artistic director of the Ritz and the director of the show, calls the experience "magical," particularly for people unfamiliar with the backstage camaraderie, technical complexities, and cherished traditions of live theater.
Founded by Curless in 1985, the Ritz has nearly 350 seats and a subscription base of about 2,770. It is a professional company, producing six main stage and six children's shows annually.
"I'm tickled to see that little spark, the one that keeps all of us going in this crazy business, in the eyes" of the newcomers, Curless, of Haddon Heights, says.
"Their families are there cheering for them. It helps us [grow] our audience, and it sends a nice vibe out into the community."
The newbies bring fresh (and occasionally, unpredictable) energy to every show, says Al Fuchs, a seasoned actor who stars as the fan.
"It's been fun," adds Fuchs, who lives in Haddonfield. "But it can be challenging."
O'Malley, Cocozza, and Wood acknowledge a certain . . . trepidation about their five-minute, 13-line turn in the spotlight, which included makeup, costumes, and body mics.
All three came to rehearsal and also ran their lines - "I got to reset the breakers" among them - with Fuchs, whom they thanked for being generous with advice.
Such as, "Never look at the audience," says Cocozza, a self-described basket case "until I got out there" on stage.
Adds Wood, who had a 30-year teaching career at the Rutgers University extension service in Burlington County: "I don't have cold feet. I just want to know my lines."
O'Malley, a retired Peco foreman, rehearsed himself. "I'd be working out, driving the car, and repeating my lines."
(I had the same fear during my first and last show, playing either the fool or a knave in a college Shakespeare production.)
O'Malley was especially nervous at the prospect of sharing a stage with his niece, Kaitlyn Delengowski, 26, of Gloucester City, who is familiar to Ritz audiences.
Fortunately, Delengowski's character was lying motionless at the time; except for Fuchs, the cast "freezes" in place when the superintendent arrives and interrupts the fantasy.
"I was nervous for my uncle," Delengowski says. "But he was a better actor than I was."