In a tribute to a great and wise music director, a cast of more than 250 current and former high school students returned to their alma mater a weekend ago to pay tribute to Cathyann Roding, a loving teacher who is retiring after 38 years, the last 32 at Branford High.
It was a very special afternoon as the high school auditorium filled up, about 500 in all, to give thanks and say farewell to Roding, who as music director has performed before audiences of thousands, here and in many countries in Europe, even a performance before Pope John Paul at the Vatican in Rome, Italy. She always handled these concerts professionally, showing little anxiety.
This particular Sunday was a little different.
The curtain opened and the ensemble broke out into a medley of songs from “Pippin.”
When former student Colin Sheehan (pictured), who orchestrated an incredible production, brought Roding on stage to a raucous welcome by the nearly full house, she looked a little caught off guard.
She had that star struck look of, “Wow, this is for me?” And boy, was she right.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was nervous wondering what was in store for me, I didn’t have a clue. Nobody told me anything about what was happening.” That changed pretty quickly. “And then when some of my former cast members and performers came out on cue to perform songs from one of our old plays, the nervousness went away.”
Her first play was “Pippin” in 1986 and her last, this past March, was the musical “Titanic.” Several medleys at the end of the concert including songs from “Titanic.”
Numerous student performers, who played lead roles in many of her plays over the years, returned to pay tribute to the teacher who gave them confidence and developed the talent some of them still use today. Here the female cast from “South Pacific” sings, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”
After Roding settled into her seat with her boyfriend Drake Smith and her longtime director sidekick Toni Cartisano by her side, along with some other close friends, Sheehan got the fine-tuned program underway with a medley of songs from “Pippin,” including “Magic To Do,” “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.”
The Arc of a Musical Career
What followed were a series of songs from some of her other plays including “South Pacific” from 1987, “Hello Dolly” from 1988, and “West Side Story,” which was performed both in 1989 and 2004. Nadia Bowers (pictured), who played Anita in the first play, and is now a Broadway actress in New York City, described the impact Roding had on her life after appearing in “West Side Story” in 1989.
They listened to Greg Nobile (pictured), class of 2011 and a Tony award-winning producer, perform “I am the Pirate King” from “Pirates of Penzance” (2009). Nobile now puts on plays in Branford and other venues as well overseeing the “The Stand,” a popular restaurant in town.
Former WTNH television news anchor Chris Velardi, who never left his hometown of Branford, performed the role of Sky Masterson, singing “Luck be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls..” He first played the role in 1990.
The gifted Geoff Burns (pictured) who played Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” (1991) sang, “If I were a Rich Man” and later sang “Trouble” (In River City) from “The Music Man” (1993). His gestures and expressions while performing were worth the price of admission.
Former Walsh Intermediate School music teacher Kevin Buno (pictured), who is now director of choral ensembles and music teacher at Guilford High School, was brought in to coordinate the music selections for his friend, Cathyann. He also brought some of his Guilford students to help, and they did an extraordinary job with very few rehearsals.
Other speakers during the evening included Toni Cartisano (pictured) who told of her friend asking, “an old gym teacher” to become the director of the plays she did every year.
Ashley Roding, Roding’s daughter, praised her mom in an emotional talk about how much fun it was to be part of the plays, even when she was a student at WIS.
Close friend and Sliney Elementary School teacher Ted Samodel (pictured) also spoke about the impact Roding had on him when he came to Branford.
And Principal Lee Panagoulias (pictured) spoke about her impact on him when he first came to Branford. She suggested he come to one of her plays and he said, “I haven’t stopped coming yet.”
Ryan Bloomquist, who with Nobile got his start in the theater as kids growing up in Branford, is now the executive producer with Nobile at Seaview Productions. He returned to sing a medley from “Phantom of the Opera.” Here is an early story on Bloomquist, Nobile and the Lemonade Gang.
He said the recent tribute to Roding raised over $10,000, which was turned over to the Branford Community Foundation. It will be used for scholarships each year in Cathyann Roding’s name.
“We hope others residents or alumni will want to add to the amount raised as well,” Sheehan said. Donations may be sent payable to the Branford Community Foundation, P.O. Box 462, Branford, CT 06405. Other fundraising activities are also being planned.
At the end of the tribute the cast of “Titanic” sang a medley of songs, followed by “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and the “Irish Blessing.” Roding was then brought up to the stage to speak and to lead the ensemble chorus in the song she wrote, “You Light the Way.” Then the audience rose as one, in a standing ovation. Overall it was a magical night with lots of emotion.
Roding’s final performance will be this Friday, June 16, at the 33rd annual Branford Festival. She will lead her Branford Concert Choir from 5:45 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. on the town green.