Got word today of yesterday’s passing of Dorina DiLullo, 44, a fixture in Westchester community and youth theater who also taught kids to tap dance at studios in Scarsdale and Hastings.
DiLullo was by all accounts that rare kind of theater person, perpetually upbeat, nurturing and creative with never a bad word to say about anyone. Her friends on Facebook are marking her passing with condolences and memories.
I reached out to John Fanelli, who worked with DiLullo at Westchester Broadway Theatre, on last year’s Family Theater production of “Big River,” and at summer camps for kids at WBT.
“She brought joy and love,” Fanelli said. “People always say it when people pass away, but I really think she was the best person I knew. She was sweet and giving and a teacher through and through.”
Recalling her work on “Big River,” Fanelli said: “She was a brilliant stager, more like an assistant director than a choreographer. She was a brilliant creative mind, someone you could bounce ideas around with.”
Among Fanelli’s fondest memories was performing alongside DiLullo in Saw Mill Summer Theater alumni rock ‘n’ roll shows.
“Dorina and I were always partners and it was my favorite thing that I knew I was going to get to sing with Dorina. We did ‘I Want You to Want Me.’ That was a great one.”
DiLullo and Fanelli shared a mentor, Westchester Broadway Theatre’s man in white: George Puello. (That’s them together, circa 2003.)
“When I first came back to New York in 2004, George called me to the most important meeting of my life,” Fanelli said today. “He introduced me to Dorina and said ‘You two need to know each other.’ And we worked together ever since.’”
“This theatrical community of ours has suffered a devastating loss,” Fanelli said.
DiLullo, who leaves behind her husband, Charlie, and young sons Charlie and Bennett, also leaves an example to a generation of theater kids for whom she was an example. Among them is Shana Buxton, of Cortlandt Manor, who met DiLullo in 1999 at age 13.
Just before they met, Buxton recalls, Puello had staged “Oliver!” at WBT, with DiLullo a spell-binding Nancy.
Recalls Buxton: “I kept hearing how incredible their Nancy was, so when I met her she was already somewhat of a legend to my teenage self! I went on to perform with her in several shows with Westco and WBT. We did a lot of George’s concerts together at WBT and I was always so honored to be on the same lineup as her.”
Also in that “Oliver!” production (double-cast in the role of Nancy’s friend, “Bet”) were Jenna Dallacco and Jennifer Damiano, who would go on to Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and earn a Tony nomination for “Next to Normal.”
Says Dallaco: “I used to pretend that I was the love child of Dorina DiLullo and George Puello. Yes, in my 10-year-old mind, they were the best most talented superhumans I knew, and it seemed like a great fantasy to have. Dorina acted like my mother backstage at every show, not only to me but to each and every child, grown up or adult. I love her so much.”
“Dorina was the first person to teach me about ‘negative energy.’ She would say at rehearsals or backstage ‘No negative energy.’ I still carry this adage with me through life and my professional performing career.”
“I turned to Dorina in tears after one rehearsal,” she recalls. “Saying that she fixed me would be a cop out, but in that private conversation, she opened her heart to me and gave me back my confidence. If not for that conversation, I might not have gone on to NYU and be the performer I am today.”
Carol Arrucci was one of the producers at PMT Productions, the community theater where DiLullo won many starring roles.
“We can all learn from Dorina’s example of being a wonderful friend to all, a good mother to her children, the type of theater personality that everyone wanted to hire because of her enormous talent and dedication. She was an idol and inspiration to many local children and adults.”
Miguel Acevedo shared a milestone with DiLullo, who played the title role when Acevedo directed PMT’s 2002 production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at Irvington Town Hall Theater.
Years before, when they were both freshmen at Fordham, DiLullo was the first person Acevedo met at his first Fordham audition.
“That was the spring of 1987 and she had not changed at all. Her attitude was 100 percent energy, all the way, in any performance on the stage. Her energy was infectious! And she was the same person now as she was then,” Acevedo said.
“She had a star quality, but she was also a star because of the way she treated people,” Acevedo said. “And it was one of her best performances. You expect so much of that role and she was just kind and gave a performance as big as her heart. She made everyone around her better.”
Buxton, who is now a teacher, says DiLullo’s influence is long-lasting.
“If I could touch half of the lives that Dorina has, my life will have been a success,” she said.