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Bayside music teacher celebrates 20 years of melodies

It's just after 1 p.m. Monday and students, fresh from lunch and recess, pour into the auditorium of PS 31 in Bayside. Almost instantly the room fills with the raucous sound of schoolchildren.

Alexandria Dunne, a slight woman who has taught music at the school for 20 years, musters a booming command for the crowd to quiet. They are here to rehearse, she reminds them.

Minutes later, three boys sing the opening number to "Guys and Dolls," which the group planned to perform at the school this week. They sing with such harmony that it is hard to believe a backtrack is not guiding their voices. But, no, the singers were expertly trained by their teacher, Miss Dunne.

"I don't do anything that's not complicated," Dunne said of the play and her performers. "When we finish this, we will have climbed Mount Everest."

For 20 years, Dunne has orchestrated such a play at the school, creating a new crop of confident performers each year — even in the face of recent budget cuts.

The cast, made up of 60 fourth- and fifth-graders, comes from Dunne's choir named "Opus 13." The students started preparing for the play in April, but Dunne has trained most of the young voices since their first music lessons in kindergarten.

Fourth-grader Seung Hye Yang stars as Adelaide and performed in her first play last year.

"When I first was in the spotlight, I kind of felt cool because I felt like I was the whole star of the show," she said.

Seung Hye said other students used to tease her because her character is engaged to another character, Nathan Detroit, performed by fifth-grader Mickey Francis. Some students still tease, but Seung Hye doesn't mind.

"It's the show and we are supposed to do it, so why should I feel bad about it?" she asked.

Dunne calls performing "a way of growing them up" and said it helps her students prepare for middle and high school.

For years, Dunne implored techniques to cut production costs, like creating a script for "Peter Pan" by stopping and starting a video of the movie. But this is the first year where Dunne paid for the production herself, which cost about $500 for script material and licensing fees.

Like most city schools, PS 31 suffered increased budget cuts this year and the school could not pay for the performance.

Rick Guimond, who has taught dance at the school for eight years and choreographed the play, will not return next year due to the cuts.

Dunne started teaching at PS 31 in 1987 and has lived in Bayside since she was 19.

It is where she raised her son, filmmaker Jonah Torreano, 35, and where she lives with her mother, Helen McDaniel. She started singing when she was 2 and sings the national anthem to thousands of Mets fans at Shea Stadium every year.

In more than two decades as a teacher, Dunne said she has witnessed numerous children blossom on stage. This year the children are no different.

"They started out as a giggling bunch of mush," she said with a laugh, "and they became actors, singers and performers."

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