Like mother, like son: Stagecrafters offers man connection to past

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

When he moved back from Los Angeles this year, Joe Santoni, 30, emailed the Royal Oak community theater, Stagecrafters, with an unusual request:

His mother had a big part in the group's 1995 production of "42nd Street," and he wondered if they had a poster from the play, perhaps one she might have signed with other cast members.

Joe Santoni reached out to Royal Oak's Stagecrafters community theater to get mementos of his mother's performance in the 1995 production of "42nd Street." She passed away a year or so thereafter, when Santoni was six.

Santoni lost his mother, Sharon, to melanoma a year after that play closed. He was just 6. Now a singer in Disney's DCappella group, he yearned for a connection to Sharon's life as a performer -- a way to underline the bond with a parent he lost almost a quarter-century ago.

"I just wanted a piece of her in the house," he said.

Naturally Santoni had other pictures of his mother, including a trove of ancient home movies.

But Sharon, who spent most of her career in local radio, had been a theater major in college and adored the stage. She had performance in her blood, like her son, and Santoni wanted mementos to underline that inheritance.

"My dad tells me all the time," Santoni said, "You are your mother."

His request landed in the lap of longtime Stagecrafters member Betsey Schrock. After ransacking their archive and finding nothing, not even a poster, she emailed the 300 Stagecrafters members: Did anyone have anything from the 1995 production, particularly related to Sharon?

That note yielded a cornucopia. Santoni was bowled over.

"Betsey was just so gung-ho - she really wanted to find this for me," he said. "She wasn’t going to let it go."

As it turned out, Santoni didn't get a poster - those seem to have vanished.

"But I got so much else," he said, "including her head shot, bio, newspaper clippings, a letter to the producer about how much she wanted the role, and a note from a cast member saying what a joy my mother was to work with. It was," he said, "just incredible."

The Stagecrafters community theater cast of "42nd Street" in 1995. Sharon Santoni is in white.

Schrock and Santoni met last month so she could hand over the memorabilia.

"This was his mother's first role with us," Schrock said, "and unfortunately, her last. But we gave Joe so much stuff. And he was the sweetest, most appreciative young man."

Unsurprising for someone who lost a parent so young, Santoni says he has few specific memories of his mother.

"But I do remember she was caring and loving, and always attached to my hip." 

He sighed. "She was a beautiful woman, just so gorgeous and talented," he said, "and full of potential she didn’t get to use enough, like singing. She always said she regretted she didn’t do theater more often."

Santoni discovered just how similar their talents were by watching old home movies. "I watched videos of her singing," he said. "Wow – she had a gorgeous, gorgeous voice."

The cast member from "42nd Street" who wrote Santoni was, like Sharon, new at the time to Stagecrafters.  

Santoni's mother, she wrote, "was warm, kind, funny, outgoing and down to earth. Then, when I heard her sing," she added, "I was like, damn - that woman is super-talented too!"

Her summary: "I am fortunate and blessed that I knew her."

Santoni's father Chuck, who hosts the afternoon radio show on Port Huron's Q Country 107, says the similarities between mother and son are unmistakable.

"Sharon had a beautiful voice" he said, "and then Joe came up with this voice." Chuck  laughs. "He would never sing around me - I never even knew."

And they both shared a striking personal presence on stage -- each had "a big personality," as Chuck put it.

Santoni, who got a degree in vocal performance and opera at Oakland University, moved to Los Angeles six years ago to capitalize on those talents. He spent four years auditioning "and kind of flailing," he said, and making do as a bartender.

Then he heard about Disney's DCappella, which covers all the Disney classics, and auditioned for a part along with 1,500 other would-be stars. Santoni scored.

So now he has a full-time gig that, before the pandemic, had him on the road with the seven-member singing group a couple weeks out of every month. They've got three records out, and last year did a Japanese tour.

It's hard to believe Sharon wouldn't be busting with pride.

But if Santoni's achieved what so many hopeful singers only long for, there's still one more accomplishment he wants to get under his belt.

Once life gets back to normal, and if his schedule ever allows, he wants to audition with Stagecrafters.

"I’d love to perform on the same stage as my mom did," Santoni said.

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Joe Santoni & Disney's DCappella

You can follow Santoni on Instagram at joesantoni or at @DCappellamusic. To hear the group singing, go to DCappellalive.com.