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May 20, 2019 2:04 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

'Bionic Girl' Hosts Cabaret Fundraiser For Scoliosis Research

Thea Flanzer at her East Quogue home on Monday. VALERIE GORDON
May 27, 2019 3:36 PM

Thea Flanzer couldn’t imagine a time when she wasn’t performing. So, when it was all taken away, the 16-year-old was, to say the least, “shell-shocked.”Since she was 5 years old, the East Quogue resident had been dedicated to mastering the dramatic arts, enrolling in the Gateway School of Performing Arts in Bellport, as well as Backyard Theater in East Moriches.

And her hard work paid off. In 2014, at just 10 years old, she landed her dream role: She was cast to play Jane Banks, the daughter of George Banks, in the Gateway Playhouse’s production of “Mary Poppins,” under the direction of Shaun Kerrison, a veteran of Broadway.

She belted out the lyrics to iconic songs, including “Practically Perfect,” “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” alongside Tony Mansker, Broadway’s original Bert, and Gail Bennett from the “Mary Poppins” first national tour and regional premiere.

“I was thrown into the deep end. The theater bug bit me,” she said.

But, in July 2017, the budding actress replaced those acting classes and show-stopping performances with bi-weekly trips—at a minimum—to the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City.

In October, Thea underwent a seven-hour spinal fusion surgery to correct two significant curves in her spine, caused by scoliosis. Eight months later, she said she owes her ability to sit “criss-cross-applesauce” to her doctors, Michael Vitale and Richard Anderson.

Prior to the surgery, Thea’s X-rays showed a 49-degree upper spinal curve and 41-degree lumbar curve. After surgery, her upper curve has reduced to somewhere in the low 20s, and her lower curve to just 10 degrees, according to Dr. Vitale. He said the likelihood of Thea needing another spinal surgery is slim.

So, following her surgery, Thea worked diligently, calling former cast members, directors and Broadway stars, to create her first fundraiser: “The Artist Alignment: Shine for the Spines.”

The cabaret—featuring performances by Broadway’s “Matilda,” Alexandra Vlachos; Aiden Passaro, who played young Charlie in the “Kinky Boots” national tour and on Broadway; and Chloe Himmelman from Netflix’s “The Week Of”—was held on Saturday at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead, in honor of Dr. Vitale and Dr. Anderson.

“I told each performer, ‘Pick a song that you’ve wanted to sing and you haven’t been able to get on stage and sing yet—this is your time to do that,’” Thea said.

On Monday, Thea said that the fundraiser garnered a total of $6,799—all of which will benefit the Pediatric Scoliosis Research for Columbia Children’s Health, and researching new scoliosis treatments. Dr. Vitale, who spearheaded the research foundation, has been devoted to the field for more than 20 years.

The curtains rose at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and performers sang songs from “Wicked,” “Matilda,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Into the Woods,” “Pippin,” “Spring Awakening,” “Waitress,” and “Anastasia.”

Discussing the fundraiser a week prior to the performance, while sitting in her backyard, occasionally swiping little wisps of her long brown hair behind her ear, Thea said that her song choice, however, was a secret.

It turned out to be “Home” from “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I wanted to do something tons of fun—I wanted to find a fun song to perform, because I missed it so much,” she said. “I haven’t been able to perform since this time last year.”

Thea’s last performance was, in fact, her off-Broadway debut. In July 2017, she strutted across the stage as Shannon in Theatre Row Theater’s rendition of “If You Press Yer Eyes Hard Enuf.”

“It was definitely the best return to it,” Thea said of the fundraiser. “I had the best night ever. I knew I missed it so much—I didn’t realize to what extent … there were a few moments when I stopped and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m doing this again.’”

Her Gateway Playhouse career has spanned from “Billy Elliot” to The Gateway’s “Holiday Spectacular on Ice,” to children’s theater productions, including “Peter Pan Jr.,” “Wizard of Oz Jr.” and “Shrek Jr.”

She’s also performed in operas as a ballerina at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and, until recently, trained at Brookhaven School of Dance in Bellport.

Although that, too, has been on hiatus. Prior to her spinal fusion, from May 2017 to April 2018, Thea’s doctors had recommended that she try what’s called “physical therapy shock method”—a series of stretching and breathing exercises—to correct her scoliosis. Attempting them, she suffered a hip injury.

“I heard a ‘pop’ and pain went shooting down my leg,” she said. “I haven’t been able to dance since then.”

Thea began regular physical therapy in December, and while she no longer attends sessions for her spinal surgery, she continues to go twice a week in an attempt to repair the cartilage damaged in her lateral hip tear. She said that Dr. Vitale and Dr. Anderson are considering options, including stem cell regenerative surgery, to repair her hip.

Thea’s road to recovery is far from over, but she’s made great strides along the way.

“It goes to show you her willpower,” Thea’s mother, Melissa Cohen, said.

Dr. Vitale referred to Thea’s scoliosis surgery as a selective thoracic fusion—a procedure that fuses only the upper portion of a patient’s spine.

“Almost always, when we do that, the lower curve resolves on its own,” he said. “It allows the kid to avoid a longer fusion, which can result in a loss of flexibility.”

That simply wasn’t an option for Thea.

“She’s really benefited from a modern-day approach to scoliosis,” Dr. Vitale added. “For her, it was really the right operation, and she’s done great.”

Speaking of her fundraiser, he said, “I really appreciate her opportunity to give back. I’m really grateful that they’re doing that.”

Dr. Vitale has been an integral part of many scoliosis breakthroughs, including the use of a magnetic spine lengthening device for growing children, called the Magnetic Expansion Control System. The system, which includes “growing rods,” are implanted along a child’s spine, and, using an external remote control, are lengthened as needed.

Dr. Vitale explained that this method is ideal for children between 6 and 10 years old. “It’s all I do is take care of children with scoliosis,” he said.

Thea was officially diagnosed with scoliosis in 2017. However, she said she was “technically” diagnosed when she was 10 years old, when an X-ray during a bout of pneumonia showed a slight 10-degree curve to her spine. She said her doctors didn’t think it would worsen.

It did—and almost overnight. While shopping for a dress for her friend’s sweet 16, she said that it became painfully apparent. Her hips were completely uneven, and her shoulder was “popping out vertically.”

“It was pretty gross,” she said. “One day, you’re fine. One day, you’re not.”

Dr. Vitale said that the progression of scoliosis in children often happens “very quickly,” usually during a growth spurt.

Thea’s injuries have far from discouraged her. In fact, they’ve elevated her to new heights, including working as a volunteer teacher’s assistant at the Gateway School of Performing Arts and a teacher at Backyard Theater.

She explained that Backyard Theater holds a special place in her heart. And not just because she feels a personal connection to her 4- and 5-year-old students, who are just starting to learn how to repeat lyrics and perform choreography.

“There’s a difference when you start out young. The kids have such vivid imaginations—they have no limits,” Thea said. “If you can harness that at a very young age, they learn to be creative thinkers, which isn’t taught at many schools.”

It was, however, taught at hers. Thea said she owes her love of performing to her elementary school music teacher, Virginia Mesiano. “My music teacher saw something in me,” Thea said of the now-retired Center Moriches teacher. “She gave me an invite to theater camp, and the rest is history.”

Ms. Mesiano founded Backyard Theater in 1992 as a camp for children interested in the dramatic arts. She laughed, adding that she often refers to herself as Thea’s “Music Mama.”

“Just sometimes, there’s someone who stands out,” she said. “When we put her into anything dramatic, she just has a flair for the expression from inside out. It projects when she’s onstage to the back row and to anyone in between. I picked up on it when she was little.”

To keep up with all her extracurricular activities, Thea attends the Gifted and Talented program through the private Laurel Springs School online, where she has made the National Honors Society and is a member of the Model United Nations.

As for the future, Thea has her sights set on Yale University.

“I don’t know if the cards will fall that way, but I don’t imagine living a life where I’m not acting,” she said. “I’ll definitely be acting for the rest of my life.”

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