Category Archives: Entertainment

Courtney Kemp Agboh Adds More “Power”

Last summer, “06880″ profiled Courtney Kemp Agboh. The 1994 Staples High School graduate — who went on to Brown University, and earned a master’s in English literature at Columbia — is the creator and show runner of “Power,” a Starz series that premiered a month earlier. It was the 1st series she ever pitched.

Last night, Agboh was honored at a star-studded Hollywood event. She was 1 of Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100.” She — and fellow high-achievers like Oprah Winfrey, Pharrell Williams and Jason Collins — joined Quincy Jones, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Courtney Kemp Agboh

Courtney Kemp Agboh

As last summer’s story noted, she was “called the N-word a lot” growing up in Westport. (Her father, Herb Kemp, was a noted advertising executive.) She read college textbooks at age 8, Shakespeare at 10. She made up stories about the pieces on her chess set.

It was a long way from the nearly-all-white Westport of the 1980s and ’90s to Sunset Gower Studios in Los Angeles, where she works today.

And where her executive producer is Curtis Jackson — better known as the rapper 50 Cent.

In Hollywood, it doesn’t get more powerful than that.

Paul, Pasek — And Jackman

Staples graduate Justin Paul ’03 and songwriting partner Benj Pasek are well known on Broadway (“A Christmas Story” was nominated for a Tony Award).

They’re known off-Broadway, and overseas (“Dogfight” was just nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical in London).

They’re known on TV (NBC’s “Smash”).

Now the talented duo heads to the big screen.

They’ll contribute most of the songs to the new Hugh Jackman film musical, “The Greatest Showman on Earth.” Filming begins this summer in New York.

The movie showcases P.T. Barnum’s life. He was a circus creator and the promoter of Tom Thumb, of course. But Barnum was also the mayor of Bridgeport.

So as far from Westport as Justin Paul’s career has taken him, he hasn’t really left at all.

Justin Paul

Justin Paul

 

Hello, Laramie!

High school theater — at least in Fairfield County — is a special art form. It’s entertaining, provocative, and exceptionally high quality.

This weekend, local audiences can enjoy 2 very different shows. Both are well worth going far out of your way to see.

Staples Players presents “Hello, Dolly!” Directors David Roth and Kerry Long have pulled out all the stops. The classic farce — featuring memorable music and great choreography — promises to continue Players’ long tradition of Broadway-worthy productions.

Meanwhile, Weston High School’s Company presents “The Laramie Project.” The fascinating play draws on hundreds of interviews, conducted in Wyoming in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Cast in some of their many ensemble "Laramie" roles are (from left) Jack Seigenthaler, Kevin MacWilliams, Sam Rosenthal and Preston Troxell. (Photo/Peter Friedman)

Cast in some of their many ensemble “Laramie” roles are (from left) Jack Seigenthaler, Kevin MacWilliams, Sam Rosenthal and Preston Troxell. (Photo/Peter Friedman)

Twenty-six students play the parts of 68 Laramie residents, in this complex, well-crafted and many-faceted exploration of life and death in a Western town.

Director Kevin Slater is familiar to many Westporters, for his work with drama troupes in schools here. Cast member Jack Seigenthaler is also well known, for his portrayal of Conrad in Staples Players’ 2013 summer production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”

“The Laramie Project” is presented this Friday and Saturday, November 14 and 15. The Sunday, November 16 matinee will be followed by an on-stage talk-back with Andy Paris. A member of the original cast, he’s Skyped with cast members — providing powerful insights into what is already a stunning show.

(“Hello, Dolly!” is performed on Friday and Saturday, November 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sunday, November 16 and Saturday, November 22. For tickets — including the pre-show gala on opening night — click www.StaplesPlayers.com.

“The Laramie Project” is performed on Friday and Saturday, November 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 16 at 3 p.m.  For tickets, click whscompany.com.)

 

 

Paula Poundstone Pounds The 1 Percent

Paula Poundstone owes me a new pair of boxers.

I peed myself laughing at her Saturday night show. The comedian — best known for her regular appearances on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” — rocked a sellout crowd at the Westport Country Playhouse.

It was a benefit for Homes With Hope. Between ticket sales and a live auction, the event raised huge bucks — 12% of their annual budget — to help fight homelessness. As a brief video by 4th Row Films pointed out, it’s a problem even in this prosperous town.

Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone

Poundstone knew her audience. She picked a few random people. There was, incredibly, former Homes With Hope director Pete Powell (he’s an Episcopal priest — as an atheist, she had great fun with that), as well as a CPA, and a guy in budgeting for a film company (with, to Paula’s great delight, several assistants).

The theme throughout the night was Westport’s affluence. She joked about the difference between the pledges made at the Playhouse (2 people offered $20,000 each) and her kids’ PTA event (“we start at $1, and go down from there”).

She asked what the main industry in Westport is. “Money,” someone said. All night long, Poundstone returned to the idea of folks in the audience taking care of each other’s money.

It was all in good fun. This was a well-heeled crowd, but they were raising funds for their much-less-fortunate fellow citizens, who live here too.

Let no good deed go unpunished.

The theme of Paula Poundstone's jokes -- and some Facebook comments.

The theme of Paula Poundstone’s jokes — and some Facebook comments.

As a public figure, Poundstone updates her Facebook page often. Just before the show began, she posted: “I’m in Westport, Connecticut. I’m trying to reach out to the disenfranchised members of the 1%.”

Her fans responded. “You just keep taking care of the comical needs of those poor uptight old white folks Paula,” one wrote. “We appreciate it.”

“Good luck,” another said. “I hear that crowd is too lazy to work for a living.”

A woman in Westport on business huffed, “wouldn’t you know, the 1% grabbed all the tickets for themselves! Typically entitled, these folks are, I swear.”

“Talk to ‘em straight, Paula,” a fan commented. “They need to hear from you what’s really going down outside their protected bubble.”

Over 700 people “liked” the post. Presumably, they liked her dig at the “1%.”

That’s fine. We loved Paula Poundstone. She loved Westport — and gave a great hour-long performance. And everyone loved raising oodles of money for Homes With Hope.

But she still owes me a new pair of boxers.

 

 

Staples’ “Dolly” Lookin’ Swell

Fifty years ago, Hello, Dolly! debuted on Broadway. It danced and sang its memorable way to become — for a while — the longest-running show in history.

In 1985, Al Pia directed Dolly! with Staples Players. David Roth — who as an 8th grader in Illinois played Cornelius — reprised it in 2002, his 3rd year as Players director.

Now, the show is back. Hello, Dolly! opens on the Staples High School stage next Friday (November 14). It runs that weekend and next.

A small part of the large cast sings "It Takes a Woman." (Photo/Kerry Long)

A small part of the large cast sings “It Takes a Woman.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Like many Players productions, this one melds elements of old and new. Dorian Kail — Dolly in 1985 — will sit proudly in the auditorium. Her son, Jacob Leaf, plays Rudolph this time around.

The cast and crew learned a lot about the Broadway versions from 2 fantastic sources. Sondra Lee (who originated the role of Minnie Fay) and Lee Roy Reams (Cornelius in the 1st Broadway revival, and the director of subsequent revivals) — both visited the set last month.

“We wanted to go back to a classic, and do something accessible to families,” Roth says of his selection.

“I love the comedy. This show is truly a farce — one of my favorite types of show to direct. “

Roth — who grew up listening to the soundtrack — loves the music, the script, even the pacing.

He, co-director Kerry Long, set designer Peter DiFranco and costume designers Marjorie Watt and Priscilla Stampa, have pulled out all the stops.

Costumes and sets complement Jack Bowman, Claire Smith and Jack Baylis as they sing "Dancing." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Costumes and sets complement Jack Bowman, Claire Smith and Jack Baylis as they sing “Dancing.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“The sets and costumes are really outstanding,” Roth says. “Every scene is beautiful. This is a candy-colored storybook — a fantasy version of a time gone by.”

The director also appreciates the choreography — which is dazzlingly complex.

In 2002, Roth did not have enough male dancers. So a number of girls dressed as male waiters.

This year, they’re all guys.

It’s so nice to have them back where they belong.

(“Hello, Dolly!” is performed on Friday and Saturday, November 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 16 at 3 p.m. An extra matinee has been added for Saturday, November 22 at 3 p.m. For tickets — including the pre-show gala on opening night — click www.StaplesPlayers.com.) 

Future Chefs Stir It Up In Westport

Tomorrow (Thursday, November 6, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Imperial Avenue parking lot) is the final date for this year’s Westport Farmer’s Market.

They’re ending the year with a bang.

Farmers MarketStaples High School’s Advanced Culinary Arts students of Cecily Gans will be among the chef demonstrators (10:15-11 a.m.). And “chef” is the right word. These guys are not just tossing together a Cobb salad.

They’ll feature a recipe by recent graduate Sarah Rountree. Her Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce was chosen for its seasonality, and the local availability of most ingredients.

But that’s not the only Westport connection. Sarah’s recipe is 1 of 5 featured in Future Chefs: Recipes by Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World. The handsome book — just published by Rodale Press — includes 150 contributions from teenagers around the world.

Sophia Hampton shows off her culinary skills. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Sophia Hampton shows off her culinary skills. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

But Sarah is not the only Stapleite with a recipe in Future Chefs. Senior Sophia Hampton is included twice, for her Delicata-Crab Hash with Poached Duck Egg, and her Kale Caesar Salad.

Zach Reiser offers up his Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread; Deanna Baris, her Breakfast Cookies.

But it’s not only Staples students who are featured. Wes Beeler was in 8th grade when he contributed his Competition-Ready St. Louis-Style Spareribs. (The competition was the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival. He placed 3rd.)

But the book is not limited to recipes. Each young chef has a full write-up. Sophia’s, for example, notes that she volunteers one day a month — with the Culinary Club — serving food at the Gillespie Center, and that as features editor for the school newspaper  Inklings she moved from fashion writing to the food beat.

Future Chefs coverBut they’re not the only Staples students mentioned. Class of 2013 graduate Rusty Schindler was cited in the introduction, while last year’s entire Advanced Culinary Arts class was thanked — individually — in the acknowledgements, for testing many of the recipes.

But those are not the only local connections. Future Chefs was written by Westport author (and New York-trained chef) Ramin Ganeshram. The compelling photographs come courtesy of her husband — and frequent “06880″ contributor Jean Paul Vellotti.

There are probably more Staples/Future Chefs tie-ins. If so, you’ll find them at the Farmers Market this Thursday. And the book — available for signing.

If not, you’ll still enjoy Sarah’s Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce.

(Click on Future Chefs for ordering information.)

Future Chefs - Wes Beeler

Wes Beeler eating his BBQ on the roof of Bobby Q’s. JP Vellotti took the photo on a very cold day. The roof was still a mess from Hurricane Sandy. The publisher said, “Try to make it look like he’s in Texas.”

Aaaaargh!!! It’s Here!!!

Heard a moment ago at Playhouse Square:

Please, just kill me now.

Wait Wait … It’s Paula Poundstone

Homelessness isn’t funny. But Paula Poundstone is.

So — to raise funds for their amazing work providing food, emergency shelter, permanent housing and supportive services for folks down on their luck — Homes With Hope‘s annual benefit features one of American’s funniest comedians.

Poundstone — an NPR regular on “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” and an heir to the Joan Rivers tradition — comes to the Westport Country Playhouse on Saturday, November 8 (8:30 p.m.). She headlined a similar event 4 years ago, one of Homes With Hope’s most successful benefits ever.

Poundstone vaguely remembers that one. “Westport is fancy. And it’s got a Stew Leonard’s, right?” she asked the other morning.

Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone

A Massachusetts native who now lives in California, Poundstone can be forgiven for her slightly fuzzy knowledge of our town. She’s on the road almost non-stop. For example, immediately after her Westport gig, she’s in New York City. Then it’s out to Gillette, Wyoming — and back the next night in New London, Connecticut.

What’s up with that?

“My travel is creative,” Poundstone says. “But this is such a fun job. I’m the luckiest person in the world to do what I do.”

So does she tell the same jokes in Connecticut as in Wyoming?

No — because no 2 shows are ever alike. She plays off the audience. Of course, she notes, “the people in the room each night are my fans, so there’s a little homogeneity to the place.”

But, Poundstone adds, “I do have Republican fans. We’re supposed to mix.”

As for the incongruity of a comedy show for a homeless benefit, she says, “One of the best things nature gives us is a brain that uses humor as a healing mechanism. Laughter is a great way to deal with things. This is a night for a great cause. People get the benefit of laughter, and an organization gets the benefit of their money.”

Since I had one of my favorite comedians on the phone — and am a big “Wait Wait” fan — I asked about the NPR show. She’s been on with an amazing variety of guests: a Supreme Court justice, Sen. Barack Obama, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Hanks.

Paula Poundstone on NPR

I wondered how long it takes to distill the hour that’s aired.

“Really long,” she admits. “I think there’s a computer program that cuts out my voice most of the time.”

Paula Poundstone may be one of America’s most popular comedians, but she’s also just a mother of 3. Her youngest is 16.

“Anyone who’s labored through being a parent of teenagers should definitely come” to the Homes With Hope benefit, she says.

“Comedy about my kids is a cathartic release. People hear about everything I go through and say, ‘you’re raising my kid.’”

She’ll really enjoy listening to what it’s like to raise a kid in Westport.

Wait wait — until November 8. And tell Paula Poundstone about it then.

(The Homes With Hope show begins at 6:30 p.m. with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. For ticket information, click on www.HomesWithHopect.org.)

Homes With Hope

 

 

 

Staples’ “A Chorus Line”: Book It!

In the midst of preparing for their fall musical – Hello, Dolly! —  Staples Players still bask in well-deserved applause from  A Chorus Line.

Their 2013 production will be included in A Chorus Line FAQ. The 400-page book is part of a new “everything you could possibly want to know” series on popular Broadway musicals.

Author Tom Rowan is including a chapter on notable productions around the nation over the past 30 years. What he calls the “remarkable” Staples Players staging is one of only 4 high school versions in the book.

Staples Players: one singular sensation. (Photo by Kerry Long)

Staples Players: one singular sensation. (Photo by Kerry Long)

Directors David Roth and Kerry Long figured that Rowan heard of Staples’ production from Terre Blair Hamlisch. The composer’s widow saw the show in Westport, was enthralled, and invited them to perform a selection at a major New York fundraiser honoring Hamlisch, with Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey and Robert Klein.

Nope.

Rowan said he spent a lot of time watching YouTube clips of various Chorus Line productions from around the world. He stumbled upon Staples, and was amazed by the quality — particularly the dancing. He could hardly believe it was a high school show.

(He loved learning about the Terre Hamlisch connection. That story will be in Rowan’s book too.)

A Chorus Line is one of many Staples Players productions uploaded to their YouTube channel. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors — those and many more are just a mouse click away.

Of course, you should see Hello, Dolly! live, when it opens a couple of weeks from now.

Then relive the Staples Player magic — over and over — thanks to the miracle of YouTube.

(Staples Players is always looking for more archival material. If you’ve got some, contact director David Roth: droth@westport.k12.ct.us)

Remembering Ann Brannigan

Terry Brannigan’s mother Ann died peacefully this week, surrounded by loved ones. She lived in Westport with her husband Robert for nearly 60 years. Terry writes:

Many people kn0w Ann as a mother of 3 and grandmother to 9 Westporters, or for her selfless contributions to the town.

Few know the story of Ann’s wonderful career in dance, musical theater and television.  In an era of reality TV fame and extreme divas, her modesty is rare.

Act 1:

She was born in Pittsburgh during the Depression. It was devastating to everyone and every city, but none suffered more than a single mother in a steel town. Times were hard, but Ann was gifted. At 15 she graduated from high school and moved to New York City, along with her mother and grandmother, to pursue an extraordinary career in dance, theater and the newly emerging media called television.

Ann Brannigan

Ann Brannigan

Act 2:

For more than 15 years Ann did not miss a day of work on Broadway. Her credits include Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, High Button Shoes and countless others — including an early stint as a Rockette.

Along the way she fell in love with a handsome stagehand named Bobby Brannigan, while working together on the Broadway production of Two on the Aisle. He was a World War II submariner who left Pittsburgh at 17, and came from a long line of stagehands. Ann and Bob were married at Mahachy’s Actor’s Chapel, between the matinee and evening performances of the shows they were working on.

Robert and Ann Brannigan.

Robert and Ann Brannigan.

Act 3:

In the 1950s, Westport was famous for its arts community, culture and proximity to New York. Eager to start a family but not ready to slow down, the time was right for the young couple to move here.

Another connection to the theatre led Ann to her beloved Old Mill cottage.  Working together on a show, Ann, Robert, Darren McGavin and another cast  member all discovered the peaceful cove, and bought their houses at the same time. Ann described Westport — and Old Mill Cove in particular — as “heaven.”

Ann Brannigan from Roth Magazine, in 1952.

Ann Brannigan from Roth Magazine, in 1952.

Bob commuted to New York to work backstage, and Ann performed for years. Bob’s career included senior roles at Lincoln Center and City Center. Ann transitioned to television, and for many years was part of the regular casts of pioneering shows like “Your Show of Shows,” “Jimmy Durante” and “Danny Thomas.” She finally retired from the stage to raise her 3 children, then cherished her role as grandmother.

Act 4:

Ann turned her focus to her husband, children, grandchildren and community. She never missed a game, performance or chance to be part of her family’s activities. Ann took great pleasure in helping choreograph school performances from Hillspoint Elementary through Staples. But in her unassuming fashion she shunned any reference to her contribution.

What was most striking about Ann’s accomplishments is that she never spoke of them — even when asked. For example, one day she was appalled by the poor health of Kenny Montgomery, owner of the Old Mill Market (now Elvira’s). The former ballerina tended to his medical needs, and volunteered behind the counter until he died.

The performing arts did not pay what it does today. To help put her children through school, Ann worked for years in administrative roles. She served others who had absolutely no idea of the stages she had danced on, or the talent she collaborated with. She was never one to brag.

A recent photo of Ann Brannigan.

A recent photo of Ann Brannigan.

Westport is full of treasures, some more conspicuous than others. In a town rightfully proud of the famous people who live here or pass through, I am sure many will read this post and say, “Ann Brannigan, from Loretta Court? Ann, who always talked about her grandkids? Wow! Who knew?”

Maybe that says it all.

A memorial service for Ann Brannigan will be held this Saturday (October 4, 10 a.m.) at Assumption Church on Riverside Avenue. A reception will follow.