Category Archives: Entertainment

Curtain Call For “A Christmas Story”

“A Christmas Story: The Musical” plays at Curtain Call in Stamford, now through December 14.

But many ties to Westport make this a true hometown show.

The story starts with the Kweskin Theater, Curtain Call’s home. Al Pia was its founding artistic director — and for many years, the highly esteemed director of Staples Players as well.

One of Pia’s high school actors was Ben Frimmer. He’s now the director of “A Christmas Story” — and director of Coleytown Company, the well-regarded middle school troupe.

Justin Paul (Photo/Dan Woog)

A couple of decades ago, Justin Paul acted for Frimmer at Coleytown. After graduating from Staples in 2003, and then the University of Michigan, Paul and his songwriting partner, Benj Pasek, rocketed to stardom. They’ve won Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards for works like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land.”

Another work — “A Christmas Story: The Musical” — enjoyed a Broadway run. With great music and splashy production numbers, it quickly became a holiday classic.

And, in Stamford, a Westport holiday classic. Frimmer has cast several current and former students in the production: Matthew Bukzin, Cooper Gusick, Gavin Jamali, Julie Lloyd, Imogen Medoff, Sarah Peterson and Ari Sklar.

Westport youngsters in “A Christmas Story: The musical.” Front row (from left): Gavin Jamali, Cooper Gusick Ari Sklar. Rear: Matthew Bukzin, Imogen Medoff,.Jamali.

Frimmer’s own son Ari plays Ralphie Parker.

Ari Frimmer, as Ralphie.

Even Curtain Call executive director and producer for “A Christmas Story” has a local connection. Lou Ursone was mentored by Pia.

Plenty of Westporters will be heading to Stamford to see this production. But they’ll feel as if they never left home.

(“A Christmas Story: The Musical” is performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday afternoons at 2. In addition, there are Thursday evening performances on December 5 and 12, and Saturday matinees on December 7 and 14. For tickets and more information, click here or call 203-461-6358, ext. 36.)

Brad Tursi Scores Again

Old Dominion has a new honor.

But it’s the same as the old one.

Earlier this week, the 5-man band was named Vocal Group of the Year, at the 53rd annual Country Music Association awards.

Old Dominion won it last year too. Both times the ceremony was held in Nashville, where the band is based.

Nashville — nearly 1,000 miles from Westport — is the adopted hometown of Old Dominion lead guitarist Brad Tursi.

Brad Tursi

He got his start right here. At Staples High School, the 1997 graduate was known primarily as a soccer star. His 1996 team reached the state finals.

He always loved music though, and since college has made his mark on the country scene. Besides his current group, Tursi has written songs for other country artists.

Old Dominion is for real. They were named Sirius XM Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2015. Through albums, EPs and constant touring, they’ve developed a strong, loyal fan base.

Their third album — titled “Old Dominion” — was released last month. It debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.

Their new single — “One Man Band” — is climbing up the Billboard Hot 100. Old Dominion performed that song at the CMA Awards.

Unlike Nashville, Westport may not be a hotbed of country music.

But we sure are proud of one man, in that one band.

(Hat tip: Jeff Lea)

“Persona” Of The Week: “Mamma Mia” Cast And Crew

Staples Players‘ “Mamma Mia” opens tomorrow. It’s another fantastic show, from the nationally known high school troupe.

If you’re like me, you go to Players’ musical every year and wonder, “Who are these kids? And how do they put on such an amazing show?”

Persona’s Rob Simmelkjaer went backstage to speak to some actors and crew members, as they get ready for opening night.

Unsung Hero #123

Oops!

This one almost slipped by us.

Earlier this month, Nell Newman was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

The ecologist, conservationist, biologist, organic farmer — and founder of Newman’s Own Organics, and the Nell Newman Foundation — joins a long list of amazing Nutmeg State women, including Helen Keller, Marian Anderson, Clair Boothe Luce, Ella Grasso and Katherine Hepburn.

Nell Newman

Her work in organic food was inspired by her youth in Westport. When she learned that her favorite bird — the peregrine falcon — was headed toward extinction because of the pesticide DDT, she began studying ecology.

In 2014 Nell received the prestigious Rachel Carson Award from The National Audubon Society, for her environmental leadership.

Westport is justly proud of Nell’s parents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Both were active in a number of important causes, far beyond stage and screen.

We are proud now too that this Westport native is paying it forward. Congratulations, Nell, on your Hall of Fame honor!

(Hat tip: Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Michael Friedman Enters The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

You saw them in a pop-up gallery on Church Lane.

You know the photographer: Michael Friedman. The Staples High School Class of 1961 graduate had a long career in music. He managed Todd Rundgren and Kris Kristofferson — as well as (with Albert Grossman) Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Band, Odetta, and Peter Paul & Mary. He did publicity for the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermits.

Nearly 3 years ago, he discovered an astonishing series of photos he’d taken almost 50 years earlier.

Mick Jagger (Photo copyright Michael Friedman)

The Stones. Janis Joplin. The Band. Johnny  Winter. Gordon Lightfoot. James Cotton. Ian and Sylvia. Rita Coolidge. Tom Rush. Professor Longhair. Paul Butterfield — all were artists Friedman worked with in the 1960s.

Friedman spent several months printing, restoring and mounting the photos. Each was up close, and personal.

Michael Friedman in the Church Lane pop-up gallery. His photo shows Levon Helm, legendary drummer for The Band.

After the Westport show, the photos headed to the California Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.

Now they’re in Cleveland — at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The exhibit includes the guitar that Janis Joplin played on “Me and Bobby McGee” in concert. Friedman’s photos of her with the instrument — which she used onstage only twice, and only for that song — are the only ones known.

Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” guitar, with his photo of her.

It took more than a year for the exhibit to come together. His wife Donna Vita provided invaluable help.

Now it’s up, and attracting great attention. After the ribbon-cutting, Friedman was interviewed live by chief curator Karen Herman, at the Hall.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame interview.

Friedman’s exhibit runs for 6 months. Yet when it ends, it’s not over.

His entire collection of over 100 images will be archived, in perpetuity.

Which makes sense. As Neil Young sings, “Hey hey, my my/Rock and roll can never die.”

(Click here to see many of the photos on exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)

Madelyn Spera And The Bitter End

The Bitter End calls itself “the oldest rock and roll club in New York City.” Since 1961, the classic red brick stage in the heart of Greenwich Village has hosted Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Gavin DeGraw, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Billy Crystal, Tommy James, Norah Jones, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and thousands more.

Including Madelyn Spera.

The Westporter has already played there twice, during Saturday open mic sessions. The first was last year, as a Bedford Middle School 8th grader. Now a Staples High School freshman, she performed again last month. It was a fundraiser to support music and art in underfunded schools.

Surrounded by School of Rock-type bands, Madelyn stood out as an acoustic guitarist. She also plays piano.

Madelyn Spera at the Bitter End.

Madelyn’s route to the Bitter End began in Westport. She started playing at Sweet Frog — the now-shuttered frozen yogurt shop next to Fresh Market.

Her repertoire includes ’80s pop songs, and originals. She wrote one of those songs — “Underneath It All” — about an issue she cares deeply about: positive body image.

Before she headed to the Bitter End, Madelyn knew little about the iconic club. But she looked it up online.

She learned that her idol Taylor Swift had played there. That was good enough for Madelyn.

The first time, she was nervous. But one of her songs made an audience member cry. She knew she belonged.

Bitter End bookers agreed. Madelyn will play there again, in late winter.

Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.

(Can’t wait until then to see Madelyn Spera? She’s part of the Bjorn ensemble in Staples Players’ upcoming production of “Mamma Mia!” Click here for information.)

Mamma Mia! Curtain Rises On Another Great Staples Players Show

There were many reasons David Roth and Kerry Long chose “Mamma Mia!” as Staples Players’ fall musical.

It’s a popular jukebox show with great music and non-stop laughs. Though ABBA was a ’70s band, the Broadway show debuted in 1999 and the film was released in 2008, teenagers in the cast and crew know it well. They — and audiences of all ages — love it.

But one of the most compelling reasons for Roth and Long — co-directors of the high school’s award-winning troupe — is that both of Players’ choreographers danced in “Mamma Mia!”‘s North American tour.

In 2010, Christopher Hudson Myers was cast as a swing. The next year, Rachel MacIsaac — who, in another key role, is Myers’ wife — joined the tour in the same role. Myers, meanwhile, was named dance captain.

In 2011 Myers joined the Broadway show. He covered the roles of Pepper and Eddie — and continued as dance captain — until the show closed in 2015.

The couple signed on as Players’ choreographers that year. It was only a matter of time before “Mamma Mia!” came to the Staples stage.

(From left) Annamaria Fernandez, Colin Konstanty, Ryan Porio, Sammy Guthartz, Owen Keaveny and tomaso Scotti perform. Benny Zack leaps. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Myers and MacIsaac bring great knowledge about details not in the script, Roth notes. (Players also enjoyed a visit last week from Felicia Finley, a lead in the Broadway production who chatted with the cast about the show.)

Some of Myers and MacIsaac’s choreography is “an homage to the original cast,” Roth adds. Other parts are unique to Players. The show — which opens November 15, and runs through November 23 — is recognizable to anyone who has seen the musical or film. But it’s also fully Staples’ own.

Roth and Long chose “Mamma Mia!” this year in part because they’ve got some very talentd dancers. Junior Jamie Mann (double-cast as Sky) studied at Alvin Ailey and the School of American Ballet. He danced with New York City Ballet in 3 productions, and as Billy Elliot in theaters from New Hampshire to Florida.

Senior Erin Lynch (double cast as Sophie) studied at Ballet Etudes in Norwalk for 7 years. Junior Camille Foisie (Donna) has trained in ballet since she was 3, and added other genres from New York to Trumbull.

Besides dancing, there is plenty of singing in “Mamma Mia!” (From left) David Corro, Anna Maria Fernandez, Camille Foisie, Tobey Patton, Jamie Mann, Erin Lynch, Samantha Webster, Sammy Guthartz. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“The dance numbers in ‘Mamma Mia!’ are highly energetic and athletic, with some very precise and technical dance mixed in,” says MacIsaac.

“We try to push the students beyond what they believe their limitations to be,” adds Myers.

It’s not only the actors, singers and dancers who have pushed beyond their limitations. The stage crew — under the direction of new tech director Jeff Hauser — has created an enormous, dynamic set. One of the highlights: a very cool turntable.

Audiences have learned that — whether it’s a foot-stomping musical, a Broadway classic or a serious show — Staples Players is far more than a high school drama group.

Anna Maria Fernandez and Benny Zack, in a tender (?) moment. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” sold so quickly, in fact, that Roth and Long added an eighth performance. That matinee — the show’s third — is set for Saturday, November 16 (3 p.m.).

“Take a Chance On Me,” ABBA sings toward the end of the show.

Audiences don’t have to take a chance on “Mamma Mia!” They know it’s already a winner.

(“Mamma Mia!” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, November 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, November 16, 17 and 23 at 3 p.m., and Thursday, November 21 at 7 p.m. The best seats now are for the November 16 matinee, and Thursday, November 21. For tickets, click here. Tickets are always available in the Staples High School lobby 30 minutes before showtime — first come, first served!)

ADL Raises Voices, Inspires A “Show Of Unity”

For decades, the ADL has helped Westport.

Now it’s time for us to return the favor.

The organization — the Connecticut chapter of what was originally called the Anti-Defamation League — has:

  • Offered anti-bias training programs for teachers, students, parents and community members
  • Provided Holocaust education
  • Responded to anti-Semitic and other hate incidents
  • Sponsored Police Chief Foti Koskinas for a special course on extremist and terrorist threats, for senior-level law enforcement personnel
  • Helped begin the Kool to be Kind initiative
  • Worked with Staples High School staff on the new “Connections” program
  • Brought former neo-Nazi Frank Meeink, and ex-Westboro Baptist Church members Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper here
  • Worked with every synagogue in town on the interactive “Words to Action” program, for students from middle school through college.

“We will always be there for our community,” says ADL Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg, a Westport resident. “Now, we’re bringing the community together with a ‘show of unity.'”

It will be quite a show. “ADL Voices” is a major fundraiser, on Saturday, November 9 (Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, 8 p.m.).

Trombone Shorty — the New Orleans-based jazz, funk, R&B, hip hop, pop and rock trombone, trumpet, organ and tuba player — will star.

Trombone Shorty

Award-winning gospel artist Pastor Marcia Fountain will solo. David Letterman’s bandleader Paul Shaffer emcees. Westporter Sarah Green serves as artistic director.

The Voices Choir — a talented, diverse group of musicians, singers and dancers from across Fairfield County — will perform, along with the Pivot Ministries Choir from Bridgeport.

Students from Staples High School, the Bridgeport public schools and Neighborhood Studios will sing, along with those from Fairfield Prep, Fairfield University, Keys Bridgeport and the Manhattan School of Music, and various church and synagogue choirs.

Westport Academy of Dance’s senior company introduces a piece specially choreographed for the event.

Other Westporters involved include the Staples Service League of Boys; ADL board member and event chair Claudia Cohen, along with many volunteers.

It’s truly be a “unifying” night. The fundraising benefit and community gathering is designed to “bring people together, foster dialogue and build mutual respect,” Ginsburg says.

It will also be very entertaining, quite inspirational, and tons of fun.

(For more information, including tickets and sponsorship opportunities, click here. Major sponsors include Bercham Moses LLP, Norwalk Hospital and Terex.)

TEA Talk Sunday: Breaking Barriers Through Arts

Everyone knows about TED Talks.

But here in Westport, we’ve got TEA Talks.

The Westport Arts Advisory Committee and Westport Library’s 8th annual TEA — that’s Thinkers, Educators, Artists — event is set for this Sunday (October 27, 2 p.m., Town Hall).

The topic is timely and relevant: “Breaking Barriers Through the Arts.”

Music, visual arts, performance and poetry artists will share personal stories of breaking boundaries through their work, in 3 20-minute conversations and performances.

There are special appearances by Westport poet laureate Diane Lowman and internationally renowned pianist Frederic Chiu — a local resident — plus an audience Q-and-A, and the presentation of a Horizon Award to a young area artist of note.

Noah Fox

Noah Fox is the winner of that Horizon Award. The 2009 Staples High School graduate — he went by Noah Steinman then — studied photography at Staples, and studio art, art history and queer theory at Oberlin College; earned an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; worked as education manager at the Westport Arts Center, and now serves as coordinator of academic and public programs at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

He’s made a name with a unique project: “transforming” educational books that are “alarmingly misogynistic, homophobic and racist.” Fox paints, draws, sculpts and uses collages to gouge out the books, and “reclaim” them. He “sheds light on the oppressive foundations of American culture, while exposing the ways in which these systems and rhetoric persist today.”

Fox will be joined on the TEA stage by:

  • Illustrator Ann Chernow of Westport, whose works evoke the images of female cinematic figures of the 1930s and ’40s
  • Westport conceptual artist and sculptor Jeanine Esposito, who co-founded Beechwood Arts salon, and now brings innovation to libraries, universities and non-profits
  • Westport director, producer, dramatic coloratura and private voice teacher Wendy Morgan-Hunter
  • Ecuadorean-born violinist, educator and social entrepreneur Angelica Durrell
  • Groundbreaking classical and jazz singer, inspirational teacher, body builder and nutrition specialist Dr. Tiffany Renee Jackson.

The TEA Talk is free, and open to the public. A reception follows immediately afterward. Registration is encouraged; click here.

“Stand By Me”: Royal Wedding Choir Comes To Westport

You — and the world — watched in awe as the Kingdom Choir sang “Stand By Me” at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.

They’ll sing it again, next month.

In Westport.

The British gospel group — whose stirring rendition of the Ben E. King classic led to a record deal with Sony — comes to Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Saturday, November 2 (5 p.m.).

They’re on their first-ever North American tour. But mostly — since arriving in September — they’re playing big venues, like Hollywood Bowl.

They’ve booked only 2 intimate church venues. One was in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The other is Westport.

Christ & Holy Trinity director of music Michael Burnette is very excited. He replied “yes!” the moment he got an email from a booking agent, asking about interest.

The Kingdom Choir will sing a mixture of gospel, spiritual and pop tunes, Burdette says. They provide “a message of hope, and a brighter tomorrow.”

The choir’s debut CD is called “Stand By Me: 15 Songs of Love, Hope and Inspiration.”

In 2018, they inspired the royal couple, and the world.

Soon, they’ll do the same on Church Lane.

(Tickets are $65 for preferred seating, $50 for general adult, $15 for children 18 and under, and $115 for a family ticket. To order or for more information, click here or call 203-227-0827.)