Category Archives: Entertainment

Leah Rondon’s Birthday Bash

In August 2015, Westport mourned the loss of Leah Rondon. She was struck by a car, while playing at a friend’s house.

The daughter of Bedford Middle School teacher Colleen Rondon played soccer, basketball and softball, and was the Ansonia Boys & Girls Club “Girl of the Year.” She loved reading, and proudly listed all her summer titles on the refrigerator.

She was just 6 years old.

Despite this unimaginable tragedy, Colleen’s energy and enthusiasm has not wavered. She teaches children with passion and pride.

Leah Rondon

Leah Rondon

On February 4, Leah would have been 8 years old. Her mother has created a Birthday Bash. She’s determined to make it a day of joy, not mourning.

She’s also determined to make Leah’s birthday mean something. So she and her husband — an administrator at Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral High School — are growing a scholarship in Leah’s name.

The Birthday Bash this coming Saturday (February 4, 12-4 pm) features a carnival with games, crafts, face painting, raffles and entertainment. The event takes place at Kolbe Cathedral.

Performers — many of whom are from Westport and Weston — include Jamie Mann (who has performed as Billy Elliot in 60 shows from New Hampshire to Florida), Stephanie Greene, Zoe Lieberman, Claire Vocke, Brody Braunstein, Chloe Manna, Lola Lamensdorf, Cate Steinberg, Leif Edoff (8-year-old pianist), Jasper Burke, Isabelle Katz, Lucas Lieberman, the award-winning Westport Dance Center company and more.

All proceeds benefit the Leah Rondon Memorial Scholarship Fund. It’s awarded to a graduating female Kolbe Cathedral student. For more information, click here.

And if you can’t make it to Leah’s Birthday Bash but want to donate to her fund, click here — then scroll down just below “Events” in the center of the page.

One Less Reason To Visit The Westport Post Office

(Photo/JP Vellotti)

(Photo/JP Vellotti)

All’s Well With Staples Midterms

Midterm exams are stressful for high school students. In recent years, as the importance of grades — both real and imagined — has risen, so have student stress levels.

Last week at Staples, staff and administrators — prompted by Student Assembly, and supported by the Collaborative Team — addressed midterms directly. In fact, proponents noted, reducing stress can actually raise test-takers’ scores.

Guidance counselors Leslie Hammer and Bill Plunkett, physical education department chair Dave Gusitsch and others created a broad menu of “Midterm Wellness and Enrichment Activities.” Students could choose any (or none) of them during last week’s midterms.

And — tweaking the no-room-to-breathe schedule that had been in place for decades — those activities took place during a 50-minute period between each day’s 2 exams. Previously, the break was just 30 minutes.

Organizers learned that high schools and universities around the country have brought in “therapy dogs,” for students to pets. Research shows that playing with animals is a great way to relax and clear the mind.

Petting dogs has been shown to release endorphins in the brain, leading to relaxed feelings.

Petting dogs has been shown to release endorphins in the brain, leading to relaxed feelings.

The dogs were a smash. Students lined up to chill with the friendly, tail-wagging pooches. One student — whose stress sometimes caused her to have tics — said she’d never felt better in a school environment.

Some activities were physical. There was basketball and track walking in the fieldhouse; badminton and “pound fitness” (drumming) in the gym; free swim in the pool, dance in the pool lobby, and ping pong near the cafeteria. The fitness center was open for cardio, free weights and machine exercise; yoga was in a library classroom, and principal James D’Amico offered “walk and talk” sessions around the school.

Emerson Anvari chose ping pong as a way to reduce midterm stress.

Emerson Anvari chose ping pong as a way to reduce midterm stress.

Some options — liked “guided meditation” — were more mindful.

Other activities appealed to special passions. String players were invited to the orchestra room to play Mozart; Players director David Roth directed theater games, while some students played board games.

David Roth got students up and moving with theater games.

David Roth got students up and moving with theater games.

In addition, guidance counselors offered free snacks. Healthy food was on sale in the cafeteria. That was a first for midterms — and sales were brisk.

Guidance counselors provided snacks -- and positive messages from a bowl.

Guidance counselor Deb Slocum (left) and colleagues provided snacks — and positive messages from a bowl.

No one was forced to choose an activity. Some students studied in the library, or chatted with friends in the hall.

Fifty minutes between exams allowed students time to study in the library -- and relax, eat healthily and participate in activities too.

Fifty minutes between exams allowed students time to study in the library — and relax, eat healthily and participate in activities too.

Everyone seemed influenced by the environment. Early skepticism was replaced by increasing enthusiasm to try something new, day by day.

Guidance counselor Deb Slocum noted, “The entire mood of the school shifted. It was a great vibe.”

Colleague Bill Plunkett added, “There was a lot of positive energy — and plenty of smiles. Even the kids just sitting around felt relaxed.”

Not every kid got an A+ on every test.

But Staples’ newest midterm tradition passed with flying colors.

“Pound fitness” is a full-body cardio jam session, perfect for de-stressing between exams.

(Photos courtesy of Victoria Capozzi and Dave Gusitsch)

Hollywood Comes To Westport (And Easton)

I never heard the name Joel McCrea.

Joel McCrae. After the success of "The Virginians" in 1946, he appeared almost exclusively in Westerns.

Joel McCrae. After the success of “The Virginians” in 1946, he appeared almost exclusively in Westerns.

But, I’m assured, many Westporters — particularly of a certain age — have.

He was an actor, whose career spanned 50 years and more than 90 films. He starred with Barbara Stanwyck (who I have heard of). He played the first film Dr. Kildare (ditto). He’s got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I do not know Peter McCrea, either. But he’s married to Jack Lemmon’s daughter. (I’ve heard of him.) And he — Peter,  not Jack — lives in Westport.

I have never heard of the Easton Public Library (though I’m not surprised there is one). I did not know, then, that they sponsor a Classic Film series.

But they do.

This Tuesday (January 24, 7 p.m.) they’ll show “The Palm Beach Story.”

It starred Joel McCrea. And his son Peter will be there, to answer questions and tell stories about his parents.

Oh, yeah: His mother was Frances Dee. She was also an actress.

I haven’t heard of her.

But she starred with Maurice Chevalier. I do know of him.

Daphne Baker Gets Chopped!

Daphne Baker is an 8th grader at Bedford Middle School. A typical 13-year-old, she loves hanging with friends, shopping, playing field hockey — and cooking.

That latter activity makes her a bit atypical. Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 10, 8 pm EST), she appears on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior.”

Daphne Baker on the set of "Chopped Junior" ...

Daphne Baker on the set of “Chopped Junior” …

Her episode is called “Pinwheel Meals.” According to the website:

In the appetizer round, the young cooks get to find out if bok choy tastes better with bacon. An old-fashioned “pinwheel” protein stirs things up in the entree round. And cottage cheese for dessert? The junior chefs attempt to find a place for it in their final plates. Actress Maia Mitchell and chefs Marc Murphy and Luke Thomas serve as judges.

Yum!

A longtime fan of the show, Daphne went through an arduous audition process. She sent in photos and videos of her cooking, then went through a series of phone and Skype interviews.

Four months later, she was selected for taping at The Chelsea Market.

The experience was “tons of fun,” Daphne says. And though the show is a contest, she became good friends with her 3 competitors.

... and opening her box of ingredients.

… and opening her box of ingredients.

The show was also a great exercise in making quick decisions, and executing with focus under pressure. “The process was probably more stressful for me than for Daphne,” admits her mother, Roma Tretiak.

“But she went in there with a positive attitude, and left with it too — enriched by the experience.”

Of course, confidentiality agreements prevent Daphne from telling us how she did. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

Perhaps curled up in front of the TV, with some bok choy and cottage cheese.

Justin Paul: Golden Globe Winner!

Justin Paul — the 2003 Staples High School graduate who, with his songwriting partner Benj Pasek, has taken both Broadway and Hollywood by storm — began 2017 the same way he ended 2016: with raves from critics and fans.

A few minutes ago in Beverly Hills, the duo earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song in a movie. The winner was “City of Stars,” from the hit film “La La Land.” Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics; Justin Hurwitz wrote the music.

Paul did the honors, giving the acceptance speech.

Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek, moments after learning they'd won a Golden Globe for writing the lyrics to "La La Land."

Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek, moments after learning they’d won a Golden Globe for writing the lyrics to “La La Land.” (Photo/Rhonda Paul)

The Oscar nominees are not yet out. However, Pasek and Paul’s latest award gives them a leg up in that race.

And, of course, there are the Tony Awards in June. Perhaps you’ve heard of the songwriters’ other little project, “Dear Evan Hansen”?

(Hat tip: David Roth)

SlamJam Helps Teens Be Kind, Fight Bullies

For a few months now, the Westport Arts Center’s “MORE Than Words” exhibit has highlighted the importance of courage, resilience and empowerment in the face of bullying.

It’s emboldened a variety of voices to speak out about the positive effects of empathy and kindness, and the negative results of exclusion.

No one knows that subject better than teenagers. On January 29, their voices will be heard — loud and clear.

SlamJam (5 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse) is an evening of performances by Fairfield County teens. They’ll express how they feel about their stressful social world, and promote a kinder, more inclusive community.

Songs, spoken word, rap, dance, music and film are some of the performance art genres on tap. Performers will come from Westport and area towns — including students from Bridgeport’s All-Star Project and Neighborhood Studios.

The emcee is Ceez Liive. The very cool poetry slam-winning artist from the Bronx performed at Staples a few years ago to great acclaim. Check her out below:

The event is produced by SKATEmovement. The acronym stands for Spreading Kindness and Teaching Empathy — an anti-bullying organization that teaches teens to be role models for younger children. All proceeds go to the Southern Connecticut branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

These are our teenagers. They have plenty to say.

And very creative, powerful ways of saying it.

(SlamJam is appropriate for middle schoolers and up. Tickets are $40 for adults, $20 for students and seniors. Click here to order. For $150 VIP seating, including pre- and post-show events, call 203-227-4177.)

slamjam

Jersey And Walden Rock Broadway

The Milwe name is well known in Westport.

Sid and Bea were longtime political activists. Alison Milwe Grace is a noted caterer, and much-admired culinary teacher at Staples High School. Many family members still live here.

After graduating from Staples in 1985, Cindy Milwe moved to California. She now teaches middle and high school English in Santa Monica. But her sons are making quite a name for themselves. They’re both on Broadway — in the cast of “School of Rock: The Musical.”

school-of-rock-logo

Plenty of Westporters have seen the pulsating Andrew Lloyd Webber smash. But they might not have known they were watching a pair of Milwes. The boys — Jersey and Walden Sullivan — use their father’s last name.

Yet their Westport connection is strong. The town where so many relatives live is just a train ride away from New York. It’s nice to come here. Eight performances a week is never easy.

Particularly when you’re just 12 and 9 years old.

Jersey was the first to join the cast. He’s loved music since he was 2, and for years took lessons through School of Rock — the similarly-named-but-unconnected music education program (a franchise is in Fairfield). Jersey joined the West L.A. house band. He was 10 years old, and life was good.

Jersey Sullivan

Jersey Sullivan

In the summer of 2015, Cindy and Tom heard about a casting call for the upcoming Broadway production. Jersey didn’t think of himself as a “theater kid,” but he loved the music. He figured, what the heck?

Tom sent a YouTube video of Jersey playing guitar and drums, and singing. The casting director liked it so much, he asked Jersey to fly to New York — the very next day.

The family had already planned to be in Westport the following week. While here, they learned Jersey had landed a role in the ensemble: James, the “security guard”. He’d also understudy for 2 actors: Zack  (the guitarist) and Freddie (the drummer).

More than a year later, Jersey is 1 of only 2 original cast members left. Since Walden joined the show last fall, they’re also the only brother act.

Walden’s the true “theater kid” in the family. He’s played the piano, sung and danced since he was 4.

Walden always wondered why his non-theater brother got to be on Broadway. He actually auditioned at the same time Jersey did — the producers may have just humored the 7-year-old — but when the original Lawrence (the keyboardist) got too big for the part, Walden was asked to audition again.

Another kid got the nod.

Walden Sullivan

Walden Sullivan

Yet Walden was called back last summer. He started rehearsing in October, and made his debut November 7.

The road to Broadway was not easy. Jersey was unsure about leaving his family (including an older sister), friends — and his band — behind.

Tom — a copywriter and marketer — got a furnished apartment on the Upper West Side. The lease was 6 months.

Jersey loved his new gig. He quickly bonded with the cast. They eat together often, and have sleepovers.

Jersey  was playing with rock stars — including Stevie Nicks and Slash — and was actually a rock star himself. He performed with Lin Manuel Miranda; appeared on “The Today Show,” “The View” and the Tony Awards, and rode on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

When his brother joined the cast, he was happy to stay on.

“It’s a blast,” Jersey says. “The music is a lot of fun. I’ve made lifelong friends. And I learned I could move across the country, and succeed in a new environment.”

He’s also learned how to adapt to Broadway. A few times, he’s had just 15 minutes’ notice to prepare himself for one of his 2 lead roles.

Walden adds, “The best part is meeting new people, and getting to perform.”

Of course, he admits, he was nervous on opening night. But he got good advice — “If you make a mistake, don’t worry” — and ever since, he’s been rockin’ the house.

The Broadway house.

The other day, the cast of “School of Rock” — including Jersey and Walden Sullivan — joined a “Good Morning America” Andrew Lloyd Webber mashup tribute:

Jake Bernard’s “City Of Love”

Jake Yarmoff is a singer/songwriter. So it’s not surprising that he cites Alice Lipson as a major influence. At Staples High School — from which he graduated in 2010 — the choral teacher helped him hone his smooth sound.

But he also was mentored by English instructor Julia McNamee. “She woke me up my last 2 years there, ” Yarmoff — who now goes by the easier-to-remember name Jake Bernard — says. “She taught me to be harder on myself, and made me the writer I am.”

Jake Bernard

Jake Bernard

Even math teacher Lenny Klein made an impact. “His policy of total honesty and great sense of humor were so important,” Bernard says. “He’s all about taking your work seriously — but not yourself.”

With that background, it’s not too surprising that at Penn State the aspiring entertainer majored in … finance. And minored in sociology.

He interned with Vanguard after junior year, then joined the investment firm full-time in financial sales at its Philadelphia headquarters. Bernard calls Vanguard “a great company, and a fantastic experience.” But he left 8 months ago.

“I knew I had somewhere else to be,” he says simply.

That “somewhere else” was metaphorical — not physical. He remained in Philly, and dedicated himself to his musical craft.

“My goal in my career is to have a positive impact — to inspire and give ‘wow’ moments, like other musicians have for me,” Bernard says.

“I want to make people smile, laugh and be their full selves. Ever since I was little, in every interaction with people — even outside of music — that’s been my aim.”

So Bernard wrote songs. He played. And he’s been in the studio, recording a series of singles he’ll release over the coming months.

Right now, “City of Love” is getting a lot of attention. And love.

It’s a 2-way street. Bernard has come to appreciate Philadelphia — a place that, growing up in Westport, he never really thought of — for its small-town-in-a-big-city vibe.

It took several months to get the tune right. But it — and a music video that shows Bernard singing and playing in some of Philadelphia’s most iconic spots (yes, of course including the “Rocky” steps!) — is a catchy, compelling love song to his adopted city.

Bernard knows that — musically speaking — the City of (Brotherly) Love is not in the same league as New York, Los Angeles, Nashville or Austin. It does have a lively hip hop, rap and jazz scene.

But the “beach pop” genre that Bernard specializes in (think Jason Mraz, and Fairfield’s own John Mayer) is wide open. He hopes to fill it.

Jake Bernard, in the city he loves.

Jake Bernard, in the city he loves.

Yet he retains his Westport roots. He recently performed at Toquet Hall with Alan Southworth — a friend since orchestra at Coleytown Elementary School — and Dustin Lowman, another Staples grad on the fast musical track. Bernard has also played alongside Staples alum Drew Angus.

Jake Yarmoff loves Westport. Jake Bernard loves Philadelphia.

And both places love both Jakes right back.

Mannequin Pussy Is #3!

Beyoncé is #1. David Bowie is #2. Leonard Cohen, #4.

mannequin-pussy-romanticAnd there, nestled at #3 — on Rolling Stone reviewer Rob Sheffield’s list of the Top 20 albums of 2016 — is Mannequin Pussy’s “Romantic.”

That’s quite a coup for the bizarrely named quartet whose music NPR calls “brawny funk with a fuzzy pop streak.”

Sheffield writes of the band’s 2nd release:

“You’re my favorite but favorites always fail” is the greatest lyric in any love song this year, or at least it’s impossible to think of any others while a Mannequin Pussy song is playing. Especially since Marisa Dabice clobbers every word with her savagely funny scream.

These Philly punks won my sick heart with their 2014 debut Gypsy Pervert, but Romantic is an even hotter knife, 11 tantrums in 17 minutes, an album about self-destructive mood swings and why they’re excellent.

Favorite moment: Dabice takes a deep breath and yells, “I was miles away when you needed someone to sit on your face screaming, ‘Keep me,’ and I am not ashamed to be lonely but I’m afraid to feel it so deeply,” which takes her just nine seconds. Jesus, what an exhausting band to fall in love with.

So yeah. Mannequin Pussy is based in Philadelphia. But half of the members are from Westport.

Marisa Dabice and Thanasi Paul are 2005 Staples High School grads. They were involved in bands as they grew up here.

Marisa Dabice and Thanasi Paul (left and 2nd to left) make up half of Mannequin Pussy.

Marisa Dabice and Thanasi Paul (left and 2nd to left) make up half of Mannequin Pussy.

It hasn’t been a straight path to stardom — or at least, this very cool shoutout from Rolling Stone. They got together 6 years ago. They’ve paid their dues — and mainstream media is taking notice. You can read and listen to an NPR feature about them by clicking here.

Read all about them here too, in a lengthy interview in another music magazine, Impose.

There, Dabice was asked about the band’s unusual name.

She replied: “That’s up to you. It’s not a good story. We just are Mannequin Pussy.”

Fortunately, when she grabs a mic she conveys a lot more than that.

(Hat tip: Cathy Walsh)