Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Joshua Bell Plays Westport — Again

Joshua Bell is the most famous violinist of our time. Wherever he plays — around the world — he attracts adoring, sold-out audiences.

Despite his grueling recording and performing schedule, Bell often finds time for Westport.

Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell

In 2012 Bell helped launch Beechwood Arts and Innovation, the Westport non-profit known for its creative, eclectic Arts Immersion Salons. Music, art, film, performance, food and technology — all come together in a stunning 1806 home owned by Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito.

Bell — a longtime friend of Chiu, Beechwood’s co-founder and himself an internationally acclaimed pianist — kicked off the 1st year by donating an unforgettable concert of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

He was joined by Chiu, actor James Naughton of Weston, and 13-year-old theater student Rachel Rival. Afterwards, chef Raul Restrepo of the former River Café served an equally memorable dinner.

Several years earlier, Bell appeared with Chiu — with whom he has played for 35 years — at the sold-out Malloy lecture for the Westport Library. A few days later they performed at the Westport Country Playhouse with Audra McDonald, Glenn Close and Tony Bennett, honoring Westporter Joanne Woodward.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Next month, Bell returns to town. On Thursday, August 25 (8 p.m., United Methodist Church) — in the midst of his own vacation — he’ll give a “high 5” to Beechwood Arts & Innovation, for their 5th-year fundraiser. Chiu once again joins him on piano.

The event includes a VIP Meet-and-Greet, a conversation where they reminisce about their early days as aspiring musicians (with WQXR’s Elliot Forrest), and a celebration party at Beechwood Arts, across the street from the church.

Beechwood logoThough every seat at a fundraiser is important, Beechwood is reserving 40 seats for patrons to sponsor young music students from underserved communities. Local music non-profits Spread Music Now, Turnaround Arts, Intake, Neighborhood Studios and KEYS are helping fill those seats.

Students will sit close to the stage, and talk to Bell and Chiu during intermission. Their parents can share in the event — and all will leave with a CD.

“In our youth, both Joshua and I were deeply inspired seeing master musicians play live,” Chiu says. “Those experiences left impressions that lasted a lifetime.

“This inspires both of us to work with students. And it’s why at Beechwood we regularly include students alongside masters of their craft, in all of our events across music, art, film and performance.”

Bell and Chiu have been friends since meeting at music competitions in their native Indiana. They’ve toured together for nearly 40 years, in the U.S., Europe and South America.

Their friendship will be on display August 25. So will their world-class talents, their deep love of the arts, and their wonderful generosity to all.

(Tickets must be reserved in advance. For tickets or more information, click here or call 203-226-9462.)

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played "Four Seasons." On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played “Four Seasons.” On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

Ushering In The Playhouse

It takes a ton of people to produce a Westport Country Playhouse show.

There are actors and director, of course. Plus costume designers, set builders, lighting and sound technicians, marketing staff, ticket sellers, and many more.

Including ushers.

Recently, 3 former — very former — ushers reminisced about that long-ago, very intriguing and quite satisfying summer work.

When Marilyn Harding, Arlene Gertzoff and Ed Gerber were growing up, the Playhouse was an “otherworldly” place. Repurposed in the 1930s, the erstwhile tannery had become a cozy red theater presenting the best of Broadway (and headed-to-Broadway) plays and musicals.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos -- known nationally for his Saturday  Evening Post covers and US postage stamps -- created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos — known nationally for his Saturday Evening Post covers and US postage stamps — created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Casts included great actors and actresses — and those who would later become great.

In the 1960s, when Marilyn, Arlene and Ed were teenagers, the Playhouse was just 3 decades old. But it was already one of the most famous summer stock houses in the country.

Arlene says that for both the audience and ushers, the Playhouse was much more formal than today. Marilyn “found my string of pearls, whacked 3 inches off the hem of my black silk sheath — after all, it was the ’60s — dusted off my Capezios, pulled my hair into a French twist and was out the door.”

Ed, meanwhile, “unhappily” wore a blazer and tie.

Ushers worked under Jan De Vries, daughter of famed Westport author Peter De Vries. Ed calls her “a friendly sort, requiring nothing more of us than that we showed up on time having educated ourselves about the quirks of the theater’s seating chart, and that we greeted each guest with a polite ‘good evening’ as we checked their tickets and helped them find their seats.”

Playhouse playbill - ushers

Thanks to the ushers, from the playbill shown above.

The 3 ushers loved the Playhouse’s musty smell of paint, polish, aging red upholstery, creaky floors and unpredictable “air conditioning.”

Some of the seats were not very good, offering poor sight lines and uncomfortable balcony chairs. House managers dealt with unhappy customers.

Ushers were in awe of apprentices, who planned on careers in theaters. They and the touring actors lived in nearby housing, owned by or rented to the Playhouse (ushers lived at home, with their parents).

But ushers reveled in the chance to see a different play each week, with remarkable casts including Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead, Joel Grey, Claude Rains, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Alda and Liza Minelli.

When the show was over, ushers headed up the street to the Ice Cream Parlor.

All 3 left Westport, seeking fame and fortune elsewhere.

Marilyn, Arlene and Ed are all retired now, from varied and intriguing careers.

And all 3 are happy subscribers to the Playhouse. Where, half a century later, a new cast of ushers shows them to their seats.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they're still red. Some things never change.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they’re still red. Some things never change.

Opening Hearts And Minds, To Leave Hatred Behind

For the past 2 days, hundreds of Westporters have been inspired by Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper.

In appearances sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the young women — granddaughters of Rev. Fred Phelps — have described in raw, harrowing detail how the Westboro Baptist Church known for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, American soldiers killed in Iraq, and Steve Jobs controlled their minds until they were adults.

And what’s happened since they gathered the courage to leave.

Last night, a packed Westport Country Playhouse audience heard the women talk about the wrath they long believed God held for anyone who did not follow his every commandment. They told of the agony of leaving siblings, parents and grandparents — whom they deeply love — behind forever. And they spoke with wonder of being welcomed into the home of a rabbi who, just a couple of years earlier, they had called a “whore.”

“It’s so comfortable not to have to think for yourself,” Megan said. “But it’s so important when you do.”

Megan Phelps-Roper, after last night's talk at the Westport Country Playhouse. Her sister Grace is behind her.

Megan Phelps-Roper, after last night’s talk at the Westport Country Playhouse. Her sister Grace is behind her.

This morning, hundreds more Staples High School students gathered in the auditorium. They sat in stunned silence as the women talked — then followed up with respectful questions.

One student wanted to know what the Westboro Church thought of the pope. “They don’t really like him either!” Grace said.

As the women were leaving for their next engagement, someone mentioned “The Laramie Project.” Last year, Staples Players performed the deeply moving play — about a Wyoming town’s reaction to the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

A defining moment comes when church members picket his funeral. They scream their signature “God hates fags” refrains, and worse. Laramie residents, in turn, raise angel wings to block the protesters from view.

Megan and Grace said they’ve never seen “The Laramie Project.”

Players director David Roth gave them a DVD of the show.

When these 2 courageous young women watch it, they’ll no doubt take a few more steps on their remarkable journey.

Westporters should feel honored — and inspired — they’ve shared it with us.

(Staples Players present “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” on May 19, 20 and 21, in the Black Box theater.)

"Reverend" Fred Phelps, and some of his signs. His granddaughters, Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, described what it's like to grow up in that environment -- and how conflicted they feel because they still love their family.

“Reverend” Fred Phelps, and some of his signs. His granddaughters, Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, described what it’s like to grow up in that environment — and how conflicted they feel because they still love their family.

Does God Hate Fags? Find Out March 28.

I am not Mexican. I can only imagine how Mexicans felt when Donald Trump called them “killers and rapists.”

I am not Muslim. So I can only imagine how members of that religion felt when Trump said “they’re not coming to this country if I’m president.”

I am not disabled. I can only imagine, then, how anyone with a disability felt when the Republican front-runner mocked a journalist born with deformed hands.

But I am gay. So I do not have to imagine what it is like for someone to call me a “fag,” spit in my face, and say that God sent 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and many other disasters to America because of me.

"Reverend" Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

“Reverend” Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

Even though “Reverend” Phelps was batshit crazy — and is probably right now burning in the same hell he roared I’m headed for — it’s pretty scary to know that someone, somewhere, despised a group of people so much he spent his life spewing vile garbage about them.

About me.

He was not alone. He had an entire “church” — well, mostly relatives he’d brainwashed — behind him.

But some of those church members began to think for themselves.

“Rev.” Fred Phelps’ granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper questioned the Westboro Baptist “Church”‘s vitriolic protests against gays (and Jews, members of the military, and so many other groups). Eventually, they fled.

And on Monday, March 28 (7 p.m.) they’ll be at the Westport Country Playhouse, giving an inspiring talk about their journey from hatred to love.

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

The event is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. The moderator is ADL national director of civil rights Deborah Lauter.

She was a frequent target of Megan — and the rest of the “church” — on social media. The sisters will discuss what it was like to love their family, but be raised in such a hate-filled environment.

Yet it was social media — specifically, Megan’s engagement with an unlikely source on Twitter — that opened their eyes to broader perspectives. Today, they’re active allies in the war on hate.

“God Hates Fags” has special meaning for me.

ADL logoBut so does “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” “Your Pastor is a Whore.” And any other sign that Fred Phelps and his clan — including, not long ago, his granddaughters — hoisted.

Those signs should have special meaning for all of us. Singling one group out demeans everyone.

That’s why I am sure every seat will be filled on March 28, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Our town — and our country — are better than the hateful rhetoric we hear too much these days.

We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Under — or without — any god you like.

(For tickets to the March 28 event, click here. For a fascinating, in-depth New Yorker story on Megan Phelps-Roper, click here.)

Actually, Those Striped Blue Lines Mean NO Parking

And it’s not as if there weren’t enough open spots yesterday in the Westport Country Playhouse lot…

(Photo/Roger Wolfe and Lisa Pelletier Jones)

(Photo/Roger Wolfe and Lisa Pelletier Jones)

Tonight’s Playhouse Bowie Tribute To Be Livestreamed

When Westport’s own Jane Green started planning a David Bowie tribute concert, she envisioned an intimate gathering at the Westport Country Playhouse barn. She hoped to snag a couple of acoustic guitarists who’d play as his dedicated fans stood around singing, lost in a sea of nostalgia and love.

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Crispin Cioe wails tonight.

Crispin Cioe wails tonight.

The list of performers now include stars who have performed with — among others — the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, James Brown, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, Coldplay, Wyclef Jean, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Lou Reed, J. Geils, Orleans, Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls and Carole King.

Headliners include Westporter Crispin Cioe and noted drummer Jerry Marotta.

The wait list has swelled to 150 people. To share all that donated time and talent with everyone, Jane has arranged for the concert to be live-streamed. Wherever in the world you are at 8 p.m. (EST) tonight, click on www.twitter.com/janegreen. The link will go up when the music begins.

“Tonight we celebrate David Bowie — the man, his music, and what he meant to us,” Green says.

“We hope a little bit of his magic may sweep you back to your teenage bedrooms, to a time when we all thought we could be heroes too.”

David Bowie at Westport Playhouse

NOTE: The poster says 7 pm. That’s for drinks. The music (and livestream) begin at 8.

Trey Ellis Tells Tuskegee Airmen’s Tale

Trey Ellis had done a lot of things in his life.

He’s written movies, books and TV shows. He’s been a political pundit, a social critic and a Huffington Post contributor. He’s won a Peabody, been nominated for an Emmy and shortlisted for a PEN Award.

Trey Ellis

Trey Ellis

He teaches at Columbia University, was a non-resident fellow at Harvard, and taught or lectured at Yale, NYU, the University of New Mexico, and in Brazil and France.

But until a decade ago, the Westport resident had never written a play.

That’s when the Lincoln Center Institute commissioned a work by Ellis about the Tuskegee Airmen. He’d already earned honors for a 1995 HBO film on the African American pilots who overcame fierce racism to become one of World War II’s finest US fighter groups. They never lost a bomber.

Ellis and Ricardo Khan turned the movie into an hour-long play, called “Fly.” Originally aimed at students, a longer version was staged a few years later at the Vineyard Theater in Massachusetts, then the Crossroads Theater in New Jersey — one of America’s leading black companies.

It’s since moved on to Ford’s Theatre in Washington — where several of the real Tuskegee Airmen saw it — and the Pasadena Playhouse.

Ellis is very proud of “Fly.” The other day — quoting Martin Luther King — he noted that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. However, the playwright added, recent racial strife in America has made stories like the Airmen’s more relevant and important than ever.

Fly - Trey Ellis

Now “Fly” — which the New York Times called “a superior piece of theatrical synergy” — is coming to the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. It runs March 11-27.

Ellis will be there. So will his family — including his son Chet (the name of one of the show’s main characters), and Chet’s friends.

But there’s one more place Ellis would like to see it produced: the Westport Country Playhouse.

“I go to as many productions there as I can,” the playwright says. “I would love to bring this to my adopted hometown.”

Lisa Lampanelli’s Fat Girls

Lisa Lampanelli is one of America’s most popular (and edgily hilarious) comedians.

She’s a regular on Howard Stern, a staple on late-night TV, and a 2-time Grammy nominee for “Best Comedy Album.” She was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and participated in a roast of Donald Trump.

Later this month, though, she’ll do something a lot heavier.

Lampanelli has just written a legit play. It gets its 1st-ever public reading on Saturday, March 19 at the Westport Country Playhouse. The event is a benefit for Bridgeport’s Center for Family Justice.

Fat Girls InterruptedI’m not as funny as Lampanelli, but you gotta admit that my “a lot heavier” line is good. The play is “Fat Girls, Interrupted.” It focuses on weight, body image and food issues from the perspective of 4 women, with 4 different problems.

“The play will do for weight and food issues what ‘Vagina Monologues’ did for women’s nether regions,” Lampanelli says.

I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.

The venue is a coup for the Playhouse. How often does a theater offer a world-premiere reading?

Lisa Lampanelli

Lisa Lampanelli

But it’s also a coup for Lampanelli. A Trumbull native who now owns a Fairfield beach house, she calls the Playhouse “a bucket list thing for me. It’s always seemed so classic and iconic.”

The booking came about through her friendship with internationally acclaimed “chick-lit” writer Jane Green, a local resident. (“She’s all the good things about Westport, without the bad,” Lampanelli says.)

Green introduced the stand-up comic to Michael Ross, the theater’s managing director. He loved “Fat Girls.”

“How did I end up, at 54, in this very cool world?” Lampanelli asks.

In part, through a lot of hard work. She began creating a play 6 years ago with Alan Zweibel. He’s written for “Saturday Night Live,” Garry Shandling and Billy Crystal.

Most of “Fat Girls” took shape over the past 2 years, though. It’s insightful, important and poignant — and at times very, very funny.

Speaking of funny: What about that roast of Donald Trump? The narcissistic blowhard now bullying his way to the Republican nomination for president doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to laugh at himself.

Lisa Lampanelli, roasting Donald Trump.

Lisa Lampanelli, roasting Donald Trump.

“He was one of the best sports ever,” says Lampanelli. She should know: She’s also roasted Chevy Chase, Denis Leary, Pamela Anderson, Jeff Foxworthy, Flavor Flav, William Shatner, David Hasselhoff and Larry the Cable Guy.

“I could say the most crazy, incendiary stuff. I attacked Trump for his hair, his taste in women, the dopey ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ which I was on — and more stuff I can’t say in print.”

That was at New York’s Friars Club. Lisa Lampanelli’s next act opens soon — right here in Westport.

(Tickets are $100 [with a post-reading “Meet the Cast” dessert reception], $50 and $25. To order or for more information, click here or call 203-227-4177.)

Jane Green Brings Bowie To Town

You may not think of Jane Green — the best-selling author/co-founder of the “chick-lit” genre/TV and radio personality, and a devoted Westporter — as a David Bowie fan.

Think again.

She’s not only a longtime admirer of the late musician/actor — she’s organized a concert here in his honor, to benefit his favorite charity.

But let Jane tell her story, in an “06880” exclusive:

—————————————————————

I was 12 years old when I discovered David Bowie. On the eve of my birthday, a girl gave me the album “Space Oddity.” It was my 3rd album, and I religiously collected the rest of his. I saved up to go to the HMV on the Finchley Road after school, until I had every album he had ever made.

My bedroom, at the top of an old Victorian house on a leafy street in Hampstead, was a shrine to David Bowie. One wall was covered with posters, complete with staple holes and creases from where they had been folded up inside the pages of a magazine, another covered with a huge mural I had painted, copied from the cover of “Scary Monsters.” On the floor was a turntable, with a stack of his albums next to it. I was swept up in a completely obsessive, overwhelming, adolescent first love.

On the morning of January 10 this year, I was woken to a stream of messages from girls I hadn’t spoken to for over 30 years. All reached out to me from across the Atlantic, where they had heard the news several hours earlier than I. They wrote to tell me they remembered my mural, my obsession, my love for David Bowie; they wrote to say that they were simply communing with me on this tragic day he died.

Grief builds. My initial sadness was nostalgic, and brief. As the days rolled on, filled with news stories about his passing, I found myself growing more and more sad. I watched videos of hundreds of my fellow Londoners gathering outside David Bowie’s birthplace in Brixton, a couple of them strumming acoustic guitars, as the huge crowd broke into song, knowing every word, every line. How I wished I could have been there.

Jane Green channels David Bowie.

Jane Green channels David Bowie.

My friend Fiona emailed to say she wanted to go somewhere and remember him, have a sort of interactive memorial. “There are lots of us feeling the need to hear him again in a group – and sing along with him and sort of be together in a mutual lovefest and nostalgia,” she said.

It was exactly what I wanted to do, to celebrate the life and legacy of a childhood idol who was so much more than merely an idol. This suburban boy who prowled across the stage like a charismatic alien, his hair spiked red, his eyebrows gone, his voice like nothing I had ever heard, was the most beautiful, and unusual creature I had ever seen. His uniqueness spoke to all of us awkward kids standing just outside the mainstream. He made it okay to feel a little different; he made it okay to not quite belong. David Bowie gave us permission to be whoever we wanted to be.

I needed to celebrate, and remember, and grieve, and sing. There were clearly many more who felt the same way.

I approached the Westport Country Playhouse first for the space, before the radio station 95.9 The Fox offered to sponsor. The evening started to come together as a warm, intimate, nostalgic evening in the Playhouse barn, an evening of Bowie songs played by local musicians, lyric sheets available for those who want to sing along. Musicians we have confirmed so far include Diane Scanlon, Jerry Vigorito, Pat Lattin, Nicholas Devine, Dennis Dobson, Kim Manning, Linda Couturas and Adam Riegler (a Staples senior who has appeared on Broadway in “The Addams Family,” who will be bringing his group).

David Bowie at Westport Playhouse

I posted on the “Westport Front Porch” Facebook group, asking if there were any Bowie fans who might help organize this event. An extraordinary group of people came together, all Westporters, all of whom have loved Bowie for years: Jamie Camche, Jennifer Clement, Mary Dobson, Marita Driscoll, Fiona Garland, Jerri Graham, Michele Harding, Darcy Hicks, Jennifer Lupinacci, Kathy Oberman, Sam Pattinson, Andrea Pouliot-Rourke and Russ Hardin.

As always, our local businesses have been generous beyond measure. The Granola Bar, Matsu Sushi, Sushi Gusto at Fresh Market, Positano and International Wine are all sponsoring this event with food and wine. We, in turn, are donating all proceeds to David Bowie’s charity of choice, Keep a Child Alive, whose mission is to bring about the end of AIDS for children and families.

Since January 10 I have once again immersed myself in all things David Bowie. I have listened to the music, sung the songs, read the books and watched the videos. I have taken a trip down memory lane with the thin white duke, which all us Bowie fans will be doing, together, at the Westport Playhouse on March 8 at 7 p.m., along with my 12-year-old, who is just now discovering the magic, and obsession, of David Bowie.

(For tickets and more information on “2016 Bowie Stardust,” click here.)

White Barn Theatre’s Dramatic Vanishing Act

Local residents  are justly proud of the Westport Country Playhouse. Since 1931, an old cow barn and tannery in an apple orchard has been transformed into a historic and influential piece of American theater history.

For years, Westport was also home to the White Barn Theatre. Less known — and operating only on weekends — the small stage in a former horse barn boasts plenty of its own history. Founded in 1947 by noted actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel, it premiered works by Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Edward Albee.

The White Barn Theatre.

The White Barn Theatre.

When the White Barn closed in 2002 — 3 years after Lortel’s death, at 98 — Westport lost 1 of our 2 theatrical jewels.

Or so we thought.

Recent press reports — including the New York Times — about a battle to save the theater building from demolition, and conserve acres of nearby woods and streams — place the White Barn Theatre in Norwalk.

They’re right.

Most of the 15-acre property lies in Norwalk. A back parcel — around 2.5 acres — is in Westport.

Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.

Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.

The theater — which still stands, unused, with Al Hirschfeld’s drawings of the many famous playwrights, actors and visitors on the walls  — was on Norwalk land. Apparently, years ago, Lortel persuaded the Westport post office to deliver mail there.

She must have figured a Westport address meant more to theater-goers than a Norwalk one.

How much longer the decaying theater — and Lortel’s handsome home — will remain standing is in doubt.

A long-running fight over the property — encompassing old-growth forest, trails, meadows, a pond and waterfall — may be coming to a head. Various factions are fighting over its future. A developer wants to build 15 houses.

A map showing the proposed 15-home development. Cranbury Road (left) marks the border between Norwalk and Westport. Click on or over hover to enlarge.

A map showing the proposed 15-home development. Cranbury Road (in red on left) marks the border between Norwalk and Westport. Click on or over hover to enlarge.

Meanwhile, Lortels’ grand-nephew — 25-year-old Waldo Mayo, an actor himself — is trying to buy the land and revive the theater. He’s got support from folks like Kevin Spacey and Kelli O’Hara (who really does live in Westport). Raising the $5 million-plus purchase price has been slow — but a major fundraiser is in the works.

The Save Cranbury Association — a longtime neighborhood that includes nearby Westport residents — is backing Mayo. They’re concerned about the impact of 15 homes on wetlands and wildlife.

A portion of the Cranbury property.

A portion of the Cranbury property.

Demolition of the theater has been temporarily delayed. Earlier work — including asbestos removal — had already begun.

It’s a true-life story. One that would make an intriguing play.

Set either in Westport or Norwalk.

Though like the White Barn Theatre itself, where it is is less important than what it means.

(To learn more about saving the White Barn Theater, click here.)