Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

The Sun Comes Out On “Annie” Actors

Since opening night in 1931, Broadway actors have starred on the Westport Country Playhouse stage. Their talent (and famous names) have contributed to the magic of the long-running theater.

The current production is no exception. Many members of the large cast of “Annie” boast Broadway credits. (Sunny — who played Sandy in the 2012 production — revives her canine career here too.)

Joining them are 45 young members of Broadway Method Academy. For them, “Annie” is the latest — or in some cases, first– production that they hope leads them to their own Broadway shows.

Among that group: Westporters Brenna Connolly and Jackie Peterson.

Jackie Peterson and Brenna Connolly in “Annie.”

BMA offers training in acting, singing and dancing. Its Fairfield facility — including a 130-seat black box theater — is designed to feel like a New York boutique studio.

BMA serves as the resident conservatory of the Playhouse. Brenna (a freshman at Staples High School) and Bedford Middle School 8th grader Jackie are excited to be on the storied stage.

They’ve learned a lot about professional theater. Rehearsals began last month. During tech week, they were at the theater from 4:30 to 10 p.m. every day.

But the cast and crew have been welcoming. Brenna and Jackie are all in.

“Annie” is a great opportunity for friends and family members to see them perform. It’s a popular show, in a historic theater.

And it’s only an hour from what may be the Broadway Method Academy actors’ ultimate destination: Broadway.

(“Annie” is performed this weekend and next, at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Click here for exact performances and tickets.) 

Pic Of The Day #656

Westport Country Playhouse at night (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

My True Moth Story

Jane Green is a wonderful author. She’s written 19 novels, has over 10 million books in print, and been published in more than 30 languages.

Our Westport neighbor is as gifted a storyteller in person as she is in print. For years she entertained book tour audiences with her tale of cooking dinner for Hugh Grant.

Jane Green

The Moth — the wildly successful radio show and podcast featuring real people telling true stories — heard about Green’s routine. They chatted a bit, before deciding it was not quite right for The Moth. They asked if she had another story to tell.

She did. It was about her middle-aged head being turned by the attention of a handsome younger man. First told at Cooper Union, “Greener Grass” (clever name!) was wildly successful. It’s been heard more than a million times.

Which got Green thinking: Why not bring The Moth to Westport?

A longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse — and one-time board member — Green always looked for programs appealing to  young audiences. She’d helped bring a “Hamilton” singalong, David Bowie tribute and Lisa Lampanelli play to the fabled stage.

The Moth was a natural next project.

Which is why next Friday (January 25, 7:30 p.m.), 5 great storytellers will bring The Moth to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Well, 4 great storyteller. Plus me.

I can’t believe I’ll be standing up there with Green herself; Alistair Bane, a Shawnee who makes dance regalia, paints and rehabilitates feral reservation dogs; Henia Lewin, a Lithuanian instructor of Hebrew and Yiddish, and Trina Michelle Robinson of San Francisco, who explores memory through video, archival materials and text.

Not quite the Westport Country Playhouse. But close.

I tell stories every day on “06880.” I can type a tale in my sleep.

But performing as a Moth storyteller is waaaaay different.

I’ll join 4 experienced folks — including a woman who has done this before, and written 17 New York Times bestsellers.

And — oh yeah — the Moth Radio Hour is heard on more than 475 stations. The podcast is downloaded a million times each week.

But I’m ready. I might rock it — or bomb.

Either way, for the rest of my life I’ll have one more intriguing story to tell.

(For more information and tickets, click here.)

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

Playhouse “Pianist” Teaches Children About Holocaust Horrors

You can’t say the Westport Country Playhouse isn’t timely.

The most recent production — “Thousand Pines” — was a provocative look at gun violence, through its effect on 3 families.

Now comes “The Pianist of  Willesden Lane.” It’s an encore performance, thanks to raves before.

The pianist — Grammy-nominated Mona Golabek — tells the gripping, true tale of her mother. A piano prodigy herself, whose dreams were threatened in 1938 by looming war, she flees Vienna for England on the Kindertransport.

Golabek describes it all, while interweaving music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, even a bit of Gershwin.

The elegant, beautiful show is also crucially important. It comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism worldwide, and just weeks after the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” should be seen by audiences of all ages. But on Sunday, December 16, the Playhouse will be filled with young people.

The 3 p.m. production will be followed by age-appropriate group discussions led by local Holocaust survivors. The goal is to educate children about that horrible time in a sensitive way, stressing the importance of standing up to bigotry and hatred, with the power of hope.

Monique Lions Greenspan’s mother survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She knows first hand the incredible strength, optimism and gratefulness that Holocaust survivors possess.

“Their stories provide invaluable lessons,” she says. “I feel a deep sense of obligation to make our community aware of this opportunity for our children — and adults too — to bear witness to and learn from their experiences.”

(The recommended age for this show is 10 and older. Click here for tickets and more information on the December 16 performance. Click here for tickets and more information on the December 5-22 run. The program is sponsored by Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, Jewish Federation Association for Connecticut, Holocaust Child Survivors of CT and the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut.)

New Playhouse Gallery Honors Westport Arts Heritage

Ann Sheffer is among Westport’s most avid arts advocates. Her support of all mediums — visual, performing, classical, new — is abiding and true.

So it’s very fitting that Ann’s latest project involves both an art gallery and the Westport Country Playhouse.

Actually, it’s a gallery at the Playhouse.

This Saturday (November 24, 5 to 8 p.m.), the barn next to the theater welcomes “Amazing Grace.” Noted Westport painter/illustrator Ann Chernow and famed graphic artist Miggs Burroughs offer dozens of mixed media images, photos and oils of real and invented people, from life’s shadows.

Ann Chernow and Miggs Burroughs

It’s the gallery’s inaugural exhibit.

It opens in what is already called the Sheffer Studio Space. The name honors Ann and her family.

As a child, Sheffer’s grandparents and parents took her to the Playhouse. She still recalls sitting in those red seats, for Friday afternoon children’s shows..

At 15, she became an usher. She continued serving the Playhouse long after graduating from Staples High School in 1966. Today, she’s an honorary trustee.

Sheffer has known and admired the 2 artists featured in this first show for decades.

Chernok’s work has been exhibited all over the world. Her Playhouse art focuses on actress portraits from American film noir of the 1930s and ’40s. Of course, many film stars also appeared on the Playhouse stage.

Burroughs — who graduated from Staples a year before Sheffer — has designed Time magazine covers, a United States stamp, Westport’s flag, and hundreds of logos for commercial and  non-profit clients. His lenticular photos line the Main Street and railroad station tunnels. His Playhouse exhibit includes 24 male criminals.

A sample of Ann Chernow’s work (left), and one by Miggs Burroughs (right).

Westport has long been known as an arts community. Next Saturday, we celebrate that heritage — in all its forms.

(The Gallery at the Westport Country Playhouse is a partnership between Friends of the Westport Public Art Collection and the Artists Collective of Westport. Saturday’s opening features music by Warren Bloom, drinks and light bites and more. The exhibit runs through December 22.)

2 For The Weekend

Looking for something to do this weekend?

A couple of great ideas just crossed my desk popped up in my inbox.

The first is a world premiere. Westport-based Connecticut Theater Dance kicks off its 2018-19 season with the original ballet “Drosselmeyer: The Toymaker’s Story” at Fairfield University’s Quick Center on Saturday (7 p.m.).

Artistic director Michelle Sperry wrote the fictional story of how the legendary toymaker created the magical nutcracker. Renowned choreographer Rodney Rivera — with 13 professional dancers, and supporting roles from CTD students (including young Westporters) — brings the ballet to life.

Writing and producing a totally new ballet is never easy. It’s especially tough when you’re a true non-profit, with a 100% volunteer board.

Sperry did it in just 2 months. But it could not have happened without plenty of help from Westporters.

Local businesses contributed funds. The company raised money by organizing a Halloween costumefest, renting a movie theater for a private showing, creating and selling calendars, and (of course) running a bake sale. Sperry even secured a private bank loan to make up the shortfall.

The young dancers augmenting the professionals in “Drosselmeyer” include Westporters.

The CTD’s mission of promoting diversity produced housing challenges. Sperry opened her home to a dancer from El Salvador for 5 weeks. Resident choreographer Alejandro Ulloa hosted a Nicaraguan dancer. Choreographer Rodney Rivera –from Puerto Rico — was welcomed in by another CTD family.

Most sets were made in Sperry’s garage — including a train big enough for cast members to ride on. Local residents offered rocking horses, dolls and beer steins.

CTD families donated food, helped sew (staying up until 3 a.m.!), and done much, much more. They’re honored to support dancers who commute up to 2 hours each way.

This is a labor of love for everyone. It should be an inspiring evening. And hey — how often do you get to see a world premiere?

Click here for tickets, or call 203-254-4010.

Meanwhile, Joan Nevin raves about the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Thousand Pines.”

The longtime Westporter — who has no connection with the theater, other than as a patron — calls the current play “groundbreaking and heartbreaking.”

It was developed in the Playhouse’s New Works Circle last year — the first to come out of the program with a full production. 

Playwright Matthew Greene explores how families and communities try to cope after a school shooting, in “an incredibly moving, intelligent way.”

Five characters — playing roles in different families affected by the tragedy — are “brilliantly nuanced.” Nevin won’t give away the ending, but calls it “brilliant. The play comes full circle with a powerful, heart-wrenching understanding among members of the community.”

She says it connects to devastating current events “without political implications or easy answers, but with  emotional depth and power.”

“Thousand Pines” runs through this Saturday (November 17). For more information and tickets, click here.

 

Westport’s Newest Gallery Opens In Historic Space

A group of local artists is “drawing” plenty of attention. And they’re doing it in partnership with one of Westport’s oldest cultural institutions.

On Tuesday night, the Artists Collective of Westport met in the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Westport Country Playhouse. The interior space has now been christened “The Gallery at the Westport Country Playhouse.”

The Westport Country Playhouse’s Lucille Lortel White Barn Center. Sure, it’s red. But it’s named for the legendary founder of the White Barn Theater on Newtown Turnpike — which really was white.

This was the Collective’s largest meeting in 3 years of existence. Almost 90 of the area’s top artists attended.

This is a great creative match. The Playhouse has agreed to host future meetings, as well as exhibits. There’s a lot to choose from: The Collective includes 150 artists, in a wide variety of mediums.

Westport Artists Collective members enjoying the new Playhouse gallery space are (from left) Susan Fehlinger, Nina Bentley (founder) Miggs Burroughs (founder),
Dale Najarian, Tammy Winser, Jen Greely, Dan Long and Eric Chiang.

The Playhouse has reached out to other artists in a big way too. The Friends of the Westport Public Art Collections will share the space with the Collective. WestPAC plans to show parts of their 1,500 works, in a series of public exhibits.

Playhouse executive director Michael Barker says the historic theater is excited to partner with Friends of the Westport Public Art Collections and the Artists Collective of Westport “to create a new visual arts exhibit space on the Playhouse campus.

“The Gallery at Westport Country Playhouse will showcase the varied and vibrant visual arts scene in Westport. In addition, it will celebrate the role of the Playhouse as one of the cultural centers of our  town.”

The Playhouse was founded 87 years ago, and has long been one of the country’s iconic regional theaters.

The Collective — now an official 501(c)(3) — has other partners too, including The Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, Westport Downtown Merchants Association, the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center, UNLOAD: Foundation, and the Westport Arts Center.

(To see the work of all Collective members, and for more information, click here. The group will host a kids’ activity booth at the Downtown Merchants Association’s WestobertFest on Elm Street, from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.)

“Man Of La Mancha” Comes “Home”

Audiences — and the Westport Country Playhouse itself — are excited about the coming production of “Man of La Mancha.”

Since its debut in 1965, the Don Quixote-inspired play-within-a-play has become a theatrical icon. It won 5 Tony Awards, has been revived 4 times on Broadway, and was staged twice previously at the Playhouse.

Two Westporters are particularly excited about the Playhouse’s September 25-October 13 run: Melody James and Clay Singer.

James is the daughter of Hal James. The actor, and radio/TV producer, was between projects nearly 50 years ago when he and his wife Florence saw the then-fledgling musical at Goodspeed Opera House.

Inspired, they went backstage and asked how to get involved.

At the University of Chicago, James had taken a class on Cervantes and Don Quixote with professor Thornton Wilder. With his life experiences, and then seeing “La Mancha” in development, James thought the time was right to help bring it to Broadway.

In 1965 he had 3 children in college: Michael (involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California), Beau (at the New School) and Melody (at Carnegie Institute of Technology).

Producing a Broadway show is always risky. But James’ bet paid off.

With his wife’s help, he enlisted fellow Westporters as angels. One was Mal Beinfield.

An orthopedic surgeon by trade, and Staples High School’s football doctor by hobby, he had never been involved in theater. But he invested, loved the challenge, and said later it was one of the best things he’d ever done.

For years, an original Al Hirschfeld drawing of “Man of La Mancha” hung on Beinfield’s wall.

Despite his New York ties, James — who moved to Westport with Florence in 1949 — was deeply involved in Westport too.

Hal and Florence James

He produced Coleytown Capers, a mid-1950s elementary school fundraiser involving talented Westporters as skit and song writers, performers, even can-can dancers.

He also helped start the first Westport-Weston Arts Council, brought Odetta to Staples, organized teen dances at Longshore — and worked with Craig Matheson to found Staples Players.

Clay Singer

Which brings us to the second Westporter who is particularly excited about “Man of La Mancha” at the Playhouse: Clay Singer.

The 2013 Staples graduate — a former Player himself, and a graduate of Melody’s alma mater, now called Carnegie Mellon University — is part of the upcoming cast. He made his Playhouse debut last year, in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Melody James loves “Man of La Mancha” for its “profound inspiration.” She says her father loved the show because it “points the way to how we all survive and sustain.”

For her — and for Clay Singer too — the Westport Country Playhouse production is not an impossible dream.

(For tickets and more information, click here. The 3 p.m. Saturday, October 13 performance will be open-caption in Spanish, a nod to the many Hispanic cast and creative team members.)