Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Stop The Presses! Lee And Kaya Scharfstein Take “Newsies” Stage

Lee Emery Scharfstein was a theater kid.

At Pleasantville High School — which had a Staples High-style professional performing arts program — he starred in shows like “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He sang too — at Carnegie Hall.

As a freshman at Tulane University he was cast as the widow’s lover in the 1994 film “Interview With the Vampire.” (Tom Cruise bit him.)

Lee Scharfstein and Tom Cruise.

He spent summers in LA, but quickly learned that being an actor involves very little acting. Lee wanted to control his own destiny, so after moving to New York he took any kind of production assistant work he could.

He worked his way up the ladder. Now a Westport resident, Lee produced and directed music videos, documentaries, short films and commercials.

He spent 12 years on the agency side, as an executive in creative development.

Lee Emery Scharfstein: the first head shot.

But you can’t keep a theater kid out of the theater. Even if that kid is now in his 40s, a father, and hasn’t been on stage in more than 20 years.

Lee’s younger daughter Kaya is a 5th grader. Like her dad, she loves performing. She’s honed her skills at Broadway Method Academy, the Fairfield-based non-profit that trains youngsters in acting, singing, and dancing.

But even a kid-heavy show like “Newsies” — which closes its 2-week run at the Westport Country Playhouse this weekend — needs adults.

Which is how Lee has ended up back on stage.

And sharing it with his daughter.

Kaya is in the ensemble. Lee has 3 roles: Pulitzer’s henchman Wiesel, the deli owner and mayor.

“It’s a lot of work!” he says. The show was mounted in just 5 weeks. Tech week was particularly intense.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kaya Scharfstein, dressed for “Newsies.”

“It’s so much fun to be with these talented kids, as they learn and grow,” he notes. “And it’s important to support our arts programs.”

Hearing cues from the orchestra brings Lee back to his high school days. Nothing he has done compares to acting on stage, he says. “Newsies” has transported him back to “the childlike wonder” of his early theater experiences.

Acting at the Playhouse is special for anyone — especially a Westporter. Lee appreciates its renowned place in the theater world. It’s always a thrill to step on the section of stage that comes from the original.

He admits to stage fright before every performance. He felt that way in high school too. On the other hand, he says, “I haven’t forgotten any lines.”

As for sharing a show with his daughter: “It’s like drinking from the fountain of youth. It’s nice that she’s still at an age when she’s not embarrassed by me.”

In fact, when she passes him backstage Kaya says, “Go get ’em, Tiger!”

Lee Scharfstein, backstage at the Westport Country Playhouse.

With the perspective of parenthood, Lee occasionally tears up. “Seeing these great kids, their talented director Chaz Wolcott, and Equity actors like him who were part of the national tour — and being there with my daughter — it’s just a really great part of my life. I feel like the stars aligned for me to do this.”

“Newsies” closes Sunday. So what’s next?

“I’m very lucky. I love producing, directing, and the branding consulting I’ve been doing. Each fuels the other,” Lee says.

“I’ve written a couple of screenplays. My wife and I took a stand-up comedy class last year. And I’ve committed myself to do more stage and camera work.”

Once a theater kid, always a theater kid.

(“Newsies” is performed Friday, February 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 15 at 1:30 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, February 16 at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.)

“Newsies,” on the Westport Country Playhouse stage.

MLK Celebration Shines Light On Voter Suppression

Carol Anderson teaches African American studies at Emory University. She is one of America’s foremost experts on voter suppression.

Anderson’s research has identified suppression that, she says, could have reversed results in key states during the 2016 presidential election. She also studies voter disinformation (election meddling), and the disenfranchisement of black women voters from the suffrage movement through the 1960s.

Anderson’s latest book is  One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy.

Dr. Carol Anderson

All of which makes her an excellent choice to deliver the keynote address at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. It’s set for Sunday, January 19 (3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), with an audience Q-and-A, reception and book signing to follow.

The event also includes performances by award-winning opera soprano Helena Brown, and students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts.

The importance of voter suppression — as we hurtle toward the 2020 presidential election, and voter registration lawsuits plod through the courts — is why, in addition to the usual MLK Day sponsors (TEAM Westport, the Westport Weston Interfaith Council, Westport Library and Playhouse), Anderson’s appearance draws strong support from the Westport League of Women Voters, and Westport’s 1919 Committee.

That’s a group of library staff and volunteers who have planned events throughout the year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

One Person, No Vote is included in the Westport Library’s 2019–20 WestportREADS program, which celebrates that centennial.

The MLK Celebration on January 19 is free. However, tickets are required. Click here to register.

Playhouse Presents New Twists On Old Classics

This time of year, we’re bombarded by “Nutcracker” news. Every ballet school in the county state country world universe multiverse produces the Christmas classic. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter.

Lila Doromal does.

The 5th grader attends Pierrepont School in Westport. On December 22 and 23, she’ll take the Westport Country Playhouse stage to dance the role of Clara (also called Marie).

Most people know Clara as Caucasian. In fact, the whole world of ballet is largely white.

But recently the New York City Ballet made headlines by casting their first African American Clara/Marie.

Now the Playhouse is breaking barriers too.

Lila is Indian and Filipino. She studies at the Greenwich Conservatory of Classical Ballet (and with the Bolshoi Ballet Summer Intensive). At Pierrepont she takes modern and West African dance.

Her fellow Greenwich Conservatory dancers — and guest artists from, among others, New York Dance Theater and the European School of Ballet– are presenting the WCP show.

Lila Doromal (Photo/Daniel Hernandez @TalemeStudio)

It’s set for Sunday, December 22 (4 p.m.) and Monday, December 23 (12:30 and 3:30 p.m.). Click here for tickets to this groundbreaking — and not-like-all-the-others — “Nutcracker.”

Meanwhile, the Westport Country Playhouse is gearing up for another holiday treat — with another hometown twist.

This Saturday (December 14, 7 p.m.), their Holiday Benefit Concert features Clay Singer.

The 2013 Staples High School grad, who starred in many Players shows, is well known to Playhouse fans. He appeared last year in “Man of La Mancha”; the year before, he went on with 2 hours’ notice in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Clay Singer

Clay earned a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, and is now an Equity professional.

He loves appearing on his “local” stage, before audiences filled with family and friends. They provide him with special energy, he says.

Everyone who performs at the Playhouse knows its history — but having grown up in Westport, realizing he is following in the literal footsteps of giants like James Earl Jones, Gene Wilder, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, adds special meaning.

The show is hosted by Tony Award winner (and Fairfield resident) Joanna Gleason, and includes other Playhouse favorites. They’ll perform a variety of old and new holiday favorites.

For tickets and more information, click here. Click here for a bonus Broadway World interview with Joanna Gleason, about the show.

Westport: The Write Place

The statistics are in: 18 iconic Westport locations. Six library spots. Six pick-your-own-spots. All told, 250 “writes” during last month’s Write Here project.

Jan Bassin

Led by Jan Bassin — Senior Center coordinator of writing programs, and the Westport Library’s Maker-in-Residence — each hour-long session began with a brief introduction. After a prompt, Westporters of all ages, abilities and backgrounds began writing. At the end, volunteers shared their creations.

The proudest — or bravest — uploaded their writing to a dedicated website.

But those dry facts don’t come close to telling the whole “story.”

Like many participants, Bassin knew some of the writing locations well. In her case it was the Senior Center, Westport Country Playhouse, Compo Beach, Wakeman Town Farm, Levitt Pavilion and Farmers’ Market.

Others she hadn’t visited or thought about in years: Earthplace, Rolnick Observatory, Westport Historical Society.

She’d been to Toquet Hall only once; the Westport Weston Family YMCA and Ned Dimes Marina never. She had no idea where to find the police station entrance.

Writing at Earthplace …

Jan was excited to “discover” those new places. But just as intriguing was the chance to look at familiar places with new eyes: the Town Hall lobby, for example, and train station.

She realized too that classrooms at fire and police headquarters, picnic tables at Longshore and chairs under a tree at the Farmers’ Market were as exciting as the more “sparkly” venues.

Each site brought new revelations. Jan and her group sat spellbound as Nick Marsan described his circuitous, unexpected route to becoming a firefighter; Sue Pfister spoke of shifting her focus from business to social work, then finding a population where she could help; Lori Cochran-Dougall shared her passion for sustainability; Carleigh Welsh offered her heartfelt philosophy about the importance of the arts, and Shannon Calvert showed photos of the universe taken at the observatory.

… the Westport Country Playhouse …

Each visit, Jan says, “felt like a private and special writing party.” Everyone at every site treated the writers as special guests.

At the end of each talk, she guided the group into “feeling” the place they were in. The writing that followed was “amazing.”

It was “beautiful, connected and gorgeous” — even from people who insisted, “I don’t write.”

When she designed the month, Jan did not expect to be as moved as she was, every single day. “People’s voices and stories still play in my head,” she says with awe.

… and the Westport Farmers’ Market.

The project was as much about “place” as about words. “We can’t actually think of ourselves at any point in our lives without remembering where we were,” she notes.

“By writing together in a series of places in our town, we ask: What makes a community?”

The answer, it turns out, is write right here.

(Click here to read the writing posted to the Write Here website.)

Friday Flashback #152

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” — the wonderful Westport Country Playhouse production running now through August 3 — got me thinking about entertainment options, back in the day.

America’s greatest songwriter lived long enough to see Elvis Presley (whose version of “White Christmas” he loathed) and MTV (it’s unclear what Berlin thought of “Video Killed the Radio Star”).

But in 1919 — when he turned 31, and was already a Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composing star — the main entertainment in many small towns was a motion picture theater.

Westport was no exception. The Fine Arts on the Post Road (today it’s Restoration Hardware) seems like a hopping spot. I posted photos a while ago.

Now — thanks to Kevin Slater — we’ve got a great idea of exactly what Westport movie-goers were watching, exactly 100 years ago.

There were 3 shows a day: a 2:30 matinee, then 7 and 8:45 p.m.

But the Fine Arts was open just on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. (The fact that it was closed Sunday was so obvious, it wasn’t even noted on the poster.)

You had to move fast: Each movie (and accompanying shorts and newsreels) was there for one day only.

So what was Irving Berlin doing in 1919, when long-forgotten names like J. Walter Kerrigan, Vivian Martin and Madge Kennedy were stars?

That’s the year he wrote “A Pretty Girl is Like a melody” for Ziegfeld’s Follies.

And it was a full 8 years before Al Jolson performed Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in “The Jazz Singer” — the first feature sound film ever.

If you had any questions about any of the shows — and you could find a telephone — all you had to do was call.

The phone number was right there at the top corner: 325.

Irving Berlin: Playhouse Production Is Nostalgic, Educational — And Very Relevant

It’s mid-July. But the set for the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” — which opened last night — evokes a snowy winter night.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Of course. America’s greatest songwriter is well known for “White Christmas.”

Plus “God Bless America.” “Easter Parade.” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And many, many, many, many, more.

His life — from his birth in the Russian Empire, to his youth on the Lower East Side (he left school at 13), to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood, with a stop in the Army, and all the ups and downs of his personal life — is told with warmth, wit and wonder.

It’s a remarkable tale. He lived to be 101 — long enough so that his copyright on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” expired before he did.

The show is educational, entertaining and fun.

It’s also extremely timely. Berlin was an immigrant who loved his adopted country. The story behind “God Bless America” — with the Playhouse audience singing first quietly, then lustily along — gives goose bumps.

(“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through August 3. Click here for more information, and tickets.)

Friday Flashback #148

A few days ago, I posted the back story of the Police Athletic League’s nearly-70-year sponsorship of Westport’s Independence Day fireworks.*

That sent alert “06880” reader/amateur historian Fred Cantor scrambling to the stacks.

He found the July 8, 1954 Westport Town Crier. There — on the front page — were photos and a story of that year’s pyrotechnics.

Held on Sunday, July 4**, the event drew a crowd of more than 3,000, the paper reported.

Some of them were dressed quite a bit fancier than today’s revelers.

Announcer Don Tedesco introduced the national anthem, then the fireworks.

They were shot from the sand, near the cannon. I remember that site well (though not from 1954!). The smell was strong and distinct. I always wondered what would happen if one landed next to me, sitting a few feet away from where they were launched.

Here’s a black-and-white photo from the paper. I’ll let you decide whether it looks very cool, or like a radiology report.

There was a lot going on, that holiday week.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish “sojourned” in Westport, at the home of Dr. John V.N. Dorr. Their visit was the lead photo on Page 1, as they posed with the equally famous Lucille Lortel:

Meanwhile, the Westport Country Playhouse advertised an upcoming production starring Eva Gabor and Richard Kiley.



The current production did not fare well. The last line of “Court Olympus” was “Let’s go home” — exactly what the Town Crier‘s reviewer advised audiences to do.

Other front-page news on July 8, 1954: “First Jewish Temple in History of Town Set For Construction” (the 6-acre site on a former Hills Lane nursery was eventually abandoned, due to issues with the land); town prosecutor Robert Anstett was named head of Westport’s Civilan Defense Corps, and 600 people were expected to attend the 6th annual Compo Beach Clambake, sponsored by the Saugatuck Fathers Club.

But the most intriguing story was this: “Teen-Agers Make Problem at Beaches.”

Turns out the Beach Commission was considering closing all beaches at night, “to stop teen-age beer parties.” In addition, “vandals, not yet apprehended, defaced many bathhouses and destroyed a new stone fireplace” at Compo.

Fishermen reported “beer cans piled along the shore,” while residents complained of “noise and speeding cars late at night.”

The town employed “special constables” to patrol Compo and Burial Hill.

If you’re reading this now, and were a teenager then — making you in your 80s today — click “Comments” below. We’d love to hear how that worked out.

* Bottom line: If you haven’t yet bought a ticket, do it now!

** Unlike these days, when the fireworks are shot off NOT on the actual holiday. Overtime for the scores of workers would be prohibitive.

Your Informal Family Portrait? It Began In Westport.

Westport is filled with talented family portrait photographers. John Videler, Pamela Einarsen, Suzanne Sheridan, Alison Wachstein — they and many more are admired for their ability to capture fun, intimate moments between parents and siblings, in back yards, woods and beaches.

Their photos are so natural, we don’t think twice about them.

But images like these were not always the norm. Back in the day, family portraits were formal affairs: rigidly staged, elaborately posed, everyone stiffly wearing their Sunday best.

A traditional family portrait.

Someone had to develop the art of informal family photography.

Amazingly, that someone was a Westporter.

Betty and Russell Kuhner — married photographers — moved here in the 1930s, when the town was a true artists’ colony. They leaped into its cultural life.

Specializing in men’s portraits, he photographed many of the actors who appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Betty had grown up with no siblings, raised by an unwelcoming stepmother. She was drawn to families that interacted with each other, with love and spontaneity.

She decided to try something new: photographing families doing just that, in outdoor settings. Worried about the effect this novel concept might have on her husband’s Westport reputation, Betty tested out the concept in Greenwich.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

She spent hours searching for the right locations. She backlit them naturally, with sunlight filtering through leaves. She let children climb on trees, and asked their parents to lean casually against the trunks. Her portraits were nature-filled — and natural.

They were also beautiful, and well received. Greenwich clients introduced her to friends in Newport. They led her, in turn, to families in Palm Beach, Southampton, and everywhere else the country club set gathered.

Russell quietly supported his wife’s burgeoning business. He stayed in the background, working in the darkroom printing her images.

Betty’s career thrived, for 5 decades. In the late 1980s she handed her cameras to her daughter Kate. Betty died in 2014, at 98.

After Bedford Elementary, Kate went away to school. Her brothers attended private school too.

Kate and Betty Kuhner in Acapulco, 1972.

All these years later, she is amazed by her mother’s accomplishments.

“I’m blown away by what looks like the simplicity of what she did,” Kate says from West Palm Beach, where she lives. “Of course, it’s not simple at all. Somehow, she got family members to interact, and love each other. And she captured it so well on film.”

Today, the black-and-white “environmental portrait” that Betty pioneered is the revered standard.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

Kate notes too that retailers like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch have built ad campaigns — and entire brands — around Betty Kuhner’s way of getting people to look at, smile and play with each other.

Kate — a photographer herself — has long been the keeper of her mother’s archives. In April she published a book. Betty Kuhner: The American Family Portrait includes many examples of groundbreaking photography. It includes famous families she’s worked with — Kennedys, Fords and Pulitzers — and Westport families too.

Some of the family portraits of Bobby and Ted Kennedy’s families have never been seen.

Bobby Kennedy and daughter (Photo/Betty Kuhner)

There are stories and anecdotes about the many families she photographed, of course.

But Betty’s photos form the heart of the book. Just as they form a bright, important chapter in photographic history.

One that started right here, in a darkroom in Westport.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

 

Pic Of The Day #780

A break room? Sort of. This is the set for the Westport Country Playhouse’s new production of “Skeleton Crew.” The thought-provoking, character-driven play explores the lives of 3 factory workers, and their supervisor, in 2008 Detroit — the depths of the Great Recession. It runs through June 22. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Pics Of The Day #766

It looks pastoral.

But beware of poison ivy, at places like Gray’s Creek …

… and Winslow Park, by the Westport Country Playhouse.

(Photos/Tracy Porosoff)