“A Christmas Story: The Musical” plays at Curtain Call in Stamford, now through December 14.
But many ties to Westport make this a true hometown show.
The story starts with the Kweskin Theater, Curtain Call’s home. Al Pia was its founding artistic director — and for many years, the highly esteemed director of Staples Players as well.
One of Pia’s high school actors was Ben Frimmer. He’s now the director of “A Christmas Story” — and director of Coleytown Company, the well-regarded middle school troupe.
Justin Paul (Photo/Dan Woog)
A couple of decades ago, Justin Paul acted for Frimmer at Coleytown. After graduating from Staples in 2003, and then the University of Michigan, Paul and his songwriting partner, Benj Pasek, rocketed to stardom. They’ve won Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards for works like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land.”
Another work — “A Christmas Story: The Musical” — enjoyed a Broadway run. With great music and splashy production numbers, it quickly became a holiday classic.
And, in Stamford, a Westport holiday classic. Frimmer has cast several current and former students in the production: Matthew Bukzin, Cooper Gusick, Gavin Jamali, Julie Lloyd, Imogen Medoff, Sarah Peterson and Ari Sklar.
Westport youngsters in “A Christmas Story: The musical.” Front row (from left): Gavin Jamali, Cooper Gusick Ari Sklar. Rear: Matthew Bukzin, Imogen Medoff,.Jamali.
Frimmer’s own son Ari plays Ralphie Parker.
Ari Frimmer, as Ralphie.
Even Curtain Call executive director and producer for “A Christmas Story” has a local connection. Lou Ursone was mentored by Pia.
Plenty of Westporters will be heading to Stamford to see this production. But they’ll feel as if they never left home.
(“A Christmas Story: The Musical” is performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday afternoons at 2. In addition, there are Thursday evening performances on December 5 and 12, and Saturday matinees on December 7 and 14. For tickets and more information, click here or call 203-461-6358, ext. 36.)
Bill and Mary Ann are longtime music educators. Their daughter Emily sang at Staples, studied opera at the Boston Conservatory, and just released her 1st full-length EP for kids, “Sun in the Morning ‘Til the Moon at Night.”
Daniel Hall performed at Staples (Class of 1997), earned a BFA in theater at the University of Michigan, then spent 10 years acting in New York. He guest starred in “Law & Order,” and had a recurring role in “Guiding Light.”
Five years ago, Daniel moved to L.A. He acted in “Graceland,” “Mad Men” and “Newsroom,” and played opposite Jaime Pressly in “I Hate My Teenage Daughter.” He’s got a part in the upcoming Cinemax show “Quarry,” and John Stamos’ “Grandfathered.”
Daniel is very excited about his most recent project. HBO seldom shows short films — but in February they’ll air “First Date, Last Date.”
Consisting of one long shot, the video stars Daniel and Andrea Bordeaux as a couple meeting for the first time in a diner, as an apocalyptic world breaks outside. The film takes them through a unique — and uniquely peaceful — journey.
“Not to be cliched, but all of my life has been based on the nurturing I got in Westport,” Daniel says.
Staples Players director Al Pia had a profound impact.
“I think of him often,” Daniel says. “He taught me about confidence, to find strength in my own voice, and how to be a leading man. Actors often have anxiety. He helped me work through that. He was a great coach and leader. He kept me in the game, and made me hungry.”
Hungry enough to get a role as an HBO actor in a diner, on a first and last date while the world around him falls apart.
(“First Date, Last Date” debuts Wednesday, February 3, 10:50 p.m. EST on HBO Now. Click here for the entire schedule.)
Andrea Bordeaux and Daniel Hall, filming “First Date, Last Date.”
Fifty years ago, Hello, Dolly! debuted on Broadway. It danced and sang its memorable way to become — for a while — the longest-running show in history.
In 1985, Al Pia directed Dolly! with Staples Players. David Roth — who as an 8th grader in Illinois played Cornelius — reprised it in 2002, his 3rd year as Players director.
Now, the show is back. Hello, Dolly! opens on the Staples High School stage next Friday (November 14). It runs that weekend and next.
A small part of the large cast sings “It Takes a Woman.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
Like many Players productions, this one melds elements of old and new. Dorian Kail — Dolly in 1985 — will sit proudly in the auditorium. Her son, Jacob Leaf, plays Rudolph this time around.
The cast and crew learned a lot about the Broadway versions from 2 fantastic sources. Sondra Lee (who originated the role of Minnie Fay) and Lee Roy Reams (Cornelius in the 1st Broadway revival, and the director of subsequent revivals) — both visited the set last month.
“We wanted to go back to a classic, and do something accessible to families,” Roth says of his selection.
“I love the comedy. This show is truly a farce — one of my favorite types of show to direct. ”
Roth — who grew up listening to the soundtrack — loves the music, the script, even the pacing.
He, co-director Kerry Long, set designer Peter DiFranco and costume designers Marjorie Watt and Priscilla Stampa, have pulled out all the stops.
Costumes and sets complement Jack Bowman, Claire Smith and Jack Baylis as they sing “Dancing.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
“The sets and costumes are really outstanding,” Roth says. “Every scene is beautiful. This is a candy-colored storybook — a fantasy version of a time gone by.”
The director also appreciates the choreography — which is dazzlingly complex.
In 2002, Roth did not have enough male dancers. So a number of girls dressed as male waiters.
This year, they’re all guys.
It’s so nice to have them back where they belong.
(“Hello, Dolly!” is performed on Friday and Saturday, November 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 16 at 3 p.m. An extra matinee has been added for Saturday, November 22 at 3 p.m. For tickets — including the pre-show gala on opening night — click www.StaplesPlayers.com.)
And every decade or so, “Cabaret” comes to Westport.
Staples Players — the legendary high school acting troupe — first performed the darkly decadent show in 1984. Directed by Al Pia, it starred David Roth as the MC. It’s a difficult role for anyone, but the senior nailed it.
Pia reprised the show in 1992.
In 2004, Players produced “Cabaret” again. David Roth was once again involved — this time as director.
He’s still at the Staples helm, and once again he’s staging the show. “Cabaret” runs next weekend — July 24 through 26 — as Players’ Summer Theatre Production.
Jack Bowman as the emcee, and the Kit Kat Girls. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Just as every Broadway and London production and revival has been different, so too have the Staples versions.
But, Roth says, while previous Players incarnations have stuck closely to the original Joel Grey interpretation, the current production combines that version with the one now in its 2nd revival in New York. This one is “much more theatrical,” Roth says. Everything seems to take place inside the Kit Kat Club — even the scenes in Cliff’s rooming house.
And, the director adds, “the master of ceremonies is very much present throughout every scene of the play. In the other versions, the 2 worlds are very separate.” Jack Bowman plays Roth’s old role.
Still, next weekend’s “Cabaret” retains ties to the past. Besides Roth, choreographers Kat and Jess Eggart both danced in Pia’s 1992 production.
Sally Bowles (Claire Smith) and Cliff (Jack Baylis) share a moment in “Cabaret.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
“The show has always meant a lot to me, and I’m excited to share that with the kids,” Roth says.
“Kerry and I also want to share the message with students and audiences about people being sucked into an attractive world that turns out to be far uglier than they ever imagined. That’s very important too.
“The idea of people living in a great, dreamlike world that becomes a nightmare is as valid today as it has ever been. The image of dreaming or sleepwalking runs through the entire play. And it’s very present in our production.”
Emcee (Jack Bowman) and the Kit Kat girls perform “Willkommen.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
“Cabaret” resonates with Staples principal John Dodig too. As interim principal, he attended the 2004 production. Leaving the auditorium, he recalls thinking, “This can’t possibly be a public high school.”
He was awed by the professionalism of the voices and dancing. And, he says, “I was amazed that a suburban community would support a high school doing a show with such a dark and risqué theme.”
Dodig calls “Cabaret” the moment he first thought of applying for the permanent principal’s position.
Ten years later, Dodig is still principal. Roth still directs Players.
And another fantastic production of “Cabaret” is about to begin.
(“Cabaret” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 24, 25 and 26, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 26. Tickets are available at www.StaplesPlayers.com)
In 1958, a Staples student named Christopher Lloyd urged English teacher Craig Matheson to start a theater program. The 1st play — produced in the brand-new auditorium, in the school’s 1st year on North Avenue — was You Can’t Take It With You.
Over the next 55 years, Staples Players gained national renown. Under just 4 directors — Matheson, Al Pia, Judy Luster and now David Roth — the troupe has sparked the careers of David Marshall Grant, Bradley Jones, Michael Hayden, Leslye Headland, Justin Paul and countless others (including Lloyd).
Now — with an astonishing 12 seniors ready to major or minor in some form of theater next year in college — Players is putting the finishing touches on its next production.
It is — fittingly — You Can’t Take It With You.
Michelle Pauker, Jack Bowman, Bryan Gannon and Madeline Seidman grill Clay Singer in the upcoming “You Can’t Take It With You.” (Photo by Kerry Long)
In 1958, Matheson’s fledgling actors chose the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy as their 1st show.
“I had no idea how to mount it, how to bring it down on a stage that large,” Matheson recalled years later. “I did very well from an acting point of view, but as a production director I stunk. The set was much too large, so the play lost its intimacy. And it was pink, so it looked even bigger.
“We put it on for one weekend, and were very glad to get an audience both nights. But people thought the show was fine.”
The 2013 production will be quite different. For example, it’s in the intimate Black Box theater (named for Matheson and his predecessor/Roth’s mentor, Pia).
The audience will sit on 3 sides of the stage, making it — well, intimate.
The cast and crew includes 9 seniors who will continue with theater in college: Tyler Jent (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music), Matt Kresch (Northwestern), Grace McDavid-Seidner (Point Park), Adam Mirkine (NYU), Michelle Pauker (University of Miami), Alexandra Rappaport (College of Charleston), Brianna Reedy (University of the Arts), Ryan Shea (UConn), Clay Singer (Carnegie Mellon) and Will Smith (Muhlenberg).
Tyler Jent is one of many Players who honed his acting, voice and dance skills at Staples. (Photo by Kerry Long)
Not in this show, but like those 10 also hoping to make theater their career — as actors, directors or in tech — are Will Cohn (University of North Carolina School of Arts) and Liam Orly (Muhlenberg).
“We provide a place where students can be challenged. It’s a safe environment to become theater artists,” Roth says of his program.
Roth has produced several shows with lots of dancing. The seniors have honed those skills — and it’s paid off. “Lots of schools have tough dance auditions,” Roth notes.
“We’re not a high school of performing arts. But we try to expose our actors to a broad variety of plays.”
Bryan Gannon and Madeline Seidman in “You Can’t Take It With You.” He is a junior; she’s a senior headed to Williams College — and the Class of ’13 valedictorian. (Photo by Kerry Long)
Roth calls You Can’t Take It With You “an old-timey farce. We really haven’t done anything like it with them.”
Cast and crew have found it “a huge amount of fun to rehearse,” Roth adds.
Presumably, just as Craig Matheson’s Players did, 55 years ago. Back in the days when dreams of Broadway had not yet danced through Staples’ sparkling new auditorium.
(“You Can’t Take It With You” runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 30, 31 and June 1, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. For more information, including tickets, click here.)
When Joanne Kahn’s parents took her to the New York City Ballet — she thinks it was “The Nutcracker” — she fell in love with the beauty and grace of dance.
“It was a chance to leave yourself behind, and reach another level of creativity we don’t usually tap into,” she recalls.
Joanne was all of 6 years old.
She started dance lessons soon after. At New York’s High School of Performing Arts, she received more serious training. She also studied at the School of American Ballet.
After Cornell University, Joanne helped write a show on the history of American musical theater for a cultural trip sponsored by the State Department. She moved to Boston, where her husband was in law school, and earned a master’s in education.
Back in New York Joanne taught at Friends Seminary; moved to Paris for her husband’s job; had 2 children, and took more dance classes.
Joanne Kahn works with Clay Singer (Tony) and Michelle Pauker (Maria), in rehearsals for next month's Staples Players production of "West Side Story." (Photo by Kerry Long)
In 1975 the Kahns moved to Westport. She got involved in the Westport Community Theatre; helped form Stageworks; choreographed for local schools — and in 1988 her son Jason’s friend John Morgan told her Staples Players needed a choreographer.
She introduced herself to director Al Pia, and offered to help. “In his wonderful way he just said, ‘Welcome aboard!'” she recalls.
Their 1st collaboration was “Anything Goes.” And — for the next 22 years — Joanne Kahn was Staples Players’ superb choreographer.
She continued after Al retired in 1996. She worked with Judy Luster for 4 years; since then, she and David Roth have taken Players to even more spectacular dance heights.
Through “Cabaret,” “Runaways,” “A Chorus Line” — where she worked with Broadway dancer and Staples alum Bradley Jones to teach the original “phenomenal” choreography — and through “The Fantasticks,” “Tommy, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and nearly too many others to count — Joanne has turned talented high school actors and singers into tremendous dancers.
It hasn’t been easy — but Joanne has loved every minute of it.
Her role, she says, is “working with the director. I try to translate the director’s thoughts and vision into movement and staging.”
In 2009 -- at Staples Players' 50th anniversary celebration -- Joanne Kahn danced in "One," the classic number from "A Chorus Line." (Photo by Kerry Long)
While most Staples Players are talented actors, and some have wonderful voices, few have dance backgrounds. “I have to understand what they can and can’t do,” she says — while challenging them to do more than they ever have, or thought they could.
“My job is to make them look their best — and shine.”
Now she’s working on a phenomenal dance production — “West Side Story.” It opens November 11.
When it closes the following weekend though, she won’t start thinking about the next show. After more than 2 decades as Staples Playears choreographer, Joanne Kahn is hanging up her dance shoes.
Her husband retired. They’ve been spending half the year in Sarasota. Now they’ve sold their house here, so Joanne’s long Westport connection has ended.
She has “loved and cherished” her job. “It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to have worked with Al, Judy and David,” Joanne says. “They’ve sustained me, and enriched my life.”
The actors have also inspired her. Staples Players is “a very dedicated group who understand theater can be ‘serious fun,'” she notes.
“That’s rare. At other high schools kids enjoy putting on shows. But they don’t regard it on a ‘professional level.’ Players is not just an after-school activity. The kids love what they do, and they’re phenomenally dedicated. That rubs off on all the rest of them on the ‘team.'”
Joanne Kahn confers with dance captain Alexa Babbin, and actors Max Stampa-Brown and Chris Nicoletti during rehearsals for the 2008 show, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." (Photo by Kerry Long)
Joanne loves working with high school students. “They’re adults,” she says. “You can talk to them. They understand your sense of humor — and the nuances you seek in choreography. They really get it.”
Leaving now, she admits, is “bittersweet. The level of excellence is phenomenal.”
But if a choreographer is going to take a final bow, “West Side Story” is the place to do it.
“It’s a magnificent dance show,” she says. “You don’t get much better than Jerome Robbins. And I love the story and the music.
“The cast is incredible,” Joanne adds. “The dance captains are magnificent. The kids have learned the original choreography.
“This show is so moving to me. The message is universal: How do we resolve our differences and get along? Getting that message across through dance and song is so important.”
And what is so important to Staples Players is that — for 22 years — Joanne Kahn has helped high school actors become confident, compelling dancers. For over 2 decades, she’s helped thousands of teenagers deliver countless important messages.
Take that final bow, Joanne. You deserve one more turn in the spotlight.
(“West Side Story” will be presented November 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., and November 13 at 2 p.m. For more information, click here.)
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