Tag Archives: David Roth

Unsung Heroes #73

It’s a stretch to call the cast of Staples Players “unsung.” They’ve won tons of awards, and the hearts of every audience that’s seen any show.

Besides, you can’t call a troupe that puts on musicals “unsung.”

The Players’ fall mainstage — “Legally Blonde,” this week and next — will be one more smash in a 60-year history of successes. Ticket sales were so brisk, they’ve already added another performance. (Click here for available seats.)

But shows like this are true team efforts. Players could not do what they do without the help of their technical crew — sets, lighting, costumes — as well as pit musicians, publicity, and everyone else who makes a production go.

Plus parent volunteers.

And of course, directors David Roth and Kerry Long.

Some of the Staples Players cast and crew get plenty of praise. Others toil unnoticed backstage, in the wings, on the catwalks or elsewhere.

All are our Unsung — and Sung — Heroes of the Week.

Georgia Wright, Justin Dusenbury, Kelley Schutte and Tomaso Scotti could not do what they do in “Legally Blonde” without the help of hundreds of others. (Photo/Kerry Long)

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Staples Players’ “Legally Blonde” Goes To The Dogs

In the mid-1970s, Bill Berloni was an acting intern at Goodspeed Opera House. The director offered him an Equity card — if Berloni could find and train a rescue dog for the upcoming show.

Berloni came through. He got his card.

The musical — “Annie” — went on to legendary success. And Berloni had a new gig.

He trained Sandys for every revival of the show — plus the movie.

Since then — using only rescue dogs — he’s trained animals for dozens of shows, including “Camelot,” “Oliver!,” “Nick and Nora” and “The Wiz.”

He’s done the same for hundreds of Off-Broadway and regional productions, TV and movies. He’s a Tony honoree for Excellence in Theatre, among other awards.

His credits also include “Legally Blonde.” That’s the show that Staples Players premiere next week.

And Berloni is right there backstage in  Westport, training a chihuahua and a bulldog.

Bill Berloni (rear, center) with Staples Players cast members of “Legally Blonde.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

He’s no stranger to high school musicals. They’re where he got his start, as an actor. He loves working with teenagers. He teaches them how to interact with animals, instructing the actors in exactly how dogs think.

For the Broadway version of “Legally Blonde,” Berloni had to get his chihuahua to “speak” on cue.

He’s done the same at Staples.

One of the many stars of “Legally Blonde.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Berloni is spending 2 weeks at the high school. He’s shown the cast how to bond with their dogs. For example, a few actors will scratch an animal’s belly backstage. The dog associates that with love — and will only go to those actors on stage.

“Legally Blonde” is an inspired choice for the November production. In addition to being the first Players show with trained animals, it’s both funny and timely.

The play “empowers women,” says director David Roth. “They stand up for each other. There’s an important #MeToo message. Audiences see that you can’t assume someone is who they are just by the way they look.”

Roth and co-director Kerry Long are excited about the show. They enjoy working with Berloni.

And, Roth notes, this is not the animal trainer’s first connection with Staples Players.

He’s worked with dogs on the film “The Greatest Showman,” and Broadway’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical.” The music for both was co-written by Justin Paul — a 2003 graduate, and former Player.

Most recently, Berloni trained animals for “Land of Steady Habits,” the Netflix version of Staples ’01 grad Ted Thompson’s debut novel.

“Legally Blonde” opens next Friday (November 9), and continues November 10, 16 and 17, all at 7:30 p.m. There are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees on November 11 and 17. Just added — due to popular demand — is a Thursday, November 15 show (7:30 p.m.).

To fetch tickets (and for more information), click here.

Staples High School principal James D’Amico has a role in “Legally Blonde.” He has a musical theatre background, but this is his debut with Staples Players. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Staples’ 12 Angry Men (And Women)

Nine years ago, Staples Players produced “Twelve Angry Men.” The classic courtroom drama was staged in the Black Box Theater — in the round.

The audience surrounded the set, on all 4 sides. I saw it 3 times — always in a different spot. Each vantage point was unique. I saw 3 versions of the same play.

This week, Players again produce “Twelve Angry Men.” Once again it’s in the round.

“With racial profiling and challenges to justice ever present in the news today, this felt like the right time to bring back the show,” Roth says.

“It feels like the actors are in a fishbowl — being watched and judged by society. That’s what we want.”

“Twelve Angry men” explores the dynamics between 12 jurors, from different backgrounds, as they meet on a hot summer day to decide one man’s fate. Though the play was first performed live on CBS in 1954, the preconceptions and assumptions of the characters are quite relevant today.

Tempers flare as jurors deliberate in “Twelve Angry Men.” From left: Tucker Ewing, Nick Rossi, Sam Gusick, Chad Celini, Jack Watzman and Kristin Amato. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Kristin Amato — Juror #8 — says, “The show really makes you think. It is all about the questioning of morals and personal prejudices. I think many audience members will go home reflecting on their own actions, and how they may have acted if they were in the same circumstances as the jurors in the show.”

She adds, “As much as I love the main stage, there’s something special about the intimacy of the Black Box. I love the interaction with the audience. Because we’re so close, when anyone claps or laughs or even gasps, we as actors can really play off of it. The energy just builds.”

For several seniors, “Twelve Angry Men” — which Roth and Long have cast to include female jurors — will be the final Players show before college.

Sophia Sherman — who will study acting at the University of Michigan — plays a Russian immigrant. Her passion for democracy, and strong statements about immigration, race and class difference, are “eye-opening,” Sherman says.

My eyes were opened — in 3 different ways — 9 years ago. I look forward to seeing the same show, in yet another way, soon.

(“Twelve Angry Men” will be performed this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 24, 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 27 at 3 p.m., in the Staples High School Black Box Theatre. Click here for tickets. A few tickets may be available in the Black Box Theatre lobby 30 minutes prior to performances.)

Merrily, Staples Players Roll Along

Justin Paul was a Broadway composer. Collaborating with his best friend, he was hailed for his talent and creativity.

Over the years though, Justin made choices that took him away from his dream of writing songs that made a difference. He let his friends down, sold out, and became just another Hollywood producer.

That’s a true story. Fortunately, the only connection Justin Paul has with it is that the composer is a character he once played.

As a high school senior in 2003, Justin was Frank in Staples Players’ production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” It was a great, complex role, for a talented actor.

For the 2003 production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” Justin Paul (left) and Trey Skinner posed for this photo. It was projected on the Staples stage between scenes, showing changes in characters’ lives. Amazingly, the Music Box Theatre is once again part of Justin Paul’s life: It’s the home of his blockbuster show, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

But Justin was even more talented as a songwriter. At the University of Michigan, he met another very passionate theater major. He and Benj Pasek bonded over their shared love for — you can’t make this stuff up — “Merrily.”

Fast forward more than a decade. Pasek and Paul are now the hottest songwriting team in Hollywood (“The Greatest Showman,” “La La Land”) and on Broadway (“Dear Evan Hansen”).

In fact, the first chapter in a new coffee table book about “Evan Hansen” details that first-year Sondheim experience in Ann Arbor.

Now fast forward even more. Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long are reprising “Merrily We Roll Along.”

And once again, Justin Paul plays a key role.

No, he’s not onstage. But last Friday he visited with the cast and crew. He sat in on rehearsal. And when the curtain goes up later this month, he’ll be in the audience.

Charlie Zuckerman, Avery Mendillo and Nick Rossi perform “Old Friends” in “Merrily We Roll Along.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Merrily” is an intriguing show. The story is told backwards. It begins as Frank looks back regretfully on the choices he made. Each subsequent scene takes place several years before the previous one. Each reveals the process behind those choices.

The cast began rehearsing the show in the opposite direction — going forward. “It’s really important for the kids to understand the changes their characters go through, over 20 years,” Roth explains. “That way they can get a grasp on the aging process.”

He notes that the original Broadway cast was all between 17 and 20 years old. That’s close to the age of his Staples students.

“It’s poignant that our kids are at a point in their lives when they still have dreams — and can actually accomplish them,” Roth says.

Avery Mendillo, Nick Rossi, Charlie Zuckerman and the “Merrily We Roll Along” ensemble. (Photo/Kerry Long)

‘Merrily We Roll Along” is, he adds, “a cautionary tale. The message is: Keep an eye on your dreams. That’s what Kerry and I feel is so awesome about the play. It makes you realize you can lose your dreams. But you don’t have to.”

The 2003 production — with Justin Paul — was powerful. Several theatergoers told Roth that the show had made them take a serious look at their own lives. “The power of theater is really amazing,” he notes.

So is the power of Staples Players.

(“Merrily We Roll Along” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, March 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 18 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and $10 for seniors (matinee only). For tickets and more information, click here.)

Remembering Jessica Shure

Jessica Shure — a Staples Players star in productions like “Guys and Dolls,” “Mame,” “The Mystery of  Edwin Drood” and “The Sound of Music” — died on Wednesday of a brain aneurysm.

The 2001 graduate is remembered by Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long for her “exceptional soprano voice, quirky sense of humor and devotion to musical theatre.” Here she is as Deirdre Peregrine/Rosa Bud in “Drood”:

As a senior, she performed a memorable spring concert solo with Alice Lipson’s choir.

She headed to Northwestern University and pursued acting after Staples, then changed careers and focused on food. She became a valued pastry chef at Bill Taibe’s Whelk and Kawa Ni. (Click here for a profile of her there.)

Jessica Shure (Photo courtesy of CTEatsOut.com)

Friends are invited to stop by the Shure house today (Saturday, December 30), from 1 to 6 p.m.

Her sister Caitlin and brother Dan suggest that contributions in her name can be made to a local animal shelter or the American Civil Liberties Union,

(Hat tip: Jim Honeycutt)

Two Christmas Carols

Staples High School’s Candlelight Concert is the music department’s gift to the town.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

On Friday night, Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston threw their annual holiday party, at their beautiful Myrtle Avenue home.

Like many gatherings around Westport, it was a warm, wonderful way to catch up with friends of all ages.

But Steve and Rondi’s party was extra-special. Their daughter Emma — now a student at Berklee College of Music — joined with fellow former Orphenians for a few Christmas songs.

No offense to any other party with carol singers, but — well, take a listen:

 

Thanks to Emma Ruchefsky, Joe Badion, Bailey Claffey, Ian Goodman, Nick Massoud, Nick Ribolla and Sarah Quagliarello for reminding us all why music may be the greatest gift of all.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY BONUS: Last week, Staples’ Audio Production and Theater 3 classes combined to produce a live radio broadcast of “A Christmas Carol.”

It includes all the voices from Charles Dickens’ classic — plus music, clever sound effects, even old-time radio ads for products like Pepsodent.

If you missed it on WWPT-FM, just click here. Instructors Geno Heiter and David Roth, and dozens of students, offer a perfect soundtrack to your holiday.

And so — in the immortal words of Tiny Tim — “A Merry Christmas to us all!”

Read All About It: Reid Thompson Makes “Newsies”

When audiences pack the auditorium this weekend for “Newsies” — Staples Players’ eye-popping production of the Tony Award-winning show — they’ll rave about the Broadway-quality singing and dancing.

They’ll give standing ovations for the high-energy pit orchestra. They’ll congratulate directors David Roth and Kerry Long as one of the first high schools in the country to pioneer the musical.

They’ll notice the set, too. But unless they’re intimately involved in theater, they won’t understand how much the scaffolding, backdrops — and over 1,500 newspaper bundles — contribute to “Newsies”‘ success.

There’s a lot going on during Staples Players’ “Newsies” — including the set. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Reid Thompson knows. He’s the Players grad — and professional set designer — who helped bring the New York newsboy strike of 1899 to life in 2017 Westport.

As a student in the mid-1990s, Staples’ art wing was Thompson’s refuge. Legendary tech director Joe Ziegahn asked the budding artist to paint horses for “Carousel.” The rest is theatrical history.

Thompson continued painting for Players’ productions of “West Side Story,” “Runaways” and “The Tempest.”

He trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, Roth and Long asked him to work on summer musical sets at Danbury’s Richter Park.

That led to work with Players shows like “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Hello, Dolly!” At the same time, Thompson painted Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including “The Lion King,” “42nd Street” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” A 5-year stint painting for the Metropolitan Opera House followed.

Reid Thompson painting “Der Rosenkavilier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Commuting back to Westport, Thompson moved from painting sets to designing them. He created the jury room cage for Players’ “Twelve Angry Men,” and the illustrated storybook for “Guys and Dolls.”

But Thompson wanted to learn more about set design, so he applied to Yale School of Drama. His Staples portfolio helped gain admission to that very competitive institute. Working there with directors, actors, stage managers and techies, he forged bonds that brought him important New York work (“The King and I,” “Fiddler on the Roof”).

Thompson continued to work with Players, on “Music Man” and — yes — “Fiddler.”

Reid Thompson

Then came “Newsies.”

Beginning last summer, Thompson and the directors talked about period, context and themes. They researched the history of the newsboy strike, its importance to the labor movement and protections for children. They talked about characters.

Thompson looked at historical photos and artwork. Newspaper collages struck a particular chord.

Staples’ huge casts need space to move and jump. Scenery must provide a setting, but flow seamlessly during transitions so audiences are transported into the sweep of the story.

There are other challenges. Can everyone in the audience see the action? Can the singers see the conductor, and vice versa? And of course, what’s the budget?

Thompson set to work using a scale model. He focused on a collage of period newsprint that evokes turn-of-last-century New York: vertical, a bit grimy, sensationalistic. Scaffolding represents tall buildings, and period ironwork.

“Newsies” is a show about kids. Thompson wanted audiences to see their perspective. Thus, much of the set looks upward — “large and overwhelming,” the designer says.

The newsies’ world was black-and-white — literally and metaphorically. Much of the set is too. But when Jack Kelly, the lead character, is in the vaudeville theater, he feels safe. Thompson added vivid colors there.

“That’s Rich,” performed in the theater that Jack Kelly loves. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The stage manager and lighting designer worked from Thompson’s ground plan and drawings.  Technical director Pete DiFranco and student carpenters built sets based on Thompson’s construction drawings. Steelwork was done in a professional shop.

Thompson created the collages himself, using period newsprint sent to a digital printer in Brooklyn.

Large newspapers form a backdrop for “The Bottom Line.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Conceptualizing — then realizing — a show like “Newsies” takes enormous work. Thompson likens it to an architect working with clients and contractors to produce a building.

When we look at buildings, most of us don’t think of the people who designed it. The same with theater sets. Even audience members who admire the design and detail don’t always realize how, say, moving pieces of scenery on and off stage contributes to the flow of the show. Or that the designer pored over hundreds of photos before creating a certain scaffold, then positioned it just so.

“Newsies” has earned a place as one of Players’ most storied productions ever. It will be talked about for years.

Audiences will remember the singing, the dancing and the acting. They may not recall Reid Thompson’s sets.

But without them, this remarkable show would not go on.

(To learn more about Reid Thompson’s work, click here.)

Players Learn From A Real-Life Newsie

Most high school theater groups prepare for a show by listening to the cast album. They watch a video. The director adds whatever insights he or she can.

Staples Players is not most high school theater groups.

For one thing, this fall’s main stage production is “Newsies.” Players scored a coup last spring, when Disney asked directors David Roth and Kerry Long to pilot the production. They’ll provide executives with feedback. A year from now, other amateur companies across the nation can produce the show too.

For another thing, Players’ cast and crew learned about “Newsies” from an actual newsboy.

Actual, as in one who was on Broadway.

Adam Kaplan — the former Players star who graduated in 2008 — played a newsboy (and Morris Delancey) in the New York production. He also understudied for lead Jack Kelly.

Last week, Kaplan returned to the Staples auditorium. He shared stories about his time with “Newsies,” including how he got the role and how he trained for it.

Adam Kaplan (center) with Nick Rossi and Charlie Zuckerman. The Staples students are double cast as Jack Kelly –the role Kaplan understudied on Broadway. (Photo/Kerry Long)

He also offered advice on how the young actors can take care of themselves, while doing such a physical show.

The students seemed awed when Kaplan walked in. But they quickly responded to his enthusiasm and charisma.

They loved when he joined them in “Zip, Zap Zup” — a popular theater game he played, when he was at Staples.

And when he himself dreamed about making it to Broadway.

The cast and crew of Staples Players’ “Newsies”pose with Adam Kaplan. (Photo/Kerry Long)

(Click here to join Staples Players’ email list, for ticket information on upcoming shows.)

Staples Players’ Summer Musical “Working”: A Perfect Day Off For Audiences

When the school year ends, David Roth and Kerry Long don’t stop working.

After directing Staples Players’ 2 mainstage productions and a host of Black Box Theater shows, they turn their attention to the very popular summer musical.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the directors’ summer show. For the hard-working, very creative Roth and Long — and the equally hard-working and very talented Staples Players cast and crew — the selection is appropriate:

“Working.”

On July 20, 21 and 22, more than 50 students — from recent alumni to rising freshmen — will stage the sprawling, toe-tapping adaptation of Studs Terkel’s 1972 book. Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin”), James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed the music.

Using real words of actual people, the production takes an intimate look at the struggles and joys of a variety of Americans: factory workers, millworkers, project managers, cleaning ladies, masons, stay-at-home moms. Using a style similar to “A Chorus Line,” “Working” weaves together the stories of nearly 40 laborers over the course of one workday.

Rising freshman Samantha Webster and Staples 2016 grad Samantha Chachra rehearse Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “A Very Good Day.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

It’s a fascinating show, and it resonates for many reasons.

For one, it’s timely. As America debates all aspects of work — lost mining jobs, jobs moved overseas, how to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist, gender stereotypes and roles, you name it — Miranda’s latest revision is compellingly relevant. As much as we talk about work, we seldom explore the meaning we get from whatever we do.

For another, Roth has wanted to direct the show since he was 16. He was a junior at Staples, and applied to present it as a studio production. Al Pia chose a senior’s project instead.

More than 30 years later, Roth gets his chance to work on “Working.”

For a third, it’s a musical that engages the 55 actors and 20 tech members. Freed from the pressures of schoolwork, they’re spending this summer totally devoted to something they love.

Summer shows draw together a wider range of ages than school-year productions. During the month of rehearsals and set construction they form strong bonds — essential to an ensemble work like “Working.”

Younger ones learn what it means to be a Staples Player. Older ones mentor them.

Christian Melhuish graduated last year, and is studying musical theater at Temple University. June graduate Jacob Leaf is headed to Northwestern. Both have roles onstage, and help Roth and Long as acting coaches.

Rising junior Antonio Antonelli, with alum Christian Melhuish in Staples Players’ production of “Working.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

For hours every day since school ended, dozens of teenagers have been hard at work. Their job: producing a show that seems effortless, while offering insights, inspiration, and tons of entertainment.

They’ve done it all for free. After all, they’re Staples Players.

But if they were getting paid, everyone would deserve a huge raise.

(“Working” will be performed Thursday, July 20; Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, July 22, in the Staples High School auditorium. Click here for tickets. Tickets may also be available at the door 30 minutes prior to each show.)

Stop The Presses! Staples Players’ Fall Production Is “Newsies”!

Just when you think Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long have no more theatrical tricks up their sleeves — they stage a new one.

Every spring, they gather their cast and crew together to announce the following fall’s mainstage. It’s highly anticipated — but brief and straightforward.

A couple of weeks ago, Roth got an email from Disney Theatricals. The company handles all Disney productions — “Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “Newsies,” for example.

A few years ago, Roth and Long enjoyed the latter show on Broadway. As a recent production though, they never imagined it would be available.

Caley Beretta, as a Staples senior. (Photo/Kerry Long)

But Disney’s email — prompted by 2010 Staples grad Caley Beretta, who now works there as a creative development coordinator — posed an intriguing question: Would Players want to pilot a production of “Newsies”?

If so, the highly respected high school troupe would give Disney feedback on what worked well (and did not), and provide video and photos. Disney executives would see the show, and use Staples’ experience to revise their production. It will then be released to other amateur groups to stage, beginning in the fall of 2018.

The process for selecting a show usually takes much longer. But Roth and Long love “Newsies.”

‘”It’s a true story about the 1896 newsboys strike,” Roth notes. “It’s incredible how kids working together forced Joseph Pulitzer to not take advantage of them. It really is a show about kids. And it’s an ensemble show, which is great too.”

This being Staples Players, there’s a strong connection to the Broadway version. Adam Kaplan — Staples ’08 — played Morris Delancey and a newsboy (and understudied for lead Jack Kelly).

Adam Kaplan (left) and “Newsies” fans (called “fansies”).

Long had a great idea: Kaplan could announce the play to Players.

Last Friday morning, she contacted him. He quickly filmed a video, and sent it over.

That afternoon, Players gathered in the auditorium. Roth had said all day, “I am not announcing the show.”

Technically, he didn’t.

The video began. Kaplan insisted there was no specific reason he was chosen for the task. Meanwhile, he coyly showed his “Newsies” t-shirt, held up an album cover and walked over to a poster.

It was a clever performance — and the audience of actors quickly understood. They laughed and applauded. (Watch Players’ reactions in the upper left of the announcement video below.)

Soon — after this month’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” Black Box, and July’s production of “Working” — they’ll turn their attention to “Newsies.”

Roth and Long are already thinking ahead. They know they’ll integrate more girls into the show. “There were actually female newsboys back then,” Roth says.

And Kaplan will help in some way — with talks, workshops, whatever.

Those details will still be worked out. Like all shows, it’s a work in progress.

Stay tuned for more news.

(“Peter and the Starcatcher” will be performed May 25, 26, 27 and 28. Online tickets are sold out, but a limited number of standby seats may be available at the door, 20 minutes before curtain. Click here for show times.)