Tag Archives: Jill Johnson Mann

“Lux Freer” Premieres — And Earns Honors

“Lux Freer” — Triple Threat Academy‘s award-winning, locally shot and produced independent film — enjoyed a pair of premieres last month.

The plot involves Lux, a middle-class non-binary teen who feels like an outcast in their new town of rich jocks and beauty queens, until a wishing well and the most popular guy in town offer a view from the top of the social ladder.

A private screening at the Sacred Heart University Community Theatre included 21 cast members (22, counting Sophie Walther, who Zoomed in from the UK).

Cast and crew of “Lux Freer,” at the SHU Community Theater. In front: co-producers Cynthia Gibb and Jill Johnson Mann.

Staples High School 2022 graduate Echo Bodell — who stars as Lux Freer — flew in from the Savannah College of Art & Design. Echo, a non-binary songwriter/ actor, plays the non-binary protagonist, Lux Freer.

Jean Louisa Kelly — recently seen in “Top Gun: Maverick” — was there, with her daughter Josy Pitaro (Lux’s villain).  

Cameron Mann — who played a pivotal role in “Mare of Easttown” — joined assistant costume designer Zoe Mann (aka his twin). Their older brother Jamie Mann (“Country Comfort”) — who in addition to acting in the film, choreographed the big dance number — could not make it. He’s at the University of Michigan, studying musical theater. 

Watching proudly were director/co-producer Cynthia Gibb and writer/co-producer Jill Johnson Mann. Gibb — another Staples graduate — began acting at 15, in Woody Allen’s “Stardust.” She went on to great fame, in “Fame.”

“Lux Freer” reminded her of that joy. She appreciated sharing the magic of film acting with her Triple Threat Academy students.

Director Cynthia Gibb has worked with Echo Bodell for years. Here the star is, on the big screen.

“Lux Freer”‘s world premiere was Saturday, at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. Bodell and several other cast members joined Gibb on the red carpet.

The film won Best USA Film and Best First-Time Director at New York’s Cinematography Awards in December), and followed up with Honorable Mention for Best LGBTQ Short Film at the Los Angeles Indie Short Fest last month. 

At the actual “red carpet” in Los Angeles (from left): Jennifer Ryan (Miss Savannah), Leanna Mitev (Linah Freer), director Cynthia Gibb and Echo Bodell (Lux Freer).

“Lux Freer” was created during Triple Threat Academy’s summer film camp. Students — novice and professional actors — collaborate with a professional crew to create a film, gaining experience in front of the camera and in crew apprentice roles.

Gibb calls the cast “a blend of professional actors with impressive credits, and many making their screen debuts.

“It is also a blend of the ‘popular kids,’ and those who exist on the fringes of the social strata.

“At the beginning, there were clichés. By the end, we were one big film family. It was life imitating our art.”

“Parts of the script are inspired by actual scenarios experienced by Echo on their challenging journey to live in a way that is true to themself,” says Johnson Mann.

“After the film wrapped, Echo told us that those were the best two weeks of their life. They stepped into the spotlight timidly on Day 1, and strutted out a new person on day 10.”

Several trans teens in the cast also found acceptance, like-minded friends, and a new confidence, the writer/co-producer adds.

Next up: another independent film, this summer. Details will be announced soon.

(Click here for more information on Triple Threat Academy, including enrollment.)

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Obi Ndefo And Jamie Mann’s Joyful Virtual Cabaret

Obi Ndefo is an actor and screenwriter. He’s been in “Dawson’s Creek,” “Star Trek” and “The West Wing.” A Nigerian-American Jew, he founded Arts Alliance for Humanity, bringing artists together from around the world to unite and uplift the planet.

Last summer, while loading groceries into his trunk in Los Angeles, he was hit by a drunk driver. He lost both legs, but remained tremendously positive and determined. Nine weeks later he was back teaching yoga to special needs youngsters, and taking on new acting, writing and directing roles.

Obi believes things happen “for him,” not “to him.”

Jamie Mann is a rising senior at Staples High School. A very talented dancer, actor and singer, his credits include “Billy Elliot” (national tour), “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” with New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey at the Apollo Theater, “Because of Winn Dixie” (Goodspeed Opera House), and numerous Staples Players shows.

A few months ago, Jamie was in Hollywood filming Netflix’s new musical show “Country Comfort.” Suddenly COVID-19 struck, and production stopped.

Obi Ndefo

Obi and Jamie’s dad were friends from their Yale University days. Jamie had heard stories about what a great actor and singer he was.

While running in his Silver Lake neighborhood, Jamie saw Obi doing 1-hand pushups in his driveway. Suddenly, his father’s stories about Obi and his inspiring personality came to life.

When he learned that Obi had a GoFundMe page for new prosthetic legs, and to cover medical costs, Jamie decided to help.

He contacted “Country Comfort” cast mates (and Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block, father of one of them). He asked for videos of their performances.

Then he reached out to other actors and performers across the country. Among the many who helped, Josie Todd submitted a touching song and message to Obi; her brother has special needs.

Analise Scarpaci — who Jamie idolized, and is in “Mrs. Doubtfire” on Broadway — sang a very moving “Somewhere.”

Obi’s friend Gina Belafonte — Harry’s daughter — provided a tremendous tune. Chazz Palminteri got involved too.

Jamie also got great content from Obi’s a cappella friends from Yale.

Jamie Mann (Photo/Tomira Wilcox)

Jamie’s mom, Jill Johnson Mann, began turning it all into a livestream. She asked a friend for help.

He’s a huge “Stargate” fan — Obi was a series regular — and when he heard about the accident, he was honored to lend a hand.

The result is a fantastic “virtual cabaret.” It airs tomorrow (Tuesday, June 30, 7:30 p.m.) on Jamie’s YouTube channel (click here) and Jill’s Facebook page (click here).

“This is about more than one man, known for his kindness, undying optimism and activism,” Jamie says.

“It’s about the positive attitude and resilience we all need to overcome the challenges of the uncertain era we’re in. From Obi’s wisdom and a peek into his new TV project, to songs from Broadway stars and exciting newcomers — my friends, cast mates, Obi’s friends and others — this will be a great cabaret.”

Viewers will be able to donate to Obi’s GoFundMe page (you can do so right now too; click here.)

“Let’s change his life, so he can keep inspiring all of us,” Jamie says.

Jill Johnson Mann Takes Lara Spencer To (Dance) School

The other day, “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer made a moronic, smirking “joke,” mocking Prince George for taking ballet classes. Her co-hosts cackled along. Audience members joined in the laughter.

The internet erupted in outrage. This is 2019, after all.

Jill Johnson Mann went one better. The Westporter wrote all about ballet in the Washington Post.

Jill Johnson Mann

She should know. Her 4 kids — 2 girls, 2 boys — have all taken dance classes. Plus, she’s a writer. And — oh yeah — back in 2012, she interviewed Lara Spencer for Greenwich Magazine.

Her 9-year-old son Jamie had just performed in “The Nutcracker.”

Jill is a lot softer on Lara than I would be. But she pulls no punches when she talks about her family’s experiences with dance.

She describes how Jamie was “entranced” the first time he saw “Swan Lake.” He was 3 years old.

At 7 he saw “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway. “My son took the leap and began taking ballet classes — with all girls, which is often the case in the suburbs,” Jill writes. “He was not fazed. He loved it.”

The next year, he joined Alvin Ailey’s Athletic Boys Dance Program.

Commuting 90 minutes to class was worth it, so he could experience a studio filled with 25 boys who loved to dance as much as he did. The program is free — a common perk for young male dancers. Especially at ballet schools, the lure of free tuition compensates for the threat of teasing.

In fact, there was teasing. Jamie wanted to go to private school.

But 5th grade “turned out to be fine. Jamie was becoming a stronger dancer and fighting to have a strong viewpoint about what is okay for boys and girls to do. He began studying ballet with a tough Russian teacher who made the boorish kids at school seem like kittens.”

In 6th grade, things got even better. Jamie was accepted into the School of American Ballet — and danced with New York City Ballet. The Wall Street Journal included him in a story on boys in ballet.

Jamie continued to rock the dance world. He landed his dream role of Billy Elliot, in 4 productions from Florida to New Hampshire. Jamie’s parents — including his “ball sports guy” dad — watched proudly as he played his part: “a physical and emotional feat unmatched by any other child role.”

Jamie Mann in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” (Photo/Zoe Bradford)

Still, Jamie was living a real life — not a Broadway musical. His mother writes:

Despite an Actors’ Equity card in his pocket, the biggest test for Jamie was daring to don ballet shoes and perform Billy’s “Electricity” in his middle school’s talent show. In 2016, even in artsy Westport, Conn., “dare” still felt like the accurate term. He got cold feet a few days before. My husband insisted he not do it. “You don’t know how boys are,” he told me. I countered, “He has to do it, for every boy who comes after him and wants to dance.”

I remember Jamie’s mop of golden hair and his white ballet shoes as the spotlight fell across him during his dramatic entrance. My husband and I braced ourselves for heckling, but instead the audience roared with encouragement. Classmates shouted Jamie’s name as though he were a star. He was, because he made it a little bit easier for kids like George.

“06880” wrote about that day. It’s still one of my favorite stories ever.

Jamie is now 3 years older. He’s continuing to dance — and to dance beautifully. This summer, he performed in a new musical at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s based on the great children’s book “Because of Winn Dixie” — a story about kindness and acceptance.

It was a fantastic show. I look forward to watching him on stage this fall in “Mamma Mia!” with Staples Players.

And if Lara Spencer wants to come, she’s welcome to sit next to me.

(Click here for Jill Johnson Mann’s full Washington Post story.)