Tag Archives: Kerry Long

Staples Players Plan 3 Special Shows. Global Audience Invited!

In the 1930s, American families gathered around the radio. They listened to live dramas, musicals and comedies, complete with sound effects.

This fall — decades later — families can gather together to enjoy 3 Sunday plays, courtesy of Staples Players.

They’ll be broadcast — free! — on WWPT-FM.

It’s a novel, creative way for the high school drama troupe to put on a show in the midst of a pandemic.

And — because this is 2020 — the professional-quality entertainment can be enjoyed by Players’ relatives, alumni and many fans all around the globe. You can listen on any internet-connected device, via the school radio station’s livestream.

The shows span genres: a musical (“The Wizard of Oz”), a beloved novel (“Pride and Prejudice”) and a classic (“It’s a Wonderful Life”). The dates are October 25, November 8 and November 22, respectively. Airtime is 6 p.m.

Though Players were initially disappointed not to mount their traditional fall mainstage musical, they’ve embraced the radio shows eagerly. Over 50 students are in at least one show. Many are in 2; a few are in all 3.

The live action will be broadcast from the Black Box theater, with actors separated by Plexiglas booths. Sound effects — like the tornado in “Oz,” doors opening and feet creaking — are courtesy of the tech crew, seated next door in Staples’ TV and radio studio.

There’s live music too: Don Rickenback’s piano.

No radio show is complete without ads, of course. With no auditorium audience, Players lost an important fundraising opportunity. But local businesses — including major sponsors Gault, Melissa & Doug, Mitchells and Steve Madden Shoes — will air old-time radio ads.

(There’s still time to buy ads. Players will custom-write a jingle — and sing it. Email playersadsales2020@gmail.com.)

Most rehearsals have been by Zoom, though some have been in person (socially distanced, of course). Good weather has allowed plenty of room outdoors.

Staples Players director David Roth (right) leads an outdoor rehearsal for the upcoming radio plays. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long have made this special project a community event. Each Sunday show will have a food tie-in.

The “Wizard of Oz” menu is curated by Little Barn. Menu choices includes Wicked Witch Wings, Tin Man Tacos, Munchkin Burger (for kids) and emerald City Cocktails.

For “Pride and Prejudice,” Gruel Brittania offers Pemerley’s Prime Rib dinner complete with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and sticky toffee pudding, while “It’s a Wonderful Life”‘s classic meal comes from Dunville’s: George’s Yankee Pot Roast, Zuzu’s Scallops and Mary Hatch’s Stuffed Sole. Ordering details will be available soon.

Meanwhile, Cold Fusion — the locally owned gelato and sorbet company — is celebrating the 3 shows with limited edition special flavors.

“Somewhere Over the Rain-dough” is available for order (before Thursday, October 15!) to enjoy with “The Wizard of Oz.” “Bennet Bananas” is the perfect pairing for “Pride and Prejudice,” while “George Bailey’s Irish Cream” is on tap for “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Click here to order.

The directors are as excited about the radio plays as the actors and tech crew. “Rehearsals have been a lot of fun,” Roth says. “Each show has a different style. There’s a lot of creative energy.

“Of course they’d love to be onstage. But they love this opportunity. They appreciate all the efforts everyone is making for them. They can’t wait to perform these plays.”

(The 3 radio shows can be heard on WWPT, 90.3 FM. For the livestream, click on www.wwptfm.org.)

ENCORE: Though there’s no dancing on radio, Players are keeping their skills sharp. Choreographer Rachel MacIsaac leads dance classes 4 times a week, on the school tennis courts.

Rachel MacIsaac leads an outdoor dance class.

There are no costumes on radio either. But Players’ costume crew is doing designs for every play, just as if they were onstage.

Players runs tech workshops 2 to 3 times a week too. Students get special instruction in skills and tools.

Some of the Foley equipment used for sound effects. (Photo/Brandon Malin)

“Seussical”: Book It!

Books feed the imagination. That’s true whether you’re reading William Shakespeare or Dr. Seuss.

Staples Players has staged Shakespeare’s works. Next week, they debut “Seussical: The Musical.”

And because Players is far more than just an award-winning high school-but-really-professional drama troupe, they’re giving the gift of books to kids who need them — with help from the generosity of audiences who flock to this show.

At every performance, volunteers will collect new and used children’s books. They’ll be donated to the library at the K-8 Curiale School in Bridgeport. Cash donations for book purchases are welcome too.

Seussical” will be fun …

Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long are excited about the project — and “Seussical.”

They’ve wanted to produce the show for years. “I love the music, the themes — and I’ve always loved Dr. Seuss,” says Roth, in his third decade leading the legendary program.

“Because it’s appropriate for all audiences, middle schools have done it before. Now the time is right for us.”

Roth notes that although Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books, “Seussical” — which debuted on Broadway in 2000 — is “more than a kids’ show. Adults love the music, lyrics and dancing.

“People ask me if ‘Seussical’ is appropriate for kids, and I say ‘absolutely. They will love it!’ Other people ask me if it is a kids’ show and I say ‘absolutely not!’ It’s really a show for all ages. Adults love it as much, if not more, than kids.”

… for all ages. (Photos/Kerry Long)

The musical also offers “lots of very relevant messages, especially in today’s climate,” Roth says. They include “taking care of each other, being true to your convictions, being happy with who you are, and having positive body image.”

Some current Players performed “Seussical” when they were younger. But, Roth says, “those were junior versions. This is very different.”

The current cast looks forward to the show. “It’s very creative. They’re experiencing being different animals and creatures. Along with the movement and voices, it’s all very cool.”

Almost as cool as collecting children’s books, for a school a few miles away that desperately needs them.

(“Seussical: The Musical” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13 and 20, and  Saturday, March 14 and 21, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 14 and 21, and Sunday, March 15. Characters are available for autographs following each matinee; a small fee will be collected, to help the Curiale School library. For tickets, cast lists and more information, click here.)

Mamma Mia! Curtain Rises On Another Great Staples Players Show

There were many reasons David Roth and Kerry Long chose “Mamma Mia!” as Staples Players’ fall musical.

It’s a popular jukebox show with great music and non-stop laughs. Though ABBA was a ’70s band, the Broadway show debuted in 1999 and the film was released in 2008, teenagers in the cast and crew know it well. They — and audiences of all ages — love it.

But one of the most compelling reasons for Roth and Long — co-directors of the high school’s award-winning troupe — is that both of Players’ choreographers danced in “Mamma Mia!”‘s North American tour.

In 2010, Christopher Hudson Myers was cast as a swing. The next year, Rachel MacIsaac — who, in another key role, is Myers’ wife — joined the tour in the same role. Myers, meanwhile, was named dance captain.

In 2011 Myers joined the Broadway show. He covered the roles of Pepper and Eddie — and continued as dance captain — until the show closed in 2015.

The couple signed on as Players’ choreographers that year. It was only a matter of time before “Mamma Mia!” came to the Staples stage.

(From left) Annamaria Fernandez, Colin Konstanty, Ryan Porio, Sammy Guthartz, Owen Keaveny and tomaso Scotti perform. Benny Zack leaps. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Myers and MacIsaac bring great knowledge about details not in the script, Roth notes. (Players also enjoyed a visit last week from Felicia Finley, a lead in the Broadway production who chatted with the cast about the show.)

Some of Myers and MacIsaac’s choreography is “an homage to the original cast,” Roth adds. Other parts are unique to Players. The show — which opens November 15, and runs through November 23 — is recognizable to anyone who has seen the musical or film. But it’s also fully Staples’ own.

Roth and Long chose “Mamma Mia!” this year in part because they’ve got some very talentd dancers. Junior Jamie Mann (double-cast as Sky) studied at Alvin Ailey and the School of American Ballet. He danced with New York City Ballet in 3 productions, and as Billy Elliot in theaters from New Hampshire to Florida.

Senior Erin Lynch (double cast as Sophie) studied at Ballet Etudes in Norwalk for 7 years. Junior Camille Foisie (Donna) has trained in ballet since she was 3, and added other genres from New York to Trumbull.

Besides dancing, there is plenty of singing in “Mamma Mia!” (From left) David Corro, Anna Maria Fernandez, Camille Foisie, Tobey Patton, Jamie Mann, Erin Lynch, Samantha Webster, Sammy Guthartz. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“The dance numbers in ‘Mamma Mia!’ are highly energetic and athletic, with some very precise and technical dance mixed in,” says MacIsaac.

“We try to push the students beyond what they believe their limitations to be,” adds Myers.

It’s not only the actors, singers and dancers who have pushed beyond their limitations. The stage crew — under the direction of new tech director Jeff Hauser — has created an enormous, dynamic set. One of the highlights: a very cool turntable.

Audiences have learned that — whether it’s a foot-stomping musical, a Broadway classic or a serious show — Staples Players is far more than a high school drama group.

Anna Maria Fernandez and Benny Zack, in a tender (?) moment. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” sold so quickly, in fact, that Roth and Long added an eighth performance. That matinee — the show’s third — is set for Saturday, November 16 (3 p.m.).

“Take a Chance On Me,” ABBA sings toward the end of the show.

Audiences don’t have to take a chance on “Mamma Mia!” They know it’s already a winner.

(“Mamma Mia!” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, November 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, November 16, 17 and 23 at 3 p.m., and Thursday, November 21 at 7 p.m. The best seats now are for the November 16 matinee, and Thursday, November 21. For tickets, click here. Tickets are always available in the Staples High School lobby 30 minutes before showtime — first come, first served!)

[OPINION] A Players’ Parent Perspective

David and Amy Mandelbaum moved to Westport 14 years ago. This fall their daughter Julia enters her senior year at The Westminster School of the Arts at Rider University, earning a BFA in musical theater. Their son Sam will attend Chapman University, Dodge School of Film, studying screenwriting, TV writing and production.

Both thrived at Staples High School, particularly in the Staples Players drama program. Sam graduated last month, then starred in his final production: the summer show “Back to the ’80s.” When it was over, David reflected on the experience of being a “Players parent.” His letter to fellow parents is worth sharing. He writes:

Having just attended my final show as a Staples Players parent, I’m still processing what this all means. If you will indulge me, I’d like to share a few thoughts that have been percolating. I know many others are going through the same experience, have gone through it before us, or eventually will go through it.

Sam and Julia Mandelbaum.

It’s been an amazing 7 years for Amy and me, starting with Julia’s first ensemble role in “Oklahoma!” and concluding with Sam rocking the stage (in a tubular mullet) one last time. In between there have been countless moments of joy, frustration, pride, anxiety – in short, a microcosm of what it is to be parent.

But seeing our kids grow in so many ways over these past 7 years has been a gift. We have seen them learn to persevere, work hard, sacrifice, collaborate, take direction, deal with and move beyond setbacks and inevitable social conflicts, lead, communicate, create, multitask, plan, manage very full calendars, and of course express themselves with increasing confidence through their art and talents for all the world to see.

It’s been quite a journey seeing that growth, and we attribute much of it to their Players experience and the uniquely special community that Players is.

Too many people to mention have contributed mightily to the organization that is the pride of Westport. David Roth, Kerry Long, Luke Rosenberg, Don Rickenback, Chris Stanger, Rachel MacIsaac, Rhonda Paul and Michele Wrubel, most especially, have lent their great talents and time to create an environment that is nurturing, while also demanding the very best from the kids.

Director David Roth with (from left) Georgia Wright and Sophie Rossman. They’re 2 of the many actors he’s worked with over his Staples career. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Because of them, our kids have had the opportunity to be a part of consistently outstanding productions year in and year out. We are further privileged to live in a broader Westport community that fully supports and embraces the arts.

The Players community would not be what it is, however, without the deep involvement of parents who have volunteered a considerable amount of their time and resources, while also being there when needed for rides and generously opening their homes to the kids for cast parties, field days and the like.

Players is so much more than the exceptional product on stage. It is a community of wonderful families and kids who gravitate to it. And we feel blessed to have gotten to know so many of them over the years.

Julia Mandelbaum (center) in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Now the somewhat sad part as we end our journey as Players parents. I know all of our kids will go off to do great things in or outside of the arts. We will be there to support them as best we can through their many successes (and a fair share of inevitable setbacks, from which the most growth ultimately arises). Still, I recognize that we are unlikely to ever replicate the unique experience we have had as Players parents.

Over these past 7 years, the immense pride we have felt has not been limited to just our own kids, but also to their friends, who we have come to love.

Throughout these years we have shared the many joys and frustrations with other Players parents, who have become dear friends. Even if we are fortunate enough to see our kids shine in their next chapters, it won’t quite be the same as the bond of community in which those future experiences occur will not be nearly as strong.

Sam Mandelbaum in “Legally Blonde.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

In other words, it is not seeing our kids and their best friends on stage that we will miss most. But rather, we will miss being part of this incredible Players community that has become so important to and intertwined in our lives.

On that note, Amy and I will soon have to adapt to an entirely new schedule that does not revolve around fall, winter and Black Box shows and one-acts, and Orphenians and choral performances. I know that could open up some fun new possibilities for how we will spend our time. At this point, however, it’s a daunting prospect that we will need to come to grips with in a few short months.

Nonetheless, as I look back on these past 7 wonderful years, I also look forward. I am excited to see what college and life beyond has in store for our two kids and all the other Players grads. We also intend to continue to be supportive of Staples Players, albeit in a different capacity. You may not see us at 4 or 6 (or more) performances per show, but we will absolutely continue to be excited audience members of future Players productions.

So, at the risk of being too presumptuous, even though we are as of today no longer Players parents, we will still forever view ourselves as part of the Players family.

Our Town’s Players

David Roth has acted in 3 productions of “Our Town.”

In 1980 — the summer he moved to Westport, as a rising Staples High School freshman — his introduction to his new town’s drama community came via Thornton Wilder’s classic play.

A few years later in college, he was cast in it again. The third time was as an adult, with the Wilton Playshop.

Kerry Long was introduced to “Our Town” as a Staples student. English teacher Karl Decker traditionally read it to his senior class.

Roth and Long now co-direct Staples Players. But in over 60 years, the nationally recognized organization has produced the play only once.

That was in 1962. Craig Matheson directed, 4 years after founding Players.

This Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26), Roth and Long will stage “Our Town” again.

Both love it.

“It’s brilliant,” Roth says. “It so well captures the human experiences we all go through.”

Much has changed in 57 years. Besides the auditorium, there’s now a smaller Black Box theater.

That’s where Players will stage “Our Town,” from Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26).

But much has not changed.

The set is spare. Props are minimal. Very little separates the audience from the actors, or both from life’s experiences.

Emily (Sophie Rossman) and George (Nick Rossi) at the soda shop. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Players’ 2019 cast wears contemporary clothing. Though the play is set in 1938 — and the “play within a play” covers the years 1901 to 1913  — Roth and Long want their audience to focus on the timelessness of the message, not its time frame.

The directors make good use of the Black Box’s intimacy and versatility. The audience sits on stage. They flank the actors, so the action happens both in front and behind.

Roth and Long have loved “Our Town” for years. They are excited to introduce a new generation of performers — and theater-goers — to it.

Mrs. Gibbs (Camille Foisie) and Doc Gibbs (Tobey Patton). (Photo/Kerry Long)

Most of the teenage actors knew of of the play, Roth says. But few of them actually “knew” it.

Now they appreciate it as much as their directors do.

That’s the magic of theater. Of “Our Town.”

And of Staples Players.

(“Our Town” will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 23, 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m. Online tickets are sold out, but a limited number will be available half an hour before curtain, at the door.)

It’s “Curtains” For Staples Players

When the curtain rises on  “Curtains” this Friday, audiences will enjoy another superb Staples Players production.

The show — a musical mystery comedy by Rupert Holmes, with music by Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret”) — is clever. Contemporary, yet with a classic old-time, homage-to-musical-theater feel, it’s a play about putting on a play.

Nick Rossi, Chloe Manna and the “Curtains” dance ensemble. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Because a stage manager is one of the key cast members, it’s time to shine a spotlight on that often-overlooked — but crucially important — role.

Players — the professional-quality high school troupe — has earned rave reviews and national awards since its founding 61 years ago. But like any Broadway show, none of it would be possible without behind-the-scenes help.

At Staples, stage manager is an enormous responsibility. Joe Xiang — a senior who earned the post this year — coordinates multiple aspects of the show. Each day he huddles with directors David Roth and Kerry Long, producer Michele Wrubel and technical director Peter DiFranco to keep everyone — and everything – progressing well.

He works with vice president of tech Karalyn Hood to coordinate set, paints and light. He oversees all 100-plus lighting cues with lighting designer Ben Wolfe, Roth and Long.

Stage manager Joe Xiang at work. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Curtains” includes three different scene drops. Over February, Players installed pulleys — a completely new element for Xiang, and one that he’s helping oversee too.

Next year, Xiang will take everything he’s learned with Players — people skills, task management, organization, critical thinking and more — as he studies business in college. Theater, though, will continue to be part of his life.

That’s certainly true for Michael Dodd. The 2017-18 stage manager is now a freshman at Duke University. But Roth asked him to help with this year’s set design.

Dodd took the drawing originally created by David Steltzer for Players’ first production of “Curtains” — in 2010 — and made them bigger and better. It was one more contribution from a stage manager — and one more way for Players to connect the past with the present, while providing an opportunity to learn everything possible about producing a first-rate show.

Four “generations” of Staples Players stage managers. From left: Joe Xiang (Staples High School Class of 2019), Jack Norman ’17, Michael Dodd ’18, Karalyn Hood ’20. (Photo/Kerry Long)

This weekend and next, audiences will roar for the actors. “Curtains” is a true ensemble show. It’s a whodunit filled with belly laughs, a catchy score and rousing old-Hollywood-meets-old-West dance numbers.

But none of it would be possible without Players’ stage managers. How great that that “role” will finally be noticed on stage.

(“Curtains” will be performed at Staples High School on Friday and Saturday, March 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sunday, March 17 and Saturday, March 23. Click here for tickets. Tickets may also be available in the auditorium lobby 30 minutes prior to showtime.) 

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.)