Tag Archives: Staples Players

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)

Remembering Rachel Doran

Two weeks ago, “06880” reported on Rachel Doran’s battle.

The rising senior at Cornell University  — a National Merit Commended Scholar, talented Players costume designer, and founder of “Rachel’s Rags,” a company that makes intricate cotton and fleece pajama tops and bottoms — was in critical condition.

In July she was diagnosed with Stevens Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a rare reaction to common medications that resulted in severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome — another rare and life-threatening syndrome.

Rachel Doran

Last night — surrounded by her family — Rachel died peacefully. Her family said:

 True to Rachel’s spirit and with the same fervor she had for everything she took on, she fought the most difficult health issues with tenacity and grace.

At this time Alan, Lisa and Ellie ask that you keep Rachel’s memory close to your hearts as arrangements are made to celebrate her amazing life. Her beauty, kindness, style and wit were second to none. We will cherish the light she brought to so many people along the way.

Services will be held Wednesday (August 22, Temple Israel), at a time to be determined.

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” Broadway Star Boosts Staples Players’ Show

It wasn’t easy.

Serial snowstorms knocked out crucial rehearsals. Plus there were the normal teenage challenges of putting on a complex show, alongside the usual demands of school, family and social life.

But Staples Players has scored another success with “Merrily We Roll Along.” Opening weekend audiences loved the troupe’s interpretation of the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical — based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart — that Players first staged in 2003.

Senior Charlie Zuckerman plays Charley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former best friend of Frank (the lead character, played by Nick Rossi).

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

Lonny Price originated the role of Charley on Broadway. It ran for only 16 performances, and 52 previews. But “Merrily” has since taken on a life of its own. Audiences have learned to love its intricacies.

And in 2016 Price directed “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a documentary about “Merrily”‘s original Broadway production, and the hopeful young performers whose lives were transformed by it.

Price’s documentary was named one of the New York Times’ top 10 films of 2016.

Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, and Jim Walton in “Merrily We Roll Along,” and today. (Right photo/ Martha Swope; left picture/Bruce David Klein)

Price will be in the audience for this Friday’s Staples production (March 23, 7:30 p.m.). Afterward, he’ll lead Players’ first-ever talkback. Audience members are encouraged to stay, and enjoy insights from the Broadway icon.

In addition to his “Merrily” and “Best Worst Thing” credits, Price directed Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Audra McDonald in “110 in the Shade,” and Danny Glover in “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys.” He’s a 3-time Emmy winner.

Price also collaborated with Westporter Andrew Wilk — executive producer of “Live From Lincoln Center” — on broadcasts of “Camelot,” “Candide” and “Sweeney Todd.” For years, he has heard Wilk rave about the high quality of Players’ productions.

Now he’ll see for himself.

“Andrew has excellent taste,” Price says. “So when he asked me to check out their production of ‘Merrily,’ I was eager to see their take on a show that has meant so much to me for the last 37 years.”

You’ll be inspired by “Merrily We Roll Along.” You’ll love Lonny Price’s talkback.

And if you want to get the most out of both, you can watch “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” on Netflix — or right here:

(“Merrily We Roll Along” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, March 23 and 24, 7:30 p.m. Click here for tickets. A few tickets may be available in the lobby at 7 p.m.)

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.)

Justin Paul Returns To His Roots

One of the pivotal moments in Justin Paul’s life came when he played Frank, the lead role in “Merrily We Roll Along.” Stephen Sondheim’s complex, intriguing play helped Justin — a Staples High School senior — understand the power and importance of theater.

Another key moment occurred when a stranger in the audience — Justin has no idea who — complimented him, and said he could make a career in the theater.

Up to then, Justin had figured he’d be — who knows, maybe a lawyer? But because of that random comment — similar to advice given by parents and teachers, but teenager listens to them — Justin seriously reconsidered his choices.

Broadway and film lovers are glad he did. After graduating from the University of Michigan — where he was not the best actor (and perhaps the worst dancer) in his theater program, but where he did meet his great friend and songwriting partner Benj Pasek — Justin’s career has taken off like, well, a movie tale.

He and Benj have already won Oscars, Tonys and Grammys, for “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.”

And he’s just 15 years out of high school.

Yesterday, Justin told those stories before a rapt audience of Staples Players, in the auditorium. (He also joked that, as young as he is, some current Staples Players were not yet born when he graduated.)

Justin Paul yesterday, at Staples High School. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Players is currently in the midst of rehearsals for their spring production — which (surprise!) happens to be “Merrily We Roll Along.”

As with any show, there have been challenges. Not the least is missing 2 key days of rehearsals, when schools closed this week after the winter storm.

So the young actors, tech crew and singers who listened in awe to Justin — and asked great questions — may have been the only Staples students happy to have only a 3-hour delay yesterday, not a 5-day weekend.

At the end of his appearance yesterday at Staples High School, Justin played piano as students sang the “Dear Evan Hansen” classic, “Waving Through a Window.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Justin talked honestly, passionately and with plenty of humor about his life at Staples, and in theater. He inspired, motivated and validated hundreds of teenagers, at a pivotal moment in their lives — just as he had been inspired, motivated and validated 15 years ago, in the same auditorium.

And then — after sharing not just his wisdom, but his music — with them, he headed off to Coleytown Middle School.

Where he did the same, for another cherished alma mater.

(“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.)

Next Generation Steps Up: Will Haskell Throws Hat In State Senate Ring

In the summer of 2016, Will Haskell worked for the Democratic National Committee. Assigned to the “voter protection team,” he researched states that were making it harder for certain citizens — like young people and minorities — to vote.

The 2014 Staples High School graduate wondered what was happening in his home state. To his surprise, he says, he discovered that his own state senator — Toni Boucher — spent “2 decades making it harder to vote.” For example, he says, she opposed early voting, and tried to block online registration.

Then he dug deeper. He saw she’d opposed paid family leave bills, equal pay for equal work, and said that certain gun restrictions put in place after Sandy Hook went too far. She has previously received an A- rating from the National Rifle Association.

“Actually, I think we haven’t gone far enough on gun regulations,” he says. “Our tough gun laws made Connecticut one of the safest states in the country. But there is so much more we can do, from regulating conceal-carry to cracking down on bad-apple gun suppliers.”

Will Haskell and Darcy Hicks (center), at a Westport rally last year supporting gun legislation.

Haskell wondered who had run against her. He found out she’s had minimal opposition for years.

Which is why today, Will Haskell announces his candidacy for state senate from the 26th District.

He’s only 21. He still has a couple of months before he graduates from Georgetown University. He’s deferred enrollment in law school to run.

But he’s in it to win it.

Will Haskell

Haskell spent last summer working in the state’s public defender office, learning about the criminal justice system and the cost of mass incarceration. At night he traveled throughout the 7-town district, listening and learning about the people and issues.

One of the most important is transportation. Trains run slower today than they did in the 1950s, Haskell says — yet the transportation fund is regularly dipped into, for other uses. He supports a transportation “lockbox,” which he says Boucher opposes.

Another key issue is the number of young people leaving Connecticut. He looks at the current legislature, and sees virtually no one of his generation. He believes their voices must be heard.

“Toni Boucher says GE and Aetna left the state because of high taxes,” Haskell says. “But they’re moving to places with high taxes. There’s something more going on.

“We need to look at tax credits, to keep students from Connecticut’s great schools here after they graduate. We need paid family leave policies too.”

Haskell says the 26th district is “moderate.” Hillary Clinton won it by 23 points. He looks forward to working with anyone, of any party, to achieve his goals.

Fortunately, he says, running for office in Connecticut is not expensive. If he raises qualifying funds, he’ll have the same amount of money as his opponent. He’s already organized a series of fundraisers.

Haskell is not a political neophyte. In past years he’s worked on the successful campaigns of Senator Chris Murphy and Congressman Jim Himes, as well as with Hillary for America.

Will Haskell with Hillary Clinton.

Reaction to his candidacy has been positive, Haskell says. “I know I look more like 12 than 21. Most state senators don’t look like me. But that’s why I’m running. I, and people like me, have a stake in our future.”

He’s not apologizing for his age. Far from it.

One of his inspirations came from Barack Obama. In his farewell speech, the outgoing president urged anyone dissatisfied with the current political climate to “grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.” Haskell calls himself “a stakeholder in the future.”

Besides his age, Haskell faces the challenge of running against a well-known and respected incumbent. “I have to make sure people know her voting record,” Haskell says. “She’s opposed to voter accessibility, and criminal justice reform.”

As he travels through the district he hopes to represent — all of Westport, Wilton, Ridgefield and Redding, and parts of Weston, Bethel and New Canaan — Haskell will make his case.

“My platform emphasizes long-term investments in infrastructure, reliable funding for our schools, more robust cooperation between our towns and cities, addressing widespread opioid addiction as the public health crisis it is, and policies that will draw other young people to live and work in Connecticut.”

He’ll be helped by his years at Staples, where he talked about politics with social studies, English, even chemistry teachers. He was aided too by his years in the Players drama troupe. As a senior, he was elected Players president.  Being on stage, he says, “gave me the confidence to stand up and talk in front of others.” (He also became a noted voice speaking against cyber-bullying.)

Staples Players president Will Haskell, in “Avenue Q.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Harking back to his summer with the DNC voter protection team, Haskell says, “Republicans don’t want my generation near the ballot.” This fall, he promises, “my generation will be on the ballot.”

 

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)

Adam Kaplan’s Bronx Tale

What’s a nice Jewish boy from Westport doing in 2017 with an Italian-American Bronx teenager during the 1960s?

Acting.

On Broadway.

Adam Kaplan — the 2008 Staples High School grad whose post-Players career includes starring roles in “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies” — has a new gig. He recently took over as Calogero, the narrator/lead in “A Bronx Tale.”

It might seem that playing a scrappy Italian city kid is a stretch for a boy from the ‘burbs. (And one who went on to major in musical theater at North Carolina’s Elon University.)

But, he says, his character is “eager, wide-eyed, willing to learn and make something of his life.” Those, Kaplan adds, are traits “any aspiring performer can relate to.”

Adam Kaplan and “A Bronx Tale” dance captain Brittany Conigatti.

The Westporter may no longer be “aspiring.” Following his 2 roles in “Newsies” — plus nearly 40 performances as understudy for lead Jack Kelly — Kaplan moved to Los Angeles for television work.

He had just finished a guest role on ABC’s “Deception” when “Bronx Tale”‘s casting director called. Several whirlwind trips to New York later, he got the job.

Two days later — on October 18 — Kaplan began intensive rehearsals. His first show was November 9.

Joining the cast of an established show is very different from signing on at the start. Rather than discovering elements together with the rest of the cast, Kaplan says, “everyone already has their rhythm. My job is not to disrupt it.”

His goal is to “take the audience on a 2-hour journey, and tell this story truthfully.”

Opening night was special. Family and friends were in the audience. “I walked on stage, and got entrance applause,” Kaplan recalls. “That was sweet!”

It’s been a great gig. Writer Chazz Palminteri — who based the show partly on his own childhood — has been “a great springboard, and very complimentary. He came with a full notebook, ready to take notes about me. But he only had a few.”

As a teenager on the Staples stage, Kaplan always dreamed of Broadway. Now — playing the lead again, in his 2nd show — it all seems “surreal and crazy.”

A few years ago, Kaplan read actors’ interviews on Broadway.com. Now he’s the interviewee. (He also finished 10th in the voting for the site’s Sexiest Man Alive contest.)

A screenshot of Adam Kaplan’s Broadway.com interview.

Broadway, he says with a hint of surprise, “actually is all it’s cracked up to be.” There are perks like singing at a Brooklyn Nets games, and the honor of greeting Westport fans — those he knows, and those he meets for the first time — at the stage door after a show.

Though Kaplan starred in a wide range of Staples Players roles — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Children of Eden,” “Diary of Anne Frank” —  he was never in a rough-and-tumble production like his 2 Broadway hits.

This fall’s Players mainstage was “Newsies.” Unfortunately, the “Bronx Tale” schedule prevented Kaplan from seeing his alma mater’s spectacular rendition.

He saw photos of it, though. He forwarded them along to actors who’d worked on the show with him.

“They were shocked,” Kaplan reports. “They couldn’t believe that was my school, doing it like Broadway.”

That’s quite a Bronx Westport tale.