Authors Posts by Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

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By Michael Tessler

Theatre Three delivers perhaps one of my most favorite holiday traditions: a classic retelling of Charles Dickens’ most beloved work, “A Christmas Carol,” right in the heart of downtown Port Jefferson. This stage adaptation is so beautifully conceived and has been so well refined over the years that it’d appear Dickens’ 174-year-old novel jumps quite literally from the pages onto the stage in a fashion that can be best described as magical.

This particular production, which is celebrating its 34th year, is nothing short of miraculous, not just for its stunning set design, incredible wardrobe and perfectly planned lighting and sound … but also for the fact that somehow each and every year the show (while familiar) feels brand new.

Jeffrey Sanzel, the show’s director and the actor behind the famous literary curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, shuffles the cast, set and various elements of the show, refining it and bringing new life to it each and every season. In the long and impressive shelf life of “A Christmas Carol” there has never, in my opinion, been a better Scrooge than Jeffrey Sanzel. No actor has ever lived and breathed that character for so long and with such passion as Sanzel. Watching his character’s transformation unfold on stage is pure delight.

This year’s show beams with talent. One can’t help but admire the incredible skill of the show’s youngest cast members who perform alongside their adult counterparts as equals both in professionalism and talent. Not for a moment does any actor’s performance take you out of this whimsical Dickensian world Sanzel creates.

Steve Wangner shines as Bob Cratchit, bringing to life all the warmth and love of Scrooge’s least favorite employee. Wangner had big shoes to fill, replacing Douglas Quattrock who has long held the role. No doubt Quattrock should be proud of his successor who masterfully carried Tiny Tim (portrayed jointly by Ryan Becker and Cameron Turner) upon his shoulders. His family dynamic especially with his wife (Suzie Dunn) and children is wonderfully endearing.

My personal favorite of the ensemble cast is Mr. Fezziwig portrayed by the cheerful George Liberman. Though I’ve got the bias of loving his character, this actor’s presence puts an instant smile on your face and reminds you of the wholesome fun of Christmas time. His partner in crime, Mrs. Fezziwig, is portrayed by the wonderful Ginger Dalton who also excels as Mrs. Dilber … the cockney maid of Scrooge whose comedic ability is unparalleled in the two-act show.

Megan Bush brings to life Belle, the first and only love of Scrooge and daughter of Fezziwig. Though her character’s time on stage is brief, she so perfectly captures the innocence of a first love and shows us a side of Scrooge we often forget. Steve McCoy, the wildly talented Theatre Three veteran, brings to life (and death) Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley. His performance is haunting in the best kind of way. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the kind and loving Fan performed both by Heather Kuhn and Sophia Knapp. Her special relationship with young Scrooge (Kiernan Urso and Alexander Yagud-Wolek) encapsulates the special bond reserved just for siblings.

This year the three spirits have outdone themselves — beginning with the stunningly talented Jessica Contino whose Ghost of Christmas Past comes to life in almost angelic form. She is followed by the hysterical and larger-than-life Antoine Jones as the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose epic bellowing laughter echoes through the historic Athena Hall. Last, but certainly not least is the incredible puppetry of Dylan Robert Poulos as the Ghost of Christmas Future who also shows off his talent as an actor in the role of Scrooge’s orphaned nephew Fred Halliwell.

Randall Parsons and Bonnie Vidal bring 19th-century England to Port Jefferson with stunning production design and impeccable costuming. Robert W. Henderson Jr. transports you to the past, present and future with some mesmerizing lighting. This year’s production also welcomed newcomer Melissa Troxler as stage manager who ran the set flawlessly from an audience perspective. Brad Frey provides some wonderful musical direction in addition to the late Ellen Michelmore, whose lasting legacy at Theatre Three can be heard with the beautiful musical conception and sound effects that remain a centerpiece of this production.

Leaving the theater I found my heart filled with a joy and merriment only felt in those special moments when you’re surrounded by family and huddled around a great big Christmas tree. For that wonderful moment, I felt the spirit of Christmas itself … and what a wonderful gift it was to receive from the cast and crew of Theatre Three’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “A Christmas Carol” now through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students and $20 children ages 5 to 12. (Children under 5 are not permitted.) To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

 

All photos by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill in a scene from 'The Bridges of Madison County'

By Michael Tessler

You know you’ve seen an incredible production when you find yourself pondering your own life and place in the universe after exiting the theater. That was the case last Sunday afternoon after attending a production of “The Bridges of Madison County” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill with the cast from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Based on the award-winning novel by Robert James Walker and the beloved film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, this musical adaptation has a score worthy of Broadway, and Theatre Three provides a cast equally deserving of that designation.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, this is an unconventional love story. Not cliched but brutally honest and so refreshingly human.

As not to spoil much, we meet our protagonist Francesca, an Italian refugee fleeing a war-torn Italy and a life she’s ready to leave behind. To accomplish this she marries Bud Johnson, a simple-minded but well-meaning American soldier who left life on the farm to serve his country. Both travel back to the United States where they build a home and a beautiful family. Their son Michael doesn’t want to live the life of a farmer like his father; their daughter Carolyn, however, embraces it as she trains an award-winning steer for the annual state fair.

Francesca, lovingly called Fran by her husband, longs for the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She feels it is far too late to begin anew, and while there is food on the table, there’s no money for her to visit her home in Italy and the life she left behind. So she settles for a life as a farmer’s wife, trying to find contentment packing lunches.

From left, Marissa Girgus, Dennis Creighton, Steve McCoy, TracyLynn Conner, Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts in a scene from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Everything changes for Fran when her husband and children take a trip to the state fair. She gets a rare opportunity to breathe and relax. That is until a beat up pickup truck rolls into her driveway and with it the arrival of Robert Kincaid — a professional photographer from National Geographic putting together a photo series on bridges throughout the United States. He’s lost and needs some directions. He’s well-traveled, having just recently visited Italy and having seen every corner of the globe. Fran invites him into her home and, by extension, her life. Thus her world changes forever.

Though I won’t spoil the rest, the show is a real treat. You’ll feel just about every emotion in the book in this two-act musical. Once again Jeffrey Sanzel shines as a director capable of any genre. His unique vision can make a timeless story feel brand new again.

Undoubtedly some lines are picked up directly from the book and film adaptation, but Sanzel’s production takes you for a ride in that worn down pickup truck. You get a glimpse into someone’s world, and that’s a beautiful thing. Sanzel guides his incredibly talented cast, making it impossible not to feel for these characters. I found myself so invested in characters who managed to emote so much in such a short time. Sanzel has no problem setting the bar higher and higher with each passing performance.

This show’s phenomenal cast certainly made his job easier though! Leading the production is the show’s star, TracyLynn Conner who portrays Francesca. First off, her accent is marvelous and never breaks even once. Her voice is one of the finest I’ve ever heard on a stage. Operatic, emotional and just so beautiful to listen to.

Much credit goes to Jeffrey Hoffman who handled the show’s musical direction and turned this small cast into an incredible musical ensemble.

Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts

Fran’s husband Bud is played by Dennis Creighton, who really captures the essence of the character and shows his musical tenor in the show’s second act and final number. He’s accompanied by two incredible young actors — Ella Watts as their daughter Carolyn and Matthew Rafanelli as her bookish brother, Michael. I was particularly impressed with Watts. This former star of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” has a voice so incredibly refined that you wish she had even more time on stage. Rafanelli really shines in his role and you’ll find yourself constantly rooting for him and his dreams and flashing back to your own childhood sibling drama. No doubt we’ll be seeing both actors on stage many times in the future!

Theatre Three veteran and Bryan Cranston look alike Steve McCoy remains one of my favorite company members. He plays Charlie — the friendly, simpleton neighbor of the Johnsons and provides comic relief throughout some of the show’s tougher moments. His wife Marge provides nonstop laughter followed by some incredibly endearing scenes. She is portrayed by the incredibly talented Amy Wodon Huben.

Brian Gill’s low and powerful voice brings Robert Kincaid, the world traveling photographer to life. His duets with Conner are some of the highlights of the show. His personality is infectious and translates beautifully on stage.

Last, though certainly not least, is the incredibly diversified performances of Marissa Girgus who plays not one but over four roles. She steps into each of them flawlessly, creating performances both touching and comedic. I felt all sorts of emotions during her nothing short of groovy performance of “Another Life.”

Being a smaller cast, you can get a sense that each character was crafted to perfection not just by the actors but by their director. They feel so real and so dynamic, which is exceptional as several actors play multiple roles … something that usually takes you out of an experience but now suddenly enhances it.

Brian Gill and TracyLynn Conner

My favorite part of the show (outside of its cast) was its unique score, which combines two radically different genres to make something genuinely unique. Strings played as though from the Italian countryside, harrowing and haunting — a reminder of an old world, an abandoned life combined with the lively sound of the great American Midwest, and the wholehearted lifestyle of the American farmer. For a brief moment these sounds clash into something unique and unforgettable.

This may be one of the most beautiful sets I’ve seen at Theatre Three. Randall Parsons transports you to the great American Midwest. Robert W. Henderson Jr., the show’s lighting designer, ensures the light breaks through the barn wood in spectacular ways. One can’t help but feel nostalgic when looking at the kitchen they designed as well.

From top to bottom this show is local theater at its finest. Provoking several audible gasps from the audience followed by thunderous rounds of applause, “The Bridges of Madison County” is something you wish you could photograph and treasure forever.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Bridges of Madison County” on the Mainstage through Oct. 28. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 ages 5 to 12. Children under 5 not permitted. Contains adult subject matter. Parental discretion is advised.

A special event, “Behind the Curtain with ‘The Bridges of Madison County’” will be held on Oct. 22. Join Director Jeffrey Sanzel, musical director Jeffrey Hoffman and actor TracyLynn Conner for a freewheeling exploration of this powerful contemporary musical. The full buffet supper and talk will begin at 5 p.m. $30 per person. The event will be followed by the Mainstage performance of “The Bridges of Madison County” at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance may be purchased separately.

For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

From left, Phyllis March, Maryellen Molfetta and Ginger Dalton in a scene from the show. Photo by Brian Hoerger

By Michael Tessler

Theatre Three’s latest production “Where There’$ a Will,” opened last Saturday night to an intrigued audience. Originally produced in 1985 by an eighteen-year-old Jeffrey Sanzel, this wonderful piece of theater is such a hidden treasure that I’m glad it resurfaced just in time for me to review!

Our story begins as the late millionaire Hiram Cedricson, a self-proclaimed “Potato King,” has assembled his widow (and fourth wife), her not-so-new lover and a slapdash theater crew of washouts, has-beens and could-bes to hear his last will and testament be read aloud by a uniquely unqualified lawyer.

Phyllis March and Mary Ellin Kurtz in a scene from the show. Photo by Brian Hoerger

Hilarity ensues as the lawyer reveals that prior to Cedricson’s death he wrote an original play … with no prior experience in theater, with a title so funny that I’m unable to print it. His dying wish is for this cast and crew of misfits to perform the show verbatim, in a decrepit theater he purchased just before his death … in two weeks. If they can accomplish this, they each receive $500,000. If they fail, the snarky widow and her lover get all the money.

So despite quarrels and some seriously conflicting personalities, the group agrees to the terms. What none of them realize is that Hiram Cedricson was the furthest thing from a writer and that his show would be an accidental comedy of epic proportions! The result is as Cedricson so eloquently puts it — “wonderfug.” What’s best is that the ghost of Cedricson and two of his former wives (one dead, one divorced) get to enjoy the chaos as casual spectators from the balcony, bickering among themselves through the process.

Ginger Dalton in a scene from ‘Where There’$ a Will’. Photo by Brian Hoerger

By every definition this is an all-star cast — immensely talented, perfectly paced, and hilariously human. Expertly directed by Sanzel, each actor takes on a caricature so unique and well-written that it’s impossible not to feel emotionally invested in their success. There is such incredible range in their performances. All of these cast members could have and likely were leads in previous productions.

There are so many familiar faces that at times, and much to my amusement, I felt like I was watching a reunion show of Long Island’s greatest talent. Though I lack the column inches necessary to write in detail about each of these extraordinary actors, I do want to say that this is by far the best ensemble cast I’ve ever seen outside of a Broadway production. They are so much more than just funny — they are uniquely lovable, memorable and multidimensional.

This can be attributed not just to the enormous talent of this cast, but to the show’s ambitious and masterfully crafted script. Somehow, not a single character goes underutilized in both acts of this large-scale comedy.

From left, Phylis March, Jessica Contino and Mary Ellin Kurtz in a scene from Sanzel’s new play. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Though not a musical, there are several musical numbers, all of which will have you grinning cheek to cheek. Throughout the show there is a wonderful score dreamed up by Theatre Three’s Tim Peierls, and Randall Parsons creates a visually striking set, which is complemented perfectly by Robert Henderson’s lighting design. The young but extraordinarily talented Peter Casdia expertly stage manages the production, ensuring a flawless experience. Costume designer Chakira Doherty must have had some fun putting together the most uniquely diverse set of costumes I can remember in recent productions.

Jeffrey Sanzel and his assistant director Andrew Markowitz put on a genuinely charming production, perfect for ringing in the spring season. “Where There’$ a Will” feels like a classic that has been playing forever, and that’s because maybe it should be.

The cast: Steve Ayle, Marci Bing, Michael Butera, Carol Carota, Jessica Contino, Ginger Dalton, Susan Emory, Sari Feldman, Jack Howell, Joan Howell, Skyler Quinn Johnson, Mary Ellin Kurtz, Linda May, Phyllis March, Steve McCoy, Maryellen Molfetta and Ruthie Pincus

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Where’s There’$ a Will” through May 6 on the Mainstage. Tickets for adults $35; seniors and students $28; children ages 5 to 12 for $20. Children under 5 are not permitted. A matinee will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 with $20 tickets. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

How to defeat ISIS, save the economy and reunite the country

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

Historically speaking, the United States economy tends to thrive in wartime. Americans become patriotic when faced with a great foreign menace. In times of crisis, we tend to buy American products. Our star-spangled workforce works harder and innovates quicker. Our domestic political disagreements seem smaller when we tackle something larger than ourselves. In these moments of dire necessity, we find common purpose. Under that pretense our nation was founded and through the centuries has propelled it to unparalleled success.

Thankfully, we do not need another world war to accomplish this spirit of unity. This may all feel impossible as the gap between our political factions has never felt wider. On every issue it seems partisanship dictates idleness and/or delinquency. So how do we bridge that gap? How do we break the ice? Well the answer is simple — by protecting it.

Climate change is the key to a new era of American greatness. Now, even if you don’t believe in climate change, hear me out. Before we can proceed, please remove the term “climate change” from your mind as some abstract scientific concept. Let’s personalize it, treat it in the same fashion we’d treat any great and terrible foreign power or dictator. It helps to imagine it with an evil little mustache. Envisioning it now? Good.

This Blue Scare (yes, as in excess water) threatens our homes, our livelihoods and our way of life. If we lose this literal “Cold” War, our cities and towns could be decimated not by atomic fire but by superstorms, erosion, dust bowls and flooding. Each day we wait, the Blue Menace grows stronger, melting glaciers and capturing our territory, inch by inch.

Let us form an iron curtain around the ozone layer, protect it from further damage and economically punish those who aide in its destruction. We must establish a great coalition of all civilized nations to combat this threat in an act of global unity, all the while strengthening and cementing our role as an international leader.

This Blue Menace has allied itself with our nation’s greatest physical enemy, ISIS. Their terrorist organization wants nothing more than for us to continue to ignore this mighty faceless foe. According to the United States Treasury and Dubai-based energy analysts, ISIS receives nearly $1 to $3 million a day selling oil. Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the global leader in daily oil consumption accounting for 20 percent of all global use each and every day.

By ending our addiction to oil, we could decimate the so-called Islamic Caliphate without dropping a single bomb. Without the money from that precious resource, they would be unable to remain an effective fighting force. Our nation would no longer have to maintain alliances with false friends, who have used their swaths of oil as leverage over our current state of dependence.

Meanwhile, we can commit that all investments in green energy jobs must be American. We can hire every single unemployed American to help build a modern and green infrastructure. We will see the greatest investment in public works since President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. We will create a new generation of energy-producing highways (yes, that’s an actual thing), new energy fueling stations, bullet trains, green appliances and the vehicles of tomorrow.

Industry will boom and the workforce will grow as we upgrade and innovate many existing products and power plants. Regardless of how one views climate change, the economic possibility is real and should not be ignored.

One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard is how will communities that produce outdated energy sources be impacted? Though the merits of “clean coal” can be debated, it is simply not a renewable resource. Our economy cannot survive or remain competitive in the 21st century using finite resources.

We cannot and will not abandon those who live in coal and oil country either. We will continue to ensure that their communities thrive by transforming them into clean energy economic hubs, providing not just new jobs, but training and tax subsidies to aide in their transition. Their concerns are genuine and have a right to be heard.

As long as the United States can be fundamentally held hostage by oil, we are at-risk. We owe it to all those who have sacrificed, to our children, born and unborn, to the ideals of America itself, to create a country that relies solely on the ingenuity of its people rather than foreign pipelines and the fuel of a bygone century.

So let’s defeat ISIS, let’s grow the economy, let’s reunite our country, let’s do something bold — we have landed a man on the moon, and with that same American tenacity, we can harness the power of the sun.

From left, Brian Smith, Steven Uihlein, Phyllis March and Joan St. Onge in a scene from ‘Lower Education’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Michael Tessler

Raw, imaginative, thought-provoking and brave. Unafraid to push the envelope and tackle some of society’s most dynamic and difficult issues. At times, irresistibly funny, wildly inappropriate and enormously fun. There are so many ways to describe Theatre Three’s Festival of One-Act Plays but ultimately it comes down to this: theater at its absolute finest.

Tucked below the main stage of Theatre Three’s Athena Hall is a black box theater named after the late Ronald F. Peierls. This second stage creates a wonderfully intimate atmosphere for the audience and provides a perfect venue for all seven shows.

Since the 1998 to 1999 season, Theatre Three has received an incredible 8,000 one-act play submissions. Of those entries, it has presented 113 world premieres by 79 different playwrights. What you’re seeing really is the best of the best.

Clockwise from left, Antoine Jones, Kate Keating, Joan St. Onge and Jacqueline M. Hughes in a scene from ‘Counting Sheep’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

One-acts, for those who are not familiar, are just that — a single-act show. Often varying in length and subject matter, they are given the flexibility to tackle things playwrights would usually be unable to address with a mainstage production. In my mind, a great one-act is a lot like the center of an Oreo. They skip all the fanfare and get right to the creamy good stuff in the middle. They rely not on orchestra pits, colorful costumes or dynamic sets but rather on vigorous acting, quality writing and superb direction.

“Counting Sheep” by Jae Kramisen, “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” by Patrick Gabridgen, “The Kitchen Fairy” by Scott Gibson, “Lower Education” by Lewis Shilane, “A New Lease” by Tony Foster, “Upset over Nothing” by Robin Doupé and “When Driven” by Melanie Acampora all made their debut last Saturday afternoon. These writers vary in age, gender and at least one was from out-of-state.

Just prior to the premiere I had the opportunity to talk to Theatre Three actress and playwright Melanie Acampora. “I started writing three years ago” delving into the process of creating a one-act. It’s less pressure than acting,” she said. One of the hardest parts of writing a script is seeing how it’ll be adapted. When asked if she was pleased with Theatre Three’s adaption, Acampora replied,“It’s even better than in my head, thanks to Jeff [Sanzel].”

From left, Skyler Quinn Johnson and Brian Smith in a scene from ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Sanzel, the festival’s founder and director of all seven shows, proves once again what enormous talent we have right here on Long Island. His skills transcend genre and are wonderfully on display — up close and personal for the whole audience to enjoy. How a person could direct so many shows while finding time to sleep is beyond me!

This emotional roller coaster will have you leaving the theater with a newfound appreciation for playwrights. Unlike the bravado of Broadway, they cannot hide behind the pomp and circumstance of massive musical numbers or high-priced sets (although I do love a good ole’ kickline).

Each show’s success depends almost solely on its craftsmanship and its cast. That being said, there was not a single actor I didn’t love during these seven performances. Many of the actors took on not just one role but several in multiple shows, displaying their incredible capabilities and range as performers.

Whether you are a theater aficionado or a first-time theatergoer, get yourself a ticket before they sell out. This wonderful experience is only on stage for a limited time. To the playwrights, my hat is off to you, brava and bravo. Hoping to see more of your work soon!

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, will present The 20th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays through April 1 at The Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the Second Stage. Tickets are $18 per person. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Please note: Adult content and language. Parental discretion is advised.

Photo courtesy of Three Village School District

By Michael Tessler

Throughout our brief but impactful history, America’s protesters have accomplished quite a bit. From the Sons of Liberty dumping nearly $1.7 million worth of English tea into Boston Harbor (talk about destruction of property) to Dr. King sharing his dream during the March on Washington. Protests, petitions, walkouts and other acts of civil disobedience certainly have earned their chapter in the American story, not always for good reasons, unfortunately.

My first protest was back in 1999 at Scraggy Hill Elementary in Port Jefferson. Things, as you may remember, were a bit simpler back then. Before the advent of social media, before digital petitions and fake news blogs we were forced to have conversations with one another.

Esther Fusco, my former principal, had an office tucked away behind the school’s reception area. Inside she had an old-fashioned metal candy dispenser that only accepted pennies. Whenever you were called into her office, she made sure you got to crank out a handful of M&Ms. Between that and her famed “Star Assemblies,” there was a lot to love as a student.

Unfortunately, for reasons beyond the comprehension of a six-year-old, Dr. Fusco had her assignment changed by the school board and was no longer working in the school. When I heard she was gone, I went home and asked quite innocently, “Where’s Dr. Fusco?” That unknowingly became the rallying call for the first protest I ever participated in.

My mom, an impassioned activist for early childhood education, organized with other community members to picket, protest and attend meetings. This was an extraordinary lesson in civics for a little boy and one that I treasure to this day. You can imagine my excitement when almost 20 years later I hear about petitions circulating through Ward Melville High School. Young people were speaking up about an issue they were passionate about.

The new cap and gown style at Ward Melville High School. Photo from Three Village School District

To provide a bit of context, Ward Melville’s principal introduced a new uniformed graduation gown that combines the school’s signature green and gold. In the past, they had been separated by gender. However, with the school’s growing transgender and gender-fluid population, they wanted to adjust with the times. Naturally, there was pushback as it was altering a 50-year tradition.

What should have followed was a debate on the BEST method to preserve tradition while accommodating changing times and the needs of the student body. What actually transpired was unfortunately quite the opposite. Petitions began to grow and with them hateful comments about transgender and gay/lesbian individuals.

During a student walkout, several students held up signs saying “STRAIGHT LIVES MATTER” and imagery often associated with the former Confederate States. There’s a fundamental difference between fighting for tradition and using the guise of tradition as a means of marginalizing another group.

Here’s the unfortunate reality: 41 percent of transgender youth and 20 percent of gay/lesbian/bisexual youth will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Just for perspective, 4.6 percent of the general population will attempt suicide. Words matter, and if you’re wondering how those numbers got to be so staggering, look no further than the comments on some of these petitions.

If someone is willing to keep something like that a secret for their whole life, if the pain of that secret is enough cause for them to take their own life, then who the heck am I to question who they are and why? We were not born wearing blue or pink. We were born human beings and being human isn’t always easy so let’s stop making it harder on each other.

Nonviolence and peaceful demonstrations remain the second greatest force of change in this country next to democracy itself. To my young friends at Ward Melville, on all sides, keep fighting for what you believe in. Do so however, while showing respect and civility. You are stewards not just of your own rights, but those of all Americans. Just remember, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

Seriously though, where is Dr. Fusco? If anyone sees her, please tell her Michael Tessler sends his regards. I’m 18 years overdue for some M&Ms!

The cast of ‘Respect,’ from left, Jessica Contino, Amanda-Camille, Lori Beth Belkin and Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc

By Michael Tessler

Let me start by saying that I don’t think I was the show’s intended audience. That being said, this became one of my favorite shows in recent memory. Theatre Three’s “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women,” a jukebox musical by Dorothy Marcic that opened this weekend, had me laughing, tapping my feet and, on two occasions, holding back tears (alas, to no avail).

Skillfully directed by Mary Powers, this truly powerful production tells not just the story of one woman or one era — but rather represents in so many ways the diversity and difficult journey toward equality experienced by all women.

Clockwise from left, Amanda-Camile, Jessica Contino, Lori Beth Belkin, Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc

Music, as I was often reminded growing up, is a reflection of our souls and in many ways a caricature of how we view ourselves. This piece takes the most popular music of the last century and uses it to form an evocative narrative that demonstrates just how powerful music can be.

Music in its most righteous form can be used as a tool for liberation and in its worst used to reinforce oppression. Its impact, especially in American culture, has very much defined the national consciousness.

This show delves into that concept as we meet the protagonist, presumably the show’s playwright. She is a widow and entering a stage in her life where she desperately wishes to better understand herself and the women in her family. She takes it upon herself to research the most popular music of the previous century, beginning a powerful journey of self-discovery and liberation.

With musical direction by Steve McCoy, this show’s small but dynamic cast is genuinely empowering. Their harmonies are beautiful and ever-changing as the show travels through the decades. They belt out the classics and remind you of a few forgotten treasures. No matter what your taste, this show has something for you, from the mesmerizing harmonies of “Mr. Sandman” to the fierce “I Will Survive.” Lori Beth Belkin, Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni, Jessica Contino and Amanda-Camille shine in their performances from heartfelt soul to rock and roll.

Sari Feldman’s choreography evolves with the production, masterfully adapting with each new era. You’ll get a taste of nearly every decade, from the Charleston to the more contemporary dance moves of Britney Spears and everything in-between.

The show’s set and lighting design by Randall Parsons and Robert W. Henderson Jr. doesn’t overly complicate itself but rather compliments the cast perfectly, featuring impressive light installations that provide ample mood lighting and a screen that provides historical visuals and points of reference throughout the show — great embellishments to an already great performance.

“Respect” is an incredible spectacle that transports the viewer through time using the power of music. Theatre Three’s matinee audience was the most lively I’ve ever seen. Viewers young and old found themselves clapping and resisting the urge to sing along.

All of Athena Hall was captivated by nostalgia and the beautiful sounds produced by this enormously talented cast and on-stage pit. Personalities of the past returned to life with brief flashes of Rosa Parks, Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop, Scarlett O’Hara and so many others.

This musical shouldn’t just be watched by those who find comfort in the nostalgic sounds of their youth, but by the men and women of today who will leave the theater with a new found appreciation for all the progress we’ve made and the work still left to do. This show is empowering, humbling, emotional, hysterical and wonderfully refreshing. For me, it was the surprise treat of the season!

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” on the Mainstage through March 25. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 ages 5 to 12. Children under 5 not permitted. Wednesday matinee $20. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

My great-grandfather Louis arrived at Ellis Island at the onset of the Great War. He grew up in the predominantly Jewish community of Sighet. This small region of Hungary (now Romania) had been occupied and reoccupied by many countries throughout the 20th century. Sighet, however, remained largely the same. Its tight Jewish community maintained its traditions, history and, most importantly, faith.

Louis’ family sent him away in fear he would be drafted into the brewing conflict. So with what money he had, he traveled 1,000 miles from Hungary to the bustling port of Hamburg in Germany. One can only imagine how dangerous that trip must have been — navigating Europe as it began to rip at the seams. He survived though and boarded a ship destined for the promised land of America.

Like so many before him he arrived in New York City. Even as I write this, I smile at the thought of his first gaze upon the Statue of Liberty. At the time, just another face among the huddled masses … to me, the very reason I exist.

Assimilation wasn’t easy. He ended up marrying a woman from the same village and they started a family together. Their child Sam was a tremendous source of brightness in an otherwise unforgiving city.

Above, back row, from left, Pauline, Irene, Louis; front row, from left, Melvin and Max, circa 1929. Photo courtesy of the Tessler family

Louis’ family kept him going. He worked long and painful hours for a fur company in Manhattan. Before unions, before labor laws and before regulations — he inhaled dangerous chemicals daily as he dyed the fur, leaving him with chronic health problems.

His American Dream devolved quickly though as his home was consumed by a fire and with it his wife and only child. One can only imagine his dread. Thousands upon thousands of miles away from his only remaining family, he committed himself to rebuilding his life, and by extension, creating mine.

Louis remarried and had two children with my great-grandmother ­— my grandpa, Melvin Tessler and his brother Max. They grew up on Riverside Drive, both lovers of the city’s growing jazz scene.

Through an unfortunate reality, my great-grandfather wasn’t wanted in this country. Many anti-Semites peddled Jewish conspiracies, believing them to be an enormous danger to American society. When my grandfather was a little boy, Louis took him to work at the fur factory so his son could see what he did. His boss, however, hated the Jews and made a point of humiliating my great-grandfather in front of his son. He never took him to the factory again.

Though Louis was sent to America to be saved from joining a global conflict, it was a painful irony that both his sons were drafted into the army and became American soldiers in World War II.

Mel Tessler while serving in the US Army during WWII. Photo courtesy of the Tessler family

My grandfather Mel served proudly in Europe, where he developed trench foot, almost losing his feet to rot. Around his neck he wore the Star of David, his dog tags and a pillbox containing cyanide tablets in the event he was captured by the Nazis, knowing full well he’d be tortured for information if they knew of his Jewish ancestry. His brother Max served in North Africa where he contracted a malaria type disease. These young boys, the sons of refugee immigrants, served a nation that just a generation prior had not welcomed their father.

My Grandpa Mel would go on to become the head of the English Department at Port Jefferson High School and married my Grandma Sally, a teacher at Scraggy Hill Elementary. No doubt some of my readers had them as teachers.

In his class, he’d have the students read the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a celebrated Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to serving humanity. Several years ago I had the great fortune of being invited to the United Nations, where I heard Mr. Wiesel speak. In the halls of the General Assembly his voice echoed “never again.” It was more than just a phrase but a perpetual call to action, one that we are all responsible to heed. I’ve taken that to heart.

What I did not know at the time was that Elie Wiesel and I shared something in common. He too was from Sighet, my ancestral home. In 1944, the Third Reich occupied Hungary and decimated its Jewish population, first by forcing them into ghettos and then eventually to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Whatever family remained perished there during the Final Solution.

Whether by gas chamber in Auschwitz or by sniper fire in Aleppo … murder is still murder and is equal in the eyes of God. No man is greater than the other just because of their faith or any more deserving of our compassion. No civilized society, especially one built on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can remain ignorant of the world at large. To do so undermines not just our nation’s values but the essence of our humanity itself.

We cannot forget that our complacency, and more precisely, our fear, allowed countless innocents to die as waves of Jewish refugees were turned away from the United States. We must show bravery like those who risked their lives to hide Jewish families in their basements. If we are so scared that we are unable to help, then we have already lost, for without humanity we are nothing.

Had America not welcomed in my great-grandfather all those years ago, he too would be in the huddled masses lying dead outside Auschwitz. Do not forget, history has its eyes on you.

By Michael Tessler

During the 2016 vice presidential debate, then Governor Mike Pence said “…the old Russian bear doesn’t die, he just hibernates.” This would-be proverb struck a chord with me and led me on a several month research expedition to further understand the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could a global superpower disappear from the Earth with just a few strokes of a pen?

Today, I’m reminded of another hibernating bear — California. Though sparsely mentioned in our textbooks, there were 25 days in 1846 when a sovereign Republic of California existed. Like-minded Californians rose up against Mexico in what is known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Their state flag to this day still proudly waves a grizzly bear above the words “California Republic.” Shortly thereafter they were annexed by the United States and became an integral part of our country.

How does this relate? Well, on Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Its centralized government oversaw 15 Soviet republics that were partially self-governed, not so dissimilar from the function of our state governments. People thought it impossible, but the massive Soviet superpower was toppled (with relative ease) and was replaced with 15 sovereign nations. It raises the terrifying prospect: If it happened there, could it happen here? That brings us back to the other sleeping bear.

Hypothetically, if California were an independent republic, it would have the world’s sixth-largest economy. Its population is greater than that of neighboring Canada. Its agriculture industry surpasses that of any other American state. Its national guardsmen and women are composed of 18,000 soldiers and 4,900 air force personnel. In addition there are over 190,100 Californians enlisted in the United States military and reserves, which is roughly the size of the United Kingdom’s standing military.

There is a growing #CalExit movement that would grant California its autonomy following a voting referendum in 2018. Just three weeks into the Trump Administration, and one out of three Californians are in favor of secession according to a recent poll. This number is alarming, to say the least. In an age when populism rules, when the United Kingdom could exit the European Union and the United States could elect Donald Trump … the prospect is not just hypothetical but a reality we must address.

Californians, like many Americans, are feeling increasingly disenfranchised by the current administration and the congressional gerrymandering that has occurred nationwide. For the second time in 16 years, the winner of the popular vote, the winner in the State of California, was not selected president.

For years, California, unlike many states, has given more tax dollars to the federal government than it has received in return. Fundamentally bankrolling other states and paying for military campaigns are things Californians are staunchly against. Whether or not their grievances are justifiable is a determination for you, the reader. They should, however, be taken seriously, just as Brexit should have been and all populist movements of the past.

Without California, the United States as we know it would fall into disarray. Its electoral votes and ample congressional seats maintain the Democratic Party’s ability to remain competitive. To my Republican and/or conservative readers, I’m sure that sounds wonderful, but we must consider the larger picture. Without competition, our federal government becomes dangerously lopsided. No matter who the supermajority, accountability decreases and entire segments of our society would feel underrepresented. Political isolation has never ended well for any country, look no further than the Soviet Union for that lesson.

Just because we are the United States does not mean we are immune to collapse. Our nation’s bond was forged in the fires of wars. To each man his colony was his country. It took leadership, it took George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to unify us and maintain our nation. Today one can’t help but feel we’ve grown very far apart. How we can we pledge our lives and property to one another if we’re unwilling to show at minimum decency and respect?

Our federal government should strive to make separation an unjustifiable cause. To accomplish that requires patriotism over partisanship, rights over might, leadership not power plays and genuine liberty and justice for all. Disagreements are a natural and healthy part of democracy, but will get us nowhere if we treat compromise as a cuss word. No matter who maintains the majority, the views of the minority must be heard and represented.

President Trump is in a unique position to mend the wounds of a divided land. To cement a legacy far superior than that of any great wall or golden tower. He is the leader of a fractured state, one in which so easily the political majority could enforce its rule upon the minority. He must show himself to be humbled and practice civility and respect with his opposition. In return, they must learn to do the same. They must be brought to the table rather than fired for sharing opposing views.

That’s what separates an American president from a Soviet premier. His actions moving forward are paramount to ensuring the survival of the union as we know it.

No child should ever ask: “What was it like to grow up in the former United States?”

For an audio version of this article, see above.

Whether you love him or hate him, take a moment to reflect

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

This piece is not an evaluation of the president’s legislative accomplishments or failures. or even his politics — but rather a reflection of the very personal impact the 44th president had on one 15-year-old boy from Port Jefferson.

It was 2008 and I was just coming of age. Then I saw him on television, delivering his iconic “Yes We Can” speech. In that moment Barack Obama instilled in me a genuine sense of hope, a firm belief that in the course of human history it is possible to make a lasting difference. His words transformed my perception of our Constitution. No longer was it a thing of antiquity, but rather something tangible, something alive, and worthy of any sacrifice to protect.

My sense of purpose and my role in our democracy cemented itself in those early days of 2008. At 15 I found myself going to school in a blazer adorned with Obama/Biden ’08 and button sporting an Afro worthy of the Jackson 5. My teachers were endlessly amused at the sight. Some of my skeptical peers would ask me: “If you’re not old enough to vote, why do you care?”

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, at 15 (and a half) I hurried back from Drama Club rehearsal with my best friend Jonathan to watch the poll results come in. This was the first election I had ever volunteered for. My family huddled around our television, my

anxieties and nerves were relentless, and then they called it — “Barack Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States of America.” Despite having not yet lived through a full decade, tears streamed from my eyes. My country, our country, the greatest country on Earth, had just elected its first African-American president.

In that moment I saw the unending potential of America that our founders envisioned so long ago in Philadelphia. During his inaugural address, his tone changed. Like every commander-in-chief he was inheriting the weight of the most powerful office in the world. So he called upon me, as he did all Americans, to not become complacent in the future of our union — and so my work began.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had established what would later become known as the International Youth Congress — an organization whose aim it was to answer that question: “If you’re not old enough to vote, why do you care?”

No generation chooses to inherit the world, we just do. Despite not having a vote, our voices were no less diminished. For six years our organization grew: helping passing legislation, providing education and resources for young people around the world and eventually building a network of youth leaders from six different continents and over 20 separate countries. We were making that great hypothetical “change” possible. From as far as Rwanda, to Pakistan and Spain we gathered together to chart a common vision for the future based on our shared sense of humanity.

In these past eight years we’ve all grown up and have taken it upon ourselves to serve our communities, nation and world — whether working for the United Nations, Foundation of Economic Education, United States Senate, European Youth Parliament, International Labour Organization, the White House or this very publication. That spark would have never been lit had it not been for a certain presidential candidate with a funny name and big ears.

No legislative accomplishment or disagreement will ever measure up to the enormous inspiration Barack Hussein Obama delivered not just to me but to millions of young people around the world. His time in office has come to its constitutional conclusion, but for those whom he has inspired … we’re just getting started.

Though as I grow older my politics have changed and evolved, and we don’t always see eye to eye, I will always be grateful for that timeless creed bestowed upon a generation raised in a weary era of uncertainty — Yes We Can. Thank you Mr. President, wishing you and your family nothing but happiness in the many years ahead.

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