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Stage performance

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Mayor Margot Garant shows plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

Village to honor Jill Nees-Russell on anniversary of her death

As the weather changes, and the Island shifts itself from the cold of winter to the warm rains of spring, East Setauket resident and singer Carolyn Benson and village-based landscape engineer Michael Opisso walked along Harborfront Park, trying to find a permanent space that could add musicality to the park in honor of Jill Nees-Russell, who passed away in 2018.

Seeing the green grass starting to come in, the two had an epiphany.

Plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The spot revealed itself to me, and on the spot — call this being connected to the spirit of Jill — the energy of the whole idea, the concept came out of my pen and onto a piece of paper,” Opisso said.

The village is now on its way toward building a new performance stage in Harborfront Park, likely located on the eastern end closest to the Port Jefferson Yacht Club near a tangle of trees.

Designs for the new stage show a 15 by 25 foot half-circle wood stage surrounded by decorative plantings in front and two small staircases to get to the slightly raised stage. Opisso said the wood of the stage will include subtle etching to evoke the nautical theme of the village’s past. The rear will include decorative panels to focus the acoustics into the park itself. 

Above the stage, Opisso said there are plans for a multicolored canvas sail canopy above performers, using material that evokes the sailcloth of the old days when sailing ships dominated Port Jeff harbor. The landscape engineer said those sailcloths above the stage will be designed to be taken down during the winter months or storms.

“You’re looking at this space at the same time you’ll be seeing sailboats in the harbor,” Opisso said.

June will be the anniversary of the death of Jill Nees-Russell, a beloved Port Jeff resident, village public relations representative and lover of all things music. Benson said she had been good friends with Nees-Russell, and they would often talk about bringing something like these designs into Port Jeff.

“I met Jill a few years back during the [Charles] Dickens Festival, and so we used to walk around and say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there could be a permanent place where people could do Shakespeare in the park or dance recitals,” Benson said. “This was a way of combining Jill’s love of Port Jefferson, her love of music, love of being by the water, and that stage down in Harborfront Park is the epitome of her spirit.”

She added she had approached Mayor Margot Garant about the project, and she had quickly gotten on board.

The music stage has already been approved by the village board as of the village’s April 15 meeting. Garant said the idea has been kicked around since last year, especially with the current stage that bands and members of the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council have been performing on has not aged well.

“Unfortunately, the arts council is performing on a ridiculous piece of plywood that caves in on it for too long,” Garant said. 

The mayor added this is the near-perfect kind of thing to remember Nees-Russell, who moved to Port Jeff from Los Angeles, where she had worked with a record label. On Long Island, she had involved herself with the Port Jeff arts council, had created a youth program with the School of Rock in Port Jefferson Station and worked in tandem with the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

The new stage is expected to be on the eastern end of Harborfront Park. Photo by David Luces

On Aug. 10, Garant said plans are in place to host a Port Jeff band day that will give particular attention to local bands and performers. On that day Nees-Russell’s family is expected to come down to Long Island where the stage will be dedicated in Jill’s name.

“Performing arts was always something very important to her,” Garant said. “We think it’s a home run, we see it as something that’s affordable, something that we can pull together the not-for-profits to make that happen.”

Current projections of costs by Opisso show a projected $12,500 for the construction of the stage and steps, $2,500 for the planters and flower boxes, $5,000 for landscaping and another $5,000 for the canvas backdrops and overhead sails. Designs for the project still need to determine the costs of lighting, sound and irrigation.

When presented to the village board at its April 15 meeting, trustees voiced their support for the idea.

“It’s about time we had something like this,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said.

The cast of "Elephant & Piggie's 'We Are in Play'" at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo

Currently in production at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, “Elephant & Piggie’s ‘We Are in a Play!'” is based on the popular “Elephant & Piggie” book series by award-winning children’s author Mo Willems, with script and lyrics by Willems and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma.

Directed and choreographed by Melissa Rapelje, with musical direction by Melissa Cowell, the first part of the show follows Gerald (the elephant) and Piggie as they embark on a musical adventure solving problems and learning friendship etiquette with the help of the dancing trio, the Squirelles.

Eventually, the characters realize that they are in a play and engage the audience, having them join in by shouting out funny words like “banana,” clapping and doing the “Flippy Floppy Floory dance.” A nice touch is the conversational bubbles between Gerald and Piggie projected on a large screen on stage.

Bobby Montaniz is perfectly cast as Gerald. With the boundless energy of a young child, he jumps, skips and rolls on the floor, eliciting much laughter from the young audience. His rendition of “Ice Cream Hero” was very entertaining. Montaniz is always wonderful to watch, especially in children’s theater, and this performance is no exception. Piggie is played wonderfully by the talented Courtney Braun whose subtle wit and humor is spot on. The spunky Squirrelles, played by Allie Brault, Hayley Phaneuf and Samantha Foti, and the Ice Cream Penguin, played by Bella Lardaro, are a great supporting cast and do a terrific job.

Costumes by Ronald R. Green III are simple but effective. Montaniz’s gray jacket and pants, Braun’s pink outfit with striped tights and dark brown dresses for the Squirrelles reflect the characters’ animal traits and personalities.

For many young children in the audience, this was their first exposure to live theater, and the cast left quite an impression. Cooper Alberti, 2, of Babyon sat in the balcony with his father after deciding his original seat was a little too close to the stage. Grinning from ear to ear the entire time, he rocked back and forth to the music and clapped enthusiastically. His favorite characters were the Squirrelles and, according to his dad, Cooper loved all the singing and dancing.

Parents, a warning — the play is approximately an hour long with no intermission — so try to hit the bathrooms before the show. Stay after the show for autographs and photos with the cast.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, will present “Elephant & Piggie’s ‘We Are in a Play!'” on weekends through April 11 (no show on Easter) with special Spring Break performances from April 6 to April 9 at 10:30 a.m. All tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.