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Cassandra LaRocco as Helen Keller and Jessica Mae Murphy as Annie Sullivan in a scene from ‘The Miracle Worker’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

Currently playing on Theatre Three’s Mainstage is William Gibson’s play “The Miracle Worker,” the compelling story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. Directed by Bradlee Bing, the show is leaving a lasting impact on all who are fortunate enough to see it. One of the standout performances is from Cassandra LaRocco who plays a young Helen. The 11-year-old from Brentwood captures the audience’s heart with her powerful performance. 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Cassandra about her Theatre Three debut and her challenging new role.

How did you get interested in acting?

Since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people and finding different ways to make people laugh. I found that it was fun to try and mimic the different characters on many of the TV shows I watched when I was younger. When my parents took me to see “Annie” on Broadway in 2013, I felt that I wanted to be just like the actors on that stage so I started taking acting classes, along with my dance classes, and found that I loved getting the chance to perform for an audience.

Why did you decide to audition for this role?

I decided to audition for this role because it seemed extremely interesting and I thought it would be a good learning experience. I knew it would be a challenge for me since most of my prior stage acting experience had been with musicals, where I got to sing and dance. 

Cassandra LaRocco as Helen Keller and Jessica Mae Murphy as Annie Sullivan in a scene from ‘The Miracle Worker’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Were you familiar with Helen Keller?

Yes, I wrote a book report about Helen’s life in fifth grade. I knew that she was an amazing woman who lost her sight and hearing at a very young age but learned to communicate with people by using finger spelling. She inspired so many people by showing how a person with disabilities can make a difference in the world. 

How did you prepare for this role? 

First, I watched the movie with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. I focused on the different expressions used by Patty Duke as she portrayed Helen, and then tried to figure out my own way to express what Helen must have felt when she wasn’t able to communicate her thoughts. Then I focused on not letting the sights and sounds around me be distracting. Each time I rehearsed with the cast at Theatre Three, I would clear my mind and only think of Helen and being in her world.

How do you enjoy working with the cast?

I really enjoy working with this cast because everyone is so much fun to be around and is extremely talented. Everyone has worked so hard, and I am proud to be part of the team.

What is it like working with the director?

I really enjoy working with Bradlee Bing. He explained to me very well how to portray the challenging role of Helen and he made me feel confident in my performance. Being in “The Miracle Worker” is an experience I will remember always, and I thank Bradlee for this wonderful opportunity.

Do you ever get nervous before the show?

I get nervous before each show, but once the show begins and I focus on being in my role, I get less nervous. Being on stage with the other actors and knowing that we worked so hard together helps me to feel confident each time I do a performance.

What is your favorite scene? 

My favorite scene is the food fight scene performed before the end of Act 1 with Jessica Murphy who plays Annie Sullivan. I enjoy it because of all the action that takes place and because it is really challenging. In this scene, Helen is extremely frustrated by the changes around her and not knowing how to express her thoughts. I get to portray this frustration by acting out in a temper tantrum, throwing spoons, spitting food, climbing the table, and trying to escape the room but I am locked in. I physically have to move around the stage a lot, but have to still behave as if I can’t see anything in front of me.

Do you think children should come see this show?

Yes, I do think children should come see the show because they can learn that despite the disabilities Helen Keller had, she was able to learn different ways to communicate her feelings and thoughts. If children learn about Helen Keller at a young age, maybe they can be inspired by what she accomplished, and it could help them to learn to never give up when they are in a difficult situation.

Have you taken any acting classes?

I have been attending classes and performing plays at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. I also take voice lessons at Cristina Music Studio in Huntington, and I have been taking dance lessons since I was 3. I currently practice ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical and pointe at June Claire Dance Studios in Babylon.

What other shows have you been in?

I played the role of July in “Annie” at the Engeman Theater in 2017 and over the past holiday season, I was a dancer in “The Nutcracker” at the Cultural Arts Playhouse in Syosset where I played one of Drosselmeyer’s dolls, and also performed in the scenes for Snowflakes, Arabian Coffee and Flowers.  Last fall, I performed as Andrina, one of Ariel’s sisters, in “The Little Mermaid Jr.” at the Engeman.

How do you feel when you get a standing ovation?

I feel happy because people enjoyed the show and my performance. It means to me that the audience made a connection with the story we are telling up on the stage, and that hopefully it will be something they remember for a long time.

What advice would you give to other kids who want to try acting?

Follow your dreams. You will meet many other kids and teachers who will make you feel confident. As you learn from others, you will become less and less nervous, and have more and more fun.

What is your favorite part about this show?

My favorite part has been meeting new people who helped me to be a better performer, and learning about what Helen Keller had to go through to understand our world without seeing or hearing. It has taught me to think of the differences that people may have, but that when people work together and have patience, almost any difficult situation can be overcome. 

Why should people come see the show?

People should come see “The Miracle Worker” because they get to experience how difficult Helen’s world was when she was young, and how it all changed when Annie Sullivan came to teach her. It gives people the opportunity to relate to Helen Keller and to realize that without someone that was a dedicated teacher who was not willing to give up, Helen may have been trapped forever in a dark and silent world. The play is about facing challenges and showing how people can help each other and change the world for the better.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Miracle Worker” through April 28. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 and up. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

‘The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects.’   — Helen Keller

By Heidi Sutton

Theatre Three continues its 49th season with William Gibson’s beautiful play “The Miracle Worker,” the inspirational story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.

Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller was afflicted with an unknown illness (possibly scarlet fever) at the age of 19 months that left her deaf, blind and mute. By the age of 7, she had become frustrated in her dark and silent world and frequently threw tantrums to get what she wanted. 

In a final attempt to help her before having her institutionalized, her parents reached out to the Perkins School for the Blind, which sent its top student, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, to live with the family and teach the child sign language. Helen would later recount that the day she met Sullivan was her “soul’s birthday.”

Expertly directed by Bradlee E. Bing (“12 Angry Men”), the dramatic production keeps the audience fixated from the beginning — a darkened stage where we hear Helen’s parents realize what has happened to their baby — to the final climactic water-pump scene where we all feel a lump in our throats.

From the moment Sullivan arrives, Helen is determined to fight her every step of the way. Used to being spoiled, she sees no need to learn the alphabet or eat with a utensil. The tumultuous relationship between teacher and pupil is played out in the physically violent scenes choreographed by Steven Uihlein. Forks and spoons and plates of food are often strewn about the stage, and the two often engage in outright brawls on the floor. It is exhausting to watch but also succeeds in revealing Sullivan’s determination to show Helen how to communicate through “a light of words.”

Not making any headway and with constant interference from the family, Sullivan moves Helen to the seclusion of the garden shed. Given only two more weeks to make a breakthrough, she tells the girl, “Now I have to teach you one word — everything.”

Eleven-year-old Cassandra La Rocco is superb as Helen, while Jessica Mae Murphy (“The Addams Family”) is outstanding as Sullivan in the roles made famous by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, with powerful performances by Michael Newman as Helen’s Civil War veteran father, Captain Keller; Susan Emory as her overindulgent mother, Kate; Eric J. Hughes as the half-brother James; Linda Pentz as Aunt Ev; and Cameron Turner and Meredith Szalay as servants Percy and Viney.

The elaborate set by Randall Parsons; costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John; and lighting design by Stacey Boggs tie everything together to produce a wonderful evening at the theater. The standing ovation on opening night was well deserved. Don’t miss this show. It will leave a lasting impact on your heart and soul.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Miracle Worker” through April 28. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 and up. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

The three little kittens

By Heidi Sutton

What do three crooning kittens, a droll dog, a rascally rabbit and a pushover penguin have in common? They all want to be on the radio in Theatre Three’s latest children’s theater treat, “The Three Little Kittens.”  

The cast of ‘The Three Little Kittens’

Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Kevin Story, the musical, which was last presented in 2013,  incorporates the beloved Mother Goose nursery rhyme but goes beyond losing the mittens, finding the mittens, eating pie, soiling and then washing the mittens and then the big finale, eating more pie. These kittens want more — they have hopes and dreams, don’t you know. In other words, this production is too cute for words.

Lucy, Ricky and Ethel Whiska aspire to become a singing trio on the radio while their neighbor Barker Doggone, who keeps losing his collar, etc. dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. Their favorite radio show is “The Bonanza Hour” on WPET Radio with Harry Hoppit, a white rabbit who was made famous by radio penguin Waddles Greenway but has let success go to his head. “I’m Harry Hoppit – be impressed” he tells his adoring fans.

Barker and Mama Doggone

When Mother Whiska and Mama Doggone bring home a flyer from the radio station announcing open auditions, the kittens and pup jump at the chance. Will they be able to turn their dreams into reality or will Harry Hoppit’s jealousy get in the way?

Directed by Sanzel, the nine-member cast embrace the clever script and do an incredible job. Each character’s personality is bold and distinct and perfectly executed.

Michelle LaBozzetta as Lucy, Eric J. Hughes as Ricky and Emily Gates as Ethel shine as the Whiska kittens while Steven Uihlein as Barker the dog steals the show with his funny jokes and wit. His constant distractions – “Squirrel!” – are doggone hilarious and the young audience during last Sunday’s performance couldn’t get enough. Their group number, “Dogs and Cats Like You and Me,” is a personal favorite.

Brielle Levenberg and Ginger Dalton as the moms make a great team, pretending not to like each other in front of others “out of tradition,” but are secretly the best of friends while Douglas J. Quattrock juggles the role of radio producer and providing piano accompaniment with ease (great accent!).

Harry Hoppit and Waddles Greenway

Andrew Lenahan plays the role of antagonist Harry Hoppit to a tee and has the best lines. “What can I say but me, me, me.” Beautifully delivered, Lenahan’s solo, “Looking Out for Number One,” perfectly describes the rabbit’s agenda. “… So if I ruffle some feathers and pull on some tails, what does it matter if others fail?” Don’t worry – he gets his comeuppance.

The strongest performance comes from Nicole Bianco who tackles the difficult role of Waddles Greenway the penguin with aplomb. Mercilessly bullied by Harry Hoppit, the hapless bird holds her own and treats the audience to a wonderful tap dance number, “The One and Only,” in the second act.

The entire production has a nostalgic 1940s feel and pays homage to the Golden Age of Radio. With the ultimate message that friendship is the greatest bond and that dreams really can come true, “The Three Little Kittens” is purrfectly adorable. Don’t miss it. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents “The Three Little Kittens” through March 23. All seats are $10. Children’s theater continues with “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” from April 12 to 27 and a Mainstage production of “The Wizard of Oz” (call for ticket prices) from May 18 to June 22. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

From left, Brian Gill, Christina Muens, Abigail McCabe (on chair) and TracyLynn Conner in a scene from ‘Nine’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

Theatre Three continues its 49th season with the Broadway smash hit musical “Nine.” With book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the award-winning show is based on the semi-autobiographical 1963 film of Italian film director/screenwriter Federico Fellini’s life, titled “8½.”

Clockwise from top left, TracyLynn Conner, Christina Muens, Abigail McCabe and Brian Gill in a scene from ‘Nine’
Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, the musical follows the artistic journey of celebrated Italian director Guido Contini (Brian Gill) and his quest to find an idea for his next film. His last three films have been flops and he has an extreme case of writer’s block. A movie contract has been signed with his producer Liliane La Fleur (Debbie D’Amore) but there is no script. Should he write a Western? A Bible-inspired epic? A documentary? The stakes are high and time is running out.

As if Contini didn’t have enough to worry about, his wife Luisa (Christina Muens) is considering leaving him, his naive mistress Carla (Abigail McCabe) thinks he wants to marry her, and his muse, movie star Claudia Nardi (TracyLynn Conner) is getting tired of being cast in the same type of roles and is about to walk away.

To try to clear his head, Contini and his wife take a trip to the Fontane di Luna spa in Venice. Worried about deadlines, his producer tracks him down at the spa and insists he write a musical. Improvising on the spot, the director chooses to his own life experiences and relationships to create a Casanova-inspired flick and hires the staff at the spa to be the cast.

As the film begins to take shape, fantasy and reality are intertwined as Contini has constant flashbacks  — when he was a little boy (played by the adorable Brayden E. Bratti) with his mother (Linda May), and his many affairs, all in an attempt to seek cinematic inspiration.

In the role of Guido Contini, said to be one of the most demanding roles in musical theater, Brian Gill brilliantly leads the talented cast of “Nine” on a 2½-hour thought-provoking musical romp.

Accompanied by a seven-piece band led by Jeffrey Hoffman, the musical numbers are perfectly executed, with special mention to “Guido’s Song, “Folies Bergeres,” “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian” and the “Grand Canal.”

The top-notch choreography by Nicole Bianco, the beautiful costumes by Ronald Green III, the impressive set by Randall Parsons and the masterful lighting by Robert W. Henderson Jr., which lets the audience know what is real and what is flashback, ties it all together nicely. 

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Nine The Musical” on the Mainstage through March 23. Please note, “Nine” contains adult themes and situations. Parental discretion advised. The 2018-19 Mainstage season continues with “The Miracle Worker” from April 6 to 28 and “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

‘Come for the film, stay for the talk’

By Kevin Redding

It began more than 15 years ago with a group of film lovers gathered around the television on Oscar night. Lyn Boland, a former lawyer and adjunct professor from Setauket, was among them, and as she and her friends gushed over clips from the year’s Best Documentary Feature category, she wondered: Why can’t we ever see any of these powerful films?

‘Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story’ will be screened at Theatre Three on May 20.

Around this time, she was called on by her law partner, and a fellow cinephile, to help rebuild the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council’s faltering film program. Boland had just recently watched “Spellbound,” the Academy Award-nominated doc about a group of eight young students competing in the Scripps National Bee; it was exciting, artistic, moving and it made Boland cry. It seemed obvious what to do with the local cinema program.

“Let’s make it a documentary series,” she recalls saying to her friend. While the initial concept was to hold screenings around the work primarily of local filmmakers, this proved to be difficult and limiting. So, members of the program’s board decided to pluck documentaries straight from the source: high-profile film festivals, from the Hamptons International Film Festival to DOC NYC to Tribeca Film Festival to Stony Brook Film Festival, and more, where new, important works are debuted, and the voices of blossoming filmmakers are heard for the first time. 

And thus, in the fall of 2005, the first Port Jefferson Documentary Series was born. “The idea was to make a place where we can actually see these films while they’re still very current,” Boland, one of three co-directors of the now-14-year series, said. “I think that this particular area on Long Island has a well-educated population, people who want to stay up-to-date, and, for some people, watching a documentary is a great way for them to go into depth on an important issue for a couple hours.”

She continued, “We used to travel to Cinema Arts Centre [in Huntington] to see documentaries, and it seems like there was this giant hole in our ability to see independent films like these in this area. Our criteria now is that the film is new and not available elsewhere, has critical acclaim, and tells an important story.”

Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council and the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, the spring 2019 season of the award-winning documentary series begins March 4 and will run until May 20. The seven-film lineup will be spread across several local venues, including Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson; the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook; the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook; and Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School, 351 Oxhead Road, in Stony Brook. 

Each of this year’s emotional and thought-provoking films will be followed up by  a Q&A session with guest speakers involved in the documentary, like directors, producers, the movies’ subjects and outside experts. 

They include the compelling journalism-focused “The Panama Papers”; “Under the Wire,” about a heroic Sunday Times correspondent who was killed while covering the war in Syria; “Weed the People,” in which medical cannabis is posed as “a human rights issue”; as well as “Liyana,” “City of Joel,” “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” and “Emanuel,” about the Charleston church shooting.

As is the case every year, the documentaries are selected by the series’ seven-member film board, or “The Film Ladies,” as they are called — made up of Boland, fellow co-directors Barbara Sverd and Wendy Feinberg, as well as board members Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross, Lorie Rothstein and Lynn Rein. 

Each member sees upward of 100 documentaries during the preliminary film festival blitz, and whittle their favorites down to 10 or less to present to the board. Out of that batch, seven films, one from each person, are selected to be screened. From the get-go, the board member assumes responsibility for “her” film, presenting it to the board, writing press releases and making sure the venues have all the right equipment for a proper screening. 

“The earlier we get the film, the better it is for us because then we can actually help the filmmakers and expose their film    we like getting them early in their emergence,” said Boland. 

“There’s also the discovery aspect of it. For example, we just saw a film we’re considering for the fall that hasn’t been anywhere, no film festivals so far, but we saw it and it was great. The idea that you could see somebody’s first documentary, really help them along in the huge process [is rewarding],” she said. 

Because of the series’ longevity, its members have developed a relationship with the many distributors of the films, as well as their directors, most of whom are just pleased to have more eyes on their work. 

Last summer the Port Jefferson Documentary Series held a special screening of “RBG,” which focused on the life and career of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and which was recently nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.  

In the early years of the series, they showed “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a film that went on to win the Oscar in 2008, and in 2017, Daniel McCabe, the director of “This Is Congo,” an immersive, and brutal, examination of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussed his film after the screening.

The board, supported by ticket receipts and a grant from Suffolk County, routinely pays filmmakers to come out and discuss the film in their Q&As, but McCabe actually donated his fee back to them that night, saying “You are the people that really make this happen … You’re the ones who really deserve this money.” 

“We have a responsibility to curate really well,” Boland explained. “Because we get public funds, we can’t just run anything … it’s a high bar to get to be one of the seven documentaries we select.”

Among the upcoming films, Boland is particular excited about “The Panama Papers.”

“Our series reflects the value of journalism,” she said. “[The director] is very good at taking a complicated topic and turn it into a very exciting film. It has you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s going to happen next.”

Sverd’s favorite is “Under the Wire,” which will be shown at Stony Brook University and will involve the college’s School of Journalism. 

“Over the years, the documentary has become an extremely important and effective tool for information and social change,” she said. “All of these are very special films to whoever chooses them.”

Feinberg, a retired teacher who joined the board in fall 2014, recognized a highlight for her this year: the closing night music film “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story,” an “interesting, educational, heartbreaking”  film about a blues harmonica player who formed an interracial band. 

“Other than being a cinephile, I love music and love music of such varying genres,” Feinberg said. “I try to always push for one music documentary, and I’m usually successful when I see that the audience really responds to the film. I remember we had one gentleman say to me, ‘Every time you screen a film, every one is better than the one before, I don’t know how you do that.’ Feedback like that warms my heart, and confirms that we’re doing something good and lasting.”

Boland agrees and encourages community members to show up and help grow the series. “These films compel us and can introduce you to a powerful, personal story you might not ever have heard,” she said. 

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from March 4 to April 15 and at 7:15 p.m. on May 20 (see sidebar for locations). Tickets, which are sold at the door, are $8 per person. (No credit cards please.) If you would like to volunteer, please call 631-473-5200. For more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

Film schedule:

The spring season will kick off with “The Panama Papers” at Theatre Three on March 4. Leaked by an anonymous source to journalists in 2015, the Panama Papers were an explosive collection of 11.5 million documents, exposing the use of secretive offshore companies to enable widespread tax evasion and money laundering. Director Alex Winter speaks to the journalists who worked to ensure the release and examines how it reshaped our understanding of corruption in the highest tiers of government.  Moderated by Tom Needham, host of “The Sounds of Film” on WUSB, guest speaker will be Kevin Hall, chief economics correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning senior investigator for McClatchy newspapers in Washington, D.C.

“Under the Wire,” the chilling and inspiring documentary about Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent, and photojournalist Paul Conroy as they enter war-ravaged Syria in February of 2012 to cover the plight of trapped and slaughtered civilians in Homs, a city under siege by the Syrian Army, heads to the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University on March 11. Deliberately targeted by Syria’s top leaders, Colvin was killed in a rocket attack that also gravely wounded Conroy, who eventually managed to escape. Co-sponsored by the Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, guest speakers include Catherine Colvin (Marie Colvin’s sister) in person and Paul Conroy, photojournalist (via Skype). 

The season continues on March 18 at The Long Island Museum with “Weed the People.” Through the emotional stories of children fighting cancer, the documentary educates mainstream audiences about medical cannabis as a human rights issue and begets the unsettling question at the heart of the film: If weed is truly saving lives, why doesn’t the government want people to access it? Guest speakers include  director Abby Epstein and cancer survivor and co-founder of NYC Botanics, Jill Fagin. Screening will be held in the museum’s Gillespie Room, located in the Carriage House Museum. 

“Liyana,” which will be screened at Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School on April 1, is a touching and unique film set in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Told by five children who were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, this extraordinary film uses animation and narrative to illustrate their plight. Ultimately hopeful, this is a visually beautiful and unforgettable film presented in a poetic and creative style.  “Liyana” has recently been nominated for the prestigious 2019 Cinema Eye Honors Award for Nonfiction Filmmaking for the Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation Award. Guest speaker will be executive producer Susan MacLaury.

The series continues with “City of Joel” at Theatre Three on April 8. The town of Monroe, which lies 50 miles north of New York City and deep within the Hudson Valley, is one of the fastest-growing Hasidic communities in the country. Shot over several years with seemingly boundless access, Emmy-winning director Jesse Sweet’s documentary observes the simmering tensions that have come to define the community, and the myriad ways in which the town’s divide echoes the country’s as well. Co-sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, the guest speaker will be the film’s subject, B.J. Mendelson.

In collaboration with the Long Island Museum’s Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island exhibit, “Emanuel” will be screened on April 15 in the museum’s Gillespie Room. The documentary highlights the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 and is a poignant story of justice, faith, love and hate. Featuring intimate interviews with survivors and family members, this film examines the healing power of forgiveness. Sponsored by The Law Offices of Michael S. Ross in Smithtown,  Building Bridges in Brookhaven, the Bethel AME Church and the Multicultural Solidarity Group, guest speaker will be producer Dimas Salaberrios.

The series concludes with “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” at Theatre Three at 7:15 p.m. on May 20. The documentary follows the complex story of a man many call the greatest harmonica player of all time. The film features Butterfield’s music and words, along with firsthand accounts from his family, his band mates and those closest to him, with appearances by David Sanborn, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and more. Co-sponsored by the Long Island Blues Society and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, the evening will be moderated by  WUSB’s Tom Needham with guest speaker executive producer/producer Sandra Warren. A prefilm blues concert with Kerry Kearney, Frank Latorre, Gerry Sorrentino and Mario Staiano will be held at 6 p.m. (Combo concert, film and Q&A ticket is $15.)

A scene from Theatre Three’s ‘From the Fires’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Sabrina Petroski

“Just another body for the ovens.” Haunting, isn’t it? This sentence comes from Theatre Three’s educational touring show “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust.” This play, the story of two young Jewish girls living through the reign of Hitler and the persecution of the Jewish people, has been presented in schools and community centers across the tristate area, going as far south as Washington and Virginia, and as far north as Richmond Hill, outside of Toronto, Canada. 

“From the Fires” was written by Jeffrey Sanzel, the executive artistic director of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and has been touring since 1996. According to Sanzel, he has always been passionate about the Holocaust and making sure the atrocious events of the past never disappear.

The cast

Nicole Bianco

Marci Bing

Michelle LaBozzetta

Douglas J. Quattrock

Jeffrey Sanzel

Steven Uihlein

Theatre Three was looking for a new show for its educational program, Sanzel began searching for a show within the topic of the Holocaust, but none of them seemed right. Eventually, he decided to write one, immersing himself in research, finding survivors to interview and spending three days at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. After five months of writing, the cast, including Sanzel, went into rehearsal with an unfinished script, which was edited and rewritten over the six weeks of rehearsal.

“‘From the Fires’ has had an amazing response,” said Sanzel in a recent interview. “If it hadn’t we wouldn’t still be touring it this many years later! There has been an incredibly positive reaction.” 

According to Sanzel, there are many schools, synagogues, churches and community centers all over Long Island that book the show every year or every other year. Michael Serif, a history teacher at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, first experienced “From the Fires” at Seaford High School in 2001. Since then, Serif has requested to bring the 40-minute play to every school he has worked in, including Locust Valley High School and Friends Academy. The theatrical piece is performed for grades 6 to 12.

“I’ve seen the play probably close to a dozen times in several different schools, and every time when the show is complete you can hear a pin drop in the audience,” said Serif in a phone interview. “The kids are so very deeply affected by the play.”

“From the Fires” depicts the Holocaust through the eyes of Rachel and Evy, two young girls from Berlin who grew up watching the world turn from a peaceful place to a place where people are ripped from their homes and murdered because of their religion. 

John S. D’Aquila served as a medic in the 11th Armored Division during World War II, under Gen. Patton and was a witness to the horrors of the death camp at Mauthausen as a member of the liberating force. File photo

It begins with the liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1945 by a young soldier, then flashes back to 1937 where the audience sees Rachel, Rachel’s father and Evy go through all the changes in the laws and their lives; Rachel’s father losing his business, Rachel and her father going into hiding; Rachel, Evy and Rachel’s father being deported; Rachel’s father being killed in a gas chamber; and Rachel carrying Evy through the hardships they experience at the concentration camp. Sanzel says that having the story told by two young girls resonates more with younger viewers.

“One comment that a teacher made to their students was that part of the play’s power was that it reminds you that the people who went through this were just like you,” said Sanzel. 

“The kids in the audience can see themselves in Rachel and Evy. Any survivors they would have met would be in their eighties and nineties, and they don’t think of them as themselves. ‘From the Fires’ puts it in perspective; it follows two kids who could be any two kids, and it gives it that universal connection.” 

The play has a small cast, with each actor portraying up to half a dozen roles throughout the show, and keeps to a minimalistic set. A very important part of the show, according to Sanzel, is how the gradual change in the laws is shown. 

“From the Fires” is meant for young audiences so there is no graphic content shown on stage. “You get to see their day-to-day lives, the change in the laws, and then of course the concentration camp,” said Sanzel. “It’s all an emotional appeal. There’s nothing graphic in the play so it’s angled to be watched from that standpoint. On stage you can’t really re-create the horrors of the Holocaust, so we emphasize the personal — the personal losses, the personal survival.”

‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s why it’s so important to keep teaching it. ‘

­— Jeffrey Sanzel

“From the Fires” is a work of historical fiction, one character is based on a real person. In May of 1945, Army medic John D’Aquila aided in the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Mauthausen, Austria. D’Aquila, a Theatre Three board member at the time the play was being created, was the inspiration for the American soldier who provides the framing device. While Sanzel was researching and writing the play, D’Aquila shared his personal experience, voicing things he had never said before.

“It was the first time he had ever spoken about his experience of liberating the camp because they were told when they went home not to talk about it, just to go back to their lives” said Sanzel. “He became the basis for the American soldier that opens and closes the show, and over the years [D’Aquila] would come to many of the road performances and in-house shows to speak. It became a passion for him to be connected to this because it was cathartic.” A resident of Belle Terre, D’Aquila passed away in 2014 at the age of 91.

After every performance the cast holds a Q&A, where the audience can ask questions about the performance, about the cast or about the Holocaust in general. Sanzel said that the questions he hears the most are, “Are you Jewish?” and “Did this actually happen?” 

“From the Fires” opens doors to educating younger generations that reading from a textbook doesn’t. According to Serif, many of the history and English teachers within Friends Academy take the play and use it as a teaching opportunity, talking about it in class for days after and even referring back to it throughout the rest of the year. 

“The children often ask complicated questions, so we give them our best answer and then encourage them to go back to their classes and talk about it in more detail,” explained Sanzel. 

According to Sanzel, there are two main reasons he does the show. The first is to keep this event in history alive, so after those that experienced it firsthand are gone the stories don’t disappear with them. The second is to teach kids that they can stop things like the Holocaust from happening again. It all boils down to bullying, seeing someone being harassed and choosing to say something instead of sitting idly by while it happens, or even joining in. The Holocaust was made up of people joining in or ignoring the bad things because it didn’t personally affect them.  

“There’s a danger in people thinking of history as ‘back then,’ that’s how we begin to let go of things and we can’t,” said Sanzel. “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s why it’s so important to keep teaching it.”

For more information or to book a performance, contact Theatre Three’s touring coordinator Marci Bing at 631-928-9202 or Marci@theatrethree.com.

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Open auditions

Follow the yellow brick road to Theatre Three! The theater, located at 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will hold an open cast call for children ages 8 to 17 (no taller than 4’10”) for the roles of munchkins on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. for its upcoming production of “The Wizard of Oz” from May 10 to June 22. Auditions for adult roles and ensemble tracks for ages 15 and up will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. All roles are open. Be prepared to sing and dance. Bring picture/resume if available. For further details, call 631-928-9202 or visit http://theatrethree.com/auditions.html.

Amber Ferrari. Photo by Rich Balter

By Rita J. Egan

Music lovers who enjoy taking a trip down memory lane will be in for a treat Feb. 9 at Theatre Three. Long Island performer Amber Ferrari returns to the Port Jefferson venue with “Joplin’s Pearl Featuring Amber Ferrari,” a production that celebrates singer Janis Joplin’s musical legacy.

The show is described on the theater’s website as a two-act musical explosion. While the second act is jam-packed with the music of Joplin including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart,” the show opens with a mixture of hits from various artists. 

Amber Ferrari. Photo by Rich Balter

Reached by phone, Ferrari said she will be singing musical hits from legends throughout the decades, including Pat Benatar, Linda Ronstadt, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Carole King. The singer said she also plans on performing one of her own songs.

Ferrari’s artistic relationship with Theatre Three began in 2005 when she performed in the venue’s “Woodstock-mania: Woodstock in Concert,” a show that inspired her to create “Joplin’s Pearl.” The singer said through the years she has performed the Joplin musical performance many times at the Port Jeff venue and also debuted her shows dedicated to Pat Benatar and Madonna there. Last summer, she once again participated in “Woodstock-Mania.”

“That’s my home theater, that’s my heart and soul,” said Ferrari. 

Douglas Quattrock, Theatre Three’s artistic associate and director of development, said he is looking forward to Ferrari returning to the theater with the show.

“I am thrilled to have Amber back at Theatre Three,” Quattrock said. “Her show is always filled with an incredible amount of energy, and her audiences always get a first-rate performance.”

The February performance follows a busy few months for Ferrari who presented her “Material Girl Featuring Amber Ferrari” at 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue last month and Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub in Smithtown last October as well as her Joplin show at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater back in November.

On the night of Feb. 9, in addition to paying tribute to Joplin, the singer said she is looking forward to performing a Queen number. Ferrari said she feels the show has something for everyone and hopes audience members will enjoy how she and her band interpret the music of all the artists she is featuring.

“I’m hoping the people who don’t like a specific artist will just enjoy the way we do it because I don’t try to imitate anyone,” Ferrari said.

The singer said at the Feb. 9 performance bass player Michael Chiusano, guitarist Chris Ferrari, keyboardist Chris Cuvier, drummer Gary Gonzalez and percussionist Jim Carroll will join her on stage. She will also perform with a horn section that includes Lenny La Pinta on alto/tenor sax, Jonathan Holford playing baritone sax, Dan Yeager on trumpet and trombonist Tim Cassera.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present ‘Joplin’s Pearl Featuring Amber Ferrari’ on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39. For more information or to order, visit www.theatrethree.com or call 631-928-9100. 

For more information on Amber Ferrari, visit www.amberferrari.com.

Bobby Brooks Wilson will be performing ‘Higher and Higher,’ ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and more next Friday night at Theatre Three.

By Kevin Redding

Bobby Brooks Wilson spent most of his life not knowing that his father was the famous Detroit singer Jackie Wilson — despite paying tribute to him and performing his songs live on stage for more than a decade. 

A Westbury native who was given up for adoption as a baby and raised in a foster home in Columbia, South Carolina, Brooks Wilson always had show business in his blood, although he never took notice of his father’s music growing up. It was the Jackson 5, specifically when they first appeared on “American Bandstand” in 1970, that lit a fire in him. 

“I knew in my gut that I could do what Michael Jackson was doing,” he later said. “One of the first things I did was I ran outside and I put up four chairs with brooms and I became the Jackson 5. I made my neighbors pay 5 cents to see me, too.”

Sadly, although he had the drive and the talent, Brooks Wilson was extremely debilitated by medical problems when he was young. With a bad case of asthma, rickets and intestinal problems, he spent a majority of his childhood in hospitals and in and out of surgeries. By the time he was in his teens, though, his health bounced back.

After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s, he served for a total of 10 years, a planned military career cut short by medical  discharge. It was around this time, while stationed in Hawaii, that he began singing at karaoke bars and ultimately joined a successful vocal group. 

By 1995, the singer began transforming himself into his father. Or, as far as he knew until around 2007, the iconic R&B and soul artist nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” he just so happened to look and sound a lot like “Legends in Concert,” a Las Vegas-based celebrity tribute show produced by Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders. 

The show featured live impersonators, from Elvis to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Barbara Streisand, and Brooks Wilson, now a talented singer performing steady gigs as a member of the doo-wop group The Love Notes ― fronted by Peter Hernandez Jr., and featuring his son, a pint-sized Elvis impersonator who grew up to be Bruno Mars ―was drafted into the production by Revere himself after catching a set of theirs, which featured a few Jackie Wilson staples. 

Blown away by Brooks Wilson’s likeness to the “Higher and Higher” singer, Revere urged him to embody Jackie Wilson in the shows. The performer initially balked at the offer, saying he “was an artist, not an impersonator,” but after three attempts, Revere got his wish. 

The problem was that Brooks Wilson didn’t know where to begin when it came to paying tribute to a man he didn’t know all that well beyond some hit songs. He didn’t know what he looked like, and there was no easy access to videos at the time to properly emulate his stage persona and style. And so, he didn’t try to mimic him at all. With his natural pompadour grown out, he merely “did Bobby,” which, as pointed out by those around him at the time, was “doing Jackie.” 

The reality of the situation came into focus down the line when Brooks Wilson met members of Motown act the Four Tops backstage after a performance in Atlantic City. Two of them were Jackie Wilson’s cousins, and they couldn’t get over the uncanny likeness. 

“They asked me, ‘How did you learn to move like him? How did you learn to wink and stand like him? How did you study him?’” Brooks Wilson said with a laugh. “I said, ‘There’s nothing for me to study. Everything I do is me!’ They said, ‘Everything you do is Jackie … the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you laugh.’ I’ve never tried to impersonate my dad, because I just didn’t know how to!”

The singer was soon connected to more members of Jackie Wilson’s family, who quickly embraced and accepted him, including Billy Davis, Jackie’s cousin who, alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy, wrote his major hits, and would serve as Brooks Wilson’s eventual songwriting mentor. 

Upon hearing that Brooks Wilson was in foster care growing up, the family members would ask if he knew who his mother was. He did, having reconnected with her later in life, although a relationship was never formed. But when he mentioned her name, everybody lit up, remembering her well as somebody Jackie Wilson often had around.

“Aretha Franklin told me my parents used to party at her house,” Brooks Wilson said. 

A simple blood test later, and the inevitable truth was solidified. 

“After I really accepted it, it turned my life around,” he said. “I started carrying the torch for my dad, and I feel sort of like an ambassador for his music.” 

Bobby Brooks Wilson, who will be performing live at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson on Friday, Feb. 8, describes his shows as the ultimate display of himself as an artist, featuring several covers of Motown classics, a special tribute to his father, including stories behind the specific songs he performs, as well as original tunes off his own albums, the most recent entitled “Just About Time.” 

He will be accompanied by the five-piece Coda Band and backed by Long Island’s own The Chiclettes, the trio tribute to female vocalists from the 1950s through the ’80s. 

“What you’re going to see is Bobby Brooks Wilson giving you all he’s got on stage,” the singer said. “And my dad’s going to show himself, you’re going to hear him and you’re going to see him … I feel my dad around me a lot,” a presence, he added, that’s felt by his audience during every show. 

“People come up and say, ‘I felt like I was watching Jackie again, I felt like a kid again!’ He is loved to this day by so many people, which is amazing. The joy that they have in their hearts when they come up to me after the show … I just thank God I have the ability, even though I’m just being me, to give these people the joy that they have.”

“I make people happy, I make people forget their troubles,” he continued. “I make people go down memory lane, remember their loved ones. I always hear, ‘When you were singing that song, my husband was sitting next to me’ or ‘my wife was sitting next to me. That was our song.’” 

Peter Mastropaolo, musical director at Theatre Three and leader of the Coda Band, worked alongside Brooks Wilson on a cruise ship gig last November, and, as he’s predominantly been a West Coast act, Mastropaolo hopes to make those on the East Coast more aware of him. He doesn’t think it would take long for a crowd here to fall in love with Brooks Wilson.

“He’s an amazing entertainer; nobody ever stays seated when he performs,” Mastropaolo said. “You’ll be on your feet. The excitement is just there and every time he does his thing, people just always want him back.”

Susan Marten, one of the three Chiclettes, a soprano who joined the vocal group two years ago, has been backing Brooks Wilson for about a year and a half. She called the shows “challenging and fun.”

“We were really thrilled when we first found out we’d have the opportunity to be Bobby’s backing singers,” Marten said. “It’s been a really good partnership. He’s just so good at what he does. People should expect a high-energy show that takes them back to a certain time … Bobby is keeping this music alive, and breathing new life into it! Seeing Bobby is a must.” 

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present Bobby “Brooks” Wilson in concert with a special performance by The Chiclettes on Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. All seats are $49. For further information or to order tickets, please call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. 

By Heidi Sutton

In Theatre Three’s latest children’s show, the audience is invited to enter the magical world of “Jack & the Beanstalk” or “The Boy Who Cried Giant!” Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Kevin F. Story, the musical combines the classic English fairy tale with the well-known fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” to produce a most entertaining afternoon.

Jack (Eric J. Hughes) lives with his mother (Ginger Dalton) and his best friend Filpail the Cow (Nicole Bianco). Although he is a nice boy, Jack tends to exaggerate and has told so many tall tales that no one believes him anymore. “Someday your stories are going to get you in trouble,” warns his mother. Jack also receives a visit from the Fairy Mary Goodwing (Michelle LaBozzetta) who tries to convince him to “always tell the truth and you will be true to yourself.”

One day his mother tells him that they have no other choice than to sell Filpail to Butcher Blackstone (Steven Uihlein). On the way to the market Jack and his cow bump into two gypsies, Marco and Margot (Andrew Lenahan and Brielle Levenberg), who claim they want to buy Filpail for “cowpanionship” and trick Jack into trading her for some magic beans.

Jack’s mother is furious when she finds out what happened and throws the beans away. A giant beanstalk suddenly appears, and when Jack climbs it he discovers a castle in the sky occupied by a cranky giant, the giant’s wife (Suzie Dunn), a golden harp and a hen that lays golden eggs. But with Jack’s poor track record, will anyone believe him?

Under the direction of Jeffrey Sanzel, an energetic cast of eight adult actors play multiple roles during this thrilling adventure. From the first musical number, “Ballad of Jack’s Device/Song of Boasting,” accompanied on piano by Douglas Quattrock, you know you’re in for a fun treat.

Costume designers Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John have outdone themselves this time with colorful outfits; “giant” props, including a three-foot-long sneaker; and a beanstalk that magically grows all the way to the ceiling. The creative and polished choreography by Nicole Bianco pulls it all together nicely.

Come in out of the cold and warm up with the magic of “Jack & the Beanstalk!” Audiences of all ages will love this wonderful show. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show for photos. 

Theatre Three, located at 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Jack & the Beanstalk” through Feb. 23. Children’s Theatre continues with “The Three Little Kittens” from March 2 to 23 and “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” from April 13 to 27. All seats are $10. For more information or to order, call 928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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