Revamped Open Stage grooms new generation of folkies, one show tune at a time, at Minstrel in Morris Township

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Ashlyn Visaggio may be the new face of folk music.

She’s 9 years old and favors Broadway tunes.

And that’s just fine with the new faces running the monthly Open Stage at The Minstrel in Morris Township. The nonprofit Folk Project has been serving acoustic music in a variety of casual and friendly– dare we say folksy?–settings for more than four decades.

But finding anyone younger than 40 at these events can be challenging. The Folk Project’s new president, Steve Humphreys, hopes to change that, with help from Mitch Radler, a music teacher from Rockaway who has given the Open Stage a fresh coat of paint.

Third grader Ashlyn Visaggio at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Third grader Ashlyn Visaggio at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Open Stage is an opportunity to open new avenues, to get other outside groups in,” said Humphreys, an environmental attorney who is north of 40.

“We need to bring in people who are not sitting around listening to Peter, Paul and Mary songs, but more topical themes.”

“We want to use this as an opportunity to capture a younger membership, to make sure the Folk Project continues,” Radler added, at April’s Open Stage.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:

Singer Ashlyn Visaggio, 9, with her parents at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Whippany Park H.S. freshman Jenny Zakovsky at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mitch Radler and Jenny Zakovsky at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Hayden Greyson at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Hayden Greyson of Summit at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Dan Ferrari, who heads a Catholic music ministry, sings at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Third grader Ashlyn Visaggio at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Bunk Bed Band, one of two house bands at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. L-R: Mitch Radler, Jay Crafferty, Billy Tanglewood, John Hone, Andrew Koenig. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Betsy Rose and Mark Schaffer check the roster at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The duo Cool Mess performs at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Pam Hudson and Michelle Solomon of the duo Cool Mess traveled from Rockland County, NY, to The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Billy Tanglewood sings at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rich Kenny at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jerry Krantman at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bob McNally, inventor of the Strumstick, at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ashlyn Visaggio at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. This was her second appearance at the Open Stage. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Of 32 people who signed up to play last month, eight were under 25. Radler has waived the $5 fee for that demographic, and he’s reaching out to schools and other open mics to spread the word.

To further sweeten the deal, he has opened a second “acoustic cabaret” room at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, creating more performance slots.

Both stages now have “house bands,” staffed with crackerjack Folk Project musicians to back anyone who wants to sample that experience.

Whippany Park H.S. freshman Jenny Zakovsky at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Whippany Park H.S. freshman Jenny Zakovsky at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Open Stage performers may be invited back as featured acts, or even as openers at Minstrel concerts. Their mini-sets from the 200-seat main concert room are streamed online. And, as in the past, aspiring artists receive free DVDs of their performances.

The turnout still skews toward the mature end of the spectrum; three-chord greybeards partial to Woody, Pete and Bob always will be welcome.

But 35-year-old Dan Ferrari of Little Falls brought a tuneful original number, Tremendously, written for his new bride. Summit keyboard player Hayden Greyson, exuding a youthful appearance while keeping his age to himself, sang his Song for America and marveled at the mystical vibes of the venue.

“It’s a good feeling just walking into this old mansion,” Greyson said.

Video: Hayden Greyson at The Minstrel’s revamped Open Stage:

When her turn came at the piano, Whippany Park High School freshman Jenny Zakovsky interpreted Lady Gaga’s Angel Down.

But the show-stopper was tiny Ashlyn. She came up big with I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables and A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman.

“I loved music since I was a baby. I began singing in the first grade,” she said.

That’s a long time, for someone in the third grade. Ashlyn attends the Brooklake School in Florham Park. She is learning ukulele and takes dance lessons at Sharon’s Studio of Dance and Music in Whippany, where she met Radler, her music teacher and pianist. Singing is her passion.

“It connects with me and just makes me feel good,” Ashlyn explained. “Even when I’m sad I like to sing and it makes me feel better.”

Video: Ashlyn Visaggio, 9, wows The Minstrel Open Stage:

‘A VERY SPECIAL BOND’

Humphreys, an avid guitar player who assumed leadership duties of the all-volunteer Folk Project last year, is agnostic about musical genres.

Festivals across the country attest to the popularity of many styles. The Minstrel’s magic, he believes, is a nurturing atmosphere that encourages members not just to consume music–but to make it, together.

“This is a great environment for performers to come and learn in a supportive environment. The heart of it is, this organization thrives on social interaction,” he said.

That’s precious in a busy, wired world where people don’t socialize much anymore, Humphreys contends.

The Bunk Bed Band, one of two house bands at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. L-R: Mitch Radler, Jay Crafferty, Billy Tanglewood, John Hone, Andrew Koenig. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Bunk Bed Band, one of two house bands at The Minstrel Open Stage, April 13, 2018. L-R: Mitch Radler, Jay Crafferty, Billy Tanglewood, John Hone, Andrew Koenig. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“They may go to a concert or a football game. But there’s not as much opportunity for a communal experience—as you have when our performers get onstage. It’s a very special bond between the performers and this audience.”

A Minstrel-goer for more than a decade, Humphreys said he often is moved to tears by artists “singing about our common experience as humans, relating to each other.”

National stars like Dave Matthews are proof that younger crowds appreciate acoustic-flavored music, said Radler.

That bodes well for The Minstrel, he suspects.

“Today’s acoustic music will be the folk music in a generation,” Radler said.

The Minstrel’s Open Stage usually occurs on the second Friday each month, at 7:30 pm in the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, at 21 Normandy Heights Road in Morris Township. The next one is May 11, 2018. Other Folk Project ventures include The Minstrel concert series; the Acoustic Getaway, returning on Memorial Day weekend; Swinging Tern dances; and the cable TV show “Horses Sing None of It.”

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