Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 25, 2014

Hamlet

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 16, 2014
by Phil O’Donoghue

In the Hartford Stage production of Hamlet there is a moment in Act III when Hamlet is giving the Players advice before their Court performance. He beseeches the troupe to, “…suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” One cannot help but think, while watching Zach Appleman’s superbly controlled performance in the title role, that that was precisely director Darko Tresnjak’s advice for his leading man, and the production as a whole.

Appleman is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and his standout performance reflects the rigorous discipline that school of acting promotes. Many actors choose to convey Hamlet’s descent into madness – or fake madness - with manic displays of energy, stressing huge gestures, and physicality. Not so Appleman; his performance is so well thought-out, so disciplined, that when he does choose a gesture - a turn of the head, a feint to the center, a finger slashing across his throat – the audience reacts as if he has just screamed.

Darko Tresnjak’s mark on this Hamlet starts with his own scenic vision for the show: a runway with a short stage at each end, like a large letter I. The runway is lit from below, which allows the texture of the scenes to change with each location. It is brilliantly spare, and the lighting design by Matthew Richards only adds to the vision of the play.

Andrew Long’s performance as Claudius, Hamlet’s scheming uncle, is appropriately evil, yet also rough around the edges. He manages to find empathy in a decidedly unsympathetic character. Kate Forbes’ performance as Gertrude is seamless. In the role of Polonius, Edward James Hyland provides the audience with some wonderfully comedic moments that break up the almost unrelenting tension of the show.

Two performers stand out in particular: James Seoul, portraying Horatio, is a charismatic and riveting actor who also makes his debut at the Hartford Stage. One hopes it won’t be his last. And Brittany Vicars as Ophelia is a true find. Her character’s own descent into madness is spellbinding, as Vicars sings her lines in high, trilling voice, foreshadowing her own tragic end.

The Normal Heart

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Hampden, MA
through November 2, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

It was the early 80's. At first, cases were remote, isolated. The public was unaware, but seemingly, out of nowhere, people were seriously ill, and dying…and they were virtually all gay! It was determined that whatever this illness was, that it attacked the body’s immune system, leaving it incapable of fighting the infections of this 20th century plague. And no one was doing anything about it.

That is the overriding story of Larry Kramer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “The Normal Heart,” presented by the Theatre Guild of Hampden, in a courageous production directed with great sensitivity by Mark Giza.

The cast is impeccable -- every role meticulously cast. The early scenes crackle with often sardonic humor as a group of friends attempt to deal with the situation. Luis Manzi, as Ned, takes up the challenge of recognizing and accepting that the reality that this illness must be faced and fought. But, this small ”band of brothers” cannot do it alone. Manzi’s performance is masterful, capturing every nuance of his character’s determination, dedication, frustration, and anger.

Equally brilliant is Arnaldo Rivera as Felix, who convinces Ned that he can love and be loved. Felix’ deterioration is tragic to witness, but managed touchingly and with dignity. His performance is flawless.

The thoroughly professional cast is amazing. Paula Cortis as Dr. Brookner, conveys professionalism, sympathy and understanding while, seemingly, facing a hopeless task. Brad Shepard has the difficult assignment of portraying Ned’s older brother who can’t quite accept his sibling’s homosexuality. Andrew Ingham is perfect as Bruce Niles, a CityBank Vice President who accepts the leadership of the group’s organization while still trying to hide his own gay persona.

Steve Sands as Mickey, mostly lighthearted, in Act II delivers a tension-filled attack on Ned that reveals the true depth of his character. Kellum Ledwith contributes several light moments in his portrayal of Tommy, as an almost stereotypical young, gay man, untouched by the tragic circumstances that surround him. Important contributions are made by Kevin Wherry, Silk Johnson, and John Flynn in lesser roles.

For a riveting evening of theatre, delivering high drama tempered by flashes of humor, “The Normal Heart” has it all, but only until November 2.

October 23, 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


Westfield Theatre Group, Westfield, MA
through October 25, 2014
by Mary Ann Dennis

With a mental ward standing in for everyday society, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is insane (in a good way). Based on Ken Kesey's novel and directed by Jake Golen with depth and understanding, this is a comically sharp indictment to urge establishment to conform. Playing crazy to avoid prison work detail, manic but free spirit Randle P. McMurphy, played by Carl Schwarzenbach, is sent to the state mental hospital for evaluation. There he encounters a motley crew of mostly voluntary inmates, all presided over by the icy Nurse Ratched.

Ratched and McMurphy recognize that each is the other's worst enemy: an authority figure who equates sanity with correct behavior, and a misfit who is charismatic enough to dismantle the system simply by living as he pleases. Schwarzenbach as McMurphy is stellar. His approach to this boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel is performed with finesse. He commands the stage and is a delight to watch. Janine Flood’s Nurse Ratched is passive-aggressive in shining armor. Flood’s approach is sterile and self-controlled which “works” for the character. Flood’s interpretation is consistent and valid, but a bit more whimsical playfulness would make a proper ingredient to the syrup manipulations.

The evidence of Ratched’s authority is shown in the lobotomized character of Ruckly, played by Paul Bridge. Although few lines are delivered, Bridge pulls off the idiosyncrasies, twitches, and outbursts so believably that the audience is mesmerized. Bridge makes his acting debut with this production and is sensational in this intricate and most necessary role.

Thomas LeCourt is successful as Dale Harding, a man simply trying to figure why, what and how but is scared and has been shut down from life. Kevin Montemagni exuberantly puts himself into the role of Scanlon – a paranoid bomb-making maniac. Martini, played by John Kielb, is perfect for his role. Rob Clark's Chief evokes unexpected compassion from his audience.

McMurphy's message to live free or die is ultimately not lost on the “inmates,” revealing that escape is still possible even from the most oppressive conditions. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax. This is an intricate show; a display of life and the conflicts everyone faces.

October 21, 2014

Opening Nights: Porgy and Bess


Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
October 16–19, 2014
by Michael J. Moran
Carolyn Kuan

The HSO website calls the weekend of concerts opening their 71st season “a monumental journey commemorating struggle, bravery and hope (through) passionate anthems of independence.” All four pieces on the program fit this description in varied ways.

While HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan began with the traditional season-opening “Star Spangled Banner,” this lavish presentation included not only the HSO musicians but the Hartford Chorale, whose male and female voices expressed that passion for independence with explicit fervor.

The jubilant performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” that followed kept the Chorale onstage to sing in English the haunting Russian hymn “God, Preserve Thy People” at the outset and the Russian national hymn “God Save the Czar” at the end. With the large orchestra further amplified by voices, these familiar melodies sounded respectively even more somber and celebratory than usual. 

The first half of the program concluded with the HSO premiere of Japanese composer Tadao Sawai’s 1985 piece “Flying Like a Bird” for koto and orchestra, featuring, in her HSO debut, Japanese koto player Mayaso Ishigure. The koto is a stringed instrument that sounds like a zither and looks like a dulcimer. Its exotic sound and Ishigure’s virtuosity rendered the sound of flight as vividly as any instrument could. The enthusiastic audience called her back for a lovely solo encore that depicted another bird with traditional Japanese harmonies.

An exuberant account of a 40-minute suite from Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” closed the concert after intermission. The orchestra was joined in many selections by soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, bass-baritone Kevin Deas, the Hartford Chorale, and/or the First Cathedral Praises of Zion Choir.

All the musicians were in top form, with Chandler-Eteme radiant in “Summertime” and poignant in “My Man’s Gone Now,” while Deas displayed deep feeling in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and great comic timing in “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It was fun to watch the enlarged choir follow his movement cues when he swayed, bowed, or even jumped on several occasions.

The HSO’s new season is off to a promising and exciting start.

October 20, 2014

Annapurna


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 9, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Some reviewers take notes during a production. Some reviewers use special pens that double as flashlights -- useful for writing in the dark and very annoying to fellow audience members. Some reviewers take no notes. This reviewer tends to fall into the first category. Those productions that make the short list are exceptional because the last thing for a reviewer to think about is to interrupt the concentration, understanding, and personal connection by clicking a pen and trying to find the next clean page of a notebook. “Annapurna” is the latest entry in the third (and best) group.

Two characters, ex-marrieds, hold this one-act play together as its audience hopes for a second act, third, or the rest of the characters’ lives. While no blood is shed, sweat and tears fill the stage from start to finish, and at the same time softened by humor. Debra Jo Rupp portrays the ex-wife who walks into her former husband’s trailer unannounced 20 years after she walked out, and Vasili Bogazianos dons the apron of a poor slob -- at first. Crisp, short, funny scenes with blackouts between each open the story. Mixing Rupp’s dead-pan responses to Bogazianos’ broad and often salacious remarks kick off what will soon become a see-saw of jibes, love, hurt, love, secrets, and love.

Debra Jo Rupp & Vasili Bogazianos
The actors make it obvious that this woman and man have each gone through their own versions of hell, separately and together. Yet, “obvious” is a misnomer. The actors, along with director Rob Ruggiero, have accomplished unbelievably difficult work in creating what is seemingly “obvious.” At the fulcrum of the verbal and sometimes physical see-saw is another character, unseen but ever-present. The exes’ conversations (and silences) about this third player bring him to life. No easy task to fulfill.

Another “character,” albeit not living or breathing, is the set design by Evan Adamson. Every bit of “decor,” from the minutia of the location of a filthy burnt pan to the large unmade bed strewn with smelly blankets (well, they looked smelly) is exact.

After the play, a young patron was overhead saying, “It was so much like real life I forgot it was theatre.”

October 17, 2014

Holiday Inn


Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through December 21, 2014
By R.E. Smith

Sometimes one cannot mince words: this is a remarkable show. Every aspect of Goodspeed’s original adaptation of the 1942 Crosby/Astaire movie musical glitters and shines with sincere attention to detail and love of the material.

Rebuffed by his fiancée and left by his partner, song and dance man Jim Hardy moves to a country house in Connecticut to start a new life. To make ends meet, he calls on his show biz friends to perform at the inn on holidays. Singing, dancing and romantic complications ensue. The solid book improves the plot of the movie, retooling some characters, scenes, and motivations to make a whimsical but grounded storyline.

To start, the tunes are so familiar that it is hard to believe this was never on stage before. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”, “White Christmas” and Easter Parade” are just a few of the 25 standards easily integrated into the action.

The choreography by Denis Jones is spectacular, sometimes echoing the source and inventively interpreting the styles. Tap dance extravaganza “Shaking the Blues Away” had the audience on its feet and every number took advantage of the ensemble’s top-notch skill. Alejo Vietti’s costumes elicited “ooh’s and ahh’s,” providing authentic, colorful icing on this giddy song and dance confection.

Patti Murin and Noah Racey
Photo (c)Diane Sobolewski
Male leads Kelly Sessions (Jim) and Noah Racey (Ted) hint at the movie’s stars personalities, but create fine interpretations of their own. Sessions has to be sympathetic without being a patsy and Racey must be likable but self-centered. Patti Murin portrays love interest Linda’s arc from guarded teacher to energized star in authentic fashion. Susan Mosher’s “Handyman” Louise is a showstopper with just a few well-timed one-liners and facial expressions.

Highlights abound, from the Thanksgiving ensemble number “Plenty to be Thankful For,” to Sessions’ poignant vocal’s on “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” to Racey’s amazing footwork in “Let’s Say It with Fireworks”. As one gentlemen announced, to no one in particular, as he was leaving the theater: “I think they (Goodspeed) have a winner with this one!”

October 16, 2014

SSO's Sgt. Pepper's/Beatles Tribute


Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
October 13, 2014
by Eric Sutter

An undertaking of such magnitude as the sophisticated rock and pop of "Sgt. Pepper" in combination with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra was completely adaptable on a grand scale. Peter Brennan's "Jeans 'n Classics" groups' concept of this combination proved admirable in Springfield. Along with the group, vocalist Jean Meiller sang superb arrangements with a fun spirit. Meiller possessed a robust timbre that provided many comfortable memories to an appreciative audience. The band began with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with two female backup vocalists in Kathryn Rose and Leah Salomaa. By the time of the orchestral sweep of "She's Leaving Home,” many nice high notes were hit with fine musical accompaniment by keyboardist John Regan. The rhythm section was tight and effective.

At times, some electric guitar passages were not audible enough. As a whole, the carnival ambience sound of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and the jaunty "Lovely Rita" were fabulous and provided high entertainment. Group founder Peter Brennan supplied a unique psychedelic vocal sound to "Within You, Without You" with familiar tabla sounding drum parts. Paul McCartney's "When I'm 64" had the audience singing along. The orchestral strings built a crescendo of dramatic musical tension on "A Day in the Life" to its astonishing climax and release for the end of the first half.

The second portion brought the harmonic joy of the Springfield Symphony Chorus, under direction by Nikki Stoia, performing the John Lennon solo classic "(Just Like) Starting Over." A nicely played acoustic guitar intro by Brennan signaled "Across The Universe." Excellent orchestra string work propelled "Eleanor Rigby" to majesty. The George Harrison song "My Sweet Lord" was out shown by a melodic mimic of slide guitar by Dave Dunlop. "Because" featured the lovely dream-like harmonies of the Symphony Chorus. The scope and unimpaired brilliance of their inventive sound was impressive. The group dazzled with the Beatles, classic rock of "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be" for an exhilarated finale. Vocalist Meiller shared an intimate encore with a warm rendition of Ringo's "Goodnight."