Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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."

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 19, 2014
by Mary Ann Dennis

The Bushnell brings in another “must see” musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. The technical aspects of the production captivate from start to finish. The plot is based on the "coat of many colors" story of the trials and triumphs of Joseph from the Bible's Book of Genesis.

The show’s family friendly storyline of hope overflows with universal themes, toe-tapping, finger-snapping music, and spectacular staging. Thanks to Musical Director Wayne Green and the cast’s crisp enunciation, not a beat of the script is missed in this fully sung musical.

Perfect choreography and direction allow this talented ensemble to showcase a bit of tap/clogging, athletics and lifts, stepping and plate slapping percussion leaving the audience quick to respond with applause.

The Narrator, played by Diane DeGarmo, is no stranger to the stage; she has amazing stage presence, vocal perfection, and commanding characterizations. She hits the high notes with tremendous power.

In the lead role, Ace Young is handsome with abs of death and gorgeous teeth, thank goodness, because his nasal vocal quality is a bit distracting to this otherwise stunning cast. What should have been a bone chilling moment for Young, his rendition of “Close Every Door” unfortunately lacked sincere depth. Young hits some powerful notes, however without connecting to his “character” the role lacks guts and luster.

The ensemble of brothers is the true star of the show. “One More Angel in Heaven” sung by Brian Guleb (Rueben) was the show’s first fun moment. “Those Canaan Days” sung by Paul Castree (Simeon) was a true showstopper. No, seriously, it stopped the show and the applause just wouldn’t end. Ryan Williams truly rocked the audience as Pharaoh when he sang about his dream in “Elvis” style.

Let’s get technical: Bravo to lighting designer Howell Binkley who uses every spectrum of color and direction possible. Binkley’s incredible concert/Broadway style design is captivating as it highlights the songs exquisitely.

“Joseph” is musical comedy at its best, supported by a great score, a story of hope, a humorous ensemble, and a brilliant narrator that skillfully takes the audience through this journey.

October 10, 2014

World's Greatest Tribute Band Concert


The Hippodrome, Springfield, MA
October 18, 2014

It's been a long time since we've Rocked n' Rolled. . .let's get it back!

On Saturday, Oct. 18, the Hippodrome, aka Paramount Theater (cinematreasures.org/theaters/1261), in Springfield, MA will rock the region with a triple bill of Classic Rock. Over the past 15 years, the theater underwent a 1.3 million dollar makeover and has been reinvigorated over the past 5 years with live rock shows.

That beat begins, led by the radiant torch of Indie-Rock sounds from songstress Shanta Paloma. Possessing a pure rock voice and a gift for guitar magic, she will perform originals, new music, and select covers.

“Crazy On You” will feature music from 70's female stalwarts “Heart,” with Cassandra Demers on lead vocals and Meredith Robinson on vocals and guitar. Lead guitarist Kevin Prefontaine will kick “Heart” classics into high gear for a passionate tribute.

“Back in Black,” led since 1990 by solid rocker Miguel Goncalves, is an “AC/DC” tribute band, providing a full throttle “AC/DC” experience. With Halloween around the corner, expect surprise musical happenings.

American Zeppelin
The rock engine will tear down the main runway in full roar with the crescendo of “American Zeppelin” featuring charismatic lead vocalist Livio Gravini. Livio goes back to the 80's in the local and regional music scene. Bandmates Paul Lusky, Ned Sikes, and John Myslinskilook provide a visual and sonic experience that reverberates in sympathetic rhapsody to “Led Zeppelin.”

The revelry begins at 7:30 at the Hippodrome, 1700 Main St., Springfield, MA. The cost is $25 for advance tickets and $30 at the door. You can get tickets at the Stonewall Tavern next door at 1716 Main St. or enclose a self-addressed envelope with check or money order sent to American Zeppelin, P.O. Box 1032, Granby, MA 01033.

Angels in America


Part One: Millennium Approaches
Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 19, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

Playhouse On Park has created an extraordinary production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Angels in America," and to borrow a line from Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid!”

“Angels in America” was written some 20 years ago, approximately ten years after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, and, yes, it is about AIDS, and oh so much more. The play is about caring, compassion, and love. It is about human needs -- physical as well as emotional. It is about concern for one another and mutual support. It is about attempting to live up to expectations, facing and accepting who we are and what we are, and finally, about survival.
Photo by Rich Wagner

The Playhouse On Park production is directed by Sean Harris with great sensitivity and flawlessly cast with an exceptionally talented ensemble, every one of whom delivers an award-deserving performance. In most cases, cast members perform multiple roles, always with distinctly drawn characterizations.

It is impossible to identify any single player for special praise, as this is a true ensemble production with every participant contributing brilliantly. These are not simply actors playing a part; they truly become the character they are portraying. Notable contributions are made by all, starting with Jim Shankman as Roy Cohn, Time Hackney as Joe Pitt, Kristen Harlow as Joe’s wife Harper, James Parenti as Prior Walter, Marty Scanlon as his partner Louis, Clark Beasley Jr. as Mr. Lies and Belize, and Olivia as four different characters as well as an off-stage voice. Bravos to all!

The venue is an intimate, comfortable theatre with the audience seated on three sides facing a large performance space. The producers are to be commended for their courage in bringing a very difficult production to local audiences. This is a rare opportunity to see one of the most challenging works of the past two decades in a magnificent production. The cast and presentation deserve full houses at every performance. Attendees will be richly rewarded.

October 8, 2014

Poe


Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
through October 26, 2014
by Shera Cohen

The set is numerous shades of brown with a smattering of black. The rustic interior of a tavern sits in the center of ceiling-to-floor paper panels, each with faded handwriting. This is not a friendly place which audience members step into, not only in the shroud of dark scenery but in the company of its inhabitants. Add macabre music and thunder claps and “Poe” is off to a powerful start.

Director/playwright Eric Hill’s imagination has chronicled the final days in the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, Poe’s demise is as mysterious as was his life and writings. Hill has seamlessly meshed history with fiction and poetry with dialogue for his main character. Poe’s language is full of near-operatic arias, most taken from his own writing, held together by meaningful recitative.

While “Poe” is not a one-man play, it very well could be for several reasons, most importantly beginning with actor David Adkins’ portrayal of the tortured poet. Adkins, who has acted quite nicely, primarily in contemporary plays over the years at Berkshire Theatre, entrenches his mannerisms and psyche into the body and soul of the wreck of a man Poe has become. It is hard to imagine another actor donning the mantle of agony, hopelessness, and mystery balanced with beauty, love, and brilliance. Assuredly, bringing Poe to life and ultimately to death is far from an easy task. At times, Adkins superbly plays the friendly drunk. Yet, humor often shades hard truth, and in Poe’s case, the truth is too harsh to live with. Adkins personifies his Poe with feigned levity awash with harsh reality, so that “Poe’s” audience is decidedly uncomfortable to laugh or even smile. Hill achieves that dichotomy.

Yes, other actors appear onstage, but their actions and words do little to flesh out Poe’s character and/or link theirs with his in important ways. The play’s start serves as repartee solely as a prelude to Poe’s entrance. While Kate Maguire’s character’s recitation of “The Tale Heart” is effectively chilling, it might have served better as a preamble to the play or after-show reading.

“Poe” has a short run at Berkshire Theatre, so make a date with this master poet soon.