Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 22, 2016

Ozawa Hall Concerts 2016


Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
by Michael J. Moran

Ozawa Hall photo by Steve Rosenthal
Memories of the 2016 Tanglewood season linger not just for the Boston Symphony programs in the Koussevitzky Music Shed but for two series of concerts in the smaller Ozawa Hall, one presented by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the other by various visiting artists.  Both series offered musicians performing at or near the world-class level of their BSO colleagues.

The TMCO, whose membership changes annually, consists of emerging professional musicians from across the world. Its alumni are estimated to comprise 20% of all players and 30% of first- chair players in American orchestras. Four 2016 concerts illustrate the vast and challenging range of TMCO repertoire: four Bach cantatas; the U.S. premiere of a 2015 TMC-commissioned song cycle by British composer George Benjamin, along with the “Turangalila” Symphony by Benjamin’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen (a 1945 Koussevitsky/BSO commission); a pairing of Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins” with Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony; and a relatively conventional program of Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

The already high level of technical proficiency and emotional maturity in the TMCO’s performances of these works was further enhanced by the collaboration of many seasoned veterans: composer/conductor John Harbison led the Bach program; soprano Dawn Upshaw and baritone Sanford Sylvan alternated with TMC vocal fellows in singing the eleven poems set in Shostakovich’s symphony; and Gil Shaham played Tchaikovsky’s concerto, while Charles Dutoit conducted.

Standout performances included: TMC tenor Christopher Sokolowski’s mellifluous solos in Bach’s Cantata #116 and the Weill ballet; impressive TMC countertenor Daniel Moody in the Benjamin; searing accounts of Apollinaire’s “The Suicide” by Upshaw and Kuchelbecker’s “O Delvig, Delvig!” by Sylvan in the Shostakovich; and nimble TMCO clarinetist Erin Fung in the Kodaly.

Among highlights of five concerts by visiting artists were: soprano Renee Fleming’s supple renditions with the Emerson String Quartet of music by Wellesz and Berg; vibrant Monteverdi, Mahler, and Muhly from the versatile male chorus Chanticleer; eloquent Brahms and Chopin from master Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire; a taut and entertaining Stravinsky “Soldier’s Tale” from Dutoit, guest violinist Chantal Juillet, BSO soloists, and actor Carson Elrod; and a brilliant “Medieval to Modern” mashup by protean pianist Jeremy Denk.

Blessed by geography with easy access to these musical treasures, classical concertgoers in the Pioneer Valley can depend on the prospect of another great Tanglewood season in 2017 to weather the coming winter.

September 19, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors


Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT 
playhouseonpark.org 
through Oct. 16, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

Love and hate, happiness and tragedy, life and death, humor and horror—“Little Shop of Horrors” playing at Playhouse On Park offers these and wonderful tunes that make two hours simply melt away. Directed and choreographed with style and verve by Susan Haefner, “Little Shop,” with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken (the creators of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) and Roger Corman’s film, offers an evening of hummable melodies and theatrical abandon.

The Little Shop of the title is Mr. Mushnik’s (Damian Buzzerio) skid row flower shop that does zero business. His schleppish employee Seymour (Steven Mooney) has a hobby of cultivating strange plants. Audrey (Emily Kron), Mushnik’s other employee, is a sweetly simple soul with a penchant for picking abusive boyfriends, including the sadistic motorcycle dentist Orin (Aidan Eastwood). Seymour’s discovery of a carnivorous plant that he names Audrey II, in honor of his secret love for Audrey, soon creates havoc for Seymour as he desperately tries to keep Audrey well-fed.

photo: Meredith Atkinson
The singing and acting of the entire cast is prime. Mooney’s appealing performance as Seymour deserves attention. His transformation from an awkward, be-speckled misfit to a self-assured man of the world is highlighted in his duet with Kron, the show-stopping “Suddenly Seymour.” His other duets with Buzzerio, the tango-inflected “Mushnik and Son” and with Audrey II  “Feed Me” are comic highlights. Kron nicely underplays Audrey, which is evident in her doleful rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green.” Rasheem Ford’s basso-profundo voice of Audrey II and Susan Slotoroff’s  physical manipulation of Audrey II are commendable as well.

Since “Little Shop” is essentially quite theatrical and depends on various elements to create its almost cartoonish quality, credit must be given to Scenic Designer Brian Dudkiewicz and Costume Designer Kate Bunce, who transform the nearly single set from drab grey and black to Oz-like technicolor.

Despite all its wonderful qualities, the four-member musicians at times drown out some of the singers, most notably in the title number sung with perky enthusiasm by the street gals’ chorus.

But this doesn’t prevent the show from delivering its message that fame costs much in human sacrifice(s).

September 13, 2016

Million Dollar Quartet

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 23, 2016
by Tim O’Brien

On December 4, 1956, rockabilly star Carl Perkins and his band prepared to cut a record at legendary Sun Studios in Nashville. When Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley dropped by, the jam session that took place was dubbed by a local reporter as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”

Based on that true event, the musical version rocks and rolls, packing 20+ hit songs, jubilantly played and sung live by an impressive group of musician/actors. With the Majestic’s own Danny Eaton producing and directing and Pioneer Valley music master Mitch Chakour overseeing musical direction, there’s no chance anything would go wrong in their very capable hands.

Jay Sefton is excellent as Sun impresario Sam Phillips, regularly breaking the fourth wall to describe the action and the subtext of the action on that long-ago December night. Phillips is determined to ink the fast-rising Cash to a contract extension this very evening, a deal that should lock up a lucrative future for both. Sefton plays his character adroitly with equal parts southern gentleman, sharp-eared discoverer of talent and shrewd businessman.

Colin Patrick Ryan also shines as Elvis, not yet 22 but already near the peak of his powers. By backing well away from the campy, bloated figure of his destiny, the young “King of Rock” is still vulnerable, self-aware and simply looking to enjoy a night of music among these talented friends.

Corbin Mayer takes on Johnny Cash, in real life nearly three years older than Elvis at the time. Mayer’s youthful face and trim haircut do little to help create that image of relative maturity, but he sings with a rich, soulful baritone that does great justice to the canon of familiar Cash tunes.

Dan Whelton has a nice turn as the guitar-slinging Carl Perkins, ever-smiling and county-dignified as the rockabilly luminary desperately seeking a follow-up hit to “Blue Suede Shoes.” Kaytlyn Vandeloecht is the lone female presence as Dyanne, Elvis’ date for the night. She stands out with a couple of solos (“Fever” is plenty hot, indeed), sweet harmonies, and lots of energetic tambourine playing.

Brian Michael Henry as Jerry Lee Lewis grabs this reviewer’s attention the most. Opinionated, cock-sure of his talent and with a chip on his shoulder, “The Killer” reminds the others that rock ‘n roll is the playground of the devil, all the while rocking the piano with the fury of Lucifer himself.

A smart, compact set and a snappy rockabilly trio of local players flesh out the production wonderfully.

August 30, 2016

Sotto Voce

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 11, 2016
by Stuart Gamble

Sotto Voce in Italian means in a soft voice. Indeed, this new play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz is a quiet, chamber piece, yet whose timeless themes of lost love, obsession, collective guilt, and the immigrant experience scream out to the rafters. Featuring only three actors (two of whom play two roles apiece), this is a bold and powerful drama sprinkled with humor throughout.

The story begins in 1999 when an exhibition for the 60th anniversary of the U.S. St. Louis (“the ship of indifference”) is being planned in Miami. This particular ship set sail from Germany to Cuba in the spring of 1939. Some 900 Jews fled Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis in hopes of a safe future. Unfortunately, because most of the passengers didn’t have Cuban Visas, they were denied entry. The same occurred when they attempted to enter the U.S. Much to the horror of the passengers and the world, those onboard were forced to return to Germany and an uncertain future.

Photo by Ava Lindenmaier
This little known episode of 20th century, pre-Holocaust history sadly remains a chapter in world history that should be brought to light. Cruz’ drama, “Sotto Voce,” does precisely that. We first meet the rather peculiar, black-clad Cuban student Saquiel Rafaeli (Jaime Carrillo) who is on an obsessive search for the Garbo-like reclusive writer Bernadette Kahn (Annette Miller). Saquiel finally locates Kahn and holds vigil across from her apartment building; he has personal reasons for searching for Kahn, but she suffers from agoraphobia and her only human contact is with her housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (Evelyn Howe). Bernadette and Lucila are equally concerned and fascinated by Saquiel’s stalking behavior. Soon, the play becomes a “virtual affair of voices.”

The actors in this romantic triangle give memorable performances. Miller is tough but tender as the disillusioned Bernadette who dreamily drifts from the present to the past. Carrillo gives an eloquent performance as the driven yet empathetic Saquiel and briefly as Bernadette’s lost Jewish lover Ariel Strauss. Finally, Evelyn Howe makes both her earthy Lucila and Nina Strauss (Ariel’s doomed sister) realistic and sympathetic.

Directed with assurance and emotional power by Daniel Gidron, “Sotto Voce” is a relevant theatrical piece. In a year in which world immigration has captured much attention, Cruz’ timeless play should be seen and remembered for years to come as a testament to the lives of those who seek freedom from oppression.

August 23, 2016

Tribes


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA 
barringtonstageco.org 
through September 3, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by Scott Barrow
In search of a voice, in a family with nothing but the loud and argumentative kind, Billy – deaf from birth – stumbles into his first relationship. Sylvia, from a family of two deaf parents, has at least two fluent voices--- her signing voice, and her English language. Billy’s protective family’s usual chaotic interactions draw Sylvia into the kind of discussion that has permeated the worlds of deafness, education, and ‘rehabilitation’ since hearing aids were invented -- can aids and lip reading provide total integration into a hearing world? And if so, why join the Deaf one? Is sign language inferior semantically? Is it better to be hearing than deaf? 

Nina Raine manages to include these themes and more in her passionate comedy about belonging, self-definition, dependence, family and language and its limitations. The family’s dining table is a stage for chaotic arguments, quickly resolved, which reveal both their self-absorption and their love for each other. Noisy, loud, and rarely tender, their voices spin unheard around Billy, and have done so all his life –they are too busy with ego to take the time to face him attentively and include him in their ranting. Through Sylvia and sign language, he finally expresses need, and is able to find not only love but a new tribe. 

Miles G. Jackson is outstanding as Billy’s older brother Daniel, who fears Billy’s independence even while he fights his own demons. The audience gradually becomes aware of how ill he is, feeling his despair, his powerlessness, his loss and fear. But this play is also a comedy, and the bickering of Billy’s family, played by C. David Johnson, Justine Salata and Deirdre Madigan, gives the audience much enjoyment. When Billy’s growing Deaf awareness finally finds expression, Joshua Castille brings the character’s pleas and frustration to passionate, moving fruition. As she journeys into silence, and as music, laughter, and weeping all become just a roaring rush of sound, Eli Pauley as Sylvia, brings tears of empathy for her encroaching loss. 

The playwright blends many comedic moments with this play’s serious themes, and her frequently angry characters reveal the numerous complexities of just being human. It is a brilliant and moving theatre experience. Barrington Stage’s production is beautifully produced, with an intricately detailed set. Music, and its visual representations, enhance scene changes while responding to the theme. Hearing audiences cannot help but be affected by this glimpse at a silent world.

Broadway Bounty Hunter


Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Barrington Stage’s new musical, “Broadway Bounty Hunter” features an extraordinarily talented cast of 12 actor/singer/dancers, and a live band of six versatile musicians on the very intimate St. Germain Stage. Authors Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin, and Jason SweetTooth Williams write in the playbill; “Thanks to every artist who has ever been made to feel less than, not as good as, too black, too white, too weird, too old, too young, too whatever. This one’s for you.”

Photo by Scott Barrow
The incomparable Annie Golden, known to many from her stage and television performances (most recently as the silent Norma in “Orange is the New Black”), plays herself—Annie Golden. As a “woman of a certain age,” Annie is experiencing the prejudice that comes with being past her prime in theatre, and when she can’t pay her bills, she is visited by a frightening group of martial arts-experts headed by Shiro Jin (Scott Watanabe), who convinces her to join them as a bounty hunter. She’s partnered with Lazarus (Alan H. Green), a big, powerful Black Man complete with swagger and a pimp’s outfit, and together they set off to capture Mac Roundtree (Jeff McCarthy), a drug lord.  

The situations are preposterous, and the music and lyrics, also by Joe Iconis, draw from every popular culture genre of the 1970’s. Most obvious are the images from black sexploitation films—themselves notorious for the sketchiest of plots, but we get many more familiar themes, from theatre (especially “Hair,” Ms. Golden’s first Broadway show), and “jukebox” musicals that featured popular music of the day. Throughout the show, Golden’s own experiences and her masterful delivery poke fun at theatre and the acting profession. We can laugh at her predicament, because we sense an optimistic denouement for our heroine. The entire cast is so strong and the characterizations so engaging, we can’t help but go along for the ride.

The show’s concept originated in Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, and like all new musicals, has been in development for a while. It’s hard to think of anyone playing the lead but Annie Golden, but in a way that doesn’t matter. The show is fun, makes you laugh with the characters and situations, rather than at them, and reminds you that no matter who you are, every day brings a new start.

August 17, 2016

Two Gentlemen of Verona


Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” one of The Bard’s early comedies, performed infrequently at Shakespeare & Company (S&Co), hits the stage running, dancing, promenading, singing, and clowning. The cast of 15 are a colorful lot – literally and figuratively. The motley group boasts royalty, outlaws, servants, lovers, scoundrels, and a dog that steals the show.

This is a Shakespeare play which is quite easy “to get” by any fledgling audience member. At the crux of the tale are two handsome young men; 16th century BFFs. Our hero, Valentine, journeys to Verona. There he meets and falls in love with Sylvia. Back home, Proteus, engaged to Julia, decides to join his buddy, sets his eyes on Sylvia, and also falls in love. Poor Julia? Out of sight, out of mind. The story is light, until the ending, although issues of true friendship, betrayal, and fickle love are demonstrated throughout. There’s the woman disguised as a man theme, love triangle, and razor sharp servants (called clowns) which often populate these comedies.

It is wonderful to see many S&Co “regulars” and “former regulars” on stage; i.e. Jason Asprey, John Hadden, and Ryan Winkles. In my early S&Co days, I primarily saw Asprey featured in dramas and history plays. Now, a bit older, he seems to have diversified his talents, making for a perfectly enjoyable servant. I could say the same about Hadden’s onstage personas of years ago. I hadn’t realized that Hadden could also portray comedy with a capital “C.” Together with his dog, Hadden has the best lines in the story. Winkles uses every cell in his body (well, it seems that way) to become whoever S&Co needs him to be, in this case the not too bright, somewhat bumbling, well-meaning Valentine. Winkles captures every verbal and physical nuance – anything that legitimately makes his character funnier. Winkles doubles as fight choreographer, earning extra kudos for some laugh-out-loud rumbles.

Of course, none of these talents, not to mention the others in the cast, could do pretty much anything without the Jonathan Croy’s director’s hand. Croy, like the others mentioned, is part of the tried & true S&Co team. My guess is that because Croy is one of the funniest actors on the S&Co stages, it is natural that he was chosen to direct this comedy.

For those who insist on Shakespeare “pure,” perhaps S&Co is not the venue for you. However, I think, and many agree that additions of shtick, 21st century puns, RAP music, and audience participation makes for fun theatre.