Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 15, 2018

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT.
through November 25, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
In “The Drowsy Chaperone,” our narrator, known as “Man in Chair” says, “this musical is all about fun,” and how right he is! The plot is improbable, but that doesn’t matter. In this throwback to a day in which musicals were vehicles for singing, dancing, and tapping your toe, “The Drowsy Chaperone” draws on stereotypes and characterizations of old-style, 1920’s vaudeville and slapstick.  And the result is absolutely marvelous.

Director Hunter Foster has created an homage to the musicals of yesteryear with a heavy dose of warmth and heart. The stellar cast is headed by John Scherer, who as “Man in Chair” has a remarkable ability to create a rapport that draws the audience in to the small, basement apartment where he sits, feeling “blue.” To lift his spirits, he plays a record of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an old musical that has a link to his past. The characters come alive and act out the music while “Man” and audience become charmed by the cast of 18 talented actors.

Choreographed by Chris Baile who must use a shoehorn to fit everyone on the small Goodspeed stage, the show contains tap dancing, roller skating, and production numbers that include a biplane.  There is not a weak performer in the cast but some standouts include Jennifer Allen (Chaperone), Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet), Jay Aubrey Jones (Underling), and the brothers, Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh, as the well-coordinated slapstick duo (the Gangsters). Clyde Alves and Tim Falter are master tap dancers with strong voices, and John Rapson plays Aldolpho with loads of chutzpah. But without a doubt, this is “Man’s” show, and John Scherer tells the story of his favorite musical with passion and masterfully. There is a contemporary message, and the audience does not miss it. As “Man” reminds his audience, if musicals can lift your spirits and provide escape—they serve an important purpose. 

“The Drowsy Chaperone” won five Tony Awards, and the Goodspeed production sparkles just as well as the 2006 Broadway production. Music Director Michael O’Flaherty’s eight musicians sound like many more, and the book, written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, is often called a “valentine” to the tunes and people who created the Jazz Age musical. Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison leave nearly everyone humming the tunes and keep the good feeling going.  

Kudos to Goodspeed Musicals for this outstanding production and for giving their audiences a couple of hours to escape from reality and allowing them to feel pure joy.

REVIEW: Theaterworks, The River

Theaterworks, Hartford, CT
www.theaterworkshartford.org
through November 11, 2018
by Barbara Stroup

After its first three productions this season, Theaterworks will move temporarily to the Wadsworth Athenaeum while renovations are completed at the Pearl Street venue in the spring and summer of 2019. For its "renovation season" production, Theaterworks presents “The River” by Jez Butterworth. Inhabited by only three unnamed characters, the play focuses on The Man (and his method of serial seduction?), who brings The Woman to his inherited cabin to “fish.” He reveres the nearby river and the silver trout that, when conditions are perfect, are available to “catch.”

Critical restraint forbids revealing more than would rob future patrons of the enjoyment they deserve, so plot points cannot be contained here. There is an air of mystery to the reality of the two female characters, but no mystery envelopes the very real fish-gutting that The Man performs on stage, posturing and contemplating the silvery flesh on the table in front of him.

Patrons will not need hands-on experience with fly fishing to appreciate The Man’s speech about how his love of it began – it’s a beautiful fish story and the highlight of the play, raptly absorbed by The Other Woman. Their vows of love – forever - seem sincere. The Other Woman in turn reveals much about her past and describes the scene of her father’s death that is reminiscent of the fish just dressed before our eyes. Unfortunate staging places her back to the audience during the delivery of this speech.

Entrances and exits are pivotal in this play, and the set design aptly places them at center stage where they belong. Gentle night sounds permeate the intimate space and lighting works its magic, too. But too many mysteries abound during it all (and afterward as well) to lead to satisfactory drama. The Man might be trying hard to step in the same river twice but being witness to his success or failure does not allow the viewer much sympathy. The audience is held in the cabin as tightly as the two women, and breathed sighs of relief at the surprise ending. But all was not revealed, and much discussion must have ensued on the drive home.

The 2018-2019 season includes a return of “Christmas on the Rocks,” their popular holiday show.

October 12, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The Glass Menagerie


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through October 21, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Before the lights go down in the theatre, a Narrator steps forward from behind a back wall onstage to address the audience. He speaks the poetry of Tennessee William’s story, “The Glass Menagerie,” foreshadowing a world about to be revealed.

Photo by Daniel Rader
The set presents a huge, floor to ceiling, backdrop; lighting permits giant-sized human shadows; sounds emit thunder contrasted with notes of a violin. The era of the Great Depression with WWI looming forms the all-encompassing location. At the base is the small shabby Wingfield home. Amanda (the mother) and her two adult children reside here. The physical and emotional lives of each hang by a thread. The fragility of these individuals speaks intensely; anything can break the relationships and destroy the future.

Mark H. Dold, as son Tom, exhibits a man smoldering inside, so much that he is about to explode. His sole salvation from his miseries is as an erstwhile poet. Dold, a BSC Associate Artist, proves to continually outdo his acting skills with each play he takes on. His precise diction and enunciation automatically put him at the forefront onstage, yet never scene-stealing. In his dual role as the Narrator, Dold depicts a man who pretends to himself that he is wiser than Tom.

The gentle demeanor in movement and voice of Angela Janas, as Tom’s sister Laura, shows a young woman, literally holding on to whatever sliver of happiness she can imagine – because imagine is the best that she can do. Laura’s small glass animals bring her joy. There is a thin line between pitiful and sad. Janas never lets Laura become pathetic. A staging suggestion would be to bring Laura’s menagerie downstage or spotlight the glass toys, making this key element in the story more visible to the audience.

Caitlin O’Connell’s mother role gives her audience a picture of a woman with sweet, feigned memories of her past balanced with harsh reality of the present. O’Connell portrays Amanda with more humanity than others in this role. It seems a reasonable choice to give likability to Amanda. O’Connell’s delivery of lines is flawless, but she often addresses the audience directly, as if in monologues, instead of the characters she speaks to.

Certainly, casting actors best fit for his/her roles is vital to make a production successful. Just how old are these characters? Laura is six years out of high school. Tom is four years out. Neither actor’s real age comes close. Is this discrepancy a huge blunder? No. Yet, it is a surprise because Director Julianne Boyd and BSC are near perfect.

October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 5–7, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

The “Star-Spangled Banner” launched this opening weekend program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season. On Saturday, when 10 Connecticut residents became American citizens at the orchestra’s second annual naturalization ceremony 90 minutes earlier on the same stage, Carolyn Kuanjj welcomed these new Americans to special seating at the concert. Beginning her eighth season as HSO Music Director after acquiring her own American citizenship at the same ceremony in 2017, Kuan led the national anthem with fervor and aplomb.

Both works that followed fittingly featured no guest soloists but the HSO itself in two orchestral showpieces which owe their existence to Boston Symphony maestro Serge Koussevitzky. When Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was treated for leukemia in New York in 1943, Koussevitzky offered him an orchestral commission, and the resulting five-movement “Concerto for Orchestra” has become one of Bartok’s most enduring masterpieces.

In a broad and sweeping account by Kuan and many HSO soloists, the opening “Introduction” was dark and haunting; the “Game of Pairs” was jaunty; the central “Elegy” was, in the composer’s own words, “a lugubrious death-song;” the “Interrupted Intermezzo” hilariously mocked the German march quoted in Shostakovich’s contemporaneous “Leningrad” symphony; and the upbeat “Finale” was a whirlwind of energy. In a classy touch, Kuan had the five pairs of woodwind soloists stand on their first appearance in the second movement.          

A magisterial reading after intermission of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” written in 1874 for solo piano and orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 for Koussevitzky’s pre-Boston orchestra in Paris, brought the program to a colorful and triumphant close. Mussorgsky depicts 10 paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann from a posthumous exhibit with music, including a repeatedly varied “promenade,” of immediate melodic appeal and great emotional depth.

While it might have been more instructive to project the Hartmann paintings which inspired Mussorgsky, the New Britain Museum of American Art exhibit “that provides a modern interpretation” of his art (listed in a program insert) is often stimulating and confirms the Maestra’s refreshing desire to think outside the box and engage with new community partners.

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Naked

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through  October 28, 2018
By Stuart Gamble

Luigi Pirandello’s puzzling, philosophical, and poetic drama “Naked” is set in Rome, Italy during the 1920’s or 30’s. This existential drama forces the audience to bare the truth of human existence while stripping away the lies that protect beings from despair, loneliness, and ultimately, death.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
“Naked” tells the story of Ersilia, a troubled woman who has just been released from a (mental?) hospital and is taken in by kindly novelist Ludovico Nota. Among the antagonists who threaten to dredge up her past include Ludovico’s gossipy landlady Signora Onoria, her jilted fiancĂ© Franco La Spiga, a trouble-making journalist named Alfredo Cantavalle, and her married lover Counsil Grotti. “Naked” is a pot boiling melodrama. Its audience is sure to anticipate and accept that all will probably not end well.

Berkshire Theatre Group’s actors are all well cast and well-played by this small ensemble. Tara Franklin, as Ersilia, has the most challenging role. She shows the seething rage of a woman manipulated by men, who nonetheless must cope with the consequences of the choices she’s made, including prostituting herself in economic need. Rocco Sisto, as Ludovico Nota, also shows great skill as a man who tries to care for and help heal Ersilia, through his eyes as an objective observer. James Barry’s (real-life spouse of Franklin) Franco La Spiga expresses great, operatic passion that seems missing from some of the other performers. Barbara Sims (Signora Onoria) and David Atkins (Alfredo Cantavalle) do the best they can with essentially (as written) one dimensional characters. Jeffrey Doormboss’ loathsome Consul Grotti has a scene with Franklin that is quite disturbing, echoing recent headlines.

Eric Hill directs with simplicity and honesty. Allowing the actors to speak directly and frankly with each other, he wisely avoids any artificial theatricality that would detract from the play’s serious, psychological themes. British playwright Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of “Naked” uses succinct, contemporary language that keeps the show’s running time to 90 minutes.

Costume designer Yoshi Tanokura dresses the actors in earthy browns, blues, white, and black suits and dresses that exemplify the period of Mussolini era fascism. Randall Parsons’ set design beautifully envelops the actors. The deeply cracked walls, newspaper-strewn floor, and piles of moldy books perfectly reflect the inner turmoil of these six characters in search of the meaning of life.

October 1, 2018

PREVIEW: Paradise City Festival, Pattern Play: Rhythm & Decoration in Art & Design

Paradise City Festival, Fair Grounds, Northampton, MA
October 6, 7, 8, 2018

Piece by Ira Frost
Playful, mesmerizing, seductive, even startling patterns captivate visitors at Paradise City Festival with their clever, intricate rhythms.

Patterns are all around us, playing an important role in our ability to navigate through life. Some scientific studies suggest seeing patters will even make you smarter. And what a pleasure it is to be mesmerized by the pattern found in a snowflake’s design, a tiger’s symmetrical stripes, or the never-ending spiral of a shell.

Following in nature’s footsteps, artists use patterns to repeat or echo important ideas in their work, letting a pattern communicate a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, or movement. Drawing patterns is one of the oldest art of rms. Think of the re pleating patters of lotus leaves carved into the great tombs and monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs. From the 7th century on, the ultimate pattern masters had to be the Islamic artists whose geometric patterns still inspire our awe in magnificent buildings throughout the world.

Piece by David Winigrad
At Paradise City, artists and makers of all stripes continue to enchant with their pattern play. Handmade textile and clothing designers turn useful coast and scarves into fashion extravaganzas wit the clever us of repeating designs. Jewelers transfix us with gold, silver, and precious stones  placed in delicate, rhythmic arrangements.  Painters, photographers, ceramicists, woodworkers, glass blowers, and all manner of metalsmiths us patterns to create works of art that let us lose ourselves in their intricacy.

This year’s Paradise City’s theme is “Pattern Play!” Discover the mysterious power of patterns to communicate ideas, create new connections, and spin a web that draws you deep into the artist’s imagination.

On-the-Road: Eclipse Mill Gallery

Eclipse Mill Gallery, Preparing for its 14th Annual Open House
North Adams, MA
by Shera Cohen

1881 Drawing, Eclipse Mill
Each year I include one venue that is new, at least to me, to write about in my summer Berkshire articles. Surprisingly, I had never heard of Eclipse Mill Gallery which has been in its present stage for over 15 years, and in its initial stage as a cotton mill started in 1896. Until now, my visits to North Adams were only to visit Mass MoCA while en route to other art offerings in nearby Williamstown.

Gail Sellers, part-owner with her husband Phil, of Riverhill Pottery was the guide for five woman, each dabblers or professionals in various performing arts genres. None of us came with a great deal of knowledge about the creation of visual art and crafts. Of course, we each had our own personal tastes.

A huge thank you to Gail who gave us a three-hour private tour of many of the studios/lofts, along with walks through the hallways that once housed cotton-making machines. Her discussion encompassed an historic look at this long stretching building of brick and pipes and its role in the growth of North Adams. The three-floor factory had been carefully restored, now housing 35 artists, each site with 14-foot ceilings and 10- foot windows. Every unit is unique in size and shape. Eclipse Mill is its own neighborhood.

More and more, some communities, especially those throughout New England, are restructuring factories and other such large buildings for modern-day purposes. What a wonderful alternative this repurposing philosophy is to the “tear it down” years. It is obvious that Gail and Phil, her husband are effusive in their pride of what the Mill has become.

We had the rare opportunity to be invited to meet six artists, their studios/homes, and their works. Most are “locals,” meaning that the artist had lived in the Berkshires proper before moving to Eclipse. Like Gail, there is a commonality in their appreciation of the landscape and leisure of this aesthetic piece of New England.

Art genres not only included the expected visual arts (painting, sculpture, guilting, photography, metal-work) but performing art as well. One dance choreographer/teacher taught us a few moves prior to her students’ class. An instrument builder gave us a chance to show off our terrible skills on his finely carved design.

Gail & Phil Sellers pottery
I had anticipated that Gail arranged some “peaks” into the art and homes of her selected group. But, even better -- each artist was extremely welcoming, inviting us in, answering questions about their creative process, and showed us such mundane things as the bathroom – unique and artsy, of course. Whenever questioned, each took the opportunity to explain the conception, the process, and the meaning of the piece of art.

Every few months a trio of artists produce their own gallery design in a large, empty space. This is the formal setting for visitors to attend Eclipse events and to appreciate the finished products of the artists’ labors. The displays feature disparate genres, which makes the setting eclectic and enjoyable.

Gail and Phil generously opened their studio.  If there had been a contest for “best studio,” this unit would have received a score of 10 in many categories. Their genre – rope woven pottery; their home – seemingly as long as two city blocks; their design – a circular-fashioned connection of living space and studio. This was a gem.

Julia Dixon, painter
Before readers think, isn’t this lovely that North Adams’ folk make arts and crafts for fun, think again. Each is a professional in his/her field, having exhibited and sold commissions throughout the world. However, the walls boast the works of most of the tenants – Eclipse is a museum in its own right.

The fact that these professional artists permitted five strangers into their homes, cheerfully welcoming us, was lovely to experience.

Eclipse Mill will host the 14th annual North Adams Open Studios,  Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14, from 11 am to 5 pm both days. The event is free and fully handicap accessible. The Eclipse Mill is at 243 Union Street , North Adams.