Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 22, 2017

Kunstler


Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through June 10, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

As you enter the theatre there are protest flyers on chairs, and a large, suit-clad effigy hanging on the stage with a sign that says “Traitor.” Soon you realize that you’re in a law school auditorium in the mid-1990s, where the iconoclastic civil rights lawyer, William Kunstler has been asked to talk about his most famous cases, including his representation of Black Panther Co-Founder, Bobby Seale, the Chicago Seven, inmates of the Attica prison riots, Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1973, Yusef Salaam, one of the accused members of the “Central Park Jogger” case, and many more. Was Kunstler a radical lawyer, political hypocrite, or committed defender of Constitutional rights? Jeffrey Sweet’s highly intelligent play allows the audience to be the jury to decide on the sum total of Kunstler’s character and career.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Jeff McCarthy is outstanding as Kunstler, drawing on his theatrical skills as a comic, impersonator, and brilliant communicator. His disheveled hair and physicality reflective of Kunstler’s health at the time, are magnets. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him as he cracks a joke, works the audience, or retreats into a memory. In the difficult role of a young law student forced to share the stage with Kunstler when the student Committee Chair fails to show up, Erin Roché is adorable and equally mesmerizing. In a passionate exchange on idealism and the law, the student challenges Kunstler’s choice of cases that, by the mid-1990s, make him appear to be a “sell-out.” Kunstler replies, “If you think my cases have declined in nobility, well, I can only chose from what is offered me. And so I do.”

Director Meagen Fay uses the theatre/auditorium to great advantage, proving that the stage alone isn’t adequate to contain Kunstler’s driving energy. Kudos too, to Betsy Adams’ lighting design and Will Severin’s sound design, the latter of which subtly brings in the chants of those students boycotting Kunstler’s appearance. 

Barrington Stage’s production of “Kunstler” provides the audience with a master class in acting and reminds us of a larger-than-life character who deserves to live in our collective memory.

Capitol Steps 2017


One-on-one interview with Mark Eaton, co-writer
Cranwell, Lenox, MA
by Shera Cohen

Tell us a little about your background.  I started with the Steps back in 1993. I was still working on the Hill [D.C.] and joined the group as a part-time performer. I may have been the last staffer the Steps could find who could sing and dance. Then I lost my mind in 1999 and decided to do this full-time.

Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?  You just never know which will come first. You might have a couple ideas for a song, and have to hit the rhyming dictionary which might then spark a cover tune for the idea and lyrics. Other times you might be driving and hear a song come on the radio, and your brain instantly changes The Byrds “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” into “Hey, Mr. Tangerine Man.”

How do you know when you come to that thin line between humor and blasphemy? Fortunately for us the audience is the ultimate arbiter of what is or isn’t funny, and what ultimately stays in the show. We have written plenty of things we think are outlandishly funny only to perform them before stunned audiences.

But we aren’t trying to be outrageous or blaspheme anybody. We are trying to be equal opportunity offenders who go after both sides of the aisle in an attempt to make people laugh. Because if we don’t laugh at some of this stuff, we will certainly cry about it.  

When do you feel it’s time to retire one sketch and replace it? The show changes as the headlines change. There are sometimes songs/skits that are gangbusters, but only for a brief time. The story is gone too quickly. And others we are forced to retire simply because we’ve done them so long the audience may have seen it a couple times. But fortunately for us there is never a lack of material. The American voters have been very kind to us in that regard.

I would imagine that working as a writing team is difficult. What is the process? The hardest thing is keeping up with the craziness of D.C. But unlike the way most folks imagine it, we don’t sit around a table and spitball ideas. Elaina Newport (one of the founders) or I am typically to blame for the material. We might write an entire song, send it to the other person and ask “what do you think?” We might tinker with a different joke or leave as is. Other times we might not have more than an idea for a chorus or half a song that doesn’t have a solid ending. The other person might punch it into the end zone.

Do you have particular characters in mind when the actors/singers are cast? When we have auditions we do require performers to be able to do some “voices” and, more importantly, be able to sing in that voice. If you can talk like Donald Trump, but can only sing like Pavarotti, it would be confusing! So somebody might be singing “My Way” for their audition, and we might yell “now sing it as an angry terrorist.”

Is there a conscious effort to balance White House stories with global issues? Absolutely. As mentioned before, we try to go after everybody.   There is way too much going on – besides at the White House – that deserves to be mocked.

Are there any anecdotes to tell us? One of our favorite stories was performing for George Bush, Sr. at the White House. Well, the staff told us to not do any material about him. We had plenty of material to do such as VP Dan Quayle. After the show, the President walked to the stage and announced, “Now I want to see the stuff about me,” and returned to his seat. Well, we scrambled about and did all the material about him, and he loved it. He got it! Being made fun of goes with the territory when you enter politics.

Performances: June 30 – September at 8pm, except Tuesdays

For further information check www.capitolsteps.com

May 15, 2017

Thoroughly Modern Millie


Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through July 2, 2017
by Bernadette Johnson

It’s 1922, and wide-eyed country girl Millie Dillmount arrives in the Big Apple from Kansas during one of the most exciting times in the city’s history. Tearing up her return ticket, she plunges into her newfound freedom with a new “do” and frock – bobbed hair, cloche hat and flapper-style dress. Determined to make a name for herself, Millie has her sights set not on stardom but on matrimony, and only a rich catch will fit the bill. Her target:  a boss who’s wealthy and eligible. The handsome, boisterous playboy Jimmy Smith she encounters on arrival in the city doesn’t rate a second glance or a second thought.

She takes a room at the Hotel Priscilla, where single women (preferably without family) are “warmly” welcomed by Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), an evil, conniving mastermind, and immediately sets out to land the perfect job. It’s a classic love story with twists and turns but with, strangely enough, a faux-dark subplot of white slavery.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Taylor Quick and Dan DeLuca are perfectly cast as Millie and Jimmy, their chemistry as magical as their powerful voices. Their duet “I Turned the Corner,” performed on Paul Tate dePoo III’s cleverly designed “window ledge,” is outstanding and endearing. Edward Watts, as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon, is all business suit and starched demeanor, until he steps way out of character, to the audience’s pure delight, on first sight of Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm) and launches into “I’m Falling in Love with Someone.” His expressions and vocals are priceless. Ramona Keller, as Muzzy Van Hossmere, draped in costume designer Gregory Gale’s shimmering gold lame gown, delivers a standout blues-inspired “Only in New York,” a dazzling performance in Tate dePoo’s equally dazzling penthouse.

Gale excels throughout with period costumes that enthrall, and Tate dePoo has set magical scenes for the same, in particular meshed with Rob Denton’s lighting designs, which accentuate the lavishness of the era – pure eye candy. Denton has even managed lighting that makes dePoo’s elevator “lift.”

Throughout, dance routines are slick and smooth, a testament to Denis Jones’ choreography and an outstanding ensemble cast. Standout numbers include “The Speed Test,” a secretarial office type and tap, and a speakeasy all-out jazz/Charleston extravaganza.

No Shakespearean drama here, just a delightful romp.

May 9, 2017

Titanic: The Musical


Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through May 21, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Referring to the small Opera House stage in her “Director’s Notes,” Sharon FitzHenry says the OHP production of “Titanic” “turns the focus back [from the ship] to the men and women of that fateful night” in April 1912, when this “floating city” sank in the North Atlantic only five days into its maiden voyage, killing 1,517 of its 2,200+ passengers and crew. Her cast of 21 singing actors brings over 50 characters to vivid and memorable life.

With music and lyrics by Maury Yeston (“Nine”) and a book by Peter Stone (“1776”), the original Broadway production opened in 1997, when it won all five Tony awards it was nominated for, including Best Musical. Perhaps the reason no actors were nominated is that “Titanic” calls for a true ensemble effort. While there’s not a weak link in the OHP cast, several standouts deserve special praise.

As the triumvirate who share “The Blame” (in Act II) for the disaster, Dennis J. Scott portrays Captain Smith with affecting dignity; Stephen Jewell gives Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, a tragic pride; and Tim Reilly invests Titanic owner J. Bruce Ismay with obnoxious bluster. Tara Kennedy is a hoot as upwardly striving second-class passenger Alice Beane, and more laughs come when another character muses, “Maybe I should go into politics; then I wouldn’t have to know anything.”

Musical highlights include: the stirring anthem “There She Is,” heartily chanted by most of the company; the haunting “No Moon,” rendered by Andrew D. Secker as lookout Frederick Fleet; and the lovely duet “Still,” tenderly sung by Jayne Newirth and Glenn Gordon as an aging couple, the Strauses (he co-owned Macy’s), who refuse to separate and perish together.

Flexible set design by director FitzHeny and Francisco Aguas allows for quick and seamless scene transitions by cast members in shadow to atmospheric underscoring by musical director Bill Martin’s crack four-person band. Lively choreography by Aileen Merino Terzi for the “Doing the Latest Rag” scene, sensitively varied lighting by FitzHenry, and brilliant period costumes by Moonyean Field also make this transporting production a must-see.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet


Close Encounters with Music 
Mahaiwe Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
May 7, 2017
by Rebecca Phelps

This year Close Encounters With Music celebrates its 25th season presenting creative programming for smaller venues in and around Great Barrington. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet was their penultimate concert of the 2016-17 season and was a huge hit with the audience.

Beginning with music from the time of Cervantes, arranged and narrated by LAGQ member William Kanengiser, the concert was off to an engaging start. William Kanengiser is not only a talented guitarist and arranger, but indeed a gifted actor, who told the story of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, interspersed with short, delightful Spanish renaissance dances. Kanengiser included castanet, tambourine, and drum-like effects on the guitars.

Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto was arranged for the quartet by their former college professor, James Smith, to whom the LAGQ remains deeply indebted. It was in his studio where they originally met and became an ensemble; three of the four members have remained together for 37 years!

The Three Brazilian Pieces, which came next, represented a small sample of a project the LAGQ undertook in 2007 in which they studied, performed and recorded several Brazilian works. Each piece which they performed represented a different aspect of Brazilian music; the first by contemporary jazz composer Hermeto Pascoal, the second (originally for piano) O Lenda da Caboclo, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and lastly a traditional samba - Samba Nuovo; highly energized and lots of fun.

La soiree dans Granade from “Estampes” by Claude Debussy was another of James Smith’s arrangements; a perfect choice as the original piece depicts a scene of the Alhambra in Granada and is, in its original form, a piano imitating guitars! Stunningly beautiful in either form.

The final set of was another of William Kanengiser’s arrangements, this time  a suite of movements from Bizet’s famous opera Carmen; another selection featuring guitaristic sounds depicting the much loved dances and melodies made famous by the bewitching Spanish Carmen.

The LAGQ brought the audience to its feet with their creative programming, their virtuosity that never gets in the way of music making, and their obvious enjoyment of performing together. Bravo!

May 8, 2017

Storytellers and Songwriters


A celebration for Shakespeare & Company’s 40th season
By Shera Cohen

TS Eliot and His Love of Shakespeare with Allyn Burrows
As Shakespeare & Company’s last summer season came to an end, in many ways it was a beginning. Allyn Burrows, was named new Artistic Director. His first huge task was to oversee the planning for the 2017 season of plays and programs.

It is a bit of a misnomer to title Burrows as the “new” Artistic Director. Yes, he has taken the helm, but Burrows is no stranger to S&Co. Burrows was with the troupe for many years, serving as Company member (actor and director) Artistic Associate, and Board member. He certainly knows his Shakespeare very well. Burrows presence is ideal, since this summer marks the company’s 40th season – a time to celebrate.

Allyn Burrows, an Eliot Norton Award Winner, is a graduate of Boston University. He has performed in film, television, Off-Broadway, and regionally. Most recently, he was the Artistic Director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston since 2010.

Why is this new series important?
The Storytellers and Songwriters series is important to S & Co. because it allows us to reach out to a wider audience with music and song while staying true to our mission of being a language and relationship driven company.

Bad Dates with Elizabeth Aspenlieder
As the new artistic director, was this series on your immediate “to do” list?
The series idea came up when we found we had space for it in the Tina Packer Playhouse. You see, by moving one of our Shakespeare plays (“The Tempest”) outside into our Roman Garden Theatre this summer, we freed up the indoor space in August inside. I've long been a fan of acoustic songwriters and this seemed like great opportunity to combine them with one person shows that many senior company members have been working on.

Why these particular plays?
All the plays resonate on a global socio-political scale, although some do that in a quieter way. 

Did you select the series?
I spoke with many actors and company members about what might be of interest to them and the world at large, and then we produced them as a series that seemed like a good mix. It's a whole festival!

Door of No Return with Nehassaiu deGannes
What type of audience would this attract?
I'm hoping our regular devotees will be intrigued, but I'm also looking to attract folks to the property who might not otherwise land here, folks who are coming for the music but then get interested in all the other great programming we have to offer.

None are written by Shakespeare. Are these new plays?
There are a number of new plays, yes, but all of them can trace their influences in one way or another back to Shakespeare.

Please explain the partnership of play-writing and musical composition.
Originally, I imagined a symbiotic relationship, where the musician would be inspired by what they heard on stage in terms of text and story and would fold their music into the language. I lined it up so that that relationship could be organic and the actor and musician can decide between themselves how intertwining of text and music would have the most resonance and effect. I see the text pieces starting the evening with the music finishing and varying degrees of overlap in between.

Women of Will
Following the plays, will there be talk-backs?
Not formally, but there will likely be opportunities to meet the performers and have a chat afterwards.

Has this been done before at S&Co.?
Nothing exactly like this has ever been done here. We'll see how it goes this summer, especially as it's designed this summer as a celebration of our 40th Season, but hopefully it will have some traction and we can bring it back! It should be a lot of fun!


The plays run from August 11 – 26, each features one or two S&Co. actors, and all will be presented in the Tina Packer Playhouse:

8/11 Via Dolorosa with Jonathan Epstein
8/12 T.S. Eliot and His Love of Shakespeare with Allyn Burrows and musician Michi Wiancko
8/18 Door of No Return with Nehassaiu deGannes
8/19 In Light of Jane with Tod Randolph followed by music of Kris Delmhorst
8/20 Bad Dates with Elizabeth Aspenlieder
8/25 Women of Will featuring Tina Packer and Nigel Gore
8/26 Travels with the Masked Man with John Hadden and musician Bobby Sweet

For information check the website at www.shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353.

Russian Harmonies


Pioneer Valley Cappella, Northampton, MA
May 6-7, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

For over thirty years the Pioneer Valley Cappella has performed a wide range of classical choral music, from early Renaissance to contemporary. Its Music Director for the past eleven years is Geoffrey Hudson, an Oberlin and New England Conservatory graduate and a composer. Its 25 sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses “range from professional musicians to skilled amateurs,” and they present two concerts annually (fall and spring), each in multiple Valley venues.

The spring 2017 concert featured choral masterpieces by three Russian composers. It opened with the “Three Sacred Hymns” written in 1984 by Alfred Schnittke. In remarks following the performance, Hudson referred to Schittke’s “polystylistic” technique of drawing from many styles to forge a distinctive voice of his own. This difficult music could not have been easy to learn, but the Cappella’s clear enunciation of the Russian texts and the expressive blend of their sound fully conveyed the austere beauty of the “Hail Mary,” the quiet supplication of “Lord Jesus,” and the majestic sweep of the “Our Father.”

Even more rarely heard are the five songs by Cesar Cui that followed, the least known of the “Mighty Five” Russian nationalist composers of the late nineteenth century, including Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Though the least memorable part of the program, the Cappella’s careful intonation and precise diction suggested how the romantic lyricism of these charming songs informed the later styles of Stravinsky and Schnittke, particularly in the lovely “Nocturne” and the dramatic “Two Foes.”  

The Stravinsky piece that concluded the concert was the familiar “Symphony of Psalms,” which Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned in 1930 for the BSO’s 50th anniversary. Brilliantly accompanied by pianists Gregory Hayes and Heather Reichgott, the Cappella highlighted the startling originality of this music with its Latin text, sounding especially radiant in the closing “Laudate Dominum.”

Hudson’s engaging commentaries made up for the lack of program notes, but the original Russian and Latin texts should have been included with the welcome English translations. The acoustics of Amherst’s Grace Episcopal Church on May 6 ideally balanced clarity and reverberation.  Choral music fans should follow this enterprising ensemble.