Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 25, 2016

Dirty Dancing-The Classic Story on Stage

The Bushnell, Hartford, 
through May 29, 2016
by R.E. Smith

A more faithful transfer of a movie to the stage could not be found than this presentation of “Dirty Dancing” and judging from the reaction and energy of the audience, they would have it no other way.

Original screenwriter Eleanor Begstein created this “stage event” to fill the need of what she saw as the “viewing audience’s desire to be more physically involved in the story.” So she crafted a show that is not quite a musical or concert, not quite a dance review, but a unique recreation of the 1987 film that tells the tale of a young girl’s coming of age at a 1960s Catskill resort.

Entire scenes, costumes, dialogue, and staging are transferred, whole cloth, to the stage, with varying degrees of success. Rachel Boone as “Baby” is a true Doppelganger for the film’s Jennifer Grey. While Christopher Tierney is not quite as faithful a reproduction of Patrick Swayze’s “Johnny”, the catcalling female members of the audience had no problem with his presence. Both performers were fine dancers and did admirably in roles that called for them to literally imitate at times the celluloid performances.

The show works best when the youthful cast is kicking up their heels, recreating dance numbers and set pieces. A few of the stage tricks employed to accomplish this were done with some self-awareness, as if to say “we know we can never do this justice on stage, but you’ll forgive us because you know that as well as we do.” Other settings, such as Baby practicing as she crosses a bridge were quite effective.

There are over 40 (!) songs, fragments, or musical interludes throughout the show, most using the original 1960’s recordings. Some, including the well known “Time of My Life” and “In The Still of the Night” were live-sung by Doug Carpenter or Adrienne Walker (or both), but the songs were used more like a movie soundtrack, underscoring the action rather than overtly expressing any inner dialogue. Carpenter and Walker’s talent was undeniable and appreciated in those times they brought the soundtrack to full life.

One need not have watched the original film dozens of times using an old VHS copy in the basement or dorm room to enjoy the show, but it will thrill you more when Baby makes the inevitable final leap into Johnny’s arms.

May 9, 2016

Into the Woods

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through May 22, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, “Into the Woods” made its Broadway debut in 1987, winning Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book. A mashup of several classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, it has been produced locally and regionally more often than almost any other Sondheim show, and it inspired the 2014 film.

The large cast of familiar characters makes “Into the Woods” a great ensemble piece, and artistic director Sharon FitzHenry has assembled a marvelous cast of singing actors for this production. Lindsay Botticello brings a clarion voice and sharp characterization to the central role of the witch, who has cast a spell on her next-door neighbors, a baker and his wife, so that they can never have children. A quest she sends them on to reverse the spell sets the plot in motion. 

Michael Graham Morales is vulnerable and sensitive as the baker, and Nikki Wadleigh touching and resourceful as his wife. Among the characters they meet as their quest leads them “into the woods” are: Little Red Riding Hood, brightly played by Kellie Comer; Jack, of beanstalk fame, played with youthful innocence by Randy Davidson; and Cinderella, invested with growing maturity by Chelsea Kelle.

In smaller roles, Gavin Mackie and Tim Reilly are hilarious as the preening princes, making both versions of their big number, “Agony,” a hoot. Gene Choquette is versatile as the narrator/mysterious man. Anna Giza is haughty as Cinderella’s stepmother, and Aileen Merino Terzi and Jen Augeri entertainingly klutzy as her stepsisters. Musical highlights include Wadleigh’s tender “Moments in the Woods,” Botticello’s powerful “Last Midnight,” and Morales’ heartrending “No More.”

The set design by Francisco Aguas and Dawn Bird is ingeniously simple and flexible. Choreography is uncredited but clever and imaginative, especially when most or all of the 19 cast members are on stage during the ensemble numbers. And musical director Bill Martin leads a finely-tuned and impressively larger-sounding band of three.

This brilliant production will appeal to thoughtful musical theatre audiences of all ages.

SSO: Season Grand Finale

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
May 7, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

In his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes noted that while “a musical evening in France was the idea behind” this closing concert of the SSO’s 72nd season, “recent world events in Paris” added poignancy to their performance on this program of Faure’s Requiem, in which the maestro found the same “religiosity” and “Gallic elegance” that Saint-Saens invoked on a much grander scale in his third symphony.

In this quietest and most consoling of the great Requiems, Faure depicted death as “a reaching for eternal happiness, rather than a mournful passing.” The combined voices of the Springfield Symphony Chorus and the Pioneer Valley Symphony Chorus joined the orchestra in a warm, reverent account of the seven-movement piece, from the solemn opening “Introit and Kyrie” to the exhilarating “In Paradisum” finale. Soprano Dana Lynne Varga sang a radiant “Pie Jesu,” and baritone John Salvi was forceful in the “Offertorium” and “Libera Me” sections.

Griffin McMahon
Known as his “Organ Symphony” for the instrument prominently featured in the second and last of its four movements, Saint-Saens’ third symphony followed intermission in a sumptuous performance by the SSO and organist Griffin McMahon. Without pause after the dramatic opening movement, the organ enveloped the strings in a warm glow as they began playing the ravishing main theme of the slow second movement. Again without pause after the fleet third movement, a thunderous solo organ chord introduced the majestic finale. Rhodes kept the organ in careful balance with the rest of Saint-Saens’ colorful orchestration, including a piano played by four hands in the last two movements.

Longmeadow native McMahon was the star of the evening, also accompanying the orchestra and vocalists in the Faure and seated throughout the concert at an organ visibly positioned behind the violins at front stage left. His playing style was enthusiastic but modest, and as a 22-year-old Juilliard student with many New York performing credits on his growing resume, he looks to have a bright musical future.   

No orchestra could end a season more triumphantly than by showcasing local talent at a world-class level.

May 7, 2016

39 Steps

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through May 21, 2016
by Shera Cohen

If any local community theatre troupe can handle the character changes, set intricacies, and fast-paced plot twists of “The 39 Steps” it is Suffield Players. The play begins with an actor standing in profile as Alfred Hitchcock, director of the 1930’s film of the same name. Interestingly, nearly all of the scenes and a good deal of the dialog are taken directly from the silver screen and placed on the theatre stage. Yet, there is one huge difference. As taut and sinister as the film is, the play is (for the most part) a raucous comedy.

Under the cloud of WWII rumblings enters our hero, a dapper 20-something with a curl on his forehead named Hannay. Soon to arrive is a damsel in distress – a woman of typical intrigue, a taste for fish, and an ax to grind. The setting is Scotland, which offers the actors the opportunity to intentionally mangle the accents. Three actors round out the cast, each portraying about 10 characters each. These are the “Clowns.” It is their job to keep the action as fast and furious as they are able to change costumes.

Director Roger Ochs’ cast showcase a mix of “regulars” and “newbees.” In the latter category are the two leads, Tyler Wolfson and Libby Miserendino. Wolfson infuses his role with boyish charm, self-deprecating humor, and a bit of dim wit. Miserandino (in two roles) is equally effective as the femme fatal, later the no-nonsense love interest. Hopefully, audiences will see each actor on many more stages in the future.

Barbara Gallow (Clown 1) is malleable and handles each character well. Konrad Rogowski (Clown 2) puts his comedic emphasis on vocalization especially when portraying females. Steve Wandzy (Clown 3) unabashedly uses physical humor by every means practical.

Those familiar with Suffield’s venue recall its small stage which adds to the difficultly of numerous sets. A train scene works best (trust me, you have to see it). Yet box seats and a library are elevated too high from the first level of the stage that audience members must crane their necks. As for all of the successful backstage work, those on lights, sound, and costuming were keen on much to the shenanigans. Too often, playgoers don’t recognize these talented, unseen individuals. Kudos to them and to all.

April 30, 2016

Anything Goes

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through June 16, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Shortly before attending “Anything Goes,” my theatre friend asked if she would hear any familiar tunes. Besides the title song, I could only think of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” These are the two energetic dancing/song belting ensemble big numbers. However, there’s a lot more. Cole Porter’s music and lyrics include a list of 1930’s best known songs: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “All Through the Night.”

Aside from Broadway, Goodspeed’s productions set the bar of excellence in musicals pretty much everywhere, all the time. Audience goers should expect the best, and that’s exactly what they get. “Anything Goes” is tried and true; a good bet for success. But, Goodspeed doesn’t rest on laurels. The crew has swabbed the deck and spit-polished the staircases of this ocean liner set. The skilled musicians perform onstage on the ship’s top deck. BTW, how could only seven sound like a full orchestra? Director Daniel Goldstein keeps the dialog snappy (lots of shtick) and the pace smooth. Choreographer Kelli Barclay finds an even balance of Astaire & Rogers moves with tap dancing to blow the roof off the theatre.

The musical’s plot is thin with absolutely no redeeming value; the characters are the epitome of caricatures. The story in one sentence: a motley group of folk, some with British titles and others with machine guns, meet on a ship. There’s the popular mistaken identity theme, not to mention boy meets girl then leaves girl then returns then…it’s all so silly and so funny. “Anything Goes” does not call for the talents of good actors. Instead, the stage/ship is populated with singers or dancers or those who can handle both tasks superbly and simultaneously.

Worldly Reno Sweeney (Rashidra Scott) is the central character. Scott plays Reno with sass and class. More importantly, Scott’s mezzo sound is smooth in her solos and brassy in the big, all hands on deck, pieces. Stephen DeRosa (a Groucho-ish Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin) unabashedly milks every line or lyric for laughs. He is a gem. While the forlorn lovers Billy (David Harris) and Hope (Hannah Florence) have fine voices in solos and duets, and each actor is solid in his/her role, a smile or swoon or two could have beefed up the charisma. Ah well, “It’s De-Lovely” is…well…lovely.

A step back to tap dancing. I’ve seen this musical before, so there was no imperative reason to go again. My guess, however and knowing the work at Goodspeed, was that the title’s showstopper alone would be worth the price of admission. It was. Wow!

April 28, 2016

Matilda – The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 1, 2016
by Tim O’Brien

Looking for a top-shelf, high-energy music that is wildly entertaining and also truly appropriate for the whole family? Look no further than Matilda – The Musical.

Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s Matilda character (Lily Brooks O’Briant) is an uber-brainy 5 year old girl regarded as an annoyance and embarrassment by her shallow, self-absorbed parents. School is another nightmare, ruled by the monstrous Agatha Trunchbull (David Abeles). Brave little Matilda’s only refuge is the local library, where she devours weighty classics with ease while mesmerizing the librarian (Ora Jones) with a serialized tall tale she appears to be making up as she goes along. When compassionate teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) recognizes Matilda as a prodigy, conflict arises and the little girl must find strength she’s never known herself to possess.

Such is the plot. This production is so well-staged, so energetically -sung, so kinetically-danced and filled with clever production moments (nifty lighting and sound effects) that had it been performed in an obscure Nepalese sub-dialect this reviewer (and young daughter in tow) would still have enjoyed the daylights out of it. Imaginative set pieces create a dark “Brasil” feel, with nods to Tim Burton and Dr. Suess, and moments in the school scene music recall Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

Though clearly older than five, O’Briant is consistently winsome and forthright, driving the show in many stretches and a solid singer in her solo numbers. As Matilda’s comically awful, un-doting mom and dad, Cassie Sylva and Quinn Mattfield get big laughs and would deserve a spin-off series of their own, if this were TV. Jones adds an earthy West Indian flavor to her librarian, and Blood shows a nice arc as she goes from mousey and “pathetic” to a firm-chinned advocate for the children. But it’s Abeles as the loathsome school principal who steals the show with a searing, sneering presence that’s both malevolent and hysterical.

Photo by Joan Marcus
So was it perfect? Nearly. Some ensemble song lyrics were hard to understand on opening night. And while the setting is ostensibly England, only the adult actors affected British accents. A directorial choice that didn’t harm anything, but it did raise an eyebrow. Pish-posh, as the Brits might say – now I’m nitpicking.

May 1 ends this lovely run far too soon.

April 27, 2016

“Fiddler Off the Roof"

Close Encounters with Music
Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
April 17, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

The eclectic “Close Encounters” series at the Mahaiwe continued with “Fiddler Off the Roof,” a program of Jewish (?) music. Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani again offered insights (in the form of questions!) into what might make such a definition possible, noting that the element of “longing” must be included, and referencing the relationship between the inquiring nature of Talmudic study and the uprising (questioning) interval of the syncopated fifth. 

The program varied from Mahler to Gershwin -- and the musicians were of the same high caliber that the audience has come to expect from this series. This review, however, must start by attending not to the performers at the front of the stage, but to the pianist behind them. Michele Levin’s artistry was superb – both forceful and delicate, whichever the music required. Her solid and accomplished support provided the backbone for everything the soloists did, and, finally, was beautifully highlighted in the post-intermission Mendelssohn Trio. 

The program started with a fine example of the inquiring interval mentioned above: two David Schiff Divertimenti featuring clarinet, cello and violin. In all of Sarah McElravy’s violin playing (she was also featured in the “Hebrew Melody” of Paul Ben-Haim), there was fine technique highlighted by a rapt attention to dynamics. She accomplished an incredibly quiet reverence with her ultra pianissimo passages. Paul Green’s clarinet sound was crystal clear – both instrumentalists avoided over-reliance on vibrato – and his “Klezmer Medley” that concluded the first half was rhythmic enough to inspire toe-tapping. Alex Richardson provided vocal selections that ranged from Mahler to Gershwin and his fine operatic tenor was well-suited to them all. 

The program included a premier of “ZEMER” by Paul Schoenfield that featured a folk-like melody by Rabbi Max Roth, who was in the audience; it concluded with an inspired performance of the Piano Trio. Once again, Hanani brought his own cello artistry to the Mahaiwe stage. Audiences hope for much more of his “Close Encounters” programming genius in the future.