Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 14, 2014

Gershwin & Rimsky-Korsakov

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
April 12, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

At first glance, this program of three works by German, Russian, and American composers looked more miscellaneous than most SSO concerts. But at least two underlying connections became clear: the first two pieces had surprise quiet endings; and all three pieces required a larger-than-normal orchestra.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes led off with a rousing rendition of Richard Strauss’ early symphonic poem “Don Juan.” In his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, he recalled that a performance he conducted of this piece for his Master’s degree got him his first professional job in Europe. Its personal meaning to him was evident in the vital playing and vivid characterization the orchestra brought to each episode, depicting several of the Don’s lovers and culminating in his death.

This familiar opener preceded a rarity by Rimsky-Korsakov, his second symphony, called “Antar,” which the composer later revised and called a “symphonic suite.” In colorful orchestration that recalled Rimsky’s famous “Scheherazade,” it told the story of a great Arabian warrior who finds power, love, and death in the Syrian desert. To make it more accessible to the audience, Rhodes introduced each of the piece’s four movements with a helpful explanation of what events it depicted in Antar’s life story. The audience appreciated both the expert performance of this exotic score and the maestro’s engaging commentary. 

Joyce Yang
Two years after her sensational SSO debut with Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, 27-year-old Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang returned for an equally distinguished account of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. From her first entry after the jazzy opening, Yang demonstrated an authentically American sense of rhythm and swing. She played with great delicacy in the bluesy middle movement and with a forcefulness that never allowed the orchestra to overpower her in the rondo finale. Yang’s triumphant return engagement fully justified the faith Rhodes expressed in his “Reflections” column that this concerto would be “a perfect vehicle for her amazing talent.” 

The orchestra played magnificently throughout the evening. Brass, woodwinds, and the enlarged percussion section, which even featured a trap set and wooden blocks in the Gershwin, did themselves particularly proud.

April 1, 2014

Prokofiev & Beethoven

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 29, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Despite his absence from its title, it was Bach whose music set the tone for this program, first in the scheduled opening presentation of his third Brandenburg Concerto, and then in an encore by guest soloist Yevgeny Kutik of the “Largo” from his third sonata for solo violin.

Yevgeny Kutik
None of the six Brandenburgs turn up much in live performance, but as the shortest in the set, with only two chords for a central slow movement, the third makes a perky concert opener. SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes conducted a slightly reduced orchestra from the harpsichord, where his strong keyboard skills were sometimes not audible enough. The players seemed to enjoy working with their leader in this fresh way, and their lively, disciplined account of the concerto reflected the order and balance of the classical tradition.

The national profile of the charismatic, young (late-20s) Kutik was raised by a recent New York Times article about his new album, “Music from the Suitcase.” Born in Minsk, Belarus, he moved with his family in 1990 to the Berkshires, where he grew up to win several awards, one of which led to a Boston Pops debut in 2003.

Kutik's passionate account of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto proved him both a master technician and a mature interpreter of this challenging score. He played with a full, rich tone, which he roughened for some dramatic passages in the opening and closing movements and lightened for the softer music of the rhapsodic slow movement. The orchestra matched the commitment of his performance with a flair and color of its own, from the dark strings to the bass drum and even castanets in the finale.

Prompted by a tumultuous ovation, the Bach encore confirmed Kutik’s stature as a major talent who could hold the audience rapt even in this quiet piece. And it reminded listeners that both Prokofiev and Beethoven, whose modest fourth symphony followed intermission, learned much from the strong architecture of Bach’s music. 

There was nothing modest about the SSO’s blazing rendition of the Beethoven, which Rhodes’s energetic baton brought to memorable life.

March 31, 2014

Guys and Dolls

Westfield Theater Group, Westfield, MA
through April 12, 2014
by Eric Johnson

What’s playin’ at the Roxy? A tight, well rehearsed, energetic and thoroughly entertaining production of "Guys and Dolls."

First time director John Farrell and seasoned music director George Garber Jr. work well together. The casting choices, including a few bold ones, serve this production admirably. Farrell’s objective to keep it simple, using projections along with a few easy to move set pieces, keeps the scene changes short and the action flowing.

Garber leads a 10-piece band through the score by Frank Loesser with deft precision and an ear for detail that sets a very high bar for a community theatre produced musical. The instruments and voices blend so well that the balance rivals that of a recording, and all of this at a very comfortable volume.

The members of the ensemble cast work together like the proverbial well-tuned and oiled machine; a machine with some mad vocal skills as well. Soloists and chorus alike bring some lovely voices to the party.

Stand out performances from supporting roles come from Pat McMahon as Nicely Nicely Johnson; his timing and physical comedic ability are quite entertaining. Paired with Jay Torres as Benny, the two elicit belly laughs galore from the receptive opening night audience. Rick Buzzee contributes a wonderful, grounded performance as Arvide; his solo “More I Cannot Wish You” is a wonderful moment.

Lead performers Tom LeCourt as Nathan, Martina Haskins as Adelaide, Carl Schwarzenbach as Sky and Lyndsey Ryder as Sarah, all work very well together. LeCourt is not subtle in his portrayal of Nathan, creating some hilarious moments. Schwarzenbach's Sky is a bit more subdued, adding a contrast between the two inveterate gamblers. The chemistry between Schwarzebach’s Sky and Ryders’ Sarah is obvious. A bit more range of emotion from the Sarah character would be welcome, especially in the duet with Adelaide. 
This leads to the strongest performance -- Martina Haskins as Adelaide slams it home with poise, talent, and skill. The emotional range in “Adelaide’s Lament” is both heart wrenching and hilarious. The chemistry between Nathan and Adelaide is there, especially in “Sue Me.”

Kudos to cast and crew for putting together a polished and enjoyable show.

March 25, 2014

Enigma Variations

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 20–23, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Guest conductor Michael Lankester was warmly welcomed to the Bushnell’s Belding Theater for a program that played to many of the strengths he demonstrated as HSO Music Director (1985-2000): an English symphonic favorite; and a lesser-known Bruckner symphony.

Michael Lankester
The concert opened with a deeply felt account of Sir Edward Elgar’s masterpiece, formally titled Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” but usually called simply the Enigma Variations. Following a stately opening theme, each of the fourteen variations depicts a friend or family member of the composer, varying widely in pace and mood, from the tender first variation on Elgar’s wife, Alice, to the “Presto” seventh variation on a high-spirited friend, to the noble ninth variation (“Nimrod”), a tribute to Elgar’s publisher, which is often played separately as an elegy. 

Though some of Lankester’s tempos were daringly slow, all sections of the orchestra did themselves proud in this loving rendition of a work by a fellow Englishman that sounded very close to the conductor’s heart.

None of Anton Bruckner’s nine symphonies are programmed very often, perhaps because of their enormous length, but the third appears less in concert than the more familiar fourth, seventh, and ninth. So hats off to Lankester for leading a monumental performance of the 67-minute piece after intermission. Bruckner was a church organist for many years in his native Austria, and the symphony’s huge sonorities resonated much like an organ in the ample but intimate Belding acoustics.

With spacious tempos in all four movements, Lankester emphasized its majestic grandeur, which evokes for many listeners the high peaks and deep valleys of the Austrian Alps. The HSO brass made a glorious choir in the symphony’s blazing climaxes, while the woodwinds played many softer passages with contrasting delicacy.
During his tenure as HSO Music Director, Lankester showed a special feeling for the English repertoire, with memorable local premieres of contemporary works by John Taverner and Michael Tippett, as well as for large-scale pieces like Mahler’s eighth symphony. Both strengths were well served by this Elgar/Bruckner program, and much of the audience seemed anxious for a return engagement soon.

March 22, 2014

The Other Place

TheaterWorks, Hartford,CT
through April 19, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Playwright Sharr White has constructed a poignant, wild roller coaster ride of emotion for the audience in "The Other Place." This totally engaging play is part mystery, part thriller, and an intimate portrait of mind, memory, and love. The script is beautifully written and sizzles thanks to director Rob Ruggiero and a production team that includes a magical set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, John Lasiter’s lighting, and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design.

The extraordinary actress who carries the show is Kate Levy, whose depth and command of the role is staggering. As Juliana Smithton, the research scientist whose life begins to shatter because of a devastating disease, Levy evokes empathy and compassion. Her work is artistic perfection. The story begins as her character pitches a new pharmaceutical to a gathering of doctors, but then her eye catches someone in the audience who provokes a series of mental connections that drive the story through a twisting, turning loop of related thoughts, memories, and pain.

Juliana becomes obsessed with her daughter’s disappearance and is haunted by past events, while the audience starts to question which memories are real. Her husband, Ian, played by R. Ward Duffy is an excellent counterpoint to Juliana’s emotional swings, and he becomes the character for whom we sympathize as the family’s story unravels. Amelia McClain (billed as “The Woman”) plays three roles – all to perfection, and Clark Scott Carmichael (“The Man”) establishes presence in a series of cleanly executed multiple roles.

So much happens in this well-crafted play that is disorienting, familiar, and devastating, that any description of plot would give it all away. In the hands of a lesser cast and crew, this play could become trite or maudlin, but Ruggiero’s cast and crew hit the nerves just right. "The Other Place," whose title is integral to the story, is theatre at its best, and TheaterWorks deserves kudos for delivering its audiences a powerful story, well-crafted, well-told, and unforgettable.

The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 30, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Most potential audience members of “The Book of Mormon” have assumptions before setting foot in the theatre. Solely based on the playbill’s credits -- the team that founded “South Park” is the same who created “Mormon” -- expectations include: hold no one or anything sacred, lambaste all ethnicities, demean sexual orientation, and ‘crucify’ every religion.

Okay, then why see such rubbish? The answer to that question is the same to...why does “South Park’s” 15 year run continue? The answer -- it’s funny, very funny. Good clean fun, it’s not. It’s the funny stuff that you wouldn’t dare say yourself or perhaps admit to enjoying.

The solid plot follows two Mormon training school graduates, Elders Price and Cunningham, on their mission of converting souls. Their assignment: Uganda. Head-of-the-class Price is especially bummed because he had his heart set on Orlando. Disneyworld is a running theme through the musical, as is repeated maligning of “The Lion King.”

The stage is essentially populated by white boys in white short-sleeved shirts whose sacred chanting of “I Am Africa” is utterly ridiculous, and motley dressed black Ugandans whose rendition of Mormon history is a hoot.

In the midst of this R-rated story, is perhaps surprisingly some beautiful music. Taking the notes by themselves, “Baptist Me” and “I Believe” are lovely pieces. But, alas, the salacious lyrics outnumber the music in importance. That seems to have been the creators’ plan for their audiences -- don’t leave the theatre humming, leave the theatre laughing. Each Act has its show-stopper. In Act I, the rockin’ “Man Up” praises “The Man” Jesus. The deep red special effects and nefarious dancing historical characters of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” justifiably stop Act II.

“The Book of Mormon” boasts a young and energetic cast blasphemously opening the pages of this wonderfully campy and hokey script for an appreciative audience that willingly lets raucous humor trump divinity for at least two hours. It is difficult to imagine a more professional, deftly executed, swift paced, colorfully designed, and creatively choreographed musical on a Broadway stage.

March 17, 2014

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
through March 23, 2014
by Eric Johnson

Like many Neil Simon plays, this one is set in NYC, and features a neurotic leading male character on the verge of a life crisis. And, it’s really funny.

Mel Edison is living in a time and place when “job security” is more or less an oxymoron, recession is wreaking havoc on the economy, and the radio is rife with would-be prophets spewing forth conspiracy theories and touting that they know who is to blame for the plight of the middle class. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Director Mark Ekenbarger makes an interesting production choice in giving the audience no solid clues as to what era the action takes place. There is even one recorded sound snippet that suggests an alternate reality. 

Gene Choquette in the lead role carries a great deal of experience to the stage, and it shows. Mel Edison is a complex character and Choquette is a very entertaining and engaging actor. He handles the moods, madness, and humor of Edison’s life crisis quite ably. Mel’s wife Edna, played by Deb Libera, is a multifaceted character as well. The audience sees Edna transition from housewife to breadwinner, and empathize with her pain as Mel’s downward spiral accelerates. Supporting cast John Toms, Marge Huba, Stephanie Chertoff, and Linda McLaren (Mel’s sisters and brother) have a nice scene in which they discuss how (and how much) they can help their brother through this.

The criticisms one might have of this production are few and vary in impact, but, number one is pace. While not a farce, this comedy still demands a very strong, fast pace and comic timing which isn’t quite met throughout the piece, especially in the scene with the rest of the family. "Getting a word in edgewise” doesn’t appear to be that much of a challenge.

Overall, this production of "Prisoner of Second Avenue" is a very entertaining evening of theatre, and really funny.