Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 28, 2015

The Dining Room

Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT
through March 8, 2015
by Mary Ann Dennis

There's something about dining rooms that stick in our memory over the decades. Wooden tables and cabinets set the scene for family reunions and celebrations, the sharing of relatives' secrets and discussion of their tragedies.

A.J. Gurney's 1982 play "The Dining Room" is an actor’s dream show. Set in a single room, 18 scenes from different households overlap and intertwine. Director Sasha Bratt is brilliant. He gently leads six actors, who play 50 characters between them, like a master orchestral conductor. The sets, lights and costumes are perfect and the amount of quick changes could have wound up on America’s Got Talent.

The actors portray a wide variety of characters, from little boys to stern grandfathers, from giggling teenage girls to housemaids. The versatility of these actors rotating among the many roles makes for a thrilling experience.

Ezra Barnes excels in his command of the stage as a grouchy grandpa to giddy kid -- his “acting gymnastics” are a perfect ten. Annie Grier is brilliant as she moves from a servant to a mom to a mischievous pot smoking college student. Susan Haefner is alluring as the middle-aged seductress, perky as a young girl who doesn't want to go to dancing school, and alternately poised and aloof as an older women.

Sean Harris plays nine characters; he is stunning to watch. Susan Slotoroff, sparks in her many roles. Jay William Thomas is flawless as he embraces changing personalities and ages with virtuoso skill.

The fact that the culture of private clubs, boarding schools and well-dressed maids has vanished won't bother many viewers; although it makes it a bit harder to feel sympathetic for the characters.

So much has changed in both home styles and families since Gurney penned his play. Still, most people can relate to universal themes of family change, and avid “theater goers” will find the work mesmerizing.

February 27, 2015

10X10 New Play Festival


Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through March 1, 2015
by Shera Cohen

While math is not one of my many skills, I easily managed to fully enjoy ten 10-minute plays by 10 playwrights featuring six actors in 21 roles, directed by two talented women on one stage -- Barrington’s St. Germain Stage.

Heavy snow (hmm, sounds familiar) postponed my attending opening weekend.   Fortunately, Barrington and I rescheduled. All worked out well, as last Sunday was a balmy 38 degrees in Pittsfield. Recent journeys up north in the past few months by several Spotlight writers substantiate the fact that the Berkshires do NOT close their doors in December and reopen in May. Apparently, lots of other theatre goers know this, because there was not a single empty seat in the theatre.

10x10 is a jam-packed two-hours of near rapid-fire mini-plays. Each “playette” (is that a word?) is complete and not connected to any of the other plays. The six actors (three men, three women) double as stage crew.

The playwrights are experienced with resumes to prove it, as are the actors who are all Equity except for one. This is a very talented sextet who work well as an ensemble.

Most of the plays in Act I are comedies. Act II provides some drama. The stories feature just two characters for the most part. One play immediately follows another, no curtain calls, just next, next, and next.

Certainly, it is impossible to enjoy all ten plays. Out of my own seven “nominees,” one comedy and one drama tie for “best play.” Sorry, I can’t help the analogy to the Oscars, aired later that same day.

The plot of “Mandate,” by Kelly Younger, is a very funny forced “bromance” by the wives of two disparate men who have just met. One man begs to be the other’s BFF. The humor oozes from the awkwardness.

Playwright James McLindon’s “Broken” pits two political prisoners in one small cell. The situation, the place, the era do not matter. It’s raw and dramatic.

You might think...a play that’s only 10 minutes? How good could it be? When 10 minutes is all you need, it can be very good at Barrington Stage.

February 9, 2015

The Music of Michael Jackson

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 7, 2015
by Eric Sutter

Guest conductor Nick Palmer orchestrated the SSO to "The Music of Michael Jackson" from the Jeans 'n Classics Group who were Dave Dunlop (guitar), Steve Heathcore (drums), John Regan (keyboards), Mitch Taylor (electric bass) and backing vocalists Katalin Kiss, Andrea Koziol, and Lis Soderberg.

Lead vocalist Gavin Hope sang everything from early million sellers "ABC,""I Want You Back," and "I'll Be There" to "Billie Jean" from the biggest selling album of all time "Thriller." The amazingly versatile band proved it could handle the soul-pop of "Never Can Say Goodbye," the slow ease ballad "Ben," and the finger poppin' R&B of "Rockin' Robin." The slower numbers allowed for peaceful audience cell phone wave participation. On a high note, the first half ended with "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from Michael Jackson's 1979 solo album "Off The Wall."

The Rock 'n' Soul of "Working Day and Night" got the Symphony's horns pumped to the groove. The taut, confrontational funk of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" had vocalist Hope making familiar MJ gestures. Good dancing revved up with "Beat It" rock dalliances. Dunlop provided crystalline brilliance in his rhythm-friendly percussive attack on his sizzling lead guitar solo. The sparkle and zing of "The Way You Make Me Feel" kept the audience in song and dance. The warm glow of "Human Nature" was smooth harmony with back-up vocals. Hope had the audience palms up again with peace waving zest.

Hope and company closed on the strength of "Thriller" with its crisply articulated rap of the Vincent Price howling original. The Symphony's strings and percussion performed magnificently on the crescendo. The confessional "Man in the Mirror" became an ideal encore with an exceptionally good vocal by Hope.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through February 22, 2015
by Tim O'Brien

A musical comedy based on the film of the same name, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" offers tremendous overall charm despite some inherent weaknesses in the script. With over 20 song and/or dance numbers, they can't all be winners, and a few of the tunes fall a little flat through absolutely zero fault of the terrific Opera House Players.

Sly direction by Denise Boutin smooths away the rough spots and injects abundant, richly observed subversiveness into scenes dogged at times by David Yazbeck's slightly inconsistent song craft. Actors break the fourth wall and offer self-referential jokes while the better-than-usual (and nicely choreographed) chorus gets lots of tongue-in-cheek moments of their own throughout the production.

Boutin has cast a solid love triangle. Brian Rucci brings debonair ennui to veteran con man Lawrence, emcees smoothly through the proceedings, and gets even better in the later going as the over-the-top Dr. Shuffhausen. The other primary scoundrel Freddy is played with boundless energy and standout vocal chops by Randy Davidson. Christine Voytko is winsome and deceptively earnest, spot-on in the character of, well, Christine.

Among the secondary leads, Michael King consistently pulls the biggest laughs as the mildly corrupt but always human police chief Andre. His love interest Muriel (Tracy Funke) matches King's excellent singing and shows sweet vulnerability. Emily Stisser brings lots of life to the essentially cameo role of Okie cowgirl and heiress Jolene.

Kudos to the stage crew; the seemingly simple set transforms ingeniously in a flash and scene changes are done with the precision of an Indy pit crew. Musical director Paul Feyer leads a clever four-piece band that sounds bigger than it is. Of note to parents, there are a few highly suggestive moments on stage, plus some salty language.

In the pet-peeve department, this reviewer wishes the body mics worn by the principals were less visible; but on the plus side, every word is audible and the audience's experience is the better for it.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is top-shelf community theatre.

February 4, 2015

Nice Work If You Can Get It

The Bushnell, Hartford CT
through February 8, 2015
by Sharon Smith

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” marks a homecoming for the musical, which traces its origins to the Goodspeed Opera House down the road in East Haddam. The show went through many changes on the journey from CT, to Broadway, to Tony winner, and back again, but in all incarnations the heart and appeal lies in the classic music of George and Ira Gershwin.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
In the madcap world of 1927 Prohibition, bootleggers, high society types, and a bevy of chorus girls collide in a mix of romance, mistaken identities, and slapstick high-jinx. This is the type of light and frothy story that finds gangsters posing as butlers and the vice squad partakes in more vices then it foils.

Mariah MacFarlane as rum-runner Billie Bendix is a splendid talent, with a strong voice and crack timing. It takes such a balance to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” while holding a shotgun. A supporting cast of star-crossed lovers is top notch. Highlights include Aaron Fried and Stephanie Gandolfo’s, “Do It Again” and “Blah, Blah Blah.” Reed Campbell and Stephanie Harter Gilmore’s, “Looking for a Boy” is also a stand out, sung as it is from a swinging chandelier. In addition to “Looking” the choreography delights throughout, with the bathtub based “Delishious” yielding a bubbly surprise.

Any “new” Gershwin musical is sure to invoke comparison to 1992’s “Crazy For You” and while “Nice” may not have the rock-solid book of that show, it does have exciting choreography, delightful performances and the kind of exuberance that can make any audience temporarily forget the chilly weather outside.

January 28, 2015

Caitlin Canty


The Parlor Room, Northampton, MA
January 24, 2015
by Eric Sutter

Caitlin Canty and her full band played The Parlor Room in support of her CD release, "Reckless Skyline.” The house  gave Canty an opportune venue and the band gave her lots of room in which to shine. The band included Jeffrey Foucault on guitars, Bill Conway on drums, Jeremy Moses Curtis on bass, and Eric Heywood on pedal steel and guitars. These were all great players who created a strong musical beat. Canty's voice was a refined dusky alto, and pure. Her lyrical themes hurled words into darkness that gnawed at the hunger of life in all of us. When she smiled, the audience members melted on "My Love For You Will Not Fade."

Song after song gave way to a poetic lyrical resonance. "Get Up" was a rave up alt-country rocker. Within the dark lyrical landscape, the pedal steel found home in its bright stir of excitement. The darker toned songs, "Enough About Hard Times" and the ballad "Wore Your Ring," slowed the energy for enjoyment of lyrical quality. Her words calm with even phrasing and tone for simple inflection for easy listening.

However, not all was lost to darkness. "Southern Man" phrased some bright lines into its narrative from the female perspective. Another bright moment included the Canty/Foucault upbeat duet "Get Back To Idaho." The mid-tempo roots rocker "My Baby Don't Care" featured flashy blues guitar breaks over the rhythm. The cover of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" was treated with the sonic beauty of the singer's voice. Guest artist Kate Lorenz, from the local band “Rusty Belle,” provided background vocals on certain songs for female harmony.
  
"True" posed the question, "How can I be true to you and true to me?" in duet form with Jeffrey Foucault for glorious effect. The concert closed with the rousing "Reckless Skyline" and alt-country rocker "I Never." A country weeper encore "Cold Habit" showcased a pretty Heywood pedal steel guitar sound.

Catch this Vermont regional star on her adventurous glide to Nashville. She shines light in all the dark places.

January 27, 2015

Proof

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through February 8, 2015
by Jennifer Curran

Nearly 15 years ago "Proof," written by David Auburn, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. "Proof” has been produced in community, regional and professional theatres across the globe. Its themes of logic and reason, right and wrong, and trust and love are universal, but bring these deeply human emotions into the ultra-logical world of math, ambition, academia, and insanity and the result is extraordinarily profound.

The play is a story told through the eyes of Catherine, the daughter of Robert (Damian Buzzerio), a genius mathematician. Recently deceased after struggling with mental illness for several years, Robert was cared for by Catherine alone. He shares his love of math, but fears deeply she may also share the same mental illness as her father. 

Marty Scanlon & Dana Brooke. Photo: Rich Wagner
The role of Catherine is inherently difficult, but in the hands of actress Dana Brooke it looks as easy as adding one and one. Brooke brings Catherine so fully to life, so perfectly balanced between likable and stridently imperfect that the audience is on her side within minutes. At times heart-breaking and others hilarious, this is a performance worth seeing again and again. Her scenes with Hal, played with everyman charm by Marty Scanlon, are endearing and enriched with a sweetness.

Credit must be given to Melissa Macleod Herion for her ability to find the gentleness and love in Claire, also a role that is a tightrope act. It would be, and tragically often is, easy to play Claire deeply unlikable, but here Claire is rooted in love and good intentions. She is the Big Sister and to that end, we love her for her imperfections, for her true desire to be a source of comfort. The two women lead this production with great care about this family and who they were and who they will become.

With a stripped down stage, the acting is what matters here. Christopher Hoyt’s stage design is deceptively simple, a playground for actors who so clearly deserve a packed house. Director Dawn Loveland nails the casting and tells one great story. This is a truly terrific production of the modern classic.