Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 21, 2016

Mr. Mambo

Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
World Premier One-Time Performance
By Tim O’Brien

How often does a western Massachusetts audience have the opportunity to take in a world premiere of new musical theatre? Well, after watching Dean Parker Presentations’ Northampton debut of his musical comedy “Mr. Mambo,” this reviewer answers, “Not as often as we should,” because this light-fare homage to the stylings of 80’s mall songstress Tiffany is off to a terrific start, smack out of the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, “Mambo” is a so-called “jukebox musical,” where songs by popular artists are strung together to tell a story, or at least amplify the plot. (See the ABBA-driven “Mama Mia” for one of the best-grossing examples of the type.)

California-based actor/writer Parker served as executive producer and crafted the book. Plot-wise, it’s reminiscent of “Grease” and “Bye-Bye Birdy”; Pennsylvania nice-guy Johnny (Jarod Bakum) has a crush on classmate Kristen (Ally Reardon) but is barely on her radar screen; she’s obsessed with possible stardom on the “Dance America” TV show.  Not exactly heavyweight stuff. But no worries – here, the fun’s all in the journey.

Reardon consistently delights with her big smile and good-kid delivery; she also sings the living daylights out of whatever's handed to her. Bakum seems a bit stiff as the smitten male ingénue but handles his songs well and occasionally pulls out a saxophone to accompany the recorded score; extra points earned for that talent. Second leads Casey (Tina Sparkle) and Danny (Arnaldo Rivera) are both excellent as the high-school couple that hits the skids in the midst of the dance-show drama. Aileen Merino Terzi is strong as the cattily calculating dancer Amber Cattrell, and Lauren Duquette has a nice turn as the sharp-tongued but good-hearted show-runner. The biggest laughs come when Silk Johnson is onstage; he portrays over-the-top dance show host Eric Archer as a talented but unwitting blowhard and pulls it off with real charm. The chorus ably sings, dances and smiles as it should.

Director Bob Sands has molded a cast of mostly-youthful performers into a very solid ensemble. With no prior productions to help inform the production, he’s brought the book’s raw vision to life with wit and energy. Musical director Michael Rheault (no stranger to new musicals) has teased excellent vocals and harmonies from the lead performers and chorale alike. Kudos as well to veteran choreographer David Bovat; the cast bounds their way through some clever moves.

Off-Broadway “workouts” provide directors and producers with the opportunity to take some chances and make mistakes as they hone a show to be its ultimate best self. Other than some relatively slow set changes and an apparently migratory tree, “Mr. Mambo” delivered the goods in a genuinely entertaining fashion.

October 11, 2016

Mark St. Germain, Playwright

Mark St. Germain, Playwright
The star of “Camping with Henry and Tom” and “Relativity”
by Shera Cohen

It wasn’t until seeing four plays by Mark St. Germain that I noticed the credit lines to the playwright.  Shame on me for not bee-lining to the writer’s name. To date, I have had the opportunity to experience eight St. Germain dramedies (comic dramas or dramatic comedies), the first at least a decade ago at TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT.

While few could ever be in the league of Shakespeare or Moliere (my #1 and #2 favorite playwrights), my #3 would be St. Germain. He jumps to the #1 slot if listing only those among the living. This gentleman, who I have only met from afar in a group setting, has created his own formula that works perfectly, play after play.

The common denominators seem to fall into three categories: history, humor, and humanity. While I can’t speak about every Mark St. Germain play, musical, and stories for children, I offer my own opinion on those that I have seen – nearly all at Barrington Stage Company (Pittsfield) or TheaterWorks (Hartford).

History:  Most of plays in the cadre of works are based on historic figures and/or events. None of the plots are literal, but more of “what could have happened” or “what if…”. Fictional biographies, this is where St. Germain excels. Some of these are real life characters; i.e. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Dr. Ruth, Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis, and the Collyer brothers. The latter duo – who I had never heard of – was my introduction to this writer. Reclusive siblings whose claim to fame was their hoarding fetish seemed an odd story for a play. Yet, St. Germain created real and vulnerable men.

Camping with Henry & Tom
Humor:  A cord of humor runs through each play – sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and sometimes uncomfortable. While “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “The Fabulous Lipitones” offer many more out-right laughs from their audiences than the Collyers, most on St. Germain’s list of plays fall somewhat in-between. “Camping with Henry and Tom” (Barrington Stage, through 10/23/16), a fictitious outing of President Warren G. Harding, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, probably never occurred. I really don’t care. The circumstances of post-WWI America, politics, inventions, and the future – all of which could have been laid on thick with doom and gloom – are donned with light touches at numerous points throughout. [Note: This play is so apropos to our 2016 election that it is almost frightening.]

Humanity:  Of course, St. Germain was no fly on the wall in any of these quasi-historic circumstances; the words all belong to the playwright. Even the so-called “bad guys” are human. Each character, even those in minor roles, come through clear in 3D. Without hesitation, “Best of Enemies” rings true and fair to the protagonists, era, and circumstances. Set in 1971 North Carolina, the subject is integration. White male vs. Black woman. They judge each other. The audience judges both. Powerful stuff. Initially, each character is a representative for his or her race and beliefs. This man and woman quickly become real individuals, warts and all. On occasion, I Google or email Barrington Stage, asking about the play’s status. Is it on Broadway…yet?

I will soon see my ninth Mark St. Germain play, “Relativity” at TheaterWorks (10/7/16 to 11/20/16). It features Richard Dreyfuss as Albert Einstein. Prior to its opening date, the play has already been extended two weeks. Certainly, an A List movie star like Dreyfuss is a huge draw. I think a bonus in marketing “Relativity” is the playwright’s name. Watch for Mark St. Germain in the credits when choosing your next play.

The Bakelite Masterpiece

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 23, 2016
by Shera Cohen

A bit different review than normal. Let’s first look at all of the many pluses.

Collaboration: I applaud collaborations, the efforts of two or more theatre troupes to plan and executing all elements of theatre to make a play complete. In this case, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) and WAM Theatre, are the team.

American Premier: Theatre companies often give birth, in a sense, to new works. While not the first time on the stage, BTG has extended its reach to mount a first time experience of “The Bakelite Masterpiece” in the United States. Thank you.

Acting Teams: This two-actor play stars David Adkins and Corinna May -- familiar faces in the Berkshires. I have had the pleasure of seeing both act, separately; Adkins primarily at BTG and May at Shakespeare & Company. In real life, the two are married. These are two excellent actors.

Set Direction: Oftentimes, our reviews offer little space to discuss the crew that make a play possible. Kudos to Juliana Von Haubrich for purposely ugly, barren, and dark staging which is a perfect fit (literally and figuratively) to the production and its characters.

Talk Back: If ever offered the opportunity, my recommendation is to stay after the curtain falls, so to speak, to listen to and/or participate in the Talk Back. In a casual setting, actors and producers, directors, etc. sit on the stage and answer questions from the audience. The actors discuss their preparation to create the roles, their thoughts about the production, and often direct questions to the audience. “Masterpiece” benefited greatly through the process of Talk Back. In fact, had the program book and/or a short Pre-Talk taken place, this play would have been a better production. For instance, information that the play was essentially biographical would have made a world of difference in understanding the context and setting.

This last on the list of my “pluses” segues to my overall thoughts. You may have assumed that this was not one of my favorite plays or productions. The “Masterpiece” plot involves a mixture of politics, history, and art with truth, deception, justice, and Vermeer. There’s just too much, all jammed into 75 minutes.


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 7–9, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

The HSO web site describes the opening weekend program of their 73rd season as presenting “music with global flair.” Hearing Spanish and Arabian-flavored music by Russian and Spanish composers performed by musicians from Taiwan and Croatia, it was hard to disagree. The traditional season-launching “Star-Spangled Banner” only reinforced this international theme.

Beginning her sixth season as HSO Music Director, Carolyn Kuan followed the anthem with a splashy account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful orchestral showpiece “Capriccio Espagnol.” In five short movements based on Spanish dance rhythms, the 15-minute piece features several passages for solo violin, which concertmaster Leonid Sigal dispatched with his usual flair. All the musicians played with brio, particularly the expanded percussion section, including castanets. 

A smaller HSO took the stage for a sensuous rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra. Written when the composer returned to Spain in 1939 from Paris after the Spanish Civil War, it evokes the summer palace of the traditional Spanish court in the small town of Aranjuez. Making her HSO debut, 35-year-old Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic first played the guitar in public at age 7, and her comfort level with it was exceeded only by her virtuosity in the two lively outer movements and sensitivity in the rapturous central Adagio. The orchestra and Kuan provided glowing support.

Vidovic then showed off a dazzling tremolo technique in her serene solo encore performance of Francisco Tarrega’s “Memories of the Alhambra,” recalling a more familiar Spanish palace.

A dramatic reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical “Scheherazade” brought the program to a thrilling close. Each of the four movements of this “symphonic suite” depicts one or more of the tales told by Scheherazade, wife of legendary sultan Shakriar, to keep him from executing her because he believed all women were faithless (she succeeded after 1,001 nights). Scheherazade herself is represented by the solo violin, again elegantly voiced by Sigal. Kuan’s leadership was taut yet flexible, as she kept the flow of changing tempos within movements, especially the challenging “Story of the Kalendar Prince,” in exemplary balance.  All sections of the vast orchestra played with ardor and finesse.

October 7, 2016

Chasing Rainbows-The Road To Oz

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT 
through November 27, 2016
by R.E. Smith

As befits a musical about the early life of the incomparable Judy Garland, “Chasing Rainbows” hits not a single false note in any aspect of this stellar production.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski (c)
Tracing the life of Francis Gumm up until “The Wizard of Oz,” there is a slight air of melancholy as the audience is aware of how the story will end years later, but the show succeeds in getting us to invest in the hope and promise of a young girl’s talent. The book, by Marc Acito, gives the performers great characters that, in lesser hands, could have easily been broad clichés. Each one, no matter how famous, is given a depth and dimension often missing in musicals.

“Rainbows” is really the story of a girl and her family, especially her father. Kevin Earley, as loving but flawed “Frank Gumm”, charms from the first moment and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is heartbreaking. Ruby Rakos has been living with the role of Francis/Judy while the show was in development. She is clearly comfortable and at ease, with youthful enthusiasm, crackerjack timing and oh, can she sing! Thankfully, her performance is more evocation than mimicry, emphasizing the young girl rather than the post “Oz” star. It would be almost impossible to pick out one of her numbers as being better than another, but rest assured she does “Over the Rainbow” proud.

The casting is spot-on throughout, from Karen Mason as Judy’s strongest advocate “Kay Koveman” to Michael Wartella as “Joe Yule” (Ok, Mickey Rooney!). Even the actresses playing the Gumm Sisters at various ages physically resemble each other and their harmonies together are perfection. Ella Briggs as “Baby Francis” and Gary Milner as “George Jessel” are audience favorites in brief but memorable turns.

Even with over 30 era-appropriate songs, like “Beautiful Girl” and “You Made Me Love You” the show briskly dances along without shortchanging the narrative. Chris Bailey’s choreography nicely evokes the heyday of big Hollywood musicals despite Goodspeed’s small footprint. The musical arrangements do a great service in making even the famously familiar sound fresh. Slight lyrical changes unobtrusively help propel the story through song and each selection seems custom written for the story.

Fans of old Hollywood and the tales of Francis’ early career will love all the “ah-ha!” moments set to music. Musical theatre buffs will be impressed by the breadth of singing and dancing talent on display. Ultimately, the entire audience is simply glad to have traveled for a little while with an endearingly talented little girl on her road to becoming Judy Garland.

September 28, 2016

Queens for a Year

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through Oct. 2, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

T.D. Mitchell’s play “Queens for a Year” opens the Hartford Stage’s 2016-17 season with a big bang. This contemporary drama of a family of multi-generational women military personnel is a truly compelling piece of theatre which offers its audience much to ponder both during and long after the final curtain falls. Set in 2007 with its action shifting between rural Virginia and Camp Lejeune, Iraq, this play treats its universal theme of sexism in the military with candor, raw emotion, and well-delivered humor.

“Queens for a Year” is the story of 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas (Vanessa R. Butler), who along with her comrade in arms PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) unexpectedly arrives late one night at Molly’s family home during their tour of duty in Iraq. Among this motley crew are Molly’s Aunt Lucy (Heidi Armbruster), Gunny Molly (Charlotte Maier), Molly’s gung-ho grandmother, and Grandma “Lu” (Alice Cannon), Molly’s wheelchair bound, yet still very active great grandmother. Each of these women have proudly served in the U.S. Marine Corps spanning U.S. military history from World War II to Desert Storm. With the arrival of Molly’s pacifist mother Mae (Mary Bacon), things take a turn for the worst.

The show is uniformly well- performed by a top-notch cast. Standing out among these fine actors is Alice Cannon. Her feisty exclamations that “Civilians are idiots” and “the higher the hemline (of female soldiers), the higher the boys’ morale” elicit much needed laughter from the audience, diffusing many intense dramatic moments. Special mention should also be noted to Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler whose portrayals of the darker side of military personnel are as chilling as the harsh military cadences they bark at their subordinate officers.

The play is presented through impressionistic scenes set in the present and past. Daniel Conway’s country house kitchen is literally loomed over by a loft with piled-up sandbags suggesting the dry, middle-eastern desert. Beth Goldenberg’s simple contemporary costumes runs the gamut from down-home jeans and flannel to authentic marine uniforms to traditional Muslim dress.

“Queens for a Year” sheds much light on recent military history and the personal costs exacted on women officers. At times, particularly in the last half-hour of the show, “Queens” slips into shrill melodrama and verbosity, losing its central dramatic focus, yet overall, this new production, directed by Lucy Tiberghien, offers an evening of intelligent, solid theatre.

Eva Camacho-Sanchez

Eva Camacho-Sanchez
Stylish Felted Clothing and Bags
Lana Handmade
Paradise City Arts Festival, Northampton, MA
October 8, 9, 10, 2016

What is wearable art? Eva Camacho-Sanchez is one of hundreds of artists who create art
that is meant to be worn -- and not just jewelry. This particular crafts-person, from Northampton, works as a fiber artist who creates nuno felt by combining fine silk and the finest merino wool. While many think that the Paradise City Arts Festival hail from throughout the United States – and that is true – dozens call the Pioneer Valley their home.

Traditionally, felt is created by using water, soap, wool and agitation. Felting takes time, physical labor and patience. She usually starts by hand-dyeing the wool (with natural dyes she has created herself from plant matter), which is then felted together with fine silk.
To create patterns on the silk, Camacho-Sanchez uses techniques such as free motion embroidery, hand-stitching, beading and printing. Her work is the result of a fusion of the ancient art form of felt making with modern techniques to create new and elegant styles.

For further information on Paradise City check