Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 10, 2018

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, A Holiday Celebration

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
December 8, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Holiday concerts are expected to have at least a smattering of familiar tunes and seasonal jokes, but the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s holiday program also celebrated the diversity of the community and the talent of many musical artists with a program that left the audience with a smile on their faces and warmth in their hearts.

From the time conductor Nick Palmer bounded onto the podium in red pants with candy canes, members of the Symphony, and the Springfield Symphony Chorus treated the audience to seasonal favorites and some special numbers that captured the magic of the holiday season.

Special guests including the Children’s Chorus of Springfield, Mary Lambert, Cantor Elise Barber, the Extended Family Choir, and young Brynn Cartelli, winner of NBC’s “The Voice” entertained the enthusiastic audience with songs and musical renditions that reflected a myriad of musical styles appealing to all ages. It was obvious that many families were introducing their youngest members to an evening at the symphony, and the children were treated to a few special appearances by Santa, who at one point, ascended the podium and conducted “Sleigh Ride” with some comic hip swings and an appropriately jaunty attitude.

The first hour of the concert featured a number of familiar tunes along with Cantor Elise Barber’s soulful interpretation of “Ki Eilecha” and “Ocho Kandelikas,” but the second hour left no doubt that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra is a first class musical organization. Their two selections, “Wizards in Winter” and “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” were breathtaking in their complexity, complementarity, and musicianship.

All received a well-deserved standing ovation for providing the sold-out audience with an evening of warmth and heart, despite the frigid temperature outside.

December 4, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Firsts

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 30–December 2, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

To open the second “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan selected the elegant “Polonaise” from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin.” The orchestra’s stately and refined account set a festive tone for the evening.

Szymon Nehring
The program continued with a sensational HSO debut by rising 23-year-old Polish pianist Szymon Nehring in a full-blooded performance of perhaps the best known of all piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s first. From the majestic introduction, through the lyrical Andante and the rip-roaring finale, Nehring, now a student of Boris Berman at the Yale School of Music, skillfully varied his touch from delicate to thundering as the music ran its volatile course. In a novel and engaging use of technology, an image of the keyboard was projected on a large screen above the Belding stage as Nehring played, making his fluid fingers visible throughout the hall. Kuan and the HSO supported him with equal passion and precision.  

A standing ovation brought Nehring back on stage for a dazzling rendition of the lively “Russian Dance,” one of three movements which Igor Stravinsky arranged for solo piano from his ballet “Petrushka” for Artur Rubinstein, who could hardly have done it better than his fellow Pole.

The concert closed after intermission with a vibrant account of Tchaikovsky’s seldom-heard first symphony, called “Winter Dreams” by the young composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes-episodic structure and slightly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. Committed playing by all HSO sections under Kuan’s dynamic leadership, from the haunting “Allegro” opening, through the dreamy “Adagio cantabile,” elfin “Scherzo,” and spirited finale, made a strong case for the piece.

Just before the symphony, Kuan tearfully recalled the sudden passing in October of HSO assistant principal cellist Eric Dahlin and expressed the musicians’ sorrow at his loss with a single red rose at his chair and a heartfelt performance of the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” This was a classy tribute to a beloved, world-class musician, who will be sadly missed by Hartford audiences.

November 8, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Fiddler on the Roof

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Joan Marcus
The oft-told tale of Tevye the milkman is given a fresh interpretation at Hartford’s Bushnell. Filled with timeless music composed by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, “Fiddler on the Roof” pays honor to tradition and nursing undying hope for the future. Opening night showed that this Broadway behemoth has lost none of its charm for the audience.

The success of this production lies largely, but not totally, on its central character. Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov makes a warm and welcoming Tevye. His sardonically funny quips and comments to God and the audience are full of just the right combination of chutzpah and sentiment. His Tevye is a feisty pushover to his strong-willed daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shrprintze, and Bielke. But his comic confrontations with his wife Golde show who wears the proverbial pants. Musically, Lazarov does a solid job with his fine baritone voice, particularly when singing the opening “Tradition” and his signature “If I Were a Rich Man.” Maite Uzal’s Golde demonstrates the tireless energy needed to keep abreast of Tevye and their five daughters.

Mel Weyn’s Tzeitel pleasantly joins her sisters in the sweeping “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Hodel (Ruthy Froch) also displays defiant strength when choosing love and devotion over tradition and oppression as she liltingly sings of her torn loyalty to Tevye “Far from the Home I Love.” But most rebellious of all is middle daughter Chava (Natalie Powers), whose inner strength towers above her small stature. Each daughter is well matched with her prospective groom: Tzeitel’s intended Motel (Jesse Weil, a rubber legged comic gem), Hodel’s beau Perchik (the sharp witted and blunt speaking Ryne Nardecchia), and Chava’s gentile boyfriend Fyedka (the sweetly affable Joshua Logan Alexander).

This production is visually sumptuous yet simple. The brown and red overcoats, peasant dresses, head scarves, and caps are carefully tailored by costume designer Catherine Zuber. The huge ensemble moves effortlessly in this historical garb choreographed to rousing effect by Hofesh Schechter and Christoper Evans. The stunning sunset backdrop for the wedding scene and the quiet hymn “Sunrise, Sunset” is by scenic designer Michael Yearn. Direction by Bartlett Sher cannot be faulted. The actors are all comfortable in their characters’ skin.

Worth noting is the final image of the silhouetted denizens of Anatevka, off to their various destinations (Poland, the Holy Land, and America) moving in a continuous circular caravan.

November 7, 2018

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The War, and Walt Whipple

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 9, 2018
by Konrad Rogowski

The new original play by Danny Eaton, “The War, and Walt Whipple,” lives up to the words that he writes in his director’s notes, … “a warm and gentle play.”

Photo by Kait Rankins
This is a story of war fought on two fronts, that of the great battles of World War II and the hard trials they bring to the Whipple family; and the war churning in Walt Whipple’s head and heart, as his home, his values, and his prejudices are assaulted by the realities of a world changing faster than he can. These conflicts are told as a retrospective by a narrator, “older Ted” (John Thomas Waite), setting the scenes, and offering the insights of Walt’s youngest son Teddy (Christopher Rojas).

Greg Trochlil’s set reflects a safe and homey space from which the Whipples take on their problems, big or small. Walt’s struggles, adeptly portrayed by Ron Komora, are paralleled by those of his family. His wife, Alice (Sue Dziura), keeps him in touch with all that he would prefer ignore, while bartering gas stamps with a black market, cigarette smoking nun.

Walt’s renter, Charlie (Cliff Blake), a man badly scarred by an industrial accident, deals with a world uncomfortable with his presence. Walt’s son Hank (Tom Dahl) is wheelchair bound as a result of the war, and longs to see his wife live a ‘normal’ life.

Eaton’s direction of these troubled characters strikes a fine balance between the drama of their lives, and the daily humor of life’s little surprises, and delivers genuine, solid performances across this cast. Truly, Walt faces many trials, like his three sons’ wives living with him while their husbands are at war, which strains the bounds of his set bathroom conventions. For Walt Whipple, a house full of women and the diverse perspectives and values they bring may just be his greatest challenge.

In the end, life goes on for the Whipples, and audience members feel good for having spent an evening with them on their warm and gentle journey through, and beyond, whatever life’s wars try them with.

November 6, 2018

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Beauty and the Beast

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
Through November 25, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

In her “Director’s Notes” for the OHP production of “Beauty and the Beast,” Becca Coolong attributes the continuing appeal of this “tale as old as time,” most recently retold in two Disney films and this popular Broadway musical, to the fact that it’s “a story of hope, of love, and of acceptance.” Her diverse cast of 30 singing actors, including a Beast with dreadlocks, brings it to colorful and affecting life.

With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, the story has two settings. The first is a medieval French village, where the bookish Belle (“Beauty”) and her artist father Maurice are regarded with curiosity by other townsfolk. The other is a nearby castle, where a prince has been transformed into a Beast for his selfishness and his servants are gradually turning into household objects. To recover his and their humanity, the Beast must learn to love Belle. 

Kaite Corda is a radiant Belle, with a gorgeous singing voice and acting chops to match. Frank Cannizzo’s Maurice is a dignified and doting father. While less impressive than his co-star, Silk Johnson's "the Beast" has perhaps the show’s most poignant moment, when he releases Belle from captivity to find her lost father. Tim Reilly plays the self-important ladies’ man Gaston with hilariously over-the-top swagger, and Harper Laino is a hoot as his obsequious henchman LeFou.

Kaite Corda & Tim Reilly
Musical highlights include: Reilly’s exuberant celebration of himself, “Gaston;” a joyous “Be Our Guest,” as Michael Graham Morales’ suave Lumiere and the Beast’s servants welcome Belle to his castle; a lovely “Beauty and the Beast” from Stevie Norman’s warm-hearted Mrs. Potts; and Erin Dugan’s Madame de la Grande Bouche deliciously nailing a coloratura Mozart aria passage.

Resourceful set design by Francisco Aguas allows for seamless transitions between the two settings, and musical director Devon Bakum’s four-member ensemble sound deceptively larger and consistently spot on. Inventive choreography by Krista Brueno, ingenious costume design by Moonyean Field, and Coolong’s skillful use of off-stage space at the company’s temporary home in the Enfield Annex (formerly Fermi High School) further enhance this entertaining production.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Brass & Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 2–4, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

To open the second “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony since 2005, selected Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s first published work, his “Little Suite” for strings. Dating from 1888, when Nielsen was 23 years old, its three short movements were expressively played by the HSO string section under Wilkins’s subtle, restrained leadership.

HSO Horn Section
The concert continued with the 1850 “Konzertstuck” (Concert Piece) for the unlikely combination of four horns and orchestra by Robert Schumann. The brash fanfare which opens the first of its three short movements introduces a variety of technical challenges over the next 20 minutes for the four soloists, in this case all members of the HSO horn section. Principal Barbara Hill and her colleagues John Michael Adair, Hilary Ledebuhr, and Nick Rubenstein made it a showpiece for their notoriously demanding instrument, and they received spirited backing from Wilkins and the orchestra.

Intermission was followed by a dramatic account of the 1883 third symphony by Schumann’s protégé Johannes Brahms. The quietest of the composer’s four symphonies, it was refreshing to hear the opening “Allegro con brio” movement played with more vigor than usual, as Brahms wanted. But Wilkins’s flexible approach also gave full play to the flowing languor of the “Andante” second movement and the reflective melancholy of the “Poco allegretto” third movement before the energetic “Allegro” finale subsides into a peaceful hushed close. The conductor’s focused direction elicited sensitive and committed playing from the ensemble.

The Saturday audience was so pleased with it that the program closed with an encore, a blazing rendition of the closing “Furiant” from the 1879 Czech Suite by Antonin Dvorak, a composer much admired and even mentored by Brahms. Here Wilkins was more animated than he had been all evening, and his warm reception suggested that his HSO debut this weekend should not be his last Hartford appearance.

REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through November 18, 2018
by Mary Kate Sylvia

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a classic play looking into injustice, the treatment of the mentally ill, and control. The play takes place in the 1960s in a mental asylum and showcases the treatment of those living an institution vs those who run it. Playhouse on Park and director Ezra Barnes remain faithful to the script, and do not shy away from its politically incorrect scenes which include homophobic slurs, racism against Native Americans, jokes about rape, and rampant sexism. The theatergoer must be aware that they will likely be uncomfortable. Warnings aside, the play is valuable through its discomfort and, in some cases, rectifies its jokes and shortcomings with insight into the prejudice that was made light of earlier in the play’s storyline.

Photo by Curt Henderson
Every actor in this production does a superb job individually, becoming their characters and giving them multidimensional personalities; even those who rarely speak. What is so nice about this particular cast is the chemistry among the entire ensemble. Every actor can play off their castmates realistically and enthrallingly so that the audience is left totally immersed in each scene. In a play as heavy as this, a cast that does not vibe well can effectively leave the production dragging itself to its miserable end. The Playhouse ensemble ensure that all the right beats are hit and dialogue snaps so that the audience stays immersed right up to the painful end.

Overall, Playhouse on Park’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is incredibly well done. The set is utterly clinical, and the stage features practical fluorescent lighting which gives off an eerie hum that perforates the audience in times of silence. The inclusion of the audience does not stop at a realistic set, however. A patient named Martini, played by Harrison Greene, suffers from severe hallucinations and uses the audience as his basis for them. Though funny, the hallucinations seem meant to invoke a feeling of helplessness or guilt from the audience. Those seated see the horror depicted onstage, are vicariously included multiple times, and yet can do nothing to stop it. Bluntly and figuratively, the production rips the audience’s heart out.

One final note; the lobby of Playhouse on Park is filled with pamphlets on different mental illnesses that theatergoers can take to learn more about social stigmas. It is thoughtful gesture and underscores the idea that, while the play may be irreverent, the subject matter has serious, “real world” implications.