Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 15, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through July 22
by Rebecca Phelps

Photo Courtesy of Hartford Stage
Who else but Hershey Felder, well-known and beloved musician, actor and entrepreneur, could have adapted, produced and directed this incredible performance. The story of Lisa Jura, Viennese pianist, started out as a book written by Mona Gobalek, her daughter, and is now adapted as a moving, and awe-inspiring live theater piece performed by Mona herself. Through music and story-telling she tells the incredible true story of Lisa’s life during the rise of the Nazis.

In 1938, at age fourteen, Lisa’s Jewish parents placed her on a train in order to ensure her safety and she became one of the thousands of children who were transported to London as part of the Kindertransports. There she lived and practiced the piano in a hostel full of displaced children at Willesden Lane. Lisa’s mother (Mona’s grandmother) impressed upon her daughter to keep playing the piano; that no matter where life took her, she would always be there with her, through the music. And this advice was in evidence last night as her granddaughter, Mona performed.

Mona’s prowess as a pianist is on display throughout the performance as she sprinkles her story with segments of pieces from repertoire ranging from Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Scriabin and even Cole Porter. From a purely musical standpoint her playing is virtuosic and provides plenty of entertainment in and of itself, but she infuses the performance with vignettes of Lisa’s parents, friends and teachers, incredibly, often story-telling as she plays difficult pieces simultaneously.

The set is simple, with huge, empty gold frames suspended from the ceiling that are filled with projections of footage from the time period, including portraits of her parents, children being herded onto trains, bombings and the London blitz. However, there are also light touches of humor sprinkled throughout and overall the show is anything but depressing. This is a story of survival and triumph told graciously by a master performer and musician.

July 13, 2018

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Festival, Hair

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through August 11, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

This summer, 2 noteworthy anniversaries are being celebrated together: Berkshire Theatre Festival observes its 90th anniversary and the vintage Broadway show “Hair”, a paean to the 60’s Youth Counter-Culture Movement, turns 50. First produced by Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Festival in 1968, “Hair” seems timely and fresh despite coming from that long-gone era. With its paper-thin storyline, robust cast, and timely music, BTF’s production moves with psychedelic speed to create an enjoyable, entertaining, and at times enlightening evening of theater.

“Hair” was revolutionary for presenting audiences with a new genre: the rock musical. The show barely takes a breath as each member of the Tribe (a group of teenage society drop-outs) sing about their aspirations, love, angst, and joy. From the spot-on opening number, the well-known “Aquarius” led by Dionne, the powerfully voiced Latoya Edwards, to the hand-clapping ensemble finale, the ubiquitous “Let The Sun Shine In,” the show’s songs earn well-deserved ovations.

Some of these songs were considered “shocking” in decades past, and the show was originally banned in Boston. They include: “Sodomy”, sung by the comedic Woof, nicely done by Will Porter, whose Mick Jagger obsession provides the show with some levity, “Black Boys/White Boys”, sung with real groove by Shayna Blass, Katie Birenboim, Sarah Sun Park, Latoya Edwards, and Ariel Blackwood, and “Walking in Space”. Such themes of open sexuality, inter-racial coupling, and LSD tripping are far more understood and accepted than they were 50 years.

The book itself is quite impressionistic, leaving the listener to follow the story through its pastiche of songs. The tribe’s de facto leaders rollickingly lead the title song: the Cheshire Cat grinned Berger (Brandon Contreras) and the ever so urbane Hud (Eric R. Williams). Two of the prettiest numbers, “Easy To Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine,” are sweetly sung by Sheila (Kayla Foster). The naïvely torn Claude, nicely played by Andrew Cekala, sings both the lively “I Got Life” and the poignant Act I finale “Where Do I Go.” The latter song features the cast’s notorious fully nude scene, which can easily be missed, since it’s played upstage in silhouette. Act II’s definitively Anti-Vietnam sentiment is conveyed by the satirical “Abie, Baby” (led by Dionne and Hud) and the sobering “Three-Five-Zero-Zero.”

In addition to the superbly talented cast, attention must also be paid to Director Daisy Walker’s skillful direction, Lisa Shriver’s sweeping choreography, Eric Svejcar’s seamless musical direction, and Shane E. Ballard’s earthy costumes.

Credit must also be given to the show’s creators James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot for creating something so "of the moment" that it somehow became timeless. May their show play another 50 years

July 12, 2018

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Eastman

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 15, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Eastman is not to be missed! At first glance, some dance enthusiasts might question attending a one-piece program that explores the political philosophy of Noam Chomsky, an American activist. Of even greater concern might be the cohesiveness of a venue performed by an all-male cast of five dancers with very different dance backgrounds and four musicians, in total representing nine different cultures. However, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Fractus V” was anything but boring or disjunct.

The acapella opening is a dramatic blending of male voices. The mood quickly changes to discourse as the dance movements become chaotic. As the name of the program suggests, there is an underlying theme of brokenness; there exists a schism between the individual and society.

A humorous approach is used to introduce the audience to Chomsky’s belief that freedom of speech must be used as a defense against social propaganda. Three dancers layer their hands to speak as one, reminiscence of the multi-limbed goddess Durga. 

Cherkaoui periodically builds a community from the many cultures represented by his performers. He accomplishes this artistically through a variety of dance genres and songs sung in many languages. He also physically “builds” a community with 23 large triangular boards that are moved several times throughout the production to create flooring and backdrops. Fabian Thomé Duten performed an outstanding Flamenco routine using the triangles as sound boards for his footwork. 

Violence is introduced in two sets. Three dancers repeatedly “shoot” a victim, while the fifth dancer placidly remains seated. Subsequently, one dancer repeatedly attacks the other four dancers in pure physical violence; the cracking of bones and punches are disturbingly accentuated through sound effects and the illusion of slow motion. These segments illustrate that violent force is not sufficient to control the masses; violence can be ignored. The evolving twentieth century strategy has been to use thought manipulation as a means of control.

One of the highlights of the evening was an Asian routine that featured singing and hambone. The percussive use of their hands slapping parts of their own body was a creative take on an old dance form. 

The original music score performed by the vocalists and musicians was every bit as entertaining as the dancing. The 90-minute program has enough quality music that Eastman should consider producing a soundtrack.

Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” “Fractus V” forces the audience to consider personal responsibility, independent thinking and our global community. By the enthusiastic standing ovation, it appears that the audience connected with Cherkaoui’s plan for growth.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Chamber Players

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July-5, 2018
by Michael J. Moran
Rudof Buchbinder

A day before the BSO’s opening night concert launched the 2018 Tanglewood season, ten of their members joined Austrian pianist Rudof Buchbinder in a stimulating chamber music program of two familiar masterworks framing two rewarding novelties.

Mozart’s opening Quintet for Piano and Winds, K.452, immersed the Ozawa Hall audience in a cool, bracing bath of sound on a hot, humid evening. The 30-minute piece in three movements exudes the happiness its composer must have been feeling when he wrote it in 1784, as his popularity was taking off across Europe. Buchbinder’s calm but forceful leadership anchored a relaxed performance, with agile and deeply felt contributions from oboist John Ferillo, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, hornist James Sommerville, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda.

The first half of the concert closed with a fascinating rarity, Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1971 Sonata for Solo Double Bass. Edwin Barker coaxed a remarkably wide range of sounds from his unwieldy instrument as he explored various dance rhythms through the six short movements of this Shostakovich-like 20-minute suite.

Intermission was followed with an equally fascinating rarity by Leonard Bernstein, as Tanglewood celebrates its “Bernstein Centennial Summer,” his Variations on an Octatonic Scale. Composed in 1988-1989, less than two years before his death, the 10-minute theme with four variations is built on the eight-note scale of eastern music, rather than the seven-note (heptatonic) scale of most western music. Flutist Elizabeth Rowe and cellist Blaise Dejardin made a strong case for its theatrical flair.

The program closed with a passionate account of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Opus 44, written in just two weeks during September-October 1842, and later to become a showpiece for his pianist- wife, Clara. Buchbinder’s Olympian technique and quiet charisma were the binding force for committed playing throughout the contrasting moods of its four movements by violinists Haldan Martinson and Alexander Velinzon, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Dejardin.

This program led off what looks like a typically varied series of concerts by world-class musicians from many backgrounds in Ozawa Hall this season, including: Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax (July 18); the Fleisher-Jacobson Piano Duo (July 19); the Emerson String Quartet (July 24-25); Thomas Ades and Kirill Gerstein (August 1); Paul Lewis (August 2); and Igor Levit and the JACK Quartet (August 15).

July 10, 2018

REVIEW: Chester Theatre Company, Disgraced

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
Through July 15, 2018
By Mary Fernandez-Sierra

Moving and superbly performed, Disgraced is another triumph for Chester Theatre Company.

This play, a Pulitzer Prizewinner about heritage and cultural currents and consequences, is heartrending, thanks to the eloquent script by Ayad Akhtar and dynamic direction of Kristen van Ginhoven.

It is the tale of true love lost and gifts gone wrong due to misunderstanding and intolerance, so it is not easy theatre to sit through; but it is worthwhile to absorb the message, and to admire the fine performances of the cast, as well as the artistry of the Chester Theatre ensemble in the telling.

J. Paul Nicholas as Amir, the up-and-coming American executive who both seeks and hides his Muslim background, is utterly charming and tragic.  He is a powerhouse performer, giving his all to the role.

Stunning as well is Kim Stauffer, portraying Emily, Amir’s wife. One hears her visions about Islamic art, seeing them through her eyes as though the visual images were present onstage. Her deep affection for her husband and her artistic ideals are fully realized in a passionate and powerful performance.

In supporting roles, Christina Gordon, Jonathan Albert and Abuzar Farrukh are equally strong. Each character steps up, speaking the truth as they see it in difficult circumstances, with depth and conviction. The subtle humor and wit of this play is often rendered up by these characters; bravo!
Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

Scenic Design by Juliana von Haubrich creates an elegant contemporary New York apartment, somehow evocative of boxes, pigeonholes and bars. Lighting Design by James McNamara is extraordinary in its rich colors and patterns, suggesting underlying drama and tension, as well as ancient Islamic beauty.

Costume Design by Stella Schwartz realizes the glitz and glamor of aspiring young professionals, and Tom Shread’s exotic music seems to flow from the characters themselves, and the disparate worlds they come from.

Behind all this theatrical harmony is the fine hand of Director Kristen van Ginhoven, who orchestrates the voices, hearts and events in Disgraced with certainty and simplicity to be a meaningful tale for our times.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, “On the Town”

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 7, 2018
by Michael J. Moran
On The Town cast, Photo Courtesy BSO

A rollicking semi-staged production of Leonard Bernstein’s first Broadway musical highlighted Tanglewood’s opening weekend and got its “Bernstein Centennial Summer” tribute to the beloved musical icon whose half-century presence there is still treasured off to a thrilling start.

The opulent sound of the Boston Pops Orchestra under the seasoned leadership of Keith Lockhart (ably doubling as the evening’s narrator) in the lively Overture made it clear that this would be no ordinary “On the Town.” Marc Kudisch’s commanding baritone slowed things down briefly for New York City to wake up at 6:00 am in “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” After the three sailors who get a day pass to explore the city then burst into exuberant anticipation in “New York, New York,” the pace never slackened as the rest of the shown followed their adventures through the next 24 hours.  

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast of Broadway veterans. As the sailors, Brandon Victor Dixon was an affecting Gabey, Andy Carl an oversexed Ozzie, and Christian Dante White a kind-hearted Chip. As their love interests, Georgina Pazcoguin brought balletic grace to Ivy (“Miss Turnstiles”) Smith, Laura Osnes gave anthropologist Claire De Loone zany sophistication, and Megan Lawrence invested taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy with brash high spirits. Kudisch’s dapper judge (Claire’s stuffy fiance) and three characters hilariously played by Andrea Martin, especially a drunken music teacher, were laugh riots whenever they appeared.

Much credit goes to director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall for balancing the urgent forward motion with quiet intervals which allowed Dixon’s poignant “Lonely Town” and the ensemble’s  heartfelt “Some Other Time” their full emotional resonance. Marshall put the wide but shallow Koussevitzky Music Shed stage to imaginative use, placing movement and extensive dancing from center to both far sides, with minimal and multi-functional props. Michael Krass’s costume design richly rendered the fashions of wartime 1940s New York.

Upcoming programs in Tanglewood’s “Bernstein Centennial Summer” include: his 1952 one-act Opera “Trouble in Tahiti” (July 12); the 1962 movie “West Side Story” with live BSO accompaniment (July 28); the 1977 song cycle “Songfest” (August 4); the 1983 full-length opera “A Quiet Place” (August 9); the 1956 Broadway show “Candide” (August 22-23); and a gala celebrity-studded career-wide selection on his birthday (August 25).

July 9, 2018

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Coming Back Like a Song!

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
Through July 21, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

Photo by Emma Rothernberg-Ware
Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) offers the perfect contrast to its electrifying 90th anniversary season opener, “Church & State,” with an affectionate world premiere production of Lee Kalcheim’s “Coming Back Like a Song!,” set on Christmas Eve 1956 in Irving Berlin’s New York apartment, where fellow songwriters Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen have joined him for drinks after an irksome ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) meeting.

Named after a song Berlin wrote for Bing Crosby in the 1946 movie “Blue Skies,” the intermission-less 85-minute play with music features snippets of 37 songs (including most of their greatest hits) by all three composers, which they sing as they contemplate their futures competing with the popularity of rock and roll and the past hits which ranked them among America’s greatest songwriters.

“Der Bingle” (Crosby), Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland are among the memorable performers of the trio’s music who turn up in anecdotes that may be amusing or serious. Two about Sinatra by Van Heusen, who even calls “the Chairman” during the show, involve a Christmas party and an emergency room visit. More holiday cheer is delivered with a clever turn of phrase by Berlin in literally the show’s last word.

The threesome demonstrates an often touching concern for each other’s success and happiness. After Berlin is encouraged to sing his earliest ballad, “When I Lost You,” written in memory of his first wife, Dorothy, who died after six months of marriage, he calls Arlen’s hospitalized wife, Anya, and sings her “Always,” the rights to which he gave his second wife (of 63 years), Ellin. The on-stage piano is actually played idiomatically and discreetly, off-stage by music director Daniel Mollett.

Three Broadway actors create distinctive portraits of their characters: David Garrison is an irascible Berlin; Philip Hoffman, an intense Arlen; and David Rasche, an easygoing Van Heusen. Their singing voices are appropriately workmanlike. Direction by Tony-nominated actor Gregg Edelman is sensitive and well-paced. Scenic design of the single living-room set by Randall Parsons is elegant and sumptuous. Costume design by David Murin is period perfect.