Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 11, 2016

Love Letters

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 14, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

Love means never having to say you're sorry, doesn't it? In A.R. Guerney's romantic dramedy "Love Letters," lifelong intimate friends Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner seem to constantly be apologizing for something each has said or done over the course of nearly 50 years. Casting Ryan O'Neal as Andy and Ali MacGraw as Melissa is sheer genius. Re-teamed 45 years after their Oscar-nominated roles in 1970's "Love Story," these well-matched actors displayed great versatility and a strong emotional connection, despite only speaking to one another through letter writing. Being primarily film and television actors, their volume was a bit low at the start of the show. But as the evening drew on, their voices became stronger and filled with love, hate, anger, and despair.

MacGraw comes off particularly well. Her strong acting skills are brought to full power here. As the wealthy and rebellious Melissa, her restless nature is heard in her point-on, stinging retorts and later in her desperate cries for help against an omnipresent, conformist society.

O'Neal is full of surprises. Seeming rather bland at the in the opening minutes, his eleventh hour monologue moves the audience in its emotional strength. He is an actor of great skill.

Seeing this pair on stage together is a moment to savor. Both have led rich lives and have worked with and been personally involved with so many diverse Hollywood figures (Steve McQueen, Robert Evans, Farrrah Fawcett, and Barbra Streisand come to mind) all of whom have influenced who these two actors are today. They are truly a seasoned pair, worthy of their legendary status.

Opening night of "Love Letters" at the Bushnell was a near perfect evening of theatre, with the exception of a cacophony of audience coughing and somewhat poor acoustics that, unfortunately, overshadowed some witty lines.

February 9, 2016

Grieg Piano Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
February 6, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

What better way to mark the belated arrival of winter in the Valley than with a concert of Scandinavian music? For the third classical program of the season, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes selected two familiar masterpieces, and one that should be better known, by three composers from Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

Sibelius’ patriotic tone poem “Finlandia” was a rousing opener in the orchestra’s dramatic performance, tense at the foreboding start, warm in the central hymn-like theme, and thrilling in the triumphant conclusion. The brasses were firm and blazing, while shimmering strings and delicate woodwinds provided sonic and emotional contrast.

Rising American pianist Claire Huangci was featured next in a dazzling account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Her technical finesse and interpretive depth made this repertory staple sound new again. From the thunderous power of the opening Allegro, to the glowing hush of the tender Adagio, and the romping energy of the folk like finale, Huangci was in total control. Her greater maturity since her SSO debut in Chopin’s F minor concerto at age 18 in 2008 was impressively evident. The orchestra were equal partners in bringing Grieg’s wide palette of instrumental colors to life. Huangci’s chops were even clearer in her finger-busting encore of Turkish pianist Fazil Say’s jazzy take on Mozart’s Turkish March.

Intermission was followed by a visceral rendition (the SSO’s first) of Nielsen’s rarely heard third symphony. Called “Sinfonia Espansiva” after the “Allegro espansiva” tempo marking of its first movement, the entire piece radiates the zest for life also suggested by its nickname. The vigor of the opening movement, the languor of the pastoral Andante, the gentle humor of the Allegretto, and the high spirits of the finale were all delivered with polish and conviction by Rhodes and his players. The Andante ends with a wordless vocal passage for soprano and baritone, rapturously sung by Dana Lynne Varga and John Salvi, whose voices blended magically with the orchestral instruments.

By evening’s end, the goal stated in the Maestro’s program book “Reflections” to highlight the distinctive individual sounds of three Nordic composers was abundantly achieved.

February 6, 2016

Avenue Q

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through February 21, 2016
By R.E. Smith

By turns hilarious, touching, topical and raunchy, “Avenue Q” has everything one could hope for in a puppet musical, especially if one is hoping for catchy songs and intimate, R-rated, felt-based relationships. The story tracks the lives of the millennial denizens of a street not unlike one called “Sesame,” (complete with educational animations), as they deal with “real life” and their relationships with each other.

Half of the team that wrote the book, music and lyrics, is Robert Lopez, also partly responsible for “The Book of Mormon” and “Frozen,” so expect zippy one-liners set to hummable ditties such as “It Sucks to Be Me, sung by performers operating puppets. It takes some real musical chops to create a humorous tune on the topic of “Schadenfreude” as song by a fictional Gary Coleman.

As broadly humorous as the idea may seem, a lot has to go right for concept to succeed and not seem like amateur hour. Fortunately, the Opera House Players have mastered all the elements, starting first and foremost with the cast. Although speaking through their puppets, one cannot help but split one’s attention between watching the puppet and the actual performer. Whichever one is chosen, both deliver an enjoyable performance.

Kellie Comer, as Kate Monster, never wavers in her commitment to making sure her furry counterpart is always “emoting,” all the while giving a multi-dimensional performance herself. She can deliver a curse word and sing the tender “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” with equal aplomb. Ryan Pipke manages 2 totally different characters, “Trekkie Monster” and “Nicky”, sometimes at the same time. In these cases he is often assisted by Alysa Auriemma, who still gives complete performances even when she is
literally lending an extra hand. Pipke’s vocalizations definitely carry a hint of familiarity that helps underscore the humor in “The Internet is for Porn” and “If You Were Gay.” Auriemma’s solo as “Lucy” in “ Special”, showed that a puppet can be droll and ribald simultaneously. Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh and Daniel Viets as the “Bad Idea Bears” were perfect comic foils, cute and cheerfully malevolent. On the wholly human side, and more caricature then the puppets, is “Christmas Eve” given real energy and presence by Sandra W. Lee, especially when she explains the conflicting emotions that occur “When You Ruv Someone.”

“Avenue Q” takes the familiar, turns it sideways, gets your toes tapping, and leaves a smile on your face. Perfect for a February date night at the theater!

February 3, 2016

The Chosen

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through February 14, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park presents a serious play about growth with “The Chosen.” It takes place in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s. The themes are many: parental love and filial devotion, emerging identity and community, and friendship and its many tests. But perhaps the theme that emerges most sharply, and which has the most immediate relevance, is stereotyping – reacting to surface appearance instead of looking beyond it. Two boys, both Jewish, overcome their own stereotypes about each other to form a lasting bond. “The Chosen” is a wordy play, but the dialog reaches the essence of this growth.

Reuven is the son of David Malter, a thoughtful, talkative liberal Jewish scholar – we see their love and mutual support. Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, a stern Hasidic leader, who has chosen near-total silence as his best approach to parenting. Can these two opposites both have positive outcomes? Can there be truth in two conflicting statements from God? And can both ways of being a Jew not only co-exist but be true to the Talmud upon which they are each based? Danny and Reuven’s friendship helps them grow away from home ties and toward independence and self-definition, even as it is tested and distorted by the emerging truths of the Holocaust and by their fathers’ conflicting positions on Zionism.

The minimal set gives a distracting prominence to the center-stage entrances and exits. The script demands a lot of the five actor cast; each of the men more than measured up. One might be permitted to wonder, however, what the girls and women were doing in these communities in mid-century Brooklyn.

Playhouse on Park opened this play to a sold-out and enthusiastic audience, some of whom exhibited their own Talmudic knowledge in their reactions. But the play appeals to anyone who can think about his or her own stereotypical thinking enough to overcome it, learn and grow.

January 25, 2016

Battle of the Batons

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
January 21–24, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

The “battle” in this program title refers neither to the labor dispute between HSO musicians and management that was resolved just days before these concerts, nor to winter storm Jonas, which forced a rare cancellation of Saturday’s concert, but to a competition among three young musicians for the orchestra’s new Assistant Conductor position. Each led two pieces on the program, one with a featured HSO principal soloist and one with orchestra alone.

Valentino, Crust & Kerry Boyles
Principal Bassist Edward R. Rozie, Jr., opened with a rousing account of two movements from the second concerto for double bass and orchestra by 19th-century Italian composer and double bass player Giovanni Bottesini under the energetic baton of Adam Kerry Boyles. Robert McEwan next performed a haunting solo in the first movement of French composer and percussionist Emmanuel Sejourne’s jazzy 1999 concerto for vibraphone and orchestra, sumptuously led by Andrew Crust. Concertmaster Leonid Sigal closed the first half with a virtuoso rendition of Saint-Saens’ familiar "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" under the balletic direction of Patrick Valentino.

Based in Boston, and also a composer, Valentino followed intermission with a grand but lively reading of the "Overture" to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Also based in the Boston area and active as a choral and solo singer, Boyles next led an unusually flowing account of Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun". Based in Montreal and Colorado and also a music writer, Crust ended the evening with a colorful and vibrant presentation of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s "Prince Igor."

The musicians responded beautifully to all three different personalities with polished and enthusiastic playing. While each conductor had a distinctive way of communicating his intentions – Valentino with kinetic energy, Boyles with technical precision, and Crust with fluid grace – any one of them would be a fine addition to the HSO roster.

The generous spirit of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, who had just taken a voluntary pay cut commensurate with that of orchestra members to reach a contract settlement, seemed to fill the Bushnell’s Belding Theater with new hope for the bright future of this essential ensemble.

January 20, 2016

Reading: "Elementary, My Dear Fellow"

A New Play about William Gillette by Shera Cohen
Thursday, February 11, 7:00pm,
Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT

“Elementary, My Dear Fellow” tells the story of William Gillette, renowned actor/playwright/inventor, Hartford born and bred, and most importantly, the original Sherlock Holmes. In 1896, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle literally handed his celebrated books to this constantly employed yet rarely satisfied American actor, telling Gillette to do whatever he pleased with Sherlock as he was tired and bored with the detective. This was the impetus to Gillette’s famous and long career. Gillette not only molded the Holmes’ stories into plays and wrote many of his own creation, it was Gillette who dressed Holmes in what has now become the character’s instantly recognizable image.

However, William Gillette was far more than Sherlock Holmes. Admittedly, even Gillette often entangled the two – man and character – through much of his later career and life. The play is William Gillette’s journey onto the stage, the people who helped him, his joys and tragedies. It may not be surprising that Gillette was a rather quirky, sometimes naive, and enigmatic man…certainly, a man worthy of meeting.

Cast List & Readers
William Gillette read by Martin Shell
Charles Frohman read by Frank Aronson
Helen Nichols read by Jarice Hanson
Yukitaka Osaki read by Luis Manzi
Arthur Conan Doyle read by Tim O’Brien
Woman read by Kristen Anne Ferraro
Man read by Keith Purcell
Narrator/Stage Manager -- Julie Waggoner

Free will offering.
Reservations recommended: (860) 247-0998

Buyer & Cellar

Theaterworks, Hartford, CT 
through February 14, 2016
by R.E. Smith

“Buyer & Cellar” is a very made up story inspired by facts so “preposterous,” that they could only be true. The “Buyer” in this case is Barbra Streisand; the “Cellar” is the basement of her palatial Malibu estate, which she has made into a museum that mimics an old fashion Main Street USA, complete with storefronts and a staff of one.

Tom Lenk as Alex More
A one-person show is only as good as the performer, and Tom Lenk is outstanding. An actor of stages and screens big and small, he brings a comfortable familiarity to Alex More, an out of work actor who has lucked into what seems to be the best job ever. The audience invests their trust in him immediately. He brings to life over a half dozen characters, each with distinct voice and physicality. Lenk’s facial expressions are especially fluid, and just a simple change to the set of his eyes was enough to indicate a character change.

The TheaterWorks venue is the perfect setting for this basement-based tale. The set is simple, the props are minimal, and any more would just distract from the intimacy. There is one notable exception: Streisand’s actual coffee table book, “My Passion for Design,” the inspiration for the play, has a large role, serving as the footnote source for some of the “strange but true” details.

Director Rob Ruggiero uses all of Lenk’s skills to the fullest. The pace never drags when Lenk is portraying Alex and others, so whenever “Barbra” enters the room, there is an almost palpable sense that the very walls are holding their breath in "her" presence.

Playwright (and Connecticut resident) Jonathan Tolins has crafted a well-balanced story, amusing, charming, and totally believable despite the out of the ordinary premise. There is amateur psychology, meditations on success, and dissertations on loneliness, but all with a solid underpinning of laugh out loud humor and lightness of spirit.

One person leaving the show was heard to remark, “I wonder how long he (Alex) worked for her?” This suspension of disbelief is the true mark of all elements working in harmony to get the audience invested in the story. Barbra fans will find it a love letter, non-fans will find it very funny, and both will enjoy “Buyer & Cellar” immensely.