Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 16, 2015

Saint-Saens & Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 12-15, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

How often does a guest conductor not only lead the world premiere of a new piece of music, but dedicate it to the orchestra performing it, and write the piece himself? Not very often, but that’s exactly what happened when Gerard Schwarz opened the sixth concert of this season’s HSO Masterworks series by leading the orchestra in his own “Symphonic Poem No. 1,” dedicated to them and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan.

According to the composer’s program note, the ten-minute piece “uses two themes…one is a slow melody in a…romantic style and the second is more agitated and angular.” Strings and brass were most prominently featured, but all sections of the orchestra proved their mettle in a taut performance that highlighted both the drama of the score and the mutual respect and affection between the musicians and the composer/conductor.  

Another personal connection was the conductor’s son Julian Schwarz, the soloist in a fiery account of Saint-Saens’s first cello concerto. This brief (twenty minutes) but virtuosic showpiece also marked the 23-year-old cellist’s orchestral debut at age 11 with his father conducting the Seattle Symphony, of which he was then music director; they later also recorded the piece. Their long affinity for it elicited a performance showcasing Julian’s technical proficiency, his interpretive maturity, and the orchestra’s vibrant playing. Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Pezzo Capriccioso” for cello and orchestra was a delightful encore.

Brahms’s second symphony is usually presented as the lightest of his four symphonies, but Maestro Schwarz’s dynamic baton also found in it some of the passion and power of the first and even the tragic grandeur of the fourth. In the opening “Allegro,” the quiet melancholy of the main theme led into a more urgent than usual climax; the pensive slow “Adagio” was disturbed by troubling thoughts; both trios in the livelier “Allegretto” were uncommonly perky; and the “Allegro” finale was an unabashedly joyful romp. This gentle piece has rarely sounded so hefty and dramatic. 


This is the second Schwarz family concert with the HSO in three years, and this winning program inspires hope that it won’t be the last.

Beethoven & Bernstein

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 14, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Consisting only of two symphonies, this program presented the strongest study in contrast of the current SSO season, between (as Maestro Kevin Rhodes notes in “Rhodes’ Reflections” in the program book) Beethoven’s “trip to the country” and Bernstein’s portrait of the “angst of the city and modern life.” As Rhodes also notes in these “Reflections,” Beethoven “was the first person to give a symphony a program and a title” in his sixth, or “Pastoral,” symphony.

The Maestro’s urgent performance reminded listeners that for this most dramatic of composers even a walk in the countryside was an adventure. Thus, the first movement, subtitled “Cheerful feelings awakened on arriving in the country,” moved along at a brisk clip; the slower second movement, “Scene by the brook,” flowed swiftly past; the livelier third movement, “Merry gathering of country folk,” danced energetically by; the contrasting fourth movement, “Thunderstorm,” featured a shockingly loud drum thwack; it was only in the final “Shepherd’s song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” that repose was finally achieved. The SSO played throughout with vigor and poise. 

Following intermission, Bernstein’s second symphony, named and programmed after Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety,” explores the meaning of life after the devastation of World War II. Its six movements are divided into two groups of three, set in a New York City bar (Part I) and an apartment (Part II). Its prominent role for a piano soloist makes it almost as much a concerto as a symphony.

Sara Davis Buechner
Sara Davis Buechner’s virtuosic playing showed off both the lyrical and the percussive qualities of the instrument, which Rhodes carefully balanced against the enlarged orchestra. The jazzy fifth movement, “Masque,” for piano and drum set, was particularly infectious, even foreshadowing “West Side Story.”


The audience included two groups of young students, and one boy no more than ten years old seated near this reviewer leaned forward through all 40 minutes of Beethoven totally enthralled by the performance. Though he didn’t stay for the Bernstein, he could have had no finer introduction to classical music and a potential lifetime of concert-going pleasure.

March 10, 2015

Follies


Theatre Guild of Hampden, Hampden, MA
through March 22, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

The original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” won six Tony Awards in 1972, including best direction of a musical, best choreography, best scenic design, and best costume design. Mark Giza’s sensitive direction, Kathleen Delaney’s imaginative choreography, the resourceful set design by Josiah Durham and Giza, and Ann-Marie Popko’s period-perfect costume design are equally award-worthy in TGH’s thrilling production of this musical theatre production.

On entering Fisk Hall at Wilbraham Monson Academy in Wilbraham, the audience sees the rundown stage of an old theatre slated for demolition on which a reunion of past performers in musical revues - based on Ziegfeld’s Follies - is about to take place 30 years after their closing show in 1941. The story focuses on two unhappily married former showgirls and the husbands who courted them back then. They and other characters are often hauntingly shadowed on stage by ghosts of their younger selves.

Performances by the large cast of 27 players are consistently enthusiastic and committed. Gene Choquette’s Ben is jaded yet vulnerable, while Anna Giza captures all the bitterness and yearning of his wife Phyllis. Colby Herchel and Kk Walulak are touching as their younger counterparts. Kevin Wherry is funny and poignant as the hapless Buddy, putting his flexible limbs to entertaining use in “Buddy’s Blues.”  

Erica Romeo’s portrayal of Buddy’s wife Sally is a revelation, as she moves from giddy girlishness in her arrival at the reunion, through the emotional rekindling of her youthful affair with Ben, to her stark realization that she can never have him. The depth and pain of her “Losing My Mind” are especially heartrending. Alley Reardon is endearing as Young Sally, as is Paul Leckey as Young Buddy.

Special supporting cast kudos go to Pat Haynes, whose ditsy Hattie is a hoot in “Broadway Baby,” and to Conni Lind, whose understated Carlotta triumphs in a powerful, subtly shaded “I’m Still Here.”

The five-piece on-stage band sound like a much bigger orchestra under musical director Bill Martin and does yeoman’s work in meeting the challenges of Sondheim’s intricate score. This "Follies” is outstanding, to be much appreciated by local theatre fans.

March 8, 2015

Dearly Departed

Panache Productions, CityStage, Springfield, MA
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through March 8, 2015
by Mary Ann Dennis

"Dearly Departed" is a wacky play that manages to poke fun at families and relationships while also celebrating them. “Comedy” like “beauty” can be “in the eye of the beholder.” It is interesting to watch reactions in the audience; some guffawing while others stiff as a board with barely a cracked smile. This reviewer is in the middle.

The comedy's playing field is funeral preparation, doubling as an exhibition of a semi-functional family and its dynamics. With a lot of roles, it is difficult to keep all of the relationships straight at first; eventually, everything becomes clear regarding “who is who” in the cast.

Theresa Allie, a Paula Dean look-a-like, does a fine job, as the dearly departed’s deeply religious, bible thumper, God-fearing sister Marguerite. Joey Chiaravalle, as her son Royce plays well. In lead roles, Aimee Lamontagne and Jeremy Thayer have excellent timing in their first scene together. However, Lamontagne goes down hill from there as she becomes a bit spastic in her delivery and character-ish, while Thayer is believable and consistent. Steve Connor excels as Reverend Hooker who has the daunting task of putting a positive spin on what might normally be a sad occasion. Meaghan Carlton, who has but one word in the show, often upstages scenes as she portrays a gum-cracking, face-stuffing, surprise child of the dearly departed.

Many of the non-family characters introduced at the funeral home seem to be thrown in just for laughs. With tremendous differentiation, Bruce Torrey plays two roles beautifully. Along with Rae L. Banigan, as the character's wife, they create a believable elderly couple.

Despite the Southern setting and the accents, there are universal truths and situations particularly in Act II. However, slapstick is paramount. "Dearly Departed" might be a laugh-out-loud show if it’s your cup of tea.

March 3, 2015

One Slight Hitch

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 4, 2015
by Jennifer Curran

Lewis Black, the well-known comedian, whose penchant for raw, angry, and political stand-up is well-known, has crafted a Neil Simon homage with not one sharp edge. Steeped in nostalgia, topped with some great early 80’s music, and a lot of door banging slapstick, “One Slight Hitch” is a very funny play.

Photo by Lee Chambers
In a well-appointed suburban home in Cincinnati, Doc (Anderson Matthews) and his wife Delia (Rebecca Nelson), are gearing up for their eldest daughter Courtney’s wedding to straight laced, overly wholesome Harper. One slight hitch has led Courtney’s ex-boyfriend Ryan into the midst of the action. Unwelcome and uninvited, the wandering writer Ryan (Ryan McCarthy) brings to light the deep dysfunction, the tight bonds, and the alcoholism abundant in middle America.

The standout performances here belong to Emery Henderson as P.B., the eternal little sister, and the previously mentioned Anderson Matthews. Henderson is a light on the stage and her moments of nostalgia are truly golden. She flits and dances like a real life Rainbow Brite, entirely endearing and never too sweet. Matthews’ Doc, the beleaguered father of three daughters, is hilariously intoxicated throughout, yet manages to stay on just the right side of ridiculous. The audience roots for this crazy family from lights up. Special mention here goes to Ashley Malloy and her wickedly fun turn as the errant rebel Melanie. She is the reason all that light doesn’t get too blinding. 

Rand Foerster’s direction brings out the best in the script and avoids getting too sticky-sweet in key moments, of which there could have been one too many.

“One Slight Hitch” recalls the classic American play. One set, one story, and one very big heart beats to songs somehow now three decades past.

Reverberation

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 15, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak has admitted hesitating to include Matthew Lopez’s “Reverberation” – a bold play that is “rather frank – about love and sexuality; gay, straight, and in between” – in the current season lineup. Luckily for Hartford Stage theatergoers, Tresnjak trusted his audience, and this compelling piece of theatre is currently making its world debut before Hartford audiences.

Lopez is no stranger to HS. A young talent and prolific playwright, his award-winning work “The Whipping Man” garnered rave reviews here in 2012. Now, with “Reverberation,” Lopez has definitely scored once again. Yes, this is a tale of love and sexuality, but more so, it is emotion laid bare – grief, loneliness, desperation, desolation – as his characters (Jonathan, grieving the untimely death of his longtime lover; Claire, the new upstairs neighbor; and Wes, one of Jonathan’s one-night-stands) struggle to give their lives meaning.

Each actor is powerful and authentic in his/her respective role, making audience members forget they are actually watching a play, but feeling, rather, caught up in the maelstrom that is their lives. The emotions are genuine, their expression raw and riveting. Luke Macfarlane’s Jonathan is enshrouded by grief, withdrawn and dispirited. Aya Cash’s Claire is vibrant, probing and challenging, an extroverted foil to Jonathan’s self-absorbed character, a clash that eventually dissolves, at least temporarily, into an interdependent affinity. Carl Lundstedt’s Wes displays a trusting boyish innocence and is delightfully love-struck. Silences and hesitations speak volumes. Unfortunately, many tête-à-têtes between Jonathan and Claire are close and intimate, so much so that some dialogue is lost.

Scenic Designer Andromache Chalfant’s impressive multilevel Astoria, Queens’ apartment house with adjacent four flights of stairs is more than a setting. Although told that both apartments are identical, Jonathan’s is as cluttered as his mind, whereas Claire’s upstairs unit is sparse, as unsettled as she is. Act II adjustments note the passage of time and suggest that they have both moved on.

Tei Blow’s music and sounds are loud and chaotic, at times bordering on annoyingly so, until one begins to associate the dissonance with the characters’ states of mind.

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.