Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 21, 2016

A Chorus Line


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford,  CT
through July 31
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park proves something with the production of every play, and “A Chorus Line” is no exception. The list of superlatives is endless for this production and its cast, but the director’s and choreographer’s abilities to make a condensed space (in Broadway terms) feel vast must be the first one on the list. But wait, shouldn’t it be the energy, or the movement, the singing by the youthful cast --- or perhaps the highest accolade should go to the sincerity of each solo performance, or better yet, to the tightness of the ensemble vocal and dance numbers?

Photo by Rich Wagner
In its hands, this conception of “A Chorus Line” is no repetition of something we all knew and loved 30 years ago. It is fresh, relevant, and touching with a balance of pathos and comedy that still honors the original creators. Running through this amazing production is the golden thread of memory and time – memories that sear when past histories come forth, as well as each dancer’s personal dedication and commitment to what the future holds for choices already made.

One hesitates to highlight individual performances when a group works this well together. In response to the persistent probing of the “director” Zach, Alex Polsun as Mike sets a standard for all that follows in “I Can Do That” – he lets the audience know that this company will not hold back. Outstanding also is Bobbi Barricella in “What I Did For Love,” as well as Andee Buccheri’s self-revealing “Dance: Ten Looks: Three.”

But back to where this review began – the use of space. Where many musical theatre directors might see a problem, Sean Harris capitalizes on the intimacy of the U-shape and stage-level seating. His staging cannot help but draw every audience member into an unforgettable and peak experience.

June 17, 2016

Yankee Tavern



New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA 
www.newcenturytheatre.org 
through June 25, 2016
by R.E. Smith

There is no denying that Steven Dietz’s “Yankee Tavern” deals with topics and questions that are especially relevant to today's political climate. Set in New York City in 2006, this four character piece finds that the repercussions of 911 are still keenly felt, in both broad and subtle ways. It also posits that everybody has secrets, whether they're bartenders or governments. What “Tavern” doesn't have is a script that is quite as clever as it strives to be.

Back-stories are parceled out strictly for their “wow” factor, with intriguing bits thrown about and left unexplored. Motivations are often contradictory and muddled, existing not to deepen the mystery but because they make for easy plot propulsion. The young romantic leads of Adam and Janet are given so little genuine emotional interaction that when one character tells another “he really loved you,” someone in the audience whispered, “Did he really?”

The two other characters are better served in their opposite but equal authority roles. Ray, an old friend of Adam’s father has a paranoid explanation for everything. The mysterious Palmer also has specious information to impart but from behind the curtain itself. Between the two, just about every conceivable 911 conspiracy is aired. But because Ray also rants about the machinations of the wedding industry, Starbucks and the moon landing, his more reasoned arguments carry less weight.  But Michael Dell’Orto is an audience favorite with his addled but sentimental portrayal. As befits a possible black ops worker, John Kooi has better luck speaking with quiet authority due to his understated, contained demeanor.

While the rundown barroom setting is nicely realized in execution, it is laid out so literally that the blocking of the action is hamstrung. Too many lines are delivered up stage, backs turned, with long stretches of action taking place behind the bar or seated at a table.

“Yankee Tavern” certainly posits some unique theories and asks enough questions to get and keep the audience thinking throughout the evening. But the show is the summer theater equivalent of a quick thriller beach read. There's just enough going on to keep your interest, but as weighty as it wants to be, it is still a paperback.

June 14, 2016

An American in Paris: World Winds

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
June 9-12, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

While the title for these concerts came from the famous 1928 program opener by George Gershwin, the subtitle appears to have come from Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov’s 2007 “Rose of the Winds,” here given its Hartford premiere. Woodwinds begin the finale of the program closer, Rachmaninoff’s 1940 “Symphonic Dances,” but the varied character of these three pieces is justification enough to bring them together.

Gershwin’s symphonic poem got the evening off to an exuberant start and gave all sections of the orchestra a chance to show off. Percussion and brass had a particular field day, with special kudos to principal trumpet Scott McIntosh and principal trombone Brian Diehl for their jazzy solo spots. Kuan had the entire ensemble sounding jubilant and looking joyful.

Golijov’s piece is a concerto for orchestra and four instruments rarely featured in classical
Christina Pato
music: kamancheh, a traditional Iranian violin played by Kayhan Kalhor; klezmer clarinet, played by David Krakauer; Galician bagpipe, played by Cristina Pato; and accordion, played by Michael Ward-Bergeman. Its four movements incorporate several Christian and Jewish musical themes and many exotic sounds, including a vocal ritual for the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe recorded in Chiapas, Mexico, and culminating in a stunning chorus of ten shofars, or ram’s horns, played by the HSO brass section.

The flashiest soloist was Pato, whom Yo-Yo Ma has called a “rock star,” and who enhanced her dramatic playing with shouts of enthusiasm, but the other three were equally committed, nowhere more so than in a riveting five-minute improvised encore.

The three “Symphonic Dances” were Rachmaninoff’s last work, and while they reflect his familiar melancholy temperament and Russian heritage, they also speak in a more twentieth-century language than most of his earlier orchestral music. The opening movement features the only saxophone solo in his work, and it was played with soulful beauty by Carrie Koffman. Glistening percussion gave all three movements a modern-sounding edge, and Kuan handled the tricky tempo shifts throughout the piece with masterful sensitivity.

This program brought a challenging season for this indispensable ensemble to a brilliant close and a hopeful future.  

June 11, 2016

Blue Man Group


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 12, 2016
by R.E. Smith

"Ready, go!" As those words flash across an LCD message board, the Bushnell theatre roars to life as the Blue Man Group takes the stage and transports the audience to a world of wonder. Rock concert, pantomime, performance art, silent movie, percussion showcase, visual pun; a performance by BMG is all these things and more.

The BMG has taken the group experience and made it intimate with now famous, ground breaking, multi media sequences featuring everything from black lights to human paintbrushes. With child-like intensity, the BMG explores their environment, deftly manipulating marshmallows and Captain Crunch with equal ease. Lights flash, drums pound, plumbing becomes musical instruments, music becomes something you can see and feel.

Who or what the BMG are/is can be left open to individual debate but it really doesn't matter; these silent, bald, and blue beings are incredibly talented. Daniel Carter, Adam Erdossy and Steven Wendt as the. . .well. . . blue men, work together with precision and evident trust in one another. As befits such a communal experience, the curtain call prominently recognizes not only the 3 “leads” but also the stage/technical crew and the 4 musicians that help propel the action.

The make-up of the audience is evidence that the show’s appeal cuts across demographics with Grandparents and kids alike clamoring for the opportunity to participate. Who hasn't wanted to play with giant glowing beach balls, or dance to a song devoted to the human posterior?

Anyone who needs to smile, laugh, or lose themselves for a while needs to see this show.  Theatergoers leave the theatre energized and never looking at a Twinkie the same way again

June 10, 2016

Capitol Steps It’s a Very Political Year – Interview with Jack Rowles


Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA

July 1September 2, 2016
By Shera Cohen

Jack Rowles
In the Spotlight (ITS) had the pleasure of interviewing actor/singer/comedian Jack Rowles. Jack is one of the mainstays of Capitol Steps, having been with the troupe for 15 years. This presidential nomination year also marks Jack’s 10th season at Cranwell.

ITS: Describe a typical performance. Is each night unique?
Jack: Each night is unique. Each audience has its own personality. For example, with a Capitol Steps show it seems that most audiences have the personality of my mother. She laughs at everything, and her laugh is one of those annoying cackles that comics love! (intended affectionately)

ITS: How politically savvy were you prior to Capitol Steps?
Jack: Prior to Capitol Steps I was mainly familiar with that news story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. After 15 years with the group, I can name every Senator and Congressman dating back to 1963, give or take a few in the Dakotas.

ITS: How easy or difficult is it to add new scripts and become new characters?
Jack: Sure, we need to learn new material on a regular basis, ESPECIALLY THIS YEAR! But that's the easy part. Coming up with the new material is the hard part. Our writers, Elaina Newport and Mark Eaton, are the brains and brilliance behind this zany entertainment. After every show we meet the audience in the lobby. Our audiences are not shy about offering their opinions on everything, which can sometimes be as funny as the show. But, the most common comment about our show is, "The writing is hilarious and brilliant." I agree.

ITS: What are your favorite roles?
Jack: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Mitt Romney, and the Pope. Only because these are a few of the characters I am playing in our current show. And, this particular year is being referred to as the Golden Year in Political Satire. It's a great time to be in The Capitol Steps!

ITS: Do you have input in the show's preparation?
Jack: I've contributed only two jokes. I know, not very impressive. BUT, both of those jokes were Killer! Otherwise, I think each performer comes up with a funny, fresh take on today's political figures.
 
ITS: Do you think of yourself as an actor, singer, comic, or all three?
Jack: I like to think of myself as all three, but what really matters is how others see me. Recently, I met a lovely couple on a flight home from a show. After talking and laughing with them for a bit I mentioned that I'm a performer. The woman then blurted out, "What are you? A comic?" So, I guess I'm mainly a comic.
 
ITS: Are there any onstage or backstage anecdotes you would like to talk about?
Jack: Jerry Springer came to our show. He sent word ahead that he'd like to make a guest appearance. He's a huge fan. So, we added him to one of the songs. After his bit, I was lined up to do the next song. WELL, I guess I was totally star struck, because as soon as I went on stage I had no idea what my first line was. I think I was taken by how different he was from his TV persona. Or, I was worried that he might ask me if I had fathered the child of my cousin's ex-girlfriend. 

Performances are held every day except Tuesdays at 8pm. For information call: (413) 881-1636 or go to http://www.cranwell.com/dining#item-6

June 1, 2016

The Price of a Berkshire Summer


by Shera Cohen

Just when you thought there was no such thing as free or inexpensive things to do in the Berkshires, I prove you wrong.

May 31, 2016

Anastasia


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through June 19, 2016
By Shera Cohen

Before the new musical “Anastasia” begins, the audience enters the theatre as if to walk onto the pages of a storybook. In fact, the tale of Anastasia, the very real and presumably executed Russian princess of the early 20th century, may or may not be folklore. The ultimate decision is that of each individual (a full house at Sunday’s matinee) at Hartford Stage.

The creative team of director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and choreographer Peggy Hickey – all of Hartford’s Tony Award winning Best Musical “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” – had better buy their tuxes or fancy duds as they undoubtedly will again head to NYC, to sold out houses, and to countless accolades.

The Disneyfication of cartoon movies morphing into Broadway musicals has become a staple for theatergoers. Never having seen the cartoon motion picture, yet remembering the Ingrid Berman version, it seems a good guess that this musical combines elements of both, adding its own charm.

“Anastasia” combines a bit of a “My Fair Lady” plot with some powerhouse “Les Miz-like” music. Without feeling crammed or rushed, the musical has so much that’s wonderful going for it; i.e. love story, mystery, renewed romance, family, and history. A cast of 40, song list of 30, band (more like an orchestra) of nearly 20, and six lead actors make “Anastasia” excel beyond anticipation.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Christy Altomare’s Anastasia looks like Grace Kelly and sings like Julie Andrews. Derek Klena (Dmitry) and John Bolton (Vlad) team up as delightful amateur scoundrels. This triumvirate is the crux of the story. Manoel Felciano (Gleb) acts the emotionally tortured soldier perfectly. The audience must wait until mid-musical for Caroline O’Connor (Lily) to take the stage as effervescent comic relief. Finally, Mary Beth Piel portrays the grandmother who, one upon a time was Empress.

Director Tresnjak’s hand molds the musical’s shape, sound, and spirit. A constantly changing backdrop tableau of static pictures, movement, and shadows is exquisite. Sections of flats smoothly slide in and out, turn, and circle as season’s and settings change.

Only one criticism falls into the “less is more” category. Cutting out a couple of songs and/or deleting refrains of others would shorten the 2 1/2 hour performance. Yet, I have no suggestion on where to snip, as “Anastasia” is the definition of “superb.”

A smorgasbord of more kudos: sound, lights, lush period costumes, chorus numbers to click your heels up, and “Swan Lake.”. Two short linguistic points to make – no attempt is made at Russian accents (thank you), and every lyric is enunciated flawlessly.