Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 15, 2018

Steel Magnolias

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through Jan. 28, 2018
by Stuart Gamble

Photo by Curt Henderson
Probably I’m one of the few people who has not seen the entire 1989 film version of “Steel Magnolias” (I have seen PART of it though), so Playhouse on Park’s current production of Robert Harling’s comic gem was a totally new experience. This all-female show perfectly defines ensemble piece, allowing each actress to display her comic, and dramatic skills.

Set in the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana in the 1980’s, the audience first meets Truvy Jones (Jill Taylor Anthony), owner of the hair salon where the play’s entire action takes place. Annelle Dupuy (Liza Couser) is Truvy’s nervous new assistant. Frequent customer Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is Chinquapin’s former First Lady and high school football aficionado. Soon-to-be bride Shelby Eatenton (Susan Slotoroff) and her controlling mother M’Lynn (Jeannie Hines) are being coiffed on Shelby’s big day. Last, and certainly not least, is Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the most sharp-tongued of these Southern Belles.

The women in this production are all first-rate and full of charm and elegance. The play’s focal-point is the mother/daughter conflict between Shelby and M’Lynn. Susan Slotoroff’s Shelby is the play’s lifeline, whose radiant smile and positive view of life shines brightly on all. Jeannie Hines’ M’Lynn’s understated calm has its cathartic release in her moving monologue in the final scene. Liza Couser’s pitiable Annelle  achieves a fine balance between humor and pathos. Jill Taylor Anthony is a warm, serene Earth Mother among the drama that blooms around her. Peggy Cosgrave’s prickly, yet ultimately compassionate, Ousier spouts some of the play’s funniest lines including, “I’ve been in a bad mood for forty years!” Despite delivering some witty lines, actress Dorothy Stanley’s timing is a bit off, causing the show’s pace to slow down ever so slightly.

Director Susan Haefner has created a bright and delightfully funny show for all to enjoy. David Lewis’ scenic design highlights this warmth and realism in the beauty salon through the use of period driers, hairspray cans, and actual hair strewn over the stage. Kate Bunce’s colorful costumes add to the ambience of the 80’s. The show’s Dialect Coach David Alan Stern merits special attention for not only coaching these Steel Magnolias, but also the film’s stars as well (his website is listed in the show’s program).

December 7, 2017

The Color Purple

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through December 10, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Good stories can cross cultural boundaries with relative ease. London’s West End Menier Chocolate Factory is a theater that has remounted many Broadway shows, only to bring them back to the U.S. in a new form. In this past year, Broadway witnessed a Chocolate Factory version of Stoppard’s “Travesties,” and Boston’s Huntington Theater hosted the British interpretation of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” The current tour of “The Color Purple,” now at the Bushnell, is a Chocolate Factory remix of the 2005 Broadway hit musical.

Alice Walker’s 1982 novel is a story about southern slavery through the eyes of Celie, who grows from a 14-year old pregnant teen to a self-confident entrepreneur over a span of 40 years. An intricate mosaic, the book weaves together stories of African-American women and men, social relations and cultural commentary. The film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, debuted in 1985, and Broadway revived the musical in 2016 winning a Tony for “Best Revival.”

Director John Doyle, who mounted the Chocolate Factory version of the play, has scaled the set to be appropriate for the audience’s imagination. Chairs are cleverly used for shovels, platforms, weapons and more. The gospel-inspired music is both electronic and live, and appropriately overshadowed by the exceptional voices of the 21 cast members who almost all play multiple roles.

The real star of the show is undoubtedly Celie, who is perhaps one of the most original characters to emerge in the story.  Played by Adrianna Hicks, an exceptional singer/actress who demonstrates vocal and emotional depth—especially in the show-stopper number, “I’m Here.” Hicks seemingly transforms from the young Celie, an “ugly girl” into the Black Woman who remains dedicated to her faith even though she emerges from an abusive situation to become the woman she wants to be.

While the first act on opening night seemed to lack energy, perhaps as the sound balance in the theater was being fine-tuned, the second act exploded with connection on stage and with the audience. The final feeling of the evening was that of watching a part of American history pass and feeling buoyant with a future that has heart and soul. As one of the few people who had never read the book, seen the movie, or the Broadway production, this version left me with a desire to explore “The Color Purple” in its various forms, more fully.

December 4, 2017

Christmas Carol—A Ghost Story of Christmas

HartfordStage, Hartford, CT
through December 30, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
From the opening scene featuring dancing and flying ghosts, you know this version of  “A Christmas Carol” is going to be different from the usual Christmas fare. The 20th Anniversary production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, directed by Rachel Alderman marks the holiday season in a spirited way (pardon the pun) and has embraced the Dickens classic story with a multi-racial cast. Originally adapted by former Artistic Director Michael Wilson, this production is a masterpiece of family fun that Dickens himself would appreciate.

This year, Scrooge is delightfully played by Michael Preston, a former member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, who adds his skills as a juggler and comic. The venerable Noble Shropshire in a dual role as Mrs. Dilber, and Jacob Marley’s ghost, provides a brilliant catalyst for Scrooge’s epiphanies. Twelve professionals in multiple roles and fstudents from the Hartt School (many of whom have professional status) share the stage with 26 adorable children from the youth ensemble in a beautifully choreographed story that brings the best of theatrical design to the experience. Special kudos go to choreographer Hope Clarke, scenic designer Tony Straiges, costume designer Alejo Vietti, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, and sound designer John Gromada for exceptional contributions to the storytelling.

Hartford Stage has also designated special performances for audiences with special needs. December 17 will feature a 2 p.m. matinee for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss, and there will be an open captioned performance on the same day at 2 p.m. and 7:30p.m. for patrons who are blind or have low vision.

If you know a youngster who has never seen a live performance before, this production is a wonderful way to introduce them to the magic of the theatre. It was obvious that many of the audience members have made this an annual family event and cooed over the production pictures from past years, with even the youngest of children remembering characters from previous productions. Without a doubt, this show helps you understand the “spirit” of Christmas.

November 27, 2017

A Christmas Story-The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
November 24, 2017
by R.E. Smith

The original movie, “A Christmas Story” usually resonates with fans on an emotional level. Maybe they grew up in a simpler time like the ‘40s in which it is set. Perhaps they recognize themselves in Ralphie, in his Christmas season long desire for the perfect present (a red Ryder BB gun.) Maybe they see their parents in the patient mother or blustering father. For this reviewer it is a little of all that, but also the fact that the first official date with my (future) wife was to see the film in the theater one late November day.

Like the movie from which it is inspired, “A Christmas Story-The Musical” is fast becoming a holiday tradition, though as a touring, big number, song and dance road-show rather than a quieter, nostalgia warmed little film. It is the child’s perspective that allows the creators to expand the narrative with musical numbers, many based around Ralphie’s daydreams. Although, his father, “the Old Man” tends to dream big as well, complete with high kicking chorus lines. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul features numbers that echo different styles from the period, such as the Hollywood Western sound of “Ralphie to the Rescue”, the Big Band sound of  “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and the sentimental “A Christmas Story.”

The younger performers steal the show, with Tristan Klaphake as the bespectacled and often frustrated Ralphie, Evan Christy as his little brother Randy, and a whole chorus line of fellow students, bullies and friends who lament how difficult life can be “When You’re A Wimp.” During the big showstopper, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,”, Wyatt Oswald, has a surprising specialty tap number.

But the adults get to kick up their heels as well, in numbers like “A Major Award”, featuring the predestined parade of plastic leg-lamps. “It All Comes Down to Christmas” sets the stage early on that this show is all about bringing smiles to the faces of children and adults alike. . .even if they don’t wind up marrying the girl they came in with!

November 14, 2017

Mozart & La Mer

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
November 10–12, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

To open the second “Masterworks Series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan selected Berlioz’s lively “Corsair” Overture, conceived in 1831 but not definitively completed until 1852. The orchestra gave it a fiery rendition, strings, winds, and brass all contributing mightily to the excitement.

Leonid Sigal
The concert continued with the last and what is considered the greatest of Mozart’s five violin concertos, all written in 1775 when he was 19 years old. Nicknamed the “Turkish” concerto for an exotic-sounding interlude in the finale, it featured as soloist HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal, whose silken tone highlighted the classical elegance of the piece. He and a reduced-size orchestra took all three movements at a leisurely pace, giving the opening “Allegro aperto” an expansive grace, the “Adagio” a timeless calm, and the closing “Rondo” the quiet poise of the “minuet tempo” that Mozart called for.

Intermission was followed by a dramatic account of Debussy’s “La Mer,” or “three symphonic sketches” about the sea, which he wrote between 1903 and 1905, inspired by his lifelong fascination with the ocean. The masterful balance Kuan achieved among all sections of the ensemble allowed many details of colorful orchestration to be heard, from the glistening glockenspiel to two sweeping harps and three stentorian trombones. Tension never slackened, and the volatility of the waves and the wind were vividly portrayed.

Publicity for this program of three concerts had promised a “surprise encore selection to be announced.” This turned out to be Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” or “Morning Song of the Jester,” whose slow middle section, Kuan noted in droll introductory comments, depicts lovers reluctantly awakening to another day. The brilliant HSO performance evoked the flair of Berlioz, the refinement of Mozart, and the panache of Debussy.

Besides showcasing her concertmaster when she could easily have hired a guest soloist, another example of the personal touch that endears Kuan to HSO audiences was her dedication of these Veterans Day weekend concerts to local veterans and her invitation for all veterans present to stand and be acknowledged. This new American maestra is indeed a class act.

November 6, 2017

Crimes of The Heart

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 10, 2017
by Konrad Rogowski

Photo by Lee Chambers
The Majestic Theater’s “Crimes Of The Heart” delivers a performance of comic chaos as the three Magrath sisters – Babe, Lenny, and Meg – attempt to resolve not only their personal crises, but also their very public dilemmas. These trials and tribulations range from insecurity, guilt and sibling jealousies, to infidelity, home wrecking and attempted murder. All elements are makings of a fine family reunion.

Set in a small town in the deep South in the 1970’s, the sisters’ miss-adventures make them the talk of the town, and draw the uninvited meddling of folks like Chick Boyle, an intrusive and highly opinionated relative with more than enough to say about each of their circumstances. Attempting to stabilize their topsy-turvy world are the legal efforts and simmering romantic inclinations of young attorney, Barnette Lloyd, who, himself, has some ulterior motives in taking on the defense of sister Babe. Then, there is the married old flame of another sister, whose presence has free-spirit Meg aglow. Add to this, two never seen characters who agitate the sisters’ days and nights from their respective hospital beds: old Grand-daddy, the family patriarch, hovering between this world and the next; and Babe’s gut shot hubby, who has unresolved anger control and legal issues galore.

The cast, under the direction of Cate Damon, adeptly carry off the careful balance of comedy and human drama needed when mixing scenes of the hilarity of donning ill-fitting pantyhose, and those of the genuine trauma of abuse. Set designer Greg Trochlil provides a warm and intimate setting for all these tail-spin tales to be resolved. There are more than enough laughs to be enjoyed in this story of three sisters learning how to survive crimes of the heart.

Viva America

SSO, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
November 4, 2017
By Shera Cohen

It’s not often when the full program of any symphonic performance focuses solely on American composers. Without hesitation, Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s “Viva America” was one of the finest evenings of music in my memory. Bravo to Music Director Kevin Rhodes and SSO staff for selecting four pieces of accessible music which created such an evenly balanced array.

If a stranger on the street was quizzed on the names of three of the top 10 famous American composers of all time, surely the list would include George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. The skills of each are amazing unique, and within a few stanzas, most in the audience can easily recognize the signature style of these great talents.

Gershwin’s piece provided a short journey out of the country for “Cuban Overture.” Picture “American in Paris’” allure of flowing refrains to background sounds of castanets and tambourine. Perhaps a strange, yet perfect mix.

For a complete change in direction, yet also with undeniable Spanish charm, was Copland’s “El Salon Mexico.” Images of Copland compositions evoke America’s wide open west of old with heroic cowboys. This was a fun piece for audience and performers alike.

Relatively young, new, unknown, American composer Lowell Liebermann’s “Cello Concerto Op. 132” was the challenge of the evening; challenge in the sense that 21st century audiences generally do not want to hear contemporary music for full orchestra. The second challenge was the cello as the solo emphasis – not my personal favorite string, and I think that I am not alone. Special guest Julian Schwarz, celloist – also young yet with a long list of accolades since age 11, took on the third challenge as he interpreted Liebermann’s lengthy work. In a short prelude to his performance, Schwarz informed those seated at Symphony Hall that they were about to hear something, “mesmerizing.” That word was the perfect adjective to describe both the music and the musician. Schwarz received an instant mid-concert standing ovation.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” was the finale; a gift to the audience. Many of the recognizable songs from the musical/movie flow from one to another, with emphasis on the dramatic, cacophonous, and rocket-speed “Mambo,” “Jet Song,” and “Cool.” Special kudos to the percussionists. At the conclusion to Bernstein, Conductor Rhodes never looked more pleased and proud of his orchestra. He was beaming.