Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 24, 2015

Engagements and Premieres

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 30, 2015
by Shera Cohen

As the Berkshires cultural summer winds down, the administrative staffs, crews, directors, actors, writers, and (not to be forgotten) hundreds of volunteer ushers should feel especially proud of this 2015 season. Of course, there are numerous reasons for which to take kudos. Let’s emphasize one that shines -- premieres of new plays; world premieres, United States, or regional. Here’s some math. The total number of first time (or in their infancy) plays and musicals scheduled at Barrington Stage, Shakepeare &Co., Williamtown Theatre, and Berkshire Theatre represented over 50% of the entire June - August season. The playwrights’ names were not familiar. Yes, a few tried ‘n true titles penned by O’Neill, Simon, and Shakespeare appeared on program book covers here and there. Yet, these familiar works were outnumbered by fresh works.

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, G. B. Shaw’s first plays were presented on some stage, some where, at some time. The same holds true for these contemporary playwrights who presented their pieces on one of the four stages listed above, in the Berkshires, this summer.

Some plays seemingly lift off the page first time out of the computer. Most, however, need tweaking or rewriting.

Amanda Quaid, Photo by Kevin Sprague
Barrington Stage Company’s dark comedy “Engagements,” is the latest in the "world premiere" category. “Engagements” is also a play this reviewer recommends for rewriting. While most of the actors are quite good -- especially lead Amanda Quaid -- the problems fall to the plot which often and confusingly changes focus, and to the characters who are caricatures at best. All of that said, there might be another difficulty, which is that audience members in their 20’s will fully relate to the people onstage and “get it.” If reaching a niche market is the goal, then “Engagements” works...I think. You’d have to ask a 20-something.

While no one play is “for” everyone, it seems logical that the premise is meant to touch the audience in meaningful ways. “A Little More Alive” at Barrington earlier in the season did just that, and exceptionally well. The playwright was onsite, rewriting, whipping out new pages the day before opening night, as the actors learned lyrics. Now, that was a joy to watch -- both the process and the end result.

August 20, 2015

Bard Music Festival

Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
August 7-16, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Fisher Center, Bard College
Over two weekends every August for the past 26 years, the Bard Music Festival has focused on a single composer, along with predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who influenced or were influenced by that composer. What distinguishes Bard from other music festivals is the annual publication by Princeton University Press of an accompanying book with essays contributed by scholars who also participate as speakers and panelists at festival programs.

The 2015 festival, “Carlos Chavez and His World,” presented eleven concerts, three
panel discussions, and several film showings on the Bard College campus. Most evening concerts featured orchestral music played by members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President and ASO Music Director Leon Botstein in the acoustically excellent 900-seat Sosnoff Theater of the distinctive Richard B. Fisher Center designed in 2003 by Frank Gehry. Daytime concerts offered mainly chamber and instrumental works in the 200-seat Olin Humanities Building auditorium, where the panels were also held.

Besides a generous sampling of Chavez, Mexico’s greatest composer, Weekend Two featured a variety of American and other Latin American composers who worked with him as a musician and educator. One concert focused entirely on percussion instruments, where rarely heard works by Lou Harrison, performed by the Catskill Mountain Gamelan ensemble, and John Cage, played by a group including several Bard students, were particularly engaging. In a program celebrating Chavez’s New York connections, soprano Sarah Shafer sang Biblical settings by Virgil Thomson and lynching blues set by fellow Mexicans Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas with poignant beauty.

Highlights of a concert showcasing music from post-World War II Latin America included a knockout performance by Orion Weiss of Ginastera’s demanding first piano sonata and sensitive accounts of two short Piazzolla works by an ensemble featuring bandoneon player Raul Jaurena. A fascinating Sunday morning program by the versatile Bard Festival Chorale surveyed “sacred and secular choral music from five centuries,” from Hernando Franco to Aaron Copland.

Two symphonic programs made the deepest impression. One featured the sumptuous cantata “Forest of the Amazon,” by Brazilian master Heitor Villa-Lobos, in which soprano Nicole Cabell sang radiantly, and the large orchestra was a riot of color. The other presented the complete Ginastera ballet “Estancia,” which baritone Timothy Mix and the percussion-dominated ensemble brought to repeated climaxes of thrilling passion. These musicians present much unfamiliar repertoire in performances of unfailing polish and conviction.

With a packed schedule at the festival, time to see nearby attractions like the historic town of Rhinebeck and the homes of Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church can be scarce, but the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley rewards all visitors.

August 18, 2015

His Girl Friday

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 30, 2015
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kevin Sprague
Achieving high ranking status on the numerous lists of Best Screwball Comedies is “His Girl Friday.” The important characteristic of this film genre is lead female vs lead male. The smart, sassy, and sexy woman plays offense to the bright, bold, and buff man’s defense in what quickly becomes verbal warfare at its funniest.  Soon the game reverses offense/defense, then again, to the audience’s delight. Revving the already fast paced banter up a few notches, and Barrington Stage’s “His Girl Friday” is the epitome of screwball.

Playwright John Guare morphs the original scripts for “Friday” with “The Front Page” to pen a comedy that defies criticism of any importance. Julianne Boyd moves her large cast (some in double roles) smoothly and slickly when required, other times bumbling and buffoonish on the large, well-crafted set of a courthouse’s press room. Every detail in this large room is perfectly designed for the era.

The year is 1939 at the cusp of WWII, when most people in Chicago are slow to recognize the fate of Europe, the world, and the U.S. (in that order). A serious story gives the play its subject matter full of racism, isolationism, ignorance. Important questions run throughout the play -- what is the truth, who defines it, and how do newspaper men report the “facts”?

Barrington “regular” Christopher Innvar presents our erstwhile hero Walter with charm and bravado, as a cunning man with not only a nose for news, but his whole being. He eats, drinks, and sleeps it. No wonder his wife divorced him. Even though Walter is a cad, we like him and Innvar.

Mark H. Dold -- another regular (Barrington boasts the best actors in the Berkshires) -- portrays Walter’s antithesis as mama’s boy Bruce. This intense actor, so wonderful in dramatic roles, can play comedy too! In what could have been a cliched role, Dold and Boyd have put every comedic nuance in the character’s words, face, and body, all of which make him a "real" person. We miss Bruce when he’s not onstage.

The boys are very good, but Jane Pfitsch (screwball heroine news gal Hildy) commands the show. Pfitsch looks and sounds exactly as Hildy should be. The actress and her character are the glue that hold the plot and sub-plot together. Hildy is a sharp woman, seemingly all business -- one of the boys. At the same time, Pfitsch graces Hildy with a hidden softness that there is no doubt she loves Walter. The actress is new to Barrington -- let’s hope she stays.

Red Velvet

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 13, 2015
by Beverly Dane

Photo by Kevin Sprague
"Red Velvet" is the compelling story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who migrated from the United States to England, where he married and ultimately became the first Black actor to play Othello in 1826. But despite a successful career throughout Europe and Eastern Europe, racism and intolerance plagued his career. The inherent drama in this story is great material for a play, and John Douglas Thompson, an actor of enormous talent, physicality and vocal power, is a formidable Aldridge.

Unfortunately, the concept and the lead actor are not enough to carry Shakespeare & Company’s production of "Red Velvet," penned by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Daniela Varon. The script is wordy and is occasionally peppered with theatre "in" jokes that may be amusing to those who understand them, but they take attention away from the drama that unfolds and seem inappropriate to a show with an important theme set in the 1800s. Even with these problems, there are moments of greatness, such as when set designer John McDermott’s stage is magically transformed into a nineteenth century venue complete with footlights and crashing backdrop. The raw sensory shift gives Thompson what he needs to breathe life into Aldridge’s performance and dazzles the audience.

This is "Red Velvet’s" first American production, and there are still some problems to be worked out.  On opening night, the show’s pacing was slow and actors often stepped on each others' lines. Some of the accents reflecting a range of European nations were clearly forced. But, like the example above, there are some outstanding scenes that give hope that the show may grow and develop throughout the run, and the message of the play is indeed powerful.

August 12, 2015

Glimmerglass Festival

Cooperstown, NY 
July 10- August 23, 201
by Michael J. Moran

Alice Busch Opera Theater
Glimmerglass celebrates its 40th anniversary season in 2015 with four productions, all of which can be seen in one weekend during August in the 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater. All casts include professional singers and “young artists” in the Festival’s summer training program.

Madeline Sayet’s charming production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was sung in a colloquial English translation by Kelley Rourke. Dressed in a modern business suit, Tamino leaves the chaos of city life for a forest journey toward self-discovery, finding love with Pamina, companionship with Papageno, and a series of trials from various other characters. Tenor Sean Panikkar and soprano Jacqueline Echols sang radiantly as the lovers, and young artist baritone Ben Edquist brought a sonorous voice and clever physical comedy to Papageno.   

Other vocal standouts were bass Solomon Howard as Sarastro and young artist soprano So Young Park, who nailed the Queen of the Night’s demanding Act II aria. Hartford Symphony Music Director Carolyn Kuan led a shimmering rendition of the magical score.

In Francesca Zambello’s lively production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” based on Voltaire’s satirical novel, we follow the title character from innocent youth through worldly disillusionment to hard-earned wisdom, always testing the relentless optimism of his teacher, Professor Pangloss. Tenor Andrew Stenson was a transparent Candide, and soprano Kathryn Lewek, a ravishing Cunegonde, his love interest. Baritone David Garrison was entertaining as Pangloss, and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, a hoot as the Old Lady. Glimmerglass Music Director Joseph Colaneri highlighted all the shifting musical styles with mastery.

The three witches who open Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” were replaced in Anne Bogart’s production of Verdi’s operatic setting by a dozen women dressed in early 20th-century attire. Though initially disconcerting, her updated setting and minimal staging effectively illustrate the devastating impact of Macbeth’s ambition on his community and its timeless relevance. With fine performances by soprano Melody Moore as a haunted Lady Macbeth and Howard as a dignified Banquo and solid leadership from Colaneri, the wrenching account of the tortured Macbeth by bass-baritone Eric Owens was the biggest star turn of this year’s Festival.    

A stark production by Tazewell Thompson of Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” dramatized Roman senator Cato’s opposition to Caesar’s growingly imperial rule. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen was commanding as Cato, and countertenor John Holiday compelling as Caesar, but the finest vocal performance was young artist mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin’s anguished Marzia, Cato’s daughter and Caesar’s lover. Ryan Brown led the baroque orchestra with tenderness and fire.  

Special Glimmerglass events this weekend included a master class with soprano Deborah Voigt and four young artists, and a “Candide” Symposium featuring the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein and a panel discussion.

August 11, 2015

Mother of the Maid

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 6, 2015
by Jarice Hanson

It can be a great privilege to see a play go from page to stage, and for those who attended the reading of "Mother of the Maid" at Berkshire Playwrights Lab last year, the wait to see how Jane Anderson’s ambitious story of Joan of Arc, told through her mother’s eyes, has ended. The world premiere of "Mother of the Maid" at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre has opened, but before reviewing this new work, I was able to speak with director Matthew Penn, and some of the cast while deep into the rehearsal process.

Penn is one of the founders of Berkshire Playwright’s Lab, now in its eighth year. He has directed other plays at Shakespeare & Co., and, when his friend Jane Anderson told him about her script, he became interested in bringing it to the Berkshires.  Tina Packer immediately came to mind as the character of the Mother, and it becomes obvious in the play that only an actor of such depth and skill could effectively embody this role.

Packer is wonderful as Isabelle Arc, mother of the martyr, and the link between Joan’s spiritual self and the real world. On stage in every scene, Packer expansively fills the theatre with her vocal power and personality. Watching her try to reason with her daughter  “Joanie,” played by Anne Troup, she resigns herself to the role a mother inevitably has to play. “Your kids are your kids. You never know how they’re going to turn out," she laments.

When I asked Tina Packer whether she modeled her character on anyone in particular, she said without missing a beat, “My own mum and my Auntie Rosa.” While watching Isabelle viciously fight for her daughter’s rights, she walked to Rome to beg the Pope to lift the accusation that Joan was a heretic (she was successful), you get the sense that Packer comes from a long line of strong women.

As Penn said in our discussion, “Every great play had a first day of rehearsal.” Some of the challenges of mounting this new work come from the blending of politics, religion, and parenthood, and perhaps our collective knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of Joan of Arc becomes fodder for finding the meaning in the story. Ultimately, it becomes a story about parenthood; in a form that Penn says has a “classical framework, with contemporary resonance.”

Photo by Enrico Spada
The cast and production team also had the benefit of having the author of the play come to the Berkshires for two weeks to work with them on crafting the play for the stage. Troup mentioned that Anderson stressed the rhythm of the language, and I agree that when the play is most satisfying is when the language flows. It isn’t jarring to hear the French characters play their roles with British accents (what else do you expect at Shakespeare & Company?) but Anderson pushes the contemporary themes of the play further with colloquial speech—Joan says, “Hi mum” when she sees her mother; and Joan’s father, Jacques, ably played by Nigel Gore, blusters like a familiar television dad. The most unconventional character is St. Catherine, played by Bridget Saracino, who looks as though she’s just stepped out of a painting (and her entrance is literally, just that), but talks directly to the audience with American euphemisms to help guide the story along. 

"Mother of the Maid" has a fascinating premise and is deftly executed by the talented company. There has been a successful migration from page to stage, and the next chapter of this story is to see whether audiences resonate with the multiple themes and presentational styles to cut through the horror of what happens to Joan. We react viscerally to the description of Joan’s burning, but what happens to the family is a timeless reminder that families—especially mothers, can still love each other, even when they don’t agree.

August 10, 2015

Conducting from the Pit

Mark Gionfriddo Makes “Mary Poppins” Sing
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
August 13 - 23, 2015
by Shera Cohen

“Mary Poppins” kicks up her heels, flies through the sky, and brings joy to the Banks’ family in Berkshire Theatre Group’s 10th Annual Community Theatre production, to take place on the stage of the Colonial Theatre.

This community event brings together children and adults who have learned from each other all in the midst of collaboration and creativity. One of the creative leaders of this production is musical conductor Mark Gionfriddo.

Mark Gionfriddo, a native of Holyoke, is well known as an accomplished pianist, accompanist, composer, arranger, and musical director.

He started piano studies at the age of four, began performing at six, and directed his first musical project at 12. Mark received his Bachelor's Degree in Piano from Skidmore College and Masters Degree in Accompanying from UMASS/Amherst. He has been based at Mount Holyoke College since 1986 where he is a Senior Instructor in Jazz Piano, Director and Founder of the Mount Holyoke College Jazz Ensemble, and Music Department Staff Accompanist.

In the Spotlight spoke to Mark about his latest project -- “Mary Poppins.”

Spotlight: Why do you enjoy working on "Mary Poppins"? 
Mark: I loved the film as a kid growing up, and it's fun to recreate that film live on stage. It's also the annual Community Show here, so I get to work with young kids, teenagers, college apprentices, and adults -- an unusual opportunity to create a multi-generational performance piece.

Spotlight: Tell us about rehearsals.
Mark: We start with a vocal and dance warmup, then I might teach a song, and my directing colleagues will choreograph or stage it. After several weeks and the end of the rehearsal process, we do full run through every night. We have been doing runs for a few weeks now. It's amazing to see the growth over time.

Spotlight: Is “Mary” a musical just for kids?
Mark: One would think so, but there's something in it for everyone. After all, at the bare bones, it's about a family that has lost its way. Mary teaches the adults to learn how to have fun, and the children how to behave more responsibly. And the song "Feed The Birds" is at the heart of the show: a plea for charity towards animals and other humans.

Spotlight: What is the most difficult song? Easiest?
Mark: Playing “The Game” is very difficult and can be vocally throaty. It's also quite the scary number -- the toys revolt after being treated badly. The easiest song, I think, is Supercalifragilistic... although the 'sign language' that the actors do is pretty intense.

Spotlight: Who makes up your band?
Mark: The band is a combo of professionals and teachers. We have a few members who have been in almost every community musical since they began. And we have a few newbies who are joining us for the first time.

Spotlight: How did you get started in this work? 
Mark: I've always enjoyed 'show playing' (I had an affinity for playing musical scores) and learned how to do it myself, with no real mentors. Musical theatre is not as far removed from solo or choral singing as one might think. I've been fortunate to work in many genres -- I began with classical music, then branched out to jazz piano.

Spotlight: What is your day job? Is it music?
Mark: It is my day job! I consider myself pretty lucky.

Spotlight: Any thoughts about the rehearsal process that are important?
Mark: The only wisdom I'd like to offer is that the rehearsal process will go smoothly if everyone allows themselves to make mistakes. It's important to try things and take a chance. Great things will happen if one does this. 

For information about “Mary Poppins,” check