Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 17, 2017

The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
www.bushnell.org
through February 19, 2017
by Stuart Hawk


The Broadway smash “The Book of Mormon” fills the Bushnell with uplifting songs and slapstick comedy. At the same time, the script explores the dark topics of intense poverty, religious proselytism, and societal acceptance.

“Mormon” was written by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame. Any audience goer who is familiar with either of these shows will not be surprised to hear that there’s quite a lot of vulgarity in this musical. Though crudeness is used as a comedic device and is not central to the story, if you’re offended by foul or non-politically correct language, this may not be the play for you. The writer’s voices clearly come through, thematically, musically, and occasionally even through a distinct tone, which diehard fans will pick up on immediately.

The songs are gorgeous and fun, as well as hilarious. Though the show is stylistically rooted in traditional musical theater, the writers occasionally break away into other genres. In “Joseph Smith American Moses” the song moves through popular styles of 1970’s West African music --  Afrobeat, Juju, and Highlife -- while staying true to the theatrical nature of the scene. On a different note, the song “Baptize Me” takes us to a tone reminiscent of 1980’s movie love scenes.

After opening on Broadway almost six years ago, the show is currently on its second U.S. tour. The ensemble cast sells the show, with the secondary actors playing multi-roles. The leads are perfectly cast; those who especially stand out are Gabe Gibbs as Elder Price, Conner Pierson as Elder Cunningham, Leanne Robinson as Nabulungi, and PJ Adzima as Elder Mckinley. Each talent is equally strong between dialogue, song, and the big dance numbers.

Fans of South Park and/or Avenue Q will find similar style and humor in the signature comedy and social commentary which is alive and well in “The Book of Mormon.” Though the play certainly has moments which devout Mormons could find blasphemous, it is not an attack on religion. For those open-minded and not offended by some vulgar language, they’ll find a story about people born into very different worlds, struggling to find joy and faith in difficult circumstances. The message is surprisingly positive and uplifting. Lovers of musical theater, who don’t happen to also enjoy South Park, can still love this production.

January 26, 2017

The Comedy of Errors


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through February 12, 2017
by Shera Cohen

I just don’t “get” Shakespeare, says any random person.

Wrong, says I.

Hartford Stage has presented Shakespeare’s plays for over 40 years. Trust me, they “got it,” and so will you. Set aside all worries, particularly about the language. It’s fine if you don’t comprehend it all – the essence is there, not to mention that it is spoken in beautiful Elizabethan poetry.
As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, “Errors” includes the standard elements: mistaken identity, physical humor, malaprops, fast farce comings and goings, running up and down stairs, and oftentimes a rubber chicken.

Tyler Lansing Weaks & Mahira Kakkar  
Set in a 1950’s Greek island, the piece is a combination of “Zorba the Greek,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” Syn’s K-pop, and Bollywood. How can a full-length Shakespearean play (they are usually long) be jammed into a 90-minute one-act, while at the same time adding music and dance? Yet, in the end, “Errors” is one of the Bard’s best and most popular plays.

At the crux of the plot are two Antipholuses and two Dromios –  twin babies separated aboard ship during a cruel storm, portrayed here byy Adora Baby Dolls. Jump ahead many years, and it’s no spoiler alert that the townsfolk confuse the two pair, and they even confuse each other. However, one Antipholus is married, the other not. The story unfolds. Actors Ryan-James Hatanaka and Tyler Lansing Weaks do not look alike, only similar. Setting the nitpicking aside, it is important that the already cued-in audience see the identity mix-up. The same holds true for the Dromios, Alan Schumackler and Matthew Macca, as they bumble around, take pratfalls, and get the most laughs. Ancillary characters include an aging prostitute (Paula Leggett Chase gives “Never on Sunday” a sweet touch), the scullery made (Tara Heal in full body padding resembling 400 lbs. is an unbelievably skilled gymnast), and old and tottering Aegeon (Noble Shropshire, a regular standout in the Pioneer Valley). Ever present are Louis Tucci and Alenxander Sovronsky on mandolin or guitar, with double duty as sound effects men.

“Errors” is presented in Technicolor, vivid shades of the rainbow in its Greek setting complete with dock, village, and house of ill repute. Costumes are bold and flashy, colors straight out of a crayon box.

Each year, Hartford Stage sets its own bar so high that it seems too difficult to outshine their previously mounted Shakespeare play. Director Darko Tresnjak has more than successfully done that.

January 24, 2017

Beethoven and Ravel

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
January 20-22, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Beethoven’s thorny “Grosse Fuge” would hardly strike the average classical concertgoer as a likely concert opener, but in the polished, intense performance by the strings of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra under their frequent guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, it proved a surprisingly engaging choice. A former violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet, Smirnoff highlighted the lusher quality of this arrangement over the more rugged sound of the original version for string quartet.

Gilles Vonsatte
The full orchestra next joined Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel in a dazzling rendition of Ravel’s Concerto in G. In a video posted on the HSO website, Vonsattel notes that despite its strong “jazz-inflected elements,” the “incredible sonic refinement” and “immaculate perfection” of the music were “the total opposite of improvisation, the language of jazz.” While writing the concerto in 1929-1931, Ravel said he wanted it to “be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim for profundity or dramatic effects.”

Vonsattel dispatched the lively first movement, which includes a ravishing harp cadenza, with dexterity and flair, brought flowing grace to the sublime “Adagio,” and made the closing “Presto” an exuberant romp, in which trombone slides and muted trumpets evoked the composer’s friend George Gershwin.  Conductor and orchestra, especially the large percussion section, provided animated support.

A dramatic account of Schubert’s monumental ninth symphony brought the program to a majestic close. Nicknamed “The Great C Major,” to distinguish it from the composer’s shorter sixth symphony, in the same key, the score was discovered ten years after Schubert’s death by his admirer and fellow composer Robert Schumann. From the warm opening theme, through the somber “Andante,” the rollicking “Scherzo,” and the triumphant “Finale,” Smirnoff and his musicians reveled in the flexible rhythms of this massive almost-hour-long symphony.

The entertainingly hyperactive conductor kept the audience riveted to the stage all evening. At one point in the evening, the pianist stressed the importance of building the next generation of classical music lovers. “If you get them young enough and in the right circumstances, it’s really not that difficult” to interest young people.

January 23, 2017

Thoughts on a Concert


Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
by Shera Cohen

Since I won’t pretend to be a music critic, this is a layperson’s point of view of our own Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Admittedly, I had not been to the SSO in two years…shame on me. I guess that I attend too much theatre.

The venue – Symphony Hall – is one of the most splendid, not to mention acoustically correct performance sites in New England. The majestic exterior with its several huge columns and sculpture-embossed doors is simultaneously foreboding and inviting. The interior is breath taking from floor to ceiling. I’m sure that I never noticed any of this finery on our annual elementary school outings a half-century ago. Seeing through adult eyes gives a new appreciation.

I chose to attend this performance because the program was all Mozart and Beethoven. You can’t go wrong with either, of course. What I hadn’t initially realized was the difference between the work of the two composers. The evening was extremely well balanced.

The program started with the two Mozart pieces. It seemed as if Music Director Kevin Rhodes and his orchestra had a wonderful, reciprocal, and respectful relationship. It’s always pleasant for a novice (or semi-novice, in my case) to recognize sections of music. No, I couldn’t name either Mozart piece. However, I knew that I knew it. Familiarity tends to make people happier in their lives at that moment.

Intermission followed, offering me a short visit to my favorite public location in all of Springfield – the Mahogany Room on Symphony Hall’s second floor. The site provides a surrounding for hobnobbing at its best.

The configuration of the stage had been reset during intermission for the second part of the program; now the piano was center-stage. The orchestra tuned up for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, then Maestro Rhodes returned along with him a tall, lean, young man, the guest soloist.

Spencer Myer sat at his instrument and listened attentively as Rhodes led his orchestra in the first movement. In a moment, Myer rested his wrists on the keyboard, Rhodes gave him a nod, and the music began. I was thrilled to hear Beethoven and to see the talents of this young musician. Mine was the best seat in the house. I could see Myer’s two hands during the entire long piece. It almost looked as if the piano keys bounced. I will avoid the many hackneyed kudos about pianists at work. Let’s just assume that they are all true in the case of Myer. And for the first time in a long time, I was there to appreciate it.

When I returned home, I immediately Googled Spencer Myer to find several bios, each stretching many columns about his accomplishments some of which included past performances in Springfield. It was no surprise that he was invited back.

Not so long ago, audience members dressed to the nines when attending the symphony. Sure, some seated near me looked dapper and lovely, yet others wore “business casual.” More importantly, the musicians were the picture of aesthetics in black.

In the category of “don’t do what I do, do what I tell you to do,” is a little story about myself. Do not assume that the concert starts at 8:00pm, as it had in the past, as most performing arts do. It was 7:15pm when I decided to take off my apron (yes, I wear an apron) and change from my Saturday hang-around clothes to the business casual. About to turn off my computer, I caught an email from a friend who I was to join, reminding me of the 7:30pm “curtain.” OMG, I didn’t know this! Forget the already laid-out good garb, this was to be go as you are, look like you look, scramble to get out the door. Whew…just made it. It was certainly worth the rush not to miss a single note.

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto


Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
January 21, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Conductor Kevin Rhodes
The classical music repertoire doesn’t get more “standard” than Mozart and Beethoven, so it might shock followers of the adventurous Kevin Rhodes to find him scheduling a full program of their music. But, as the canny maestro notes in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, “after a fall season of fairly weighty works, I thought it would be fun to start the New Year with some lighter fare.”

Well, not all that light, except for the concert opener, Mozart’s thirteenth serenade, which he called “A Little Night Music.” Serenades in Mozart’s late-18th century Vienna were usually played as background music at social events, and this lively piece, in four short movements totaling about 15 minutes, has been pleasing crowds for over 200 years. Rhodes led the strings of the Springfield Symphony in a sparkling, vivacious account.

Mozart’s fortieth and next-to-last symphony dates from 1788. All four movements, except for the brief Trio section of the Minuet, reflect a dark overall mood, but its emotional intensity and the beauty of its melodies have made this the most popular of all Mozart’s symphonies. The performance was urgent and moving, as Rhodes’ fleet tempos pressed the music relentlessly forward.

The program closed with an exhilarating rendition of Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto, nicknamed “The Emperor.” In his third SSO appearance, the rising young American soloist, Spencer Myer, launched into the vigorous opening movement with power and precision, played the lyrical melody of the radiant “Adagio” with quiet finesse, and romped through the exuberant closing “Rondo” with controlled abandon. Conductor and orchestra partnered him with sensitivity and enthusiasm.

So while this “greatest hits” program may have lacked Rhodes’ customary innovation in repertoire, the freshness and clarity of his energetic and imaginative approach to these three “warhorses” made each of them sound almost new again.

January 18, 2017

Beautiful-The Carole King Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through January 22, 2017
by R.E. Smith

One need not fear that “Beautiful-The Carole King Musical” is simply another “jukebox review” of well known songs loosely strung together with a “theme.” Rather, it is the fascinating story of songwriter/singer Carole King’s life and career (actually, a fairly straightforward tale of love and friendship) staged so well, and so spectacularly, that it practically knocks the audience’s socks off.

Julia Knitel
Julia Knitel as King is absolutely outstanding. Her energy, delivery, and genuineness of spirit fills the stage even when 16-year-old King is just starting to find her voice. The audience is instantly hers, aided by a spot-on dialect, remarkable piano skills, and powerhouse singing voice. Playing a living icon does not diminish her ability to deliver a genuine, multi-faceted character.

Baby boomers that grew up listening to King’s 1971 Grammy winning “Tapestry” album will undoubtedly be moved with nostalgia. But the sheer volume of popular music that she and her husband, Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), created together will floor those not so familiar with the artist. Perhaps it would be best not to read the list of songs so that the revelation of the hits is even more amazing. Rather than just recreating the songs verbatim, the book gives us insight in to how they were developed and shaped.

Douglas McGrath’s script crackles with heartfelt New York energy and speed, with lines both humorous and insightful. The story is generous in crediting another songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Berry Mann as playing an important role in King’s life and career. As both friends and friendly rivals, Erika Olson and Ben Frankhauser quickly become audience favorites and a vital compliment to King and Goffin. The addition of their work in the famous Brill Building brings still more hits to the stellar line-up. Indeed, the show is generous on every level, with all members of the ensemble given a chance to shine.

The choreography of Josh Prince embraces and enhances the styles of the 60’s, delivering an unbridled exuberance to the proceedings and smile to the face. Coupled with the gorgeous costume design and simple, but dazzling, scenery, the show is worth seeing for the visual touches alone.

All the elements in “Beautiful,” from performances, to songs, to the dancing are executed flawlessly, making it deserving of all the “gorgeous”, “dazzling”, “lovely”, “magnificent” synonyms that one can list.

January 17, 2017

[title of show]


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT 
www.playhouseonpark.org 
through January 29, 2017
by R.E. Smith

The Urban Dictionary defines "Meta" as "a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential." Beginning with the name of the musical itself, Playhouse on Park’s latest production is extremely “meta.” It is the tale of a playwright and composer and their trials and tribulations in crafting a new musical about themselves as they write a new musical (about themselves). With a treasure trove of inside-theatre references and jokes, [title of show] has earned a reputation as a cult classic among theatre geeks. For the casual theatergoer, however, [title of show] also has universal truths to explore concerning creativity, collaboration, and friendship.

Photo Credit: Meredith Atkinson
Given the ever-changing narrative that led the production to Broadway, the book can be a bit uneven at times. What works best about this production are the absolutely charming performers. As one music teacher pointed out in the talkback after a Sunday matinee, the four leads had an “impeccable harmony.” With songs running the gamut in style and execution from showstopper to Sondheim, the cast has plenty of opportunities to shine. Standout numbers include the winking “Untitled Opening Number,” defiant “Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” and the empowering, “Die, Vampire, Die”.

Miles Jacoby as “Jeff” the composer/lyricist and Peej Mele as “Hunter” the writer have a wonderful chemistry and uniquely contrasting characters that are sometimes missing in musicals. They are comfortable and playful with each other, and very believable in the give-and-take of their partnership. Ashley Brooke and Amanda Forker as “Susan” and “Heidi” the “supporting characters” also provide a study in contrast and believability as two unique talents looking to make their mark. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has hung out with theater folk that the dialogue is quite profane and bawdy at times. The idea of which even gets its own number “Change It, Don’t Change It,” as the cast struggles to decide if they’re creating art just to please themselves or others.

Masterfully assisted by on-stage musical director/pianist/actor Austin Cook, and four chairs, the cast serves up boundless energy for 100 non-stop minutes in what is, ultimately, a love letter to musical theatre. It is such enthusiasm and love of the material that makes [title of show] enjoyable to watch whether you know who someone like Donna Murphy is or not.