Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 19, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Waitress

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 23, 2019
by R.E. Smith

It would be easy to lump Waitress in with the plethora of current musicals whose origins are in the movies, but like the titular character herself, this show defies expectations and delights in its differences.

Photo by Daniel Lippitt
To start, the original film was not a blockbuster, but rather a small independent production, written and directed by the late actress Adrienne Shelly. With a predominantly female production team, the message of sisterhood and empowerment is, yes, baked into the show. Waitress is really a small character study that nonetheless fills the stage beautifully. The story centers on imaginative Jenna, a talented pie-making waitress with a loveless marriage, unexpected pregnancy, and the surprising attention of a handsome doctor.

The charming Christine Dwyer, as Jenna, is on stage for almost the entire show and the audience is on her side throughout every endearing, sometimes “messy” moment. Her marvelously expressive voice and impressive range serve every song well and her generous performance finally gets a solo spotlight with “She Used To Be Mine.” Without ever breaking the fourth wall, she is able to connect with the audience through Jenna’s very relatable attempts to make sense of her often awkward life. Her cohorts are the quirky but caring Dawn, played by Ephie Aardema, and sassy, no-nonsense Becky, played by Melody A Betts, who each delight the audience with vastly different, but equally supporting personalities.

The music is by Grammy winner Sara Bareilles, a popular singer and songwriter, who has crafted some charming, homey, and diverse pieces, often relying solely on the blended voices of the 3 lead characters. The four-piece band is on stage much of the time, hiding amongst the other diner patrons. Befitting the Southern setting, it features cello and upright bass, giving the scores a unique sound for a Broadway show. While there are no big production numbers with dozens of dancers, there are definitely songs with huge emotional heart. There are brisk toe-tapping numbers like “Opening Up”, the oddly wishing for “The Negative” and the driving “Bad Idea”, contrasting with the intimate “A Soft Place to Land” and “You Matter to Me”.

Waitress is a delightful, funny, cozy, affirming, and endearing evening of musical theater, populated with playful and poignant songs and characters that quickly become like old friends, flaws and all.

P.S. Breathe deeply when you enter the lobby. . .you’ll be in for a scene-setting surprise!

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, My Fair Lady

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
through June 22, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

With its enthralling new production, Theatre Guild of Hampden (TGH) has created a “My Fair Lady” for the 21st century. By judicious use of supporting cast members, director Paula Cortis spotlights how the women in her cast routinely outwit the men who have all the advantages in the sexist class system of 1912 London. When the curtain comes down on this battle of the sexes between Professor Henry Higgins and flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whom he trains as a “lady” in six months, there’s no doubt who has the upper hand. 

Giza and Westbrook
In a triumphant return to acting after a 30-year hiatus, Mark Giza, best known to local audiences as TGH’s artistic director, is a pompous and persnickety Higgins, his “dream role” to play since he was 18 years old. As his student, nemesis, and potential love interest, Jeannine Westbrook is a revelatory Eliza. Her comic and dramatic acting chops match Giza’s, and her glorious soprano voice reflects her musical training at the Hartt School in Hartford. Paul DiProto is a hyperactive hoot as Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father and “moral philosopher” Alfred Doolittle.

Brian Rucci is remarkably convincing both as the gentlemanly Colonel Pickering, Higgins’s fellow linguist, and as Jamie, Alfred’s loose-limbed drinking companion. David Webber’s magnetic stage presence and ringing tenor voice make Eliza’s lovelorn suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, into more than a fatuous cipher. And Tracey Hebert brings a welcome touch of ditsy humor to the wisdom of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s exasperated mother.   

Musical highlights include: a jubilant “With a Little Bit of Luck” featuring DiProto; an exhilarating “The Rain in Spain” highlighting Westbrook; and a rapturous “On the Street Where You Live” from Webber, in which the presence of four women (but not Eliza) on stage suggests that he’d be nothing without them. Cortis’ similar staging of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” has an equally bracing power. Her stiff-upper-lip “Ascot Gavotte” is hilariously presented on the theatre floor in front of the stage at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, almost literally in the audience’s face.  

Elegant period costumes by Rob Williamson, imaginative choreography (including several exuberant tap dance sequences) by Melissa Dupont, and lively musical direction by Karen Ducharme and her seven-piece band, along with the timeless lyrics and music of Lerner and Loewe, also make this a must-see show.

June 18, 2019

PREVIEW: The Capitol Steps, The Lyin' Kings

Cranwell Resort in Lenox, MA
June 28-August 30, nightly at 8PM except Tuedsays

The Capitol Steps, the political musical satire group that has been putting the “mock” in democracy since 1981, returns to the Cranwell Resort in Lenox, MA for the 12th summer with a new show based on their upcoming album, “The Lyin' Kings.” Performances run nightly at 8pm (except Tuesdays) at Cranwell's Harvest Barn. 

What better time to see the Capitol Steps than now, with the next Presidential election season approaching? The show will include the latest songs about the Democratic primary candidates (“76 Unknowns”) and the newest late-night thoughts from President Trump (“Tweet It”).  No one knows what 2020 will bring, but whether it’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Beto O’Rourke, the Capitol Steps can tell you what rhymes with it!  Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican (or somewhere in-between), if you’ve ever wanted to see Donald Trump sing a rock song, Bernie Sanders sing a show tune, and Vladimir Putin dance shirtless…this is the show for you!

The Capitol Steps’ upcoming performance of mostly new material and some old favorites “is cheaper than therapy”, says Elaina Newport, co-founder of the Capitol Steps. “No matter who is making the news, we all need a laugh.  And as fast as a politician can send a tweet, our writers text a new song or joke.  The material comes from both sides of the aisle – sometimes it seems like the politicians are trying to provide us with material!”

The Capitol Steps began in 1981, when a group of Congressional staffers got together to provide entertainment for a holiday office party on Capitol Hill.   Since then, they have provided their unique mix of musical and political comedy and satire to audiences coast-to-coast. Each show consists of about 30 songs and skits, with “more costume changes than a Cher concert,” as an audience member once remarked. The Capitol Steps perform in Washington DC every weekend, tour nationally throughout the year, and have appeared on “The Today Show,” “ABC News Nightline,” “CBS Evening News” and on specials for NPR.

Tickets for the Capitol Steps are available at Cranwell resort.

REVIEW: New Century Theatre ,Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

New Century Theatre at Gateway City Arts, Holyoke
through June 23, 2019
by Beverly Dane

There’s a show at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke that should have everyone in the Valley clamoring for tickets. Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” regularly makes the “top 10” list of every theatre critic—but to see it performed so well and hear Albee’s outrageous turn of a phrase in an intimate setting by consummate professionals—well, that’s just icing on the cake. Cate Damon, Sam Rush, Robbie Simpson, and Alexandra O’Halloran masterfully create the four iconic characters in New Century’s current production and it will have audiences leaving the theatre saying “wow!”

Director Keith Langsdale masterfully moves his actors around the small stage and creates an environment so fraught with tension and heartbreak that audible gasps could be heard throughout the theatre. The characters, Martha, George, Nick, and Honey move like animals, ready to pounce at any moment, and ready to lie down and purr a moment later. The pacing of the production is exquisite, and each of the four actors create such believable characters it’s easy to find yourself drawn in, concerned about them and hoping for a happy ending—even if you know the outcome of this American classic.

Cast photos by Frank Aronson
For those uninitiated to Albee’s masterpiece, the plot centers around George and Martha, a married couple who live on or near a University campus where Martha’s father is President. They taunt and tease each other, sometimes lovingly, and sometimes with deadly terror. After a faculty party one night, Martha invites Nick, a new professor, and Honey, his wife, for a nightcap. What follows is a multi-layered exploration of how human beings are seduced by truth and illusion to create their own codependency. The two couples, one older, the other younger, but equally deluded by desire and tradition, drink too much, disclose too much, and their respective lives begin to unravel. Albee understands that humor is palliative when pain and this outstanding production mines the humor but never deviates from Albee’s essential truth—we always hurt the ones we love, sometimes, savagely.

While leaving the theatre, one patron was overheard talking to his wife, and said, “You’d have to go to New York to see a production this good.” Kudos to New Century Theatre and this outstanding cast and production team. “Virginia Woolf” has been produced in many many versions, but this is the one to make an effort to see. It’s a winner.

June 12, 2019

REVIEW: Albany Symphony, Sing Out! New York

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
May 30 – June 9, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

David Alan Miller
The Albany Symphony and their longtime (1992-) Music Director David Alan Miller have a reputation for adventurous programming of contemporary American music, making them ideal curators of the annual American Music Festival for the past 20 years. This year’s theme is “Sing Out! New York,” which celebrates the state’s “leading role in championing equal rights” by observing the centennial of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Two June 1 programs paid notable homage to this theme.

An evening concert by the orchestra in Troy’s breathtaking EMPAC concert hall featured music by three living composers, including one world premiere and two major revivals. The world premiere opened the concert: “Knit/Purl,” in which recent Yale Music School graduate Tanner Porter declaimed a libretto by Vanessa Moody which draws on texts by leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Porter’s soprano voice was amplified to blend with the music she wrote for a percussion-rich ensemble, producing a dense but often diaphanous sound mix. Her vocal virtuosity and the orchestra’s fluid performance made a powerful impression.

This was extended by John Corigliano’s fiery 1968 piano concerto, whose technical difficulties were handily mastered by rising British soloist Philip Edward Fisher. The brilliantly orchestrated piece is, in the composer’s words, “basically tonal [with] many atonal sections [including] strict twelve-tone writing.” Fisher’s total commitment and the orchestra’s virtuosity brought the concerto to vivid life and earned him a standing ovation by the appreciative audience.

David Del Tredici
The concert closed after intermission with a riveting account of “Pot-Pourri,” the earliest among several major works by David Del Tredici based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The composer calls the atonal piece, also written in 1968, “a kind of Cantata of the Sacred and Profane,” setting texts from “Alice” and Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” alongside a “Litany of the Blessed Virgin” from the Catholic liturgy of his childhood, and a Bach Chorale. In addition to the orchestra, it calls for a rock band, soprano soloist, and 16-member mixed chorus. The predictably wild-sounding result was transfixingly rendered by all forces, particularly redoubtable soprano Hila Plitman.      

The jovial Miller gave often humorous introductions to each piece and invited Del Tredici up from the audience to speak before “Pot-Pourri.” After bounding to the stage, the amiable 82-year-old composer read his droll manifesto “A Composer’s Ten Commandments.” The substantially full house showed that Miller’s enthusiasm for new music has built a loyal following. His announcement that these performances of the Corigliano and Del Tredici pieces would be recorded for commercial CD release was a tribute to his ensemble’s distinction. 

Del Tredici was also the subject of the engrossing 2018 documentary film, “Secret Music,” by New York-based pianist and music educator Daniel Beliavsky, shown in EMPAC’s theater after the concert. Examining the composer’s stated goal “to create a gay body of music,” the film included much interview and performance footage of Del Tredici, Beliavsky, and other musicians.

It was revealing for this writer, sitting by chance beside the composer, to witness his firsthand reactions to various candid scenes in the film, including a compelling performance by Beliavsky, soprano Chelsea Feltman, and baritone Michael Kelly of his incongruously gorgeous setting of Allen Ginsberg’s “S&M” poem “Please Master” (Del Tredici even cracks a small whip in the background). The filmmaker led a lively post-show discussion.

Only an hour and a half from greater Springfield, the American Music Festival is a resourceful annual destination for all lovers of contemporary American music.

June 5, 2019

REVIEW: The Waverly Gallery, Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare & Company, Lee, MA
through July 14, 2019
By Barbara Stroup

The “strings of the heart” provided the theme for Artistic Director Allyn Burrows as he chose this year’s plays for Shakespeare & Company, and the summer season’s first offering pulls on those strings throughout. “The Waverly Gallery” looks at a family whose own hearts are seized by the gradual mental decline of their beloved matriarch. When the audience meets Gladys Green, a former attorney and current gallery owner, she is engaged in a loving conversation with her grandson. It takes only a few moments to realize that this is a conversation oft-repeated, but the devotion she and her grandson share is intense and enduring - for the moment.

Played by veteran stage actress Annette Miller, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of Gladys, despite accolades heaped on prior distinguished performances. Miller is stunning in her portrayal, never over-reaching for audience sympathy, but genuine in maintaining the core of her character’s self. Her Gladys is thoroughly charming, vital and complex, whose love for her family reaches over the wall that her illness is building around her. How Miller can maintain this performance is  astounding.

Gladys’ grandson Daniel, ably played by David Gow, also provides narration as the drama unfolds over a period of several months. Gladys’ daughter Ellen, and her second husband Howard (Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Michael F. Toomey) appear as the family hosts Gladys for their ritual weekly dinner. Each has chosen a way to cope with Gladys: Ellen by giving constant and frustrated reality checks, and Howard by using a booming voice to compensate for Gladys’ hearing loss. Both fail. Gladys enlists the help of Don (David Bertoldi), an artist of questionable worth for a gallery show. This new friendship proves of some value, but the dilemmas this character faces seem glued onto the central drama unnecessarily. Gladys is ultimately alone with her changing self, revealing to the audience a glimpse of some of her panic as she shuffles down the hall to her grandson’s door.

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan draws out Gladys’ decline in a series of wrenching scenes that drive the play toward the inevitable. Director Tina Packer makes the most of conversations that are simultaneous, a hallmark of this play. There is a hint of the future when Ellen herself forgets a word - twice, and love prevails with poignancy at the close. The viewing audience has seen several dramatic portrayals of Alzheimer’s disease in movieland, but this representation is superbly intimate. Bravo to Shakespeare & Co. for a choice that reflects a dilemma that faces so many today and for presenting it with admirable artistry and laughter.

PREVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Hold These Truths

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through June 8, 2019

Joel de la Fuente
Barrington Stage Company (BSC), the award-winning theatre in the Berkshires, kicks off its 25th Anniversary season with Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata.Directed by Lisa Rothe, the play runs through June 8 at the St Germain Stage.

The drama stars Joel de la Fuente (Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle) reprising his Drama Desk-nominated role in this solo play inspired by the life of Gordon Hirabayashi.  

Unsung American hero Gordon Hirabayashi fights passionately for the Constitution against an unexpected adversary: his own country. During World War II, he defies the US government’s orders to forcibly remove and mass incarcerate all people of Japanese ancestry, launching a 50-year journey from college to courtroom and eventually to a Presidential Medal of Freedom. A story filled with hope, this play’s focus is a man who stood up for the true meaning of patriotism.

Joel de la Fuente makes his debut for Barrington Stage Company in Hold These Truths. The play garnered a Drama Desk Nomination in New York City for Outstanding Solo Performance when it debuted in 2012. The actor has performed on stages throughout the world and numerous times on television; i.e. 10 seasons on Law & Order: SVU and Madam Secretary.