Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 23, 2014

Fromm Concert

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 21, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The final program in the 2014 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, the Fromm Concert, featured four pieces that pay tributes of some kind.

The opening “Concerto for Orchestra” was the last work completed by Roger Sessions. A tribute to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he first heard as a child of 14 and which later premiered several of his works, the concerto was both the oldest (1981) work on the program and in some ways still the most difficult to listen to. Yet, the brilliant playing of the young musicians and the deft balancing of conductor Stefan Asbury revealed surprising moments of lyrical warmth amid the composer’s more characteristic dissonance.

Sarah Silver
Steven Mackey’s 2008 concerto for violin and orchestra, called “Beautiful Passing,” is a tribute to his mother, whose last words were “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.” Former TMC fellow Sarah Silver played the challenging solo role with poise, abandon, and a rich, creamy tone. Lovingly shaped by conducting fellow Daniel Cohen, the performance highlighted the disarming beauty of the score, including a poignant passage with the “Dies Irae” in soft strings and an echo of “Taps” on solo trumpet.

Intermission was followed by the American premiere of Charlotte Bray’s 2012 piece “At the Speed of Stillness.” A tribute to her fellow English composer Benjamin Britten, its eerie soundscape evokes the Sizewell nuclear power station just north of Britten’s home in Aldeburgh on the east coast of England. The haunting score was forcefully led by conducting fellow Karina Canellakis and flawlessly played by the youthful orchestra.

TMC conducting program director Asbury was back on the podium for the best known work on the program, “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” the 1996 tribute by John Adams to Russian-born author and musician Nicolas Slonimsky. With electronics amplifying its colorful mix of timbres, the piece was played to the hilt and brought the concert and the festival to a rollicking close.

The presence of Mackey and Bray, who were applauded by performers and audience alike, gave TMC students the kind of exposure to working musicians that could prove invaluable for their careers.

July 21, 2014

Breaking the Code

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA.
through August 2, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

The life of a mathematical genius reputed to have had Asperger’s Syndrome and who became a British war hero for his work on cracking the Enigma Code to help end WWII is inherently interesting, but not necessarily theatrical. Add the facts that he was arrested for homosexual “gross indecency” and prescribed female hormones to “control” his sexuality, and that he has become known as the “father” of artificial intelligence, and the story becomes even more compelling, but how could this possibly translate into good theatre?

The answer is in the brilliant, tour-de-force performance of Mark H. Dold who makes the life of Alan Turing come alive in Barrington Stage Company’s bold production of the 1986 London hit show, "Breaking the Code." The title is a double entendre, intended in part to explain the literal code breaking of cryptography, but it also refers to the “code of secrecy” that surrounded homosexuality during Turing’s life (1929-1954). Seven additional actors are all first-rate, but Dold commands the stage and tells the story of a man who figures out the logic of numbers even though the logic of human beings eludes him.

Director Joe Calarco keeps the action moving despite an intentionally spare set, further focusing the audience’s gaze on Dold. Hugh Witemore’s script is verbose and takes some liberty with historical facts, but humanizes the man whose childhood friends were numbers, and who gets into trouble because he “says things he shouldn’t say.”

The production is not perfect, however. The script suffers from trying to cover too much, and shifts from one time period to another are somewhat confusing. The performance comes in at 2 hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) which may stretch the patience of a summer audience, but for those with curiosity about Turing, or respect for a performance like Dold’s, "Breaking the Code" will be a memorable experience.

Benefactors


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through July 26, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn stage is the ideal venue for “Benefactors” -- a small play, with small cast, set in one room (a kitchen), about a small story (yet, one should never judge the importance of any story to its participants). Yet, there is universality in the play’s theme of helplessness and helpfulness, encroachment and passivity.

Eric Hill directs four actors, representing two married couples living in 1970’s London. The characters are middle-class, each with his/her own career. the women choose to stay home with the kids. Sheila, a former nurse in a ‘helping’ role in the community, becomes a pathetically needy weakling. Jane, an anthropologist by trade, is a strong-willed albeit reluctant helper to all of the characters who enter her kitchen. Sheila’s husband Colin is a brute who believes that he is helping the world as a political rebel. Jane’s counterpart David is saving a part of his own world by addressing the needs of the poorer class population. Everyone is helping, trying to help, and/or pretending to help themselves and everyone else. None are successful.

Each character, stepping to the side of the stage under dim light, offers frequent monologues serving as soothsayers to themselves and to the audience.

Actress Corinna May propels the movement of the play as her Jane is somewhat in charge of situations; she even stands erect and commanding. A long-time star at Shakespeare & Company, May handles contemporary English and this script’s nuances equally as well as the Bard’s clever words. No small task. David Adkins’ David successfully creates an idealist scratching for a purpose. Barbara Sims, as Sheila, wears dowdy and ill-fitting clothing to accentuate her unassertive demeanor. The director could have molded Sheila as a caricature, but Sims and Hill carefully resist. Walton Wilson keeps Colin on one level with no redeeming qualities. It takes an actor’s skill to motivate an audience to dislike him and, at the same time, care enough to want to know his outcome.

Playwright Michael Frayn, whose famous works are “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen,” is a fine writer whose “Benefactors” is atypical of both of these works.

Clybourne Park


New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through July 26, 2014
by K.J. Rogowski
 
New Century Theatre's production of Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park," is not a destination, it is a journey filled with hairpin turns, sudden stops, and jackrabbit starts.

The Act I crisis focuses around a house in Chicago in 1959 which is being vacated by Russ (Sam Rush) and his wife, Bev (Kathy McCafferty) because of the secret, painful memories that haunt them there. To compound their trauma, the couple is confronted by self-righteous/right thinking friends who accost them on how they can think of selling their home in exclusive Clybourne Park to a black family. Now, fast forward 50 years into Act II, and the same home is about to be demolished and replaced by a non-historical contemporary monstrosity by a white family looking to move into what is now a predominantly black neighborhood. At the same time, advocates for historical preservation petition to stop the new construction.

Norris' cleverly crafted script delves into the deeply personal beliefs, hurts, misconceptions, and prejudices of each of the characters as they sometimes naively, sometimes intentionally, try to explain, argue, joke and talk their way through issues and situations they never thought they would find themselves in. Each time the playwright brings these personal confrontations on race, sex, or secrets to a boiling point that can make the audience squirm more than just a little, he does a 180 degree turn, breaking that tension with a comic non-sequitur that lets everyone breathe a little easier. But, the concepts and issues are, for the most part, left unresolved, since it is not so much a matter of declaring a solution or a winner, as much as it is a matter of exposing them, and leaving them with the audience to live with and decide.

Under the direction of Ed Golden, the cast does a wonderful job as they first portray characters operating under the societal norms of 1959 middle America, and then switching into their 2009 mode of thought and action, as the decedents of the characters in Act I. The set design of Greg Trochlil cleverly transforms right before the viewers' eyes. Roles and arguments at Clybourne Park are fast paced; they reverse direction and twist down roads that one might not want to travel. Sometimes, "Clybourne Park" demands that the audience hold their (collective) breath, but it is a journey well worth taking.

Sequentia


Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 15, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

A combination of threatening weather and esoteric repertoire may have limited attendance at Sequentia’s recent Tanglewood engagement, but the modest audience that braved the elements was treated to a rare excursion into unfamiliar musical terrain.

Sequentia
Founded in 1977 by Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton, Sequentia is one of the world’s foremost ensembles specializing in medieval music. Their many recordings and concert tours have renewed interest in and inspired further research into this rich musical genre. Their Tanglewood program featured music from the Carolingian era, the two centuries following Charlemagne’s coronation as “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800.

The thirteen pieces on the program included two instrumental selections, but most were Latin texts sung by one or two voices, with English translations projected from the back of the stage. Though many had unknown authors, several were written by Charlemagne’s court poet, Angilbertus. Their subject matter ranged from praise for the king to a fight between two warriors to the very different plights of two women facing death.  

The performances by Bagby on voice and harp, Norbert Rodenkirchen on flutes and cithara (a kind of lyre), and vocalist Wolodymyr Smishkewych were dramatic and colorful. Bagby delivered the German text of “The Song of Hildebrand,” about a long lost hero whose son, Hadubrand, doesn’t know him when they meet in battle, with urgency and forceful diction. Smishkewych used his sweeter voice to poignant effect in the “Canticle of Eulalia,” a harrowing tale, in old French, of a beautiful young woman’s martyrdom. The virtuosic Rodenkirchen played with consistent beauty and purity of tone no matter how often he switched among his exotic-sounding instruments.

The concentration of the program into 90 minutes without an intermission and the closing of Ozawa Hall’s rear wall to keep a raging thunderstorm from drowning out the music made this an unusually intimate journey into the past. The enthralled audience called the performers back to the stage several times before the concert hall doors opened to reveal that the music had driven the storm away.

DC Humor in Lenox


Interview with Bari Biern of Capitol Steps
Capitol Steps, Cranwell Inn, Lenox, MA
through September 2, 2014

Bari Biern
Bari Biern has been "stepping" since 1993 and has appeared in several Capitol Steps off-Broadway runs. She currently reviews plays and videos for Metro Connection on WAMU-FM. She is also a playwright/lyricist.

Spotlight: Are you essentially an actor, singer, comic, or pretty much all three?

In this group, you have to be all three, as well as a quick-change artist!

Spotlight: How politically savvy were you prior to Capitol Steps? Now?

My dad was a party precinct chairman when I was little, so I used to go with him when he distributed literature around the neighborhood during the campaign season. I guess I could claim that I was politically savvy at age seven but, truth be told, I really went along because he bought me Pez at the drugstore when we were finished. Today, being politically savvy is an ongoing part of my job. After all, that's where we get all our material.

Spotlight: What are your favorite roles? Do you enjoy performing as the opposite sex or a different ethnicity?

Wow, there are so many! I guess, if I had to pick just a few, I'd include Monica Lewinsky, Hillary, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, of course, Dick Cheney's heart.

As for playing the opposite sex, I think I do a killer Jim Lehrer. Morgan Duncan, who plays President Obama in the current Cranwell cast, was a mighty foxy Condoleezza Rice!

Spotlight: How fun is it to work as a team?  Do you ad lib or ever surprise each other onstage?

I see us more as a big happy dysfunctional family. Do we ad lib? Yes, although generally, not intentionally. It usually happens when someone's fake mustache falls off.

Spotlight: Please describe the rehearsal process. Do you learn the new lyrics and sing the songs with the pianist first or later on?

We usually try out new numbers at our home performance space in DC, the Ronald Reagan Center. Generally, we'll have a few days to learn the lyrics before the show. Since we cover familiar songs with parody lyrics, we often already know the tune, which is a great time-saver. Then, we put the number on its feet at sound check, around 90-minutes before the performance. We sing it through a few times with the pianist to determine the best key and tempo. Then we try it out on mic and add choreography if we don't think it will make our heads explode.

Spotlight: How easy/difficult is it to add new scripts constantly and become new characters?

There's no fancy-schmancy acting "method " that quite covers but we do. Often, we need to work hot button issues into the show very quickly, sometimes even the same day! So, we have to be able to think and work fast. It's sort of like developing a special creative muscle -- the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

Spotlight: Have any of the politician/celebrities you have played ever seen you perform?

Yes, indeed, from presidents to pundits to politicians from the top of the heap to the bottom of the barrel.

Spotlight:  Is there any anecdote you would like to tell us?

There was a number in our show called “Pack the Knife," about a nun trying to get through a security line at the airport as a TSA agent is frisking, manhandling, and harassing her. Meanwhile, everyone else is being waved through. A Viking with an axe, Darth Vader and other menacing characters all breeze past the checkpoint. The frustrated nun disappears and returns with a suitcase that says, “Acme A-Bomb” on it and no one stops her, of course.

But try getting through a real checkpoint with that prop was the real problem. Once, on our way back to Washington from Charleston, SC, a security screener discovered the Acme “suitcase,” which is actually just a flat cardboard sign cut and painted to look like a suitcase. Instantly, we were whisked out of line to a private holding area. A state trooper watched our every move. No one was permitted to budge, not even for a bathroom break. Twenty minutes later, the FBI arrived. Fortunately, one of the agents was a Capitol Steps fan. Moments later, the agent released us with a wink, a smile — and an autographed CD for his daughter.

July 17, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof


Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
through September 12, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

(c) Diane Sobolewski
“Fiddler on the Roof,” a beloved treasure of the American musical theatre, is celebrating its 50th anniversary at the Goodspeed Opera House, flawlessly directed by Rob Ruggiero, with choreography recreated from Jerome Robbins’ original, by Parker Esse.

A story of traditions, some preserved, some broken, “Fiddler” is also a story of family love, of struggles and changes –told through an unforgettable score by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein.

From the opening strains of “Tradition” to the bittersweet rendering of the final notes of “Anatevka,” “Fiddler’s” melodies are instantly recognizable. Their delivery by this exceptionally talented company resonates with care and feeling throughout, culminating in a moving performance of “Sunrise, Sunset,” by the entire company.

Against a background of Russia in the early days of the 20th century, “Fiddler” focuses on the transition and difficulties faced by the family of Tevye, his wife, Golde, and their five daughters. Tevye, played with warmth and humor, by Adam Heller, is the master of his house, at least in his own mind. His wife, Golde, acted by Lori Wilner, runs the house with love masked by a sharp tongue.

The three daughters, played by Elizabeth DeRosa, Jan Brissman and Barrie Kreinik, each contribute distinctive performances reflecting their growing maturity and independent spirits, humorously displayed in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

David Perlman’s Motel the tailor, and Abdiel Vivancos’ Perchick, a young revolutionary student, reflect the growing spirit of the young. Jan Brissman’s determined Chava, delivers a farewell to her family that is achingly touching. John Paynok’s Lazer Wolf and Cheryl Stearn’s Yente, provide welcome moments of laughter.

Moving moments abound, from Hodel’s farewell to Tevye, in “Far From the Home I Love,” and the duet of Tevye and Golde, when Tevye asks, almost pleadingly, “Do You Love Me?” Lighter moments include Tevye’s discussion with God, “If I Were A Rich Man,” and Motel’s “Miracle of Miracles.”

This “Fiddler” is indeed a memorable, not-to-be-missed production of a classic!