Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 18, 2017

Avenue Q.


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 8, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

For its opening play of the 9th season, Playhouse on Park has mounted the extremely ambitious “Avenue Q.” Requiring strong actors, singers, puppeteers, a live band, and a complicated sound system, this play demands extraordinary ensemble work that either makes it or breaks it. With this production, the Playhouse has made it, big time!

Photo by Curt Henderson
Much of the production’s success should be credited to Kyle Brand, the director/choreographer who brilliantly moved his actors over the thrust-style stage with some disappearing out one exit only to be seemingly transported backstage for some of the most magical transitions I’ve ever seen. The show adds a level of difficulty with some actors voicing different puppet characters while standing on a different part of the stage—and handing off puppets seamlessly to other actors in mid-sentence. I watched carefully, and sometimes missed the hand-offs because they were so smooth.

The casting is perfection and the five-piece band (unseen, but integral to the show), directed by Robert James Tomasulo is spot-on with keeping the pacing of the show fast, and sometimes furious. Unfortunately, there were a few problems with the body mics the night I saw the show, but they are forgivable in a space this size and with a talented group of performers who don’t let anything get in their way.

When I saw “Avenue Q” on Broadway the year it opened in 2003, I wondered whether the themes of the show and the values it espoused would have a long life on stage. The play still works, and its music and lyrics still capture the “coming of age” story. The Muppet-like puppets are highly relatable, but a few older audience members were shocked and offended by the language, which definitely seems a bit more “blue” when attributed to puppets. “Avenue Q” is a delight on stage, and the clever cast and crew at Playhouse on Park can be very proud of this energetic, first-rate production.

Shakespeare & Company’s Spectacular Quartet


Shakespeare & Company’s Spectacular Quartet
by Shera Cohen

Photos by Christopher Duggan
Take four actors from Shakespeare & Company’s (S&Co) cadre of performers. Add up the sum years of their talents at this venue. The total equals exactly 100 years of creating characters, stimulating audiences, and helping to bring some of the best of what theatre can be to New England.

Let’s do the math on the stars of Yasmina Reza’s play “G-d of Carnage.” Elizabeth Aspenlieder (22 years), Allyn Burrows (19 years), Jonathan Croy (31 years) + Kristin Wold (28 years) = 100 years of acting credits. What a wonderful way to top off the company’s 2017 season.

And some more math, this time about myself. I have attended S&Co for exactly 25 years. Of course, I have seen each of these actors onstage – although I can’t quickly name any single production when I have seen all at the same time. A quarter-century is a lot of theatre, even for me.

I must unapologetically admit that I stole my way to S&Co. Bravo Newspaper (aka In the Spotlight) was in its second year when one of our writers approached me asking if she could review S&Co performances. I responded with, “If they would like us to come, sure.” After reading and editing the many reviews that our critic wrote, I wondered what I was missing. Her writing compelled me to visit the place. It’s unfortunate for the young writer, but from that point on I assigned S&Co to myself. While I gave her many other sites to review, I did kidnap S&Co. Here’s a little bit about my connection with each actor in “G-d of Carnage.”

Elizabeth Aspenlieder, whose day-job at the time was assistant public relations director, was among the first S&Co people who I met, over the phone (no email then), then in person. Here was a young actress who probably spent more time behind her computer than onstage.

In my first few years, Elizabeth and I chatted a lot. One topic was toilets. This was not necessarily as odd a conversation as you might think. Sani-cans were the norm at S&Co in the early 90’s. Each audience member pretty much couldn’t get through the day without using these “facilities.”

I made my first donation, specifically earmarked to help pay for real, indoor toilets. In fact, I purchased a magnet shaped like a toilet (lid went up and down) as a gift to Elizabeth. I am thrilled to think that my small contribution launched the effort to rid sani-cans forever.

My primary interaction with Allyn Burrows was as one of his “groupie” audience members, never missing a single performance – Shakespeare or anything else. Admittedly, I found difficulty in understanding the plots of many of the History plays, particularly when double or triple roled. Not that I am an expert now, but I owe a lot of my lessons to observing Allyn in those Henry plays.

Oftentimes, actors directly interacted with the audience. At one outdoor performance (I forgot which comedy), Allyn ran up the grass aisle to snatch my oversized canvas purse, brought it onto the stage, proceeding (while in character) to remove the contents. Good thing that nothing was embarrassing, and all was fun.

Jonathan Croy, the old-timer of the troupe at 31 years, was one of those actors equally skilled at Elizabethan English as contemporary, drama and comedy, featured roles and small. In fact, S&Co is known for distribution of credit. While an actor may portray Hamlet, the next play could feature him as a clown. I mention clowns, because that was a special talent of Jonathan.

My limited encounters with Jonathan were two. The first, when I was one of several at a mini-tailgate picnic – only one car; ours. The second time was one of the rare occasions when I walked up to an actor to congratulate him. I am so intimidated. But, I did approach this big, tall man with a larger than life booming voice. He seemed so shy and surprised that a person (any person, in this case me) would talk to him.

A few years later, I managed to assert myself again, this time approaching Kristin Wold. Her role was Timothea in “Sea Marks.” In stature and voice, she is the exact opposite of Jonathan. However, she had the same sweet response and approachability. Here is an actress whose forte is drama. Her characters are often killed, put upon, or just plain unhappy. Because she is so petite and waif-like, the audience wants to protect her. Ariel in “The Tempest” (perhaps my favorite play) was the personification of Kristin’s talents. No toilets, thievery, or tailgating incidents arose in meeting Kristin. I would, however, look forward to talking to her.

“G-d of Carnage” takes place 9/14 – 10/8 in the Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus, Lenox. For information on the play and tickets check the website at www.shakespeare.org.

September 15, 2017

Working: A Musical

Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through September 24, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

In his “Director’s Perspective” on the OHP’s powerhouse production of “Working,” John Pike recalls how moved he was when, as a college student in 1978, he saw the short-lived (three weeks) original Broadway version. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and five other composers and lyricists, the score of this “revusical” can sound a bit diffuse, but the 16 singing actors in Pike’s engaging cast invest it with unifying energy and commitment. While they perform most often as large and small ensembles, many are also featured as soloists in one or two numbers.

Angela Dias is a forceful schoolteacher in the Mary Rodgers/Susan Birkenhead song “Nobody Tells Me How.” “It’s an Art” becomes a star turn for Erica Romeo’s theatrical waitress. Eleven-year-old Sammi Choquette nearly steals the show in “Neat To Be a Newsgirl.” Dennis J. Scott and Brian Rucci are heartrending in the poignant “Fathers and Sons.” And the entire company are nervous wrecks in James Taylor’s manic “Traffic Jam.”

The score is periodically updated to reflect the evolving workplace, and invites new contributions from colleagues. One of two recent additions by Lin-Manuel Miranda is “A Very Good Day,” touchingly rendered by Andrew D. Secker as an adult caretaker and Elizabeth Drevits Tomaszewski as a nanny. 

In spoken interludes between musical numbers, Melody Gravante-Gunnells is an exuberant dog walker (with a four-pronged leash and a chorus of grating yaps from sound designer Ron Schallack evoking the unseen canines), band guitarist Matt Patton wryly laments the hand-to-mouth lifestyle of a freelance musician, and Dias' world-weary publicist looks and sounds uncannily like Joan Rivers.

Versatile set design by Francisco Aguas enables quick and smooth transitions among a wide variety of settings. Resourceful choreography by Anna Marie Russell enlivens many scenes, especially the hilariously staged Micki Grant song “Cleanin’ Women."

September 12, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 22, 2017
by Rebecca Phelps
 
Some serious talent is on display at the Majestic Theater with its production of “The Bridges of Madison County;” originally a book by Robert James Waller, then a movie, followed by a musical version that ran on Broadway in 2014.

For those who know it, the story does not at first appear to lend itself to being a musical as it does not provide much action or plot development. Rather, it is a slow, gradual burn of illicit love developed over a four-day span of time in Iowa, where a farm wife is left home while her husband and children go off to the state fair. The demands on the two leads, Francesca, played by Heather Hannon, and Robert Kincaid, played by Joe Casey, are weighty as they must carry the lion’s share of the singing and acting. And this they do with their beautiful voices, refined acting, and the needed restraint to pull off the demands of the steady build as they try to stave off their attraction to each other. Both actors are strong and have the vocal skills to convey the sizable demands this show places on these characters.

Francesca’s family includes husband Bud, played by John Baker; son Michael, Bryan Austermann, and daughter Carolyn, Molly MacLoed – all solid singers and portrayers of their roles, with special kudos to Carolyn MacLoed (a high school sophomore) who delivers a peppy, funny, believable teenager. Her antics with her brother offer some scene-stealing moments and lightens up the atmosphere. Nosy neighbors: Marge, portrayed by Margie Secora; and Kevin Reid’s Charlie provide some welcome comic relief wit.

The pit band, lead ably by Mitch Chakour, brings to life the lush score performing the country/folk inspired music with real (not synthesized) strings, guitar, and keyboard. To liven things up, James Robert Brown, composer, might have done well to give the audience more country fiddling, done live by musician Ann-Marie Messbauer.

Not to give a spoiler alert, but be sure to bring your hanky.

September 1, 2017

Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through September 3, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

When Ed Dixon bounds onto the stage in his one-man show about his friend and mentor, he has the audience enthralled within the first 15 seconds. Dixon, who wrote the 90-minute memoire about the great British character actor, George Rose, performs his tribute with energy and total commitment. He connects to the audience with his booming voice, a stage presence cultivated by over 50 years in the business, and the warmth of a master storyteller. Aided with direction by Broadway director Eric Schaeffer, the evening of entertainment is fascinating and profound.

Dixon first met George Rose in a road production of “The Student Prince,” and was immediately taken with the way Rose commanded the stage, and flabbergasted that Rose actually had his contract written so that he had license to ad-lib. Undoubtedly, Rose was a complicated, fascinating actor who had his quirks and passions, like sharing his New York apartment with two mountain lions  For the next few decades the friendship grew as each developed their Broadway careers, often supporting each other through good shows and flops. When Rose died mysteriously and tragically near his home in the Dominican Republic, Dixon suffered the pain of loss until he gained control of his life and began acting and writing again.

Photo by Micah Logsdon
Dixon, a character actor himself, who now plays many of the same roles that made Rose famous (Mr. Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” Major General Stanley in “The Pirates of Penzance,” to name but two) nails impressions of Rose, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and other celebrities throughout the telling of the story, and never loses his connection to the audience. When the inevitable cell phone goes off at the same time a car revs an engine outside the theater, Dixon deftly incorporates it into the story.

There’s no doubt that all actors enjoy a good story about another actor, but Dixon has made an art form out of telling a good yarn, and making you feel that you are in the room as he laughingly, lovingly, and sometimes, painfully recreates the life of one of the most important people he’s ever known. This tribute honors George Rose, and it raises Ed Dixon to the pantheon of masterful memoirists.

August 24, 2017

Our Great Tchaikovsky


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through August 27, 2017
by Rebecca Phelps

Hershey Felder had no trouble filling the house at Hartford Stage on a hot Tuesday night in late August for his performance of “Our Great Tchaikovsky.” Clearly many audience members had already encountered Felder from his previous plays and were primed for another impressive performance.

The show is a sensitive, informative, and at times humorous depiction of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the man and the musician. Felder not only performs many of Tchaikovsky’s most challenging pieces (a feat in itself), but, as Tchaikovsky, he is able to simultaneously speak in a perfect Russian accent to tell us about his family, his career and his romantic affairs at the same time. Steeping us into the atmosphere of mid-19th century Russia, Felder creates an intimate mood with a simple set comprised of a cozy collection of candles, rugs, and a small desk and chair where Tchaikovsky composed, all gathered around the centerpiece: a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano. In addition to the set, the sense of time and place is enhanced by projections of the various places that the story takes us: deep in the Russian woods, to various buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, ballet performers and theatre venues - all helping us live in the world that Tchaikovsky inhabited. 

Felder’s prowess as a pianist and musician is remarkable. The joining of his own arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s music (including many of his most famous pieces: the 6th symphony, “Nutcracker Suite,” “Swan Lake,” and “Romeo and Juliet”l) performed live, and with recorded accompaniment, is true genius.

There is no intermission in this 2-hour performance, but Felder creates a respite from Tchaikovsky mid-way through the show by suddenly breaking character to address the audience as himself. Here he makes an impassioned speech regarding today’s struggles for equal rights in Russia.

Hershey Felder generously stayed after the show for a talk-back in which he left us with the following tempting morsel: his next endeavor will be Debussy in Paris during La Belle Epoque. Sounds magnificent!

Wharton Comedies


Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 10, 2017
by Shera Cohen

“Roman Fever” is billed as a comedy. There is no sidesplitting laughter from the audience. Instead, comes inner smiles and soft chuckling – exactly as humor would have been expressed in the days of Edith Wharton a century ago. However, in the hands of director Normi Noel and adaptor Dennis Krausnick, this short story comes off the pages, into the psyches of its two female characters, and then to its receptive audience. The women have known each other for many years, yet each holds a secret crucial to the welfare of the other.

“The Fullness of Life,” the second play, also deftly written and designed by Krausnick and Noel, respectively, has an important title. It’s main character, newly deceased, enters heaven. She is posed with the question if she has had a full life. Woman (no names are given) professes every reason that she can think of, stating that, yes, her life has been miserable. And yet, perhaps not so terrible after all?

Common to both one-act plays are its three actors: Diane Prusha, Corinna May, and David Joseph; lithe and airy staging; crisp, no-nonsense dialog with not one word wasted; and a twist ending.

David Joseph, a young old-timer (he’s young, but old to Shakespeare & Co.) hones his acting, comedic, and singing skills with each role. He is a joy to watch. Corinna May, a S&Co. regular, has a smooth voice and statuesque demeanor, both perfect for her roles. In the first play, there’s just enough edge for the audience to question if her character is as hurt or as hurtful as she seems.

Photography by Olivia Winslow
Diane Prusha is the “star” of both plays. While her role as Grace in “Roman Fever” is often monosyllabic and without much movement (she sits and knits), it is her character who is literally center stage, quiet and commanding. Prusha speaks softly, her Grace is sweet and rather boring. Yet, her character saves her dialog for the point at which speaking the truth is crucial. Prusha’s ever present Woman gives numerous profound monologues she prepares her soul to enter heaven. We watch Prusha’s acting chops, slowly and assuredly give the meaning of life to her deceased character.