Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 25, 2015

Shining City

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through July 11, 2015
by Jarice Hanson

If this review had a title, it would be “A Perfect Night at the Theater.” Shining City is a well-crafted, thoughtful play full of surprises by Conor McPherson, interpreted impeccably by a talented cast that includes Mark H. Dold, Wilbur Edwin Henry, Deanna Gibson, and Patrick Ball. Director Christopher Innvar knows how to use the intimate space of the St. Germain stage to full advantage, and draws the audience into the action from the subtle, pre-curtain rainfall in the background to the last moment of the 95-minute production that takes your breath away.

Photo by David Fertik
The story begins with the awkward first meeting of a psychologist and his a new client. Ian (Dold) and John (Henry) engage in the initial small talk the way men do—staccato utterances peppered with affirmation and uncomfortable attempts to go beyond the superficial, but as John’s pain unfolds, the audiences learns of his late wife and his personal demons. John is suffering and knows that desires are sometimes as misleading as the thoughts he battles in his mind. He is searching for a reality that he knows may not exist, and the reality that emerges brings the stories of the two men into alignment, and simultaneously bridges mind/body, and theare/reality.

The artistic vision shared by every member of the cast and production team is so clear, the audience can’t help but be moved by the individual stories and the sense of aloneness that emerges in Ian’s cold little Dublin office. When John comes to terms with his loss in a brilliantly effective monolog, Ian’s body language not only communicates understanding on multiple levels, but the audience is treated to a master class in acting and interpreting the text. Dold and Henry are a formidable duo, and with McPherson’s words and Innvar’s guiding hand, the production gives its viewers something to think and talk about.

The title, "Shining City," refers to a Biblical passage (the play is Irish, so guilt and religion are expected) but the storytelling is unforgettable.

June 23, 2015

Vespers of 1610, Claudio Monteverdi

Boston Early Music Festival Ensembles
Mahaiwe Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
June 20 2015
by Barbara Stroup

Fresh from a Boston performance of this and other Monteverdi works, the artists from the Boston Early Music Festival delivered a confident and stunning performance in the Mahaiwe.

Eschewing more modern presentations with many on each part, Conductor Stephen Stubbs chose to offer the audience the transparency and clarity that best benefit this late-Renaissance sacred work, using nine singers and 15 instruments.

The Vespers of 1610 was performed in its entirety and in the order in which the composer published it. In his pre-concert talk, co-Artistic Director Paul O'Dette convincingly described the evidence used to make this choice. These remarks of both Stubbs and O'Dette helped clarify the architecture of the piece and showed not only the reverence in which it is held, but the amount of musicological research behind this performance.

Claudio Monteverdi
Utilizing instruments of the period, the ensemble achieved a well-blended sound whether supporting vocal parts or performing alone. Particularly outstanding was gambist Erin Headley, who had barely a measure of rest but who provided an anchor for the entire continuo section with her smooth and fluid sound. The section included the director at times, playing chitarrone, an organ, cello, double bass, harp along with Odette on chittarone. Upper line instruments made singular solo and ensemble contributions appropriately, including the longest trombone ever seen by this reviewer. Cornetto playing was particularly effective, but even so, the use of recorders by the same players for brief respites was charming and welcome.

The vocal ensemble was faultless in pitch and drama. Their commitment to the text and to other parts was clear in both their solo "concerti" and ensemble sections. The audience let it be known that the entire performance was a joy by calling the players and singers back several times. It is a wonderful partnership to have BEMF in Western MA and it is hoped such appearances will increase.

June 19, 2015

Seminar

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through June 27, 2015
by Barbara Stroup

Four characters in search of success as fiction writers hire a writing guru, bond in various ways (not only literary), and occasionally discuss the meaning of art. “Seminar,” a well-paced play by seasoned playwright Theresa Rebeck, entertains audiences with some effective one-liners and a bit of predictability. This well-acted vehicle opens New Century Theatre’s 25th year, and was received with laughter and appreciation by a nearly full house at opening night.

Keith Langsdale brings a vituperative interpretation to his character of Leonard, the writing coach, embellishing the mean-spirited comments with appropriate physicality. Even when the audience learns its probable origins, the nastiness seems overdrawn. As his critiques assault each writer in turn, the blade becomes even sharper.

Myka Plunkett is engaging as Kate, the light-footed, preppy Bennington graduate and the first writer whose prose suffers Leonard’s attack. The lancing continues, until there is finally some hope that good art might exist among these writers. The surprise at the end comes from whose art “wins.” In the same scene, Kate is unnecessarily diminished. How Rebeck treats both female characters is a disappointment.

The use of a folk harp for sound, both live and recorded, enhances the production aurally, as did the use of multiple recorded speeches during the play’s only and most significant stage change. Often, the audience finds itself watching Langsdale’s back as he deliveres significant speeches, thanks either to direction or to set design. Somewhat buried in this script is some insights about creativity and the courage it takes, a theme worth addressing that makes the play worth watching.

June 16, 2015

Man of La Mancha


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
www.barringtonstageco.org
through July 11, 2015
by Shera Cohen

As in past years, Barrington Stage (BSC) opens its mainstage season, this time for its 10th anniversary, with a blockbuster musical. Yet, mounting a tried ‘n true, oft-remembered Broadway show on a smaller scale does not by any means ensure success in text translation, actors’ skills, director’s imagination, or box office tallies.

Well, no worries here. BSC presents a splendid “Man of La Mancha” with nearly every element top-notch. Taking Cervantes’ dashing and dark, poignant and philosophical, simplistic and sincere portrait of the mythical Don Quixote, director Julianne Boyd places all the important elements worked by talented individuals in precisely the right places at the correct pace. The result is a magical piece of theatre.

Phot by Kevin Sprague
Lead actor, BSC “regular,” is Jeff McCarthy, physically looks the part(s) of Cervantes and Don Quixote. McCarthy, excellent in last summer’s “All My Sons,” should be credited foremost as an actor, secondarily, an actor who can sing very well. McCarthy plays a 60-something man who, in turn, portrays an older man. His voice is true to his character especially in the signature piece, “The Impossible Dream.”

Young actress Felicia Boswell takes her role seriously, down and dirty, in your face. Her eyes light up with anger, sinking her teeth into the spirit of Aldonza, “the kitchen slut reeking in sweat.” There’s a bit of a 21st century edge to Boswell’s voice, initially somewhat distracting but soon becoming raw and real. Other notables include Todd Horman (Padre) whose smooth baritone is comforting. Sean MacLaughlin (Dr. Carrasco) creates an endearing side to his character which this reviewer has never seen in any prior productions. There is so much potential to thoroughly enjoy Tom Alan Robbins’ Sancho, except for the Brooklyn-sounding accent in speech and song.

Not enough can be said about the tech/backstage crew. At first sight, before finding your seat, looms a dark, dirty stage engulfed in floating dry-ice -- a feeling of lifelessness. The set is metal and stone. Jail bars hang, then miraculously become church stain-glass windows. Choreographer Greg Graham works hand-in-hand (fist-to-fist, sword-to-sword) with fight choreographer Ryan Winkles. Music director Darren R. Cohen leads his nine-piece orchestra to sound like double, triple the talent.

June 12, 2015

Berkshires - Year 20 & Still Counting


Spring, 2015
by Shera Cohen

In mid-May of each year, I sit at my dining room table in front of at least 12 flyers, schedules, and promotional pieces from as many performing and visual arts venues in the Berkshires. This is my layout and plan to create three summer weeks of enjoyment entrenched in everything cultural for approximately six to eight people.

I have written my annual Berkshire article in different formats, perhaps not for the readers’ sake, but selfishly to give myself some new angles. I’ve done the diary, lumping similar genres, Best Of, and even alphabetical. This article will be true to my actual planning process -- what are we going to do in the mornings? The afternoons? The evenings? 

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE

May 27, 2015

Once

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 31, 2015
by R.E. Smith

“Once” the musical, is, indeed, many things at once. It is concert and recital, intimate and expansive, personal and universal. It is humorous, heart breaking and hopeful, understated, but technically brilliant. It is a true original in style, score, and execution, despite being based on a 2007 movie.

Set in Dublin, it is a simple story of passions lost and found. “Guy” is about to give up on his music when he is rescued by a muse in the form of a Czech “Girl.” Despite their mutual interests, and attraction, their love remains chaste. Their collaboration is of an artistic order. The folktale atmosphere is only heightened by an Irish pub setting, as if this is a story being told amongst friends over a few pints.

Photo By Joan Marcus
And what friends these are! Every performer is a quadruple threat: singer, actor, dancer, and musician. The ensemble serves as the on-stage orchestra, stepping in and out of the roles of Guy’s mates and Girl’s family. Each is given a moment to shine in both book and score, but all work seamlessly as a whole, as any good house band would. While there are no “dance” sequences per se (credits are given for “movement”), the unique staging, swift scene changes, and introspective gestures make even the quietest moments fluid and engaging.

The music, including the Oscar winning song (in a Tony-award winning musical!) “Falling Slowly,” is almost anti-Broadway. Rooted in folk and Irish traditions, the songs can be melancholy. But their beauty is undeniable, embellished with violins, cello, ukulele, concertina, and mandolin. Like any “traditional” show tune, the passion of the performers reaches out and engages the audience.

Stuart Ward as “Guy” is a study in contrast; awkward and unsure in personal relationships, he sings his songs of loss with a rock star presence. Dani de Waal as “Girl,” conveys subtle longing and sadness while winningly providing no nonsense practicality.

“Once” uses the simple tagline “his music needed one thing: her”, but this show is a beautifully complex experience, making for a unique, heartfelt evening unlike any other.

A small warning: the Bushnell acoustics sometime make it difficult to understand dialogue, add to that Irish brogues and Czech dialects and some subtleties can be lost. Be prepared to concentrate.

Kiss Me Kate

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT 
www.hartfordstage.org 
through June 14, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson


Photo Credit: T. Charles Ericson
“Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” but not just any show. A review of "Kiss Me Kate" at Hartford Stage could be summed up in one word, “WOW,” but this tell-it-all interjection should be expanded upon a bit, for Director Darko Tresnjak has given his audience yet another crowd-pleaser.

"Kiss Me Kate" follows the backstage antics of a theatre company presenting a musical version of Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" (a play within a play) starring divorced Broadway legends whose feelings for each other have obviously not totally dried out, though each is claiming a new love interest. Throw in their new flames and two gangsters who’ve come to the theatre to collect on a large gambling debt (and refuse to leave their charge unsupervised), and the plot—both onstage and backstage—thickens.

Terrific vocals render Cole Porter’s music and lyrics in grand fashion. Anastasia Barzee, in the dual roles of Lilli (offstage) and Katharine (onstage), the shrew whom none would wed, and Mike McGowan, as actor Fred Graham (offstage) and Petruchio, the suitor who's "Come to Wive It Wealthily," both have big rich voices, whether tenderly reminiscing with "Wunderbar" or belting out "Kiss Me, Kate." Barzee’s "I Hate Men" (as Katharine) is a showstopper—and does she ever hold that note! Megan Sikora, Fred Graham’s flirty, flighty sweetheart Lois Lane, persuasively declares the opposite as she proclaims (as Bianca) that either "Tom, Dick or Harry" will do. This number, an audience favorite, is great fun, the choreography bawdy and delightful.

Brendan Averett and Joel Blum, the determined gangsters, stand by their charge, Fred Graham, like decorative bookends, their costumes, and wigs accenting their mugged expressions, and hilarity definitely ensues their showpiece "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Kudos to all involved in this toe-tapping extravaganza, from the leads to the entire company, from Tresnjak to costume designer Fabio Toblini, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, choreographer Peggy Hickey, music director Kris Kukul and all who contributed to making "Kiss Me Kate" the success that it is.

What’s not to like? Perhaps the fact that the show will only run through June 14.