Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 29, 2008

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

Bernstein, Gershwin, Prokofiev
Springfield Symphony Hall
September 27, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

From the beginning – our "National Anthem" – through Bernstein, Gershwin, and Prokofiev, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra under the energetic direction of Kevin Rhodes never sounded better. It’s an open secret, indeed one to brag about, that Rhodes has continuously raised the bar and the musicians continue to meet the challenge. Rhodes’ enthusiasm energizes musicians and audiences alike. The payoff is a maturing orchestral cohesiveness of which Springfield is rightly proud.

Maybe every concert should open with Leonard Bernstein’s "Overture to Candide". Such a happy score! Boisterous! Bam! Boom! Bam! The orchestra went a mile a minute, lifting spirits as well as memories of the youthful Bernstein on Omnibus, sharing his love and knowledge of music with uncounted millions.

Those who attended the pre-concert talk had already met guest soloist Norman Krieger and learned that when as a boy of seven he attended a Hollywood Bowl concert, music became his passion. Now a seasoned performer, his technique is embedded deep within his being. Perhaps he’s honored as a musician’s musician. Such seemed to be true during George Gershwin’s "Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra": eschewing flamboyant pyrotechnics at the piano, he became an integral part of the orchestra.. From its beginning, the Concerto demanded attention. Kettle drums, jazzy rhythm. Flights of fancy morphed into the blues of a wailing trumpet; there was a conversation with the piano. Then a new rhythm made dancing feet itch. The climax was a booming end.

The opening movement of Prokofiev’s "Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major" was busy yet languid, ideal music for black swans, heavy with percussion, ponderous, an appropriate complement for the ongoing financial deliberations in Washington. With the second movement, it was as if a system was purged and a race was on. All the strings were plucked simultaneously. There was a brass frenzy. An abrupt ending stunned the audience. Within the third, the mood became lugubrious, writhing pain, churning souls. Then with the final movement, storm clouds dissipated and wholesomeness was resurrected. The thunderous finale released an outpouring of applause. The celebration of the SSO’s 65th year and the 2008-2009 season were launched.

September 27, 2008

Hartford Symphony & Joshua Bell

Bushnell, Hartford
September 24, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Expectations that the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s 2008-09 opening concert and 65th birthday celebration would be a gala affair were exceeded by the musicians under the direction of Edward Cumming and the virtuoso performances by the acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell and an exciting newcomer, organist Christopher Houlihan.

Rossini’s deceptively simple "Overture to The Thieving Magpie" was delightful from the opening snare drumming through sprightly dances, an arresting crescendo, and concluding with a rouser-douser finale. Dvorak’s "Carnival Overture" devoked introspection and exuberant emotions and expansive congeniality culminating in a lively conclusion.

The two overtures were the bookends for the "Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra" by Samuel Barber. The Austin concert organ, a massive cube, was wheeled into place and plugged in. The soloist, Houlihan, age 20, a senior at Hartford’s Trinity College, preceded Maestro Cumming across the stage, walking to the hulking organ as if he were about to reunite with a good friend. Well, they are. The organ responded to his friend’s every wish regardless of location – tiered keys, pedals, pulls. A one-man orchestra in perpetual motion. A pedal solo, black shoes flashing with the speed of fingers. Stunning. Standing ovation. Self-named "Houli-Fans" cheered. The encore reinforced the authenticity of the audience’s enthusiasm.

Following intermission, Joshua Bell stood at stage center, touched his bow to his 300-year-old Stradivarius violin and fused with Tchaikovsky’s "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major." Bell’s mastery made the familiar new; the combination of artist and composer generated pure bliss. The birds Bell has charmed out of the trees live within his violin. He propelled their gossamer song to its highest note where it turned into mist. Yet bowing into the lower depths conjured a cello’s rich mellowness. His rapid tapping with the bow was a gentle metronome, not a tempo to intimidate. Following a standing ovation and four curtain calls, he pleasured his admirers with a selection from "The Red Violin." More curtain calls. Now only 41, he’s a violinist for the ages.

September 24, 2008

Indigo Girls

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
September 21, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

From the moment Australian Missy Higgins, acoustical guitar in hand, greeted the audience with a smile and "G'day!" her opening act could do no wrong. She sang, strummed, scurrying fingers across a keyboard or pausing to bang out a succession of pay-attention chords. Her clear, no-nonsense voice sang with the fervor of her age – 25 – and of her beliefs in love, betrayal, anger, and dismay. Already an award-winning success in Australia, she spoke of temporarily relocating in Los Angeles – the center of the music business – slowly building her profile, through touring and writing songs for selected film scenes. An old poster advertising "Gone With The Wind" caught her fancy, especially the "cheekiness" of Vivien Leigh (Scarlet) and the sensuality of Clark Gable (Rhett) locked in a passionate embrace which inspired the writing of "Angela" and the repeated phrase, "You’re a danger he’s addicted to." Toss in "Scar,"and Missy’s profile jumped.

The hoots and hollers burst forth when the reasons for the sold-out house appeared – dark Emily Saliers and blonde Amy Ray, the musically electrifying and compelling Indigo Girls. For more than 20 years, they have built a legion of followers who adore them and their blend of folk rock – and whatever embellishments and surprises they incorporate. The fans know all the lyrics and sing along continuously. Occasionally when Emily stepped away from her mike, a row of white lights strung across the proscenium arch shone into the audience, illuminating the dedicated choir, their singing in sync with The Girls. Excitement surged whenever Emily got into the music, knees bent, jamming. Amy focused, serene. Emily into another plane. Wild shouts from fans dancing in place. "The Power of Two." Yes! Then, "I was waiting for me."... "I’m all washed up when Poseidon has his day."... "Land of Canaan" and the screaming and whooping hit higher decimals.

Emily Saliers has said, "Creating harmonies with someone is magical; it’s a whole other side of performing." Amy Ray has reaffirmed the principle that drives the Indigo Girls: "It’s all about living in the moment...and trying to make it better than the moment that came before," a comment in tune with the beautifully restored Mahaiwe.

September 22, 2008

The Goodbye Girl

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow
through October 4, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Say a huge hello to "The Goodbye Girl" a musical, that hits all the right notes – story, director, choreographer, cast – another outstanding Exit 7 Players production.

From the rousing opening number filled with expectations about moving from Manhattan to Los Angeles, the mood plummets when single mother Paula (Lea Oppedisano) discovers that Tony, her actor boyfriend, has dumped her in favor of a role in Spain. Her daughter Lucy, a precocious 10 (Emma Henderson), stoically accepts this latest downer. Paula vows, "No more!" and is determined to resume her career as a dancer. At a rehearsal studio with dancers who know the routine, she demonstrates she’s not only out of shape but rusty. The intricate number, "A Beat Behind," is cleverly choreographed by Todd Santa Maria.

In the middle of the night, a deadbolted door prevents a stranger, with a key, from entering the apartment. Elliot (Nate Luscombe) has bought out Tony’s lease. Paula dictates the house rules. Elliot, armed with the lease, pulls rank and imposes new rules. Wide-eyed Lucy misses nothing. Elliot is an actor who has been lured from Chicago to star in "Richard III" at a theater so far off Broadway, it’s off the sanity map. Its director, Mark (Jim Coulter) wants Elliot to play the king like a queen who wants to be king. That sequence brings down the house. Still to come is Act II.

Originally a movie written by Neil Simon, based upon the life of his then-wife Marsha Mason who played the title role, the musical version opened on Broadway in 1993. Simon’s craftsmanship endures but, thankfully, the wisecracks are minimized. The voices of Paula, Elliot, Lucy, and the landlady Mrs. Crosby (Christine Kasparian) have the Broadway-like zing of professional training.

This "Goodbye Girl" is edgy, at times hysterically outrageous, yet tender and sweet, especially the individual scenes Paula and Elliot have with Lucy: Emma Henderson is a little girl with big talent and the poise of an adult pro. She listens. This is a polished production – nine musicians, a stylish set design, and a crew with no wasted motions. Director Dan Derby, take a bow.

September 19, 2008

Artist Linda Post

Major Exhibit, Northampton
through Nov. 14, 2008

How Linda Post, co-founder of the unbelievable successful biannual Paradise City Crafts Show, balances the work of that impressive job with her other full time career as a painter is a question only she can answer. However, a major first exhibition of her work, titled “Balancing Acts,” is on view at R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton. Pieces in oil, pastel, gesso, triptych, and monotype mount the walls through November 14. Why balancing acts? Post’s art explores the cusp of adolescence – the space between childhood and adulthood.


Balancing Act by Linda Post
Post says of her own work, “Many of my paintings take place at twilight or dawn – the most ambiguous times of day…it is figurative with a distinct psychological edge.” And yet another balancing act of time and nature.

Prior exhibits throughout New England and New York include the Rose Art Museum and the Newport Art Museum as well as painting covers of Gettysburg Review and Return of the Great Goddess. www.rmichelson.com

September 8, 2008

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Hartford Stage
through October 5
By Bernadette Johnson

“Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down.” What the mischievous Puck has planned for Shakespeare’s crisscrossed lovers is a mere fragment of the merry chase Shakespeare leads us on in this, his great dream play. He offers us not merely a dream, but dreams intersecting with reality, fairies, sprites, forest creatures, and a play within a play.

It’s all very simple? Hermia loves Lysander, but must marry Demetrius, her father’s choice. Helena loves Demetrius, but he is smitten with Hermia. Hermia and Lysander plan to escape through the forest, but not before Hermia tells Helena, who tells Demetrius. The four head for the forest as does a troupe of would-be actors (a company of misfits) rehearsing a play for the Duke of Athens’ wedding. Add a magic love potion, a vengeful fairy king, mistaken identities, masks and transformations, and you get the picture.

Director Lisa Peterson has updated the production. We are “lost in the fifties” and love the reminders. Despite its simplicity, Rachel Hauck’s set is intricate and ingenious and transforms readily from town to forest. Interestingly, Hauck chose to retain a single window casement throughout. Puzzling at first, it becomes a constant reminder that all is not as it seems.

Of all the delightful creatures that roam the forest, two in particular stand out. Hartford Stage newcomer Susannah Flood as Helena definitely steals the spotlight as the woman scorned. “Not made to woo,” she nevertheless stoops to just about anything to further her cause, including her hilarious “I am your spaniel” tail-wagging declaration of love, delivered on all-fours. Lucas Caleb Rooney is top-notch as Bottom the Weaver. His John Wayne imitation and his “ass-inine” song are priceless.

Paul James Pendergast’s original score lends a fairytale atmosphere, evoking a dreamlike state, convincing us to “let the magic take us away.” And it does.

The Miracle Worker

Majestic, West Springfield
through 10/12/08
By Shera Cohen

The staging is the first clue that the Majestic’s opening play, “The Miracle Worker,” launches a wonderful professional 2008/09 season. Set designer Greg Trochlil and lighting designer Daniel Rist arrange multiple areas, representing indoors and outdoors, clearly defined by outlines of wooden panels and variations of spotlights.

The high caliber of the play continues from the very first words spoken to final words of Helen Keller fingered in the hand of her teacher Annie Sullivan. Playwright William Gibson’s dialogue is exquisite as he initially hints at the potential of each character, and then proves it. Just as Gibson depends on choosing the right words, the plot is about words and language. Communication is the crux of the play – without it, the human spirit is locked. Helen and Annie’s story is real, and playgoers know its beginning, middle, and end. Yet, seeing it often never seems to be too often.

Zoya Kachadurian skillfully directs her cast of 14 (including some adorable children) in a well-paced natural clip. The flow is seamless, especially when moving in and out of flashbacks. There are no weak actors. Marianna Bassham (Helen’s mother) portrays a gentile Southern lady with a backbone when it comes to her child. Eric Love (father) could have easily phoned in his performance as one-dimensional, but this was far from the case. Dan Whelton (brother) shows the clear growth of his character’s inner self.

Wherever did the Majestic staff find Brittany Andrea? Actually, the answer isn’t important. What is pertinent is that she is a must-see young actress who is only in town for one month in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Helen. She balances relentless frustration with na├»ve awakening. Andrea is Helen.

The play is truly the story of Annie Sullivan, who was the miracle worker. Jen Schwaber gives Annie a dichotomy of forthrightness and doubt, strength and vulnerability, courage and bravado, humor and drama. Her battles with Andrea call for shear stamina, and perhaps accepting some bruises throughout the play’s run. Schwaber is an actress who easily meets the many challenges of Annie.

While at the Majestic, note the beautiful paintings by Willie Ross School for the Deaf students which are on display throughout the run of this play.

September 5, 2008

“Spamalot”

The Bushnell, Hartford
through 9/7/08
By Shera Cohen

There’s one really big thing wrong about “Spamalot” at the Bushnell – only five performances. Given that one fault, audiences have no choice but to fill the seats immediately and to the rafters to experience one of the most outrageous, creative, and funniest musicals ever.

To have remembered and enjoyed the Monty Python series or movies means instant love of “Spamalot,” because it’s more of the same along with music and funky lyrics, cartoon-like sets, costumes from every century (who cares if this is supposedly the Middle Ages), cheeky special effects, and this time it’s all in fabulous Technicolor. Nothing is off-limits – sex, politics, death, or religion. The monk and nun sensual dance is a hoot. To have never seen Python makes little difference. Audiences need only bring open minds, funny bones, and expectations of exaggeration and camp to thoroughly enjoy the play, at least enough to see it once a year.

The story is that of King Arthur, his knights, the Lady of the Lake, and search for the Holy Grail. Ahh, sounds familiar, from books of old. From that basic plot are twists and turns to Casino Camelot, “a very expensive forest,” and Broadway. Blatantly hysterical running jokes are poked at many musicals: i.e. “Fiddler,” “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Les Miz,” and “Phantom.” The knights especially like Mel Brooks and especially dislike Sondheim and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The actors are constant hams, which could give the expectation that the singing skills might not be equal to the shtick. Wrong. There are some wonderful strong voices, in particular Christopher Sutton at Prince Herbert doing a lovely falsetto. Except for those playing Arthur and Lady, all of the actors have at least three roles each. It wasn’t until after the standing ovation to boisterous audience cheers that this reviewer had time to read the playbill. Two of the best acted characters are Sir Lancelot and The French Taunter. What do you know – Patrick Heusinger portrays both.

Ending with an audience sing-along to a reprised “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” it is clear that “Spamalot” shines bright.