Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 24, 2011

Mahler’s “Titan”

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through October 23, 2011
by Michael J. Moran


In her “Masterworks” series debut as their first female and youngest Music Director, 34-year-old Taiwan-born conductor Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in a program that demonstrated her mastery of the Germanic core of the standard repertoire.

Written in 1794-1795, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19, reflected the classical style of Mozart’s late concertos, but its high spirits foreshadowed the mature Beethoven, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra in the Adagio foretold its more famous counterpart in the Fourth Concerto.  

The boyish looks of the 21-year-old soloist from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Behzod Abduraimov, belied his interpretive maturity.  He balanced measured tempos in the first two movements with a vigorous first movement cadenza and a romp through the final Rondo to achieve a performance of classical poise and grace.

After intermission, Kuan directed an impassioned account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, whose nickname, the “Titan,” has stuck although the composer stopped using it after several early performances. Kuan’s flexible tempos and dynamics heightened dramatic contrasts and accentuated the varied roots of Mahler’s inspiration, from Viennese ballrooms to klezmer bands in the third movement alone. Balances were transparent throughout the piece, so that the triangle and the harp, for example, could be clearly heard even in the loudest passages.
  
The orchestra has never sounded better. Though the horns in particular were challenged at times in the Mahler, they also turned in some of the evening’s finest playing in the first and last movements. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion were consistently impressive, and all the musicians seemed inspired by their charismatic new Maestra to play their best.

The audience was excited not only by Kuan’s physical energy and engaging personality, but by her spoken introduction to the Mahler, with musical examples played by the orchestra. These were brief but pointed, as when she illustrated repeating themes and Mahler’s belief that a symphony was a “world that must contain everything.”
 
This positive outreach to her community augurs well not only for the new HSO season but for the hopefully long duration of Kuan’s tenure in Hartford.

Jersey Boys

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 6, 2011
by Shera Cohen

“Oh, What a Night,” is not only the title of one of the Four Seasons’ hit songs, it is also the succinct description of the musical “Jersey Boys.” This chronological story of the creation of the group and the personalities of the men who made it happen is a non-stop, energetic, song filled retrospective. It puts faces to the names of the four young men from Jersey whose music has become instantly recognizable and loved.

It is no surprise that “Jersey Boys” (JB) won the Best Musical awards at the Tonies, Grammies, and Outer Critics Circle. As of July, 2011, 13 million people worldwide have loved JB. As of October 20, 2011 the number is now 13 million + 1. For those readers who are under age 20 and/or have lived in a cave for the past 40 years, the Four Seasons were one of the preeminent guy groups. Think “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Dawn” and try hard not to hum silently. It can’t be done!

Each member of the quartet narrates in four sections (aka seasons) the professional and personal highs and lows of the group and the individual men. The intertwining balance from dialogue to music and back again is seamless, as are the floating backdrops and sliding walls which set the eras apart. The boys inch their way from bowling alley gigs to empty nightclubs to eventual fame.

The main cast are superior singers who can also act. Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie) does well at playing shy; Preston Truman Boyd (Bobbie), the best actor of the troupe, portrays the amiable composer; Michael Lomenda (Nick) has a nice comic touch; and John Gardiner (Tommy) becomes the tough guy. More importantly, the audience wants to hear Bwarie’s falcetto coupled with the other’s skilled voices, and these boys sound as close to the real McCoy as possible. The show closes with “Who Loves You?” The answer: everyone in the Bushnell’s full house.

A note on theatre etiquette. It seemed, because of the nature of the music and story, that many in the audience were theatre newcomers. That’s wonderful – the more who support the arts the better. However, a professional venue like the Bushnell (or any other) is not the place to become inebriated and talk loudly throughout the entire performance. In spite of nicely asking our drinking neighbors to please be quite, being shrugged off, and then the house manager’s Herculean efforts ignored made for a tainted evening for what could have been a fabulous night at the theatre.

October 23, 2011

The Motherf#@ker With the Hat

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
www.theaterworkshartford.org
through December 4, 2011
by Jennifer Curran


It would seem that a play that cannot be named in polite company might be in need of a gimmick. Considering though that the playwright is Stephen Adly Guirgis, such nonsense is quickly put to bed. Within ten minutes it becomes abundantly clear that there really is no other title that would work. Add impeccable direction by Tazewell Thompson, a break-neck pace that never misses a beat and the result is a terrific show.

Donald Eastman's set design is a sparse outline with plenty of gray space for the actors to fill in the details. From Veronica's rumpled mattress on a bare floor, to Ralph and Victoria's Pier 1 Imports loveseat or Cousin Julio's lovingly attended to cart of lush green plants, the audience is roller-coasted from points A, B and C and back again.

At its very basics, “Hat” is a love story. Jackie (Ben Cole) and Veronica (Clea Alsip) have loved each other since the eighth grade, Ralph (Royce Johnson) and Victoria (Vanessa Wasche) are in a loveless marriage, Cousin Julio (Varin Ayala) may or not love his wife but his love of life and family keep Jackie in line.

The eviscerating verbal sparring lays bare the truth of each the characters: I do as I do and not as I say. There is much here about truth and honesty (one doesn't always have a lot to do with the other), addiction and recovery. There’s more in the script: being held accountable (or not) in a suffocating world where ignorance is far from bliss and language can't begin to communicate the complexities of these characters' struggle for love, understanding and a little bit of peace.

“Hat” isn't a play for everyone. It isn't a “nice” play. Indeed, it’s a blood and guts revelation of a man whose own limitations and ignorance keep him stuck in the same pattern, unable to break out of it and incapable of explaining why. For theatre fans who want to see something without a gift-wrapped ending or a moral tale, one could do no better than a trip to TheaterWorks.

October 21, 2011

Gallim Dance

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
www.fineartscenter.com
by Emily List


Through the piece “Blush,” Artistic Director and Choreographer Andrea Miller created a body of work similar to Sharon Eyal’s choreography presented by Carte Blanche, the modern Norwegian dance company, at the 2011 Jacob’s Pillow gala.

Gallim Dance:  Blush
“Blush” also could be compared to the theatre game "Evolution" in which performers morph from the floor to more realized forms of expression. The only difference is that the Gallim choreography never evolved beyond primordial soup, though the six dancers executed their movements with precision and power. 

The ensemble’s center of gravity was very low, just above the pelvis, and much of the movement emanated from lunges and yoga-like child poses. Bodies were never really extended, but introverted and flexed. Attitudes took the place of arabesques and even grande jetes were performed with bent knees and flexed feet. The company rarely rose to the level of the wire of light tautly cutting horizontally across the stage. Did this represent humanity’s struggle to raise itself to a certain level of... morality?   Interpretations vary.

Visibility was one of the real struggles of the evening, but there were others. Lighting Designer Vincent Vigilante was too bold with his backlit footlights and flickering spotlights, which rendered the dancers as outlines and shadows rather than fully formed beings. And the music was an assault on the ears, providing a series of beats rather than melodies that would have given the ensemble a story line to follow through. 

The question on the minds of many audience members was: where was the partial nudity advertised in the program? Perhaps nude dancing was considered too blushworthy, at least for the culturally sensitive viewers of the Pioneer Valley.

City Of Angels

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
www.goodspeed.org
through November 27, 2011
by Jarice Hanson


Billed as a sexy Hollywood Whodunit, "City of Angels" mixes 1940's film noir with contemporary theatre conventions including scene projection, a slow-motion fight scene appropriate for America's Funniest Home Videos, and skull hand-puppets all as homage to tired gumshoes who can't resist a pretty dame. In this production, director Darko Tresnjak has mounted a complicated show with remarkable technical proficiency.

You can't miss with a script by Larry Gelbart, who writes lines like, "Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever," and music by Cy Coleman, who crafted some of the best duets of his career in for this show, What sets this musical apart from others are the witty lyrics by David Zippel. The stock characters -- the Brylcreemed private eye, the femme fatal with the rich, aged husband, and the nubile step-daughter may seem cliche, but the show has many fresh twists.

About twenty minutes into Act I, the audience realizes that all of the characters are in the mind of a writer, hired by a movie studio to pen a screenplay, only to have his work changed by the hilarious studio executive, played by Jay Russell. The action revolves around the back-and-forth world of the movie studio and the life of the script writer, played by D.B. Bonds. There is not a weak character in the cast; and Bonds, Lauri Wells, and Nancy Anderson have wonderful voices and get some of the best tunes.

Some members of the production team warrant a special shout-out;  Michael O'Flaherty's music direction shines, and David P. Gordon's scenic design, enhanced by Shawn Boyle's projections, make this production a visual treat. The show may have been a bit fresher when it premiered on Broadway in 1989 and today's mash-ups and parodies take a bit of the kick out of the script, but the "City of Angels" is smart, entertaining, and this production is top-notch. 

October 18, 2011

Guitarist Richard Thompson

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
www.mahaiwe.org
by Eric Sutter


Cool and contented in the later warmth of a fall day, guitar legend Richard Thompson appeared on the Mahaiwe stage bringing his mix of love songs and dexterous acoustic guitar stylings to a loyal audience of followers on his and their journey of life.

Thompson's aura was pulsing in a knowing way, with a gracious but amusing passion that flowed. Known as a pioneer in folk-rock circles as a founding member of the British band Fairport Convention, he continually referenced early memories paired with more recent ones. He is particularlyl renowned for amazing fingerstyle guitaring. Gifted beyond belief, Thompson is noted on Rolling Stone magazine's Top 20 guitarists of all time.

"Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" harkened back to the 60's. Thompson's singing and sense of melody are as unique as his lyrics -- he is different than your average pop singer because of his background in the rich tradition of Celtic music. At one point, he picked an album title out of his trademark beret and sang three songs from it: from "1000 Years of Popular Music" he performed an Italian folk song, "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo" by Corazio Vecchi; "Blackleg Miners" from folk songs of British folk singers; and the rock number "A Legal Matter" by Pete Townshend. He easily sang a sea shanty ("Johnny's Far Away on the Rollin' Sea") as his own work ("Persuasion").

Thompson's skill at intricate guitar playing was evident on his well loved "Vincent Black Lightning 1952," about star-crossed lovers James and Red Molly. The powerfully sung "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from 1999's "Mock Tudor" was a perfect example of late-20th century angst. Sometimes twisted, he performed "Stumble On" from his latest CD, "Dream Attic." He then launced into the 1991 MTV hit "I Feel So Good." His love of sound was like a rush from the past that pleased this audience.

Rock On! Broadway

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
www.SpringfieldSymphony.org
by Eric Sutter


With Kevin Rhodes conducting, the opening Springfield Symphony Pops concert of the 68th season was right on! Featuring music from the best Rock musicals of the 70's and 80's, the orchestra was challenged to perform. The "Chess" overture set the mood. The rest of the great evening followed.

Broadway musicals were changed forever in 1968 when "Hair" debuted. Soprano Sarah Uriarte Berry and tenor Ron Bohmer gave an empowered "Aquarius." A nicely done "Easy To Be Hard" featured a lovely Berry  as solo. Bohmer clowned as a long-haired hippie with his singing "Hair." Of course, they finished with a rousing "Let The Sun Shine In." Fantastic!

From "Tommy," the Symphony shined on "Overture" with that great opening electric guitar solo. Piano, horns and strings built tempo to a crescendo ending. The percussion was steamy. Berry sang "Smash The Mirror" in a Broadway shrill that wasn't quite effective with its too high pitch. Bohmer, as Tommy, was better with the thrilling "I'm Free" which resounded triumphantly.  The sound was excellent and lighting superb. A comical Rhodes joined both lead singers doing "The Time Warp" dance from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." By the end of the number, some of the audience engaged in dancing.

After intermission, the "Overture" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" lead the second portion of the program. A solo by Berry, "I Don't Know How To Love Him," was pleasant, acknowledging why this number is a standout. Berry particularly showed her vocal skills in the slower numbers. The strings propelled "Gethsemane" with Bohmer in a heartfelt perfomance. The singers then paired up on the duet of "Seasons of Love" from "Rent." An offering from "Little Shop Of Horrors" was fun. "Godspell" provided a magnificent volley of music that the audience sang along to -- especially "Day By Day." Orchestra and vocalists reprised "Let The Sunshine In" with much singing and dancing. Rebuilding Springfield through the the arts never felt better. 

October 16, 2011

Wait Until Dark

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
www.suffieldplayers.org
through October 29, 2011
by Shera Cohen


Suffield Players are particularly skilled at mounting murder mysteries. This play is the real thing, edge of your seat two hours of theatre. After the final applause, the audience leaves with the communal feeling of exhaustion. That is a powerful statement of cause and effect. The troupe accomplish exactly as planned for “Wait Until Dark.”

The play’s title succinctly describes the plot. Our heroine is a blind woman who is physically and figuratively in the dark. What happens to her in one day is a terrifying test of her metal. Susy unknowingly becomes entrenched in the middle of drug trafficking and murder as she is pitted against three strong sighted men.

Photo by Larry Bilanski
Karen Balaska’s phenomenal success in portraying Susy is her physicality. She plays blind with a capital “B.” Her stance, movement, and manipulation of props are perfect. At the start, Balaska’s character is plucky and na├»ve. We see gradual changes as her intelligence and inner sight dominate. Susy’s motivation to stay strong and fight is first and foremost for love of her husband. However, Danny Viets is miscast as a too-young and too strict mate, making Susy’s emotional commitment confusing. But Balaska makes us believe.

The first two villains on the scene are portrayed by Bill Mullen (Mike, faux friend of the husband) who effectively becomes the big lug bad guy with a conscience, and Zach Grey (Sergeant Carlino) who plays smugness well. Enter Konrad Rogowski (Harry Roat) as “the brains” of the operation. Rogowski’s acting is the epitome of super psycho intellect. Roat is a relentless crazed man. Young Emma Rucci (teen neighbor) does a fine job as Susy’s smart and smart-alecky ally.

Director Robert Lunde could have taken the easy road on many scenes, particularly those set in pitch dark. Lunde introduces the play, telling his audience that some sections will be completely black. So, it’s not a spoiler to write about the success of these unseen scenes. A  lesser production might have resorted to sound effects to cover up the action taking place in the dark.  Instead, the undoubtedly battered and bruised actors, running on a small stage in the dark (Balaska and Rogowski in particular), and the less battered director, treat the audience to a realistic, powerful ending.

Creole Choir of Cuba

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
www.fineartscenter.com
by Emily List


The Creole Choir of Cuba was a collaborative effort on the part of 10 singers and dancers to share their Haitian descent through the arts.The performers’ ancestors were brought to Cuba as slaves, and the choir sings their stories of survival, homesickness, hope and freedom in the Creole language. The troop returned to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, with the intention of healing through song and dance and with the belief that “music is like food. It feeds the spirit and is a major inspiration for every day life.” 

Though the performers’ themes touched on dark periods of their history, the choir members celebrated the present with rich harmonies, Caribbean rhythms and vibrant colored costumes. Bongo drums, cowbells and whistles were used as rhythmic backdrop, though the men provided most of that with their deep base voices, while the women layered on high pitched vibratos and harmonies.

The concert exuded a Latin vibe, and choir members reached out to the audience through call and response and salsa like movement. The music undulated through the bodies of both performers and spectators, some of whom made their way shimmying and hip grinding on to the stage. They joined the choir as they swept their arms through the air, waving beautifully died scarves.

The concert’s atmosphere was bright and informal. Members of the ensemble chatted nonchalantly between numbers, as if attending a weekend farmers’ market. Their playful dynamic spread through the concert hall, as women and men harmonized, flirted and moved together as one. Though they don’t speak English, the choir members offered the audience a special gift—their English rendition of “Unforgettable.”  

The performers told the audience that their music comes from the heart, but there was no need to say so: the audience could feel it.  

October 4, 2011

Rent

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
www.exit7players.org
through October 16, 2011
by Eric Sutter


Jonathan Larson's Tony Award winning and ground breaking musical "Rent," about a group of struggling Bohemian artists on NYC's Lower East Side, revvs up the stage and the emotions at  is Exit 7. This intensely entertaining production is a colossal undertaking by director Meghan Lynn Allen and musical director Bill Martin. It's a mixed-up, muddled up, shook-up world with themes of sexuality, AIDS, and the ravages of poverty. The intricate story is convoluted with many sub plots that turn delightfully, revealing various love connections. The set is simple with emphasis on  music and dance. It simmered and seared with high voltage edgy rock numbers and challenging choreography by Amy Meek.

Lead characters Mark (Josiah Durham) and Roger (Michael Lorenzo) must be carefully followed. Roger is a singer/songwriter looking for his big break. Love and friendships are unveiled through song dialogue. Big numbers -- "Rent" and "Seasons of Love" -- livened every cell in one's body. Relationship songs such as "You Okay Honey" with Angel (Michael Garcia) and Collins (Joshua Osborne), "Light My Candle" with Roger and Mimi (Kyle Boatright), and "Tango Maureen" with Mark and Joanne (Christine Greene) were loving fun and helped develop characters' personalities. "On the Street," a passionate full company number, featured a big voice stand-out by Blanket Lady (Susan Duncan). Maureen (Nikki Wadleigh) turned out the humorous "Over the Moon," which coaxed the audience to "Moo." Act I closed with the over the top "La Vie Boheme" in high fashion.

The plot thickens in Act II as the characters' emotional baggage becomes weighty. Steamy duets ensue with "Take Me Or Leave Me" between Maureen and Joanne, and "Without You" with Roger and Mimi. "Contact" features Angel, who hasproven to be a firm testament to the strength of the human spirit. After Angels' AIDS death, Collins sings "I'll Cover You" backed by a powerhouse group ensemble vocal. "Goodbye Love" finds Roger, Mimi and Benny(Silk Johnson) in a heated love triangle. "Your Eyes" is Roger's love song to Mimi -- watch for her strange twist of fate. There is no day but today!

This powerful musical is chock full of strong language; it is intended for mature audiences.

October 3, 2011

Opening Night Gala

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org
October 1, 2011
by Michael J. Moran


The Springfield Symphony Orchestra opened its 2011-2012 season with a program of three pieces by Russian composers, an “electrically charged…genre that has proven to be one of our strong suits” in the past, according to Music Director Kevin Rhodes in a program note.

After a rousing performance, with enthusiastic audience participation, of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to mark the start of a new season, the concert proper began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” A colorful blend of Russian Orthodox chants with the composer’s exotic harmonies and orchestration, the piece made special demands on the brass and percussion sections, all of whom rose to the occasion with gusto.

The Tchaikovsky “Violin Concerto” reunited Rhodes and the SSO with soloist Axel Strauss for the first time since he played the Mendelssohn “Concerto in E minor” with them 11 years ago. In 1998, Strauss became the first German artist to win the Naumburg Violin Award. Now in his mid-30’s, he has lived in the United States since 1996 and teaches violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

While fully meeting its technical challenges, Strauss gave the Concerto a richly Romantic interpretation, drawing out the first movement cadenza to broad lyrical effect, along with the second movement Canzonett. The appreciative audience jumped to their feet after his thrilling rendition of the folk-inspired finale.

A brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D minor” followed intermission. Rhodes reminded the audience that this 1937 piece was not an example of “art for art’s sake” but, in the composer’s words, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” of several of his earlier works by government authorities. With the entire orchestra playing marvelously in all four movements, the symphony’s links to the Russian historical tradition were also clear, especially in the intense Largo movement, which evoked the slow movements of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and Rachmaninoff’s second symphonies.

The Maestro’s famously kinetic style of conducting was on full display throughout the evening, and the positive energy of this opening night promised a great season ahead.

The Best of Enemies

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
www.barringtonstageco.org
October 5 – 16, 2011
by Shera Cohen


Based on the fact that Mark St. Germain is the playwright is reason enough to make a point of attending “The Best of Enemies.” St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session” was such a phenomenal hit at Barrington that it has moved to off-Broadway. The same may soon be said about “Enemies.”

Photo by Kevin Sprauge
The play is a true story of life in Durham, NC in the early 1970’s when the divisions between races and classes were not simple lines in the sand, but high stone walls – unable to be climbed or torn down. Color and money dictated government and particularly the school system. The story’s focus is the relationship between Ann Atwater, a hard-core elderly black woman whose only fears are the future of children, and E.P. Ellis, a strong and purposeful man who is proud of his Klan membership. The two are complete opposites in every way possible: sex, race, age. But are they? Perhaps it is their economic status that very slowly chips at the wall.

Aisha Hinds and John Bedford Lloyd are superb in their roles. Clifton Duncan, as the young black mediator of the ongoing conflict, and Susan Wands, as Ellis’ down trodden intelligent wife, are the only other actors in this quartet. Both are strong in their roles.

So much is said with a small cast and sparse set. In fact, more would have been ineffective. Julianne Boyd directs “Enemies” in vignettes created by large slide backdrops floating in and out. At many points, particularly when the actors speak out to assemblies, the audience feels that it is part of a documentary, and not theatre attendees. The play runs 90-minutes. Thank goodness for no intermission, as it not only would have broken the chronological momentum, but more importantly, the visceral experience. How much more “real” can theatre feel?

Barrington Stage is one of the few theatres that dares to present some tough drama during each of its summer seasons. Music and comedy are the norm. Obviously, audiences accept the challenge of serious and actual events, which is why “Enemies” will be staged for an unexpected return in October.