Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 19, 2013

Greensleeves & Sirena


Hartford Symphony Orchestra
December 12–15, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Such was the timing of winter storm Electra that it forced a rare cancellation of the HSO’s Saturday evening performance of this program, featuring two familiar masterpieces and a relative rarity which should be better known. But luckily for HSO audiences, their hard-working orchestra plays each program four times, mostly in the clear, resonant acoustics of the Bushnell’s intimate Belding Theater.

As Electra gave way to clearing skies Sunday afternoon, the audience was greeted with a warm bath of springtime as a radiant account of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves opened the program. Returning guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet, was clearly in his element with the mostly string ensemble. Principal harpist Susan Knapp Thomas and principal flute Greig Shearer made distinguished solo contributions.

Sirena Huang
Popular local violinist Sirena Huang was the brilliant soloist in a rhapsodic performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Now a sophomore at the Juilliard School, Huang grew up in South Windsor, and this was her ninth appearance with the HSO. Her violin tone throughout this demanding piece was rich, powerful, and sensitively shaded, from the hushed opening notes of the dramatic first movement to the dazzling cadenza only minutes later. Smirnoff maintained an ideal balance between orchestra and soloist through the lush Adagio movement and an amusingly lumbering finale.

Huang introduced a charming but technically challenging encore as a recent Chinese composition called “Enchanted Mountain Scenery,” in which she said “a man enjoys a trip to the mountains and then gets a little drunk” (the tipsy point was very clear in her playing).

Intermission was followed by a lively rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed “Polish” for its finale in polonaise rhythm. Like his first symphony, which Smirnoff conducted on his last HSO visit a year ago, the third is far less known than Tchaikovsky’s fourth-sixth symphonies, but its five movements offer no fewer memorable tunes than any of this master melodist’s most beloved works. Orchestra and conductor brought it all off with an impressive mix of discipline and abandon.

December 16, 2013

Small Movies at Little Cinema Are Big Attractions


by Shera Cohen

Berkshire Museum is a wonderful gem of art, architecture, science, and history. Located between the Colonial Theatre and Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, all of these venues have become destination points in a city that not so long ago was a place to drive straight through.

Little Cinema, now in its 65th year, is an important part of what makes Berkshire Museum great. The following is a one-on-one interview with Craig Langlois, Education and Public Programming Manager at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA.

Spotlight: What factors do you consider when picking the films for Little Cinema? Is it a mix of indies and foreign?

Langlois: There’s a lot that goes into it; i.e. reviews, audience. There are questions to ask. Has it been shown elsewhere, is it an important film that needs to be screened, what are the distributors plans, what are the terms (payment). We strive to present the latest in first run independent films – sometimes they are foreign, sometimes they are made right here in the Berkshires.   
  
Spotlight: Do you think some films will get bigger or different audiences in the summer months than during other times in the year?

Langlois: Films over the summer benefit from increased audience because of the influx of second home owners and tourists. Limited run independent films (for the most part) have a predicable distribution pattern. After the festival circuit they start in New York, Boston, L.A. and other major cities and then move to smaller regional markets like the Berkshires. Many times, I have had feedback from summer audiences that they are happy they were able to catch “that movie,” continuing “It was only in New York for a week.” That being said, we have pretty consistent attendance around the year. Little Cinema receives great support from the year-round community.     

Spotlight: What have been the most successful films? Successful, not necessarily in audience size but also quality of film. To me, success is quality and quantity.

Langlois: I agree with your measure of success. The “most successful” films are the ones I receive calls about after a weekend of screening. The audience is compelled to keep talking about it days and weeks after. For example, I was grocery shopping and the person manning the checkout counter wants to talk about the film he just watched at Little Cinema. All the feedback does not have to be positive either…it’s about having an impact, making a statement, confronting a fear or a belief. Quality independent films do this as good if not better than any other form of visual media. That is how I measure the success of a film. 
  
Spotlight: Are you approached by filmmakers to present their work? For example, I saw the recent film set in the Berkshires?

Langlois: We have had a steady increase in requests from directors to screen their works. As the movie industry finalizes its digital revolution, the traditional walls that would prevent a director from contacting us directly to screen his/her film are coming down. It a really interesting time to be in the film business -- making and screening films. At no other time in history has technology allowed you to create a film and screen it around the world almost in real time. We have taken a special interest in films “starring” the Berkshires and will continue to screen films shot, edited, or featuring the Berkshires.    

Spotlight: What is your background? Have you always loved film?

Langlois: This is my sixth year running Little Cinema. I have degrees in education, art education and visual arts. I have always loved film --especially films with an independent flair. I am not a film maker but I do play with the media in my own work. 

Spotlight: What are the plans for Little Cinema's future?

Langlois: We are in a transition stage, about to hire a Curator of Films. The museum’s program offerings have grown considerably over the past few years, including taking Little Cinema to a year-round schedule. Berkshire Museum’s staff have some great plans to continue the 65-year legacy of  Little Cinema and introduce a whole new audience to this great cultural resource. 

For information on Little Cinema call 413-443-7171 or visit them on the web at www.berkshiremuseum.org

“Kill Your Darlings” will be shown at Little Cinema in January, 2014.

November 22, 2013

The Laramie Project


Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA
December 5 - 9, 2013

Springfield Technical Community College theatre workshop students are set to open their performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play that chronicles the reaction to the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in 1998.

Shepard’s murder, denounced as a hate crime, became the rallying cry against hate and homophobia internationally. The play, by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, will be performed by students, along with appearances from STCC faculty and staff. Assistant Professor of English/Theater Greg Trochlil is the producer.

“The Laramie Project” production will conclude the theatre students’ semester-long involvement with the topic, which commemorates the 15-year anniversary of Shepard’s death.

Trochlil said he is encouraged by how many people in the STCC campus community have been involved with the project, but notes how discouraging it is that so many people are still affected by hate. "The attitudes that promote hate, bullying, and prejudice, unfortunately, still affect many of us, our friends and our families,” said Trochlil. “We would like to continue to bring awareness to attitudes and behaviors that promote acceptance of the diversity of the STCC and Springfield communities.”

Performances will be held in the Scibelli Hall (Building 2) theatre on December 5 at 11 am, December 6 and 7 at 7:30pm, December 8 at 2 pm, and December 9 at 12:15pm. There will be a special “talk back” session hosted by STCC Professor Phil O’Donoghue after the final performance. General admission tickets are $10; $5 for students.

November 19, 2013

Footloose

Broad Brook Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through December 1, 2013
by Walt Haggerty

Broad Brook Opera House Players have put their best foot forward (make that feet), to present a rousing, foot-stomping performance of a less than perfect musical. The good news is that troupe, as always, give it an all-out example of their best work with strong performances from the large cast. Unfortunately, Broad Brook’s efforts cannot overcome what is, regrettably, not a very good show. The result is that a dedicated cast, through sheer willpower plus a lot of talent provide an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

The story is a tried and true formula treatment of generational conflict, demonstrating that father does not always know best. Siobhan Fitzgerald, as Ariel Moore, gives a strong performance as a somewhat rebellious teenager filled with anger and resentment toward her demanding and tyrannical father/minister, Reverend Moore. In that role, David Chivers gives a controlling, demanding portrayal that borders on villainy, before finally seeing the light, barely in time for the finale.

Acting honors for the evening go to Debi Salli, who, as Vi Moore, conveys both love and understanding as she tries to bring peace to the conflict between her husband and daughter. She also possesses the best singing voice of the evening, most effectively in a moving solo rendition of “Can You Find it in Your Heart,” and a winning duet of “Learning to be Silent,” performed with Vickie Blake as Ethel McCormack, in another excellent performance.

Randy Davidson offers a strong and sympathetic treatment of Ren McCormack, the young hero who brings resolution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. Holden Smith’s Cowboy Bob, stops the show with his Act II opening delivery of “Still Rockin’.”

The talented ensemble, under the direction of John Sebatian DeNicola and choreography by Keith Leonhardt, keep the proceedings moving forward at a fast pace, giving the score the support of an upbeat interpretation that is generously welcomed by the audience.

November 18, 2013

“Sweeney Todd” The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Greene Room Productions, Stafford Springs, CT
through November 23, 2013
by K.J. Rogowski

Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, along with his culinary criminal companion, Mrs. Lovett, take to the stage once again in Greene Room Productions’ rousing presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous musical.

The expansive stage at the Stafford Palace Theater allows for director Erin Greene’s set to have multiple stairways leading to numerous levels, and lots of scary places for the denizens of Fleet Street to climb on, around, and under as they recount the tale of Sweeney Todd. David Wallace and Rose Keating, as Sweeney and Lovett, make a nicely matched pair of homicidal maniacs -- singing, slashing, and baking their way to riches and revenge, as their unsuspecting customers gorge themselves on Lovett’s insanely tasty treats. Austin Welker and Mallory Wray, as Anthony and Johanna, the young star-crossed lovers, struggle, and plot their escape from the maniacal Judge Turpin, played by Josh Farber, and his smarmy sidekick, The Beadle, played by Martin Levson. Welker and Wray are well cast, with good voices, but occasional issues with their wireless microphones leaves the audience wanting to hear more of their now famous duets. Also of note are Nicole Ouimet, as the tawdry Beggar Woman who haunts Sweeney, and Josiah Durham, who delivers a particularly enjoyable portrayal of the simple and loyal Tobias Ragg.

Backing up this group of desperate and unsavory characters is an energetic ensemble cast, who help bring the company numbers to life, and the action moving. For those who like Sondheim, a clean shave, lots of great music, and more than a little mayhem, they all await, if future audience members dare to take a stroll down the dark twists and turns of Fleet Street.

November 16, 2013

The Music Man

St. Michael's Players, East Longmeadow, MA
through November 17, 2013
by Eric Sutter

St. Michael's Players is staging America's happiest musical in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." From the onset, the audience is captivated by this gem of a show with enjoyable characters under the guidance of the very capable Frank Jackson.

This heart-warming story of a tricky traveling salesman and the love of a good woman has tremendous appeal. The show begins on a railway coach headed for River City, Iowa in 1912. The speech and song rhythms of the salesmen and train imitations are effective. Professor Harold Hill (Drew Gilbert) is the leading man with a half-spoken, half-sung delivery in song. A simple set of the center of River City becomes the backdrop for "Iowa Stubborn" by the townspeople. Salesman Harold warns the townies, however, with "(Ya Got) Trouble." Love interest and heroine Marian the Librarian (Stephanie Gilbert) sings a lovely and pensive "Goodnight My Someone." Marian's mom, Mrs. Paroo (Mary Anne Arnold) steals scenes with her brilliant Irish brogue and comedic timing.

There's the show-stopper, "Seventy-Six Trombones," led by Hill and helped along by many skilled child actors, featured exciting visuals of a star formation and baton twirl march down center aisle. One great melody followed another; i.e. the clucking of the towns-women's chatter in "Pick-a-Little" and Marion "My White Knight" in a beautiful soprano. The clincher love duet of "Til There Was You" is lovely. Proving that local talent is not hard to find, not only in the lead actors, but in all roles, is the charismatic barbershop quartet by resident luminaries singing "Lida Rose"

Kudos to choreographer Debra Vega for her creative talent -- action includes Irish capped boys in knee socks hop scotching with dolled up girls. Act II opener, "Shipoopi" is another highlight for Vega, as is Eulalie's ballet, "Rustle of Spring," seemingly dramatic, yet a real hoot.

Love is certainly in the air in River City and in East Longmeadow. Don't miss the brazen and brassy finale by the entire company.

November 14, 2013

A Christmas Story-The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 17, 2013
by R.E. Smith

“A Christmas Story-The Musical,” like the holiday season itself, is a heart-felt mix of nostalgia, warmth, good humor, music, color, and spectacle. The creators have succeeded in enhancing and expanding the spirit of the original movie so well that it seems this story has always had a life on stage.

In the Midwest of 1940, young Ralphie Parker just wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but there are obstacles, from protective adults to childhood perils of every kind. It is the child’s perspective that allows the addition of musical numbers to work so well, with many based around Ralphie’s daydream plans to obtain his prize. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul features some real crowd pleasers that nicely echo different styles and periods, from the Hollywood Western sound of “Ralphie to the Rescue” to the lovingly sentimental “A Christmas Story.”

The depth of talent in this production cannot be overemphasized as the adult leads originated the roles in New York last season. Dan Lauria, known as the father on “The Wonder Years,” plays narrator Jean Shepherd, upon whose short stories the book is based, with warmth and good cheer. Erin Dilly’s “Mother” sweetly embodies all the disparate elements that parenthood requires. John Bolton as the “Old Man” has 2 standout numbers with “The Genius on Cleveland Street” which shows that Ralphie’s predilection to fantasy is probably inherited. Aided by a kick-line of plastic leg lamps, he gets to express his joy in winning “A Major Award.” As Ralphie’s teacher, Caroline O’Connor brings down the house, ably assisted by the children of the ensemble, as she explains to the lad that “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Of special note is young Luke Spring, a tap dance prodigy whose solo in that number is a spectacularly pleasant surprise.

Most of the original creative team is on board as well, and that consistency is evident in everything from the inventive choreography to the homey, snow globe-evoking set.

Whether you’ve ever enjoyed the 24 hour Christmas Eve marathon of the movie or not, this is a highly recommended family show.

November 12, 2013

Beethoven & Bernstein


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
November 7–10, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

“The apotheosis of the Dance,” Richard Wagner’s famous description of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is a phrase that could also describe the other two pieces on the second Masterworks concert of the current HSO season.

The program opened with Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 ballet "Fancy Free." HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan made her entrance, turned on a vintage gramophone at stage left, where Billie Holiday sang “Big Stuff,” the prologue Bernstein composed for her, and waited for "Lady Day" to finish before giving her musicians their downbeat. It was a lovely prelude to the HSO’s exuberant performance of this jazzy music. Brass and percussion played their featured parts with gusto, and HSO pianist Margreet Francis earned a solo bow for her dazzling work.

Next came a rarely heard piece by a composer seldom played in the concert hall: Astor Piazzolla’s "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." Reflecting the tango rhythms of his native Argentina, these four pieces (named Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring) were arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov after the composer’s death in 1992 into a half-hour-long suite for solo violin and string orchestra. Each movement includes at least one clever quotation from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Photo by Peter Schaaf
The brilliant soloist was Hartford native Peter Winograd, a Juilliard graduate, member of the American String Quartet, and son of Arthur Winograd, who led the HSO from 1964 to 1985. Both soloist and other ensemble members interspersed lyrical playing with entertaining bursts of distorted string sound or percussive effects from knocking on the wood of their instruments. The enthusiastic audience rewarded them with a standing ovation.

A thrilling account of Beethoven’s "Seventh Symphony" followed intermission. A flowing introduction led into a lively reading of the first movement Allegro, while the ravishing Allegretto was taken at a moderate pace. The last two movements were breathtaking in their energy and forward motion. The full orchestra played all four movements with an exhilaration that showed why, as Klaus G. Roy is quoted in the program notes, “many a listener has come away from a hearing of this Symphony in a state of being punch-drunk.”

Stick Fly


The Majestic, West Springfield, MA
through December 15, 2013
by Shera Cohen

The folk at the Majestic Theater seem to have developed their 2013/14 season with emphasis on stronger subject matter than in the past. For example, “Stick Fly” presents racism, classism, and prejudice through the characters in the LeVay household. The LeVays are black and their summer home is Martha’s Vineyard. The color and setting literally and immediately set the stage for conflict. Yet, lots of humor takes the edge off the tough topics.

The LeVay brothers -- complete opposites in looks, goals, and lifestyles -- bring their girlfriends home to meet mom and dad. Kent’s gal is a well-educated, high-strung, preachy spitfire. She is black. Flip’s lady is a well-meaning, introspective negotiator. She is white. At its core, the play points fingers at fathers and their affects on their children of both sexes. Kent and Flip’s dad is very much in the picture of this dysfunctional family. But, neither color nor money clean up dysfunction.

Photo by Lee Chambers
There are no stars in “Stick Fly,” but an ensemble that holds well. Ashley Denise Robinson (Cheryl, the maid’s daughter) is the first to step on stage doing funky choreography to her headphone music. She hasn’t said a word. Her audience likes her. Seemingly a small role develops into the most important in the story. We really like Cheryl, her language, nuances, quips. We really like Robinson. The other actors in the sextet do their jobs -- some far better than others. Even though the play’s theme explores the importance of fathers, it is the girls who rule onstage.

“Stick Fly” will have to overcome a few problems to become an excellent production. First, the play is too long. This is not the director’s fault. However, some cuts within scenes is advised. Second, the set does not work. In fact, it works against the characters/actors. The audience sees a kitchen, living room, porch, and entries/exits. Okay, that’s a lot, but doable. But, the partition between rooms not only looks like a slab of drywall, but even worse, is so high that actors can only be seen from the torso up. Many important scenes occur in the kitchen. Because the stage area is so small, the actors block each other, and sometimes only their heads are seen. The play’s run just began. It’s not too late for some interior redecorating.

This play is recommended for adult audiences.

The Mystery of Irma Vep


Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
By K. J. Rogowski

To truly enjoy the plot and purpose of Panche Productions’ current show, Charles Ludlams’  “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” the audience needs to make note of a key line in the play’s title, in the small print, which reads “a penny dreadful." Wikipedia defines the term as: “a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction…” With that firmly in mind, all of the silliness, improbable plot twists and melodramatic carrying on makes nearly perfect sense, which is as close as it has to come to make for an evening of fun and laughs.

The setting for the action is, of course, the classic…"it was a dark and stormy night" at the old Hillcrest estate, complete with abundant thunder and lightening. The cast of eight outrageous characters is carried off by only two actors, Mark Ekenbarger and Robert Laviolette, who are, at one moment, a maid named Jane and a groundskeeper named Nicodemus. The actors then dash off stage and back on stage to become Lord and Lady Edgar Hillcrest. More dashing takes place as they become… well, the audience gets the idea.

These multiple changes are handled nicely, with the help of a three person backstage dressers' crew, who transform their actors back on stage in time to keep the action flowing. The set design by Robert Laviolette, who also directs the show, carries the penny dreadful theme through the comedy with portraits that come alive, secret panels, and an Egyptian tomb, complete with a golden sarcophagus. This fast paced and comically convoluted plot takes participants on a pulp fiction adventure from the moors at Hillcrest to the deserts of Egypt, in an effort to discover just what “The Mystery of Irma Vep” actually is.

November 10, 2013

Sweet Honey In The Rock

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
November 8, 2013
by Eric Sutter

The female African American acapella group Sweet Honey In The Rock sang a spectacular set with a live jazz trio that they dubbed the Honey Men. The men, Parker McAllister on bass, Jovol Bell on drums/percussion and Stacey Wade on piano/keyboard served as a tasty jazzy side dish to the soulful main course female harmonies.

This was a celebration tribute to four out-spoken musical icons: Nina Simone, Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Abbey Lincoln. The evening featured unique African music as in Makeba's South African chant, "Shuka, Shuka (Choo Choo Song)" which sounded like a steam engine. Female harmony and hand claps supplemented Odetta's, "I Can't Afford To Lose My Man." A beautifully sung solo vocal by N. B. Casel on Simone's "If I Should Lose You" was matched by Stacey Wade's earnest piano solo. Aisha Kahlil interpreted Simone's "Feelin' Good" with sign interpreter Shirley Childress doing an outstanding job. Louise Robinson highlighted "Trouble In Mind" with the sweet added Honey Men refrain, "She's Got Trouble In Mind." "Pata Pata" solicited lively audience dance participation that revved up the fun factor.

The next theme focused on the Civil Rights movement. Kudos to sound director Art Steele for his creative talents as the girls sang "Oh Freedom," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," "I'm On My Way To Freedom Land", and "Glory, Glory Hallelujah." The Abbey Lincoln tribute included "Down Here Below," "The Music Is The Magic" and a spirited "I'm In Love." Robinson rocked Odetta's mind-blowing "God's Gonna Cut You Down" with a powerful message.

The performance seemed to flow with music that touched all aspects of life. A jazzy rendition of "Let There Be Peace On Earth" was silky smooth. Sweet Honey closed with a sultry West African Makeba song, "My Love Has Come" which showcased an infectious keyboard solo. The encore, "N' diarabi/Africa Is Where My Heart Lies" was a hand percussion soother with colorful imagery of African skies, valleys, and mountains.

November 5, 2013

World Blues with Taj Mahal


Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
November 3, 2013
by Eric Sutter

A beacoup of blues entertained a lively audience at the Mahaiwe. Fredericks Brown opened with a contemporary soul-blues set. Vocalist Deva Mahal, the daughter of Taj Mahal, proved to be a powerful blues tinged soul singer with "Can't Pretend." Their musical blend included Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." Keyboardist Stephanie Brown added a nice touch as Mahal performed the passionate soul hand-clapper "Everybody Deserves To Be Free." Watch for their rise!

International artist Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa stressed the need for Ubuntu (kindness) in "A Prayer For Our Time." During "Say Africa," he urged the audience to sing along as he danced for the joy of his homeland. Next, was a dedication of "My Song Of Love" to the women of South Africa, sounding especially beautiful through its many tones and pitches, in both Zula and English languages. 
     
Taj Mahal Trio performed a blues happy set. Mahal spoke of the world gone crazy with everyday "Uh Oh" news. The trio lit up with "I Used To Be Down, But I Ain't Down Anymore." The master multi-instrumentalist played many guitars. "Fishin' Blues" sounded clean on acoustic guitar. Mahal's bluesy rasp worked to great effect on his classic songs.

Mahal carries the torch for roots music. On ukelele, the star played the traditional jug band song "Wild About My Lovin'" that  danced friskily. His banjo jubilee was pure magic. Mahlasela joined in for a world-music acoustic guitar duet "Zanzibar" with a haunted vocal blend. Mahal swept away the audience with the low rumble of his resonator guitar as he dueted sweetly with his daughter on "Lovin' In My Baby's Eyes." Guest keyboardist John Savitt became the swingin' part of the encore, "Ain't Gwine Whistle Dixie No More". The avalanche of sound prompted an audience soul-clap. In the aftermath, every player joined in the bustin' loose thrill of "Everybody Is Somebody."

November 3, 2013

The Game’s Afoot

Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
through November 10, 2013
by Eric Johnson

 “Dying is easy, comedy is hard," an oft repeated quip in the theatrical community. If comedy is hard, then farce is a monumental task indeed. Author Ken Ludwig offers up a nice foundation for some out of control, sidesplitting hysteria that doesn’t quite hit the mark in this production.

Greg Trochlil did a very nice job on the set design with functional elements that help bring the castle setting to life.

Pace and energy are the key to pulling off a farce of this ilk and, although there were some very funny moments, this performance never quite conveys the obligatory sense of urgency and impending doom consistently. One of the aforementioned funny moments comes at the beginning of Act II with Kevin Bechard as William Gillette and Heath Verrill as Felix Geisel. Theirs is an enjoyable synergy between the two characters and the scene rolls along nicely.

In general, the acting is good yet understated, almost as if there was a fear of going over the top. The character of Daria (played by Patricia Colkos) seems to be particularly underplayed. This role is begging for some scenery chewing, which just doesn't happen. Perhaps it can in upcoming performances.

This show has the potential to be quite good, the director and cast just need to release the brakes and trust their instincts.

October 28, 2013

Dracula


Westfield Theater Group, Westfield, MA
through November 2, 2013
by Eric Johnson

Community theatre:  a full time hobby and passion for those involved, and an opportunity to see our family, friends, and neighbors do something they love.

Creating a musical comedy from a story is quite an undertaking, and finding the laughs in Bram Stokers chilling 1897 Gothic horror novel is not a challenge to be taken lightly. The team of Kathleen Palmer and Marion Dunk of Westfield Theater Group rose to the occasion and did just that: wrote a comical, family-friendly take on the original vampire story.  

The cast of 30+ actors, comprised of WTG veterans and some newcomers, all appeared to be having a wonderful experience on the stage, working together to create an evening of entertainment for an enthusiastic audience. Special kudos to Jay Torres for stepping into the lead role, and doing an admirable job of it, with only a few days notice. Generally, there are no understudies in community theatre, so the company prays to the theatre deities to keep all healthy through the run. Most of the time they come through, but not always.

"Dracula's band is ably led by composer/music director Marion Dunk through the 25 (give or take) musical numbers that drive the 2 hour 40 minute show. Several of the numbers are plainly exposition, such as “Woman’s Work," a solo for Keri Klee (role of Mina). No crime there however, as this is oftentimes done in professional theatre as well. 

A bit of scene stealing is good for some memorable comic moments courtesy of Gene Choquette (Van Helsing), Carol Palmer (Cneaja), Rock Palmer (Sam), and John Farrel (Quincy).

For those seeking some enjoyable, family friendly Halloween entertainment, Westfield Theater Group's family, friends, and neighbors provide it with "Dracula."

October 24, 2013

Anatomy of a Melody


Close Encounters with Music, Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
October 19, 2013
by Barbara Stroup

Because the concert title seemed to require it, and to bring clarity to the evolution of this world premiere, some background explanation was provided at this Close Encounters' concert. Cellist Yehua Hanani provided cogent details so that the audience would have a more critically tuned ear for the appearances of a singular musical element. Hanani described the source of the melody, the early opera tune “Love the Sailor,” helping listeners to further appreciate the skill composers use as they weave variations over a single theme.
Beethoven, for instance, used it in the 3rd movement of his piano trio Opus #11.

The highlight of the evening was the premiere performance of a commission by composer Paul Schoenfield who titled his use of the theme “Shaatnez for Ady.” Ady was present in the audience and far from alone in appreciating this modern composition. The piece was complex, tuneful, harmonic, bright, and the conclusion brought the audience to its feet. The piece was generously commissioned through the organization itself and if only every local musical group could manage this same generosity, audiences could continue to revel in Schoenfield’s skills.

For the trio and the commissioned piece, Hanani was joined on the stage by Miriam Fried (violin) and Renana Gutman (piano). These musicians exemplified all that is best about chamber music – a sensitivity to each other’s line when required, and a joy at leading when that opportunity was clearly their own. Perfectly balanced as a threesome, the sound periodically blurred during the final piece by Brahms. Perhaps the change from three lines to four was too abrupt for this venue or too sudden for these ears.

The venue itself deserves mention: the Mahaiwe has magic as one approaches the twinkling neon marquee and is drawn into the renovated facility, which shines in its refurbished state and lends itself to happy audiences with good sightlines and fine acoustics. Both this pleasant atmosphere and the early hour of the performance lent a feeling of being in the artists’ living room for an intimate evening of music making

This concert marks the beginning of the “Close Encounters with Music” season, which includes five more concerts between now and June 2014 at various venues in the Great Barrington area.

October 20, 2013

Picnic

Theater Guild of Hampden, Hampden MA
through October 27, 2013
by Eric Johnson

Attraction, animal magnetism, chemistry, lust. Call it what you will, it is in the air at this production of William Inge’s 1953 play, "Picnic." Andrew Ingham as the handsome, boorish Hal Carter, and Brianna Paine as the beautiful and vapid Madge Owens display a steamy chemistry on stage from the first time their eyes meet.

Director Mark Giza has made excellent choices in casting, as all of the players seem relaxed and comfortable in the skins of their characters.

Heath Verrill’s portrayal of Alan Seymour is spot on, if a bit clich√©. That is not to be taken as a negative, as this play is full of clich√© that begs to be served. There is no ambiguity in Verrill’s performance -- he is the textbook good catch who cannot quite keep Madge’s attention when Hal comes to town. Brad Shepard and Tracey Hebert provide wonderful comic moments as Howard and Rosemary in scene stealing, scenery chewing, supporting roles. Other actors shine: Darlene Cloutier, Gail Weber, and Mindy Meeker. Millie Owens and Bomber are delightful supporting characters, ably played by KK Walulak and Ian Weber. Jeanne Wysocki gives a heart-rending performance that elicits some audible sobs from the opening night audience.

The intimacy of the space works well for this production. The audience is not insulated by distance from the intensity that this fine cast brings to life from Inge’s script. The staging does face some challenges, but they are well handled by Josiah Dunham, who has crafted an impressive set featuring two separate and complete houses.

If any criticism can be made, it is picky, and forgivable. Anachronisms. Stonewashed blue jeans were not sold in 1953; ear piercings were only on the lobes, etc.

At its core, the play is about choices and consequences. This production of "Picnic" contains good, solid choices, and strong chemistry. The consequence is a show well worth seeing.