Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 27, 2016

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 30, 2016
by Shera Cohen

“The musical’s first song, ‘A Warning to the Audience’ [to go home] is, of course, not heeded. No one should leave the theatre until our young, handsome, serial killer/hero and his eight victims receive standing ovations.”

Photo by Joan Marcus
I quote the last line of my own review of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” having seen it in 2012 as a world premiere at Hartford Stage. Within what seemed like a New York second, “Gentleman” landed on Broadway, won a ton of Tony Awards, to then come full circle to Hartford – this time to the larger Bushnell stage. The saying goes, “You can go home again,” and in the life of “Gentleman,” welcomed by a full house, rousing cheers, bold laughter, and yes, a standing ovation. Frankly, I easily could have spent another two hours watching the erstwhile protagonist knock off another eight preys, but I doubt if the cast members had the stamina to keep up the physical and verbal speed.

The plot: Rent the 1949 Alec Guinness splendid macabre comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” add romantic and devilish music, 20 or so elaborate cartoonish scenes, and four leading actors/singers. Without movie CliffNotes, think: poor, orphaned (okay, so he’s 25ish) low class Monty discovers that he has a slew of upper class relatives, each of whom he must murder in order to climb the ladder to success. While nice-guy Monty is at first reluctant to pursue his mission, he quickly gets over it. What singles out this farce from other musicals and plays is that the role of all eight family members (men, women, young, old) is portrayed by the same actor.

Kevin Massey (Monty) acts as well as he can sing. It is obvious why he has earned his Broadway credits. His bittersweet “Sibella” is offset by a spritely “Poison in My Pocket.” John Rapson (Monty’s kin; i.e. cousins, uncles, aunts) purposely milks the bizarre humor of each family member to perfection. Just when one would think that Massey is ONLY a funny man, he sings a brassy “Lady Lyacinth Abroad” or dramatic “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.” Best of all is the duet, “Better With a Man,” which without going into details, is exactly what you would guess.

If a competition was held as to which of the two actresses has the best soprano pipes it would be a tie. Both Kristen Beth Williams and Kristen Hahn could easily be mistaken for opera divas. Indeed, Williams plays her role as diva-like as is possible. Hahn’s character, on the other hand, is proper and demure. Monty loves them both. So does the audience. Perhaps the show-stopper is the trio’s (Monty and ladies) “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” with each woman on the opposite side of a wall, Monty between them, with doors slamming, running about, and gymnastics to give Moliere a smile.

Director Darko Tresnjak and Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge work in sync flawlessly. This half-paragraph does not property credit their skills. Music Director Lawrence Goldberg and his talented orchestra carry refrains of hysterically yet ghoulish sounds throughout.

A flaw with “Gentleman”? There has to be something? Ah, the musical runs less than a week at The Bushnell.

October 25, 2016

Little Women: The Musical


Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
http://exit7players.org
through November 6, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” tells the story of the four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth – coming of age during and just after the American Civil War in the 1860s. The musical version debuted on Broadway in 2005, and has been a popular choice ever since for college, school, and regional theatres.

The luminous production by Exit 7 Players makes a strong case for the show. The central character is the headstrong tomboy Jo, and 17-year-old Stephani Bauduccio is sensational in the role.  Bauduccio’s kinetic energy and plastic face unerringly convey all of Jo’s shifting emotions as she matures from an adventure-seeking teenager to an insightful young woman on the verge of a successful career three years later as a writer about her beloved family and community. Bauduccio’s lovely singing voice makes her big number, “Astonishing,” a real tour de force. This is a local actress to watch.

The other nine cast members fill out a convincing ensemble, with especially fine musical acting by Janine Flood as the girls’ mother, Marmee, whose rendition of “Here Alone” is heartbreaking; Gavin Kramar as their student neighbor, Laurie, whose “Take a Chance on Me” brims with lovesick enthusiasm; and Jarod Bakum as Professor Bhaer, whose subtly shaded “How I Am” perfectly expresses the gradual opening of this stern academic’s heart to love.

Director Jenn Marshall is also responsible for the nicely varied choreography and the resourceful set design. Judy Hemingway’s appealing costumes are period appropriate. Musical director Dan Monte leads a spirited eight-member band.

Those who frequent community theatre know that each troupe uses every opportunity possible to fundraise; i.e. raffles, homemade refreshment sales, and “telegrams” to actors.. These helpful traditions have not only helped the company to maintain and improve its historic Ludlow theatre, but built them a loyal following.

Musical theatre lovers in the Pioneer Valley are urged not to miss this delightful telling of a timeless tale for all ages.

October 24, 2016

MA CRITICS CIRCLE $500 ANNUAL WALTER HAGGERTY SCHOLARSHIP


Eligibility: any high school senior (public, private, home school) in WMA/ NCT who has been accepted by any college/certificate program leading to a degree in any of the arts.


Arts: theatre, music, dance, writing, backstage, mime, painting, sculpting, choreographer, etc. 

Requirements: 1 page (ONLY) Letter of Interest describing your experience in your chosen art and goals for college.  Include your name, address, phone number, cell number. 

1 Letter of Reference from any of the following: teacher, artist, art venue manager, etc.

Samples of work (as many as you wish, cannot be returned, copies are fine); i.e. theatre program book  with your name, a painting, recording of song you wrote, etc. 

Judges: The MA Critics Circle Scholarship Committee 

Deadline: MAY 1, 2017; winner will be announced at the Awards in early June, date TBA. 

Mail to: Shera Cohen, In the Spotlight, 235 State Street, #102, Springfield, MA 01103 

Questions: spotlightinc@verizon.net

MA CRITICS CIRCLE $500 ANNUAL WALTER HAGGERTY SCHOLARSHIP


Eligibility: any high school senior (public, private, home school) in WMA/ NCT who has been accepted by any college/certificate program leading to a degree in any of the arts.


Arts: theatre, music, dance, writing, backstage, mime, painting, sculpting, choreographer, etc. 

Requirements: 1 page (ONLY) Letter of Interest describing your experience in your chosen art and goals for college.  Include your name, address, phone number, cell number.


1 Letter of Reference from any of the following: teacher, artist, art venue manager, etc.



Samples of work (as many as you wish, cannot be returned, copies are fine); i.e. theatre program book  with your name, a painting, recording of song you wrote, etc. 

Judges: The MA Critics Circle Scholarship Committee 

Deadline: MAY 1, 2017; winner will be announced at the Awards in early June, date TBA. 

Mail to: Shera Cohen, In the Spotlight, 235 State Street, #102, Springfield, MA 01103 

Questions: spotlightinc@verizon.net

The Piano Lesson


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 13, 2016
by Bernadette Johnson

“The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage’s latest production, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning play set in the 1930s, the fourth in American playwright August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” in which he chronicles the poverty and struggles of his people and the emergence of Black culture in each decade of the 20th century.

The title itself is misleading, in that the play is not about a piano lesson, but rather about the hard-learned lesson the drama’s principal characters eventually grasp — the importance of history and the legacy of the past. The upright piano itself, though set off to the side, merits the designation “main character,” being as it is, by its very presence, central to the drama. Simply stated, the play focuses on the disagreement between a brother and sister (Boy Willie and Berniece) as to whether the family heirloom, intricately carved by their great-grandfather, “a legacy of all that bloodshed (slavery, thieving and killing),” is to be treasured or sold.

Boy Willie, forcefully played by Clifton Duncan, storms onto the scene excited over the prospect of purchasing land back in the south. His scheming includes the sale of the piano, bequeathed equally to him and his sister, who vehemently opposes the sale.

This seems a simple plot, that is, until you add in a few subplots, including hauntings by a few ghosts connected with the history of the piano. It’s all very confusing, and by the end of Act I, the audience is left still trying to figure out who or what is the “ghost of Yellow Dog,” who Sutter is/was, and why his ghost is haunting the home.

Sesame Street veteran Roscoe Orman, as Doaker, the home’s owner, charged with recounting the piano’s (and family’s) history, seems somewhat tired in the telling, and it’s easy to get lost in the dialogue. There are long conversations among the characters, refreshingly accented, however, by the foot-stomping rendition of an old Negro field song, led by Duncan, along with Orman, Cleavant Derricks as Wining Boy and Galen Ryan Kane as Lymon.

Duncan is, by far, the drama’s driving force, and Christina Acosta Robinson, as Berniece, is a balancing, stable presence to his live-wire outbursts and ramblings.

October 21, 2016

Mr. Mambo


Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
World Premier One-Time Performance
By Tim O’Brien

How often does a western Massachusetts audience have the opportunity to take in a world premiere of new musical theatre? Well, after watching Dean Parker Presentations’ Northampton debut of his musical comedy “Mr. Mambo,” this reviewer answers, “Not as often as we should,” because this light-fare homage to the stylings of 80’s mall songstress Tiffany is off to a terrific start, smack out of the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, “Mambo” is a so-called “jukebox musical,” where songs by popular artists are strung together to tell a story, or at least amplify the plot. (See the ABBA-driven “Mama Mia” for one of the best-grossing examples of the type.)

California-based actor/writer Parker served as executive producer and crafted the book. Plot-wise, it’s reminiscent of “Grease” and “Bye-Bye Birdy”; Pennsylvania nice-guy Johnny (Jarod Bakum) has a crush on classmate Kristen (Ally Reardon) but is barely on her radar screen; she’s obsessed with possible stardom on the “Dance America” TV show.  Not exactly heavyweight stuff. But no worries – here, the fun’s all in the journey.

Reardon consistently delights with her big smile and good-kid delivery; she also sings the living daylights out of whatever's handed to her. Bakum seems a bit stiff as the smitten male ingénue but handles his songs well and occasionally pulls out a saxophone to accompany the recorded score; extra points earned for that talent. Second leads Casey (Tina Sparkle) and Danny (Arnaldo Rivera) are both excellent as the high-school couple that hits the skids in the midst of the dance-show drama. Aileen Merino Terzi is strong as the cattily calculating dancer Amber Cattrell, and Lauren Duquette has a nice turn as the sharp-tongued but good-hearted show-runner. The biggest laughs come when Silk Johnson is onstage; he portrays over-the-top dance show host Eric Archer as a talented but unwitting blowhard and pulls it off with real charm. The chorus ably sings, dances and smiles as it should.

Director Bob Sands has molded a cast of mostly-youthful performers into a very solid ensemble. With no prior productions to help inform the production, he’s brought the book’s raw vision to life with wit and energy. Musical director Michael Rheault (no stranger to new musicals) has teased excellent vocals and harmonies from the lead performers and chorale alike. Kudos as well to veteran choreographer David Bovat; the cast bounds their way through some clever moves.

Off-Broadway “workouts” provide directors and producers with the opportunity to take some chances and make mistakes as they hone a show to be its ultimate best self. Other than some relatively slow set changes and an apparently migratory tree, “Mr. Mambo” delivered the goods in a genuinely entertaining fashion.

October 11, 2016

Mark St. Germain, Playwright


Mark St. Germain, Playwright
The star of “Camping with Henry and Tom” and “Relativity”
by Shera Cohen

It wasn’t until seeing four plays by Mark St. Germain that I noticed the credit lines to the playwright.  Shame on me for not bee-lining to the writer’s name. To date, I have had the opportunity to experience eight St. Germain dramedies (comic dramas or dramatic comedies), the first at least a decade ago at TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT.

While few could ever be in the league of Shakespeare or Moliere (my #1 and #2 favorite playwrights), my #3 would be St. Germain. He jumps to the #1 slot if listing only those among the living. This gentleman, who I have only met from afar in a group setting, has created his own formula that works perfectly, play after play.

The common denominators seem to fall into three categories: history, humor, and humanity. While I can’t speak about every Mark St. Germain play, musical, and stories for children, I offer my own opinion on those that I have seen – nearly all at Barrington Stage Company (Pittsfield) or TheaterWorks (Hartford).

History:  Most of plays in the cadre of works are based on historic figures and/or events. None of the plots are literal, but more of “what could have happened” or “what if…”. Fictional biographies, this is where St. Germain excels. Some of these are real life characters; i.e. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Dr. Ruth, Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis, and the Collyer brothers. The latter duo – who I had never heard of – was my introduction to this writer. Reclusive siblings whose claim to fame was their hoarding fetish seemed an odd story for a play. Yet, St. Germain created real and vulnerable men.

Camping with Henry & Tom
Humor:  A cord of humor runs through each play – sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and sometimes uncomfortable. While “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “The Fabulous Lipitones” offer many more out-right laughs from their audiences than the Collyers, most on St. Germain’s list of plays fall somewhat in-between. “Camping with Henry and Tom” (Barrington Stage, through 10/23/16), a fictitious outing of President Warren G. Harding, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, probably never occurred. I really don’t care. The circumstances of post-WWI America, politics, inventions, and the future – all of which could have been laid on thick with doom and gloom – are donned with light touches at numerous points throughout. [Note: This play is so apropos to our 2016 election that it is almost frightening.]

Humanity:  Of course, St. Germain was no fly on the wall in any of these quasi-historic circumstances; the words all belong to the playwright. Even the so-called “bad guys” are human. Each character, even those in minor roles, come through clear in 3D. Without hesitation, “Best of Enemies” rings true and fair to the protagonists, era, and circumstances. Set in 1971 North Carolina, the subject is integration. White male vs. Black woman. They judge each other. The audience judges both. Powerful stuff. Initially, each character is a representative for his or her race and beliefs. This man and woman quickly become real individuals, warts and all. On occasion, I Google or email Barrington Stage, asking about the play’s status. Is it on Broadway…yet?

I will soon see my ninth Mark St. Germain play, “Relativity” at TheaterWorks (10/7/16 to 11/20/16). It features Richard Dreyfuss as Albert Einstein. Prior to its opening date, the play has already been extended two weeks. Certainly, an A List movie star like Dreyfuss is a huge draw. I think a bonus in marketing “Relativity” is the playwright’s name. Watch for Mark St. Germain in the credits when choosing your next play.

The Bakelite Masterpiece


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 23, 2016
by Shera Cohen

A bit different review than normal. Let’s first look at all of the many pluses.

Collaboration: I applaud collaborations, the efforts of two or more theatre troupes to plan and executing all elements of theatre to make a play complete. In this case, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) and WAM Theatre, are the team.

American Premier: Theatre companies often give birth, in a sense, to new works. While not the first time on the stage, BTG has extended its reach to mount a first time experience of “The Bakelite Masterpiece” in the United States. Thank you.

Acting Teams: This two-actor play stars David Adkins and Corinna May -- familiar faces in the Berkshires. I have had the pleasure of seeing both act, separately; Adkins primarily at BTG and May at Shakespeare & Company. In real life, the two are married. These are two excellent actors.

Set Direction: Oftentimes, our reviews offer little space to discuss the crew that make a play possible. Kudos to Juliana Von Haubrich for purposely ugly, barren, and dark staging which is a perfect fit (literally and figuratively) to the production and its characters.

Talk Back: If ever offered the opportunity, my recommendation is to stay after the curtain falls, so to speak, to listen to and/or participate in the Talk Back. In a casual setting, actors and producers, directors, etc. sit on the stage and answer questions from the audience. The actors discuss their preparation to create the roles, their thoughts about the production, and often direct questions to the audience. “Masterpiece” benefited greatly through the process of Talk Back. In fact, had the program book and/or a short Pre-Talk taken place, this play would have been a better production. For instance, information that the play was essentially biographical would have made a world of difference in understanding the context and setting.

This last on the list of my “pluses” segues to my overall thoughts. You may have assumed that this was not one of my favorite plays or productions. The “Masterpiece” plot involves a mixture of politics, history, and art with truth, deception, justice, and Vermeer. There’s just too much, all jammed into 75 minutes.

Scheherazade!


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 7–9, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

The HSO web site describes the opening weekend program of their 73rd season as presenting “music with global flair.” Hearing Spanish and Arabian-flavored music by Russian and Spanish composers performed by musicians from Taiwan and Croatia, it was hard to disagree. The traditional season-launching “Star-Spangled Banner” only reinforced this international theme.

Beginning her sixth season as HSO Music Director, Carolyn Kuan followed the anthem with a splashy account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful orchestral showpiece “Capriccio Espagnol.” In five short movements based on Spanish dance rhythms, the 15-minute piece features several passages for solo violin, which concertmaster Leonid Sigal dispatched with his usual flair. All the musicians played with brio, particularly the expanded percussion section, including castanets. 

A smaller HSO took the stage for a sensuous rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra. Written when the composer returned to Spain in 1939 from Paris after the Spanish Civil War, it evokes the summer palace of the traditional Spanish court in the small town of Aranjuez. Making her HSO debut, 35-year-old Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic first played the guitar in public at age 7, and her comfort level with it was exceeded only by her virtuosity in the two lively outer movements and sensitivity in the rapturous central Adagio. The orchestra and Kuan provided glowing support.

Vidovic then showed off a dazzling tremolo technique in her serene solo encore performance of Francisco Tarrega’s “Memories of the Alhambra,” recalling a more familiar Spanish palace.

A dramatic reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical “Scheherazade” brought the program to a thrilling close. Each of the four movements of this “symphonic suite” depicts one or more of the tales told by Scheherazade, wife of legendary sultan Shakriar, to keep him from executing her because he believed all women were faithless (she succeeded after 1,001 nights). Scheherazade herself is represented by the solo violin, again elegantly voiced by Sigal. Kuan’s leadership was taut yet flexible, as she kept the flow of changing tempos within movements, especially the challenging “Story of the Kalendar Prince,” in exemplary balance.  All sections of the vast orchestra played with ardor and finesse.

October 7, 2016

Chasing Rainbows-The Road To Oz

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
www.goodspeed.org 
through November 27, 2016
by R.E. Smith

As befits a musical about the early life of the incomparable Judy Garland, “Chasing Rainbows” hits not a single false note in any aspect of this stellar production.
 
Photo by Diane Sobolewski (c)
Tracing the life of Francis Gumm up until “The Wizard of Oz,” there is a slight air of melancholy as the audience is aware of how the story will end years later, but the show succeeds in getting us to invest in the hope and promise of a young girl’s talent. The book, by Marc Acito, gives the performers great characters that, in lesser hands, could have easily been broad clichés. Each one, no matter how famous, is given a depth and dimension often missing in musicals.

“Rainbows” is really the story of a girl and her family, especially her father. Kevin Earley, as loving but flawed “Frank Gumm”, charms from the first moment and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is heartbreaking. Ruby Rakos has been living with the role of Francis/Judy while the show was in development. She is clearly comfortable and at ease, with youthful enthusiasm, crackerjack timing and oh, can she sing! Thankfully, her performance is more evocation than mimicry, emphasizing the young girl rather than the post “Oz” star. It would be almost impossible to pick out one of her numbers as being better than another, but rest assured she does “Over the Rainbow” proud.

The casting is spot-on throughout, from Karen Mason as Judy’s strongest advocate “Kay Koveman” to Michael Wartella as “Joe Yule” (Ok, Mickey Rooney!). Even the actresses playing the Gumm Sisters at various ages physically resemble each other and their harmonies together are perfection. Ella Briggs as “Baby Francis” and Gary Milner as “George Jessel” are audience favorites in brief but memorable turns.

Even with over 30 era-appropriate songs, like “Beautiful Girl” and “You Made Me Love You” the show briskly dances along without shortchanging the narrative. Chris Bailey’s choreography nicely evokes the heyday of big Hollywood musicals despite Goodspeed’s small footprint. The musical arrangements do a great service in making even the famously familiar sound fresh. Slight lyrical changes unobtrusively help propel the story through song and each selection seems custom written for the story.

Fans of old Hollywood and the tales of Francis’ early career will love all the “ah-ha!” moments set to music. Musical theatre buffs will be impressed by the breadth of singing and dancing talent on display. Ultimately, the entire audience is simply glad to have traveled for a little while with an endearingly talented little girl on her road to becoming Judy Garland.