Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 26, 2017

UPDATE: MA CRITICS CIRCLE WALTER HAGGERTY SCHOLARSHIP


Please note that the MA Critics Circle Walter Haggerty Scholarship has been postponed for 2017.  This award, for high school seniors from WMA and Northern CT who have been accepted by any college leading to a degree in any of the arts, will resume in 2018.

The scholarship categories are: theatre, music, dance, writing, backstage, mime, painting, sculpting, choreographer.

The award was named in memory of Walter Haggerty, theatre critic for In the Spotlight. Besides his family, Walt’s great love was theatre, especially musicals. In particular, Walt was an avid supporter of community theatre.

Questions: spotlightinc@verizon.net

April 24, 2017

La Cage aux Folles


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA 
www.majestictheater.com 
through May 28, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kait Rankins
One of the most recognized songs from “La Cage aux Folles” is the often-reprised “The Best of Times.” There could not be a better time for the Majestic to mount the Tony Award winning musical “La Cage Aux Folles.” While a tiny bit of politics fills the story-line, more apropos is the general populous’ contemporary issues on gay acceptance. More directly and importantly, however, the subject is the all-inclusive emotion of love of family. “La Cage” was penned over 40 years ago, when TV and storybook households looked nothing like that of married couple Georges and Albin. Whether the year is 1974 or 2017, it is still old-fashioned love that holds a family together.

Ben Ashley (Georges), as always, proves himself a fine actor with skills that nearly reach the artistic level of his tenor voice. Georges essentially plays straight man (pun intended) to Luis Manzi’s Albin (aka drag queen Zaza). The question of whether one role is more difficult than the other can only be answered by the actors. Manzi plays big -- big ego, big presence, big voice. At the same time, Albin is sensitive and vulnerable. His emotional “I Am What I Am,” the musical’s signature song, could not have been better sung by anyone.

There are many actors to praise, but I single out Doug LeBelle, a newcomer to me. His maid/butler role is so off the wall scene stealing that she/he deserves her/his own musical.

The setting, a French nightclub/home, is yet another example of Greg Trochlil's perfect staging work. The design is simple – spanning the entire width of the stage and up as high as the painted clouds. Huge kudos to Dawn McKay, Christine Thompson, and Tony Isham who dress their dancers aglow with sequins and an array of colors, from hairdos to heels.

Stacy Ashley has cautiously realized her chorus line as female dancers (although portrayed by male actors). They take their jobs seriously while having fun, yet never exploiting or campy. That was a thin line to cross.

“La Cage” is long at 3-hours. Act II was a bit sluggish, perhaps because director Danny Eaton had many scene changes to contend with. The band (Mitch Chakour, once again at the helm) played background medleys continuously, which helped diminish the lag time.

The main problem with “La Cage” is the playbill’s missing song list. That page is, after all, the most important in any musical’s program. However, I will manage to live without it.

April 14, 2017

Nights in the Gardens of Spain


Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
April 8, 2017
by Shera Cohen

I’m not going to pretend to have anywhere near the high credentials of In the Spotlight’s seasoned classical music reviewer, Michael Moran. You will read no Latin words or phrases in my description of this music. Yet, I have attended symphonic concerts since I was a child. Those were the days when buses were filled with kids from nearly all the neighborhood elementary schools, and set them en route to their own private concert in Symphony Hall. It is wonderful to know that that indoctrination to classical music (for me, some 50 years ago) continues. Seeing the dozen or so yellow school buses aligning the streets at Court Square brings back memories. At the same time, I hope that those youngsters in attendance will create their own memories.

SSO is winding down its season with “…Gardens of Spain.” The evening’s music proved a smorgasbord of composers, styles, and eras. Maestro Kevin Rhodes called the first piece a “symphonic poem,” distinguishing itself from a “normal” symphony concert. This meant that linear lines of melody and instruments didn’t fall naturally in place as the listener might expect. This style of presentation applied to the program’s first two selections – Franz Liszt’s “Prometheus,” and Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Youth of Hercules.”

Rhodes’ repartee with his audience is always educational in a charming, non-didactic way. I always learn more about music, composers, and musical instruments than I ever expected.

Pianist Washington Garcia deftly put himself to work interpreting Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Previously, Rhodes advised his audience to listen for a Moorish undertone throughout. This was the case in all three movements, as Garcia and the SSO created exotic and colorful music to reach the rafters in the beautiful, and acoustically-correct Symphony Hall. After this long work, it’s difficult to decide who was happier – the audience having just heard a masterpiece, or pianist Garcia who seemed to puff up with pride and joy, both justifiably.

Rimsky-Korsakof’s Capriccio Espangnol provided most of the Spanish sounds in the evening’s program, which also concluded the performance. Five folk song pieces formed the core of Capriccio. Sprite and whimsical, lovely and stirring. It took five percussionists to generate the power to conclude the concert.

April 10, 2017

The Planets: Different Worlds


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
April 7-9, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Earth is the only one of the eight known planets missing from the featured work on this program, Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets,” when he wrote it during World War I (Pluto came and went later). But the ninety-years-newer opening piece, “Liquid Interface,” filled that gap by exploring “water in its variety of forms” on earth. Composer Mason Bates notes in the program book that living near Lake Wannsee in Berlin inspired him to write it.

Maestra Carolyn Kuan helpfully preceded the HSO’s first-ever performance of “Liquid Interface” with a spoken introduction to each of its four movements, and brief excerpts played by orchestra members. A 40-year-old Philadelphia native, Bates has worked as a DJ in pop music clubs and incorporates electronic elements into many of his compositions. A laptop operator seated near the percussion section produced a range of atmospheric sounds throughout the 23-minute piece.

Recorded snippets of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic extend crashing orchestral chords in the first movement, “Glaciers Calving.” The following “Scherzo Liquido” has a lighter, more playful quality. The third movement, “Crescent City,” showcases big-band jazz in New Orleans. The quiet finale, “On the Wannsee,” depicts, in Bates’s words, “a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise.” The HSO delivered this challenging but engaging score with flair and won a standing ovation from the enthralled audience.

No greater contrast with this lush ending could be imagined than the fierce martial tread of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” which Kuan and an enlarged orchestra invested with relentless power as they launched into “The Planets” after intermission. The tranquil “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” then restored the radiant glow of Bates’s finale. And so it went through the nimble energy of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger;” the robust optimism of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity;” the solemn grace of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age;” the awkward humor of “Uranus, the Magician;” and the eerie mystery of “Neptune, the Mystic.”

The musicians presented this colorful suite with emotional intensity and brilliant virtuosity. The seven-member choir that fades out at the end of “Neptune” brought the concert to a magical close.

April 4, 2017

Next to Normal


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
www.theaterworkshartford.org 
through May 14, 2017
by Stuart W. Gamble

David Harris & Christiane Noll
“Next to Normal” is not for the faint-hearted. With its strong subject matter: mental illness, family dysfunction, and extreme medical treatment and its ear-shattering rock-opera score, it is definitely a test of its audiences’ emotional stamina. But it is also an extremely poignant tale of a family’s daily struggles, sacrifices, and  bonds of love.

With music composed by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this durable show is worth every note and word of its 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Christiane Noll (Tony nominee for “Ragtime”) is Diana, the at-first seemingly perfect wife and mother as shown in the show’s opening song “Just Another Day”. But soon its evident that all is not well with Diana who suffers from bi-polar disorder. Her understanding but aloof husband Dan (David Harris)  tries unsuccessfully to support Diana as voiced in the songs “It’s Gonna Be Good”, “Better than Before”, and “Song of Forgetting”.

Diana and Dan’s only child Natalie’s (Maya Keleher) teenage angst is compounded by her mother’s illness. However, her knight in shining armor comes in the form of pot-smoking fellow musician Henry (Nick Sacks) and their special bond is tenderly expressed in “ Perfect for You”. Diana’s psycho-pharmacologists Drs. Fine/Madden (J.D. Daw) attempts to help Diana with a variety of treatments. But the root of Diana’s depression and anxiety is linked to the figure of Gabe (John Cardoza) who is not all he seems to be.

The score is magnificently sung by the entire cast and the show’s well-known hits “I Miss the Mountains”, “I am the One”, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, and especially Gabe’s rendition of “I’m Alive” are sublimely memorable. Rob Ruggiero’s glossy direction keeps the action moving which prevents the story from becoming maudlin. Adam Souza’s musical direction is lively and powerful. Tricia Barsamian’s costumes are simple and modern, playing second fiddle to John Lasiter’s stunning and bold lighting design. Wilson Chin’s fussy, overly ornate set, however, resembles more of a Pottery Barn showroom than a living room.

Despite its 2 ½ hour running time, “Next to Normal” will leave you emotionally sapped and perhaps a bit dewy-eyed as well.

The Berkshires Are Open in the Winter


by Shera Cohen

As I write this piece, it’s technically spring on my calendar, but my porch is full of snow, albeit melting. So, for the sake of clarity, here is my recollection of my two-day late winter/early spring Berkshires cultural experience in my effort to prove that the Berkshires are not for summer stays only.
 
The Ten Tenors
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield: The Colonial is one of four venues in the Berkshire Theatre Group – the oldest (1903), the largest, and the most charming. PBS programs have aired numerous 3-men tenor groups whose music is semi-opera, classical, and contemporary. Some singers are from Ireland or Italy or USA. They are wonderful. In the case of The Ten Tenors, multiply any of these fabulous trios x 3 + 1 for a perfect evening of glorious music. The Ten hail from Australia as they bring some popular “down under” songs to the stage. Their Four Seasons’ medley complete with choreography was a hoot. The tribute to Prince and Leonard Cohen gave both artists due praise. Every song included all 10 singers, sometimes focusing on a “lead,” sometimes not. Imagine ten, good-looking, young-ish men in tuxes singing “Unchained Melody.” That was the show-stopper. The highly anticipated “Nessum Dorma” (the finale to most of the trio concerts) seemed to set the lush Colonial interior aglow. www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

Curiosity Incubator
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield: You’ve seen the ads - children and adults wear goggle-like apparatus on their heads, walk around a room like zombies, and shout “wow, cool, look at this!” Maybe I was the only person on the planet who didn’t know about this high-tech toy. Anyway, Berkshire Museum’s exhibit “Curiosity Incubator” featured these odd things. Many activities at the museum are hands-on; it is highly encouraged. I donned the goggles. “Wow, cool, look at this!” You see what wasn’t there 30-seconds ago. Magic?

The “Tell Me More” Exhibit brought the visitor for the first time to the North Pole. “The Science of Color” offered a bright spectrum on how colors change what you see. Of course, the museum has its standard collections on display; my favorite being the pristine aquarium. A bravo to the staff – whether employees or volunteers, all are there to make the visitor enjoy. It wasn’t so many years ago when I went to the museum basically to kill time before the next play, concert, etc. I have done a 180degree turn-around, as this venue has become one of my favorite destination points.  www.Berkshiremuseum.org

Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington: The venue has seen many changes in design, performing arts, economy, and its place in downtown Great Barrington, all the while never closing its doors. Silent films and vaudeville show names fit the marquee in the early days. Now, Mahaiwe presents concerts (all genres), dance, theatre, comedy, lectures, and films (primarily Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera).

Steep Canyon Rangers
Just this week, Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage with their B&B&B – banjo, blues, and bluegrass, mixed it up with country sounds, deep porch music, wildfire finger-pickin’ and humor. The Rangers, known for their performances with actor/banjo player Steve Martin, have received numerous national awards (Grammy) in their field for the past eight years. Along with their instruments and vocal music came a huge supply of hillbilly hand-clapping, and a surprise harmonica. www.mahaiwe.org

Joe’s Diner, Lee: It’s tiny with 1950’s décor and as many chairs and stools that can possibly fit. The patrons dress “down.” Sometimes, table sharing is encouraged. With no offense, it seems as if the waitresses have worked at Joe’s since its opening; maybe they have, since it’s a family-owned business. Get the best and least expensive breakfast in the Berkshire. A plus for me was pudding…7 different puddings, in fact, for each day of the week.

The District Kitchen & Bar, Pittsfield: Located in downtown Pittsfield is a charming, rustic eating spot. The bar and dining tables are surrounded by metal, tin polls, etc. The District is mid-scale, with a small list of food choices, but just enough, in each category; i.e. appetizer, entrée. If you weren’t specifically looking for it, you might pass it by. The clientele are the locals of all ages. I usually skip dessert, but the lemongrass & vanilla crème brulee was very special. http://district.kitchen/

Lee Premium Outlets, Lee: This is definitely not cultural, so I list it last. But, when you’re staying a mere three miles from a major, inexpensive shopping experience, of course, I had to go. I guess that I also just had to buy that pair of boots.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do in two days. I recommend a longer stay for next year. What we missed were:

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield: 10 x 10, that’s 10 original plays, each 10-minute long at a fast and furious pace https://barringtonstageco.org

Town Players, Pittsfield: 96 years of community theatre – wow! Missed the production of “The Whale,” but more shows to come www.townplayers.org

WAM, Lenox – professional theatre of relatively small unknown plays in Shakespeare & Company’s theatres www.wamtheatre.com

The Mount, Lenox – its annual retreat of training, networking, and commiserating for writers at all levels of skills and interests www.edithwharton.org

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge – the whimsical work of Hanna-Barbera; i.e. Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, et al; some readers might not know who I am referring to, but I remember them well www.nrm.org

For more information on the Berkshires visit http://berkshires.org

April 3, 2017

Seeking Music Reviewer


In the Spotlight seeks music reviewers who know their music and can write about it.

Genres: classical, country, rock, Broadway, pop, folk, ethnic.

This is not a job, but an opportunity to attend (gratis) concerts from time to time to inform readers about your recommendations.

See examples HERE.

Contact Shera Cohen at spotlightinc@verizon.net.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through April 23, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Mathew Murphy
In 2008, actor/writer/storyteller James Lecesne published a book about a young gay man’s disappearance and murder as told through the eyes of his cousin, a 16-year old girl. In 2015, he adapted that young adult novel for the stage and is now performing the piece at Hartford Stage. The point of view has changed for the stage—the story is now told from the perspective of the hard-boiled New Jersey Detective assigned to the case whose job it is to “look for shit in the shadows.” In the telling of the story, Lecesne seemingly morphs from one character to the next, totally embodying male and female roles as diverse as a 16-year old girl to an 80-year old watchmaker.

We never meet Leonard Pelkey, other than to see a blurry image of him on a screen where other clues in this modern “who-dunnit” are projected, but we get to know him through the words of others whose lives he has touched. Lescesne is a gifted actor and we’re drawn deeper into the police procedural through the witnesses he creates, sometimes in the blink of an eye, or a spin on stage. With direction by Tony Speciale and original music by Duncan Sheik, the performance feels more like a fully staged production than a one man show. The story is simple and seems so familiar you may think it was ripped from the headlines, but it actually is a story of personal acceptance and finding the brightness in one person that gets passed on to others. Leonard, we learn, accepts himself for who and what he is, and in doing so, changes the lives of everyone he meets.

Lecesne wrote the novel shortly before the topic of cyber-bullying became well known, and the theme of personal acceptance and community support is subtle, but very present. The message is upbeat and heart-warming. Equally heart-warming were the number of young adults in the lobby, waiting for Lecesne to sign copies of the book. This, as much as the standing ovation, tells you that the story is timely, important, and James Lecesne a gifted cultural critic as well as an interpreter of human emotion.

March 27, 2017

Book Review: Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain


by Shera Cohen

In a chatty, conversational manner, Jacqueline T. Lynch tells readers the story of Mt. Tom’s summer theatre in her most recent non-fiction book “Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain.”

While this book could have easily become a textbook, Lynch presents an informal insight at both local history and regional theatre. At the same time, she is strict on detail and chronology. It is obvious that she has done her research.

Lynch blends the history of Valley theatre, yet never forgetting to lay it in the context of the region’s growth and economic history. Mt. Tom Playhouse is far more than a building; more importantly, it is the community of entrepreneurs, crews, actors, and audiences who built seven decades of comedy and tragedy in Holyoke, MA.

There’s a lot of name-dropping throughout the 250-pages. The book gives a close look at “who’s who” in theatre at the time. Delightful anecdotes by thespian locals – in particular, George Murphy and Barbara Bernard – give those readers who grew up, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s, a sense of time and place.  There’s also lots to tell about a young Hal Holbrook and other fledgling stars.

It may or may not be true, but a picture is worth 1000 words. If this case, Lynch has put her hands-on dozens of photos of actors, sets, and playbills, all of which either take the reader down memory lane, whether he or she was there or not.

The story of Mt. Tom Playhouse is one of ups and downs; i.e. finances, audiences, media, and those with, or think they had, star power at the time. It is clear that for the close-knit group of people who essentially gave birth to this artistry atop a nearby mountain, it was a labor of love. It is nice to read about people who love what they are doing, which Lynch expresses to her readers in her own love of theatre.

The book is written for: anyone who lives in the Valley (past, present or both); those who enjoy theatre no matter where it is; and theatre history buffs. No piece of fiction or non-fiction is for everyone, but these three groups certainly include a lot of people.

March 23, 2017

Jersey Boys

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
www.bushnell.org
through March 26, 2017
by R.E. Smith

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
To everything there is a season, and, so too, it goes in the story of the boys from New Jersey who would become the most popular rock & roll act prior to the advent of "The Beatles": “The Four Seasons.” As the show’s name implies, their story is as rooted in the rough and tumble culture of the Garden State as it is in their unmistakable musical talent. In fact, there is a warning at the door that the special effects include “authentic” NJ language!

The four leads each take a turn recounting the stages of the group’s history. Tommy DeVito, played with volatile humor and swagger by Matthew Dailey starts things in motion more by trying to make an easy buck than an artistic statement. Dailey lets the audience know that under the machismo is a clearly a guy who is often over his head. DeVito’s polar-opposite, partner-in-crime is Keith Hines’ Nick Massi, with his stoic demeanor and deadpan, audience-tickling delivery. Cory Jeacoma’s earnest and levelheaded composer Bob Gaudio provides a lightness needed to offset some of the darker elements of their journey from rags to riches.

Despite equal emphasis on each member’s contributions to the group, the success of the quartet is only going to be as strong as the voice of the show’s Frankie Vallie. Aaron DeJesus literally hits all the right notes as the singer who would make The Four Seasons stand out from the crowd, and eventually eclipse the group itself. It is rare that a mid-show solo elicits a standing ovation. But make no mistake; each is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and musician, making the non-stop pace and momentum of the show seem effortless.

If the against all odds story, rock and roll setting and snappy choreography weren’t enough, there is of course the eminently tuneful music. Even those under the age of 50 will recognize the songs from movies, TV shows, and commercials. Classics like “Walk Like A Man,” “December, 1963,” “My Eyes Adored You,” and “Who Loves You”, just to name a few.

If there is any question from regular theatre-goers as to whether this group really warrants musical-theatre treatment, one only has to look around at the audience, evidently made up of a good number of patrons more accustomed to concert venues than proscenium shows and visibly fighting the urge to dance in the aisles.

March 15, 2017

A Faust Symphony


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT|
March 10-12, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Classical music lovers who heard Kevin Rhodes and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra perform Franz Liszt’s “Faust Symphony” in October, 2009 could be pardoned for assuming this might be their only chance to hear it. Not to be outdone by her northern neighbor, Carolyn Kuan and the HSO didn’t just give local concertgoers another crack at this rarely heard masterpiece but added some theatrical flair.    

The historical Faust who practiced astrology, alchemy, and sorcery in 16th-century Germany became a popular symbol in later Western literature of how special powers in earthly life could cost a man his soul. Goethe’s 1808 play about Faust inspired musical settings by Berlioz, Schumann, and Liszt, whose “Faust” symphony is in three movements, each depicting a major character in the story: Faust; Gretchen, the young lover who redeems him; and Mephistopheles, the Devil who promises him wealth and restored youth.

Colin McEnroe
The symphony was written in 1857 as an instrumental work, but Liszt added an optional epilogue with tenor and male chorus singing the final lines of Goethe’s text. While Rhodes included this epilogue, Kuan replaced it with a new script by Connecticut writer and media personality Colin McEnroe. Hartford TheaterWorks artistic associate Eric Ort directed two Equity actors, Crystal Dickinson and R. Ward Duffy, in gripping performances of McEnroe’s scenes, several of which were interspersed in each movement. These mostly showed individuals reflecting on ethical dilemmas in their 21st-century lives, from hedge fund management to scientific research. Perhaps the most moving scene was the last one, Dickinson as a redeeming God.

The music, lasting almost 90 minutes, is among Liszt’s most technically demanding and harmonically ambiguous scores, and a very full HSO rose to the challenge with a riveting performance. Kuan clarified the massive textures of the Faust and Mephistopheles movements, and the delicate duet between principal oboe Heather Taylor and principal viola Michael Wheeler in the Gretchen movement was especially radiant.

In a post-concert discussion hosted by Kuan, with helpful contributions from McEnroe, Ort, Dickinson, and Duffy, audience comments and questions confirmed this imaginative presentation as another triumph for the path-breaking maestra and her community-minded ensemble.

Scotland-A Celebration


Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org
March 11, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

“A musical trip to the Scottish Isles” is how, in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, SSO maestro Kevin Rhodes describes a concert in which two pieces by one composer, Felix Mendelssohn, were inspired by travel to Scotland, while just “knowing the music of the country sufficed [for another composer, Max Bruch] to create a work which sounds authentically Scottish.”

The opening “Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture” began with a haunting musical phrase that echoed the sound of waves against the shore which Mendelssohn heard when he visited the Hebrides islands off Scotland in 1829. Subsequent calm and stormy passages reflected the vagaries of Scottish weather before the Overture returns to the opening theme for a quiet ending. The SSO and Rhodes gave this colorful score an energetic performance.

Yevgeny Kutik
Inspired 50 years later by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Bruch quoted various Scottish folk songs in his “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra. Its four movements depicted contrasting moods, from a solemn introductory Adagio to a lively Scherzo, a radiant Andante, and a joyous Finale. Rising young Boston-based Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who dazzled in his SSO debut three years ago with Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, brought technical virtuosity to spare and interpretive flair to this brilliant showpiece. Orchestra and conductor gave him exemplary support, especially principal harpist Judy Saiki.

Unlike Bruch, Mendelssohn quoted no folk tunes in either the “Hebrides Overture” or the work which closed the program after intermission, his third symphony, nicknamed the “Scottish” because it derived from the same 1829 visit to Scotland, though it took the composer until 1842 to finish it. Rhodes led the SSO in a blazing account, heightening the drama of the turbulent first movement by taking a repeat that’s often omitted. The dance-like Vivace movement had an exhilarating spin, the glowing Adagio was deeply felt, and the triumphant Allegro finale blended vigor with grandeur.

Even without the benefit of spoken commentary by the often talkative maestro, the appreciative crowd who braved the wintry chill was rewarded with the warmth of his enthusiastic leadership.

March 13, 2017

Cloud 9


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 19
by Jarice Hanson

Caryl Churchill became an internationally recognized playwright with her 1979 gender-bending satire of politics, both sexual and political. Hartford Stage’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson’s directorial debut at Hartford Stage is successful on many fronts, with a cast of exceptionally fine actors and creative use of the theater from multiple playing spaces, including the back brick wall of the theater. Actors make entrances and exits through aisles only to show up moments later with complete costume changes in another area of the theater entirely. The energy of the actors and the multi-directional staging works to keep the audiences slightly off-kilter, which seems to be a theme of the play.

Act I takes place in colonial Africa as we are introduced to Victorian themes of sexual expression and gender performance. “Betty,” the wife, is played by a male performer and “Edward,” the son, by a woman. “Joshua,” the African native, is portrayed by a White male, and one female performer plays two female characters, almost magically becoming transformed with complete costume change in seconds. Act II takes place in London, with some of the same characters having grown up and expressing their new sexuality (and sexual confusion) in more contemporary terms. In a fanciful, farcical performance, Clive the father from Act I, becomes his own niece, “Kathy,” in Act II. 

It takes fully committed performers to find the truth in each of these characters, and “Cloud 9” is blessed with a strong, ensemble cast, though two performers are standouts. Mark H. Dold as Clive/Kathy is one of the most impressive actors working today, and he is complimented by Mia Dillon, as Edward/Betty, whose Act II monologue is told with heartbreaking clarity and insight for the sexual mores and attitudes that span the two time periods.

“Cloud 9” is a complicated play that can be difficult for some audience members. It does, however, underscore how powerful Caryl Churchill’s voice has been in demonstrating how theater can lead us to face emotions and relationships that are hard to talk about, and to understand. Almost 40 years after its debut, “Cloud 9” is still effective. Whether you like it or not, “Cloud 9” gives the audience plenty to think about and appreciate.

March 7, 2017

Painting Churches


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 2, 2017
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

“The question he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.”
-Robert Frost, The Oven Bird

Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches,” a play about the relationship of an aging poet, his distracted wife and up-and-coming artist daughter, is performing now with grace and style at The Majestic Theater in West Springfield.

Director Rand Foerster has created a lovely, authentic portrait of the diminishment which growing old brings, and the powerful effect the decline has on family. Foerster has kept the tone of this show light, though the subject is rather sad; there is far more joy than sorrow in the Majestic’s fine production.

Ellen Colton’s comic timing and facial expressions as Fanny Church, the long-suffering and somewhat savage wife, lay waste an audience. She is especially superb in the interplay with her failing husband, alternately berating and cherishing him. Some actors can get you to smile through your tears; this one makes you laugh.

Anderson Matthews is equally amazing in his role as Gardner Church, the fading poet. His performance never stoops to caricature or sentimentality, though his character gets a little foolish at times. Gardner’s dignity always shines through; and one of the highlights of this production is hearing Matthews recite serious poetry, especially Yeats.

As Margaret, the artist daughter of this remarkable pair, Eve Passeltiner is engaging, passionate and completely believable. She portrays the next generation of gifts in her waning family with sincerity and conviction, and is a pleasure to behold onstage.

More kudos: Dawn McKay’s costumes are both lovely to look at and cleverly designed. They move beautifully to suit the actors’ actions, and complement the story being told (Fanny’s hats are incredible).

Set designer Greg Trochlil has built a gorgeous set complete with architectural details of a fancy townhouse in Boston, on walls that don’t exist. Sound Designer Justin Letellier plays elegant piano waltzes as the backstage crew make complicated scene changes. Meanwhile, Lighting Designers Matt Cowan and Amber Tanudjaja create lighting suggestive of a child’s crayon drawing over the entire set…and lovely effects throughout the rest of the show, too.

Majestic Theater’s “Painting Churches” has the makings of a masterpiece. Go see it for yourself!

March 2, 2017

Lowell in the Winter of 2017

By Shera Cohen

Surely, there are enough sites in the country to venture to in the winter months than Lowell, MA. Yet, I had particular reasons for this visit; 1) I had never been to Lowell, 2) I could “bunk” at a friend’s nearby condo, 3) I was heartily invited by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and 4) now that I’ve taken a surprise liking to National Parks, it was an opportune time to go to Lowell’s Park. As it worked out, I hadn’t realized until arrival that, indeed, Lowell area hosted even more cultural venues to experience. Who knew?

New England Quilt Museum
Housed in what appeared to be a renovated factory building was a world-class exhibition

of quilts of all sizes, shapes, materials, and history. We were free to roam the second floor, and the docent who seemed to magically appear was happy to guide us. At near-closing hour, there was a lot to see when rushed. I would return, for another of their changing exhibits, and to spend time in the large gift shop full of fabric, threads, spools, and other apparatus that I knew nothing about, yet. The Museum boasts the collection of the most historically important and beautifully preserved antique quilts in America.

I discovered that quilt makers and historians eat, sleep, and breath quilts, and have done so for centuries. It was/is a communal activity melding social aspects with culture and an actual purpose/need for products; i.e. bed quilts in New England winters in days of old. The Museum changes its main exhibit nearly every month, and hosts lectures, lunches, discussion groups, and competitions. For information contact www.nequiltmuseum.org

Worcester Museum of Art
I have mentioned this is other articles, and will repeat my thoughts -- a docent or tour guide can make or break a cultural experience. Fortunately, not only did this lovely woman have an exquisite French accent, but she knew her stuff, imparting that knowledge passionately and seriously to her assemblage of visitors. One woman in our group stated, “I’ll never look at art the same way again.” And I thought, “I’ve got to finally sign up for that nearby Art Appreciation course.”


Our guide was particularly proud to tell the story of the John Freake family, who were represented in two paintings, dating back to the 1670’s, which were the first ever painted in the Americas.


I’m not sure why I had the preconceived idea that this museum was petite. I was wrong. Again, I would return, because there wasn’t nearly enough time to see all exhibits. The highlight was “The Remarkable Ed Emberley,” renowned storybook artist. Admittedly, I was not familiar with his talent – an indescribable whimsy appealing to children and to adults. www.worcesterartmuseum.org

Merrimack Repertory Theatre
For several years, my Lowell friend had encouraged me to come to Merrimack. She was an avid fan and usher. In looking at flyers from many seasons, Merrimack has mounted an excellent variety of drama and comedy. Kudos to them, that their repertoire included many premiers, and did not rely on old chestnuts.


The venue looks as if it has been a prominent theatre house in its day. Upon entering, I met several of Merrimack’s artistic and administrative staff. All were so gracious and welcoming that you might have thought that I represented the New York Times.


Opening night of “Women in Jeopardy” by Wendy Macleod, just happened to be the first sell out performance of any opening in Merrimack’s history. Bravo to them!


This questionable-murder, mystery, comedy focused on a trio of middle-aged women who were, or so they thought, “in jeopardy.” Ahh, what to do about it? The plot was thin, the actors sharp, the set perfect. The audience spent two hours laughing, came home without cerebral wonderings, and simply enjoyed the evening. That’s good enough for me. www.mrt.org

Mill No. 5
I admit my fear walking on a stony parking lot pathway under a highway in near darkness. Then, things got worse -- the dead end. Fortunately, an elevator door squeezed into the side of the building opened, taking us to the third floor. I felt as if this was a speakeasy and/or I was dealing some nefarious product. In any case, some teenage girls entered the elevator as well. For some odd reason, I felt safer.


The smells of incense and various candles through a wide corridor greeted the visitors/customers into this little culture tour of small art studios (some sold desserts, as well). The painters and musicians were young. I felt a bit out of place, as I could easily have been anyone else’s mother or even grandmother. But these “kids” were all gracious with their, “Come on in.” I have no doubt that millennials loved these studios, and loved supporting each other’s talents.

Lowell National Park
Because I have been affiliated with another National Park for the past eight years, a stop at Lowell’s park was a “must” on my list. I already realize that this is just the first of at least two visits for the future.


Sometimes, guests skip the introduction film at “my” park (Springfield Armory National Historic Site). That’s a mistake. Take the 15-minutes or so to get an overview of what you will then see throughout the museum, up close and personal; the textile industry in New England. By the way, this is the best produced Park video that I have ever seen.

What I hadn’t realized was the campus of the Park included three museums/homes, the entire property, and in the summer months, a guided cruise on the adjacent river. The Park is free. So, here’s my pitch. Please take advantage of discovering far more about our country, one-on-one; just you and history.