Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 14, 2017

Actually

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 20, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

There’s a new trend in pre-show music I’m not crazy about. I’ve attended three shows recently that envelop you in a barrage of techno-sound amped up to an annoying decibel level as you search for your seat and wait for the action to begin. I don’t think this is being done to please the hard-of-hearing. I suspect it’s a weak appeal to a younger audience. When Amber, the female half of this two-hander launched into non-stop chatter my annoyance meter started to peak into the red zone. Certainly, the play, “Actually,” reflects the lives of young people facing their first adult situation, but surely there must be more to a play than whiny people and loud music.

Fortunately, the script has much more going for it, and the two actors, Alexandra Socha (Amber) and Joshua Boone (Tom) are engaging, believable, and fully committed. The location is “Mostly Princeton University” and the time “the present and the past.” Tom is a handsome African American man from a modest background. He is the more charismatic of the two. Amber is a little harder to like. She’s the stereotypical privileged white girl who is a mediocre squash player, because she knows that even a mediocre squash player is an important slot to fill in college. She chatters non-stop and can’t decide whether her favorite book is “Gone Girl” or “The Iliad.” They meet in their first year at Princeton and what evolves is a “did they” or “didn’t they” have consensual sex? True of contemporary college life, alcohol plays a role in distorting their true accounts of what happened.

The set is spare and the movement sparer. Lines are primarily directed to the audience, but when the characters interact, the explosions compel you to watch. Despite the grim theme of the play, there are some genuine funny lines, like “Jews and Blacks have a lot in common. Neither like camping.”

Anna Ziegler is a young playwright who has already had a number of major successes. This show and cast will be headed to the Manhattan Theatre Club this fall, and while the show is ready for New York, I do question whether this is the type of play that will appeal to a younger audience. It may be too real for them.

August 8, 2017

Jerry Noble and Friends


Sevenars Music Festival, The Academy, Worthington, MA
July 9-August 13, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Even for this notably eclectic festival, the penultimate concert of its 49th season must have pushed the musical boundaries about as far as any other program in its first half-century.

Known as Clifton J. Noble in his day job as classical music critic for the Springfield Republican newspaper, Jerry Noble is also a skilled classical and jazz pianist and composer. In keeping with the family roots of Sevenars (it was founded by Robert and Rolande Schrade and named after the first letter of their names and those of their five children), Noble was joined on stage by his wife, Kara Noble, on bass guitar, and by members of the Biswas family from India.

But the concert opened with Noble accompanying Schrade family cellist Christopher James (his late mother was Robelyn Schrade-James) in Elgar’s own arrangement for cello and piano of his concerto for cello and orchestra. Written just after World War I, its four movements have varied tempos but reflect a predominantly elegiac mood. James gave a tight and focused performance, with Noble’s eloquent keyboard enhancing the music’s poignancy and power.

Noble then introduced Indian-born cellist, composer, and educator Anup Biswas, who was joined by his son Satyajit on mridangam, an Indian drum, and his daughter Geetanjali on vocals, in a mesmerizing rendition of Indian writer and composer Rabindranath Tagore’s song “Anondo Loke” (Abode of Joy). Along with Satyajit, Jerry, and Kara (everyone is on a first-name basis at Sevenars), Anup followed that with a joyful account of his own “Celebration,” from a longer ballet score.

Jerry Noble & Bob Sparkman
In yet another total change of musical focus, Noble was joined after intermission not only by Kara but by clarinetist Bob Sparkman in a series of “duo and jazz trio improvisations.” The Jerry-Bob duo swung mightily through a Fats Waller set, featuring a vivid “Jitterbug Waltz.” The trio romped through five more selections, including a Latin-style version of Ellington’s “Perdido,” before Anup and James, now on guitar, joined them for a rollicking take on “Sweet Georgia Brown” to end this all-embracing show on a high note.

This


Barrington Stage Co., St. Germain Stage
through August 27, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Scott Barrow
When you first see the cluttered St. Germain Stage, you may think that all of This action takes place in one location. Within minutes you realize that Brian Prather’s set and Scott Pinkney’s lighting design offer multiple playing areas for the multi-talented ensemble cast that move through this one-act play with verbal lightning-speed. 

“This” is a play about words, memory, honesty, and dealing with the passage of youth to middle-age. All of those things comprise “This.” The double entendre is a metaphor for a stage in life that is inevitable, but still mysterious and frightening. The play is funny, sad, and very human.

There’s a character who is a mnemonist—a person with exact recall, who corrects the record when husband and wife argue, and who forces everyone to deal with the distortions of reality their minds trick them into believing. No one plays quirky characters with oddball traits better than Mark H. Dold, and in this group of players, his character, Alan, is the perpetually single gay friend who buffers the action among the trio of young widow, Jane (Julia Coffey), her best friend Marrell (Erica Dorfler) and Marrell’s husband Tom (Eddie Boroevich). The catalyst for much of the action is Jean-Pierre (Paris Remillard), an idealistic bisexual “Doctor Without Borders” (or boundaries) who comes to meet Jane, but stays to add an additional level of honesty to the group’s interactions.

Director Louisa Proske successfully finds the balance in the imbalances of relationships and gives every actor their moment to relate to the audience. The result is that we feel empathy for every character, and even more, we see our own illusions and delusions in their struggle to deal with life’s unexpected twists and turns. 

In her introduction to the play Artistic Director Julianne Boyd said that she was pleased to introduce audiences to the work of young playwright Melissa James Gibson.  I concur, and after full immersion in a play that Charles Isherwood called “beautifully conceived, confidently executed and wholly accessible” I look forward to more of Gibson’s written work.   BSC can be proud of the teamwork they’ve harnessed for This.

Every Brilliant Thing


Chester Theatre, Chester, MA
through August 13, 2017
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

Chester Theatre Company’s production of Every Brilliant Thing deserves to be in a catalog of brilliant things itself… and at the top of the list.

Beautifully crafted by director Daniel Elihu Kramer for performance in the round, the play lends itself to the setting of Chester’s intimate theatre. Each person in the audience can be touched by this engaging story of a young man’s journey to define and share exactly what makes life worth living.

Joel Ripka is brilliant himself as the narrator of the tale. He gently pulls audience members into his world, having them play improvisational roles in the story of his life, and in the creation of his magnum opus: the list of every brilliant thing.

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka
It is an unusual and delightful experience to attend this play, as so many of the audience members add their own gifts to the performance: simply reading a card with one of Ripka’s life-worthy items, offering a pen or book to help him enhance the story, or perhaps enacting the role of a teacher, girlfriend or even his dad.

Each performance is unique, truly created in tandem with whoever happens to be at the theatre on any given night.

That the interactions happen so comfortably and naturally are a testament to Ripka’s skill as an actor. This gentleman’s energy, subtlety and sincerity – also his joy in working with audience – make this unusual show happen. He beguiles theatregoers into participating in an effortless evening of improvisation with him, as though he had a magic wand.

Beautiful music is woven into the story, kindness of Sound Designer Tom Shread. A variety of jazz pieces reflect special moments in the creation of the brilliant things list: one of the most amazing events in the play happens when  Ripka plays and sings a Ray Charles number using a keyboard, with the assistance of two audience volunteers.

Lighting Design by Lara Dubin is stellar as always, incorporating the entire hall in this in-the-round production. Since the leading man performs throughout the house, lighting is bright making it easy to see all that happens, but soft enough to create a sense of encompassing warmth.

Chester Theatre has done it again…Every Brilliant Thing is a show everyone should experience to wake up to a new way of thinking about theatre, and to rise to life’s challenges through its uplifting and beautiful message.

A Legendary Romance


Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 20, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Photo by Daniel Rader
This iconic summer festival is far more identified with straight plays than with musical theatre, but its winning world-premiere production of “A Legendary Romance,” with music and lyrics by British pop songwriter Geoff Morrow and a book by film and television writer Timothy Prager, suggests that it should venture into this genre more often.

Flashing between 1950, when film director Joseph Lindy was making hit movies with love-of-his-life starlet Billie Hathaway, and 1994, when he must approve a younger producer’s revision of Lindy’s unfinished masterpiece, this story of the Hollywood blacklist era, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading anti-Communist witch hunts, explores how, as the show’s director, Lonny Price, told the Boston Globe, “we all reinvent our history to some degree…in a way to make peace with what’s happened to us.”

James Noone’s imaginative scenic design is dominated by a large screen, where the opening scene plays the dramatic close of Lindy’s “A Legendary Romance” as re-imagined 44 years later by another’s vision and viewed with consternation by an older but not yet wiser Lindy. Price makes smart use of the two-level set to reinforce the cinematic scope of this scene and to keep the audience on edge as live stage action alternates with big screen footage throughout both acts.

Silver-haired Broadway actor Jeff McCarthy, familiar to Berkshire theatergoers from his frequent Barrington Stage appearances, brings the perfect balance of gravitas, comic timing, and powerful singing to Lindy. Lora Lee Gayer gives Billie an intriguing mix of innocence and jadedness, adding a welcome touch of noir to “You Didn’t Call, You Didn’t Write.” Maurice Jones is effectively brash as the revisionist producer, and in a dual role Roe Hartrampf nicely connects the swagger of Vincent Connor with the guile of Seth Maurer.

On first hearing, Morrow’s full-blooded score serves the grand scale of the story and its larger-than-life characters by underlining the fast-paced action but staying out of its way. Tracy Christensen’s resourceful costume design, Robert Wierzel’s sensitive lighting design, and Charlie Rosen’s crack eight-piece band further enhance a strong ensemble that should give this impressive production a wide future life.

August 6, 2017

Orchestrating Elegance: The Clark’s exhibit of exquisite craftsmanship

Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design
The Clark, Williamstown, MA
through September 4, 2017

 
For well over a decade, I have observed the splendor of the decorative piano at the Clark Art Institute. Admittedly, I had not taken a serious look at the details until last week.
-Shera Cohen

As resurgent interest in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, born Netherlands 1836–1912) raises appreciation and interest in his work for a new generation, the Clark offers new insight into one of the painter’s most successful and distinctive artistic endeavors—the design of a music room for the New York mansion of financier, art collector, and philanthropist Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819–1902). Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design reunites 12 pieces from the original furniture suite, along with paintings, ceramics, textiles, and sculpture from the room for the first time since Marquand’s estate was auctioned in 1903. The Clark’s ornately decorated Steinway piano, acquired in 1997, is the centerpiece of the exhibit which runs through September 7, 2017.

The music room acted as the Marquand mansion’s parlor and formed the social center of the residence. Marquand set no cost limit for the music room project, which was Alma-Tadema’s only commission of this type. The resulting furniture suite, extraordinary in every detail, created a sensation when it was displayed in London prior to shipment to New York. Acclaimed for its imaginative forms, the suite was painstakingly decorated with veneers of ebony and cedar accented with elaborately carved inlays of boxwood, ivory, abalone, and mother-of-pearl. Magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic featured extensive coverage of the furniture and the room, praising the design and craftsmanship, while marveling at the cost: an estimated $50,000 for the piano alone.

The piano has a rich history as a musical instrument. Its interior lid was fitted with parchment sheets so it could be signed by the musicians who played it. Over the years, a number of famous musicians signed it, including Walter Damrosch, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir William S. Gilbert, and Richard Rogers. The exhibition includes a room devoted to the musical history of the piano, featuring a video of the recent performances on the piano including music tied to its history.

The Clark galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. For more information, visit www.clarkart.edu or call 413 458 2303.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 19, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The sweetest, most proper old ladies in the Berkshires reside at Berkshire Theatre. The mission of the duo, one in which they take great pride, is to bring happiness to lonely, senior, gentlemen. How? By murdering them with their home-made elderberry wine. One sip; out like a light…forever. With such a macabre story, based on a true-life serial killer from Windsor, CT in the early 1900’s, one could only expect a stage retell to be a comedy? True. In fact, playwright Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” is easily one of the funniest plays (then movies) written for American theatre.

Set in the home of the Brewster sisters are the numerous comings and goings of family members, most of whom are strange, to say the least – lots of antics with doors and the all-important window seat. To quote one of the actors, “Instead of a farcical sex romp [a common theatre plot], this is a farcical death romp.”

At the center of the large cast are Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris (the sisters) who portray sincere, well-meaning partners as they knock off a dozen visitors at their boarding house. Dillion, who plays naivete with aplomb, and Harris, who plays intelligence with bravado, are perfect in their roles and make a flawless team. The sisters show mutual respect to each other, as do the actresses.

The Brewster nephews, each a bit daft in his own way, populate the house. Timothy Gulan lovingly depicts a wannabe Teddy Roosevelt, forever “charging” upstairs to San Juan or digging in the basement for the Panama Canal. Matt Sullivan sternly portrays a Frankenstein look-alike with a twinkle in his eye. Graham Rowat creates a befuddled, extremely funny Mortimer. While no one, past or present, can compare himself to Cary Grant (see the movie), Rowat excels at slow burns, dead pan, and quick reactions to others.

Between scenes, at intermission, and background turn-of-the-century ragtime music provides a whimsical and literal tone to “Arsenic.” Lighting, too, is important, foreshadowing and accentuating the ghoulish, yet hysterically amusing, plot elements.

In addition to the marvelous acting of Dillon and Harris, the “stars” are Randall Parsons’ flawlessly designed set, and director Gregg Edelman’s spot-on pacing and timing.

Raging Skillet

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT 
www.Theaterworkshartford.org 
through August 27, 2017
by Shera Cohen 

You might wish to attend “Raging Skillet” just a little bit hungry. Why? This semi-biographical play, subtitled “The True-Life Adventures of a Punk Rock Caterer,” not only serves up lots of laughs, but actual food to many in its audience. In fact, the sizzling logo of the play is crisp bacon in the design of the Jewish Star of David. That item, like many others throughout the story, is passed among the “guests,” only this time as a special treat dipped in chocolate. Like a restaurant menu, “Raging Skillet” offers something different for each person to enjoy. 

Based on the career of Chef Rossi and her recipe book/memoir, area playwright Jacques Lamarre gives Rossi heart and warmth as a woman attempting to learn, then survive, and ultimately succeed in a very difficult career. What keeps this somewhat oddball gal working are two things: humor (often self-deprecating) and loud rock music.


Photo by Lanny Nagler
Situated in a studio kitchen – picture Rachel Ray without the exhausting cuteness – Dana Smith-Croll (Rossi) speaks directly to her audience at first. The actress creates a brassy, no nonsense, somewhat world-weary, humorous woman. Her initial one-dimensional personality soon changes as she interacts with her long-time departed mother who returns for an unwanted visit. The reincarnation of Marilyn Sokol (Jewish mom) sparks a repartee of anecdotes, one-liners, and sweet walks/talks down memory lane for both women. In a smaller role, George Salazar (DJ) dishes up the amps while playing Rossi’s confidante/wait staff. Each actor comes with enthusiasm and energy. 

Smith-Croll’s makes her role (roll?) look easy. However, cooking up various foods in a real on-set kitchen, and at the same time delivering lines, is far from simple. Director John Simpkins arranges people and props onstage so that dialog and noshes are both delicious. 

The biography is strewn with Yiddish jargon; some common to anyone who has ever been to a bar mitzvah and/or New York City, others a bit more obscure. While I “got” them all, I wondered if some people in the audience could appreciate the slang. 

There is no skimping on set designer Michael Schweikardt’s large kitchen – if only that was my kitchen. As mentioned, music is a prominent component; Julian Evans is an accomplished sound designer. 

Note: Please, for the sake of your neighbors in adjacent seats, the actors onstage, and the many who have worked hard to create theatre – do NOT talk during the performance.

August 4, 2017

Oklahoma!


Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through September 23, 2017
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

With stunning vocals, dance, acting, sound, costumes, scenery and an incredible orchestra, Goodspeed musical Oklahoma! is a triumph.

Director Jenn Thompson creates a refreshing interpretation of the great-grand-daddy of all musicals, re-visioning the songs and scenes so many of us know by heart. This show arrives like the proverbial beautiful morning onstage, dazzling, delightful, and truly reborn.

Every aspect of this production merits superlatives, but most outstanding is the sheer joy and exuberance of all the performers. Each one brings something unique and fresh to their role, bringing new zest to the experience of watching this well-known story unfold.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Samantha Bruce as Laurey is a perfect example; there is a more than a touch of tomboy in her performance, adding a bold, bright edge to her ingĂ©nue. Matt Faucher gives a sultry, sensuous quality to his Jud Fry, which, combined with his powerhouse voice, makes the character very much alive. As the ever-grasping Ali Hakim, Matthew Curiano “oozes charm from every pore,” making his peddler most lovably sleazy.

More amazing originality: the choreography created by Katie Spelman brings the wild west to life in many of the numbers, while her dream ballet is an exotic, almost nightmarish vision danced beautifully throughout. (One audience member was heard to murmur: “I don’t want it to end.”)

The orchestra, led by Music Director Michael O’Flaherty, flows and supports the singers flawlessly. The touches here, including a banjo, make it easy to fall in love with this score all over again. Kudos to this gentleman also for inspiring the incredible singers; these vocals must be heard to be believed.

Lovely and authentic period costumes by Tracy Christensen move with ease and grace in the dance sequences. Scenery by Wilson Chin is a feast for the eyes, with a gorgeous sky cyclorama (beautifully lit by designer Philip Rosenberg) and clever cornrows and barn-touches everywhere. Sound Designer Jay Hilton adds his brilliance in how lovely all the voices sound, cricket song at just the right moments, and even a dog barking offstage at one point!

Of special note, too: it is wonderful to watch an ensemble that creates their own background characters, adding to the richness of the scenes in which they appear. Everywhere in Goodspeed production of Oklahoma!, love and skill create the masterpiece anew.

August 2, 2017

Finding Neverland

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through August 6, 2017
by R.E. Smith

Like the oft-beloved movie of the same name, “Finding Neverland,” is “inspired” by the tale of how J.M. Barrie came to write “Peter Pan.” But an adaptation must stand on its own merits and this well produced and performed musical does just that.

Photo By Carol Rosegg
The leads are all strong in presence and voice. Billy Harrington Tighe, as the charming Barrie, develops an instant rapport with the audience, as a talented man facing not only writer’s block but a crisis of self as well. He is afforded a number of powerful musical numbers like “My Imagination,” “Neverland” and “Stronger.” John Davidson (remember him from “That’s Incredible!” and many game shows?) gets to shine in 2 roles, that of theatrical producer Charles Frohman and the scoundrel Captain Hook. Disappointingly, he is never really given a true solo number, but certainly makes the most of his supporting role. He has a formidable stage presence and mischievous gleam in his eye. As Sylvia, mother to Barrie’s muses, Christine Dwyer’s beautiful voice and playful demeanor are an irresistible combination. Also included in the delightful cast are 4 scene-stealing young boys (in rotating roles) and one very shaggy dog.

Original Broadway director Diane Paulus has multiple Tony Awards to her name and, as befits a show centered strongly on the virtues of imagination, the production is inventive and visually unique. Although set in the early 1900’s, some very modern flourishes, like video projection, are employed to magically enhance the proceedings. Lighting, glitter, and slight-of-hand add to the wonder. Even the music, by 2 members of a 90’s British pop group, is traditional Broadway but embellished with a pop sensibility.

But it is the choreography of Mia Michaels that truly soars. Just as flying is a key motif in Peter Pan, so too, is the use of horizontal space in the dancing. Whether climbing up tables, or being lifted in the air, there seemed to always be a performer “up there” during the big numbers, like ‘Play.” “Welcome to London” included a truly unique staccato movement . The nightmarish “Circus of Your Mind” was visually stunning, creating a carousel with a few unique props and use of light.

Like “Peter Pan,” there is a melancholy to “Finding Neverland,” with the passage of time a strong underlying theme. But this singularly unique spin on a familiar tale seemed to make audience members young and old feel like they stopped growing up, at least for a few hours.

Stravinsky/Ravel/Berlioz/Beethoven/Walton

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 29-30, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Regular guest conductors always bring a special excitement to Tanglewood, especially when they’re accompanied by world-class vocal and instrumental soloists. All this and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus made for two memorable concerts over the past weekend.

On Saturday evening suave Swiss-born maestro Charles Dutoit opened his program with Stravinsky’s early “Chant Funebre,” written in memory of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, after the latter’s death in 1908, then lost until rediscovered only in 2015. The BSO and Dutoit presented a somber, intense performance of this dark-hued twelve-minute elegy.

A virtuosic rendition of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand,” commissioned in 1930 by Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I, showcased the protean technical and interpretive skills of French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Choral Arts Society of Washington Youth Choir, tenor Paul Groves, and organist James David Christie joined the orchestra and conductor on a very full stage for a riveting account of Berlioz’s massive “Te Deum.” The six movements of this fifty-minute ceremonial hymn of praise alternate between grand and hushed tones. Groves sang the quiet fifth movement with lyrical plangency, and Dutoit led the assembled forces with power, color, and precision.

On Sunday afternoon jovial Canadian maestro Bramwell Tovey was joined by soloist Pinchas Zukerman in a relaxed yet bracing presentation of Beethoven’s mighty violin concerto. Clearly at home with the piece and at ease with the musicians, Zukerman brought warmth to the long opening “Allegro,” tenderness to the central “Larghetto,” and romping high spirits to the closing “Rondo.” Tovey’s rapport with the BSO elicited playing of deep emotion and finesse.
Ryan Speedo Green

Perhaps the most astonishing performance of the entire weekend was that of rising African-American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the blazing soloist in Walton’s dramatic oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast.” For such a young singer (he’s 31), Green has exemplary breath control, and the stunning power of his sound must be heard in person to be believed. Tovey, along with the orchestra, chorus, and soloist, made this gripping score sound as fresh as if it had been written yesterday.