Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 14, 2018

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Michael Tilson Thomas/Rachmaninoff /Mahler


Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2018
by Jarice Hanson and Frank Aronson

Photo by Hilary Scott
Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is no stranger to the BSO, the work of Mahler, or the style of Leonard Bernstein. In the August 12th concert of the Bernstein Centennial Summer season, MTT conducted a fitting tribute to the man he met when he was a Tanglewood Fellow. In 1969 MTT was assigned to conduct the off-stage portion Bernstein’s on-stage conducting of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Bernstein casually mentioned that he was thinking of conducting the piece by memory, rather than looking at the score. On Sunday, MTT performed the same way—conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D “off book” and with some of the same gestures he had learned from Maestro Bernstein.

The concert began with the whimsical “Agnegram” written by MTT for San Francisco Symphony board member, Agnes Albert, for her 90th birthday. MTT wrote the short piece using a musical annotation of the letters of her name and incorporated some of her favorite tunes—from “The 1812 Overture” to “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” As a prelude to Rachmaninoff and Mahler, the piece was well received and showcased the author/conductor’s ability to write accessible, yet clever music that warmed the audience on a cool rainy day.

Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Opus 43 for Piano and Orchestra featured the extraordinary Igor Levit, a pianist of technical wizardry and interpretive sass. A plane flew overhead just as Levit was immersed in one of the piece’s most famous passages. The sound of the plane trailed off as the piano’s notes lingered in the air, magically accompanying the plane’s passage above.

The second part of the program featured Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D, with music so effecting the audience cheered for close to 10 minutes, acknowledging the many soloists who contributed to the piece that has become known as one of the bridges from the Romantic to the Modern period of orchestral compositions. Kudos were given to the French horn section, which masterfully played the passages key to the first of Mahler’s four Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy with the Horn) symphonies. Mahler identified the piece as a “symphonic poem,” and MTT and the BSO left no doubt as to the story Mahler told in this symphony.

It’s understandable that MTT and Bernstein are both known for their interpretations of Mahler. This concert solidified their reputations. And at the end of the concert, the sun came out.

August 13, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, West Side Story


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through September 1, 2018
by Shera Cohen

“West Side Story” opens big! It was opening night, a full house, patrons dressed in their finest (rare for the casual Berkshires), and an instantaneous standing ovation.
To repeat the story’s plot would be wasting the reader’s time. Here’s a summary…the set, New York City slum neighborhood; the time, the late 1950’s; our protagonists, star-crossed young lovers a la Romeo & Juliet; the “bad guys,” no one and everyone.

Describing Barrington’s production in one word would be “honesty.” Director Julianne Boyd seems to have struck a match to set off a red-hot fury of energy and smoldering emotion within every actor; all are true to his/her character as a living, breathing person, and as a representative of a small part of a community, warts and all.

Boyd must share the accolades in creating this near-perfect presentation of “West Side Story” with Choreographer Robert La Fosse. The first notes of the musical are those of the Jets snapping their fingers in unison; this is a family. Then there’s the famous “Dance at the Gym,” a powerful contest of one-upmanship with brutal stakes.

Since no specifically named credit in the program book is given to “fight coordinator,” it seems safe to assume a collaboration of Boyd and La Fosse construct the intricacies of the “The Rumble” well-above an audience’s expectations. Even though everyone knows the results of the scene, the sound, lights, and dangerous moves at speeds almost too fast to see are extremely frightening.

Photo by Daniel Rader
Will Branner and Addie Morales (Tony and Maria) are as sweet, innocent, and in love as their characters can possibly be. Yet, there is honesty in their music and relationship that cautions them. Branner literally sets the tone of his naïve Tony with “Something’s Coming.” A few minutes later, he’s telling the world of his love in “Maria.” Rather slight in physique and very young looking, Branner’s vocal skills belie his years. Morales is a more genuine Marie than ever in other productions or movie. Besides her lovely soprano voice (with Branner in “Tonight”), Morales brings sincerity to Maria through her eyes and especially her smile.

Tyler Hanes’ Riff takes the accolades as the best dancer onstage. Add his clenched jaw and no-smile face, Hanes makes a formidable character. His counterpart, portrayed by Sean Ewing, dons his Bernardo with smooth bravado. Skyler Volpe, as Anita, is a musical director’s dream: she sings, she dances, and she acts with all skills equal.

Set Designer Kristen Robinson has built an inner-city tenement of 50+ years ago; tall and bleak with tinges of light and even stars. Maybe there is hope for these characters?

REVIEW: Williamstown Theater Festival, The Member of the Wedding


Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
www.wtfestival.org
through Aug. 19, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Carson McCullers’ timeless, poignant drama, “The Member of the Wedding” (based on the 1946 novel) is given a fresh revival at WTF this summer. This newly mounted production deserves much praise for its sensitive performances.

Photo by Daniel Rader
Set in the American South in August, 1945 in a small town, the play unfolds leisurely like a torrid afternoon, whose blazing heat is tempered by splashes of refreshing humor as cool as a glass of ice cold lemonade. Berenice Sadie Brown (Roslyn Ruff), the African- American housekeeper of the Adams family (no, not That Adams family), spends nearly the entire play cooking in the tiny kitchen trying to quell the pressing anxiety of her charge, 12-year old Frankie (Tavi Gevinson). The youngster is an outsider constantly questioning Berenice about the inequities and injustices that surround them, in their small town and in the world. The third member of this existentially-challenged club is Frankie’s younger cousin and neighbor John Henry (Logan Schuyler Smith), whose impressionable nature contrasts beautifully with Frankie’s intellectualism.

This triad of characters provide the heart and soul of McCullers’ play in balanced and assured performances. Ruff’s portrays a strong-willed and loving maternal figure; neither too soft or too hard. Her honesty and warmth are lovingly conveyed to both Frankie and John Henry. Gevinson’s Frankie at first comes across as abrasive and almost obnoxious, but later she evolves into a gentle and thoughtful young woman, displaying both her skill as an actor and McCullers’ perceptive characterization. Finally, Smith’s John Henry is a joy to behold. A truly natural performer; this young actor demonstrates great daring and risk, especially in the scenes where he dons Frankie’s pink fairy costume. Indeed, the story touches on the contemporary issue of sexual identity, both in Frankie’s boyish behavior (and her navy crewcut hair) and John Henry’s aforementioned playfulness.

The cast is rounded out by three other central characters: Berenice’s beau T.T. Williams (Leon Addison Brown), her foster brother Honey Camden Brown (Will Cobbs), and Frankie’s alcoholic father (James Waterston). The actors depicting the men offer three faces of Pre-Civil Rights American South -- the obliging, but no less strong black man (Brown); the fed-up with racial inequality black man (Cobbs); and the inherently racist white man (Waterston). All express integrity and honesty in their portrayals of rather one-dimensional characters. Much praise must be given to Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s skill in eliciting fine performances from all the, which in lesser hands, could come across as pretentious and overly poetic.

Laura Jellinek’s set design is simple and historically accurate. The small downstage left kitchen is literally dwarfed by the towering clapboard backdrop. Metaphorically, this seems to be saying that the outside world constantly and threateningly looms over the three principal characters’ claustrophobic existence.


August 9, 2018

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Limón Dance Company


Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 12, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli

“Art for art’s sake” speaks to the intrinsic value of art. Many modern dance choreographers have applied the same philosophy to movement, hence choosing to omit story lines, relationships, and emotions from their creations. Fortunately, José Limón, although a pioneer of modern dance, did not classify dance in these absolute terms.

Photo by Noor Eemann
The program opened with archival footage of Limón’s 1948 solo performance of “Chaconne” on the Ted Shawn Theatre stage. As the projection faded and Bach’s music continued, Mark Willis performed the next portion of the dance. Seamlessly, Savannah Spratt entered for the next segment only to have Jesse Obremski replace her for the final part. The use of three separate soloists added to the depth of this emotional work. The simplicity of the dancers wearing street clothes … trousers with pockets, belts, rolled up shirtsleeves … added not only to the nostalgia but also to the relevance of the feelings to the “common man.”

Colin Connor, the company’s current Artistic Director, choreographed “Covidae” to the “Violin Concerto #1” by Phillip Glass. Corvids, among the most intelligent of all birds, includes ravens and crows. Seen as both spiritual messengers and harbingers of ill fate, these birds offer both beauty and mystery. Six dancers took on the quality of a flock, or “conspiracy” as ravens are sometimes collectively called, to create a dramatic personification. In this momentous work, Connor’s “Corvidae” rivals the genius of Limón’s iconic “The Moor’s Pavane.”

“The Moor’s Pavane” is Limón’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He skillfully used the pavane, a stately dance of the Renaissance period, as a foundation upon which to build his storyline through modern dance movements. Even those not familiar with the tragedy could follow the transfer of a handkerchief from Othello to his wife to his treacherous friend and his wife to understand its implication in the false charge of adultery. The period costuming was exquisite, and the four performers were outstanding in their theatrical telling through dance of the timeless sins of racism, domestic violence, and jealousy.

Kate Weare’s “Night Light” focused on relationships through the partnering of 12 dancers. The true athleticism of these talented performers could be seen in some role-reversals of traditional partnering. Of note was Jesse Obremski’s aerial lifts of both female and male partners.

The finale was Limón’s “A Choreographic Offering,” a tribute to his mentor Doris Humphrey. As joyful as this historical work was, the awkward hand motions of early modern dance were a distraction and reminder that not all things old are worthy of homage.

PREVIEW: The Mount Lectures, Lenox, MA



How apropos for the Mount (the home of Edith Wharton) to be the center of author lectures in the Berkshires. On any given week, two or three talks take place in the large Stables. The main series presents writers of fiction or non-fiction giving the always full-house a perspective on his/her book. Talks have taken place each Monday at 4pm.

In addition to the series, the Mount hosts educators, writers, scientists, architects, and others, each lecturing about his/her subject matter. Martin Puchner, a Harvard professor with a wonderful sense of humor, spoke about his book, “The Written World: The Power or Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization”.

The Mount talks are, by no means, geared to the learned scholar. Each is educational but not didactic, personal, and fun.

August 8, 2018

Talking in the Berkshires 2018


by Shera Cohen

Certainly, the number of performing art venues are plentiful in the Berkshires. Having spent two weeks there in July, I was fortunate to see theatre, music, and dance presentations nearly round-the-clock. However, filling many afternoons (and a few evenings) was time well spent participating in numerous talks on subjects known and unknown to me.

Ventfort Hall Lectures, Lenox, MA
Ventfort Hall Tea & Talks brings authors, educators, and lectures to speak on a wide range of subjects. The parlor room is always packed with patrons. The subjects are fascinating or fun or both. Hour-long talks are followed by Q&A. Last week’s guest was Paul Freedman discussing “10 Restaurants that Changed America”. The “tea” portion of the series’ name is an elegant English-style tea settling located in the Ventfort dining room. Tiers of scones, cucumber sandwiches, cookies, and (of course) special teas are the array. The event offers a lovely elegance in the Berkshires. www.gildedage.org

Tanglewood Rehearsals, Lenox, MA
Every Saturday morning, professional staff of Tanglewood inform the audience about aspects of the pieces to be rehearsed that day. Usually, talks focus on the composer, background of the music to be heard, and intricacies of composition; i.e. specific sections of the orchestra. These talks are a free bonus for concert goers seated in the tent or on the lawn. www.bso.org/tanglewood

Jacob’s Pillow Pre-performance Lectures, Becket, MA
A large barn is situated equidistant between the two main Pillow theatres. Each summer marks the premiere of a new art exhibit focusing on dance – past or present. Videos often accompany the display. Before each performance, a large group of audience members gather in the barn to hear the half-hour “course” on the dance troupe and its history, choreographers, and nuances of the upcoming performance. www.jacobspillow.org

Theatre Talk-backs, numerous locations
Oftentimes following a play or musical, the director and most members of the cast will take chairs onstage. The director leads the discussion, taking questions from those audience members who choose to stay in the theatre. The talk-backs last approximately 15-minutes, or if the audience is responsive. This was the case at the end of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Barrington Stage Company. The Q & A are quite profound. Suggest checking the websites for all of the theatres in the Berkshires or starting HERE

The Mount Lectures, Lenox, MA
How apropos for the Mount (the home of Edith Wharton) to be the center of author lectures in the Berkshires. On any given week, two or three talks take place in the large Stables. The main series presents writers of fiction or non-fiction giving the always full-house a perspective on his/her book. Talks have taken place each Monday at 4pm. Due to the series’ popularity, the talk is repeated on Tuesday at 11am. One writer was Jacqueline Jones discussing the riveting story of “Goddess of Anarchy, Lucy Parsons”.

In addition to the series, the Mount hosts educators, writers, scientists, architects, and others, each lecturing about his/her subject matter. Martin Puchner, a Harvard professor with a wonderful sense of humor, spoke about his book, “The Written World: The Power or Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization”.

The Mount talks are, by no means, geared to the learned scholar. Each is educational but not didactic, personal, and fun. www.edithwharton.org

Museum Tours, numerous locations
Even though you may have visited the Norman Rockwell Museum (Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition), Chesterwood (Contemporary Sculpture Exhibit), Clark Art Institute (Women artists in Paris 1850-1900) or other docent tours, if there is time to go again, do so. No two visits are ever alike. First, exhibits change (usually biannually) or others are added. Needless to say, there are new subjects to learn about. Second and even if the exhibit is the same, the docent speaking can make the world of difference. All docents are extensively trained, yet each may choose to focus on one aspect over another. Note, that most of these wonderful people are volunteers. Suggest visiting information on the many museums located in the Berkshires by going to their individual websites or www.berkshires.org

August 7, 2018

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Bernstein/Sibelius/Borodin/Wieniawski/Prokofiev


Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 4-5, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

Guest conductors can bring a special excitement to Tanglewood, especially when they’re accompanied by world-class vocal and instrumental soloists. All this and a major BSO and Tanglewood conducting debut made for two memorable concerts over the past weekend.

On Saturday evening genial British-born maestro Bramwell Tovey opened his program with the next installment of this season’s “Bernstein Centennial Summer,” a stirring rendition of that composer’s 1977 “Songfest,” a 40-minute “cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra.” While these twelve colorfully orchestrated settings of diverse writers were brilliantly executed by all the musicians, soprano Nadine Sierra’s lively “A Julia de Burgos” (by herself), bass-baritone Eric Owens’s magisterial “To What You Said” (Walt Whitman), and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s touching “Sonnet: What lips my lips have kissed…” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) were especially memorable.

A majestic performance of the second symphony by Sibelius ended the program on a note of epic grandeur. Written in 1901, the symphony can be heard as a Finlandia-like protest against contemporary Russian domination of Finland. Its dramatic arc was vividly conjured by Tovey and the BSO, from the pastoral opening “Allegretto” movement, to the turbulent “Tempo Andante, ma rubato” and the nimble “Vivacissimo,” to the triumphant “Finale: Allegro moderato.”  

Dima Slobodeniouk
On Sunday afternoon rising young Russian-born maestro Dima Slobodeniouk made an impressive BSO and Tanglewood debut with soloist Joshua Bell in a sweeping presentation of Wieniawski’s 1862 second violin concerto. Bell brought his trademark warmth to the opening “Allegro moderato,” tenderness to the central “Romance,” and exuberance to the closing “Allegro con fuoco.” Slobodeniouk’s communicative baton and graceful gestures elicited playing of deep emotion and finesse from the BSO.

An exciting version of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor” opened the program, which ended with a riveting account of Prokofiev’s 1945 fifth symphony. Slobodeniouk and the orchestra revealed new insights into this most familiar of the composer’s seven symphonies, from a dark undercurrent in the opening “Andante,” to a touch of sarcasm in the “Allegro moderato,” a sense of mystery in the “Adagio,” and a hint of protest in the closing “Allegro giocoso.” This is clearly a conductor to watch.

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Lynelle James


Sevenars Music Festival, Worthington, MA
August 5, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the second week in a row, the family member featured in concert at Sevenars was Lynelle James, last week as a member of the Piazzolla Trio, this week as piano soloist. This family-based music festival, founded by Robert and Rolande Schrade and named after the first letter of their names and those of their five children, celebrates its 50th anniversary season this summer.

Lynelle is the daughter of pianists David James and the late Robelyn Schrade-James and a granddaughter of the founders. The repertoire on her program was typically adventurous for this venue, all demanding the utmost technical facility and interpretive depth, requirements that she met with room to spare.

Lynelle James
She opened with a sparkling account of Mozart’s Sonata, K. 332, which dates from his early maturity around 1783, and which James noted in spoken comments reflects the drama of his operas and was a favorite of her mother. The “Allegro” first movement exuded classical poise, while the central “Adagio” conveyed a luminous stillness, and the closing “Allegro Assai” was a joyful romp. Concluding the concert’s first half, by contrast, was Liszt’s colorful Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which James rendered with unfailingly virtuosic flair. 

The program’s second half began with several fascinating short pieces by the concert’s least-known composer, Nikolai Roslavets, a twentieth-century Russian modernist whose music can sound, as pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, quoted by James, put it, “like Scriabin on acid” (both pianists have recorded Roslavets). Her playing of four miniatures, recently recovered from long obscurity, reveled in the composer’s quirky originality.

James closed her program with a bracing performance of Chopin’s masterful and challenging third piano sonata. She effortlessly captured the full range of its powerful emotions, from a warm opening “Allegro Maestoso,” to a mercurial “Scherzo,” a radiant “Largo,” and a thundering “Presto Ma Non Tanto” finale.

Nurtured in the bosom of a loving musical family, whose tradition of excellence is entertainingly chronicled on the walls of the Sevenars concert hall, this distinguished third-generation musician seems clearly destined for a major career.

REVIEW/PREVIEW: A Week of Berkshires’ Theatre/ July-August, 2018


by Shera Cohen

Seared
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA

Photo by Daniel Rader
Unfortunately, this mini-review of “Seared” must be written in the past tense, as the run of this amazingly delicious play ended on August 4th. Written by the prolific Theresa Rebeck, the comedy was intended for anyone who eats – in other words, everyone.

“Seared” literally and figuratively sizzled with luscious dialogue in rapid pace. The lead actors portraying co-owners of a restaurant (Hoon Lee and Michael Esper), oftentimes standing at opposite sides of a long food preparation table, seemed to play a ping-pong of words on speed. Their fights were peppered with salty language, as one would expect in the tightly choreographed work in a restaurant kitchen. WTF staff selected well, serving “Seared” as one of its main dishes for its 2018 season.

A relatively new play, written in 2016, here’s hoping that “Seared” soon finds many more audiences.

Creditors
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through Aug. 12, 2018

Photo by Nile Scott Studio
Based on a play in the late 1800’s by August Strindberg, the only problem is its title. Perhaps a direct translation of the original, it doesn’t quite work in this dark comedy about revenge, relationships, and retribution.

Three of Shakespeare & Company’s top actors – Jonathan Epstein, Kristen Wold, and Ryan Winkles – take the stage at the Bernstein Theatre on the set of an 1889 artist studio. Epstein’s older gentleman portrays an erstwhile mentor to Winkles naïve sculptor. Enter Wold as a globe-trotting sophisticated woman of means, whose relationship with her young husband (sculptor) is atypically convenient for her alone.

The mystery of the play lasts approximately four minutes in. However, the execution of the secret, with twists and turns, is the crux of the story. Epstein portrays a master manipulator with Winkles as putty in his hands. In a role that’s quite new to the latter (Winkles usually stars in comedies), the actor proves his versatility. As for Wold – she can do anything onstage, and always to perfection.

The Chinese Lady
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through Aug. 11, 2018

In 1834, the first female Chinese immigrant, Afong Moy, was sold…American traders in order to “perform” on Broadway. She is purely an exotic object to be gawked at in the same manner [as other circus acts]. Lloyd Suh’s play tells Afong Moy’s true story. “The Chinese Lady” is performed at the BSC’s smaller St. Germain Stage, a perfect venue for this intimate, two-person production. [Review by Rebecca Phelps continues HERE)

The Petrified Forest
Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through Aug. 25, 2018

David Auburn knows his way around words, a good story, and onstage action to build an exciting, heart-pounding theatrical experience. In “The Petrified Forest” at BTG, he masterfully maneuvers a strong 13-member cast through Robert Sherwood’s rich dialog and seething emotions for a contemporary reflection on timeless themes that combine humor, intelligence, desire, and violence. [Review by Jarice Hanson continues HERE) 


UPCOMING PRODUCTIONS

Dangerous House, Williamstown Theatre Festival
This new play by Jen Silverman asks what one woman can do for her people, for her nation, and for the love of her life.

Mothers & Sons, Shakespeare & Company
In this funny and moving piece, Tony Award-winning playwright Terence McNallys sharp dialogue illustrates how reconciling loss and transgression can reveal the enduring nature of love.

West Side Story, Barrington Stage Company
While Leonard Bernstein’s hit musical and Academy Award-winning movie of modern-day “Romeo and Juliet,” audiences never grow tired of this poignant story.

Sister Mary Ignatius…, Berkshire Theatre Group
Harriet Harris stars in this farcical, raucous comedy production which is directed by Matthew Penn and written by prolific playwright by Christopher Durang.

August 6, 2018

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, The Petrified Forest


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 25, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Wilson Chin
David Auburn knows his way around words, a good story, and onstage action to build an exciting, heart-pounding theatrical experience. In “The Petrified Forest” at BTG, he masterfully maneuvers a strong 13-member cast through Robert Sherwood’s rich dialog and seething emotions for a contemporary reflection on timeless themes that combine humor, intelligence, desire, and violence.

Though the play debuted on Broadway in 1935, there have been many adaptations of the script for film, television, and radio over the years. While not as politically influenced as many of his other works (in addition to winning four Pulitzer Prizes, Sherwood was also a speechwriter for FDR), “Petrified Forest” it is known for its realistic ethos and socio-literary relevance.

The story takes place during the Depression as the country seems to slip further into lawlessness, and the legacy of WWI creates situations for characters of different social strata to meet with conflicting values and desires. This creates rich opportunities for conflict and resolution, and Sherwood’s inventiveness as a storyteller has given us some iconic characters and situations.

David Adkins as Alan Squier, the intellectual drifter, delivers some of Sherwood’s best lines. Adkins is a smart actor who not only knows how to land the line for the audience, but how to communicate with other actors so that they get their moments too. John Thomas Waite’s Gramp Maple carries much of the humor and projects an energy that is delightfully innocent and pure. In a relatively smaller role, but with great punch, Jennifer Van Dyck as the repressed Mrs. Chisholm shines with a character that is fresh, unexpected, and delightfully funny.

The talented cast in this production work well together and Wilson Chin’s set enhances the poverty of place while Scott Killian’s sound design enhances the bleakness of the environment. There is not one weak member of the cast, though sometimes lines were lost when actors upstage did not project or articulate well enough to be heard clearly. Still, Auburn directs this as an ensemble piece and pays homage to a style of theater that is rare today. 

Berkshire Theatre Group can be proud to present this play as part of their 90th Anniversary season, and with productions of this caliber, they can look forward to being around for a very long time.

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago


Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 5, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli

It seemed fitting that to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago that its founder Lou Conte would be in the audience and that his 1978 choreography “The 40s” would be the finale. This piece alone would have been worth the price of admission. The 16 men and women were all identically dressed in white shirts, bow ties, vests, suit pants, and white dance sneakers.

The music, a medley of Big Band hits, generated the energy for the period dances … jazz, jitterbug, lindy, and jive. But the level of this performance demonstrated the true skill of these highly trained dancers. Conte’s signature choreography exemplified what has made Hubbard Street the legend that it is and established the standard that audiences have come to expect.

Hubbard Street is a repertory company that represents many choreographers and dance styles. Its dancers must be cross-trained in multiple genres of dance to respond to the variety of choreographers; hence, the ensemble attracts some of the most talented. In the true fashion of a repertory company, the program at Jacob’s Pillow highlighted three other choreographers, in addition to Conte. Therefore, perhaps this program is best viewed as a study of the choreographers.

Photo by Hayim Heron
“Lickety Split” showcased the work of Alejandro Cerrudo, Hubbard Street’s first resident choreographer. There is a light heartedness and touch of humor to how three couples addressed the unpredictable nature love. The aerial lifts were effortless and their timing perfect. The joyful running of the dancers was reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s iconic “Esplanade.”

The ensemble performed “Grace Engine” by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, set in the darkness of the subway to the sounds of moving trains stopping at stations to let passengers on and off. The visual effects from occasional bright lights and screen curtains clearly placed the audience underground. There was an eerie, abstract quality to how the dancers fought off demons, perhaps either external or internal. There was a monotony to the sound, the darkness, and the movements that was at first hypnotic to the audience. However, the piece was too long and had the effect of dulling the viewer’s senses to the anguish being portrayed.

The first half of the program was excerpts from Ohad Naharin’s Decadance/Chicago. In the debate as to whether dance is art or entertainment, this was neither. Its dark humor could be best described as vulgar, as signs posted at the entrances warned. Coupled with its repetitiveness and underutilization of skilled dancers, this routine was not in keeping with what has brought fans to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for four decades.

August 3, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, The Lion King

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through August 19, 2018
by R.E Smith

The “Circle of Life” has brought The Lion King back to The Bushnell and the magic of this show is that every viewing can seem like the first. So visually stunning and breathtaking in execution, it would be impossible to catch every bit of storytelling magic in just one sitting.

The story is simple, but it is the execution that dazzles. Based on the animated Disney film, it is the Africa-set tale of young lion cub, Simba, finding his place in the world after losing his father, Mufasa, to duplicitous Uncle Scar. Along the way we meet some drooling hyenas, courageous lionesses and a carefree meerkat and warthog team, Timon and Pumba. Easy enough for even the youngest fans to follow, leaving plenty of time for the visual effects to keep all ages enthralled.

Colorful backdrops (feel the heat!), gorgeous lighting (starry night!), shadow play (look at the mouse!), puppetry (Mufasa appears from the sky!) and “costumes” that require 3 people to wear them (Elephant!); sometimes it is hard to decide if something should be considered a character or a piece of scenery. The show is such a visual feast, that, at times, one can be so distracted by all the sites that one can quickly forget that there is also singing going on!

Of course, it helps that many of the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice have become “standards”; “The Circle of Life”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata”, which prompted spontaneous hand-clapping within only a few opening notes. Even though its source material derives from Disney, there is real authenticity here, with additional music by South African composer Lebo M. who weaves 6 native languages: Swahili, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese and Xhosa (the “click” language) throughout.

Xhosa is on great display by Mukelisiwe Goba, also from South Africa, as Rafiki, the wise baboon, who endears herself to the audience the moment she enters the stage with her smile and mischievous nature. As befits a show that encompasses the wide African plains, the cast is immense, with well over 35 players, including those with such specialties as “Buzzard Pole” and “Gazelle Wheel”. But Salahedin Safi as “Young Simba” and Danielle W. Jalade as “Young Nala” leave the biggest impression, probably because they are the same age and energy level as their contemporaries in the audience. But every lead is note perfect and their passion for the material is evident. The energy never flags for a moment.

Unlike some touring companies, full credit for direction and choreography is still attributed to the original Broadway creative team of Julie Taymor (Director/Costume Design) and Garth Fagan (Choreography). Simply put, this means that one can’t really get any closer to the original production without traveling to NYC. Since that production won six Tony Awards, including best musical, this production is a “must see!"

August 2, 2018

REVIEW: Chester Theatre Company, Mary’s Wedding


Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 5, 2018
By Mary Fernandez-Sierra

A beautifully crafted romance directed by Colette Robert is unfolding at Chester Theatre this summer: Mary’s Wedding by Stephen  Massicotte.

Taking place in Mary’s dreams, memories and imagination, this show is a tour-de-force for its two fine actors. It tells the tale of young lovers Charlie and Mary, who meet in rural Canada just before the outbreak of the World War I.

As Mary, Marielle Young is winning and courageous: a perfect heroine. She strikes just the right blend of ingénue and independence in her character, and is a pleasure to watch onstage. Ms. Young also plays another role in the production: that of officer Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, a historically based character, whose bravery during the last cavalry charge in military history earned him great honor. Her portrayal of this war hero is just as strong and memorable as her Mary; she clearly expresses both Flowerdew’s strength, and the softer side of this soldier’s heart, in the special friendship he develops on the battlefield with Charlie.

Steven Lee Johnson is forthright, charming, and completely believable as Charlie, transitioning from ingenuous youth to young man in love, and then into the ardent and patriotic soldier. He never loses Charlie’s simple faith and integrity, thus endearing his character to both Mary and his commanding officer (not to mention his audience.) Mr. Johnson’s subtle comic timing makes for some of the most delightful light-hearted moments in the play.

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka
As always at Chester Theatre, the artistry of the production elements harmonize and enhance the stories portrayed on the stage. Lighting Designer Lara Dubin has surpassed even herself in this production with dazzling thunderstorms, starry heavens, dark austere looks on the battlefield reminiscent of old black and white photos, and delicate color transitions on the sky field of flowers hanging above the actors. Simple stage elements cleverly designed by Travis George morph into completely different worlds: a horse in the Canadian countryside, a war-torn trench in France, a farm fence, a home; and the field of flowers growing invertedly from above is breathtaking. Sound Design by David Wiggall includes a beautifully orchestrated thunderstorm, highly realistic battle explosions and a lovely old Strauss waltz… and costumes by Elizabeth Pangburn reflect the characters and fit the period (Mary’s wedding dress is simply perfect.) This artistic team deserves an ovation.

The creativity of director Colette Robert is in everything throughout Mary’s Wedding, making the transitions between all the different times and locales easy for the audience to follow: no small feat. The dreamlike quality of each scene, natural pace of the dialogue and the lovely chemistry between all the characters show a master’s hand. Bravo!