Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 22, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, On Your Feet

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 24, 2018
by Janice Hanson

Photo by Matthew Murphy
“On Your Feet” explodes with music and lighting effects. The show is pure entertainment with a uniformly strong cast of actors, singers, dancers and a band that includes five members of the Miami Sound Machine—the band started by Emilio Estefan in 1975. On the surface, the story is about how Emilio Estefan met Gloria Fajardo, whom he later married, and how the duo became pivotal in introducing the Latin sound to the world. The plot is bland, but with the hot salsa and Cuban music and dance, it really doesn’t matter.

There are sub-themes in the story, such as the importance of family and the tension of Gloria’s relationship with her mother and grandmother, but this is no feminist story. There’s also a theme of the marginalization of music that the “tastemakers” deem as not of interest to mainstream Americans. When Emilio points to himself and says “This is what an American looks like,” the audience cheered.
The sub-title is “The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical” and there is no doubt as to who, in the relationship, comes first. This is almost more of Emilio’s story than Gloria’s, and though they are portrayed as a couple connected by love, the marriage appears to be of unequal equals.

The charismatic leads are Christie Prades (Gloria) and Mauricio Martinez (Emilio) who have outstanding voices and create ethereal harmonies. Doreen Montalvo (Gloria’s mother) is a spitfire and Debra Cardona (Abuela) provides familial love and a fair share of comedy. Added to the outstanding ensemble of singers/dancers, are young performers portraying child Gloria and young Emilio (Gloria and Emilio’s son). The night I saw the show, young Jordan Vergara, whom the playbill lists as having been a salsa dancer since he was 4 years old, stole the scenes in which he was the dancing bar-mitzvah boy—a reference to how the band played any gig they could get in order to get their music heard.

While the story is not particularly original, the music had members of the audience “on their feet” as well. This is a joyous show with heart and energy. It’s a great way to start the summer with a Latin beat and music so hot it sizzles.

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Royal Danish Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through June 24, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli

Opening night of the 86th Jacob’s Pillow Festival highlighted its founder’s progressive view on bringing international dance to the American stage. Although Ted Shawn is identified as an innovation American modern dancer, his legacy is more about globalization and learning to appreciate different cultures through movement.

The evening began with Oyu Oro Afro Cuban Dance Ensemble offering a free performance on the Inside/Out stage. Through singing, music and dance, the 13 performers are helping to preserve the living African culture in Cuba. The women wore traditional African headwraps and 25-yard white ruffled skirts over colorful underskirts. The energy of their dancing was accentuated by the constant movements of their skirts. Although the dances were choregraphed, they had the exhilarating feel of improvisation. One of the dances included stick fighting, first among the same genders and then between the genders. Perhaps the most interesting of movements was the touching of heads by couples at their crowns, as they did back rolls.

In addition to the free performances on the Inside/Out stage throughout the Festival, Pre-Show Talks are available to all visitors at no cost, as is an extensive exhibit of vintage movie posters of classic dance films. With no admission or parking fees charged to enter the grounds, the public is invited to truly experience the Festival. In a 15-minute presentation on the Danish Ballet, the resident scholar highlighted aspects of this dance style that differentiates it from other schools of ballet. Of interest was the historical debut of the Royal Danish Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow, which led to the knighting of Ted Shawn by the King of Denmark in 1957.

The performance by the Royal Danish Ballet could best be described as a century of Danish dance, with the earliest piece from 1836 (La Sylphide) to the most recent in 1966 (Dvorak pas de deux). Each of the seven works performed demonstrated the “vocabulary” of Danish ballet that distinguishes it from the Russian and French styles. The tilt of the shoulder in an arabesque or the mere movement of the wrists in a pose gave inflections not seen in other balletic forms.

The opening piece, A Folktale, was exemplative of the light airiness of August Bournonville’s choreography, which is seen again in his works La Sylphide, The Kermesse in Bruges, and Giselle. There was playfulness in these pas de deux and a sense of light heartedness in the world of fairies.
Holly Jean Dorger, Photo by Claus Vedfelt

The Black Swan from Swan Lake was breathtaking with Holly Jean Dorger performing an incredible number of pirouettes and her partner, Jonathan Chmelensky, offering in return grand jetés with cabrioles.

The finale included all 10 performers in Napoli, another Bournonville choreography. It included the Tarantella, complete with tambourines and castanets. It was a wonderful conclusion to a nostalgic performance of traditional ballet.  

June 19, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Co., The Royal Family of Broadway

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA.
through July 7, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Harriet Harris commands the stage in “The Royal Family of Broadway” now at Barrington Stage’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. This musical version of the 1927 play, “The Royal Family” by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, is loosely based on the Barrymore dynasty with book by Rachel Sheinkin and nineteen highly original songs with lyrics and music by William Finn.

This production brings tongue-in-cheek references to all things Broadway while paying homage to actors whose first love (theatre) takes precedence over more usual life-decisions, such as marrying, having children, and paying the bills.  While I enjoyed every minute, I couldn’t help but wish the audience had been stocked with other theatre people who would get the sly humor and sincere passion that define the actor’s life.  Lines like, “you’re toying with my affectations,” shows that the book is written with warmth, heart, and a self-referential style that is both current and a nod to the acting profession.

Photo by Daniel Rader
The perfectly cast performers feature several stars like Will Swenson, who charms the audience while never losing connection with those on stage.  His antics are hilarious and he lands every line. Chip Zien as the family’s producer is magnetic.  His solo, “Gloriously Imperfect” is as charming and solid as he is as a performer. Laura Michelle Kelly’s voice is ethereal in its range and quality, and she is well matched by the magnetic Alan H. Green as her suitor.  Hayley Podshun as the youngest of the family and A.J. Shively as her fiancée (then husband) both have strong voices and graceful dance moves.  Arnie Burton has great comic chops that show well throughout the play, but bring down the house at the top of Act Two with the show-within-the show “Striking Viking”—a production in which everything that can go wrong, really does.  His stage wife, Kathryn Fitzgerald is cast against type and adds a special comic twist, providing a very original duo representing more “distant” relations.  Holly Ann Butler as the household’s “stage manager” provides perfectly timed comic action along with an ensemble that sings/dances/acts in some gender-bending ways, all led by the outstanding Broadway genius, John Rando (director). But on-stage—Miss Harris is magnetic.

The songs in this world-premiere could stand to be trimmed a bit for timing, but to be honest, I wouldn’t want to cut any of the lyrics.   If this show continues to attract attention, I’m sure many of the songs will enter the would-be actor’s repertoire of theatre-inspired audition songs for their relevance to the actor/singer’s craft and love of theatre.

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, In The Heights

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through July 29, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Curt Henderson
Lin Manuel Miranda’s (of “Hamilton” fame) vibrant first success, “In The Heights,” has blazed its electrifying energy onto the stage at Playhouse on Park. Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, its power to entertain, delight, and move has not aged a bit since its decade ago debut. With a score featuring a hip-hop enhanced infusion of Salsa, Merengue, Bolero, and Mambo, and a cast of energetic actors, singers, and dancers, “In The Heights” delights and delivers.

Miranda’s musical centers on the lives of various denizens of Washington Heights in NYC. The two main characters Usnavi De La Vega (the affable Niko Touros), a Dominican immigrant and owner of a bodega on 96th street; and Nina Rosario (delicately played by Analise Rios), the Puerto Rican, college-age daughter of a family who owns a limousine service, whose stories are presented in Usnavi’s (and the ensemble’s) rousing rendition of the show’s opening number and title. Other characters introduced throughout the show include Usnavi’s irresponsible cousin Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Nina’s parents Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope), Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips), Benny (Leyland Patrick), and street-savvy Vanessa (Sophia Introna).

The musical’s scintillating and scorching score simply flows, making nearly three hours of show time feel like a few fleeting moments. Musical highlights also include the cheery “It Won’t Be Long Now,” the tense “96,000,” the flavorful “Piragua,” the powerful “Enough,” the socially and politically charged “Blackout/We Are Towerless.” But this writer’s personal favorites are the extremely moving “Alabanza” led by Touros and Rios on a stage lit only with votive candles, and the infectious “Carnaval Del Barrio” sensuously sung by the striking Sandra Marante.

Choreographer Darlene Zoller merits special attention. Her imaginatively staged dancing utilizes the entire three-quarter stage space and the aisles as well. Director Sean Harris has done a superb job of bringing together this super-talented company who are so energetic; there is not a single dull moment throughout this marvelous show. The only suggestion is that the orchestra, while superbly directed by Melanie Guerin, play a bit more softly, since a couple of the singers were drowned out.

The themes of “In The Heights,” maintaining a strong community and knowing when to let go of the past and to move on with one’s life, are durable ones that strike to the hearts and souls of its audiences

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Church and State

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through June 30, 2018
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

In his eloquent playwright note for “Church and State,” Jason Odell Williams defines his view of the reason for writing: “…to speak to each other’s hearts.”

With fine acting and subtle artistry, the play gives voice to Williams’ heartfelt vision. This show is a triumph, particularly due to its strong cast, production values and wonderful script; it is moving and amazing theatre.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"Church and State" tells the tale of a senator who starts to question his core beliefs, political career, and marriage – just hours before his bid for re-election. His wife and campaign manager, as well as the media, become tangled in his effort to untangle himself. There’s plenty of comedy as well as drama woven everywhere in the play: as the playwright also states, “Comedy and tragedy are not two ends of a single line, but two points right next to each other on the same circle.”

As troubled southern senator Charles Whitmore, Graham Rowat is utterly convincing, charming and heartbreakingly human. He draws the audience in to understand and empathize with his conscientious struggles regarding religious faith, controversial lawmaking and political aspirations, as well as his personal challenges with a strongly opinionated and passionate partner.

Judy Jerome gives a powerhouse performance as the Senator’s wife Sara. This actress runs an incredible gamut from conventional politician expected-wife behavior to Southern-belle hissy fits, down-home wisdom and more than a little feminism and independence. Jerome’s monologue about her husband’s legislative amendment is a masterpiece.

Keira Naughton, portraying Charles’ campaign manager Alex with just the right amount of frenzy and frankness, is superb. Her comic timing, delivery and the sensitivity with which she responds to both the senator and his wife as the play develops, are a joy to behold. She is a perfect foil to both Charles and Sara, bringing reality, humor and perspective into the story.

Much applause and admiration are due to Andy Talen, performing several smaller pivotal roles. Talen is a true trouper, portraying each character uniquely and skillfully. His wonderfully understated water bottle speech as Tom is one of the highlights of the production.

The skill of director Charlotte Cohn is seen everywhere in this production. The movement is centered, natural and intimate, bringing the audience right into the heart of the drama. The main characters are never preachy, though several semi-sermons are delivered throughout this powerful script. She uses a light director’s hand in dealing with some heavy themes, allowing the words and ideas to shine as much as the fine performances.

Subtle colors, moods and images are evoked, thanks to designer David L. Arsenault’s elegant sets and lighting. Sharp-looking contemporary costumes by David Munn truly enhance the characters, and the beautiful and effective video and projections designed by Alex Hill add even more to the visual artistry of this production. Sound designer and resident composer Scott Killian’s seamlessly adds background tunes at just the right moments throughout, and well-crafted crowd noises during campaign speeches. Bravo!

If it’s true that the devil is in the details; this production proves that there are also angels. It is rare to find a show in which so much careful attention has been given to virtually every aspect of a production, each component in harmony and sync with the other.

June 14, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony, Carmina Burana: Festival of Fate

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
June 8-10, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the concluding “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan presented three diverse works, each of which, in contrasting ways, celebrates life.

The brief concert opener was Anna Clyne’s festive “Masquerade,” commissioned by the BBC and premiered at London’s Promenade concerts in 2013. In the absence of program notes, Kuan called on concertmaster Leonid Sigal and the orchestra in a spoken introduction to introduce the 5-minute piece’s several dance-like themes. Their performance of this colorful score by the rising young British-born composer was appropriately exuberant.

Lisa Williamson
The first half of the program continued with Samuel Barber’s haunting memory piece for soprano and orchestra, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Setting excerpts from American writer James Agee’s memoir A Death in the Family about his Tennessee childhood, Barber wrote it in 1947 for soprano Eleanor Steber. A reduced HSO and Kuan offered lush backing to soprano Lisa Williamson’s crystalline-voiced account of the nostalgic text.

But the main attraction of this concert came after intermission: a jubilant rendition of Carl Orff’s massive “Carmina Burana,” a cycle of 24 songs for soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists and two choruses. The Latin title means “Songs of Beuren,” the site of an abbey near Orff’s native Munich, where about 200 thirteenth-century poems were discovered over a century before he set a selection of them in 1936 to original music, according to the program book, of “a sinewy, electric muscularity that is driven by an almost primeval rhythmic energy.”

The hour-long cantata begins and ends with the fatalistic “O Fortune,” surrounding three sections which revel in the pleasures of spring, drinking, and love. Highlights included: tenor David Guzman’s hilarious impersonation of a swan being cooked for a meal; baritone Tyler Duncan’s vividly drunken abbot; and Williamson’s radiant “Dulcissime,” where she nailed the highest note in the score as she embraced her lover. The Hartford Chorale and the Connecticut Children’s Chorus sang with vigor and precision, fervently supported by orchestra and conductor.

Full printed texts and translations for the Barber and Orff pieces capped as grand a season finale as Hartford has seen in some time.

June 5, 2018

PREVIEW: Radical Acts: Ko Festival, Amherst, MA

Ko Festival of Performance, in its 27th summer season on the Amherst College campus, is a perennially popular summer experience in Western Massachusetts, featuring five weeks of theatrical performances, the KoFest Story Slam, and three 6-day intensive theater workshops. Unlike standard summer stock theater, Ko performances are all original, devised pieces, created by distinguished professional solo and ensemble theater artists from across the U.S. Each year, the performances are curated around a theme; this year it’s “RADICAL ACTS” and audiences will have an opportunity to meet a group of 60’s radicals, hear true tales of going AWOL in the jungle, examining one’s relationship with the planet and the courage to create. Post-performance discussions, often with guest experts, are included.

July 6 – 9 | THE RADICALIZATION PROCESS | The Hinterlands
The Living Theatre’s "Antigone" asks us to question our assumptions about what drives us to take action.

July 13 & 14 @ 8pm | July 15 @ 1:30pm| THE OVEN
AWOL, on a shamanic journey into the Amazon leads to discoveries of just how precarious our Western views on faith & reason really are.

July 21 | 8pm | KoFest STORY SLAM & PARTY
Returning this year, Ko focuses on short, true, first-person stories of “RADICAL ACTS” told by community members and Ko artists.

"Like A Mother Bear"
July 27 – 29 | LIKE A MOTHER BEAR | Helen Stoltzfus/Black Swan Arts & Media 
One woman’s journey to healing in which she discovers the Great Bear Mother of the imagination and all that comes with it.

Aug 3 – 5 | INDUSTRIOUS ANGELS | Laurie McCants, music by Guy Klucevsek
A solo, hand-crafted story-spinning shadow-puppet memory-play with music.

For tickets and further information contact or call after July 2 at (413) 542-3750.  Before July 2, information can be found online or at (413) 427-6147.

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, The Invisible Hand

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through June 23, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

“The Invisible Hand” is a bone-chilling, powerful drama that shocks and surprises at every twist and turn of the plot. Artfully written by Ayad Akhtar, 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Disgraced,” the play is set in a prison in Pakistan after Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a low-level investment banker is kidnapped by mistake. The three captors we meet intended to abduct Nick’s boss, but now have to figure out how to use Nick to raise ten million dollars in ransom money.

We meet Dar (Anand Bhatt), a low-level guard who appears to have a gentle soul. Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) is the boss who strikes a deal with Nick to raise the ransom by doing what he does best—speculate in global currency. Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) is a British-born Pakistani who studies global markets and debates power with Nick. What is so fascinating about each of these characters is that each is motivated to do what they do for different reasons, and each changes in very unexpected ways. All four actors communicate with precision and passion, and watching the tension they create on stage truly insights the audience’s senses as we see the boiling pot that is the playwright’s story start to bubble.  This is socially-conscious entertainment at its best.

You might expect that this play has both political and ideological themes, but these are only backdrops for what happens as these characters work against our assumptions. The result is that this play is much more about greed, corruption, morality, and human desire. Director David Kennedy understands how to build tension with extraordinarily controlled pacing, claustrophobic set designed by Kristen Robinson, and effective lighting by Matthew Richards.

This play was presented last year at the Westport Country Playhouse where it won the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Director, and, for Bryant’s performance, Outstanding Actor. Ayad Akhtar’s most recent Broadway play, “Junk” has been nominated for two Tony Awards, including Best New Play. This American-born playwright, actor, and award-winning book author is someone to watch. I intend to start following his career and can’t wait to see how he continues to create such intelligent work about global capitalism, human desire, and the lengths people will go to for power.

June 1, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Love Never Dies

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
Through June 3, 2018
By Stuart Gamble

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to his long-running Broadway show “The Phantom of the Opera” is currently staged at Hartford’s Bushnell. “Love Never Dies” has been performed in London and the U.S. but has yet to make its debut on Broadway. The elephant in the room begs the question - why? One reason may be that “Phantom” has played on Broadway since 1987; if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Another may be that what can possibly top the original’s spectacle including ghostly apparitions in mirrors, an illuminated underground lake among the catacombs, and of course the thrilling first act’s conclusion with the titular character’s entrance on a swinging chandelier.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Then, of course is the show’s score. Phantom’s music includes such hits as Think of Me, The Music of the Night, All I Ask of You, Masquerade, and the title tune. In contrast, “Love Never Dies” has fewer memorable songs, in fact, only three come to mind: Look with Your Heart, Until I Hear You Sing, and the title song. Nonetheless, the score was captivatingly sung at Tuesday’s opening night by its ensemble principals and cast of approximately thirty.

“Love Never Dies” begins 10 years after the conclusion of “Phantom.” The setting has changed from the gothic Paris Opera House to the gaudy Coney Island Amusement Park. The theater at Coney Island is presided over by the still love-lorn Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes), who invites his long-ago protégé Christine Daae (Meghan Picerno) to come and sing his music at the Phantasma, his Coney Island lair, under the pretense of being Oscar Hammerstein. Christine, now penniless, yet still elegantly beautiful, arrives with her alcoholic husband Raoul (Sean Thompson) and her angelically voiced son Gustave (Christian Harmston). Intrigue after intrigue ensues, concocted mostly by the reptilian Madame Giry (Karen Mason) and her deceptively buoyant daughter Meg (Mary Michael Patterson).

Like its predecessor, the secret to “Love Never Dies” (moderate) success lies in its awe-inspiring spectacle. The revolving set, compactly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, includes moments of awe, beauty, and terror: the Phantom’s jarring entrance through the double doors into Christine’s hotel room; the gilded, ghostly frames of the circus-like Fantasma (which is framed by the gaping-wide mouth of a gigantic Phantom; and the red, purple, brown, black and blue capes, gowns, hats, and jackets with ruffles in satin velvet (also designed by Tylesova). One image will never die from this reviewer’s mind: the title song melodically sung by Picerno decked in a sprawling green gown with a backdrop full of oversize peacock quills, dazzlingly lit by lighting designer Nick Schlieper. Indeed, this lilting aria earned Picerno an ovation lasting nearly two minutes. That alone, spells success.