Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 27, 2019

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, The Revolutionists


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through March 10, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Congratulations to Playhouse on Park’s (POP) on its 10th anniversary season. Over the years, POP’s triumvirate co-founders (Tracy Flater, Sean Harris, and Darlene Zoller) have presented an array of dramas and comedies, straight plays and musicals, old chestnuts and new works. For the most part, and the reason that single ticket buyers soon become subscribers, is the excellent quality, talent, and purpose of the plays. Skilled staff, both onstage and backstage, can always be depended upon.

POP does nearly everything right to create a fine production of “The Revolutionists.” The major element of what makes a play the best it can be is the ability of a director to present a full story from the opening line to the final curtain. Any theatre-goer knows that the actors, crew (a very long list of highly skilled individuals), and even those at the concession stand help to make a theatre experience important and memorable to the audience. POP has all of this good stuff.

Photo by Meredith Longo
Yet, even with POP’s skills on every level, it seems unlikely that no theatre could produce this particular play to audience satisfaction. In the Spotlight’s review criteria purposely omits critique of the text – that’s a given, and it is the production that is considered. However, here is an exception, the reason being to essentially not kill the messenger - in this case, POP. Apparently, the playwright’s record of success is broad, but this work by Lauren Gunderson is not up to the level of POP’s abilities. Big question: why did POP select this play?

As a tragi-comedy, the play’s story does not ring true, which is especially odd because three of its four characters were actual people living at the time of the French Revolution. The contemporary language stuffed with numerous and unnecessary expletives mixed with that of 18th century semi-aristocratic conversations. The play would have had a decent start had it been a drama throughout. At the very least, if the writer meant “The Revolutionists” to be a comedy, then stick with it.

Three plays round out the second half of POP’s 2018-19 season. In spite of what is written above, Playhouse on Park is worth a trip.

February 25, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn’s Italian and Brahms


Springfield Symphony, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
February 23, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

A more appropriate title for this concert might have been “A Superstar Is Born.” When the scheduled violin soloist, SSO favorite Rachel Barton Pine, was forced by a short-term health issue to cancel, William Hagen stepped in to replace her with less than two weeks’ notice. To retain the original program, he learned a new piece and prepared one of the most difficult works in the standard repertoire, both of which he did in a triumphant local debut.

Continuing the SSO’s 75th anniversary seasonal focus on American women composers, the program opened with short pieces by two of them. First up was the four-minute “Prayer and Celebration,” an “homage to Mahler,” which Augusta Read Thomas wrote in 2006 for her alma mater, St. Paul’s School, in New Hampshire. Next came Amy Beach’s 1893 “Romance,” originally for violin and piano, in a recent transcription by Chris Trotman for solo violin, harp, and strings.

Both received lush, lyrical performances from an ensemble which included members of the SSO and the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra, also celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The “Romance” featured Hagen as well, who shaded his tone from robust to delicate in capturing the warmth of this lovely eight-minute confection.

The SSO then turned in a powerful rendition of Mendelssohn’s fourth, or “Italian,” symphony, to round out the concert’s first half. From a surging opening “Allegro vivace,” to a fleet “Andante con moto,” a flowing “Con modo moderato,” and a rambunctious closing “Saltarello-Presto,” Rhodes coaxed an urgent energy from his musicians that never flagged. 

William Hagen
The high point of the evening was Hagen’s riveting account of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The opening “Allegro non troppo” was broad and spacious, with the 26-year-old, Utah-born soloist balancing interpretive maturity with technical skill, especially in the demanding five-minute cadenza. Duetting stunningly with SSO principal oboe Nancy Dimock in the central “Adagio,” and playing vigorously through the “Allegro giocoso” finale, Hagen achieved a strong rapport with Rhodes and the fervent orchestra.

After a thunderous standing ovation, Hagen presented a whirlwind solo encore of the “Allegro assai” finale from Bach’s Sonata in C. The return of this charismatic artist to Springfield would be welcomed in a heartbeat.

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Detroit ‘67


Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT
through March 10
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Dominique Morisseau’s exquisitely crafted “Detroit ‘67” is a powerful reminder of the so-called “race riots” that erupted across American cities in 1967. Detroit is Morisseau’s hometown, but it serves as a metaphor for what was, and what was to become a turning point in the cultural lives of all Americans.  Punctuated by the optimism and soul of Motown—one of Detroit’s musical gifts to the world, the story begins with a sister and brother who have inherited their family home.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) likes life the way it was. Her brother, Lank (Johnny Ramsey), has plans to open a neighborhood bar with his best friend, Sly (Will Cobbs). Neighbor and friend Bunny (Nyhale Allie) adds a level of sass and funk, but these four actors/characters convince their audience that they’ve had a history together and that they belong to a community in Detroit. Their petty squabbles, difficult past, and desire for the future are all upset when Lank brings Caroline, a white woman (Ginna Le Vine) beaten into unconsciousness, to the safe haven of the home’s basement as Detroit begins to burn and the forces outside begin to impact the characters’ lives.

Directed by Jade King Carroll and with an effective scene design by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Nicole Pearce, and brilliant sound design by Karin Graybash, the play establishes Detroit as a place where past and future clash. Morriseau’s metaphors are powerful and she is the type of playwright who knows when humor is needed. There are some very funny lines and character interpretations that all serve to build to the exciting, heart-rending conclusion.

The pace of this production, though, works against the message. Whether the director thought it necessary to slow the action so that the powerful words could be experienced by the audience, or the actors needed the time to traverse the big stage, the production plods somewhat through Act I, though there are some dramatic, even chilling moments in Act II. 

What Morisseau has effectively created, though, is a snapshot of American history. The breadth of this moment in time is also highlighted by a display in the upper lobby of the theatre that juxtaposes black and white photography of Detroit with Hartford’s own racial and civil unrest in 1967. This story needs to be told, and the important controversies of the late 1960’s should never be forgotten.

February 22, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony, Latin Lovers, Hartford Symphony Orchestra


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
February 15–17, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Red roses in the hair or lapels of many Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) members set a festive Valentine’s weekend tone for the fifth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 75th season. Led by their Assistant Conductor Adam Boyles, it featured five Latin-style works by four composers, all but one HSO premieres.

The concert opened with the only piece likely to be familiar to many listeners, Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” written in 1936 and last played by the HSO in 1999. Named, according to the composer, after a “Harlem-type nightclub” he had visited in Mexico City, its original melodies are based on Mexican popular themes and dance rhythms. A lively performance under Boyles’ animated baton got the evening off to a foot-tapping start, which never let up from then on.

Julien Labro
Next came two works by Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla which featured the bandoneon, a South American concertina, and French-born soloist Julien Labro. Playing his instrument as it rested on his knee after he placed his right foot on a bench, Labro produced a colorful range of sonorities in both the energetic 1974 “Libertango” and the more virtuosic three-movement 1979 “Concerto for Bandoneon, String Orchestra, and Percussion.” The HSO and Boyles had a field day in both pieces.  

A warm ovation brought Labro back for an encore, which he played on an accordina, a mouth-blown cross between a harmonica and an accordion. With lush accompaniment from orchestra and conductor, he gave a loving account of the main theme from the Italian film “Il Postino.”

Intermission was followed by the most dramatic music of the evening, “Three Latin American Dances,” written in 2004 by Peruvian-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Inspired by Bernstein’s “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances (from which Boyles led a thundering audience-participation “Mambo” as a closing encore), it showcased a battery of exotic percussion, including bongos, thunder sheet, and rain stick. Joyous renditions of these dances and of Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s sumptuous, nostalgic 1994 “Danzon No. 2” sent the enthusiastic audience home in a romantic glow.

Attendees at Boyles’ entertaining and informative pre-concert talk caught the mood early in a sensual tango lesson by elegant dancers Chantelle Johnson and Kadeem Jordan from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Bloomfield.

February 21, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 24, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel of the same name, which also inspired two popular films, this 2013 musical opened in London, running for three and a half years before a reworked version transferred to Broadway, where it ran for nine months before launching the current national tour.

With a book by David Greig, and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the “Hairspray” team), the production tells the story of how and why legendary chocolatier Willy Wonka reopens his mysterious chocolate factory for a tour by five lucky winners of golden tickets found in Wonka candy bars. Replacing the injured actor Noah Weisberg for the entire Hartford run, stand-in Benjamin Howes is a kinetic and appealing Wonka, rivaling even Gene Wilder in the 1971 film, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Unlike in the book and films, Wonka doubles in the stage version as the candyshop-keeper who opens the show with its most familiar musical number, “The Candy Man” (yes, the Sammy Davis, Jr. hit). This is one of three songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley from the film that are featured in the show, along with “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination.” The charismatic rendition by Howes quickly sweeps the audience into the musical’s magic spell.

While all five golden ticket winners are children, only the titular Charlie Bucket is played by a child actor. As on Broadway, three young actors alternate performances in the touring cast. On opening night 10-year-old, Henry Boshart gave a sweet, winning account of the role. He was ably supported by the heart-warming Amanda Rose (who nails her solo “If Your Father Were Here”) as his mother, and by the magnetic Colin Bradbury as his Grandpa Joe, who joins Charlie on his life-changing Wonka tour. Hilarious Brynn Williams as chewing-gum-loving “queen of pop” Violet and spacey Daniel Quadrino as “vidiot” Mike Teavee stood out as obnoxious fellow tourists.

While some antics in Act II may disturb the youngest viewers, eye-popping projection design by Jeff Sugg, astonishing “puppet and illusion design” (for Wonka’s “oompa loompa” employees) by Basil Twist, exhilarating choreography by Joshua Bergasse, and joyous direction by Jack O’Brien will captivate children of all ages who see this engaging production.

February 20, 2019

PREVIEW: WAM Theatre, Lady Randy


WAM Theatre, Lenox, MA
April 18 -May 5, 2019

The first main stage production of WAM Theatre’s 2019 season is the world premiere of “Lady Randy.” Written by and starring Anne Undeland, the play is an historical drama on the life of Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill. Performances will take place at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre.

Photo by Kristen van Ginhoven
The play was first developed by Undeland and director Jim Frangione at the Berkshire Playwrights’ Lab (BPL), making this a true collaboration of outstanding regional talent. From the start, BPL has been an essential part of creating “Lady Randy.” BPL’s mission is to give playwrights a safe and supportive environment so they can do their best work.

Undeland will play the title role, with WAM newcomer Mark Zeisler playing the roles of Winston Churchill and eight other characters. Undeland is well known to local audiences for her numerous one-woman shows throughout the Berkshires and VT. Zeisler has extensive credits on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country.

In 1875, the American heiress, Jennie Jerome, seemed to have it all. She had married an English lord; she was young, rich, and beautiful; and she had just given birth to Winston Churchill. “Lady Randy” takes its audience on a dizzying ride through the treacherous, kaleidoscopic sexual and political landscape of her marriage. This was a woman ahead of her time.

Undeland stated, “I hope that the audiences will connect with the production, the character, the story, the energy so that they themselves feel more human, more alive, more able to go outside and say ‘Why not?’”

For further information and to order tickets check WAM’s website at www.wamtheatre.com

February 19, 2019

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The 8th Annual 10x10 New Play Festival


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through March 10, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

What do ten playwrights, six actors, 2 directors, and one wiz-bang parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” song have in common? They all represent the fun, creativity, and whimsy of the ten plays in Barrington Stage’s 8th Annual “10 X 10 New Play Festival.”

Though described by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd as an opportunity to “escape from the cold winter months” the festival of short plays has a greater function. They may be the “warm up” for the summer season, allowing audiences to see the versatility that is the hallmark of Barrington’s seasonal offerings. The six very talented actors appear in different plays as completely different characters and yet, they capture the emotions that make us human and relate to the audience with energy and verve that highlight the human condition. The different plays move at lightning pace, but cover topics as diverse as sexual misconduct, same sex marriage and a veteran’s memories, faith, bravery, old fashioned chutzpah, parenting, memory loss, and a wedding in which everything goes wrong.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
The talented cast includes Michael Fell, Sarah Goeke, DeShawn Mitchell, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Keri Safran and Robert Zukerman. Five of the plays are directed by Julianne Boyd, and the other five by Matthew Penn. The actors move sets on and off of the stage while lighting and music serve signal transitions and the mood of the next piece. There is not a single dud in the ten plays but there were some clear audience favorites. One was “Twas the Day After Christmas” by Steven Korbar, in which a tightwad attempts, for the 8th year in a row, to return an artificial Christmas tree to a department store the day after Christmas. The other was, “Cold Feet” by Brad Sytsma, in which a bride sits amid chaos as members of the family and wedding party implode as the actual service gets closer.

The “10 X 10 New Play Festival” also allows Barrington Stage Company to introduce the summer season to patrons in the playbill, and this season is notable for the number of World Premiers that will be shown on both the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage and the more intimate St. Germain Stage. BSC has become a leader in innovative interpretations of classic theatre and comedy, and has successfully introduced audiences to new ways of thinking and responding with plays that can be challenging and thought provoking. With the season’s kick off “10 X 10 New Play Festival” Barrington Stage Company once again shows that we’re in for something great this year.

PREVIEW: Music to Spring Ahead! Free Band Concert


Classical Condominiums, Springfield, MA
info@historicclassical.org

Don’t forget to turn the clocks ahead on Sunday, March 10, 2019. On that same day that heralds in spring, listen to an exciting Sci-Tech Band free concert, titled “Music to Spring Ahead,” at 2pm at Classical Condominiums, 235 State Street, Springfield.

The Sci-Tech Band are recognized young musicians from Springfield’s High School of Science and Technology. Music Director Gary Bernice will lead his group through an upbeat program. Bernice’s accomplishments are well known, as he has led the band program at Sci-Tech to award-winning performances and has amassed an impressive number of participants and followers.

The concert is sponsored by Historic Classical, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the former Classical High School. The mission of Historic Classical is to keep the history and memories of the former high school alive by inviting the public to events at 235 State Street, the site of the old school where Classical Condominiums now exists, but still retains many of the architectural features of the historic building.

Spring ahead with the music! The venue is wheelchair accessible, and ample free parking is available in the adjacent Quadrangle Library/Museums parking lot to the right of Classical Condominiums. Spring ahead with the music. For more information, write info@HistoricClassical.org or call (413) 636-9550


REVIEW: Opera House Players, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum


Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through February 24, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Forum was the first (1962) of many legendary Broadway shows with words and music by Stephen Sondheim, and it’s currently receiving an exuberant production by the Opera House Players, inventively directed by George LaVoice, that’s a must-see for musical theater lovers.

Photo by Emma Connel
With a book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the setting is ancient Rome, and the source material is several farces by Roman playwright Plautus. It tells the bawdy tale of how a slave named Pseudolus tries to win his freedom by helping his young master, Hero, win the affections of Philia, the girl next door (a brothel). The clean and simple set by scenic designer Francisco Aguas consists of three houses, belonging to Marcus Lycus (the brothel), Senex (Hero’s father), and Erronius (away in search of his two children, kidnapped 20 years earlier).

Pseudolus (versatile Dennis J. Scott) and the three nimble Proteans (Ray Boisvert, Donato DiGenova, and Frank Cannizzo), who play 30 different roles, set a buoyant tone for the show with an ebullient “Comedy Tonight.” Patrick Connolly, a lanky Hero, sings “Love, I Hear” with endearing innocence, a quality to which Mallory Wray as the hopelessly na├»ve Philia adds vocal glamour in their charming duet “Lovely.”   

Complications ensue when Lycus (canny David Leslie) reveals that he has sold Philia to the self-infatuated soldier of fortune Miles Gloriosus (hilarious Tim Reilly). But not before Pseudolus, having procured her from Lycus, tells Senex that she’s his new maid, prompting the delightful “Everybody Ought To Have a Maid,” deliciously performed, with Karen Anne McMahon’s soft-shoe choreography, by Pseudolus, Senex, his “head slave” (“I live to grovel”) Hysterium (high-strung Rick Fountain, a hoot when he later impersonates a dead Philia – don’t ask), and Lycus.

Whew! Sounds complicated. But it’s all in great fun.

Musical director Mark Cepetelli’s spirited four-member band sounds much bigger, thanks in part to the large orchestra pit and strong acoustic of the company’s temporary home in the Enfield Annex (formerly Fermi High School). Colorful period costumes by the ever-resourceful Moonyean Field put the crowning (or clowning) touch on this magical production.

February 4, 2019

REVIEW: Theaterworks, A Doll’s House Part 2


Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

through February 24, 2019
By Stuart Gamble

 In 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s revolutionary, pro-feminist play “A Doll’s House” stunned its middle-class audience when the play’s heroine Nora Helmer opened the door and walked out on her husband and three young children. Now, 140 years later, playwright Lucas Hnath’s sequel, “A Doll’s House Part 2,” speculates on what happens after that iconic moment of a women’s battle against an oppressive existence.

It is now 15 years later and a middle-aged Nora returns. She is greeted by the Helmer’s faithful housekeeper/nanny Anne Marie. Understandably shocked by Nora’s sudden appearance, Anne Marie expresses both disbelief and a distant relief upon learning Nora’s reason to return. Soon, Nora also confronts her controlling husband Torvald, who is also visually shaken by Nora’s unexpected homecoming. Finally, Nora reunites with her daughter Emmy in a rather ironic mother-daughter first meeting.
Tasha Lawrence, Photo by Lanny Nagler

Tasha Lawrence’s Nora is a multi-layered characterization. Filled equally with fire and ice; her Nora is unafraid to let her feelings be known. Both sympathetic and frank, Lawrence shows the sound and fury of a woman who has boldly survived in a truly Darwinian way. Both warm and harsh, she confronts her accusers like a wrongly persecuted victim on trial who must defend her reputation and even her very reasons to exist.

The supporting cast performs equally as well with Lawrence. Amelia White’s Anne Marie nervously tries to quell Nora’s anger and newly-found freedom with disapproval and guilt for deserting her family. She even drops a few F-bombs that put Nora’s ego in its place. Sam Gregory’s Torvald at first appears rather doltish, but soon evolves into an equal sparring partner with Nora. Finally, Kira Player’s cold as ice Emmy, would have been better named Torvald Jr. for her passive aggressive insidious plan to silence Nora for good.

Director Jenn Thompson’s simple staging place actors merely confronting each other about Big issues. The production’s austerity is further emphasized by Alexander Dodge’s set consisting of two elegant chairs and three framed light panels that zap on and off at scene changes (courtesy of Phillip Rosenberg and Broken Chord’s respective lighting and sound design). Alejo Vietti’s elegantly simple costumes depict the rigidness of Victorian life.

One question lingers in this reviewer’s mind: Is a sequel necessary? And can it ever compare to the original? The answer is an unqualified Yes. The most relevant evidence is in Nora’s line to her daughter: “I’m not going to follow these bad [societal] rules, this is my chance to change the rules..”

A note to theatre-goers: This is the last Theaterworks’ 2018/19 play to be staged at its Pearl Street location. The remainder of this season will be performed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s Auditorium, while renovations take place at TW in anticipation of its 2019-20 season.

PREVIEW: Mt. Holyoke College Jazz, The Big Broadcast!


Chapin Auditorium, Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA
Saturday, March 2, 2019

Brian Lapis, Photo by Dori Gavitt
The Jazz Ensembles of Mt. Holyoke College present the 14th edition of The Big Broadcast! on Saturday, March 2 at 2PM & 7:30PM. Created and directed by Mark Gionfriddo, the concert is a re-creation of a live 1940's radio show featuring the Mt. Holyoke College Big Band, Vocal Jazz, and Chamber Jazz Ensembles performing well-known tunes from the swing era and the American songbook. Once again, WWLP-TV meteorologist Brian Lapis is emcee.

Mt. Holyoke College music faculty member Mark Gionfriddo originally created this performance for a small cabaret group he directed, and incorporated it into the concert season. It has since been designated as a Signature Event at the College. Gionfriddo has worked at Mt. Holyoke since 1986. In 2006, he conducted the MHC Big Band during two episodes of the popular NPR radio quiz show Says You!. Gionfriddo is also well-known in the region as music director of the Young@Heart Chorus.

Music will include memorable pieces written in what is referred to as The Golden Age of Radio; i.e. Glenn Miller and others of that ilk. Accomplished fiddler Zoe Darrow will join the concert as a special guest.

General admission tickets are $25 premium front and center seating, $20 regular seating. Senior and student discounts apply. For information call 413-545-2511 or 800-999-UMASS. For online tickets, visit www.fineartscenter.com. Doors open one hour prior to each performance. Snow date is Sunday, March 3.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade and American Women Composers


Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, Massachusetts
February 2, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Watching Maestro Kevin Rhodes conduct is always entertaining, and on Saturday night, he and the orchestra provided a program rich in musical texture and artistry.  Rhodes’ articulate and sometimes humorous introduction to each of the pieces helped connect the evening’s selections to cultural history and the evolution of women composers’ influence in composition and musical expression.

Joan Tower’s “6th Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” opened the program with a pulsating, bright sound.  Though her six Fanfares collectively became known as a feminist retort to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the “6th Fanfare” was written as recently as 2016, making Tower one of the two contemporary composers featured in the concert.   Tower’s “Sequoia” was a lovely contrast to the earlier piece, with its rhythmic expression of the majestic sequoia tree growing toward the sky.

A stunningly ethereal “blue cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon completed the contemporary works with a musical story created as a response to the grief she had about her brother’s untimely death.  Performed throughout the United States over 1,000 times last year, this piece integrated Chinese bells and musicians playing water-glasses (a glass harmonica) for a stunning sound that uplifted the heart.

Bal Masque, Opus 22, by Amy Beach was composed in 1894, and provided a link to the romantic style of Rimsky-Korsakov, featured in the second part of the evening’s fare.  In all of the evening’s offerings, many of the extraordinary musicians of the symphony had lush solos and demonstrated the exceptional quality of musicianship so prevalent in the SSO.

Based on the symphonic poem Scheherazade, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed a musical telling of the story of the Arabian Nights. Scheherazade, the concubine of a Khalif who slept with each wife and then killed them, told a story every night to forestall her own killing. In this piece, Maestro Rhodes energetically conducted as Concertmaster Masako Yanagita and her violin “told” the story while different sections of the orchestra picked up the theme for each of the four tableaux in the Suite.

The well-deserved standing ovation showed that the audience appreciated the artistry of the evening.  Notable too, was the number of very young audience members who seemed excited by what they had just heard, as well as the murmurs of audience members who were clearly moved by the evening’s entertainment.