Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 2, 2020

Look-back: Allyn Burrows, Artistic Director, Shakespeare & Company

Theatre lovers bemoan the absence of productions at every venue in the Berkshires and are coming to accept the numerous electronic alternatives. But the language, the movement, and the community of actors/crew and audience is just not quite the same. In the meantime, those onstage, backstage, and seated in front of the stage, whether on their couches or at their computers, are filling in the depth and effect of live performance of theatre as best we can.
Below is a reprint of our exclusive interview with Allyn Burrow of Shakespeare & Company, Lenox from May, 2018

INTERVIEW: Allyn Burrows, Artistic Director, Shakespeare & Company

by Shera Cohen

In the Spotlight had the pleasure of interviewing Allyn Burrows, new Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA.

If Allyn Burrows’ face looks familiar to theatre enthusiasts, especially to those who visit the Berkshires in the summer, it is. For many years, Burrows worked as an Artistic Associate and acted in countless Shakespeare & Company (S&Co) productions – comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

Allyn Burrows
Photo by Olivia Winslow
He is particularly remembered for his roles in King John, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry IV, Part 1.

Burrows served as Artistic Director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston where he directed and acted. Burrows’ talents have also been seen on many stages in New England; i.e. Huntington Theatre, Lyric Stage, Merrimack Repertory Theater.

He has been a busy man, performing in prestigious theatres throughout the country. If you haven’t seen Burrows on a stage, he may be familiar from roles on TV or film.

For the company, for audiences, and for me, it is wonderful that Allyn Burrows has returned home.

In the Spotlight (ITS): I had the privilege of watching you perform a few decades ago at Shakespeare & Company. What it is like for you to return many years later, now wearing the “hat” of Executive Director?

Burrows: Well, it's not a lot different from my last job as Artistic Director of Actors' Shakespeare Project in Boston. It's great to be back at Shakespeare & Company, though, and there are a lot of moving parts. Very exciting in that regard.

ITS: In addition to being the man in charge, will you be directing and/or acting? Is it fair to ask which of these three jobs you enjoy best?

Burrows: They all require different types of brainpower, so it's a tossup which I enjoy the best. I won't be acting this summer, just acting and producing.

ITS: What goals do you intend to keep from the troupe’s many years of existence? What about your personal goals?

Burrows: I intend to preserve and honor the legacy of what's been created over these past four decades, and to transform the unique qualities of this amazing company into something that resonates in the community and hearts of people who experience this place. Personally? I'm hoping to be the best father I can be. And I'll strive to be a better artist.

ITS: How is a season formed? Is there conscious effort to balance Shakespeare’s with other playwrights? New writers? New works?

Burrows: Season formation comes out of a lot of discussion, about makes good theatre, what's important for us to be saying, what's fun, what's gratifying, what will draw people here, and what has impact. Contemporary plays are an important part of what we do.

ITS: What would you say to potential audience members who “fear” Shakespeare?

Burrows: Come along for the ride, it really won't hurt, and you'll be surprised how much the material affects you.

ITS: Are there any anecdotes that you would like to tell our readers? While you think about that, I have my own anecdote about you. It was years ago when outdoor performances took place at the Mount. During a particular comedy, you ran down to the stage (which was grass) and snatched my purse, which was on the ground, en route. You proceeded to look through the bag. While laughing, I also hoped, “Please don’t take anything out of the purse to show the audience.” Who knows what was in there?! You were a gentleman, my bag returned intact, and the show went on.

Burrows: Holy smokes, the audacity! Who was that guy? I'm guessing it may have been “Midsummer Night's Dream” and I was playing Oberon (king of the mischievous fairies). Let me apologize these many years later for the intrusion. Can't really top that one. All the kooky antics make up the fabric of what we do.


May 8, 2020

Stratford Festival Award-Winning Film Series Coming to a Couch Near You!

My Vicarious Return to Canada’s Shakespeare
by Shera Cohen

The title of one of my On the Road articles for In the Spotlight was “Canadian Mission: To visit the Top 10 English-speaking theatre cities in the world”. Having already journeyed to NYC and London, Toronto was next on the list. The date was August, 2013. Book-ending the city of Toronto were the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival within less than two hours by train on both sides. Returning to these six-month long theatre fests is definitely on my “to do” list. However, 2020 is nothing like it was seven years ago. The longest excursion I take these days amidst the Coronavirus is from my couch to the mail room. However, I can reminisce and live vicariously through this inventive programming. You might want to read my article HERE

Stratford Festival Award-Winning Film Series  Coming to a Couch Near You!

You're about to have the best seats in the house (literally) as the Stratford Festival launches a virtual "film festival" offering FREE streaming of 12 of their finest Shakespeare prosuctions. One film will be released on their YouTube channel every Thursday at 7pm ET and will remain available for three weeks.

Their full lineup is below. Join the viewing party Thursday, or watch at your convenience. Each film will debut with a live viewing party - allowing us to get together virtually while we can't gather in our theatres. Details to come! If you can't make the viewing party, fear not! Each film will be available for free for three weeks on their website.

STREAMING DATES: 

KING LEAR: April 23 - May 14

CORIOLANUS: April 30 - May 21

MACBETH: May 7 - May 28

THE TEMPEST: May 14 - June 4 

TIMON OF ATHENS: May 21 - June 11

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST: May 28 - June 18

HAMLET: June 4 - June 25

KING JOHN: June 11 - July 2 

PERICLES: June 18 - July 9

ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA: June 25 - July 16

ROMEO AND JULIET: July 2 - July 23

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: July 9 - July 30

Filmed live before a Stratford audience! All films are captured live at the Stratford Festival in Canada.

May 5, 2020

In the Meantime…

Hello Readers:
It is noticeable that the arts continue, albeit in different formats, during this forced hiatus by Covid-19. The arts of nearly all genres will endure, whether resuming where they left off at the end of 2019 and/or morphing into other shapes and sounds. Neither of these results are not necessarily bad.
Selfishly, we hope that our website and Facebook fan will remember to seek out In the Spotlight reviews, previews, articles, and interviews once the world revs up, hopefully in the summer of 2020. In the meantime, In the Spotlight will post a variety of stories that are as applicable now as they were when first published.
From time to time, our writers will post. We are so thrilled that ITS writers are all sticking with us for the duration of the pandemic, and beyond. Their reason? Each has a sincere love of the performing arts, particularly the local arts.
ITS will offer up-to-date listings that the impact of the pandemic has had on your favorite venues. Some sites will temporarily close for the summer months, some will readjust their calendars to include as many programs as originally planned, and some might be relatively unscathed. I imagine that September will be jam-packed with numerous performances planned for the summer months. Please try to adjust your personal calendar to fill in as many art forms as you enjoy.
We start our look back on In the Spotlight. The history of ITS must include the history of Bravo Newspaper, Springfield, MA
The following is a reprint of an article written by Shera Cohen, co-founder of Bravo, in December 2016.

By Shera Cohen

In March 1991 Bravo Newspaper was founded, serving the local arts community as a free monthly publication. Twenty-five years later, Bravo has become In the Spotlight, a website primarily promoting the arts in Greater Springfield. We thank our many writers and other staff and thousands of readers through the years.

Equally important is formal acknowledgement to the Springfield Cultural Council for its initial grant which launched Bravo. That successful application for $6450 provided financial support, along with at least 50 grants from throughout Pioneer Valley, for the next 25 years.

Shera Cohen of Springfield, and Lauren Grossman of Longmeadow (now Arizona) ended their work for the Chicopee Centennial in December 1990. “What to do now?” Both women had theatre backgrounds. “Let’s start a theatre newspaper,” Grossman said. Cohen followed with, “I don’t even know how to use a computer.” They both learned the mechanics; the subject matter grew from theatre to all the performing and visual arts; and office space moved from Grossman’s pool table, to Cohen’s living room floor, to a tiny office with stained glass windows, to one larger office on State Street, finally to three different spaces on Main Street, with each location larger than the one before, all in downtown Springfield.

The Springfield Cultural Council grant paid for production and printing of 1,000 papers monthly with distribution only in Springfield. Cohen and Grossman were the entire “staff” of Bravo which included writing articles, selling ads, design and paste up (computers didn’t perform as they do now), and delivery. Year #2 of Bravo increased distribution city-wide and to five cities/towns; each due to receiving more grants from as many cities. A few writers and a salesperson were added to the team. At its 12-year mark, Bravo delivered boasted 50,000 readers in 48 cities with a staff of approximately 50 at its high point. 

Radio media came next, when Cohen and Grossman approached WMAS for a weekly arts program, hosted by themselves. Did either have radio experience? No. But staff at WMAS offered free air-time on its AM station on Sundays – first for 15 minutes at 6:15am, then at 6:30am when more listeners might be awake, eventually to a half-hour at 9am. Thirteen years later, the show ended with a huge thank you to five additional hosts and the many, many listeners who said, “I heard you on the radio.”

Looking toward the 21st century here, Bravo printed its last publication in 2003, at the same time morphing Bravo to In the Spotlight electronic media. Many writers from the newspaper continued with Spotlight, even those who joined in 1992. 

In the Spotlight continues as a local source of reviews, previews, interviews, and “on the road” features on community and professional performing arts in the region.

April 16, 2020

Goodspeed Musicals Launches Musical Theatre Podcast


Goodspeed Musicals Presents:
IN THE SPOTLIGHT, Goodspeed's Deep Dive into Classical Musicals

Michael Fling and Anika Chapin of the Goodspeed Artistic Staff explore and examine favorite musicals—from contemporary hits to classic Broadway. They’ll share fascinating tidbits about each musical’s creation and history, then analyze a song or scene to illustrate how the dramaturgy of the show works. 

Whether you're "Getting to Know" a show for the first time or learning more about an "Old Friend," you're guaranteed to fall in love with musical theatre all over again.

EPISODE 1: SOUTH PACIFIC
EPISODE 2: ANNIE
New episodes every Wednesday

https://www.goodspeed.org/in-the-spotlight




March 30, 2020

"Spotlight on Broadway" Website

Shared with ITS by Michael Moran

If you're passing the time glued to your computer, perhaps now is as good a time as any to connect remotely with something we all love: The Theatre! More specifically, the theater buildings themselves. I happened to run across this website, filled with pics of (I believe) all of the Broadway theaters, inside and out. The rest of the site has interesting articles about Broadway history as well. I had a blast browsing through it and perhaps you will too!

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater-architecture

March 10, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven & Tchaikovsky

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 7, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Though SSO music director Kevin Rhodes had planned this program, guest conductor Daniel Hege, who directs the Wichita (KS) Symphony and Binghamton (NY) Philharmonic orchestras, embraced it enthusiastically for a memorable SSO debut.

In a pre-concert talk, he called the opening work, “Radiant Circles,” by Augusta Read Thomas, “a ten-minute crescendo” and “less a traditional piece than a sonic experience.” He also cited a strong jazz influence in all the African-American composer’s music. Hege led the SSO in a vibrant account of the colorfully orchestrated 2010 score, which features unusual instrumental combinations, including vibraphone, glockenspiel, and crotales (tuned bells).

Photo by Angelo Xiang Yu
Next came the grandest of all violin concertos – Beethoven’s – in a thrilling rendition and sensational SSO debut by 29-year-old soloist Angelo Xiang Yu. Trained at the New England Conservatory, the Mongolian-born, Boston-based violinist received both an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award in 2019. He described the “challenge” of this concerto to Hege’s pre-concert audience as its requirement throughout of “perfect intonation and beautiful sound.”

That he achieved both tonight was evident in the standing ovation he received after a broad 25-minute opening “Allegro ma non troppo” movement, to which he added hushed delicacy in a radiant “Larghetto” and dazzling finger work in a headlong “Rondo” finale. Conductor and ensemble provided vivid support.

The concert ended after intermission with Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard first symphony, which he nicknamed “Winter Daydreams” and gave titles to the first two movements. While this early work lacks some formal cohesion, it abounds in the melodic invention of his popular mature symphonies. The opening “Reveries during a Winter Journey” is melancholy and folk-like; “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist” is tender and haunting; the Scherzo third movement is elfin and sprightly; and the Finale builds from a slow start to a triumphant close. Hege’s leadership and the SSO’s playing were inspired, especially in the galvanizing Finale.

Noting the concert’s place in observing the SSO’s ongoing celebrations of women composers and Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary, Hege also praised the high quality not only of the musicians but of Springfield’s Symphony Hall, insightful reminders from a welcome visitor.

REVIEW: Stageloft Repertory Theater, A Little Night Music

Stageloft Repertory Theater in Collaboration with the Greater Worcester Opera, Fiskdale, MA
through March 15, 2020
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Tatumn Coraccio Photography
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are always peppered with edginess and wit, often making it difficult for less experienced singers to articulate rapid-fire tongue twisters and pointed barbs. In Stageloft Repertory Theater’s collaboration with seasoned opera veterans from the Greater Worcester Opera, these difficult lyrics come trippingly off the tongues, and humor and double entendres delight the appreciative audience.

Musical Director Aldo Fabrizi conducts the excellent three-piece orchestra with aplomb, and the vocalists rise to the occasion of telling the almost mythic story through allegory and expression with the dignity and poise representative of 1900’s Sweden. This production has a talented cast, most of whom have very impressive credentials and experience. Only space limitations prevent a listing of the entire ensemble, but it would be negligent not to mention both Elaine Crane in the role of Desiree Armfeldt and Todd Yard as Fredrik Egerman for their exceptional grasp of character and outstanding voices. There is chemistry between the two that underscores the story’s development, and they light up the stage individually as well as in the scenes they share.

Director Richard Monroe moves his 17 actors around the small stage with precision and poise. The very clever set, designed by Scott Taylor and Aldo Fabrizi, complete with movable panels is highly functional and appropriately spare. Elaine Crane’s costume designs add a layer of elegance, and Ezekiel Baskin’s lighting design creates an illusion of a much bigger stage and establishment of scene.

The intimate Stageloft Theater is a wonderful location to see a play and, in this case, to appreciate the natural voices of the performers without microphone distortion or over-amplification. Stageloft Repertory Theater has the ambitious goal of producing a new show every month, and the way they succeed is by partnering with other companies. If this production, featuring the talent of the Greater Worcester Opera, is any indication of the quality of the work, it is undoubtedly a venue to consider. Hopefully, these two artistic organizations will continue to collaborate on many future projects.

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, Mamma Mia!

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
www.theatreguildofhampden.org
through March 15, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

The Theatre Guild of Hampden has transformed its new home, the Red Barn at Fountain Park in Wilbraham, MA into an immersive theater-in-the-round, with four resourceful musicians split at opposite ends of the stage and dressing rooms behind curtains in the four corners of the building which are shared by the 24-member cast and various props which they entertainingly move on and off stage between scenes.

The Guild’s reimagining of this rustic space proves surprisingly hospitable to their exuberant production of the ultimate feel-good musical, “Mamma Mia!,” of which Wikipedia says at least seven versions are presented somewhere in the world on any given day. Director Mark Giza and stage manager Jan Plumb have ingeniously used every square inch at their disposal, with the ensemble dancing around the actors just offstage and often providing harmonies, seen or unseen, from their dressing rooms.  

Repurposing many familiar “earworm” hits by the Swedish pop band ABBA as its score, the show follows 20-year-old Sophie to a Greek island where her mother, Donna, runs a tavern and will soon host her daughter’s wedding. Without telling Donna, Sophie has tracked down and invited three older men, one of whom is likely her father, to the ceremony. “Mama Mia” debuted in London in 1999, on Broadway in 2000, and on screen in 2008 (with a 2018 sequel). In other words, just about every musical-theatre lover has already seen “MM.” Yet, it is still a winner that everyone should enjoy. Yes, “The Winner Takes It All.”

Carina Savoie’s clarion singing voice and fine acting chops make her an endearing Sophie. Kiernan Rushford’s Donna turns wistful charm to youthful energy when lead-singing with her girl group, the Dynamos. As her band mates/sidekicks, Jami Wilson’s hilarious Tanya sounds and looks like a young Joan Rivers in “Does Your Mother Know,” while Kathy Renaud’s scene-stealing Rosie is a hoot whenever she appears, but especially in her big number, “Take a Chance on Me.”

Michael DeVito is charismatic as Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, and music director Mark Cloutier does a double star turn as one of Sophie’s might-be dads, British banker Harry. Choreography by ensemble member Dina DelBuono is elastic and energetic.

For sheer fun and joy, this spirited production would be hard to beat. Unfortunately (as Giza quipped in his welcoming comments, “We’re hotter than Hamilton!”), the entire run is currently sold out.

March 2, 2020

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The Pitch

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 5, 2020
by Konrad Rogowski

“The Pitch,” Stan Freeman’s first play, being premiered at the Majestic Theater, is a classic mix of what the public sees and hears about career making, or career breaking, moments in sports, and what really occurs in the shadows of some public figure’s lives, moments that oftentimes define the direction of those lives.

Photo by Kait Rankins
So it appears to be for Vern, played by R. Steve Pierce, a promising young pitcher who blows his first, and only, outing with a major league team by throwing only one pitch, a pitch that loses the game and hurls his career, his marriage, and his health into a 50-year downward spiral. And that would have been the end of his story, until a young writer, portrayed by Julian Findlay, starts to dig into Vern’s past, only to find too many unanswered questions as to the real reasons for Vern’s disintegration.

To solve this life-long question, the writer engages an older sports writer and long-time friend of Vern’s, featuring John Haag in the role, to help unearth the truth, only to find his writing partner becoming increasingly evasive and resistant as conflicting stories start to mount, and Vern’s public history make less and less sense.

What is ultimately discovered and made public then creates the second wave of trauma for those who are left to expose the story, as the issues of personal loyalty, ethics, the right for the public to know, and the burden of profiteering off of other’s personal misfortunes all land at the feet of the two writers.

The interaction and conflicts between the two leads are credible under Danny Eaton’s direction, with flashbacks that illuminate the past and help build the tension as the pieces of Vern’s private puzzle fall disturbingly into place.

February 27, 2020

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Jesus Christ Superstar

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 1, 2020
by Sharon Smith

50 years is a long time for a show to be around, especially one that, for many, is so closely tied to the era in which it originated (1970-71.) But unlike the similarly themed “Godspell”, the music of which leans heavily on the sound of flower power, Jesus Christ Superstar relies on the power of rock, and that foundation opens up many more opportunities for reinvention.

It is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus, told primarily from Judas’ point of view. This actually makes for a title character who is somewhat detached from the proceedings, and not nearly as magnetic as one would expect. After all, the tale is told by a detractor.

Fortunately, James Delisco Beeks, as Judas, is a powerful and effective performer. From questioning follower to outright betrayer, his passion and confusion are powerfully expressed in such numbers as “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Damned For All Time/Blood Money" and “Superstar.” Jenna Rubah, as Mary (Magdalene), has only one solo, the top-ten song “I Don't Know How to Love Him” but her presence and emotional connection to Jesus is felt throughout. As it is a show that is sung-through, without spoken dialogue, she gives an emotional performance through movement and physicality.

Since the music is so familiar, having been presented in multiple forms over the years, from concept album to (most recently) live TV, this production wisely chooses to let it stand on its own and concentrates on updating and reinventing the packaging. The choreography by Drew Mconie, and executed by the impressively large ensemble, is energetic, physical and modern, in numbers like “What’s The Buzz” and “The Temple.” Inventive use of props gives the dances an extra visual flourish.

The staging, set in an abandoned cathedral, has rock concert influences, and combined with the spectacular lighting, reinforces that impression. The choice to have Jesus and Judas play instruments reinforces the musical theater/concert hybrid. Some choices work better than others: the costuming is fairly contemporary and, in the case of a few fashion and style choices, slightly jarring and a bit distracting.

For those not familiar with the show, or the New Testament of the Bible, the visually stimulating staging, fast pacing and lack of dialogue may leave one a bit confused as to who is who and what is happening. But the constant throughout the night is the revolutionary score of Webber and Rice. In that regard, the show really is like a concert because one can sit back and enjoy the music and the sights, with little regard for the story, and still be entertained.

PREVIEW: Mt. Holyoke College, The Big Broadcast

Chapin Auditorium
Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA
March 7, 2020

The Jazz Ensembles of Mount Holyoke College present the 15th edition of The Big Broadcast! on Saturday, March 7 at 2PM & 7:30PM. Snow date is Sunday, March 8. Created and directed by Mark Gionfriddo, who is also onstage as “Matt Morgan”, The Big Broadcast!  is a re-creation of a live 1940's radio show featuring the Mount Holyoke College Big Band, Vocal Jazz, and Chamber Jazz Ensembles performing well-known tunes from the swing era and the American songbook. WWLP-TV meteorologist Brian Lapis is emcee “Fred Kelley” for his 13th consecutive season. Mount Holyoke alum, bassist and singer Caitlin Jaene Mercer, will join The Big Broadcast! as special guest. 

Mount Holyoke College music faculty member Mark Gionfriddo originally created The Big Broadcast! for a small cabaret group he directed, and incorporated it into the concert season at Mount Holyoke College. This year’s program will include: Benny Goodman's "All The Cats Join In"; "It's Been A Long, Long Time" by June Christy and Stan Kenton; the Glenn Miller classic “A String of Pearls”; Peggy Lee’s “Black Coffee”, and a rare radio rendition of “On The Atchison, Topeka, and The Santa Fe” by the Andrews Sisters, which was never officially released.

Tickets (general admission): $25 premium front and center seating, $20 regular seating. Senior Discounts: $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Students: $10.

For phone orders, call 413-545-2511. Doors open one hour prior to each performance.

Chapin Auditorium is fully accessible.

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, Alexi Kenney & Renana Gutman

Wood Memorial Library & Museum, South Windsor, CT
February 23, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Alexi Kenney
The opening measures of Mozart’s rare two-movement Sonata, K. 304, told the capacity audience at South Windsor’s historic Wood Memorial Library that they were hearing a major talent in 26-year-old California-born violinist Alexi Kenney, eloquently supported by Israeli-American pianist Renana Gutman, his frequent recital partner since he first met her as a student ten years ago.

In helpfully engaging pre-concert remarks, Kenney had identified “lost love” as the unifying theme of this imaginative program’s five works. The recent death of his mother was palpable in Mozart’s somber opening “Allegro” and restrained “Tempo di minuetto.” The dark, rich tone of each musician’s instrument gave both movements tragic weight and solemn beauty.

The final movement, for violin and piano, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” from Messiaen’s 1941 “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while he was a French prisoner of war in German captivity, next portrayed divine love for humanity, even to the point of death. Kenney and Gutman performed this ethereal music with luminous intensity.

Schubert’s Variations on “Trockne Blumen [Withered Flowers],” the eighteenth song in his cycle “Die Schone Mullerin [The Miller’s Daughter],” followed in an arrangement for violin and piano that Kenney had argued works as well as the original for flute and piano. The duo’s dramatic account of this virtuosic 22-minute showpiece, which traces a forsaken lover’s surrender in death to his beloved’s rejection, made it hard to disagree.

After Kenney’s post-intermission comments introducing the program’s second half, he joined Gutman in an evocative rendering of Stravinsky’s arrangement for violin and piano of a plaintive aria from his opera “The Nightingale” in which the bird restores his beloved master, a Chinese emperor, to life.

Enescu’s 25-minute third sonata, subtitled “in the popular Rumanian style,” depicts the composer’s love for his homeland as remembered forty years after his lost childhood. Kenney and Gutman played its three challenging movements with technical finesse, rhapsodic nostalgia, and deep sensitivity to its mystical rapture.

An encore performance of Clara Schumann’s first Romance, a tender birthday tribute to her composer-husband, Robert, shifted the concert’s focus from lost to found love and brought it to a ravishing close in the mellow Wood acoustics. SWCA, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for 39 years.

February 25, 2020

Review: Tales of Two Women: Lizzie and Jane

“Pride and Prejudice”
Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through March 8, 2020

“Jane Eyre”
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordstage.org
through March 14, 2020

By Shera Cohen

Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre are approximately the same age, intelligent and clever, and live in England, albeit a few decades apart, but that is really no matter in the productions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” at Playhouse on Park and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” at Hartford Stage, respectively.

Back-to-back performances in one weekend are a theatre-lover’s dream come true. The plays, obviously based on the famous novels of the same names, bring required high school English class assignments to life. Lizzie and Jane take steps off the page to the stage, seemingly with ease. If only Austen and Bronte could experience their works, having been adapted and molded by Kate Hamill (“Pride’) and Elizabeth Williamson (“Jane”) for today’s audience, they would be ecstatic. The authors of these two, now classic, 19th century books shunned the mores of their female peers; wanting more than a life of boredom, seeming content, and marrying up. In her own way, Lizzie and Jane demand respect.

Photo by Meredith Longo
The contrasts of the primary character, her setting, and those who surround each are distinctly opposite. Austen’s story of brightness and gaiety is oftentimes outright funny. The plot instantly reveals that Mrs. Bennet’s (well-acted by Maia Guest) sole mission in life is to find husbands for her four daughters, especially the single-minded Lizzie. While Mother Bennet sees no problem in marrying off Jane (the pretty one) and eventually Lydia (the young one), she has given up on Mary (the plain one, charmingly depicted by Jane Bradley). Lizzie becomes the challenge.

Except for two actors, the remaining six portray over a dozen characters with gender and age-switching fast and furiously behind the curtain, onstage, and in the aisle directly in front of the audience. Many times an actor dresses and speaks as one character on the right side of her body and the left side as the man. However, rest assured, there is never confusion as to who is who in this pseudo combination of any Shakespearian comedy and/or Moliere farce.

A special bravo to Matthew Krob as Miss Bingley (a zaftig gentile lady), Winkham (a slippery military officer), and Mr. Collins (a prissy preacher). Kimberly Chatterjee and Nicholas Ortiz, our flirtatious lovers bring Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing” to mind, offering proof that the woman is of superior intellect and the male the well-meaning dullard.  Chatterjee and Ortiz create a nice match as they coquettishly play the game of teasing the other into an admission of their character’s love.

What makes “Pride” run like a well-wound clock are Kate Hamil’s adaptation and Jason O’Connell’s direction. The costumes, set design, English accents appropriately depict the early 1800’s. Ratcheting up the humor a few notches are the dance interludes between scenes; you know, those boring 30-seconds when sets are changed. Not at POP! The actors dance and audience stomp their feet to Bee Gees’ disco. “Pride and Prejudice” takes very little seriously.

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
For the most part, “Jane Eyre” lives in a dark, shadowy place with black silhouettes. The set is stark, and huge drawing room doors connote the many rooms and floors of the house. But darkness is even more than Jane Eyre would hope for. In few words, looks, and stances actress Helen Sadler, seated in a dark blue matronly dress at a small desk, narrates Jane’s story. It is a harder story to hear than for her to tell. Jane expects so little; anything can mean a lot. Yet Sadler slowly creates an intelligent and subdued wont in Jane’s demeanor and words, that she is due more than scraps of an existence.

“Jane Eyre” is a love story classic with a capitol “L”. Yet, trust is an equal partner for both lead characters. Chandler Williams begins his relationship with Jane as happenstance, then feigned gruffness, an awkward yearning, and eventually love. Williams is superb as the brooding, enigmatic Rochester. It doesn’t hurt that he is a Colin Firth look-alike and sound-alike.

The story is as much a mystery as it is a romance. Elizabeth Williamson directs her own adaptation of Bronte’s book in small bits and pieces strung together prudently with the sliding doors to create scenes.

“Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” were written in the 19th century. These characters and stories are apropos today; women are recognized as stronger than even they thought they were. Standing up for oneself isn’t a concept; it is a conscious action.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Love on Broadway

Springfield Symphony, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
February 22, 2020
by Lisa Covi

The latest program, “Love on Broadway,” by the Springfield Symphony showcased four vocalists for an enjoyable evening of selections from the 1950s-2000s. It was nice to see that the orchestra section of Symphony Hall was crowded, but not quite full of appreciative music lovers. The setting was relaxed, with audience members eager for the return appearances of Emma Grimsley and Jane Rhodes performing with two “bari-tenors” new to the annual themed program: Stephen Mark Lukas and Nathaniel Hackman. Conductor Kevin Rhodes' usual enthusiasm included his personal touch since he is married to Jane Rhodes and first met Emma Grimsley as the infant daughter of opera singers performing in Switzerland.

The concert opened with the only purely instrumental piece of the evening, “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel. Unfortunately, the prominent percussion section was slightly out of time with the rest of the orchestra, especially considering the necessity for snare drum. In contrast, the orchestra blended well for most of the evening's 20 selections and sound levels allowed for the vocalists to prove their musical and dramatic flair.

Grimsley performed a variety of ingénue parts with a lyrical soprano voice. She delivered a soaring melodic interpretation of “I Could Have Danced All Night” backed by wind instruments that supplied an almost choral accompaniment. Jane Rhodes provided strong comedic renditions notably channeling Lucy to Kevin Rhodes' Schroeder from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. This song was a late addition to the program but tied in neatly to this season's tribute to Beethoven's 250th birthday as the lyrics float on top of “Moonlight Sonata.”

Ms. Rhodes excels at the spoken passages of her musical numbers particularly the rhythmic bridal part of “Getting Married Today” from Company. Rhodes and Grimsley performed the favorite “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story which contrasted the strong distinct tones of each vocal line against Bernstein's lovely oboe lines. The men's duet “Agony” from Into the Woods was tuneful and humorous. Nathan Hackman demonstrated his rich chest voice with a resonant vibrato in “If Ever I would Leave You” from Camelot and “Lucky to Be Me” from On The Town. In his upper ranges, his voice was sometimes difficult to distinguish from the horn section. Hackman and Stephen Mark Lukas achieved an optimal blend on the unusual melody “Lily's Eyes” from Secret Garden. Lukas' comedic duet with Grimsley, “The Song that Goes Like This” from Spamalot, was the most entertaining performance of the evening and elicited laughs.

The sole detractor from a pleasant evening occurred in the audience. The pervasive odor of alcohol, the knocking over and stepping on plastic cups and a late-coming, early-leaving couple reeking of cannabis was reminiscent of the neglectful intemperance of an arena rock concert. However, the majority of the audience was friendly, personable and considerate of fellow audience members. The enthusiastic applause filled a quiet winter evening with love and happiness in Springfield's Courthouse Square.

February 18, 2020

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The 9th Annual 10x10 New Play Festival

Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through March 8, 2020
By Jarice Hanson

For the last nine years the annual theater extravaganza in the Berkshires has been kicked off by Barrington Stage Company’s “10 X 10 New Play Festival.” While these ten-minute plays are often fast-paced and favor comedy, this year’s festival may be one of Barrington’s best.

Cast of "Oy Vey Maria"
Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Since theater always shows us the funny side of the world in which we live, it’s not surprising that so many of the ten minute shows deal with the effects of living in a more technologized world. Gender issues and social change permeate a number of the plays, and the show concludes with an almost Borsht Belt treatment of the birth of Jesus. Situations veer from auditions for a five second play festival to Bob’s Discount Bungee Jump, to a serious and dramatically satisfying school Active Shooter drill.

The talented cast includes Doug Harris, Maya Loren Jackson, Peter Maclin, Keri Safran, Kenneth Tigar, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Half of the plays are directed by Julianne Boyd, and the other half by Matthew Penn. The actors move sets on and off of the stage while lighting and music serve to signal transitions between plays, and while it was a little difficult to understand how the transitional music fit the tenor of the plays, the music keeps the mood light and the audience engaged.

The playwrights involved in this project have a wide range of backgrounds and theatrical experience; the number of awards they have collectively won boggles the mind. These are not first-time authors. Instead, they seem to be masters of the craft and the clever situations along with tight dialog. The writers know how to reach audiences with warmth and meaningful messages.

The “10 X 10 New Play Festival” also allows Barrington Stage Company to announce their summer seasons for both the St. Germain Stage, and the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. This summer, expect to see two musicals (“South Pacific” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) on the mainstage along with two additional shows, and the St. Germain Stage will include five plays, one of which is a world-premiere co-conceived by Joshua Bergasse and Mark St. Germain, and a youth theater production of “The Supadupa Kid,” also a world-premiere. In short, look for a summer packed with song, dance, heavy drama, and lots of laughs at BSC.a

February 17, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Romeo and Juliet

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
February 14-16, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

For the fifth Masterworks program of its 76th season, HSO assistant conductor Adam Boyles selected four works by three 20th-century composers and one 21st-century composer to observe Valentine’s Day weekend from diverse perspectives.

Like last month’s, this concert also opened with two HSO premieres. First came young Guyanese-British composer Hannah Kendall’s 10-minute 2017 tone poem “The Spark Catchers.” Inspired by Lemn Sissay’s 2012 poem of the same name, the title refers to how “matchgirls” in 19th-century London caught wayward sparks when making wooden matches.

The vivid score closely follows the poem’s text, printed in the program book, and Boyles and the orchestra captured its festive spirit with gusto (as the HSO continues innovating with technology, it was instructive to watch a frontal view of Boyles projected behind the Belding stage during this piece).

Scott McIntosh
Next up was French composer Henri Tomasi’s exuberant but rarely heard 1948 Trumpet Concerto. HSO principal trumpet Scott McIntosh made dexterous use of two mutes to shade his rich, clear tone from bright to smoky in the mercurial opening “Allegro & cadenza,” bluesy “Nocturne,” and rambunctious “Finale.” Conductor and ensemble offered lively accompaniment.   

McIntosh then took a looser, jazzier approach to Walter Gwardyak’s lush arrangement of “My Funny Valentine,” from the 1937 show “Babes in Arms,” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. His opening duet with principal bass Edward Rozie, Jr. was especially fun.

The program closed after intermission with a brilliant account of excerpts from Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Unlike many other conductors who present this music, Boyles followed the sequence of movements in the full ballet rather than reshuffle their order for dramatic effect. His selection was also far more generous (a full hour) than usual.

This was easily the finest performance yet led by Boyles since he began his HSO tenure three years ago and one of the best ever by all the musicians, with whom he has clearly established a deep and warm rapport. They responded to his clear, dynamic leadership with playing of technical polish and profound emotion. Highlights among the 18 selections were: an ardent and sensuous “Balcony Scene;” a viscerally terrifying “Duel” (between Tybalt and Mercutio); and a meltingly compassionate “Juliet’s Death,” with its perfect closing notes of consolation and hope.