Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 21, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Magic & Glory"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
May 18, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

The title of this concert could just as well have been “Fearless Women,” with women as conductor and soloist, and eight local women receiving the SSO’s second annual “Fearless Women Awards” for the “courage, resilience, and empowerment” they exemplify, often “under the radar,” said SSO President and CEO Paul Lambert, who honored the six awardees who appeared with him on stage before the concert.

The program opened with the Overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1791 opera “The Magic Flute.” From the solemn opening chord through the fleet urgency of the main theme, with an imposing brass interlude, Canadian conductor Tania Miller, recent interim leader of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and the SSO gave a taut and brilliant account of this lively curtain-raiser.

Rachel Barton Pine
Perhaps the most fearless woman on the program was Rachel Barton Pine, who next soloed in Jean Sibelius’ 1905 Violin Concerto. She met the work’s fiendish technical demands with aplomb, varying her tone from hushed delicacy in the soft opening notes to sharp and robust in the forceful solo cadenza. The opening “Allegro moderato” was alternately suave and tumultuous, the central “Adagio di molto,” ravishing and warm, and the closing “Allegro, ma non tanto,” a boisterous romp. Miller and the orchestra provided vivid accompaniment.

Even more astonishing was Barton Pine’s tireless virtuosity in an entertaining, often hilarious series of variations on “Happy Birthday,” an encore which she dedicated to the SSO’s 80th anniversary this year. The large audience roared its approval and delight.

The concert ended with an electrifying performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1937 fifth symphony. Miller’s spoken introduction highlighted the fraught political background of Stalin’s Soviet Union against which it was written, in a successful comeback after a devastating review in the Communist Party newspaper “Pravda” of the composer’s popular opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”

Miller’s kinetic conducting drew from an inspired SSO: an eerie and probing “Moderato;” a klezmer-influenced “Allegretto,” with flashes of ironic humor; a haunting and heartfelt “Largo,” in which Miller put aside her baton to shape more nuanced phrasing with her hands; and a powerful “Allegro non troppo,” whose half-joyful, half-fearful closing notes remain, in Miller’s words, “an enduring mystery.”

The SSO’s next concert will be their second annual free Juneteenth “Freedom Day Concert” on Wednesday, June 19, at 3:00 pm.

May 13, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Mozart & Prokofiev"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT
May 10-12, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

The eighth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season presented three works in a ”classical” style and one recent piece in a more modern style. HSO Assistant Conductor Adam Kerry Boyles emphasized their differences rather than their similarities.

The concert began with Sergei Prokofiev’s 1917 first symphony, known as his “Classical Symphony” because he wrote it in the 18th-century style of Haydn and Mozart. But its four short movements – a buoyant “Allegro con brio;” a flowing “Larghetto;” a graceful “Gavotte: Non troppo allegro;” and a vivacious “Finale: Molto vivace” – also featured the spiky harmonies of his native Russia during World War I. Boyles and the HSO gave it a supple performance.

Angelina Gadeliya
Next came an HSO premiere, the 2016 piano concerto, “Spiritualist,” by New Jersey-born Kenneth Fuchs. In three short movements named after paintings by American artist Helen Frankenthaler – an ecstatic “Spiritualist;” a dreamy “Silent Wish;” and an exuberant “Natural Answer;” this colorful score was played with dexterity and imagination by Georgian-American pianist Angelina Gadeliya, with full-blooded support from Boyles and the orchestra.

Each painting was helpfully projected above the Belding stage, along with revealing overhead views of Gadeliya’s fluid hands at the keyboard.  Composer and soloist, both music professors at UConn Storrs, received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience.  

The program closed with two related 1786 works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the Overture to his comic opera “The Marriage of Figaro;” and the Symphony #38, nicknamed “Prague” after the city where it was premiered. Boyles and the HSO gave the overture a perky and playful spin. Their “Prague” symphony highlighted the mature Mozart’s variety of melodic invention in all three movements, from a mercurial opening “Adagio-Allegro,” to a radiant central “Andante” and a whirlwind closing “Presto,” which quotes an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro.”
 
Boyles is an animated conductor, who leads without a baton and whose toolbox includes a wide range of facial expressions, hand motions, crouches, leaps, and other postures, all in service of the music. His warmth, sense of humor, and easy rapport with audience and musicians alike bode well for his future with and beyond the HSO.

The orchestra’s final Masterworks program (June 7-9) of the season will feature HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan and violinist Melissa White in music of Simon, Bruch, and Holst.

Review: Springfield Chamber Players: "Johnny Appleseed & other Fun Stories"

First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA
May 12, 2024
by Lisa Covi

What is a happier childhood memory than a parent curling up with a picture book and being read to in your bed? Mother's Day in Longmeadow amplified that experience by gathering children of all ages at First Church of Christ to listen to three stories set to music (and a symphonic dance) performed by Springfield Chamber Players (formerly MOSSO). The composer and author of one of the selections were also on hand.

I don't ever think I will read or hear Munro Leaf's “Ferdinand, The Bull” again without recalling Marsha Harbison's braying violin playing Alan Rideout's arrangement for this story. Harbison introduced the tale, originally banned by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, as her favorite story. Martin Kluger's melodic voice narrated the tale – it was clear he is a vocalist and actor in addition to his other role as principal tympanist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

Clifton Noble photo by John Crispin
Boris Kogan on cello and Clifton J. Noble, Jr. on piano next performed Camille Sain-Saeen's
“The Swan” from his larger work, “Carnival of the Animals.” The delicacy of this movement inspired Anna Pavlova's trademark interpretative ballet. The piano evoked the surface of the water upon which the cello's swan passes across.

The centerpiece of the afternoon was Clifton J. Noble Jr's arrangement for “Johnny Appleseed: The Legend and the Truth.” The children's choir of the First Church sang catchy interludes to Jane Yolen's story of the Longmeadow native's journey to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Kara Noble narrated and introduced Yolen, who was present at the concert. The audience learned that Johnny Appleseed himself attended church in this very building. Michael Nix on banjo and Ellen Redman on flute joined the other musicians deftly enhancing the tale with original score and echos of American melodies.

The lively and euphonious afternoon drew active local families. Especially enjoyable were the projection of the text of the first piece and illustrations for all during the musical performance. Occasional imbalance of amplification made it sometimes difficult to hear the narration of the latter pieces.

The enthusiasm of the youth performers matched the professional musicians' dexterity. The opportunity for children to participate in the concert made a more impactful introduction to professional chamber music than my experience attending Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf.”

MOSSO's series continues with an outdoor concert in Longmeadow on June 13th at 6pm at the Maple Avenue Adult Center.

May 8, 2024

REVIEWS: Opera House Players, "Kinky Boots"

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
May 3, 2024 - May 19, 2024
by Shera Cohen

“Kinky Boots” echoes many musicals of through the decades; the lite ones with no hidden layers to tax the brains of audience members. Sometimes, a little bit of that is needed. “Boots” is contemporary fun.

The plot is essentially a version of the tried ‘n true: let’s put a play on in the barn, where the town rallies to mount a musical despite all sorts of problems. Instead, picture a rundown shoe factory, backlogs of footwear, the recently deceased owner, and the son who must reluctantly come to the rescue. The “barn story” always ends as a rollicking success. It’s not a spoiler to say that the “shoe story’s” ending is the same, with its criteria of success being the creation of bright, red, shinny, high-heeled boots; aka Kinky Boots.

Kudos to the actors wearing these boots; a tough bit of choreography. No one fell, except for the one actor who is supposed to hit the floor.

Cyndi Lauper, known for her many years on billboard charts, is the talent behind “Kinky Boots,” having written the music and lyrics. The musical won Tony Awards and has been kicking up its heels ever since.

The cast or 25 and band of 5 keep the music front and center with the script in the background. While “Boots” is not an opera-like musical as are many today,  it is not ladened down with dialog either. This factor offers those in key roles at least one solo, and sometimes part of a duet.

OHP must be applauded for selecting some of the best voices in the Valley. Yet, this is not a
surprise with Producer Moonyean Field and Director Sharon FitzHenry at the helm. These community theatre veterans know their crafts and the skills of talent onstage and backstage.

There is the problem of the too many set changes. Community theatre productions should not stray from the story, nor the staging indicated by the playwright. Yet, there could be some ways to tighten up the lags. That’s just a suggestion for next weekend’s shows.

Lead Michael King (the erstwhile factory owner) is “everyman”. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to portray “a regular guy” than the star. The audience has fewer expectations. However, King shines as a singer. It is through the lyrics that he shows his acting  prowess.

Cecil Carter (drag queen Lola) puts his label on the show that goes beyond the play’s text. Cecil struts his stuff and sings dramatic pieces with power and angst.

“Boots” presents a balance of three big, choreographed numbers at the start, end of Act I, and the musical’s end. The motley group of shoemaker actors are joyous on stage. Between Eddie Zitka (dance) and community theatre stalwart Bill Martin, “Boots” keep moving from start to finish.

April 28, 2024

Review: The Bushnell, "Wicked"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 12, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

"Wicked" is a playfully, mischievous musical presentation at the Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut. 

Photo by Joan Marcus
Through a dizzying myriad of themes, including nature versus nurture, the harm of classism, the detriment of excluding those who are different, and the power of hope, kindness, and love, "Wicked" retells the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Beginning with the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, and in keeping with all funeral celebrations, curiosity brings about the story of the bemoaned Witch's life, her hopes and dreams, her hardships, her friendships, her enemies, and her romances, as told by her best friend, Glinda.

Glinda, played by Celia Hottenstein, is a popular, perky, effervescent character who “seems” to get everything she wants in life. Hottenstein’s comedic timing and vocal range enhances the character's outrageous audaciousness and truly shines in her rendition of “Popular.”

Olivia Valli’s dramatization of Elphaba a/k/a The Wicked Witch of the West, as an in-your-face, termagant forced into being the scapegoat despite her good intentions is the perfect counterpoint to Glinda’s flighty vivaciousness. Valli’s renditions of “Defying Gravity” and “No Good Deed” are breathtaking for both the artist and the audience.

The brusque, productive manner of Kathy Fitzgerald of Madame Morrible; and Tom McGowan's creation of the charming Wizard, are spectacular as the anti-heroes. Boise Holmes’ portrayal of Doctor Dillamond is emotionally moving.

As for the atmosphere, it’s definitely not Kansas. The scenery is a medley of vibrant colors making up poppy fields and the yellow brick road. The Emerald City is dazzlingly vibrant enhanced by the contrast of metallic gears framing the stage.  A variety of dancing from simple box steps to complicated ribbon and acrobatic routines add to the enchantment. The costumes, a mixture of wigs, colors, and textures, complete the bizarre elements of Oz, thus creating a world where everyone is different, and ultimately the same.

"Wicked" offers a multitude of sights, sounds, and emotions; one might have to see it more than once, to take it all in.  

April 23, 2024

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

Goodspeed Opera House, Haddam, CT
through June 2, 2024
by R.E. Smith

Bouyant, playful, high-spirited and a little bit naughty, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is the type of musical that is becoming increasingly rare: one that doesn’t take itself too seriously or try to earnestly deliver a deep moral lesson. In fact, it revels in the idea that Dicken’s never actually finished the namesake novel, leaving the audience to decide the ending, setting the show on a foundation of chaotic energy. 

Rupert Homes won multiple Tonys for the original Broadway production including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Before you reach for the Google, this IS the same Rupert Homes who wrote and performed the 1980’s hit “The Pina Colda Song”. But his musical background is quite varied and, being British by birth, he took inspiration from Dicken’s London and 1800’s music halls.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Interesting to note is that the most successful songs are not actually connected to the “mystery” part of the script but rather the English pantomime tradition of the framing device. “There You Are”, “Off to the Races,” “An English Music Hall” and “The Writing On the Wall” have the peculiar effect of being so genre-familiar that the audience wants to sing along, even if they don’t know the words.

All this opens the book up to a much lighter tone than the Dickens’s source material. Holmes has said that “the musical is to the novel what “Kiss Me Kate” is to the “Taming of the Shrew”. Exaggerated melodrama, double entendres, split personalities, hiss-abale villains, and broad stereotypes (gleefully acknowledged) abound.

A few characters are crafted to be audience favorites and the performers at Goodpseed do not disappoint. Liz McCartney as Princess Puffer, David Beach as Durdles, and Jamie LaVerdiere as Bazzard each have smaller, but memorable roles, with cracker-jack comedic timing and crowd-pleasing numbers. Lenny Wolpe as “the Chairman” is on-stage more than any other, serving as ringmaster, narrator and “stand-in”, and his energy is deceptively consistent throughout. He makes an immediate connection.

The costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski is vibrant and fun, Ann Beyersdorfer’s scenic design is at once modern, but nicely referencing the music hall setting. 

More than usual the cast is given the opportunity to connect with the audience and break the fourth wall. Often and repeatedly. Like a theatrical nesting doll, we’re watching actors, playing actors, playing characters in a mystery, set inside a music hall, staged at an Opera House.

All this makes for comedic hard work, but the entire cast makes it look effortless. The only unsolvable mystery with this show would be if someone was seen leaving the Opera House without a smile on their face!

April 22, 2024

Review: Majestic Theater, "The Play That Goes Wrong"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through June 2, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Laughter billowed from the Majestic Theater for a solid 2 hours during the performance of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Described as a cross between Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes, this play within a play depicts a community production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” 

Photo by Kait Rankins
The farce begins before the lights go down as two "crew members" place/misplace props and
make last minute repairs to the mantle, grandfather clock, and lighting. As these preparations extend, the audience starts to realize that the game's afoot. Chris Bean (Jack Grigoli), the character who plays the director and stars as Inspector Carter, provides a brief introduction to the play. As each character takes the stage, they valiantly perform though the mistakes of the actors, production, and literal collapse of the elaborate set.

The Majestic's cast includes actors familiar and new to their theater. These polished performers not only have the talent for timing and physical comedy – no small feat that includes scaling a bookshelf to a loft action-area, but also the chemistry with other players that allow audience members to believe  that those on stage are community members struggling to keep the play going.

Two examples are Mariko Iwasa's Annie, a gifted mime who projects earnestness as both a tech and understudy; and Shaun O'Keefe's Robert, who scrambles about the set convincingly while accusing and denying his character's role in the murder investigation.

The design of the set is ingenious to fail so consistency and convincingly without truly injuring the actors.

“The Play that Goes Wrong” gets it right for diverting and entertaining. Even if absurdist comedy is not your cup of tea, those seated in the theater will immediately become caught up in the visual surprises, performative flourishes, or plot twists that ensue. There are a few blind spots for the patrons -- on the left and right sides of the stage that obscure some key action areas, so the best seats are in the middle. This kind of production is particularly suited to multiple viewings as the staging and special effects are a delight to behold. Be prepared to giggle, hoot, and guffaw in the best aspects of live theater.