Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 9, 2023

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, "Christmas on the Rocks"

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through December 23, 2023
by Jarice Hanson
Jen Cody as "Karen"
From the moment you enter the theater and see the set flanked by two video screens running scenes from favorite childhood classic television shows and hear pre-show Christmas carols at bar-level volume, you know this show will be something a little different. The references to childhood icons and contemporary music trigger memories of Christmases past—the good—the bad—and the weird. For 95-minutes the audience becomes a family of strangers who are united by the collective popular culture that surrounds the Holiday Season.
“Christmas on the Rocks” was originally conceived of and directed by Rob Ruggiero in 2013, and Ruggiero has continued to direct all 11 iterations of the show since then. The concept is simple, but beautifully set up: the set is a seedy bar on Christmas Eve, with various characters from old TV programs popping in for a scene with the bartender. This year, the bartender, “Larry,” is played by the wonderful Richard Kline, known to many in the audience from the old television show, “Three’s Company” where he also played a character named “Larry." And the audience loves him.
Two actors, Harry Bouvy and Jen Cody have returned this year to alternate in the 8 scenes written by 7 different playwrights: John Cariani, Judy Gold, Jenn Harris, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Edwin Sanchez, and Matthew Wilkas. One of this year’s new offerings, “A Smidge of Midge” by Edwin Sanchez and Jacques Lamarre, capitalizes on this year’s big hit, “Barbie,” but the show wraps up with an old favorite, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Lamarre that is funny, poignant, and just the right note on which to tie the bow on this Holiday gift to the audience. 
It's clear that this show has become a favorite for many families (those with older children because of the adult situations and language) and groups of friends, because some people in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud or mutter something like “I love this one” when they saw Bouvy or Cody enter as characters they loved. Familiarity, whether it is with the actors, the characters, or the situations, fits the intimate space of TheaterWorks Hartford and makes this a Holiday celebration even the most holiday-weary audience member can enjoy. 
Kline, Cody, and Bouvy obviously love working together and their chemistry on stage is palpable. They seem to be having a wonderful time, and the audience apparently agrees. “Christmas on the Rocks” is a marker of our culture—especially for those of us who grew up with television as a part of our holiday, and a celebration of our collective past. It’s nice to see characters we recognize, even though they’ve grown up and have grown-up problems.  And yes, as the program professes, it is a little bit naughty.

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, “Dreamgirls”

Goodspeed Opera House, Haddem, CT
through December 30, 2023
by R. Smith

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
“Dreamgirls” is a veiled variation on the turbulent story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Berry Gordy and Motown Records. Perceived as a more “recent” show (it premiered in 1981) it is probably one that newer theatergoers have heard of but never seen. Even the Hollywood adaptation came out 17 years ago. Although having a large cast, and being ostensibly about group dynamics and family, it is individual elements that stand out in Goodspeed’s latest revival. 

When the ensemble works, it is in the group musical numbers that lovingly recreate the Motown sound, especially in the first part of the first act which is a rapid-fire musical journey through the mid/late 1960s. The title song, for instance, is spot-on “girl group.” There’s also some doo-wop, smooth R&B and even a little disco.

Then there’s the star making “(And I am Telling You) I’m Not Going” which belongs to the character of Effie. Even though the character is not immediately sympathetic, by the time this showstopper comes along, she’s earned the right to her pain. Director Lili-Anne Brown’s notes indicate that the first priority was to cast actors who happen to also sing and dance well and this Trejah Bostic, as Effie, certainly does. The powerhouse number succeeds because it is driven by emotion as much as vocal prowess and Bostic delivers both.

Mykal Kilgore’s character Jimmy (a James Brown surrogate) has just as many trials and tribulations as the title characters, and may actually have made for a pretty solid show just on his own. Jimmy is a lot of “id” and that requires comedy, pathos, manic energy and sheer personality to make the audience love him as they do. Kilgore’s facial expressions, line delivery and other-worldly singing voice exudes the force and depth of his talent. The energy level of the show is elevated each time he is on stage.

Much credit must be given to the performers and director for overcoming some inherent weakness in the book, which doesn’t give the characters much depth but rather relies on archetype. Ta-Tynisa Wilson, as Deena, especially, does all she can to give a very passive character some life, with her body language and presence. Never given her own true solo moment, Wilson still makes you take notice when she gets to step up and sing.

The show is full of visual excitement as well, evidenced by Samantha C. Jones costume design that spans almost 2 decades. Even the proscenium of the stage is bedecked in a shimmering fringe.

It is fitting that Goodpseed, with its mission of preserving and reviving American musicals, has staged this production and thoughtfully engaged an artistic team that brings a unique and appropriate authenticity to the production. While not an all-out, non-stop blockbuster, “Dreamgirls” has amazing moments of musical theatre greatness that should be seen by any devotee of the genre.

November 24, 2023

REVIEW: The Bushnell, "Moulin Rouge! The Musical!"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
Through November 26, 2023
By Jarice Hanson
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bushnell has stepped up its game this year with touring companies that are better than ever. In the current production, a cast of 38 talented singers and dancers accompanied by an exceptionally tight 10-piece band bring the Broadway spectacle "Moulin Rouge! The Musical!" to enthusiastic audiences in a sexy, suggestive treat for the eyes and ears.
The plot is thin, but the story is secondary to this experience for the senses.  Scene designer Derek McLane has created a beautiful, appealing cavalcade of sets to simulate the original club, the Moulin Rouge, which opened in the Montmartre area of Paris in 1889 and where the cancan was born.

Seamlessly, the sets morph from the club to the streets of Paris, celebrating the bohemian life, and the elegance of the wealthy. McLane's work is complimented by Justin Townsend’s spectacular lighting design and Catherine Zuber’s risqué, gender-bending costumes. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh won a Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award for her innovative dance and movement, and this cast delivers the intention of the choreography with energy and style.
When Baz Luhrmann created the original movie, "Moulin Rouge!," he used popular music as the soundtrack. In this staged production of the film, some of the music has been updated to include musical artists like Lady Gaga, for example, but the songs are all tunes the audience would know from other musical artists. There are no original songs written for the stage production, but those songs seem to take on a different meaning when interwoven into the sketchy story.
Gabrielle McClinton is a lovely leading lady who is the titular star of the Moulin Rouge, and Christian Douglas is the young American suitor with whom she falls in love. Both have wonderful voices that express great range and ability to interpret the songs. Robert Petkoff as the MC of the club delivers the comedy and Parisian smarmy quality expected in this type of spectacle; and Andrew Brewer is the sexy, evil Duke.  
The show is long – 2 hours and 45 minutes including intermission, and the two acts are somewhat uneven in action and pace, but that is not the point of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical!"
Audiences desiring a memorable story may be disappointed, but anyone who is familiar with the Baz Luhrmann film with be thrilled with the experience of being drawn into the environment of Moulin Rouge! the place, the experience, and the spectacle. The show is pure fun and fantasy, and very well done.

November 14, 2023

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Xiaohui Yang"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT
November 12, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

The third concert of SWCA’s 41st season featured Chinese pianist Xiaohui Yang – a winner of the 2017 Naumburg International Piano Competition, and a Curtis, Juilliard, and Peabody graduate - in a richly varied program of challenging repertoire, which she introduced with brief, informative, and touchingly personal comments.

She opened with a supple account of Mozart’s 1782 “Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman,” better known to Americans as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It must have delighted her seven-week-old daughter Maya, who she said was her rehearsal audience for this performance.

Next came sensitive readings of two Nocturnes by Faure. Placing the more “sorrowful” No. 7 in C-sharp minor (1898) before the sunnier No. 6 in D-sharp major (1894), Yang faithfully captured the full emotional turmoil of both pieces. To illustrate their “contrast” with the contemporary “Four Pieces for Piano,” Op. 119 (1893) by Brahms, she played these three Intermezzos and closing Rhapsody with a more classical restraint.  

Introducing the “Six Little Piano Pieces,” Op. 19 by Schoenberg, Yang was almost apologetic for the music’s atonal style. But her prediction that it would be surprisingly listenable proved accurate, as her crystalline keyboard touch teased out hints of melody in these sparkling miniatures.

Commissioned by the Naumburg Foundation for Yang’s Carnegie Hall premiere, Israeli American composer Shulamit Ran’s 2019 “Ballade” alternates declamatory with reflective passages. Yang said Ran told her to “have fun and run with it;” her exuberant approach to the work in South Windsor exuded that spirit.    

Crediting her husband for suggesting that she end the concert, as she began it, with a set of variations, she closed the afternoon with an electrifying rendition of Chopin’s 1827 “Variations on La ci darem la mano,” a flirtatious duet in Mozart’s 1787 opera “Don Giovanni.” In this showpiece Yang demonstrated the combination of technical finesse and interpretive depth that suggest a long and brilliant career ahead for this engaging young artist.

All concerts in this free series take place on Sundays at 2:00 pm, and seating on a first-come, first-served basis begins a half-hour prior. Next up SWCA will present violinist Irina Muresanu and pianist Daniel Del Pino on January 21, 2024.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Ravel & Debussy"

The Bushnell,  Hartford, CT
November 10-12, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

As she did on the first two “Masterworks” weekends of their 80th anniversary season, HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan surrounded two HSO premieres of recent rarities on the third program with two popular masterpieces from the standard repertory.

The concert opened with Claude Debussy’s 1894 Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun,” based on a poem of that name by Debussy’s friend Stephane Mallarme. In a spoken introduction, Kuan called it “the birth of modern music” and “full of ambiguity,” and the vibrant performance she led by the HSO captured both qualities, with special kudos to principal flutist Dominique Kim and harpists Susan Knapp Thomas and Mae Cooke.   

This was followed by fiery renditions of Chinese-born Huang Ruo’s colorfully scored four 2012 “Folk Songs for Orchestra,” which the composer hoped “to preserve and…transform…into new pieces of art.” Outstanding HSO soloists were concertmaster Leonid Sigal in “Little Blue Flower” and hyperactive percussionists Doug Perry and David West throughout.

Next came a real novelty: British-American musical polymath Michael Spivakovsky’s 1951
Cy Leo

Harmonica Concerto. Written in the light classical style of Leroy Anderson, its three tuneful movements demand the utmost virtuosity from the soloist. Hong Kong-born Cy Leo didn’t disappoint, tossing off its many challenges with kinetic and crowd-pleasing flair. Kuan and the HSO were committed accompanists.

But Leo’s encore - a jazz-inflected romp through the traditional Irish chestnut “Danny Boy” – was even more astonishing, from soulful interludes to audience handclapping, foot-stomping, and singalong. No more persuasive advocate for the harmonica in classical music can be imagined than this charismatic rising star.  

While the 15-minute suite is relatively familiar, the concert ended with Maurice Ravel’s seldom heard complete half-hour ballet “Mother Goose.” This 1911 score depicts four tales – Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and the Empress of the Pagodas – in music of great delicacy and charm. Kuan drew a dazzling account from all sections of the orchestra, and the lush “Fairy Garden” epilogue brought the full ensemble together for an exhilarating happily-ever-after ending.   

At the HSO’s next program (December 8-10), “Beethoven 5+5,” guest conductor Gerard Schwarz will precede that composer’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor”), featuring pianist Orion Weiss, and fifth symphony with a new piece by African American Adolphus Hailstork.

November 7, 2023

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, "Dover String Quartet"

South Mountain Concert Hall, Pittsfield, MA
October 15, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

Formed at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, ensemble-in-residence there since 2020, and named after “Dover Beach,” a 1931 song by Curtis graduate Samuel Barber, the Dover String Quartet – violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee; violist Julianne Lee, a member only since last month; and cellist Camden Shaw – brought a diverse selection of quartets from three centuries to an appreciative South Mountain audience.

Technical cohesion and interpretive maturity, even at their start as a foursome, was immediately evident in Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1793 Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74/3. The taut, galloping rhythms of both the opening “Allegro” movement and the “Allegro con brio” finale fully embraced the work’s nickname, the “Rider” quartet. The middle movements – a heartfelt slow “Largo assai” and a gently flowing “Menuetto: Allegretto” – were played with equal conviction.

Introducing Florence Price’s Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Shaw noted that like much of the pioneering African-American composer’s instrumental music, it was rediscovered only in 2009, over fifty years after her death, in the attic of her former home near Chicago. Likely written in the 1920s, its two surviving movements – a graceful “Allegro” and a folk-flavored “Andante Moderato-Allegretto” – were giving sumptuous, affectionate treatment by this ensemble.

The program – and the 2023 South Mountain season - closed with a dramatic reading of Franz Schubert’s 1824 Quartet No. 14 in D Minor. Its nickname, “Death and the Maiden,” derives from the composer’s 1817 song of that title, quoted in the second movement, which may reflect a premonition of his death four years later at the age of only thirty-one. The Dovers heightened this mood with a tumultuous “Allegro,” a haunting “Andante con moto,” including five starkly delineated variations on the song’s opening melody, a demonic “Scherzo. Allegro molto-Trio,” and a frenzied closing “Presto.”

“It’s about being part of something larger than yourself while not losing your individuality. It’s completely personal but also greater than you. It’s the ultimate form of making music.” This comment about chamber music by Dover first violinist Joel Link in a recent interview may help explain not only the many critical accolades that his ensemble has received but the enduring success of this century-old chamber music festival held in Pittsfield every September and October.