Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 29, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, “Eleanor”

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 7, 2021
by Shera Cohen

It’s no wonder that Barrington Stage Company has named one of its theatres after recurrent
playwright Mark St. Germain. Each summer for at least the past decade, BSC and the writer have partnered in giving birth to a new play. Many of these stories are biographies; most are snippets of the lives of famous men and women in history books.

A sweeping panorama of the life of one of the most inspirational, intelligent, and influential women in America describes St. Germain’s premiere play “Eleanor [Roosevelt]”.

It is never a surprise when a theatre designers take an essentially bare set and mold it into numerous indoor and outdoor scenes, in a process invisible to the audience, but with significant impact just the same. Include one of the exceptional actors of our day and a tight well-versed script, and “Eleanor” has become St. Germain’s most exceptional biographic play to date. That’s not just me spouting accolades at BSC. I know of what I speak, as I have seen ten St. Germain bios.

Harriet Harris
photo by David Dashiell
Remember “Frasier,” a successful comedy of several years ago? Well, Dr. Frasier Crane hired Beebe, an agent whose flattering descriptions would be obnoxious, aggressive, egotistical, and loud. Actor Harriet Harris’ nasal shouting at lightning speed seemed to be her trademark. I hated Harriet. One benchmark of a good or superior actor is to forget all prior roles, only to see the character in front of the audience. Not to be factious, but it was only because Harris “looked” like Beebe, that I “recognized” her.

Harris portrays Mrs. Roosevelt as wise and cunning, ready to roll up her sleeves to do whatever it takes to support her belief in human rights, as well as rights for herself. Harris balances a woman with a large physical presence, with a naivete that seemingly belies her strength. Not that Harris creates a perfect First Lady, but rather a female mirroring her husband's ideals and intellect, which the U.S. of the 40's needed.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Harris recreated Eleanor’s life from teenager to widowhood. What a feat to memorize an entire one-woman play, while at the same time act in another play at another theatre in the evenings. Director Henry Stram has a keen eye for posturing and moving Harris along with the script. Bah humbug, I say to those audience members who demean single-character theatre. 

Ms. Harris received an instant Standing O, and my guess is that Mrs. Roosevelt did as well in her day.

July 28, 2021

PREVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, "Falstaff"

Berkshire Opera Festival, Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
through August 23, 2021

Newcomers to Berkshire Opera Festival include Joanne Evans and Max Jacob Zander, who will perform in the mainstage production of "Falstaff" this August. They shared a few thoughts with ITS about the opera and the roles of these talented artists. 

Joanne, have you ever performed in Falstaff or other Verdi operas before? 
I've never performed in a Verdi opera , but I've seen Falstaff countless times. It is my favorite Verdi opera by a country mile.

What do you find most challenging about your role as Mrs. Meg Page? What do you look forward to most about your role?
Despite what was said about Verdi before he composed Falstaff, he was a brilliant comic writer. The comedy in the music comes from these fast and wordy passages, as well as certain opposing times signatures piled on top of each other. These are absolutely the most challenging moments of the role, but also the most exhilarating. What I like most about Meg is her biting humor. 

What gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career? Who are your opera heroes?
Honestly, the Spice Girls were my first musical heroes, but when I eventually came around to opera, the person who really set the bar for me was Maria Callas. My heroes now are Mirella Freni, Beverly Sills, Anita Rachvelishvili and Erin Morley. I am a huge Tamara Wilson fan and have watched her YouTube channel for years, so working with her in Falstaff will be a real "pinch-me" moment.

Joanne, do you play any instruments?
I get by as a pianist. I studied jazz piano for a time, and occasionally venture into writing my own songs.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
Only for my audition. I live in nearby Catskill and the drive was absolutely stunning!

Max, have you ever performed in Falstaff or in other Verdi operas before?
The first role I sang professionally was Borsa in Rigoletto back in 2014This production will mark the fifth time I’ve done Falstaff. My first production was at Indiana University in 2013 and I sang Bardolfo. I went on to sing Dr. Caius with Opera Saratoga in 2017 and, later that year, made my debut in the UK singing Bardolfo to Sir Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. During the pandemic, I recorded Dr. Caius for the Social Distance Opera project, and I am beyond thrilled to be returning to Bardolfo for my debut with Berkshire Opera Festival this summer! 

What do you find most challenging about your role as Bardolfo, what do you look forward to most about your role?
I know the obvious answer is definitely the fugue, but I’ve done this show enough times to not freak out about it anymore. If I had to choose a most challenging part, it’s probably rattling off Bardolfo’s machine-gun-of-a-line in Act 2, Scene 1.

As far as what I most look forward to from Bardolfo, I would say he is super likable and such a joy to play.  ut more than anything, I am looking forward to making music with and for people again. This production’s opening night will mark my first performance in 17 months, and I cannot wait to be back at it, telling stories and making music for people again.

Max, what gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career?  Who are your opera heroes?
My initial exposure to opera really came when I was a sophomore in high school. I went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Opera to see Le Nozze di Figaro. It was hilarious and I loved it. After the performance, someone told me that opera singers don’t use microphones and it blew my mind wide open! Later that year, someone donated tickets to my high school to take ten students to go see the Richard Tucker Gala. The two pieces that really stuck with me that day were the Pearl Fishers Duet and the Te Deum from Tosca. It felt so powerful and I had no idea opera could be THAT!

As far as my opera heroes, I may have to go with Charles Anthony. If that’s an unfamiliar name, you might be surprised to know that he sang almost 3,000 performances with the Metropolitan Opera. Anthony sang almost exclusively comprimario/character roles at the Met, and I think that he is one of the greatest examples of someone in that repertoire who sang beautifully, treating the music and text with the integrity it deserves.

Do you play any instruments?
I mainly play piano and guitar, but I also have a working knowledge of the string, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Before getting into opera, I wanted to conduct and compose. I conducted my first orchestra when I was 16 years old and spent a lot of time learning how the various instruments work.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
I have, but it’s been a VERY long time. I’m super excited to be coming back!

REVIEW: Festival of Contemporary Music, Fromm Concert

Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA 
July 25-26, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Looking for some summer fun? Try a Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concert. While that might not be everyone’s first instinct, there was no cooler place to be on a warm recent Berkshire afternoon than the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

Named for longtime new music patron Paul Fromm, this year’s annual Fromm Concert showcased a wild variety of music by six living composers from five countries, played and led mostly by talented student musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center. It opened with Danish composer Per Norgard’s brief 1988 tribute “Hut Ab!” [“Hat Off!”] (which “must not exceed one minute,” he cautioned) to a Danish new music festival director, exuberantly played by TMC clarinetists Jakob Lenhardt and Sangwon Lee.

A five-piece ensemble next presented African-American composer Jeffrey Mumford’s shimmering 2008 suite of eight short (one-to three-minute) movements, “a garden of flourishing paths,” honoring his teacher Elliot Carter and reflecting the West Garden Court of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, with sensitive leadership by TMC conducting fellow Adam Hickox. This was followed by Englishman (and Festival Director) Thomas Ades’s multi-layered 1994 “The Origin of the Harp,” impeccably rendered by nine players under the sure hand of TMC conducting faculty head Stefan Asbury.

The last three pieces on the program featured two pianos. Five selections from Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Jatekok” (“Games”), written since 1973, were brilliantly played by TMC pianist Mathilde Handelsman and New England Conservatory faculty member Stephen Drury (joined hauntingly in one piece by TMC offstage hornist Xin He). Handelsman and TMC pianist Barry Tan performed Scottish composer Judith Weir’s rhapsodic 1990 “Ardnamurchan Point” with color and flair.
Andrew Norman

American Andrew Norman’s riotous 2015 “Frank’s House” (evoking the angular designs of architect Frank Gehry) brought the house down, so to speak, as TMC percussionists Ben Cornavaca and David Riccobono nimbly tore into a daunting array of instruments while pianists Drury and Yukiko Takagi playfully mixed quotes from Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” with suggestions of Bartok and Messiaen. Rarely have musicians had so much visible fun on stage.

Three of the composers (Mumford, Ades, and Norman) were present and happily acknowledged the audience’s joyful applause.

July 26, 2021

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Jiayan Sun

Sevenars Music Festival, The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 11 - August 15, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled their 2020 season, this beloved family-based music festival has resumed its full schedule in 2021 of six live Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortably rustic Academy at Worthington in the heart of the Berkshires. They are recommending that patrons maintain a three-foot distance between parties and that unvaccinated patrons wear masks in the hall.

Jiayan Sun
On July 25 rising Chinese-born pianist Jiayan Sun played Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. Now a music faculty member at Smith College, Sun said in a pre-concert Zoom interview that he enjoys playing them together not only because they comprise Beethoven’s “final statements in the genre” but because the “intimate experience” of performing them while he was a Juilliard student on a fortepiano made for the composer had given Sun “a deeper understanding” of “Beethoven’s sound world” at this late stage of his life. 

The sonatas Opus 109 and 110 have similar structures, with two short movements leading into a longer climactic finale. Sun’s approach to each was flexible in the volatile opening movements, turbulent in the fleet “Prestissimo” and “Allegro molto” second movements and striving for maximum contrast within both groundbreaking finales (a theme and variations in Opus 109, and two versions of an “Arioso” and “Fugue” in Opus 110). Omitting an intermission, Sun tackled the dramatic first movement of Opus 111 with a vengeance, then the extended, visionary “Arietta” finale with energy and nuance.

Most striking about the pianist’s take on this trilogy is that it’s a young man’s view (Sun is 31) of Beethoven’s late work, emphasizing its boldness and innovation. His technical control was flawless, and his emotional grasp of the music compelling. It will be interesting to hear how his interpretation may evolve ten or twenty years from now, perhaps into more reflective, even spiritual terrain.  

No Sevenars concert would be complete without the assortment of homemade refreshments normally served at intermission but here offered as a festive post-show opportunity for enthusiastic concertgoers to thank their gracious host, pianist Rorianne Schrade of the founding Sevenars family, and to complement their charismatic soloist.

REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theatre "Mr. Fullerton"

Great Barrington Public Theatre, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington
through August 1, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Ever heard of Morton Fullerton? Neither did I. Is a play titled "Mr. Fullerton" enough to base a long two-act play on? Initially, I would have replied, "no". But the play's posters of a woman wearing Gilded Age garb, and mere mention of the name Edith Wharton were draws for me to see the premier of a play by area playwright Anne Undeland at the new Great Barrington Public Theatre.
One can learn about Edith at visits to the Mount, nearby in Lenox. which I highly suggest. At the very least, most are aware of Wharton's prolific and exemplary writing of novels and short stories. Realizing that at a certain age and pushed by her mother, it was mandatory that she marry, Teddy Wharton's money, charm, and good looks would be sufficient for the loveless match. It's no wonder that Edith had so much time to spew out novel after novel.
Yet, in mid-life she met the handsome, charming, and experienced lothario Fullerton. For a time, Edith put her writing career on hold; penning love letters and journals instead. The play has no buildup of  plot and dénouement but draws a segment of Edith's life that many readers have been curious about, but few knew. Undeland has filled in the blanks of Edith's love life, penning her play so purposefully that audience members would have no question between truth and fiction. 
Dana Harrison (Edith) and Marcus Kearns (Fullerton) create a flirtation and affair with fun and gusto. Harrison gives a quality performance that shows her school-girl giddiness growing into deep love, ultimately into betrayal. For a woman who was so bright and educated, Harrison’s Edith in this play is first a woman seeking love. On the other hand, our man with a past and the proverbial little black book, Kearns is not up to the standards of Harrison, partly because he has far less stage-time. 
Glenn Barret as the ever-present author and Wharton confidant Henry James adds comic relief. Yet, I would have liked to have seen the man who wrote great novels like "The American" with distinction, not as  comic relief. However, maybe that was James' personality and Barret did a tip-top job. My guess is that the playwright well-researched her characters, presenting the man who she assumed to be James.
In a four-character play, it is difficult to name one actor as “the star.” That said, Myka Plunkett, as Wharton’s maid Posy, stole the show. While never upstaging other actors, Plunkett sunk her smile, demeanor, and even calisthenics into the sprite Posy. Yet, Plunkett’s Posy is not all fun and frolic; the actress tells the audience a bit about the character’s unpleasant past. Posy became an extremely important character, segueing from background maid to Wharton’s dear friend.
Moliere-like quick comings and goings from one room to another on a small stage purposely styled the play as shorter than it actually was. Not a single word or action was overspent, unnatural, or unnecessary; all signs of an excellent playwright, director, crew, and cast.

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “King Lear”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 28, 2021 
by Shera Cohen
The presentation of “King Lear,” one of The Bard’s well-known tragedies, was a wise decision on the part of Shakespeare & Company to launch its post-pandemic (hopefully) summer season. The play combines two dramas, although not equally; one on a global scale and the other at the home front.
Christopher Lloyd
For the most part, unless labeled as a comedy, war is often the backdrop of most Shakespearean plays. Lear is king of one of the factions in conflict. Yet, the real chaos is between the King and his three daughters, and the daughters against each other. Paramount to Lear’s wars is the one within his own mind. Twenty-first century observers might call Lear’s disease Alzheimer’s or at the very least senility.

Allyn Burrows, executive director at Shakespeare, Nicole Ricciardi, director of “King Lear,” along
with cast and crew, took on a challenge bigger than they could handle. Their ace card was hiring actor Christopher Lloyd for the lead role. Those who remember Lloyd from TV’s “Taxi” and/or Doc in the “The Back to the Future” series, immediately think of his physical humor and booming comedic voice. Neither quality was needed to create Lear. This is not meant to judge Lloyd, but to say that the actor was out of his element in this intense lead role.
The New Spruce Theatre, built on the grounds to accommodate Covid-19 rules, has pluses and minuses. The design for the actors and audience is superior to most outdoor theatres, somewhat reminiscent of the Globe in London. The minuses were sound problems. Just as in the 1500’s, the voice was the sole means of communication between actors and patrons, many of the newer company members couldn’t fully succeed without microphones.

Ricciardi’s direction sometimes left characters wandering off aimlessly. Unplanned and misplaced  comedic bits included times when a wheel barrel carried a dying or dead character onto the stage; sadly evocative of “Spamalot”.
Ted Hewlett was the violence designer for this production and the fight sequence toward the end of the play was the brilliant segment that “King Lear” needed. Hewlett and two character adversaries put on a realistic show that lasted at least five minutes, putting the audience in awe of the skills of all three.

July 23, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, “Glory Denied”

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through July 24, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After the Covid-19 pandemic limited their 2020 season to two virtual events, BOF’s sixth season is its biggest yet, presenting two fully staged operas and a free concert of music inspired by Shakespeare. If their opening production of Tom Cipullo’s 2007 “Glory Denied” is any indication, 2021 could also be BOF’s most exciting season to date.

With a libretto adapted by the composer from Tom Philpott’s 2001 oral history of the same title, the opera is based on the true story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war. Captured in South Vietnam by Vietcong forces in March 1964, he was released nine years later in March 1973. Raising their four young children and assuming Jim is dead, his wife Alyce was by then living with another man.

Tenor John Riesen
The opera’s four characters - younger and older versions of Jim and Alyce – are portrayed at BOF by a uniformly outstanding cast of four experienced singers, who also assume a few smaller roles (Vietnamese guard, Pentagon spokesman, etc.). Baritone Daniel Belcher’s older Jim was bitter, tenacious, and irascible. Tenor John Riesen brought youthful energy and vulnerability to younger Jim. Soprano Caroline Worra captured the anguish and determination of older Alyce with unerring authenticity. And soprano Maria Valdes found both the girlish naivete and the growing desperation in younger Alyce. 

BOF Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor Geoffrey Larson led a fiery performance of Cipullo’s vibrant and communicative score. The warm, intimate acoustics of the 300-seat McConnell Theater in the Daniel Arts Center of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington insured that every note played by the crack nine-member ensemble from the BOF orchestra was clearly heard.

Staging by director Sarah Meyers and scenic designer Cameron Anderson placed the characters on separate but adjacent platforms, which allowed for the minimal interaction in the libretto through memory and reality but emphasized their fundamental isolation from each other. Colorful costume design by Charles Caine, sensitive lighting by Tlalok Lopez-Watermann, and omitting an intermission intensified the 80-minute score’s visceral impact.

This searing production demands to be seen and confirms BOF’s stature as a leading presenter of world-class professional opera.