Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 1, 2007

"Christmastime is Here"

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow
Weekends through December 15
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

If you want to be entertained and charmed, check out the Exit 7 Players’ "Christmastime Is Here," an original musical production that rediscovers the enchantment and humor within this hectic season.

For a cast that ranges in age from seven to decades more, the premise is ideal: dress rehearsal of a Christmas musical review. Their director is harried but everyone else is relaxed, upbeat. The first non-catastrophe is the unfinished painting of a cut-out horse (for drawing the sleigh) which the sleigh’s passengers take turns pushing and pulling, all the while singing, of course, "Sleighride." The power of a well-paced performance is off to the races.

There are 22 acts, all done well and some are outstanding. Such as a condensed version of "The Nutcracker" performed to Tchaikovsky’s music by the children’s ensemble and a few key adults (the Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy). The choreography (Aileen Merino Terzi and Amy Szczepaniuk Meek) is pleasing and appropriate for the fledgling corps de ballet. Mice, the Nutcracker’s army, The Russian Dance, The Chinese Dance (super delightful), and a dazzling Christmas tree – and that was only the third act.

Mini bursts of levity included a running gag (sometimes literally) of a cast member’s determination to sandwich in her rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in spite of the director’s objection; pantomimes of Guy vs. Tangled Lights while Gal Wrestles with Wrapping; and of two last-minute, desperate shoppers squabbling over a piece of clothing which they render into pieces.

In this spirited, gentle, amusing, wholesome musical, the commercialization of Christmas is banished. Instead simplified pleasures prevail, including the readings and recitations of Christmas classics and a letter from Iraq, a living Nativity scene, even a Carol sing and a rafter-rockin’ "Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree."

The Exit 7 Players’ Christmas show generates good cheer. Kudos to the writers and creators of "Christmastime Is Here" – Rebecca Sullivan, Robert Sullivan-Neer, Amanda Davis and Andy White; and to Director Amanda Davis; Musical Director Bonni Drumheller; Technical Director and Master Carpenter Paul Hamel; Calvin Anderson’s Lighting Design.

And bravo to the talented, enthusiastic cast, all 39 of them – the Adult Ensemble (16) and the Children’s Ensemble (23).

Next: Arthur Miller’s "All My Sons" in February 2008

November 29, 2007

"Sister's Christmas Catechism"

CityStage, Springfield
Through December 2
By Bernadette Johnson

Words prove inadequate to describe just how entertaining this production is. It’s one of those "you-had-to-be-there" shows. You don’t even have to be Catholic or “in recovery,” but if you are, Sister is sure to stir up more than one memory of your Catholic school days and provide fodder for many "tales told out of school." Yes, public schoolers, most of those stories you’ve heard have at least some basis in reality.

There is a set script, hilarious in itself, but spontaneity reigns. Mary Zentmyer brings wit and wisdom to the role and has an uncanny knack for catching members of the audience, make that her classroom, behaving badly. Classroom etiquette is de rigeur. Gum chewers beware. And keep those hands out of your pockets. There are consequences to pay for misbehavior. But then, there are also the holy cards ("baseball cards of the Catholic Church") and other "holy" trinkets to reward right answers. There are even pointers on what to buy (and not buy) nuns for Christmas, any perfume bearing Elizabeth Taylor’s name being particularly taboo.

Hilarity reigns in the second half of the show as Sister recruits, then dresses audience members for a Nativity tableau unlike any other. Much of the fun is due to the willingness of "volunteers" to laugh at themselves and allow Sister to bedeck them in shower curtains, lampshades and other makeshift costumes for the pageant. And let’s not forget Sister’s fascination with "Forensic Files" and her determination to find out what became of the Magi’s gold.

Yes, here is the Christmas story like it has never been told, and, hopefully, Sister's brief visit will become a holiday tradition at CityStage.

November 17, 2007


The Bushnell, Hartford
Running through December 9
By Bob & Sharon Smith

You can tell that the musical WICKED strikes a cord with the audience just based on the excited energy buzzing through the capacity crowd at the Bushnell. The audience responds to this tale of “what happened before Dorothy dropped in” to Oz, partly because it is a stirring production and partly because of the dual personalities of Elphaba and Glinda, the Witches Wicked and Good. Who, at one time or another, has not felt like an outcast or yearned to be popular, as are these two very different schoolmates? The last notes of the final number had not even been sung and the audience was on their feet.

Like the Harry Potter books, WICKED uses a fantasy setting to explore modern themes. “Where I come from,” the Wizard explains, “the best way to unite the people is to give them a common enemy.” When Elphaba discovers that some of the very issues she was hoping “the Wizard” would fix are of his own creation, she vows to use her
powers to set things right. Using misinformation and spin control, she is soon branded a ‘wicked” witch and declared a pubic enemy.

Unlike another fantasy franchise where the “backstory” of the villain is revealed, ("Star Wars" Episodes 1-3) the audience can readily accept and believe this origin story because it is presented with far more emotional and personal investment than that of Darth Vader. All of the characters grow and develop in WICKED and it is
often as much the story of Glinda as it is of Elphaba.

The leads certainly rise to the challenge; Carmen Cusak (Elphaba) and Katie Rose Clark (Glinda) were well matched as friends and foils. The music and lyrics by Steven Schwartz are evocative and stirring, giving Cusak a number of show stopping, emotion-packed numbers. “I’m Not That Girl,” “Defying Gravity,” and “No Good
Deed” brilliantly reinforce Elphaba’s inner life. “Popular” is Clark’s showcase and never has an ode to shallowness been crafted with such heartfelt conviction. In the end, when the two join together in “For Good,” the audience truly believes in the depth of their mismatched friendship.

The costumes of the inhabitants of Oz, despite their bright colors, are a bit grotesque and when they all donned round green glasses it looked like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” not Oz. But this is just a minor point in a brilliant production, which is getting its second run through Hartford in recent years.

One technical note: there was a crew member located in the light rigs that had the loudest headset voice ever heard in a professional setting. His voice rang out clearly during two very poignant musical numbers.

November 5, 2007

"The Taming of the Shrew"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
Through December 9
By Shera Cohen

For Shakespeare purists, the Majestic's production of "Taming of the Shrew" might disappoint. For the rest of the world (okay, Western MA), it is a huge hit. What a shame many believe Shakespeare and 16th century dialogue is over their heads. "Shrew" is especially easy for Bard novices to understand – perhaps the reason it is often performed and the reason it will receive kudos for the next six weeks in West Springfield.

The plot is well-known, with the overall concept being the battle of the sexes. Five centuries ago, women did as their husbands commanded. Shakespeare, however, was a playwright ahead of his time, whose females were oftentimes strong-willed. "Shrew" can be a benchmark for feminism.

This production is based on the original script – a play within a play. A troupe of actors happen by a drunkard, don him in regal duds, tell him that he slept for 15 years, and entertain him. The drunkard becomes a member of the audience.

This presentation, more than any other, takes the play within a play quite literally and hysterically, with an abundance of shtick, cheesy props, and oh-so-fake sound effects. Chris Rohmann directs his cast of 15 with a sense of delight and whimsy as a mix of Keystone Cops, Three Stooges, and "Mad TV." There is no shame (in fact, the opposite) in jamming as many gimmicks, pratfalls, and slapstick that can possibly fit in the two-hour show. Several lines stolen from other Shakespeare plays add to the fun. One would guess that William (Will, to his friends) is smiling at this 21st century adaptation.

Alan Schneider and Marina Morrow handle their leading roles with determination and fun. Schneider revels in taming his shrew. It is a pleasure to see some Majestic "regulars" tackle Shakespeare: David Healey, Steve Henderson, Chris Carey, Stuart Gamble, and Roger Patnode. The latter portrays the sound effects man with the job of ringing the Round 1 boxing bell as the men and women fight. Dan Robert is especially funny and very cute in drag.

Amy Davis' huge landscape stage design of brick, glass, cement, and wood easily creates multiple sets. The sound crew cleverly fills any time gaps (the play's start, set changes) with music, appropriately, from "Kiss Me Kate."

November 1, 2007


Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
Running through December 9
By Shera Cohen

While historians may guess at facts about the creation of these United States of America, no person in this century can go backwards 230 years. The most anyone can really know is hearsay. Given this obvious information, the musical "1776" is probably the best depiction of what happened on those hot summer days in Philadelphia.

"1776" is a thrilling, you-are-there (well, almost) account of the months, days, and literally the minutes leading up to July 4th. In spite of our knowing the outcome – to separate from England or not – there is definite tension in the play as the audience awaits the final count of the 13 voting colonies. The story is dramatic at its core, yet so full of humor that one can't help but laugh out loud, and often. The dialogue and song lyrics are purposeful and important.

How Goodspeed fits 26 actors on its small stage is still a wonder. In the play's first minutes, a huge British flag/curtain rises on the poised and motionless image of our founding fathers. It is stunning and receives instant applause. Every stage element is there and is perfect; i.e. set design, costumes, hairdos, lighting. In spite of having the burden of directing such a large cast, Rob Ruggiero makes each character an individual.

Peter Carey (John Adams) leads a troupe of excellent, professional actors/singers. His is a demanding role as he portrays this physically slight man with gigantic dreams, power, ego, and even self-doubt. Carey has the most lines and songs; he is the linchpin that holds the plot and the other 25 characters together. In significant supporting roles are Ronn Carroll (Ben Franklin) who looks exactly like he should look and spouts Franklin-isms constantly; Jay Goede (John Dickinson) as the uptight, conservative naysayer of the Declaration; and Glenn S. Allen (Edward Rutledge) whose "Molasses to Rum" song is almost frightening dramatic. There are only two women in the cast, and they hold their own well with the men. In particular, Jayne Paterson creates a very real Abigail Adams.

As it began, the final curtain is quite memorable with a trick which this reviewer will not give away. Every citizen in this country should see this play at least once.

August 22, 2007

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Jacob's Pillow
August 22
By Rachel White

Wrapping up their 75th season, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival welcomes world renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the Ted Shawn Theatre. Respected as "America's Dance Company" for their popularity throughout the country an around the globe, the contemporary company brings a wonderfully diverse repertoire to the stage.

Opening the evening, the first of five pieces is titled Baker's Dozen, choreographed by the widely famous and beloved Twyla Tharp. Set to solo piano music, the work is playful and flirty, while it is performed with the precise technique the company has been famed for. The second work, Kiss, is innovative and intensely passionate. Staged with dramatic lighting, the two dancers are suspended by rope harnesses throughout the entire piece. Telling an incredible story of the highs and lows a romance endures, the work is crafted with deep emotion and personal conviction.

Lickety-Split is the third performance on the evening's repertoire. Choreographed by company member Alejandro Cerrudo, the piece is set to the unique music by songwriter Devendra Banhart. This sensual and playful work is peppered with delicate gestures amongst the beautiful lines and shapes created by the three talented couples. Passomezzo, the fourth number, is dynamic and wonderfully athletic. Performed by a perfectly paired couple, the duet tells an emotional story of the give and take a romantic partnership requires.

The final work of the evening, Gnawa, is by far an amazing and breathtaking journey to experience. Danced by seven couples, all tremendously talented with beautifully sculpted bodies, the work is crafted with captivating energy and grace. Formations and lines are endless throughout the piece, while the seductive fluidity is simply inspiring to watch. The piece truly exemplifies the beauty and art that the human body can create through movement.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is truly a company that continues to evolve and amaze through the years. A force to be reckoned with on the world stage of dance, they are sure to leave their audience inspired and in awe long after the curtain has closed.

August 7, 2007

Mark Morris Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow
Aug. 7-11
By Stacy Ashley

The Mark Morris Dance Company returned for the Pillow’s 75th Anniversary Season with four pieces. Recognizing the opportunity to put live music with live dance, Morris invited musicians and vocalists from the Tanglewood Music Center. There is just something about having live music with live dance that makes it so much more.

The first two pieces were recently premiered and are nice additions to long list of works by Morris. In Italian Concerto the dancers move with precision performing trademark steps- the syncopated movements and the pendulum type swinging with arms and legs. I
In the piece Looky the dancers drift on and off the stage becoming either onlookers or the exhibit itself at a museum. Dancers move from one tableau to another, while other dancers perform ballet moves with mock histrionics. Morris, known for his humor and satire, didn’t miss the opportunity for some of the dancers to then become critics as they scribbled notes onto an imaginary notebook.

The last two pieces performed were Candleflowerdance and Love Song Waltzes. Candleflowerdance is a beautiful piece set to Stravinsky’s ‘Serenade in A’. The stage is set with scattered lit candles and flowers in a vase. The lighting is subtle to accentuate the mood. The six dancers push, pull, lean and collapse against each other, another Morris specialty. In Love Song Waltzes dancers shift through different partnering, moving across the stage creating formations that fold into one another. A witty and sentimental statement about love, Love Song Waltzes, was a beautiful way to end the evening.

August 1, 2007

Ballet du Grande Theatre de Geneve

Jacob's Pillow
August 1
By Rachel White

Staying true to founder Ted Shawn's vision and promise to bring the world's most innovative and diverse dance companies t Jacob's Pillow, the world famous dance community welcomes Ballet du Grande Theatre de Geneve to it's main stage this week. Performing two original pieces for their U.S. debut, the Switzerland based company bring a taste of the European dance scene for art enthusiasts to enjoy.

Opening the evening with Para-dice, the piece is performed with six dancers, all beautifully trained with exceptional classical ballet technique. The choreography, however, is anything but classical ballet. Crafted to demonstrate the dancers diversity, the contemporary work is performed to a variety of music, ranging from wildly exotic to tearfully beautiful. The dancers are fluid and dynamic all in the same moment and the symmetry of the lines and formations are molded with true artistic talent.

Loin is the second work performed of the evening and is a very diverse and complex piece of choreography. As a former professional dancer, turned educator and choreographer, this critic was awe inspired with the array of creative and passionate energy of which this piece was brought to life. Peppered with amazing timing and synchronized patterns, Loin is performed with beautiful athleticism and technique. A section that should be celebrated is performed wit two couples, all gorgeously trained and sculpted. A very modern twist on the classic pas de quatre, the couples demonstrate sheer grace and fluidity.

Ballet du Grande Theatre du Geneve brings a beautiful evening to their audience from the minute the curtain opens and leaves a lasting impression long after the evening ends. Though geared for the open minded dance enthusiast, the company brings a wonderful glimpse into the world of European dance and is sure to be enjoyed by all who venture into this rare and unique performance.