Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.