Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 31, 2008

AeroPlane 1929, Low Anthem & More

Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton
January 26, 2008
By Eric Sutter

Music is sound arranged into pleasing or interesting patterns. This evening proved three distinctively different sounds could co-exist in an often inspiring manner. The triple bill featured a fine array of diverse talent from the Pioneer Valley and beyond. First up was Aeroplane 1929 from Springfield and New Haven. The 5-piece band at first glance looked like any number of indie-rock bands. The sudden impact of the opening song from their 2007 CD, "The Holy Ghost," with its persuasive sound permeated the core of the listening audience. Acoustic guitar slowly built the musical tension with the addition of lap steel, electric guitar, keyboard and cornet in succession. It was topped off with Alex Mazzafero's singing the red, white and blues. The quintet performed songs strong enough to break through radio's stonewall. The stampeding "Hounds at Heels" showcased a garage rocker with drummer Wil Mulhern's steady beat. Insightful lyrics and melodic guitar riffs evoked and transcended what could be ready radio play. The title cut, "The Holy Ghost" began with subtle finger snaps as the music swelled up to an upbeat crescendo of electric guitar and keyboard accented by a pleasant glockenspiel solo from Wil Mulhern.

Low Anthem from Providence performed in a mellow down easy alt-country style complete with a three part harmony sound. Diverse and versatile in styles that ranged from folk/country to roots rock, the trio employed acoustic guitar, harmonica, stand-up bass, banjo and clarinet to amazing effect. "The Ballad of the Broken Bones" and "A Weary Horse Can Hide the Pain" were moody pieces that lulled the audience into intense lyric listening. Multi-instrumentalist Jocelyn Adams bowed a banjo and played a clarinet solo in the course of the evening. Their vocal harmonies with the man out front were what shined and had the audience singing the A.P. Carter classic "Keep on the Sunny Side." moving bowed bass solo.

Vocalist Julia Suriano and acoustic guitarist Steve Biegner joined forces to enlighten and inspire with their wonderful music. The pop love song, "February's Moon Rise" was beautiful. Most of the evening was shared between this girl's gorgeous voice and this guy's brilliant guitar playing duets. The urgency of "The Water that Cut the Canyon" exposed their wide range in voice. It's not surprising with this much talent that they will play the lead roles in "West Side Story" at the Academy of Music on April 23-27.

January 22, 2008

"Zerline's Tale"

Hartford Stage, Hartford CT
through February 10, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

The accomplished actress Elizabeth Ashley in, essentially, a one-woman play, holds an audience’s attention for 75 minutes as she stirs a cauldron of major emotions that stem from a time in Zerline’s life. Burbling from the past into the present are desire, jealousy, abandonment, revenge, all woven into a narrative that Ashley spins with the skill and aplomb of a Scheherazade. As Zerline tells her story, she re-experiences the feelings that surfeited her being forty years earlier. Within an aging female servant, there still lives a flirtatious country girl, once innocent but now worldly wise, who revels telling about her romances, and who especially relishes the memories of perfect bliss and of schemes to avenge her heartache.

Ashley as Zerline represents the epitome of type casting. She’s the right age (she comfortably acknowledges she is 68). Like Zerline, to borrow a reference to Agnes Gooch, she’s lived. Among her professional kudos is the Tony Award she won when 22. In 1974 when 34, she sizzled as Maggie in a Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In 2005 in Hartford Stage’s "Cat..." she was Big Mama ("Elizabeth Ashley’s Big Mama endures her husband’s verbal abuse; across her face play waves of grief as she braces for his fatal illness.") As Zerline, a maid who absorbed many of her employer’s refinements, her fluid gestures reflect her study of ballet, lo so many moons ago.

Adapted and translated by Jeremy Sams, this is the American premiere of "Zerline’s Tale" and the first English-language production. The play is based on one chapter from a novel, "The Guiltless," by Hermann Broch.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge has replicated a typical small bedsitting room in a substantial European home – high ceiling, mammoth wardrobe, a shuttered window, a fireplace that burns large chunks of coal, a narrow bed, and more – and two people occupy that space, Zerline and Man (Jon David Casey) who is almost as mute as Zerline is verbose. Casey is attentive, caught up in Zerline’s memories. Let’s face it: we’re all suckers for a good story well told.

This polished production is Director Michael Wilson’s ninth project with Elizabeth Ashley, a collaboration that works exceedingly well.

January 21, 2008

Elvis Birthday Party Bash

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
January 19
By Eric Sutter

"We will all be received in Graceland"... so goes the line of the song by Paul Simon. The Elvis Birthday Bash starring Scot Bruce as the young Elvis and Mike Albert as Elvis of the 70s proved the spirit of Elvis Presley transcended the ranks of mortal fame. Since his death in 1977, this ever-changing 20th Century icon has survived and spawned countless Elvis impersonators to keep the Elvis mythical status growing in the new century.

Scot Bruce uncannily resembled the young Elvis dressed in black slacks, blue sports coat, black and white two-tone shoes and a pompadour haircut. Along with the 7 piece Big E Band, he strummed his Martin guitar and shook his hips to early hits including "Heartbreak Hotel", "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender." Halfway through, he pared down to a trio and performed the first Sun singles, "That's All Right (Mama) and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Other hits followed as the band rocked "A Fool Such As I" and Bruce crooned "Can't Help Falling In Love." They ended with the swivel of "Hound Dog" as Bruce swaggered like the Fifties Elvis rocker.

Mike Albert proved Elvis has survived in more than one form. Albert added a female back-up singer and celebrated his 70's Vegas showman Elvis. Dressed in a Tiger decorated white jumpsuit with bell bottoms he cut into "C.C. Ryder" and the smash from 1972, "Burning Love." Albert's charisma and ability to involve the audience proved to be a crowd pleaser. As he sang the ballad "Are You Lonesome Tonight" he beckoned a female to join him on stage for a sing and swing. His powerful voice lent itself well to "It's Now or Never" and "My Way." His versatile voice cried the "Steamroller Blues" and gospel "How Great Thou Art" equally well. During the swamp-rocker "Polk Salad Annie" he relished it's stop-start rhythm which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his karate routines during the instrumental breaks while the exaggerated imagery of flashing lights worked it's magic. A couple of songs, "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds," pushed a strong emotional response during the Comeback Special segment of the show.

In true Vegas style, "Viva Las Vegas" veered into cabaret-style slickness with the ensemble dramatically successful. The closing "American Trilogy" was thrillingly loud but soothing as the American Flag descended on to the center of the stage above the entertainers. Happy 73rd Birthday, Elvis.

January 15, 2008

"The Producers"

The Bushnell, Hartford
January 15; runs through Jan. 20
By Bob Smith

Those of you who worry that “THE PRODUCERS” needs star-powered leads to succeed, needn’t fret; the touring production now showing at The Bushnell proves that the material works just fine without a Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick. The book, music and lyrics, all by Mel Brooks, proudly hearken back to the days when musicals had big songs, big dance numbers and big heart. Of course, it also has Brook’s bawdy humor to keep you rolling in the aisles when you’re not humming the tunes.

Since the show won more Tony awards than any other show in history, there is a good chance you already know the plot. Max Bialystock, a down and out Broadway producer teams up with meek accountant Leo Bloom to stage the worst show in history so that they can pocket the investors’ money and head to Rio.

Brad Nacht, as Max, actually has a number of qualities in greater abundance than Lane, including a stronger singing voice, more imposing physique and better looks. When he sums up the story near the end of the show in “Betrayed” he commands the stage with such physical presence that it feels like he’s singing in your lap. His Max owed more to Zero Mostel, with the heavy shtick toned down and a bit of pathos crossing his face.

Austin Owen, as Leo and Elizabeth Pawlowski as Ulla, each had a chance to bring down the house with his “I Want to be a Producer” and her ‘When You Got It, Flaunt It” and they certainly succeeded. Both were charming and energetic performers. Much credit for the show’s vigor goes to all the ensemble players (female AND male) who played the little old ladies that Max woos for “checkies”.

For this show to be done well, no expense should be spared in the costuming and this production delivers on that requirement. From the dancing girls festooned with sausage, pretzels and beer steins to Ulla’s flowing blue dress, each outfit contributes to the narrative by enhancing a character (See: bawdy humor) or serving as an actual punch line (the shiny $10,000 Chrysler building costume worn by effete director Roger De Bris).

This is fifth version of “THE PRODUCERS” that I have seen; the Broadway version with Lane and Broderick, the Bushnell’s last touring production with Alan Ruck from TV’s “Spin City”, the original movie and the film of the musical. If you haven’t seen any incarnation, then this is a great place to start. This is simply a great show!

January 9, 2008

“Guys on Ice”

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
Through February 10
By Shera Cohen

No, the musical currently running at the Majestic is not about Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, or even Will Farrell. “Guys on Ice” is, however, a lot slicker than any movie starring Farrell.

When this play was listed on the Majestic’s 2007/08 roster it brought quizzical looks and “I never heard of it” comments. Written by Fred Alley and James Kaplan added little insight. This was not to be a “Miss Saigon” – the Majestic’s huge hit in recent years. Yet, this musical, with its cast of three, may go down in WestSide as the funniest ever produced.

With the backdrop and floor of pastel blue and white, lighting created the set for this contemporary Wisconsin winter fishing hole. A rustic shanty turns 180 degrees for the audience to see the exterior and interior. Throughout the play, two buddies prepare to ice fish as they await a local television crew to film them. The men are equally dim, nice people, who seek very little in life but their 15-seconds (not minutes) of fame.

Equity actor Sam Rush and novice Alec Nelson are Marvin and Lloyd, respectively. Each is perfect for his role, and they are perfect together as they portray guys just being guys, telling jokes, drinking beer, wishing their love lives were better, drinking more beer. Neither actor is a great singer, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. The songs are funny; i.e. Rush doing “King of the Icemen” a la Elvis, and the showstopper “Snowmobile Suit” with its ingenious choreography. Without “giving it away,” never before have Velcro and zippers been utilized to achieve such humor. Special note must be made on their wonderful ability to maintain their accents. It wouldn’t be a surprise if after six weeks in this play, the actors find it hard to kick the Wisconsin “yaaah.”

Frank Aronson, in a smaller role, creates an intermission segment with audience participation that has everyone laughing. Talented Amy Crawford “is” the orchestra, on her piano.

“Guys on Ice” is a musical play to warm your heart with a smile and a belly laugh. Both are welcome. The Majestic has the perfect show for this season.

Hartford Symphony Masterworks

The Bushnell, Hartford
January 9
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Today’s inconveniences of international travel were bypassed by the Hartford Symphony saturating a Masterpiece Series evening with the romantic music of 19th century ebullient Vienna.

In his pre-concert talk, Conductor Edward Cumming described "the first half of the program as formal and the second half as fun." The sum was one hundred percent delightful.

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s "Overture to Die Fledermaus" (literal translation: flying mouse) introduced the spirit of the effervescent Viennese who, praise be, escaped being handicapped by Victorian rigidity. The orchestra’s sensitivity to the operetta’s jinks (both high and low) created invisible actors behaving deliciously silly and slamming-doors naughty.

The contrast between the score for the comical farce and Franz Lehar’s operetta, "The Land of Smiles" was stunning from the moment tenor soloist Matthew Plenk began singing the aria "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!" ("My whole heart belongs to you!"). The audience, spellbound, absorbed Plenk’s strong tone and shading of the heartrending longing for the love of his life. In spite of vigorous applause, the clamoring for more of his voice was not to be. No wonder this young man will make his Metropolitan Opera debut this season as the Voice of the Young Sailor in "Tristan and Isolde"– the first voice that is heard as the curtain rises.

Because Cumming’s teacher had been a student of Richard Strauss, amusing anecdotes now have been passed along during the pre-concert talk. (If you weren’t there, you missed out.) Cumming also waxed eloquent about the four guest soloists, extolling them for their "immaculate intonation" and intelligence of mind and heart. During the suite and final scene from "Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss, the commingling voices of the three sopranos – Adina Aaron, Janna Baty (mezzo), and Amanda Forsythe – gave me chills.

Following intermission, a baker’s dozen students from the Hartt Music Theater Program shared their youthful dynamics, especially the all-male kick line of "You’re Back Where You Belong" from Lehar’s "The Merry Widow."

HSO’s New Year’s welcoming concert bubbled.