Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 26, 2008

The Last Five Years

Greene Room Productions, Monson
Weekends through March 9, 2008
February 24, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

A sophisticated retrospective of a five-year relationship – courtship, marriage, and disillusionment – is Greene Room Productions’ midpoint attraction of their second season. For "The Last Five Years" 2001 off-Broadway debut, the multi-talented Jason Robert Brown – book, composer, lyricist – won Drama Desk Awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics. Two years earlier, he won a Tony for his "Parade" score. Although "The Last Five Years" is a popular choice for community theaters, this may be its Pioneer Valley premiere.

This premiere is worthy of an appreciative audience.

Its intricate contemporary score – think Sondheim – and demands upon the two actors’ emotional range – think pithy drama – posits an intriguing twist: the husband plays the last five years from the beginning while the wife retraces backward from the end to the beginning. The one time they meet is when they marry. Along their disparate time-travel paths, they love, complain, whine, soul search, quarrel. Based upon the divergent trajectories, the suggestion is that one of the partners grows.

Presented in the three-quarter round, the cavernous space of Monson’s historic Memorial Hall becomes an intimate arena that Director Robert H. Clark III uses well. Here Erin Greene (Cathy) and David Wallace (Jamie) share their memories and reflections, their candor at times unsettling, provocative, and occasionally humorous. They disclose feelings that range from the banal to the esoteric and universal touch points in between, a gamut that is familiar to anyone who has experienced an emotionally-charged relationship. Their performances are polished and so very human.

Music Director Neal Schermerhorn leads a first-rate orchestra – Rob Degree (guitar), Kevin Germain (sub guitar), Julia Kay (bass), and Elaine Holdsworth (violin) – which does not distract but enhances, especially the aching bowing of the violin.

This production has everything going for it except the sound system it deserves – a glitch on the way to being resolved.

February 20, 2008

The Drowsy Chaperone

The Bushnell, Hartford
Through February 24
By Shera Cohen

This is an easy review to write. The hard ones are dramas and musical dramas, one-person plays and those with casts of thousands, avante garde and Shakespeare. “The Drowsy Chaperone” has none of the angst, tour-de-force performances, or difficult language found in any or all of the above categories.

The Bushnell has brought in a wonderfully energetic, humorous, oftentimes just plain stupid play with catchy tunes, tap and Charleston dance numbers, and one of the worst titles ever given a musical. It could have been titled “Aldolpho the Lothario” or “Man in Chair” for all it matters. The chaperone is simply the name of one of the roles in this ensemble production.

“DC” is a combination of Busby Burklee and Damon Runyon locked in the 21st century, but only sometimes when the record skips. Hmmm, that makes little sense. That’s exactly what “DC” is – a musical within a comedy (that phrase is taken from the playbill) abounding with froth, shtick, clichés, and nonsense. What makes this musical unique from “Me and My Gal,” “The Boy Friend,” et al is its concept and format. Yes, readers of this review can google and discover the hidden gem that makes “DC” different and funnier than the norm, but our policy is not to “give it away.” It’s better for audience members to walk in unfamiliar with the book and the songs, and simply enjoy everything that happens for the next 90 or so uninterrupted minutes.

Everything is right about this musical – the cast of talented singers/comedians, small band that sounds like an orchestra, and strange sets that seem to come out of nowhere. Who would expect a dozen actors in 1920s costumes to walk out of the refrigerator? Expect for the narrator, the play is populated with caricatures, all played over-the-top, with not a bit of scenery left unchewed. The lyrics are distinct and oftentimes ridiculous (a love song about a monkey), there’s a tap dance on roller skates, cheesy costumes, lampooning of musical theatre, four weddings (no funeral), and Georgia Engel.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” is a delight. Expect no more.

February 18, 2008

Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford
February 16, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

This Valentine-inspired program featured Ravel’s intricate orchestrations, Rachmaninoff’s scoring skills, and Brahms’ transformation of melancholia into musical majesty. The Hartford Symphony’s salute to romance provided beauty and bite, euphoria and sadness, the skill of a sensitive pianist, all under the baton of guest conductor Tania Miller.

Imagine Tania Miller growing up in Saskatchewan (pop. 1000) who at age 35 is in her fifth season as Music Director of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. Maestra Miller won the audience’s admiration for her mature, definitive conducting skills; and for her warmth as an engaging young woman, she earned a piece of its heart.

Maurice Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is what impressionistic painting sounds like – shimmering, lush, vivacious, guarded, poignant, muted – particularly when the composer is roiling with emotional pain due to World War One, the deaths of six friends, the passing of his beloved mother, and the effects of brutality on French culture. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" is a collection of variations on one particular theme composed by the legendary violinist Niccolio Paganini. It’s what the scratchings of an algebraist might resemble when trying one hypothesis after another in search of the ultimate equation. But a brainstorm directs the mathematician towards a radically different approach which brings forth an interim possibility of heavenly proportions. The piano artistry of guest soloist Anne-Marie McDermott, tempered by respect for the piece, thrilled the audience.

The Symphony No. 4 in E minor by Johannes Brahms, in four movements, was written while he was warding off depression. Sometimes the music brightens, almost as if he doesn’t dare to feel happy. Ah, the fullness of Brahms! Maestra Miller evoked the orchestra to step up their involvement with the music without compromising their discipline. The repetition of ta dum, ta dum, foretells that something big this way comes. Can it be forestalled? Maybe. No, sorry, it’s inevitable. And this great composition swelled to a majestic, controlled conclusion. The audience was pulled to its feet.

February 15, 2008

Mozart & Mendelssohn

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
February 9, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

The music of a revered classicist opened the evening’s performance – the Overture to the opera, "Cosi fan tutte" ("women are all the same"), a lively five minutes, composed when Mozart was 33. His Symphony No. 29 in A Major followed, written when he was 18. During Music Director Kevin Rhodes’ pre-concert talk, he mentioned that Mozart could "imagine the entire piece in his head" before beginning to write. Honored by admirers as the most accomplished composer ever, the Mozart sound is readily recognized which is rather amusing inasmuch as he often mimicked others’ music. However, his unique essence cannot be eclipsed because often even his slow passages described by one Mozart aficionado as "pure silk."consist of millions of notes. That’s an exaggerated number but not by much.

Following intermission, Mendelssohn’s richly melodic Symphony No. 4 in A Major – The Italian – filled Symphony Hall with Romantic strains (revised by Mendelssohn in 1834 and not discovered until the 1990s). Of particular beauty were the French horns in the third movement. By presenting familiar passages followed by their revisions, the audience could play Holmes to Maestro Rhodes’ Dr. Watson. Not so fast! Without in-depth familiarity with the original score, pinpointing any changes was difficult to impossible with one exception: the revised final movement is a heightened triumph of whirling rhythms that brought the audience to its feet.

Here’s another nugget shared by Rhodes during his pre-concert talk: strictly speaking, Classical is not a blanket adjective but refers to music composed between 1730 and 1820. Other named periods begin with Medieval (476-1400) followed by Renaissance (1400-1600); Common (1600-1750); Romantic (1815-1910); Modern/Contemporary (1900-2000). Perhaps eons from now there’ll be assigned a contemporary avant garde classical period which will have been a stepping stone for an au courant classical body of work. And the beat goes on.

"Almost Heaven - Songs of John Denver"

CityStage, Springfield
February 13, 2008
By Eric Sutter

CityStage played host to a wonderful feel-good musical theatre production with "Almost Heaven - Songs of John Denver." Songs of love and hope were nestled nicely alongside songs of open country and playfulness. The players, including Ryan Nearhoff as John Denver, sported a clean-cut whole-earth image. The choral group consisted of three men and two women and with back-up musicians on fiddle, guitar, and keyboards they conjured up a sensitive portrayal of the music of Denver.

The talented group cleverly cultivated the era's folk-rock and country-rock feeling of getting back to the basics of country living with the aid of visual images displayed on the theatre's backdrop. The males harmonized vocals on Denver's first love song "For Bobbie" to great effect. "Country Roads" shifted to a female lead voice with the others harmonized to perfection. "Fly Away" was lead by a beautiful female voice and a carefully balanced arrangement of supportive vocals with a ministerial tone. "Rocky Mountain High" created a comfortable image of rural utopia as the Rocky Mountains flashed in the background. Edgier emotions emerged as the singers tackled the love and war-themed "Matthew/Weapons." The first half ended with the ecological dream song "Calypso," with its high yodel set against images of the sea.

The second half started with a rousing "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" and a playful "Grandma's Feather Bed" with some fine harmony singing and dancing. The "Love/Leave Medley" featured "Back Home Again" vocally interwoven with "Leavin' On A Jet Plane." "Sunshine on My Shoulders" showcased the powerful gospel voice of female vocalist Vernae Taylor as a sunny-scened backdrop lightened the stage. The classic "Poems, Prayers and Promised" closed the evening. A short film clip of John Denver singing "Yellowstone" at a campire followed, after which the cast sang an encore of "Rocky Mountain High."

February 11, 2008

All My Sons

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow
Weekends through February 16, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

This play is worth seeing.

At the end of the first act, there was silence. No applause. No one moved. For two reasons: the audience had become riveted by a masterfully-written story performed by a fine cast and the house lights had not brightened enough to signal that intermission had arrived.

Exit 7 Players have bestowed upon Arthur Miller’s emotionally-stirring, "All My Sons" the highest honor: respect for the material and for the craft itself. Noted for their upbeat productions of such musicals as "Gypsy," "Sweet Charity" and "Cabaret," presenting this particular drama now is as timely as it was when it opened on Broadway in 1947. There’s not an old bone in its body because "All My Sons" is about timeless concerns – family and business, love and ethics, courage and cowardice – huge subjects that beset ordinary people.

Director Jennifer Curran has stated, "This is the story I needed to tell. What we can choose to ignore, what we can and cannot live with and what we cannot forgive." Her emotional connection with the script is reflected in the performances, especially those of Kate Keller (Jennifer Bauduccio), Joe Keller (Fred Piel), Chris Keller (Charles Holt) and George Deever (Dan Derby). The conflicted Kellers and the accusatory Deever are superb. Special kudos go to Bauduccio who stepped into a demanding role less than two weeks before the opening. As Anne Deever, Lea D. Oppedisano plays an establishment daughter, a far cry from her most recent Exit 7 Players role as Charity Hope Valentine in "Sweet Charity."

Once again, Paul Hamel (Set Designer/Technical Director/Set Construction) has fashioned a set that complements the play’s theme, especially as represented by family and business: the Keller’s house dominates the stage but visible across the road is the factory.

There are strong similarities between "All My Sons" and Miller’s play "A Death of a Salesman." But to paraphrase a line from "Salesman," more attention must be paid to "All My Sons" because, to paraphrase a cosmetic’s advertising pitch, it’s worth it.

February 7, 2008

Don't Dress For Dinner

Suffield Players, Suffield
Weekends through February 23, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Deliberate, fantastic lies that if recounted during a 55-minute hour would qualify as confabulations worthy of certification are the fluffy stuff of The Suffield Players’ contribution to breaking up any mid-winter blues. "Don’t Dress For Dinner" is a delectable French farce. Thanks to Director Rayah Martin’s sense of pace and an appreciation of the ridiculous, this silly play delivers its purpose: it entertains.

Because the cast takes their characters seriously, the roles fall several giggles below (or above?) cartoon level. A preposterous plan is conjured up by an otherwise sophisticated Bernard (Robert Lunde) – to take advantage of his wife, Jacqueline’s (Gina Marie Paro) absence by inviting his mistress Suzanne (Meagan Kinney) to come spend the weekend. In the event Suzanne’s presence requires explanation, Bernard includes his best friend Robert (Christopher Berrien) as a houseguest who can pass, if needed, as Suzanne’s lover. What Bernard doesn’t know is that his wife and best friend are lovers. This recipe for failure has one more ingredient, a chef hired to come in and cook, Suzette (Amy Rucci, who cavorts with abandon).

When Jacqueline announces she’s staying home, pandemonium breaks loose. Extemporaneous lies pile up leading to improbable entanglements, sight gags and double entendres, until the identities are qualified and re-qualified so many times that no one knows who’s who or what. Eventually the multi-dimensional puzzle is figured out by Suzette’s husband, George (Edwin R. Lewis, III): that rapid fire dialog is enough to make heads spin.

Deft comedic timing is delivered by Lunde, Berrien and Rucci who feed the laugh meter with aplomb. In the brief mop-up role of George, Lewis injects gravitas into the whirling nonsense.

"Don’t Dress For Dinner" is so light – how light is it? – too light to leave a carbon footprint.

February 2, 2008

Maine In Winter

Maine in the Winter
By Shera Cohen

Why would a person who doesn’t ski take a vacation in Maine in the winter? Well, it’s not crowded with tourists. It’s not even crowded with anyone. For those who like their arts indoors, why not Maine? Museums, theatres, music, and art galleries offer a wealth of cultural pleasure, and so what if you have to wear a coat and hat to get from one attraction to the next.

City Theater in Biddeford is an historic opera house that once presented vaudeville and movies, and now mounts locally produced and touring plays, musical concerts, and comedy improv. Operating year-round, City Theater offers children’s programs, theatre workshops, the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Tennessee Williams.

Not being a cat-lover, it was good public relations that pushed me in the door to see “Spay Misty for Me.” Yes, it was a benefit for an animal welfare society. This evening of improv was a near-copy of Drew Carey’s “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” Ten young actors were given the start of slim scripts to flesh out, often with prompts from the audience. The show was exactly what you would expect it to be – lots of laughs, some skits funnier than others, a little bit “R” rated, and people getting drenched with water (including those seated in the front row).

From the ridiculous to the sublime was the world premiere of “Longfellow: A Life in Words” at the Portland Stage Company. The theatre has two stages – the main stage for its major productions and an intimate 60-seat theatre for the Studio Series plays. At some point in high school or college pretty much everyone had to read, analyze, and perhaps memorize a Longfellow poem. You know, the man who wrote “The Song of Hiawatha.” Ahh, I remember it well. Little did I know that Longfellow lived in Portland.

Performed by the play’s author Daniel Noel, the three-member cast in this long one-act brought Longfellow to life. Noel did his homework, weaving words from the poet’s memoirs and correspondence with the poetry. In celebration of bicentennial of the poet’s birth, Longfellow surely looked down on this production with a smile. While Noel had the brunt of the work in the lead role, the two other actors took on the characters of at least a dozen each. I had the good luck to speak to Noel following the show. The man was as humble as the man he portrayed. His plan was to flesh out the story to become a two-act play. His hope was to tour with it. I have no doubt that this talented actor/writer can spread the poignant and beautiful words of Longfellow.

A visit to the Portland Museum of Art was not what I expected. Actually, it exceeded my expectations. While I don’t know when the museum was built, it wasn’t long ago. Yet, needless to say, its art spanned the decades and centuries, genres, and continents. Works by my favorites lined the walls – John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatte. A large exhibit was dedicated to Winslow Homer. Looking at the pieces, one realizes why they laud “the rocky cliffs of Maine.” This touring exhibit was “Both Sides of the Camera”; the photography of father and daughter Irving Ellis and Judith Glickman. This was yet another premiere, as it was the first public showing of 132 works from the collection of both artists. Running the gamut of people, places, and things beginning in the 1930s, there was no doubt of Ellis’ talent passed onto his child.

The McLellan House, a huge extension of an actual home, as “attached” at the rear. The grandeur of years ago, coupled with exquisite sculpture and paintings, made this a museum within a museum. Yet there was even more to the Portland Museum, as this happened to be Jazz Sunday. The large café area was chock full of people of all ages, nibbling on muffins or fruit, reading the newspaper, and enjoying the Dixieland-style music. The atmosphere was friendly for residents and tourists alike. Although, I might have been the only tourist.