Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 28, 2008

Rossini, Chopin, Brahms

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
April 25, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

What a satisfying program, one that began with Music Director Kevin Rhodes pre-concert comments about what we were about to hear. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2, F minor "is beautiful from beginning to end." His talk focused on Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, "the least played of his four symphonies" and his favorite, "if one can say such an insane thing."

The first few seconds of Gioacchino Rossini’s (1792-1868) sprightly Overture to "La scala di seta" (The Silken Staircase) featured screeching violins reminiscent of Hitchcock’s horrific shower scene. What followed was not a slashing knife but background music suitable for a flock of hummingbirds whose geometric flight pattern continuously surprises.

Pianist Claire V. Huangci’s spirited playing of Frederic Chopin’s (1810-1849) concerto was the evening’s piece de resistance. She glided onto the stage wearing a frothy white strapless gown with a full bell-like skirt sprinkled with sparkling ,mini stars. The orchestra’s long introduction heightened anticipation. When her cue arrived, she attacked the keys – clean, sharply-delineated chords and passages – serving notice that she was in charge, a girl just 18, playing Chopin’s concerto as if she were channeling him or Lizst. From the high registers, clusters of descending notes sounded like a delicate clinking of crystal cubes. During interludes ideal for profound thinking, Huangci's nimble fingering loosed hundreds of butterflies into meadows of wildflowers. With her third curtain call (even the orchestra applauded), she graciously returned to the piano to play Mozart’s intricate and rousing Turkish March, further energizing an enthralled audience. Of all the glowing comments overheard by the smitten at intermission, the most-often expressed was, "A tour de force!"

Under the energetic direction of Maestro Rhodes, the full-bodied tones of Symphony No. 3 in F Major by Brahms (1833-1897) were brought forth. The composer’s virtuosity was showcased along with the need by Rhodes to mop his head, face and neck. During the third movement, the plaintive melody was woven like a dance – disappearing briefly before reappearing. Brahms indulged his pleasure of the theme by gifting future audiences frequent repetitions of the exquisite melancholic theme. He knew a good tune when he heard it.


Broad Brook Opera House, CT
through May 18
April 27, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Igor, the ubiquitous hunchback of Frankenstein notoriety – oh dear, here comes an unbidden pun – has a back story thanks to local playwright Howard R. Odentz, who not only wrote the book but the lyrics and music for "Piecemeal" now enjoying its world premiere at Broad Brook’s Opera House. Actually, there are two Igors – as a young boy (winsomely portrayed by Benjamin VanDine) and as a young man (a charming Erik Landry) who imparts a nobility of purpose: he aspires to become a doctor and not follow in the footsteps of his grave-robbing, avaricious parents, Asher (Jim Metzler) and gap-toothed Gerta (Jaime Taber) who is particularly nasty. They are also into the dead body parts business. Hence the title, "Piecemeal." Well, how do you suppose a monster is created – out of whole cloth? Igor meets Victor Von Frankenstein (Dallas Hosmer), a dandy of a fop whose parents have paid for his medical school education but he longs to become a fashion designer. When he sings, "I Love To Sew," his sincerity is not questioned. Victor and Igor swap identities and all is well. Sorta, in an Earnest sort of way plus there’s a loving correspondence a la Cyrano with the shallow, spirit-swigging Elizabeth (Megan Fish).

Director Sharon FitzHenry and Musical Director Amy Roberts-Crawford have done the script proud. The orchestrations are the work of Bruce Zimmerman. There are 29 musical numbers, an 8-piece orchestra, a cast of 14 (24 characters total) and fine singing voices. The Set Design (David Gilfor), Costumes (Ronnie Cooley, Solveig Pflueger), Lighting Design (Diane St. Amand, Sharon FitzHenry) and Sound (Jeff Clayton) are all first rate. This is community theater with a professional mindset.

Writer/composer Odentz’s first original full-length musical, "In Good Spirits" which premiered in 2004, continues to be performed at theaters around the country and returns to the Opera House in September. Once Odentz knew the beginning and ending of "Piecemeal," he said, "It pretty much wrote itself." "Piecemeal" flows surprisingly well for a Broadway-size musical that skipped the workshop phase and went straight from the script into production.

April 24, 2008

“The Full Monty”

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
Through May 25
By Shera Cohen

Colloquial definitions of “the full monty” mean: the whole lot, entire pot, full amount, and the more commonly understood “full striptease routine.” The Majestic’s interpretation of the musical “The Full Monty” gives many meanings to the word “full.”

“Monty” tops off what has been a creative and exceptional season at the Majestic. From a two-character play, to Shakespeare, to a hysterically funny show on ice-fishing, to the large-cast and full-fledged musical of “Monty,” this company continues to prove that home-produced theatre is among the best. It’s costly and a risk, yet mounting plays from scratch instills a pride in cast and crew, not to mention audiences.

This musical, the story of down and out unemployed factory workers, is far from a “downer.” Yes, the characters are broke, with family problems, and depressed. Yet at the same time, they are full of hope, dreams, and the potential for self-esteem. Their means to the latter are unorthodox in the reluctant plan to become Chippendale-wannabes.

Randy Ronco (leader of the troupe) has energy, relates to his stage-son in poignant scenes, and represents a flawed man who doesn’t give up. Robert Clark (big-lug buddy Dave) portrays a pussycat with a heart. Darron Cardosa (mama’s boy) is the best of the singers. Also in this wonderful ensemble are Tom Knightlee, Van Farrier, and Dann Black. They are a perfect motley team, especially in their song and dance (creatively choreographed by David Wallace) piece “Michael Jordan’s Ball.”

While it’s the guys who “are” the play, Paula Cortis and Lea Oppedisano (wives) develop background of whom these men really are. Their juxtaposed scenes, in song and physical placement on the stage, in “You Rule My World” are highlights of the show.

Director Danny Eaton has a lot to do connecting the many segments to the next, as he works with Set Designer Amy Davis (creating a warehouse simply with moving panels) and Band Leader Mitch Chakour keeping up the pace.

“Monty” is a play with lyrics that move the story along, no hard-to-understand British accents (remember the movie version), and proof that there is no difference in talent between Equity and non-Equity actors.

April 23, 2008

The Music Man- A 50th Anniversary Tribute

The Bushnell, Hartford
April 22nd-27th, 2008
By Rachel White

Marching into Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts as part of their 2008 Broadway Series, "Meredith Willson's The Music Man" celebrates the timeless Broadway and film classics' 50th Anniversary and brings with it a star-studded cast, both new and legendary to the musical's history. Produced by the Bushnell's own Vice President and starring the famous mother and son duo of Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy, this wonderful story unfolds using the entire theatre as its stage and set.

For those in need of a refresher, Shirley Jones played the role of Marian in the film version, while pregnant with her son Patrick. In this anniversary edition, Jones shines in the role of Marian's mother, Mrs. Paroo, while Cassidy is completely stunning in the role of Professor Harold Hill. Creatively staged, the musical is told by the cast and the orchestra, which stays on the stage throughout the entire performance. The conductor actually plays a pivotal role in delivering the story to the audience and adds his own humor to the performance.

True to film version, the ensemble delivers a colorful and energetic performance to the classic songs such as "Goodnight My Someone," "Marian the Librarian" and ever-famous "76 Trombones," which will have audiences clapping and singing along throughout the evening. Notable and endearing is the roles played by the children actors who completely captivate with their talent and maturity while sharing the spotlight with more seasoned performers.

The Bushnell should be applauded for this wonderful and rare opportunity that it offers to patrons by bringing this fun, family classic for audiences of all ages to enjoy. The chance to see Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy perform together is a memory theatre-goers will be sure to treasure long after the curtain closes and the band has marched out of Hartford.

April 17, 2008

The Scene

Hartford Stage, Hartford
through May 4, 2008
April 13, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

This lively, well-written play bears one essential resemblance to the sophisticated drawing room comedies of yesteryear: actors perform. And oh my, do they! Warts and all. The first act is awash in superficiality. By intermission I didn’t care about any of the four characters. If I had not returned for the second act, I would have crafted an ending and it would have been deader than a doornail wrong. Or, said another way, "Don’t judge a book by its cover," because in Act 2, the covers come off.

Here’s some of what is learned in Act One. Clea (Christy McIntosh) has come to NYC from Ohio bringing her annoying Valley Girl sing-songing mannerisms with her. Lewis (Liam Craig) is a bachelor and faithful friend to Charlie (Matthew Arkin) an actor who has not landed a role worthy of his talent in several years, and to Charlie’s wife, Stella (Henny Russell) who hates everything about her work she loves. (Yes, you read that right.) On a rooftop exposed to the city’s light-twinkling skyline, Cleo prattles on to Lewis and Charlie about being interviewed by a woman she describes as a "Nazi Priestess," not realizing that the woman is Stella. Not that Cleo would care: she is hedonistically uncaring. However, she is sensitive to Charlie’s body language and tone as it applies to her and she challenges him to be honest. In spite of his initial dislike of the airhead, he allows himself to be drawn into her web. Exasperated, he exclaims, "How can you know so much and so little at the same time?"

Surely all four actors were recruited from Central Casting: they are ideal in roles they honed at the George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick, NJ), with whom Hartford Stage has formed a new partnership – an alliance that fosters the artistic and business needs of any successful theater.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck headlines her blog with this revealing quote, "As a writer, I have always considered it my job to describe the world as I know it; to struggle toward whatever portion of the truth is available to me." She dips into her characters’ subterranean closets and while there, she eschews cheap jokes and instead burnishes lines that range from ruefully funny to piercingly hysterical. And in the process, she crafts a dynamite script.

April 14, 2008

The Nields, Shawn Mullins, Dar Williams

Calvin Theater, Northampton, MA
April 12, 2008
by Eric Sutter

The Nields from Western, MA performed songs from their current release "Sister Holler" at the Calvin. The14th recording in their career, it emphasized an abundance of old folk songs mixed witha surprisingly new radical edge. Of course, the trademark harmonies of the sister duo of Nerissa and Katryna Nields was intact as they sang the popular anthem "This Train." With Nerissa on folk guitar, the pair were joined by Dar Williams on keyboards and sang three part harmony on "Endless Day" to glorious effect. The sisters harmonized their hit "Easy People," which had the audience singing. Their close was the blues of "When I'm Here."

Native Georgian, Shawn Mullins sang a plethora of folk-rock and blues songs to an appreciative audience. "Shimmer" was the Australian's Olympic Team anthem. He continued in sequence of character sketch song-stories of humanity from his latest disc, "Honeydew." Tales of genuine heartache tugged at the heart and pleaded for the listener's ear. A plainspoken power was reflected in his voice as he sang "For America," which outlined the story of an Iraqi War veteran's loss of a limb. He performed the"Scrubs" theme song "All in My Head." The mellow psychedelic country "Blue As You" set the tone for a couple of hits with "Beautiful Wreck" and his Top 10 hit "Lullaby," for which he received a Grammy nomination.

Dar Williams capped off the evening of music in her resonant folk-pop style that worked her life scenarios into music that connected with the audience. Although she continued to have problems with tuning her guitar, the beautifully-voiced songbird sang lovely renditions of favorites, "Calling the Moon," "The Babysitter's Here" and "Book of Love." With humor and wit, she called out Shawn Mullins to join her in a duet of "Comfortably Numb." Williams' clear high voice and acoustic guitar on "Mercy of the Fallen" was backed by Nields. This was pleasant folk-pop for Northampton.

The Smothers Brothers & Springfield Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall, Springfield
April 12
By Shera Cohen

Tommy is age 70 and Dickie is age 68. Yet, the Smothers Brothers performance might as well have taken place in the 1960s. The “boys” never skipped a beat in impeccable timing, topical humor, irreverence, and their well-known stage personas. By the way, each aged very well.

Tommy’s trademark stupidity and naiveté bounced off brother Dickie’s exasperation and seriousness just as they had done throughout the past 50 years. Yes, a half-century! The audience got exactly what they expected in style, comedy, and music. Which was more perfect – the material or the delivery? It’s a toss up. Each went hand-in-hand to create a terrific show.

There was simply too much to remember for this critic to write, because the performance was extremely fast-paced and funny. Among the highlights were the following: the trilogy of “dog songs” coupled with a lame dog joke; the feigned gratefulness to perform in Springfield; and Tommy’s avocation as a trained pilot. As his brother commented, “Just because you accumulated thousands of skymiles, it doesn’t make you an airline pilot.”

Sometimes, it’s forgotten that the brothers are also very skilled musicians. With Tommy on guitar and Dickie on bass, their music and voices (Dickie, the better singer) make for an important part of the act – that is until Tommy always interrupts. The duo never managed through an entire song, but that’s what the routine is all about.

When music segued into comedy, that was the best of the routines; i.e. a tender Spanish song reverted to German, then yodeling (Tommy’s the culprit, of course). Another “normal” melody turned its notes to “Dueling Guitars,” only this time guitar vs. piano.

Special appearance by The Yo Yo Man (Tommy) and Voice of Yo (Dickie) had both back and forth on stage performing yo yo tricks and extemporaneous commentary. Who would think that a yo yo could be that much fun to watch?

A video of the brothers’ lives capped off the evening. The longest section showed excerpts from “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” including anti-Vietnam scripts, commentary by Pat Paulson, and being axed in the prime of the series. Thank goodness, the boys never really went away.

April 12, 2008

Schumann, Bruch, Mendelssohn

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford
April 5, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

The centerpiece of the program, Scottish Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp by Max Bruch (1838-1920) rendered what followed ("The Italian" by Mendelssohn, 1809-1920) anti-climatic. How could that be? Because Leonid Sigal stepped out of his role as HSO’s Concertmaster to beguile the audience with his love affair with the violin. At one with his instrument, Sigal embraced the various moods of the Scottish Fantasy, including spirited adaptations of various European ethnic dances and passages of fluid abandonment akin to improvisation. There were moments when it seemed as if the composer might have happened upon a wagon encampment and transferred the experience into music which clicked with the romantic within Sigal whereupon he assumed the identity of a solitary gypsy violinist baring his tortured soul. In the program notes, Dr. Richard E. Rodda’s writes: "The invigorating, tuneful Scottish Fantasy is evidence of Sr. Donald Tovey’s trenchant summation of the music of this composer: ‘It is not easy to write as beautifully as Max Bruch.’ "

During the pre-concert talk, guest conductor Grant Llewellyn described the program as a happy combination of music, in essence a musical European Grand Tour. A native of Wales (born 1962), this engaging musician’s other passion is soccer. Like Mendelssohn 150 years earlier, Llewellyn when almost twenty, toured Italy for a year or so, earning some money from playing the cello but more from playing soccer. He praised the Scottish Fantasy, saying that it "puts the violin through its paces as much as a concerto" and that the harp creates "pyrotechnics of its own."

But Llewellyn was most enthusiastic about the Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E Major by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) which opened the program. Obscure, rarely performed, Llewellyn stated, "I love it to death." Composed during Robert and Clara Schumann’s first year of marriage (her father opposed her marriage with a vehemence to rival Mr. Barrett’s of Elizabeth’s to Robert Browning), their happiness is mirrored in the buoyancy of the score.

Nevertheless, the night belonged to Sigal. When he returned after intermission, having resumed his role as Concertmaster, the audience greeted him with enthusiastic applause. At the conclusion of "The Italian," protracted applause signaled Llewellyn and the orchestra of the audience’s appreciation for an evening of first-rate classical music.