Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 28, 2008

Jerry & Ed

Majestic, West Springfield MA
through November 30 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Life-long friendship, mutual respect and tomfoolery, and the vicissitudes and nonsense of aging are woven into an original play that entertains while unloosing emotions – especially love.

"Jerry & Ed" has come along at the right time, a best buddy play that momentarily blocks out today’s downer news. The charm doesn’t unfold immediately because Jerry’s opening monologue is a collection of cornball one-liners that net painful groaning. But once Jerry (Steve Henderson, who also wrote the play) gets that painful shtick out of his system, the play rocks and rolls.

The plot is simple: Jerry and his life-long best friend Ed (Dick Volker) are widowers residing at the Garden Acres Retirement Community. They have walkers they don’t need; with a wink they let the audience in on the scam, "It’s an insurance thing." When their tempers flare, the walkers held at shoulder level turn the aging bad boys into antlered game who lock horns, so to speak. If their balance were better, they’d probably paw the ground.

As one memory leads to another, their adventures and misadventures are resurrected. They take us and the girls they’re courting, Margaret and Doris, to an amusement park where they hate the ferris wheel and are not thrilled with the rollercoaster. Their romancing is interrupted by World War II. During one firefight, pinned down by ordnance, Ed is injured in the leg. Even in the midst of battleground horror, their love and exasperation with one another spawns humor. When the war ends and their troop ship arrives in New York, they phone Margaret and Doris. They are battle-tested veterans, giddy with romantic longings. When their barely articulate proposals are accepted, they are euphoric.

Henderson’s Jerry and Volker’s Ed are fully developed characters. Volker’s restrained remembrance of Doris’s final illness grabs the heart. Jack Neary’s direction is sensitive to Henderson’s deceptively simple script that teems with the high drama of ordinary human beings’ basic emotions. Throughout "Jerry & Ed" a sweetness permeates. Regardless of how old and wise they get, their boyish innocence endures.

October 27, 2008


Hartford Stage, Hartford
through Nov. 16, 2008
By Bernadette Johnson

It’s not arbitrary that "Resurrection" cast members are identified in the program initially by their ages, then by the roles they play. From 10 to 60, the six male figures who bring this powerful drama to Hartford Stage are separated by decades. They share the same plight, however, lives rooted in the history of oppression of the black man, the context from which author Daniel Beaty draws so eloquently.

From 10-year-old Eric (Thuliso Dingwall) to The Bishop (Jeffery V. Thompson), a sexagenarian, there are no weak characters on this stage. Set against a single backdrop of a stylized cross, "Resurrection" tells the story of five black men and a boy who individually struggle with their collective past and personal demons all the while clinging to shared hopes and dreams, a vision that moves them beyond an “historical identity based on being property.”

The characters share the multi-level set for much of the 90-minute (no intermission) performance. Dingwall is the youngest cast member and holds his own remarkably well for a 10-year-old as a child scientist in search of a magic formula that will heal all ills. He is everyone’s hope, the future embodiment of “the better life.”

There are several powerfully moving scenes. In a tribute to black mothers who have sacrificed themselves for their sons, the litany “Dance, mama, dance” (for all the dreams you forgot) resounds, a plea increasing in intensity with each repetition. Che Ayende, as 30/Dre, recently released from prison and trying to build a new life for his “family,” his girlfriend and their baby, but seeing past mistakes catching up to him, delivers a heart-wrenching “how to be a man for you” monologue.

Not to be forgotten is 60/The Bishop, who adds a touch of humor Overeaters Anonymous style. It’s hard to know if the Amens from the front and center section were plants or spontaneous responses, but either way, they added a spark of authenticity to Thompson’s delivery.

Symbolism plays a role, as African robes yield way to tattered cloaks. Finally, although the ending seemed a bit too pat and predictable, there is great theatre here.

Big River

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through Nov. 30, 2008
by Shera Cohen

Advertisements refer to “Big River” as “a slice of pure Americana.” Who was better than Mark Twain, through his most famous character Huck Finn, to simultaneously weave a tale of our county in its glory and shame?

“Big River” jam-packs most of the Huck Finn story (it was a thick book) along with 17 songs into two and a half hours. It’s a big task to accomplish this successfully. Goodspeed, known for its excellent productions of tried and true musicals as well as those fresh out of the computer, is the ideal setting for this important story. Many read Huck’s tale as a high school assignment. On the surface, Twain’s dialect is melodic and humorous which gives the tone of froth. Yet, the author – and in the case of the musical, the composer, lyricist, director, and actors – is dead serious in the subject matters of conscience, trust, humanity, and slavery.

Huck (Will Reynolds) and Jim (Russell Joel Brown) seek their own freedom. At times they are equals, yet circumstances of the 1840s make that impossible. The camaraderie between the actors/characters is obvious, particularly in the songs “River in the Rain” and the showstopper “Muddy Water.” While the lanky, curly top Reynolds portrays Huck with vim, naiveté, and a voice to accentuate his character, he seems a bit old for the role. Brown brings depth, sorrow, and his own innocence in his portrayal of the slave Jim. His only solo, “Free at Last,” shows off his pure baritone voice.

Director Rob Ruggerio, along with his crew, creates sets with minimum multi-purpose staging and maximum skillful lighting. The pit orchestra is as fine as any at Goodspeed, with the wonderful addition of The Musician (David Lutken), an ever-present figure onstage as he plays the guitar, harmonica, banjo, and zither. Tunes run the gamut, including country, gospel, ballads, and blues. The large ensemble of townsfolk, Huck’s buddies, and slaves fill the small stage with song and dance from the opening funny number “Do a Wanna Go to Heaven?” to the reprise of “Muddy Water” finale.

The Sunday matinee full house loved Twain and Huck in October, 2008 as much as readers must have loved both in 1885.

Beethoven & Beethoven

Hartford Symphony
Bushnell, Hartford
October 24-25, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

At the pre-concert half-hour talk by Music Director Edward Cumming, his anticipation of presenting two Beethoven symphonies on the same program touched off a spontaneous ultra-fast shuffle in place – while seated. He spoke of Beethoven’s "timeless quality:" His work "sounds like it could have been written just a few years ago....He sets up expectations and then surprises us." Cumming drew a comparison between Beethoven’s classical music and the classic music of Thelonious Monk and Paul McCartney: "Beethoven’s music makes as much sense to us today as the day it was written." Richard Wagner stated that if Beethoven had not written The Ninth, he could not have written his operas.

The Symphony No. 1 in C Major opened gently but within sixty seconds, Beethoven’s assertive style took command. By the third movement, Beethoven seemed to be saying, "Now just watch me fly!" as a lively hide ‘n seek of brass and strings boosted the happiness meter. A structured minuet-like dance complete with dainty steps and quick curtsies exposed the composer’s sense of humor. What a personal accomplishment! While composing this work, he knew he was losing his hearing.

Maestro Cumming had speculated about Beethoven’s thinking as he contemplated a new symphony. After building a masterpiece on four iconic notes, could he build a new symphony on only two? He composed his wondrous gift, the awe-inspiring Symphony No. 9 in D Minor much like a dedicated writer constructs a major novel – experimenting with ideas, discarding some, rewriting others, letting the manuscript rest, returning to rework. Finally, the audience after hearing teaser fragments of the celebrated melody, the bass fiddles played the heavenly air known around the world. The uncounted variations did not slake the thirst for more. (Oh, please Mr. Cumming – Sam – play it again.) With the forceful artistry of The Hartford Chorale and four soloists (soprano Elona Ceno, mezzo-soprano Ela Zingerevich, tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier, and baritone Anton Belov), the Ode to Joy permeated sinew and soul.

October 17, 2008

Morning's At Seven

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 25, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

This love of a comedic drama shows off the ensemble acting skills of the venerable Suffield Players. Nine experienced actors extract every drop of humor from characters created by the honored playwright Paul Osborn ("On Borrowed Time").

In 1932, unless you were a daredevil, day-to-day domestic life was light years slower than now. Not everyone, even in cities, had telephones, and radio programming was in its infancy. Especially in small towns, family life – its joys and vicissitudes – was the anchor from which feelings flowed.

Homer Bolton (Stephen Grout) brings Myrtle (Karen Balaska) his fiancée of seven years home to meet his family. His aunts are all atwitter: Cora (Cynthia Lee Andersen), Arry (Jane H. Maulucci), Esther (Kelly Seip), but the fourth sister (Ida) is his mother, and she’s not sure Homer is ready for marriage. Cora’s husband, Thor (Bruce Showalter) is philosophical; Esther’s husband, David (Dana T. Ring) is supercilious, and Homer’s father, Carl (Konrad Rogowski) is having one of his spells: he sags, stares at nothing, rubs his forearm, and exudes a tragic air that would do Eugene O’Neill proud. "What’s it all about? Where am I in life?" The idea that the son might inherit his father’s malaise is dismissed. "Homer’s too lazy to have a spell. He doesn’t have the gumption."

The costuming by Dawn McKay is time perfect. The sisters wear ankle socks. The fiancée is appropriately up tight in a button down the front shirt dress that sports crocheted collar and cuffs. When David commiserates with Carl, their haphazard garb suggests a vaudeville team. Suffield’s theater, Mapleton Hall, boasts an elastic stage: its dimensions may be small but clever set designs (this time, Rogowski’s) accommodate the impossible: two backyards of two houses.

Director Rayah Martin has opted to quickly acknowledge reality before spraying the well-written script with laughing gas. Three acts cover high, infectious drama from afternoon until almost noon the following day. The audience responds with laughter, chortles, giggles, guffaws, and when needing to catch their breath, they simply smile.

October 15, 2008

Sweeney Todd

The Bushnell, Hartford
through Oct. 15, 2008
By Meghan Lynn Allen

Ominous from the start, The Bushnell lives up to the gory task of bringing Sondheim’s musical tale of revenge to life, or rather, to death. It begins abruptly with Tobias (the insanely talented Chris Marchant) in a dim pool of light bound and gagged, setting the tone of the bleakness and bizarre. As Tobias softly and eerily utters the first few notes into the starkness, we are instantly drawn into Sweeney’s world. Supported by Musical Director/Conductor David Fiorello, the cast succeeds in the spectacle that is Sweeney Todd.

The production gives a fresh take on the performance you may remember from 1979’s original Broadway cast. There is no orchestra pit. Watch in awe as cast members double as musicians, playing multiple instruments on stage. Pirelli (Ruthie Ann Miles) impresses with her talent on flute, keyboard, and accordion. Beggar Woman (Patty Lohr) provides a brilliant, disturbing performance plays an outstanding clarinet. There is another huge difference: minimalism. A hat depicts a dead body, a plate represents an entire pie shop, a bucket of blood symbolizes a murder. Jarring at first, you are soon charmed by this clever construction. This production also pushes the boundaries of the audience imagination with non-traditional casting such as a raven-haired Johanna (the hauntingly sweet Wendy Muir) and a female Pirelli (the diminutive but fiery Miles).

Even Sweeney Todd (Merritt David Janes) is not what you might expect. At first glance, he seems not maniacal and unkempt, but handsome and strong, though obviously darkly living in misery. Janes shrewdly reveals the madness that is Sweeney Todd one little piece at a time. Mrs. Lovett (Carrie Cimma) breathes life into an atmosphere of death, providing comic relief that the audience desperately needs. In addition to her magnificent voice, amusing antics, and delightful sense of comic timing, she plays the tuba, orchestra bells, and percussion throughout the show. The audience is in for a sweet treat when Cimma and Marchant tenderly come together in “Not While I’m Around.”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a true ensemble piece that will repulse and thrill.

The Cello, Springfield Symphony

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 11, 2008
by Debra Tinkham

The continuing celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra began with American conductor Kevin Rhodes, with a full to capacity performance.

First, of course, it is a delight when the lovely and talented Masako Yanagita, Concertmaster, enters to finely tune the orchestra. Once completed, the program begins with a night of "The Elegant Cello." First up is Johannes Brahms' Tragic Overture, Op. 81, which Rhodes describes as, "…an absolutely perfect single movement symphony in traditional 19th century harmonic language," followed by Edward Elgar's Cello, Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, (four movements) featuring the illustrious talent of Matt Haimovitz, and finally, Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43.

For the sake of brevity let's fast forward to Elgar's Cello Concerto with Maestro Haimovitz (cellist). The performance would give any person chills on a Texas-high-humidity day. This was a "one heartbeat, playful, extremely talented, amazing camaraderie between Haimovitz, orchestra and Rhodes performance."

Not intending to be name-dropping, but Haimovitz has studied with many talented talents, including Yo-Yo Ma. (Oh, Mr. Ma, we miss you at Tanglewood!) One of the many talents so likeable about Haimovitz is that he has a Tibetan spaniel named Shoko. Okay, enough of the trivial.

Elgar wrote the Cello Concerto (in E minor) in 1919, and this was his last grand musical attempt because of his bewildered take on the WWI situation. Sometimes referred to as the "War Requiem," which is flawed, he considered it a loss of life. Elgar wanted the cello to dominate this number, but he flawlessly placed both orchesta and cellist center stage. Both played crucial rolls in revealing a cacophony of emotions -- no dissonance intended. Rhodes, Haimovitz, SSO performed splendidly.

October 6, 2008

Bernice Lewis and Dar Williams

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
October 3, 2008

by Eric Sutter

What a pleasant evening of fine melodic music was had in a quaint theatre nestled in the Berkshire Hills. In addition to the wonderful music, the setting offered peak foliage colors. The audience was revved up for both regional singer/songwriters. Bernice Lewis opened a capella with "Where the Rivers have No Name." This songwriting teacher from Williams College sang from a powerful women's perspective asking, "Where Did Our Country Go?" Her humor was evident with "Normal Is Just a Setting on a Washing Machine" while her acoustic guitar and voice worked wonders on the final song, "Somewhere Between Religion and Release."

The much anticipated appearance of Dar Williams brought a passionate response to the singer and what she stands for: i.e. a long-held connection to social and environmental issues that ring true to our collective human conscience. She began the evening with "Calling the Moon" from her 2000 CD "The Green World." Her refreshing folk pop was delivered in a clear sweet voiced, but witty and conversational style, that revealed universal truths in a confessional manner. She told interesting stories in relationship songs like "The Easy Way" and "The Promised Land." Williams; intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics fostered human connections in "The Babysitter's Here" and "The Beauty of the Rain." The toe-tapping folk-rocker hit about change, "It's Alright," buzzed the audience.

The singer's acoustic guitar was a delight on "Holly Tree" and the lyrics of "Christians and Pagans" were well received. She shifted to a gentle and resonant mode with the close to home, "The Hudson," -- where she resides in New York. "Mercy of the Fallen" was a favorite sing-a-long. She encored with "When I as a Boy" from her debut CD of 14 years ago. Her remembrances had a magical child-like Peter Pan memory and effect.

October 3, 2008

The Canterville Ghost

Shakespeare & Co., Lenox
through November 9, 2008

By Donna Bailey-Thompson

The front page of "The Canterville Ghost" program states: "Adapted by Irina Brook and Anna Brownsted with the Ensemble from the story by Oscar Wilde." Well, the play is wild and who knows? Oscar may generate enough spin within his grave to haunt this interpretation. If so, Michael Hammond may continue as a cartoonish Canterbury ghost and double as an elegant ghostly Wilde.

This contrived production defies categorizing. There’s satire and farce and slapstick, and madcap comedy. There’s also shtik. Lots of shtik.

A too-rich Texas family defies a realtor’s warning about the Canterville castle being haunted and buys the place. Immediately after moving in, something possesses them to line dance to Achey Breaky Heart. They frustrate the ghost’s efforts to frighten them off. They reincarnate backwards a generation or so where, thank goodness, they’re no longer vulgar high rollers but proper English relatives of the notorious ghost. The pathetic, lost soul sadness of Sir Simon de Canterville (as depicted in Wilde’s original story) is ultimately revealed. He longs to be loved (and forgiven for murdering his wife three centuries earlier) because he knows that love is stronger than death. The pure love of the young Texas daughter, Virginia (winningly played by Alyssa Hughlett) brings Sir Simon the release he craves – a tender scene that uses Wilde’s words, devoid of embellishment, played by Hammond with appropriate sensitivity. Portraying the Texas parents with gusto are Dana Harrison as the wife, Michael F. Toomey as her husband, and Alexandra Lincoln as their other child.

There are speedy scene shifts and equally fast costume changes (all excellent, thanks to costume designer Shelby Rodger). Set Designer Katy Monthei’s secret doors, Tina Louise Jones’ lighting designs, Michael Pfeiffer’s weird sounds, and Ian Guzzone’s multiple props inject authenticity into the mayhem.