Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 26, 2009

Johnny Winter

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
January 25, 2009
Eric Sutter

The audience of approximately 400 were eyewitness to the heat wave of Texas blues legend Johnny Winter, who chased away the chill on this cold mid-winter night in the Berkshires. Winter has been living the blues since he first broke through in the early 70s. The night began with a hard rockin' electric guitar blues instrumental solo performed by Paul Nelson, from the Johnny Winter Band. The band was pumped up when Winter took the stage with the high powered crunch of "Hideaway." Dressed in blue jeans, black shirt and his trademark black cowboy hat, and lone star tatooed arms, he sounded the way he looked... like a road weary, raspy voiced blues veteran of countless bars, roadhouses and concert halls. "Sugar Coated Love" and "Boogie Real Low" exemplified his blues shuffle rhythms and use of boogie guitar styles. He is one of the true building bridges of blues and rock interpreters who have linked the British blues of the 60s to the Southern rock of the 70s.

He worked the crowd to a frenzy with "Blackjack" and growled the Texas gutbucket blues with "Lone Wolf," which brought forth howls from the audience. His long slender fingers glided over the strings of his guitar with the grace of ageless beauty. He let it rip with a ferocious blues force on "Red House." The backwood yowl of "Johnny Guitar" caught the cheers and handclaps from the audience. The super raw cover of "It's All Over Now" sounded Stonesy, but with more Texas big beat and swagger courtesy of the rhythm section of Scott Spray's swampy bass lines and drummer Vito Liuzzi's bam. Winter has paid his dues and then some, and it showed as he squeezed passion from every smokin' hot slide guitar lick on his low down "Mojo Boogie" interspersed with Spray's tirade of funky bass lines. The encore, "Highway 61," featured traded electric guitar riffs between Nelson and Winter with solos galore.

A note about Mahaiwe. The theatre opened in 1905 for vaudeville shows, then became a movie house in the late 20s, and reopened in 2004 for a new century of entertainment.

January 25, 2009

Bad Dates

Shakespeare & Co,, Lenox
through March, 8, 2009
Shera Cohen

Why would anyone, even the most ardent theatergoers, venture to the Berkshires in the middle of winter to see a one-woman play that few have heard of, written by a little-known playwright?

There are several correct answers to this profound question. Shakespeare & Company continues to maintain its reputation of producing the best theatre. Author Theresa Rebeck is a skilled wordsmith whose name will soon be recognized in larger circles. Most important, Elizabeth Aspenlieder stars. A 14-year Shakes & Co. veteran, this woman’s exemplary acting has been applauded by audiences and critics for her dramatic roles (“Ethan Frome”) and comedic (“Rough Crossing”).

In “Bad Dates,” she portrays a 30-something divorcee, mother, successful businesswoman, who decides it’s now time to find a man. The script easily could have been as a series of humorous vignettes with some male-bashing. Far from it. Aspenlieder, director Adrianne Krstansky, and the playwright have created a delightful, energetic, scattered, competent woman with a full life which the audience wants to learn about. Although a one-woman show, we “see” the many other characters: her daughter, phone friends, employees, and her dates. Although inanimate, her clothes and 600 pairs of shoes, take on a role of their own.

Hallie Walker (Aspenlieder) speaks directly to the audience. The set is a messy bedroom, which she uses as a tennis court from the clothes closet to the shoe boxes and back again. This bouncing around is part of her charm. Her dialogue is snappy, profound, and rings true. While doubtful about her future, Walker is a hero as she takes on challenges – usually involving men. The play’s title might imply a string of one-nighters. Again, far from it. It is safe to take teens to this production.

From her eyebrows to her toes, Aspenlieder, with advice from her director, puts every body part into her role. She speaks so naturally that it is easy forget that this is an actress in a part. While one might assume that the play is merely a one-way conversation, there is actually an unexpected and somewhat unrelated plot going on. That’s another reason to head to this summer Shakes & Co. venue in February.

January 24, 2009

Mama's Night Out

CityStage, Springfield
through January 25, 2009
Donna Bailey-Thompson

Three certifyingly funny comediennes who got to where they are – first-class professionals – by honing their craft, perform their "Mama’s Night Out" for predominantly women, but as long as men are as comfortable as women about laughing at themselves, their material is any-gender friendly.

Karen Morgan, a transplanted Georgian who lives in Maine, opened the show with a burst of amusing stories about her three young children’s speaking idiosyncrasies: because their sentences include words and phrases that embrace both their mother’s Southern and father’s Down East accents, Morgan said, "They’re bilingual." She tossed in cracks about Southern cooking: "There are four food groups – sugar, salt, fat and alcohol." As for skinny women who are a size 0, she quipped, "If you’re not big enough to have a number, don’t leave home. Eat a sandwich!."

During the next half hour, Nancy Witter kept the laughs coming. The audience learned that she’s 50, enjoys a drink, and recently married a man who is 60. She spoke of her mother who drank vodka, even when nursing, and consequently, "I had my first White Russian when I was four hours old." She blames her battle with the bulge on having an "insatiable appetite, slow metabolism, and yeast infection." As for anyone who wears a size 2, she said, "I could cook you, eat you, and still be hungry."

Sherry Davey’s comedy was the edgiest. She skewered the overuse of prescription medicine for children: "...dispensing Benadryl for hay fever in February?" She referenced the Inauguration and poked fun at President Obama’s dancing style. Her rift about the stereotypical foibles of husbands had the women in hysterics. "I look forward to being a widow: the thank you cards are already written." Following her set, all three women took the stage, swapping banter and jokes. Nancy Witter said, "An Irishman walks out of a bar. Well, it could happen!"

These three mamas met when they competed in Nick at Nite’s Search for America’s Funniest Mom and became finalists, beating out over 1000 hopefuls. They’re worthy of a return booking at CityStage.

January 16, 2009

Dying City

Hartford Stage, Hartford
through February 8, 2009
Donna Bailey-Thompson

A spirited discussion among strangers following the play demonstrated that the advance publicity description of "Dying City" remained accurate even after the play had ended: the "mystery drama" generated more questions than it answered. From the tension-filled disjointed dialog of the opening scenes through switchbacks in time and attitude, the story line resembled the stop and go rewinding of a ball of yarn. Unlike the unfolding of a linear plot, "Dying City" demands unbroken attention while it parries, thrusts, twists and dodges. If playwright Christopher Shinn’s intent was to mimic dysfunctional behavior spawned by the family of origin, this Pulitzer Prize-nominated play scores.

Simply stated, Peter (Ryan King) is a self-absorbed actor chasing love while his twin brother, Craig (Ryan King), a soldier bound for Iraq, can’t accept the love given to him by his wife, Kelly (Diane Davis), a psychotherapist whose compassionate beliefs are ridiculed. Their interlocking personal dramas are played out within a setting, designed by Wilson Chin, that reflects their circumscribed characters – a boxy greatroom (perhaps a loft) that contains utilitarian kitchen counters and a living area dominated by a massive, multi-paned cantilevered window that frames the silhouetted cityscape of New York. The decor is stark, almost sterile, appropriate for the walking wounded.

Director Maxwell Williams keeps the brothers’ flawed emotional development teetering on the edge of awakening while simultaneously maintaining Kelly awhirl within bewilderment. Alejo Vietti’s clever costume designs double as calendar clocks which help the audience keep track of time and year.

Actors Davis and King (and King) are well cast. As twenty-somethings, they contend with ongoing international instability personified by the Iraq debacle. While macho Craig champions a shooting war, his gay twin’s mouth unleashes supposedly innocuous words that give new meaning to dying by a thousand cuts. Davis, as their verbal punching bag, strives to discover the origin of the brothers’ anger.

Perhaps the best way to "get" the allegorical "Dying City" is to see it twice.

January 14, 2009

Avenue Q

The Bushnell, Hartford
through January 18, 2009
Donna Bailey-Thompson

A possible subtitle for "Avenue Q" could be "Political Correctness Takes a Holiday". Consider what is spoofed: higher education, racism, homosexuality, pornography, not wearing underwear, noisy copulation, enjoying others misfortune, religion, all done with catchy tunes, appropriate choreography, and sassy dialogue performed by an impressively skilled, energetic cast. The production lives up to its billing: hilarious, infectious, subversive.

The Bushnell advises that "due to adult situations (like full-puppet nudity), 'Avenue Q' may be inappropriate for kids under 13." Oh, you think? How about, "Parental discretion is advised." Sesame Street-inspired hand puppets are manipulated by the human actors. All – actors and puppets – are portraying adults, not kids.

The setting is a seedy borough somewhere in New York City where grime-covered tenements provide shelter for folks just a paycheck away from living on the street. Princeton complains that his B.A. in English is not an automatic ticket to being hired. Because "Avenue Q" is a multi-tuneful musical (21 songs plus 4 reprises), Princeton and his neighbors describe their woes in "It Sucks to Be Me." By a few numbers later, they’re on a roll and rock sensibilities with "Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist" which includes the admonition to relax, forget about being P.C. Before there’s time to recover, Trekkie Monster, is declaring, "The Internet Is for Porn." The audience is whooping. In short order, the laughing borders on hysteria as two puppets enjoy simulated sex while the cast sings, "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)". Halfway through Act II, there’s an upbeat serenade lauding the wickedly satisfactory feelings inherent within "Schadenfreude."

At the 2004 Tony Awards, "Avenue Q" won Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. Not surprisingly, the show is still playing on Broadway and has entertained audiences world-wide. The professional level of this USA touring production is outstanding. Everything works – pit band, costumes, clever special effects, a skilled cast. They’re all terrific but Sala Iwamatsu's humor-infected performance as the no-nonsense Christmas Eve wows with her vim, vigor, and powerful voice.

January 12, 2009

Lumberjacks in Love

Majestic, West Springfield
Through 2/15/09
Shera Cohen

Last year’s Majestic sleeper was “Guys on Ice.” It will be no surprise if this season’s “Lumberjacks in Love” becomes the surprise hit in The Theater Project’s 12th anniversary. Brought to you by the “Guys” guys – writers/lyricists/musicians Fred Alley and James Kaplan and director/designer Danny Eaton – “Lumberjacks” is similar in style, script, and sound.

The audience sees a rustic set depicting what will become indoor and outdoor scenes. The cabin wood and real trees smell freshly cut. Musical director Amy Roberts-Crawford fingers the first notes of the title song on her keyboard as the quartet of actors (donned in corduroy, flannel, and plaid) sing and dance. They are all having fun, and that feeling is responded to in kind by the full house in attendance.

Lumberjack buddies of some years; these are comrades who know each other well – warts and all. While only in rehearsal for six weeks, the actors are also very much in synch. A series of small musical numbers strings the plot together to include many ensemble songs. Also, each actor is offered his chance to shine alone.

Eric Love, Van Farrier, David Mason, and Alec Nelson give their characters humor, warmth, and depth. Nelson (also in “Guys”) essentially portrays the same man – dim yet lovable. As the leader of the pack, Love is a convincing life-long bachelor. A regular on the Majestic’s stage is Farrier, who makes his “Dirty Bob” a charm. Mason’s “Muskrat” was probably the most difficult role as it was his job to make the audience feel empathy and, at the same time, laugh outrageously. Toss in a couple of gals – after all, the lumberjacks are “in love” – portrayed by the young Shelby Leshine and Equity actress Cate Damon, and this musical is completely entertaining.

Choreographer Brian Fournier sets a good deal of the action as purposely clumsy 1950s-style singer and back-up dancers’ movements. Damon and Love are perfect in the very funny “Hernando’s Hide-away” duet. As director Danny Eaton said in the talk-back, these are excellent actors who can also sing and dance, which is why he selected this cast. He selected well.

January 4, 2009

Winter Dance Party

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
January 3, 2009
Shera Cohen

The temperature was 10 degrees with a wind chill that blew snow sideways. This third day in 2009 was the most appropriate night to see the Winter Dance Party. What better way to warm the soul than with fond memories of the good ol’ days, when the 50s meant watching Ed Sullivan on the new TV set, sledding instead of shoveling, and eating the original “comfort food”. This era marked the start of Rock ‘n Roll.

The Party replicated the concert which took place in 1959 featuring The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly. The audience in Pittsfield became the audience of 50 years ago on that fateful evening preceding the death of these three legendary singers. Yet, no reference was made to the tragedy. The crowds of then and now (full capacity at the Colonial) were there for one reason – to experience the music of these three young men.

JP Richardson, Jr. (son of The Big Bopper) started the program. Like his dad, his was not the best of voices, but that was fine. The Bopper was a showman and comic. One poignant number referenced the Bopper. Of course, the signature piece “Chantilly Lace” was an expected audience-pleaser.

Ritchie Valens was portrayed by the sweet-faced Ray Anthony. The lyrics of “Oh Donna” spoke of tenderness. While this reviewer has no idea what the words of “La Bamba” translated, this speed-of-lightning song proved to be powerful and effervescent.

While it appeared obvious that John Mueller had “been” Buddy Holly for many years (over 10 and still counting), his presentation was as fresh as if he stepped onto the stage for the first time. Give the man a guitar, bow tie, horn-rimmed glasses, and a voice to match his namesake, and Mueller became the deserved star of the party. From “Peggy Sue” to “Rave On” to “Johnny B. Good,” Mueller/Holly constantly built the shows’ momentum.

The quartet was perfectly in synch as back-up and as part of the act. Oftentimes, sometimes encouraged by the actors and other times out of sheer necessity, the audience sang along.

A note about Colonial – masterful renovations have recreated (it dates to 1903) one of the finest theatres in New England, and it’s not just a summer venue.