Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 21, 2009

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow MA
through February 28, 2009
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

This outstanding production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is a triumph worthy of an Off Broadway venue. Under the sensitive, vigorous direction of Marck Morrison, playwright Edward Albee’s masterpiece is as fresh and cogent today as when its debut rocked Broadway in 1962. Four accomplished actors give stellar performances – Claire Bertrand (Martha), Bob Laviolette (George), Jami Byrne Wilson (Honey), and Brian Dickey (Nick). There is not one false note during the play’s three hours. From the blaring opening scene through the final heart-wrenching moments, Ludlow’s Exit 7 Players present riveting first-rate theater.

A bare-bones, no-meat synopsis of the play: Martha and George are serious swillers of booze who have honed verbal abuse to an outrageous art form. After they arrive home from a faculty gathering, Martha informs George that she has invited a young teacher, Nick, and his wife, Honey, to stop by for a drink. Throughout the night into the dawn, emotional mayhem prevails. Scabrous exchanges substitute for polite conversation. Terrible psychological scars are semi-exposed that beg the question: truth or illusion? Regardless, there is "blood under the bridge."

Each actor skillfully balances the character’s facade with its underlying reality. George and Martha’s symbiotic relationship hovers at a parasitic level; both Laviolette and Bertrand through subtle body language convey within their mutual contempt a complicated, revengeful respect. Nick, the supposedly fair-haired young man is exposed as being as unscrupulous as his hosts. His fragile wife Honey’s slow motion progression from tipsy into alcoholic stupor is pantomimed virtuosity. Throughout all three acts, Morrison’s directorial skills have become the actors’ own. His respect for the audience’s need to absorb their insight into Martha and George’s convoluted natures is the gift of decompression – a protracted final scene of George putting the house to bed before he cradles Martha, his spent other.

Productions of this caliber demonstrate that the bottom line difference between a quality community theater and a regional or NYC venue is money: the pros are salaried, whereas the "amateurs" are dedicated volunteers. Those who lump all community theater into a slapdash hobby category will have their parochial opinions torpedoed by Exit 7's "...Virginia Woolf."

Be advised: for mature audiences only.

February 14, 2009

Four Dogs and a Bone

Suffield Players, Suffield
through February 28, 2009
By Donna Bailey

As befits their reputation, the Suffield Players are presenting a demanding play whose success is contingent upon savvy direction and an experienced cast. This production scores on all counts.

"Four Dogs and a Bone" is a biting comedy about the dirty little details encountered when filming an underfunded movie. Written by John Patrick Shanley, a veteran Hollywood script writer and best known recently for his honored Broadway play and now a movie "Doubt," three of the dogs are a dishonest producer and two actresses who are rapacious carnivores: their diets include ingesting their own kind. The fourth dog is the script writer whose desperation to save the movie does not include devouring the others through bloodless means.

The first act covers a lot of expository ground, of the shock and awe variety. At times the abrasiveness seems nonstop, especially as spewed forth by Lea D. Oppedisano who as Colette, knows she is no longer an ingénue to reap empathy but is now headed for character roles where she can be type cast as incarnate evil. Oppedisano’s Colette’s is a force of nature – major disaster category. Her adversary is the supposedly sweet Brenda (Megan Fish) who chants and plots mischief. During the second act, their scene within a minimized dressing trailer is as tight as the space itself.

As Bradley, the money-short producer who is plagued with a flaming hemorrhoid (nothing like a little bathroom humor), Josh Guenter seems to channel Paul Giamatti – glib, light on his feet, as tailored as an unmade bed. Robert Lunde as the fair-minded script writer, Victor, throws up his arms in frustration at the unbridled shenanigans. His disapproval gives the audience permission to feel shocked by the despicable behavior, even while laughing at scabrous remarks they would not tolerate elsewhere.

Director Meghan Lynn Allen prevents "Four Dogs and a Bone" from becoming farcical melodrama. The production can inspire anything from the killer comment, "That was much ado about nothing!" to the exclamation, "What a hoot!"

February 9, 2009

Jersey Boys

The Bushnell, Hartford CT
Through February 22, 2009
By Sharon Smith

“Oh, What a Night” at the Bushnell, indeed! That song title is also the best way to describe an enjoyable evening watching a performance of "Jersey Boys," the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The quartet may sing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” but if you miss this must-see show, you just might!

"Jersey Boys" recounts the story of how four singers under a street lamp, from the wrong side of the tracks, made it in the big time. Who would have thought that the performers of such wonderful songs as “Sherry”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Walk Like a Man” would have personal histories that include theft, jail time and mobsters?

The incredibly talented Four Seasons are played by Matt Bailey (Tommy DeVito), Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie Valli), Josh Franklin (Bob Gaudio) and Steve Gouveia (Nick Massi). Their vocal and physical similarities to their real-life counterparts are uncanny. The actors portray the characters so well that it is difficult to believe they are not the real Four Seasons -- to cry when Frankie cries and feel betrayed when Tommy’s indiscretions tear the band apart.

Jersey Boys moves along quickly and uses effortless transitions to instantly shift focus from a small smoky nightclub to the set of American Bandstand. Even the costumes help trace the band's trajectory and tie it to their name by using vibrant colors for the Spring and Summer of the Four Seasons career and finishing with more muted colors as the (literal) Fall of the band began. As befits the rough and tumble New Jersey upbringing of the boys, their language is also pretty colorful.

A drawback to the "Jersey Boys" is wanting to “Stay” just a little bit longer enjoying the trip back in time. With at least 40 singles on the best- selling charts, the Playbill included a song list of “The Ones That Got Away” (songs that couldn’t be squeezed into the show). Any hope that the curtain call would feature one or more of these songs remained unfulfilled.

Don’t miss this “Fallen Angel” of a show!

Dead Man's Cell Phone

TheatreWorks, Hartford CT
Through March 15, 2009
By Jarice Hanson

In Sarah Ruhl’s comedy, "Dead Man’s Cell Phone," the audience enters a world of feelings and emotion by eavesdropping on cell phone messages. Two people are in a café, where a woman is annoyed by the constantly ringing cell phone of the man at the other table. When she grabs the cell phone to answer it, she realizes he is dead.To protect his dignity, she lies to a series of callers, leading her to ultimately meet and confront Gordon Gottlieb’s overbearing mother, miserable wife, ineffective brother, and exotic mistress.

The protagonist, Jean, is played by Finnerty Steeves, an appealing actress who can communicate much by just raising an eyebrow. We meet her in the stark café, wearing a frumpy gray and black outfit that matches her life, before she is catapulted into Gordon’s life, illustrated on stage by colorful backlighting and an annoyingly effective sound design that assaults the senses the way an incessantly ringing cell phone does. As a result of the world she finds herself in after taking Gordon’s phone, Jean begins to expand her senses (and those of the audience) beyond what she hears on the cell phone to touch, taste, and sight. Each of the other characters, also fully realized and expertly directed by Rob Ruggiero, find what they need in life, through Jean’s interpretation of Gordon’s wishes.

In addition to Steeves’ portrayal of Jean, Craig Wroe as Gordon, stands out in this ensemble piece, for his expository monolog from another dimension—letting those seated in the theatre in on the real Gordon. With a touch of absurdity in the second act, carried through by the audience’s immediate cell phone use after the show, the play ends with an appreciation and marvel at Ruhl’s comic absurdity of contemporary life.

Spectrum & SSO

Symphony Hall, Springfield
February 7, 2009
By Eric Sutter

Imagine entertainment that beat the winter blues into the ground: four incredible singers, all experienced stand alone soloists, who combined their smooth voices to create Spectrums' beautiful harmonies backed by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Jonathan Lam.

The joy began with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's performance of "Love's Theme" by the Love Unlimited Orchestra. The audience was captivated by an evening of Spectrums' renditions of the best of Motown, leading off with classic Temptations' hits such as "Get Ready", "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and a Four Tops medley that consisted of "Same Old Song", "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" and "Bernadette" all with the hand clapping, rolling arms and exciting dance steps that moved the audience too. Dressed in blue sports coats and white pants, Spectrum performed a neatly choreographed "Under The Boardwalk" (The Drifters). Other stirring songs had the audience singing -- "Ooo Baby Baby" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), "LaLa...Means I Love You" (Delfonics) and "Rubberband Man" (Spinners).

Wearing red sequined jackets and black slacks, the quartet opened the second half with "Reach Out, I'll Be There" (Four Tops). "Backstabbers" featured some visually stunning dance moves and the audience reveled at the sight as the group built the dramatic tension to a high point -- group founder Cushney Roberts' leap from the stage into the audience, still in song and dance mode. The Drifters' "Up On The Roof" featured smooth soul singing with the nearly full audience in a swoon. David Prescott hit high marks in sound with the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New". The Temptations' "Just My Imagination" with it's dreamy lyrics and melody showcased a nice electric guitar solo by James Davis that was complemented by the string section of the orchestra. Tex Richardson on grand piano and keyboards provided a warm textural component to the overall sound of the night as the orchestrater of the music. They closed with the sing-a-long "My Girl" (Temptations) and a rhythmically rousing "Can't Help Myself" (Four Tops). A standing ovation led to an encore, "Soul Man" (Sam and Dave).

Happy 50th Anniversary, Motown!

February 2, 2009

Guitar Blues

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
By Eric Sutter

From 1967's "Surrealistic Pillow" to his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, Jorma Kaukonen continues to be the torchbearer for guitar blues. A founding member of two legendary bands - Jefferson Airplane and the still touring Hot Tuna, he is a 1996 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The evening's music began with one of three of Guitar Blues blues-happy trio... Kaukonen, Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster.

Foster opened with a short acoustic set of gospel, soul and blues from her CD "The Truth According to Ruthie Foster." A bluesy tune, "Lowdown Living in a Small Town," made the connection to a spiritual from Sister Rosetta Thorpe's "There's a Heaven Somewhere." She closed with "Travelin' Shoes." Her songs can be heard in the upcoming feature film, "Gospel Hill."

Jorma Kaukonen also connected the real world to spirit with "Comeback Baby" and "There is a Bright Spiritual Side Somewhere." He impressed the audience with his acoustic fingerstyle guitar playing, which was flawless as he interpreted the Reverend Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy." He is a master interpreter of roots music, blues and Americana such as "Trouble in Mind."

Robben Ford is a fusion guitar player who combined elements of blues with jazz and R&B. He rocked "Spoonful" with bassist Duane Pate and his nephew drummer Gabriel Ford. He played "Supernatural," a funky jazz-blues workout. He also performed "Peace on My Mind" from 2007's "Truth" as Foster joined in on electric piano. She moved to acoustic guitar and added "Stone Love" to the peaceful mood. Her voice was a full-on blast of soul and blues as she sang, "I Really Love You" to the band's cool reggae vibe. Ford riffed electric guitar solos over "Rock Me All Night Long" with Kaukonen's powerful voice singing strong over his center stage lead guitar lines. The blues troupe encored with a spirit raising gospel consciousness version of Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" to a standing ovation.