Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 29, 2009

Bela Fleck/The Africa Project

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
by Eric Sutter

Premier banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck's The Africa Project kicked off its world debut at Colonial Theatre with bandmates Toumani Mahlesela (Mali), Vusi Mahlesela (South Africa), D'Gary (Madagascar), Anania Ngoliga(Tanzania) and Casey Dreissen (Nashville). In 2005, Fleck journied to Africa to perform with great musicians and look into the roots of the banjo -- he found what he was looking for in Gambia and Mali with its deep -rooted banjo heritage. This sold-out "Throw Down Your Heart Tour" mixed the sounds of the banjo with African folk music and united two different musical traditions that came from the same place. The tour began with Fleck's banjo instrumental, after which each amazing African performer demonstrated his music solo followed with collaborations with Fleck and each other.

Ngoliga is a blind marimba maestro who performed his chill inducing music which sounded like a vibraphone. He played in a spiritually jazzy style joined by Fleck in a melodic timbre of gentle sound that expressed sweet as honey joy. This was deep and intimate music, acoustic and intense. Banjo and Swahili voice were tenderly interwoven in a uniform dialogue. Fleck played an African folk instrumental from Mali on a cello banjo. D'Gary played a jazz-folk guitar instrumental with accompaniament by a hand-percussionist. As they sang in their tribal African voices, the percussionist let out a high whistle from his voice. Fleck joined on banjo and Dreissen on fiddle. This was not bluegrass, but an African country song "Kanetsa," with stop-start percussive rhythms and pregnant pauses that resumed with loud yee-haw voices.

The second half brought out the soulful voiced Mahlesela on acoustic guitar. who sang a joyful "Beauty of Our Country." His vocalizations mimicked his guitar playing precisely while he danced playfully. The soul of Africa met the drive of country as Fleck joined in. Meditative jams combined with flashy instrumentals to create musical fireworks in this cultural exchange. Diabate closed the evening with the Kora (a 21 string harp from Mali); he is the 72nd generation of players in his family. The audience was spellbound. The entire cast joined him on stage for a memorable musical moment.

March 26, 2009

A Chorus Line

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 29
by R.E. Smith

This is one show had slipped off the musical theatre radar of many people. This reviewer remembers it as being fairly downbeat, and the soundtrack was certainly never purchased. This is not an effects laden musical like "Phantom" or sing-along like "Joseph." That said, the touring company of "A Chorus Line" was so passionate and professional that it prompted a reevaluation.

Seventeen Broadway dancers assemble on stage to audition for a musical. The director only needs eight performers and so he interrogates each one in turn, to discover their motivations and passions for theatre and dance. here is humor and hope, but an undercurrent of pathos is always there as each archetype faces his or her hopes, dreams and fears.

It is truly an ensemble show, with some numbers starting off as what seem to be solos but eventually blending into company pieces. Musicals like "Jesus Christ Superstar" seem so of-their-time and there is no mistaking the decade in which the music was composed. But the score by Marvin Hamlisch, is relatively timeless. "What I Did For Love" turns up with a true freshness, far removed from the endless lite-radio play it received 25 years ago. This is the second standout song delivered by Gabrielle Ruiz (Diana) in the show, the other being "Nothing." Forget the flashier characters; Diana is the real backbone of the show. While all the characters have reasons to be passionate about dancing (escape, fulfillment, vanity, money) Diana truly makes no excuses and expects no quarter in her devotion to the theatre.

A few moments stretch on just a touch too long, as if someone created a great workshop monologue and couldn't bear to edit it down. But then there is the dancing, in any number of styles, which drives the narrative along, expressing as much about the characters as the dialogue. "A Chorus Line" helps illuminate why some people have no choice but to heed the siren call of fickle lady theatre.

March 24, 2009

Kathy Mattea Concert

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
by Eric Sutter

The wind in the mountains that chilled the Berkshires in the evening was warmed by a gifted singer in Kathy Mattea. With Mattea, here is a country girl who is also a modern day independent woman with a good head on her shoulders. Her music was clean without boundaries, with an excellent voice that rang true. Her lyrics were not all sweet, as she has an uncanny ability to probe the darker side of human nature.

She started her set with "Dark as a Dungeon" about a coal mine disaster. Her family comes from a long line of coal miners from West Virginia and "COAL," her latest CD, is a tribute to her place and people. Acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin and stand-up bass accompanied her mountain soul voice on songs "Goin' Gone" and "Untold Stories." Her Appalachian tales included the Jean Ritchie song "Blue Diamond Mines." This was real country music... heartfelt and not from your ordinary country star. "Love at the Five and Dime" included most in the audience becoming the chorus on the line "dance a little closer to me."

"You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" featured an acoustic guitar solo and a powerful mandolin solo that cut high about all other sounds. The beautiful melody of "Come from the Heart" left plenty of room for some fine instrumental work. The beloved Grammy winner, "18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses" was a sure hit. She rocked the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," showcased an acoustic slide guitar on her bluesy "455 Rocket," and sang her heart out on Hazel Dickens' hard luck tale, "Black Lung." Mattea encored with a spritely Celtic instrumental.

At one point, Mattea called the Mahaiwe a jewel -- her voice echoed in this beautiful venue, and the audience echoed their praise of Mattea.

March 19, 2009

Altar Boyz

City Stage, Springfield
Through March 22
Review by R.E Smith

If shows like "Phantom" or "Company" are a piece of rich, devil's food cake then "Altar Boyz" can only be compared to a light, fluffy piece of Angel food. The latter makes a tasty dessert, but it isn't quite as filling or substantive as the former.

Like a good sitcom premise, the show can be summed up in one line: Catholic boy band. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Abraham and, um, Juan were brought together by the Almighty to spread his word through "rhythm and rhyme." The performers are all hard working and some are successful at showing hints of humanity behind their stereotypes. Philip Drennen, as the group's sincere, sensitive leader, kept things grounded in his own earnest reality.

A real stand out here is the choreography. The "Boyz" come across as a combination of Vegas dancers and NFL cheerleaders. Pay close attention to the "hand moves" and you'll find gang symbols replaced with signs of the cross and genuflections.

The music is certainly well constructed; the melodies cover all the pop music archetypes from power ballads to catchy dance tracks. "The Miracle Song" is a snappy rap that asks Jesus "how’d you do 'dat?" and "Number 918" finds the boys performing a melodic exorcism on the few remaining audience members who haven’t yet heard the call. Sample song lyric: "Jesus called me on my cell phone, no roaming charges were incurred, He told me that I should go out in the world, and spread His glorious word."

For those who have seen late-night commercials for CDs of Christian rock, it's clear that these lyrics are not actually that far removed from their comedic target. Because of that fact, the audience is never quite sure if everyone is harshly ridiculing the genre or gently mocking it with tender affection. It's also unsure who the primary object of ridicule is; boy bands, Christian music or Catholics in general. There are plenty of opportunities to laugh, and the 90-minute show moves along so quickly. After all, who can eat just one piece of Angel food cake?

Springfield Symphony & Corey Cerovsek

Mozart, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn
Symphony Hall, Springfield MA
March 14, 2009

By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Just like families, not all symphony programs are harmonious. The SSO's "Symphonic Seasons" program featuring the distinct sounds of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Mendelssohn, demonstrated that when the musical chemistry is in tune, the audience's pleasure is sensed long before the applause begins.

The title of Mozart's "Adagio and Fugue in C minor" doubled as a roadmap: the orchestra – all strings only – began with alacrity, so merry and bright – and then eased into waves of soft phrasing that invited contemplation and perhaps even levitation beyond the confines of Symphony Hall. Maestro Kevin Rhodes and the dedicated musicians were in tuneful sync.

Much of the evening's pre-concert excitement centered on the return of violinist Corey Cerovsek performing – again – Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Each of the seasons (Spring, E Major; Summer, G minor; Autumn, F Major; Winter, F minor) is a concerto, a complete experience, separated by brief pauses. Beyond Cerovsek’s exacting technique, what seemed to impress audiences in particular was his ability to memorize "all those notes." An intense standing ovation persuaded Cerovsek to play what he described as "short and sweet" – an arresting display of pell-mell dexterity that catapulted the audience to clamor for more until he raised his 1728 Stradivarius and announced the next piece was a "slow movement" – of what? Unintelligible words but no matter: his tour de force accomplishment was secure.

The communication between SSO's conductor and musicians was apparent during Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony No. 3, in A minor. Mendelssohn's emotional appreciation of his visit to Scotland was lovingly and meticulously performed. The movements were interconnected; their moods followed natural bridges to the next musical interpretation of sweeping moors, rugged crags, churning clouds, sudden sunshine, and tumultuous history. The SSO's professional growth was especially evident. Unlike major symphonies with a majority of full-time musicians and extended rehearsal opportunities, SSO's first rehearsal for a Saturday concert begins two days earlier, on a Thursday. Knowing their polishing time is precious, everyone arrives prepared. Rhodes' high standards inspire the musicians to exact more of themselves. The result is a win-win for the musicians and audiences. Now "celebrating 65 years of live music," the Springfield Symphony Orchestra is recognized as one of New England’s crown jewels.

March 5, 2009

Matt Lewis' Elvis

City Stage, Springfield
through March 8, 2009
by Eric Sutter

He was the King... he was the Guitar Man, and was a poor country boy who became a Rock idol. He hasn't left the building. Matt Lewis was raised far away from Tupelo, Mississippi but his spirit for entertainment is similar to that of Elvis. He impersonated the mannerisms, gestures and voice of Elvis extremely well -- almost eerily at times. He began his show with the featured song "A Little Less Conversation" from the 1968 movie "Live A Little, Love A Little." The song kept the memory of Elvis alive when it returned to the charts in 2002 by Remix JXL for the Nike World Cup commercial.

Dressed in the early-years style of gold jacket and black slacks with acoustic guitar, he performed a medley of early hits including "Return to Sender" with back-up by local musicians Jim Henry on electric guitar and Guy DeVito on bass. The show was fast-paced and broken up into segments of Elvis' 23 year career. The movie years featured the "Jailhouse Rock" 6240 prison uniform along with two female dancers as correctional officers. He rocked "Follow That Dream" and ventured into "Blue Hawaii" with "Rock-A-Hula." A warm "Love Me Tender" ended the set.

The '68 Comeback Special had another medley of rockin' hits such as "Heartbreak Hotel." With "Baby Let's Play House," Lewis dressed in black, flirted with the audience, and women screamed as Henry played an exciting guitar solo. "In the Ghetto" was a stand-out that brought forth a strong emotional response. He closed the first half with "If I Can Dream."

The jumpsuit Vegas years with the passionate "Burnin' Love" and "Suspicious Minds" featured the dancers in white GoGo boots and red wide-sleeved mini-skirts. "My Way" readied the thrilled audience for the Gospel sing-a-long "Amen" and the cheer down of "Crying in the Chapel." The patriotic "American Trilogy" moved the audience deeply. Matt Lewis encored with a wild "Viva Las Vegas."

March 4, 2009

Silent Men Speaking: True experiences of veterans of the War in Vietnam

Bus Stop

Majestic Theater, W. Springfield
through April 5
By Bernadette Johnson

Strangers thrown together for any length of time tend to commiserate. And waiting tends to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

In the Majestic Theatre’s production of William Inge’s 1955 hit play “Bus Stop,” a bus driver and his four passengers find themselves stranded in a Kansas diner when a snowstorm leaves roads impassable. The travelers have no choice but to hunker down until morning.

Among the weary passengers are Ozarks-born Cherie (Amy Rist), a small-town nightclub singer and aspiring “chanteuse,” Bo Decker (Dan Whelton), a loud, loutish cowboy (a cross between Li’l Abner and the Beverly Hillbillies) who is determined to marry Cherie and carry her off to his ranch in Montana despite her vehement objections, Virgil Blessing (David Healey), Bo’s older pal and mentor, and Dr. Gerald Lyman (Chris O’Carroll), a pretentious, lecherous windbag whose sketchy past is rife with mistakes and melancholy.

Themes of love, longing and loneliness play themselves out as diner owner Grace (Jaime Taber) and her young, naive waitress Elma (Carolyn Averill) attempt to lessen the tedium by serving up coffee and compassion. Rounding out the cast are frisky bus driver Carl (Stuart Gamble) and brook-no-nonsense sheriff Will Masters (Jeffrey Dreisbach).

Whelton’s bullying personality takes some getting used to, but that’s Inge’s fault, not his. He’s supposed to be obnoxious, and he is. Taber manages more facial distortions than would seem necessary, but they adequately convey her discomfort and distaste for Whelton’s one-sided idea of “courtship.” And O’Carroll’s lecherous professor provokes just the right balance of disdain and sympathy as he attempts to impress, and seduce, the young Emma with a tiresome stream of Shakespearean quotes. As for Taber and Healey, though both in supporting roles, they are the most convincing characters of the lot.

Greg Trochlil’s authentic set deserves special mention, taking us back as it does to another era, and special effects are so realistic they have us actually “feeling” a cold draft every time the diner door opens. Great place to hunker down as March winds roar through.

March 2, 2009

Springfield Symphony Orchestra & Peter Serkin

Symphony Hall, Springfield
February 28, 2009
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Although the music selected by Music Director Kevin Rhodes for SSO’s first concert of 2009 was distinctly different, one from the other, the overall effect was artistically compatible. Each composer – Respighi, Bach, Beethoven – developed his own unique sound to create not merely harmony but moments of humor (Respighi), precision (Bach), and the sublime (Beethoven).

Respighi’s "The Birds" began and ended with a rhythm worthy of inspiring the dancing feet of mincing courtiers; in between, the composer brought to musical life feathered friends worthy of an ornithologist’s scholarship. Respighi transformed the bird calls with musical cunning: his "The Dove" was not the pristine white of peace but a pair of ground-feeding, dull brown mourning doves, cooing an oboe lament, that dissolved into nothingness as they flew skyward. However, "The Hen" was barnyard savvy, a possible prototype for the comical "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little" busy-bodies in "The Music Man;" and oh-oh, watch out, the rooster’s arrival was heralded by the combined blasting of trumpet and clarinet. "The Nightingale," shy, hidden, its sweet calls of a flute were a harbinger for romance. Finally, "The Cuckoo" appeared with a Disney-like shimmer; its signature two notes continued with such abundance that the woods seemed full of Black Forest clocks. Truly, "The Birds" was an enchanting collection.

Guest artist Peter Serkin, his tall frame accentuated by his erect posture, performed the Bach Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BMV. 1052 with elegance, not as a finger exercise, but as a story complete with dialog and high drama. Following Intermission, he returned to enthrall the packed house with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major. Those who attended Maestro Rhodes’ pre-concert talk could spot Beethoven’s take-no-prisoner attitude when he boldly shifted from the key of C to B flat. During the Adagio, Serkin played a series of single notes with such simplicity and emotional restraint that their beauty moved hearts to ache. His playing met the audience half way, thus creating a collaborative adventure, as if saying, "We came through that melancholia, now we may go on."

Under the energetic Rhodes’ inspired leadership, the SSO’s performance earned an enthusiastic standing ovation.

March 1, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

Hartford Stage, Hartford
through April 4, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Why would anyone who has already read the book, or watched the movie, or both (perhaps a couple of times each) want to spend time seeing a theatrical production of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? The answer is not necessarily “wanting” but “needing”. Every decade or so, audiences/readers must be reminded of the tale of the mockingbird and its themes of justice and courage amidst ignorance and fear.

Hartford Stage has, thankfully, brought this Depression-era story set in the Deep South to today’s New England audiences. While Harper Lee’s characters lived 70-years ago, it is not hard to understand and empathize with many of the important issues that, to a large degree, remain the same.

Throughout the play, a narrator (the adult Scout) reflects on episodes in one particular year in her young life. Her presence, coupled with floating sets and seamless onstage movement by cast and crew, creates an unbreakable line of content and emotion that build to the perfect crescendo. All the time, director Michael Wilson uses every scene – even those that are but three minutes long – to subtly maximize the audience’s belief of the times, struggles, and characters.

Matthew Modine is one of those actors seen often on TV and in movies, but few remember his name. He’s not an “A List” guy, but he should be. To be equally excellent on screen and on the stage is rare. This man is the consummate professional. Modine’s Atticus Finch personifies a man of integrity who, by the way, is one of the wisest father figures in literature.

The three child actors (Olivia Scott, Henry Hodges, and Andrew Shipman) probably have the most onstage time and dialogue, yet each is ideal in his/her role. It’s hard to imagine others cast in these parts. They create the mold that structures the play with their innocence, respect, fearlessness, lack of prejudice, and frankness (“out of the mouths of babes”). Their characters exemplify the qualities that ought to be and that there might be hope for the future.

A visionary director, exemplary actors, and skilled crew make “Mockingbird” a piece of theatre to experience more than once.