Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 27, 2009

Phantom of the Opera

The Bushnell, Hartford
through May 10, 2009
April 24, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

There are big shows and then there is "Phantom of the Opera," an extravaganza. Before the first note is played, billowing yards (tons!) of fabric enhance the proscenium pulling the audience into its dark interior that reeks with mystery. At center stage is a large lump covered with an aging canvas on which is stenciled, "CHANDELIER." Before the performance has yet to begin, seeds of apprehension are planted.

The simple storyline belies the spectacular tension of this world-wide favorite that opened in London in 1986 and is Broadway's longest-running show: a deranged musical genius with horrendous facial scars who lives in the depths beneath the Paris opera house, falls in love with a young soprano. She is seduced by his admiration of her voice but alarmed by his possessiveness. The opera house employees and performers are kept off balance by the Phantom's malicious mischief which becomes progressively violent.

Throughout, under the direction of conductor Jonathan Gorst, the outstanding pit orchestra fills the theatre with the emotional music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics by Charles Hart. Directed by Harold Prince, a cast of 36 finds its marks for 19 different scenes. The energy generated on stage is palpable. The intricacy of the sets, the engineering required to swing from one scene to another (54 motors are used to fly scenery on and off stage), the unseen use of pulley, winch, a radio-controlled boat moving through dry ice fog, the crashing of the 1,000-pound chandelier - and more - support the human drama that swirls about the damsel in distress.

The familiar arias - "The Music of the Night," 'All I Ask of You" - are performed with passion that stirs the soul by John Cudia (Phantom), Trista Moldovan (Christine), and Sean MacLaughlin (Raoul). The costumes (230) are electrifying. The entire company is a well-oiled machine which imparts spontaneity. To transport this show required twenty 48-foot semi trucks. In turn, this production transported individual theatergoers into a rapt, wildly-appreciative audience. Applause explosions rivaled the startling pyrotechnic effects.

"Phantom of the Opera" is an over-the-top WOW.

April 26, 2009

Springfield Symphony Orchestra Opera Gala

Symphony Hall, Springfield
April 25, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Within the past few months both the Connecticut Opera and the Berkshire Opera closed their curtains forever. Were these statements about today's economy? Have dollars spent on the arts in general, and opera in particular, been far less than in the past? Probably and sadly so. Yet, the Springfield Symphony's Opera Gala saw a near-capacity audience at Symphony Hall. Obviously, those who appreciate opera are there in large numbers.

The SSO promised a gala and that's what they delivered with the full orchestra donned in black and white, Maestro Kevin Rhodes center stage with baton in hand, nine exceptionally professional vocal soloists, and the chorus of 120 synchronized singers. The audience was dressed to the nines - a wonderful and unusual sight in this era when the arts are oftentimes thought of as mere entertainment.

Of the hundreds of operas and thousands of arias ever written, Rhodes, et al picked the exact selections and program order that made the evening's performance perfect. Needless to say, works by Puccini and Verdi made the list, followed by Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, and Bizet. The conductor jovially dubbed the program "the all time great hits of opera." While the subjective votes are still being tallied as to what is "great," it is obvious that pieces like "Un Bel Di," "Habanera," "Nessun Dorma," and "La Donne Mobile" were offered, each excellently sung by soloists.

One stand-out selection was "Viens Mallika" from "Lakme." The opera may not be as well known as "La Boheme," "Il Trovatore" or "La Traviata" (each represented at the gala), yet this gently flowing female duet was exquisite.

The orchestra and chorus were given two pieces in which to shine - The Polovtsian Dances from "Prince Igor" and "Il Trovatore's" Anvil Chorus. The woman who no one sees onstage is Choral Director Nikki Stoia, whose leadership is evidenced by the resulting sounds of her large chorus. Add Rhodes' humorous pithy synopsis of each opera, and one word describes the experience of the gala - bellissimo!

Vitek Kruta, International Artist from Holyoke

Paradise City Fair, Northampton
May 23 - 25, 2009

"Doing art is a basic human right. It's my way of life, a force and purpose for being here," says Vitek Kruta. One of the hundreds of professionals showing and selling art at this spring's Paradise City, Kruta is also one of the many talented individuals who does not need a "day job." In Prague, Germany, and now in Holyoke, Kruta has perfected his various art genres for the past 35 years.

A bedroom wall was his first canvas as he sculpted a purposely lopsided molded frame with painting inside. People went to the wall to straighten the picture, and the joke was on them. This Trompe L'oeil 3D art form can be translated "fooling the eye, illusion." This continues to be one of Kruta's styles which have been successful and popular - enough to have made him a "regular" at Paradise City for eight years. This juried show accepts only the best of fine and functional art from throughout the country.

Visionary Landscapes are Kruta's mainstay. From his mind and memory, he almost feels, smells, and hears a scene. "I try to open an esoteric door and invite the viewer to go to these places," he says. His Surrealist Paintings "illustrate reality that is not real." Kruta's explanation of his technique is exploration of the subconscious. Shapes are familiar and resemble what is known - not the tangible, but the essence. "I like to work with materials - wood, clay, mosaics, metal. The enjoyment is in the process of making things. I get an idea and I do it," he says. His home is his workplace with an attic and basement full of materials of all forms, shapes, and sizes.

Exposed to art since he was a youngster, Kruta's own children have followed this career path. Three family members restored the paintings in Northampton's First Churches. In fact, art restoration is a large section on Kruta's resume. One genre which will not be seen at Paradise City is his murals. Needless to say, they are too large, not to mention affixed to walls in hospitals, buildings, and homes. Yet, easy to carry and perhaps place in one's garden are exotic 3' metal flowers. He cuts, bends, and shapes the stems and petals out of sheet metal "to simultaneously become real, yet not real," not unlike his other art.

He made the clear decision as a youngster that he would never separate himself from art. "Whatever I do must be connected to art," continues Kruta. That was his commitment to himself many years ago, and still holds today.

Image by Vitek Kruta

April 19, 2009

John & Paul

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
through May 24, 2009
By Shera Cohen

For those who enjoy two-hours of non-stop music and lots of energy coupled with a history lesson/nostalgia of pop culture, "John & Paul" ends the Majestic's season with a literal bang. The lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the subject matter of this world premiere. Written and directed by the theatre's founder Danny Eaton, with music and lyrics by Steven Schecter, the show was overwhelmingly received by the full house audience at a Sunday matinee.

John Losito (John) is new to the Majestic and Ben Ashley (Paul) is very-much a regular; i.e. our own Buddy Holly. While the title bears their names, the men are ensemble players. Each has a rich voice as they perform together and separately. "Your Song or Mine" is their best number as a piece of music and acting. In Act I, the song is light, as the boys join to start their band. In Act II, the song is cynical, as these men are now alienated. Through narration of Keith Langsdale, the audience learns the stories of both - their backgrounds, first meeting, years of fame, and disintegration of their creativity and friendship.

Mitch Chakour, music director/keyboards, leads his band of young men in music styles from rock to honky tonk, heavy metal to ballads with ease. The quartet of singers - Tom Knightlee, Kait Rankins, Amy Rist, and Greg Alexander - performs well together and individually. Oftentimes, the singers portray characters, and more of these segments would flesh out the play's story.

Excellent throughout and setting the span of time are center-stage projected photos of John, Paul, the Beatles, flower children, Vietnam, and even Ed Sullivan. To the sides of the stage are song supertitles, yet their purpose is vague.

"John & Paul" might be called a narrative musical revue instead of typical theatre. Little acting or direction are called for. The format is different, but works for this purpose. The audience that wants a good show ("Please, Please Me") gets it.

April 17, 2009

Mother Load

CityStage, Springfield, MA
through April 19
by R.E. Smith

Who knew parental guilt could be so funny? "Mother Load" spins 75 minutes of genuine laughs around a single notion: "as a mother I am an utter failure." Since every parent has probably had that thought, it is gratifying to see the internal monologue hilariously played out so that one can nod along in agreement.

Betsey Stover was an endearing, identifiable and fearless performer. If you didn't identify with her character Amy's messy living room set, you had to find some common ground when she lamented the condition of her midsection and dejectedly showed it off. She was equally adept with verbal and physical comedy, rapturously enjoying her first child-free exercise class one moment and then skewering a pompous pre-school screener the next. Her vocal delivery of a grandmother's simple assessment of a baby's constant crying was priceless.

Amy Wilson's script is a transcript of common truths that mothers share over frazzled cups of coffee. Pestered by the disembodied voice of "experts" on such topics as "sippie cups of death" and "interpretive dance for toddlers," this "everymom" is confronted with naysayers at every turn. While some one-person shows would grandstand with maudlin asides, Wilson wisely understands that laughs are far more therapeutic.

Julie Kramer's direction keeps the laughs coming fast and their aim is true. The synergy between writer, director and performer is evident in a segment when Wilson realizes that she actually got to sleep through the night. Mom's reaction to even this happy circumstance can have guilty consequences. The moment is fresh and real.

It should be noted that this reviewer was one of only a dozen males in an audience of females, but that in no way detracted from the enjoyment of the material. Certainly some of the most hilarious bits were female-centric: breast feeding support groups that offer no support at all or how easily it is to deviate from your "birth plan" when the pain of childbirth sets in. But the fear that one isn't living up to "best" parent standards crosses gender lines. "Mother Load" is like a big hug that helps a parent know that one is not alone.

April 4, 2009

Springfield Symphony & George Takei

Symphony Hall, Springfield
by Shera Cohen

"Flights of Fantasy," the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's final pops of the season, was called "the combination of a symphony concert and a Star Trek convention." This might be an odd mix, but consider the source. The man who made such a bold statement was George Takei, aka Mr. Sulu of "Star Trek" fame.

The full house was treated to an atypical event. This concert format was different from the expected, as was the maestro. Oftentimes, guest conductors are hired for pops, with Kevin Rhodes taking the baton for formal symphonic performances. Well, Rhodes was very much present and enthusiastic. It is obvious that his musicians like and respect the man at the podium. Rhodes' mundane repartee and skilled leadership is appreciated just as much by the audience. Rhodes’ introduction to the concert was, "Music can take you into magical worlds." He was right, proving so with significant help from the orchestra and Takei.

Many consider "movie music" less important than works of symphonic masters. Listen again. Composers Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams are familiar names not just for their prolific work but for their outstanding talent. The SSO concert included "Star Trek" (Goldsmith) and "Star Wars" (Williams).

A section of the concert's first half was a Q&A with Rhodes and Takei. While talk about Japanese detention camps (Takei's childhood in the U.S.), gay rights (his recent marriage), and dubbing foreign films ("Godzilla") was interesting, the time could have been better spent making music. Nearly everyone has heard the "Star Wars" theme, but not everyone has heard and seen it live, where it is better and bigger. It's just a little unfortunate that the wonderful SSO didn't have the opportunity to fill the beautiful Symphony Hall with more magical sounds from outer space.

"The Lord of the Rings Symphony" was the post-intermission performance. The long piece seemed incredibly difficult yet flawless, meshing Takei's baritone voice narration and creation of character voices with the SSO instruments' voices. The words and music, sometimes together and other times separate, created strange new (Tolkien) worlds - infinitely beautiful to the ear.