Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 28, 2009

Summer Groove

Talcott Mountain Music Festival, Simsbury Meadows, CT
Various events through July 17, 2009
by Eric Sutter

Summer Groove at the Performing Arts Center at Simsbury Meadows was a rainbow full of sound. Under Edward Cumming's inspired direction, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra backed David Foster and the Mohegan Sun All Stars for a sizzling but soothing night of rhythm, blues and soul. With Foster's lead vocal out front, the All Stars' horn section set aflame "Powerful Stuff." It was wonderfully unexpected to hear their popular musical stylings with the strings of the orchestra, collaborating on the rock ballad "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

The band was pumped as it shifted into the R&B tune "What a Life" with its fancy sax lines. Guest vocalist Christine Ohlman paired up with Foster on a lively "Soul Shake" performed Delaney and Bonnie-style. Foster played the tender love ballad "You Are So Beautiful" with Mitch Chakour on piano and Maceo Parker, who soloed on saxaphone. Parker sang "Georgia" lovingly accompanied by piano and strings. The nine-piece band cranked up "Soul Man" as Foster and Parker traded lead vocals and hot horns all around.

At twilight, the band resumed with a touching tribute to Michael Jackson on "I'll Be There" with the audience joining in. Chakour's soulful rendition of "What's Going On" was puntuated by the horn section, as was "The Letter," replicating a Joe Cocker style. Billy Holloman's sax intro and vocal on "Stand By Me" were heavenly, accented by a melodic guitar solo by Kal David. Parker's "Pass The Peas" showcased his funky saxaphone playing that caused a stir with throngs of people who moved to the groove. Foster asked for participation on the closer... a Woodstock revival anthem. "With a Little Help from My Friends" became a communal sing and sway. Peace was back by popular demand.

Haydn & Bach Concert

Aston Magna, Great Barrington, MA
through July 11, 2009
by Debra Tinkham

Daniel Stepner, Artistic Director, stepped out with fellow performers, Nancy Wilson (violin), David Miller (viola) and Loretta O'Sullivan (cello), to begin Aston Magna's season opening performance with Franz Josef Haydn's entertaining and fun String Quartet in D Major, Op 20, No. 4.

As is usual with this talented group of musicians, their use of non-verbal communication, in addition to their splendid talent, combined to make the Allegro di molto a wonderful listening experience. The echoes of Un poco adagio e affetuoso, along with the melancholy of the cello, were enough to move one to tears. Minuet alla Zingarese, a menuet in a rapid 3/4 time, was just short and sweet! Finally, Presto e scherzando' harmony was not only in the music, but in the personality of the performers. Haydn's Arianna a Naxos, cantata for soprano and strings, welcomed Dominique Labelle, vocalist, and Anne Trout, bass viol. Labelle captivated listeners with her full-bodied, rich voice, comparable to a hearty, full-bodied burgundy. This mythical operatic story combines the talent of several composers and still remains slightly cloudy as to where the credit should be given. It is the usual story of love, suffering, anger, and in this case, a happy ending.

Intermission was followed by the enjoyment of Johann Sebastian Bach's Weichet nur, betrubte Schatten, a wedding Cantata, sung by Labelle, and the evening concluded with Heitor Villa Lobos' Bachianus Brasileiras No. 5, again, tastefully performed by Labelle.

Aston Magna has a bevy of upcoming beauties, including Handel's The Beggar's Opera on July 4th. The fireworks of music are sure to please the most discerning listener. So much music; not enough time to expound on the brilliance and talent of the "Aston Magna Meistros." Bravo!


Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 28, 2009
by Karolina Sadowicz

"To be or not to be" is the question first asked by Hamlet as the play opens with flashes of light and thundering electricity. Director Eleanor Holdridge's stark staging opens with Hamlet facing his mortality; the play performed is the last days of the prince's life flashing before his eyes.

Staged with minimal props and simple, tailored costumes, "Hamlet" offers no distractions from the superb work by the small ensemble cast. The set is bare and black, with only inventive lighting and the actors creating a setting. Music is used well to enhance the atmosphere, but at times other sound effects are jarring and overwhelming.

Dennis Krausnick's Polonius shines a light on humor often overlooked in this play, and garners big laughs for his verbose manner and misguided assesment of Hamlet's motivation. Jason Asprey as Hamlet is mournful, introspective, and hot-tempered, but also playful and even warm. Amid his cerebral wrangling with the self, the prince of Denmark shows believeable tenderness towards those he loves, and plays at madness with humor and sharp timing. The surprising levity of some scenes enhances the poignancy of others, reserving the highest intensity for moments where it belongs. At times, Asprey turns up the volume where subtlety would work best, but overall his performance is textured and human.

Claudius, the murderous king, is slick and cocky in the hands of Nigel Gore, sporting a pinstripe suit and an earring. He struts with confidence and without conscience, and given the opportunity shows such relish at his own villainy that even he is horrified. In a brilliant twist of staging "Hamlet's" play within a play, the king and queen are coaxed into acting out their parts in the previous king's death with unintentional gusto.

Johnny Lee Davenport steals the show in a chilling turn as the ghost, and equally hilarious moments as a traveling actor and gravedigger. Elizabeth Raetz is a simple but haunting Ophelia.

This swift-paced no-frills production underscores the power and complexity of "Hamlet." Each actor is outstanding and delivers a performance that is visceral, accessible, and timeless - Shakespeare at his best.

June 22, 2009


Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 11, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Theatre audiences of today expect musicals that meld the lyrics with the music so that there is little doubt that the two easily become one. This was not the case in 1945 when Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" hit New York. Rolling in and off the stages were songs, dance, dialogue, and sometimes plot. According to Time Magazine, this time it was different, calling R&H's work "the best musical of the 20th Century."

In recent years, "Carousel" has not often been produced. Barrington Stage mounts the play as the opening mainstage show in their 15th season. Barrington has not so much taken on a huge task, but given itself a box office test. Yes, the replicated 1900s New England wharf, colorful petticoat dresses, "human" carousel of horse bodies (beautiful, gently moving), and some big dance numbers make for an ambitious undertaking, and all succeed very well. Yet, the play is dated in theme and style - perhaps a minus, or perhaps a plus. It's 2009, the economy dips daily; is this something to be constantly reminded of 24/7? Maybe not, and just maybe the 21st Century audience needs the nostalgia of joy and even sadness of experiencing "Carousel" again, or for the first time.

Julianne Boyd's well-directed performance has exactly what this musical should have. It's old in look and feel, and probably very similar to the original of 60+ years ago. While the reprises seem to go on and on; well, that's what R&H wrote. However, "Carousel," Barrington, Boyd, and company give it all they've got for the important stuff, and oftentimes that means long sections of the play. Patricia Noonan and Aaron Ramey, in the lead roles, have wonderful voices which launch the show with "If I Loved You." Noonan's "What's the Use of Wond'rin" poignantly foreshadows her life. Surely, the single best reason for hiring Ramey is to sing the exquisite, emotional, and so lengthy that it takes a 180 degree turn - "Soliloquy." He nails it. Normally, the role of Carrie is annoying, but Sara Jean Ford's smart soprano gives her character charisma. Finally, kudos to the piano duet that manages to easily carry the dance pieces, "Carousel Waltz" and "Ballet."

Last of the Red Hot Lovers

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through June 27, 2009
by Meghan Lynn Allen

New Century Theatre's opening is red hot! "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" follows the bumbling antics of fish restaurant owner Barney Cashman, a married middle-aged man whose clumsy, comical, and pathetic attempts at having an affair entertains audiences in three acts.

Buzz Roddy depicts Barney with a combined anxiousness, hopelessness, and ridiculousness to fall in love with him...even though that's not wise. Just as he reaches a full-blown mid-life crisis, Barney realizes that he somehow missed the sexual revolution of the 1960's. He frantically tries to catch up by seducing three different women. Although his hands smell like fish, his seduction lair is his mother's apartment, and he is married with children, these three different women take him up on his lackluster adulterous offer.

Denise Cormier plays Elaine Navazio, a pessimistic, tough-talking, nicotine-obsessed, married woman who has plenty of experience with extra-marital pleasures. Elaine's biting sarcasm is deftly executed by Cormier. Cormier and Roddy make a deliciously awkward pair. Sandra Blaney portrays the emotionally-unstable, flower child and drama queen Bobbi Michele. Blaney expertly parades Bobbi's feverish range of emotions out for all to see. Her wacky, maniacal ways are believable and frightening, though hilarious. Blaney and Roddy provide the most comical moments in the play. Finally, Jeanette Fisher role by Sara Whitcomb brings to the audience depression, neuroticism, and melancholy wrapped up in a sweet and sad little package.

Playwright Neil Simon supplies his classic exploration of the darker and funnier side of human nature - in this case heightened by mid-life angst, impossible relationships, and hilarity through tragedy. Under the fast-paced and light-hearted direction of Jack Neary, the play succeeds as a comedy and a fun night out.

Speech & Debate

TheatreWorks, Hartford, CT
through July 26, 2009
by Meghan Lynn Allen

Stephen Karam's contemporary comedy follows three Oregon high school misfits and their timeless dilemma of how to be comfortable in their own skin. From coming out of the closet to how to find love to how to just plain fit in, Karam flawlessly articulates the dialogue of today's youth in crises. The three teens' lives are intertwined in a maze of internet blogging, chat rooms, and instant messages. Karam addresses the teens' struggles and issues that the adults in their lives refuse to talk about freely.

Jee Young Han plays Diwata, an aspiring and repeatedly non-cast actress in her school who is obsessed with starting a speech and debate club in order to be noticed as a performer. Han steals the show with her hilarious musical podcasts and complete over-the-top commitment to her drama queen character. Her energy is contagious. Ben Diskant portrays Solomon, a high-strung, self-conscious, sexually-repressed son of religious conservative parents. As a school paper journalist, he gets more than he bargains for as he tries to expose a possible teacher/student sex scandal. Diskant perfectly captures Solomon's uptight ways and vulnerable heart so that the audience truly feels him. The third in this comic/tragic trio is Carl Holder as Howie, an openly gay teen who faces the hurdles of a closed-minded community. Holder tackles the challenge of representing out gay youth in Karam's piece, and does so without being a trite caricature. Holder's quirky mannerisms bring a lightness to the piece that is a relief as he deals with heavy topics.

Eva Kaminsky is the voice of "the adult," and plays the roles of both a teacher and reporter. Kaminsky is a believable and welcome distraction to the fast-paced world of Karam's younger generation. The direction, set design, and lighting pop and are just as exuberant as the actors in "Speech & Debate." This comedy feels fresh and current, and it is a must-see for high school and college audiences.

June 17, 2009

Mandy Patinkin: "Dress Casual"

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
by Karolina Sadowicz

When Mandy Patinkin says "Dress Casual," he means it. The set for his show befits this atmosphere. Dressed in a black shirt, black slacks, and sneakers, he appears on a stage that seems more fitting of a rehearsal or audition. There are boxes, a ladder, seemingly misplaced furniture, and of course a piano. His performance, however, carries no slack. Though the promise of a Broadway star, now in his mid-50s, singing old standards does not seem to offer the unexpected, Patinkin's energy, affability, and humor bring new life to the familiar.

Patinkin commanded the Colonial stage for nearly two hours with the accompaniment of longtime, performing partner Paul Ford on piano, and occasional choral backup from the audience. Though there appear to be no frills, his singing is the main event and rises above expectations. He bobs and weaves between up-tempo, fast-talking numbers from "Oklahoma" to thoughtful, wistful selections from "Sunday in the Park with George." With a vocal range that refuses to diminish, he moves from grave baritone to surprisingly youthful falsetto, all while maintaining a level of energy and intensity that commands respect and attention.

Patinkin and Ford keep the pacing swift and playful, and Patinkin tosses in anecdotes and manages to slip in a quick "bless you!" to sneezing audience members without missing a beat. Losing a contact lens on the stage while belting out a showstopper, he laughs it off, and then reels the audience back into the song.

As for the surprises, it would be a shame to give them all away here, but Patinkin also pays homage to Charlie Chaplin and silent cinema, and gets everyone in stitches by singing "God Bless America" - among other songs - in Yiddish. With a fresh and joyous approach to the classics of Irving Berlin, Sondheim, and others, quick humor, and unparalleled singing, Patinkin gives a show that evolves with time and the venue, and exceeds expectations on every note.

June 11, 2009

The Color Purple

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June14, 2009
by Bernadette Johnson

For those who have read the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker or seen the film version with Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, that's a step ahead of the game, because this fast-paced musical panorama of Southern U.S. life in the 1930s is a whirlwind of color and sound demanding the full attention of its audience.

There are so many characters to keep track of, the years flit by and many subplots are interwoven. A Greek chorus style trio of matronly church ladies is intended to bridge the time warps, but much of their performance and their explanations were lost due to over-amplified sound.

The story revolves around Celie, played by Kenita Miller, who is the embodiment of the oppressed black female. Poor and uneducated, she is raped by the man she believes to be her father, her children are taken from her, and at 14, she is given away to a man she calls "Mister" (Rufus Bonds, Jr.), who abuses her physically and emotionally.

Hands down and hats off (and that's saying a lot because hats take on a life of their own in this production), Felicia Fields as Sophia, Celie's daughter-in-law (a role that earned her a Tony nomination on Broadway), is the real show-stealer. From the hilarious posturings of her first very-pregnant appearance to the subdued, painful darker moments in Act II, she commands full attention whenever she's onstage, and the audience simply loves every moment, every movement, every expression. "Hell no!" her declaration of independence, is a real show-stopper.

Miller and Latrisa Harper (as Nettie) share many poignant moments, and Miller's "Somebody's Gonna Love You" sung to her baby before it is taken from her, is very moving, as is "I'm Here," her powerful declaration in Act II.

As Nettie relates through her letters to Celie tales of her missionary life in Africa, the African continent comes alive with drumming, dancing and a backdrop of a village in brilliant oranges and blues that reminded this reviewer of a Grandma Moses painting or a stitched sampler.

This talented cast, powerful saga and exquisite score earned the full appreciation of this opening night full house crowd.

June 9, 2009

Dividing the Estate

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through July 5, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Broadway comes to Hartford in the package "Dividing the Estate." This tragicomedy was nominated as one of Tony Awards best plays of the year and The New York Times pick among the10 Best Plays of 07/08. The entire play and nearly the full cast was lifted up and placed at Hartford Stage without skipping a beat. In fact, Michael Wilson's direction is the essence of perfect timing of actors reacting to each other and movement on stage. In addition, the 1980s Recession somewhat mirrors today's economic times.

To write that "Estate's" characters depict a dysfunctional family is too broad and simple. Is not every family a bit dysfunctional? The location is the home of the extended Gordon clan. They employ African-American servants who, from the start, let it be known that they are equals to their bosses. Plot points include sibling rivalry, greed, shallowness, death, and selfishness. Doesn't sound too funny, but it is one of the best black comedies written (by the late Horton Foote) in many years.

It is difficult to single out any particular performance in this ensemble cast. Watch the actors whose turn it is to speak, and watch the others who are silent and even seated in the corner. Do they react in character? That's one sign of an excellent production. Wilson makes sure that every person and piece of furniture has a purpose at every moment. Speaking of furnishings, Scenic Designer Jeff Cowie deserves and did receive special kudos from his opening night audience; the scrim lifted to reveal a majestic plantation home to great applause.

All difficulty aside, some actors must be recognized as superb. Arthur French (Doug) portrays a delightful nonagenarian whose moments onstage are precious. Hallie Foote's "Sister" (yes, characters call each other Sister, Son, Mother-in-Law) sparkles annoyingly with fast one-liners in her steadfast avarice. Gerald McRaney depicts Brother/Uncle with an unexpected poignancy.

About 200 floor seats were added in the theatre in anticipation of large audiences. That was a smart decision, as every chair was needed for the full house. Hartford Stage should take a bow as it ends this 2008/09 season as one of their best in decades.