Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 25, 2009

White People

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2009
by Karolina Sadowicz

Interracial stereotypes and misunderstandings are explored from the point of view of three very different people in J.T. Rogers' award-winning play. Through carefully crafted, bold monologues, three white people explore their own attitudes and assumptions about other races with varying degrees of introspection.

The play is set simultaneously in three locations, represented by three platforms. Each is painted stark white, and containing minimal set pieces and props, be it a section of a park bench or a halved desk, also completely white and entirely blank.

The unique staging is a challenge for both the actors and audience: the entire cast is present from the moment the theatre is open for seating, and they wait along with the audience to begin the show. The unexpected presence of the characters and a subdued soundtrack of eerie music draws an alertness from the audience and steadily builds tension. Feeling under observation takes the audience members from being passive spectators to a sense of being scrutinized as much as the characters.

Jason Asprey plays a well meaning, educated college professor living in New York City, who finds his progressive academic thinking and political correctness challenged when his family is attacked. Michael Hammond is a bold, unapologetic lawyer, transplanted from the big city to St. Louis with the intent of building a safer life for his children and failing. Dana Harrison is a former beauty queen clinging to old values and past glory in North Carolina. Each character is fully realized, complex, flawed, and real.

Rogers' script never asks for sympathy nor absolution for its characters. Sometimes the audience laughs with them, sometimes it winces. The actors give powerful, uninhibited performances that provoke self-reflection. The uninterrupted 90 minute performance gives no opportunity to look away. Each individual storyline reaches an explosive peak when the characters react to violence, horror, or humiliation, and each character leaves us searching for hope, redemption, or understanding.

"White People" captures the complexity of living in a diverse world comprised of people with different experiences, and the ways in which struggling to understand is sometimes the best we can do.

August 24, 2009

Melanie in Concert

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
August 21, 2009
by Eric Sutter

Deja Vu... Melanie is back but she never really left. Just like a circle, she came back around to defeat the nay-saying voices of the new century. But first, a new spirit of voices spread their light. As part of the Woodstock at 40 series at the Colonial, Arlo Guthrie's daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion performed a short set of singer-songwriter material. "Bright Examples" featured their acoustic guitar strumming interplay punctuated by Irion's clear harmonica solo. "Don't I Fit in My Daddy's Shoes" was inspired by their daughter Sophie. Irion conjured up the romantic Southern imagery of a fisherman's town on his bluesy guitar as they sang "Emily's". They closed with a song about their Berkshires' home, "When The Lilacs Are in Bloom."

An impassioned Melanie appeared on stage with her son Beau Jarred Schekeryk to a warm receptive audience. With Beau on viola guitar and bow and Melanie on fingerstyle acoustic, they performed her debut single "Beautiful People" from Woodstock to unanimous approval. Jess Leary on acoustic guitar joined them for the 1971 hit "Brand New Key". Melanie's songs have positive messages and unique insights from the mystique of the feminine. "Smile" written after 9/11 shined with the light hearted sing-along chorus, "I Love People Who Smile." With loveable disarming humor she belted out "I Tried to Die Young" with Beau as chorus. She sang an emotionally powerful "Love Doesn't Have to Hurt" with a tender viola guitar solo by Beau. "Ruby Tuesday" was a beautiful duet with the audience. After her Woodstock rap, a peace sign appeared on the backdrop as she sang "Summer of Love." Starting in French, Melanie sang "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma" as she blew kisses to the audience. She rapped about being regarded as the female Bob Dylan. She introduced the song which she sang as the youngest performer at Woodstock. "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" was performed during a rainstorm that day and was resurrected at this concert, ironically after a storm in the Berkshires. It's a song with a timeless one another.

Free Country Concert-US Navy Band

U.S. Navy Band--Country Current

The United States Navy Band Country Current will perform a free outdoor concert on Sunday, September 20th at 2pm on the lawn of the Springfield Armory/STCC campus, One Armory Square, Springfield. This band is the Navy's premiere country music ensemble, which tours the United States annually from their base in Washington, DC.

The public is encour
aged to bring lawn chairs and picnic baskets. The rain site is the STCC gymnasium, which is wheelchair accessible. There is plenty of free parking. This concert is sponsored by: In the Spotlight, Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and Springfield Technical Community College.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 6, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Many audience members, especially newcomers, to Shakespeare & Company do not realize two important factors. First, approximately half of the plays presented in a given season are not written by the Bard. Second, many plays (Shakespearean or otherwise) are mounted at the new Bernstein Theatre. Shakes & Co. is a campus of happenings nearly round-the-clock. In addition to Founders Stage (mainstage) and Bernstein, there are at least three other venues.

Back to the “otherwise plays” at Bernstein. “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow,” by playwright John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt”), is very much contemporary in its very explosive power of words, relationships, humor, and angst. Response to the reading of “Dreamer” at last year’s Studio Festival of Plays offered the Shakes & Co. staff a preview of what audiences wanted to see. The full house on a Wednesday night (not your typical “theatre” night) instantly rose to a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion.

Donna and Tommy broke up. Tommy takes up with Donna’s young sister. Donna goes to dad for advice. Dad could care less. This is the four sentence synopsis of “Dreamer.” Doesn’t sound like much of a play let alone one of intensity. Add some twists. Donna still loves Tommy, yet is confused and upset. Tommy still loves Donna, yet doesn’t have a clue where his life is headed. Dad has the experience and wisdom to help the situation of both young people, yet is far from overjoyed to do so. Each is scared to help him/herself as well as each other. Herein, is the real play about father/daughter and male/female relationships, love and sex, art and soul shown with intensity and laughter.

The language is beautifully poetic, especially in the soliloquies. Director Tod Randolph moves her cast of three seamlessly and purposefully for the most part. Actors John Douglas Thompson, and newcomers Miriam Hyman and Bowman Wright share equal time onstage. They are dynamic in their various duet conflicts.

“Dreamer” is a play for mature audiences.

August 18, 2009

Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield, MA
August 15, 2009
by Debra Tinkam

Johann Sebastian Bach's Matthaus - Passion BWV244 (St.Matthew Passion), much being derived from the first book, Matthew (26 and 27), of the New Testament, sung in German, was the show stopper for this Saturday evening. Together, with an abbreviated Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO), the night was divinely inspirational. In addition, there were featured soloists, performing the words of Jesus, Judas, Peter, and the Evangelist, to name only a few.

The first part, begun by orchestra and chorus, were beautifully and dramatically orchestrated as they describe the procession to Mt. Calvary, and, thus, the death of Jesus. The Evangelist, representing St. Matthew, narrates the story vocally, and the soloists' dialogue, sung in recitative style, became Bach's greatest opera. The150 voice choir came from as far as Japan and Canada and 28 of the United States.

Of particular mention was the part of Jesus, sung by Christopheren Nomura, who, incidentally, used no music for this dramatically moving portrayal of betrayal, suffering and death. His dynamics and emotion were comparable to very few. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who has appeared four times with the Berkshire Choral Festival, currently serves on the Julliard School Faculty. His conducting was emotional.

This Passion, split into two orchestras and two choirs were tools Bach used for variation and effect, and variation and effect were obvious throughout. The sounds of flutes and oboes on both sides of the orchestra, making up the two orchestras, created a stereo effect. Violins and voices for choral passage were uniquely symbolic in setting the stage for Jesus' demise. Strings were interlaced in Jesus' execution until the final passage where, after Pilate asks, "Which one shall I release: Jesus or Barabas?" The crowd screams (sings) "Barabas!" and in his final hour Jesus says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This fifth, and final, performance of the Berkshire Choral Festival's2009 season, was moving beyond words. The talent of the chorus, orchestra and soloists emanated perfection to make for a once in a lifetime performance.

August 16, 2009

Quartermaine's Terms

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 23, 2009
by Meghan Lynn Allen

It's the 1960's in Cambridge, England and the opening school year bell is about to ring. "Quartermain's Terms" by Simon Gray is a play which focuses on the teachers, not the students, at this "school for foreigners," and specifically St. John Quartermaine - a drab, dull, lonely character who can barely muster the energy to rise from his chair each morning, never mind develop a curriculum for his students or car about their futures. Though he is the title character, he is a pathetic suggestion of a man who makes little to no choices throughout the play, which makes it difficult to care about him in any. Perhaps this is what Gray aims to satire in his piece, but it somehow misses the mark. In fact, it is difficult to care about any of the eccentric characters that the audience is presented with throughout this play.

Jefferson Mays plays Quartermaine assumingly quite to the tee - expressionless, hazy, vacant, and confused. Though Mays is obviously deeply talented, it is still impossible to care enough to be drawn into Quartermaine's world. Morgan Hallett portrays smart, young professor Anita Manchip. Hallett provides a bright, fun energy on stage through Manchip's two pregnancies and hinted at personal troubles with her husband, though the audience never learns enough about that relationship to appreciate its impact. Jeremy Beck play Derek Meadle, the brightest light on stage, in part because Gray writes him to be the fast-paced, funny, fool, who is in many ways the underdog and the hero of the piece. Beck adds life and energy to the stage every time he enters it and perfectly finds the balance between being the buffoon and growing into the leading man. Tony-nominated director Maria Aitken does her best to bring this tedious British piece to life, but is seems that Gray may not have provided enough on the page to work with.

"Quartermain's Terms" seems an odd, depressing choice to end Williamstown Theatre Festival's 55th season. Here's looking to next year.

August 14, 2009

A Body of Water

Chester Theatre Company, Chester MA
through August 23, 2009
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

"A Body of Water" is a skillfully written series of, perhaps, hypothetical possibilities that congeal into a divisive play. As directed by Stephen Hollis, the production holds together in spite of one mind tease after another that spins rational thought off into space. At times, the play serves as an example of what amnesia is like or, even worse, the shrinking brain of an Alzheimer patient. However, with amnesia, new memories can be created; with Alzheimer's, chunks of memory fall away like melting glaciers.

Played against one of CTC's most attractive sets - designed by Sean Cote, the livingroom of a summer home, ringed with trees, that overlooks a lake - the play's beginning suggests one of those wacky, romantic comedies of Hollywood's "golden age." Say, Carole Lombard and Melvyn Douglas with monstrous morning-after hangovers awaken, naked. They have no clue who the other person is, and the romp is on. However, in Lee Blessing's play, they also do not know their own identity. They pose tentative questions, even flirt a little, but as the questions begat more questions, their frustration approaches panic. Enter a take-charge young woman bearing bagels and reprimands because, she alleges, the bewildered middle age couple wrapped in shower robes are where they were yesterday and uncounted days before - no clue as to who they are. She has a name, Wren. She produces their wallets so they can know their names - Avis and Moss. Does this help? Well, it depends upon what your definition of "help" is.

Through every segue of this bedeviling play, the actors persuade the audience to absorb "what you see is what you get." As Avis, Debra Jo Rupp extracts irony out of despair. Her comedic timing is refreshing. Tuck Milligan is Moss, perhaps a former judge, who finds Avis sexually attractive, but otherwise he's ready to shuffle in slippers. Julia Coffey's Wren is not a sympathetic character. She compounds the confusion with malevolence or is she being kind?

"A Body of Water" wraps up CTC's 20th anniversary season which true to Artistic Director Byam Stevens' code has mounted sterling productions of provocative scripts that shake up conventional definitions of what constitutes entertainment.

August 13, 2009

Doug Varone and Dancers

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket
through August 16, 2009
by Emily List

Since the founding of his company in 1986, choreographer Doug Varone has cultivated a reputation for creating a diverse body of work that projects varied facets of the human condition. “Castles,” the opening piece for Varone’s company at Jacob’s Pillow, emphasizes the intrinsically faulty aspect of human nature. The movement appears deliberately unrefined and loosely controlled. Company members continuously push the boundaries of suspension, stylistically shifting in the blink of an eye from balletic arabesques to moments of collapse in which all body weight is heavily transferred to the floor or a fellow dancer. For the most part, “Castles” keeps the dancers’ collective center of gravity close to the ground, the lifts and leaps seemingly weighted down by heavy-hung shoulders and curved torsos. The sense of being grounded is aided by Prokofiev’s often menacing “Waltz Suite, Opus 110.” Varone’s expertly danced choreography fills every note with theatrically charged movement as different dancers pulsate to match each rhythm, instrument and tone of the piece.

The performance’s dark, brooding tone continues in “Short Story,” a piece that explores the emotionally twisted relationship between two distraught lovers. Beautifully danced by Daniel Charon and Natalie Desch, “Short Story” is captivating for its moments of stillness and tension, underscored by Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C.” Everyday movements such as a chin cupped in a hand are infused with heartbreaking drama.

The pure joy and ecstasy of dancing is not evident until the last piece. “Lux,” danced to Philip Glass’ “The Light,” finds the company suddenly light on its feet and frolicking joyously together under the glow of a rising moon. The fast-paced athleticism is irresistibly coupled with a sense of fun; dancers parting and coming together in a way that is reminiscent of an old-time hoedown. While the tortured movements of the first two pieces reveal Varone’s unique vocabulary in the dance world, the contrast of "Lux’s" exalting, sweeping movements prevents the program from becoming emotionally overbearing.

August 12, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 29, 2009
by Meghan Lynn Allen

When the four words "A Streetcar Named Desire" are uttered, a few classic images instantly pop into mind. Barrington Stage rises to the task of living up to those images many have held onto for all these years.

Scenic Designer Brian Prather and Lighting Designer Scott Pinkney immediately draw the audience into 1940's New Orleans and the Kowalski household that subsist in the slums of the French Quarter. Marin Mazzie plays Blanche Dubois, the unstable, delicate, gracelessly aging, southern belle who makes a game of avoiding reality at all costs. Mazzie's progression as Blanche transforms from fragile, needy, and worn down to completely unhinged and tragic in three acts is admirable. Christopher Innvar portrays the role of Stanley Kowalski, made most famous by Marlon Brando. Innvar fits the bill as muscular, imposing, and brutish, as well as tall, dark, and handsome. The audience adores him when he passionately and literally sweeps Stella (Kim Stauffer) off her feet, and despises him when he is heartlessly cruel to Blanche and needlessly and excessively aggressive to everyone else. Stauffer tenders a believable depiction of Stella, Stanley's wife and Blanche's younger sister. Her performance, though understated in comparison to her counterparts, offers a truth and innocence to the piece that is required. Kevin Carolan (Mitch) and Jennifer Regan (Eunice) provide stand-out supporting performances.

Directed by Julianne Boyd, "A Streetcar Named Desire" mostly lives up to its iconic predecessors. However, there are a few missteps. Amazingly talented blues singer Chavez Ravine and jazz musician Thom Rivera offer spectacular performances that set the mood of New Orleans, though their performances feel unconnected to the reality of the piece and at times distracting. Overly stylized silhouettes of townspeople and exaggeratedly symbolic marching of the doctor and nurse also garner unwanted attention away from such a meaty piece. Finally, for an iconic story that is inherently graphically violent and sexual, somehow the rape scene falls a bit flat and incongruous to the excellent work of the actors and Tennessee Williams.

August 11, 2009

Caroline In Jersey

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 16, 2009
by Meghan Lynn Allen

"Caroline In Jersey" takes the audience down an unconventional path that winds through the stages of grief - seen through the eyes of four characters brought together by more than a few degrees of separation. Caroline (Lea Thompson) is the jilted actress/soon-to-be ex-wife who must frustratingly share the stage with her actor/soon-to-be ex-husband each night in the doomed musical "Petz," authored by their friend David. Matt McGrath plays David, the clich├ęd gay best friend who is there for Caroline as she verges on a nervous breakdown. McGrath has a dry, comedic delivery that is spot on. His character is predictable, yet sweet. Mimi (Brenda Wehle) is the bitter spinster who rents Caroline an apartment in Jersey, much to Caroline's appreciation and dismay. Mimi supplies Caroline, as well as the audience, with Jersey's local color, in addition to helping to unfold the history of a certain family mystery. Wehle brings believability to Caroline's fantastical world that is much needed. Finally, Will LeBow plays Will, a peculiar former tenant who hasn't quite left the premises. Will and Caroline find unexpected common ground as they sort out their pasts and their futures. Though mostly grumpy and tortured, LeBow lends a quality to Will that makes him endearing and entertaining to watch.

Lea Thompson puts her self out there for the audience to laugh in so many ways and it is so much fun. Whether donning a space dog suit, gulping down her concoction of Lucky Charms and tequila, barking to music, or drunk-dialing her ex-husband at 3a.m., Thompson successfully runs wild with Caroline's quirky, tormented existence. Thompson equally portrays Caroline's lows of fear, despair, and grief as she struggles through enormous personal crises.

Playwright Melinda Lopez presents a fantasy passing itself off in the environment of reality. It is difficult to determine just how much the audience is supposed to believe to be fantasy and just how much is supposed to be a leap of faith. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining piece that thinks outside the box and is worth glimpsing before it's gone.

August 10, 2009

Don McLean in Concert

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
August 9, 2009
by Eric Sutter

Far from fading away, singer-songwriter Don McLean lifted spirits and touched souls with a fun concert filled with magic. He began with a triplet of Buddy Holly Songs, "Well Alright," "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" which put the audience at ease. His warmth and humor conveyed real love. His versatile songwriting skills were evident as he shifted styles from the folk ballad of "Homeless Brother" to the more pop oriented classics "Empty Chairs" and "Castles In the Air." In 2004, McLean was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.

He changed musical direction once again to a country groove with Don Williams' "Tulsa Time" and a yodeling "Deep In the Heart of Texas," which featured a searing hot electric guitar solo. Marty Robbins' "Singing the Blues" featured a melodic piano solo. A highpoint was McLean's cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in which he can still hit those amazing vocal highs.

The band aptly accompanied McLean and his acoustic guitar on the spiritually aware "Jerusalem." His incredible fingerstyle guitar work and the words of "And I Love You So" were heart rendering. "Crossroads" featured the singer's delicate guitar style with piano accompaniement. His ever popular "Vincent" was given a makeover with the inclusion of synthesizer to gave the song an orchestral appeal. Incidentally, McLean shared the story that "Vincent" was written in nearby Stockbridge when he was first starting to perform. With the exception of a few minor breaks in his voice, his classic 8 1/2 minute folk-pop #1 hit "American Pie" sounded as wonderful as it did in 1971; the audience sang along at times. He kicked out a cover of Elvis' "I Gotta Know" with resounding audience response.

Whatever McLean did, people loved it. He encored with down in your soul fingerstyle guitar blues and a little electric slide on the side -- not bad for a 64 year old Hudson River troubadour.

Yesterdays/An Evening with Billie Holiday

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through August 22, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Playwright Reenie Upchurch was 16 when she met Billie Holiday. "I told her I wanted to be just like her. Billie replied, never in a billion years would I want to be like her. I didn't understand that statement then, but I would a couple years later...Billie was staggering around the stage talking out of her head, trying to make a connection, laughing and crying sporadically." This is the Billie that Upchurch's play focuses on.

"An Evening with Billie Holiday" May 1959. New York City. A small club. Three musicians wander onto the stage. Levi Barcourt (Musical Director/Pianist), resplendent in a shimmering sharkskin suit, sits down at the piano and blisters the keys with a hands-blurring arrangement of "The Lady Is A Tramp." A master is in charge. Plucking the bass is another pro, David Jackson. On drums is Bernard Davis; his sticks never over shadow, they always enhance. But no Billie. The musicians wonder, "Where is she?" and "I'm getting tired of this." In she drifts, slightly swaying, clinging to glamour in a white satin halter neckline gown; matching gloves top her elbows. Stuck in her hair is a shiny white artificial flower, not a real gardenia like back when times were good. She holds a short, fat glass, half full of a clear liquid, as much as saying, "I don't give a damn." Pure bravado. She fools no one.

Billie, as interpreted by Vanessa Rubin, charms and breaks hearts with her soulful songs. Rubin doesn't impersonate Billie; she embraces her memory and out pours loneliness, sadness and psychic pain. The Washington Post has raved, "Vanessa Rubin is one of the most gifted jazz vocalists of her generation." Officers wait to arrest Billie - again; she knows they're there. Within a few months, at age 44, she will die of heart and liver failure, a direct result of the demons she couldn't conquer.

The naturalness of this musical portrait disarms: the musicians' concern for her well-being, Billie's sly asides, her rough life (she was raped when only nine), the arc of her love for and from the audience; her phrasing that beguiles - she was a natural. Bravo Director Woodie King, Jr.

August 6, 2009


Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through September 19
by Karolina Sadowicz

The tale of Camelot begins with a somber, apprehensive prologue. King Arthur is about to go to war against Lancelot, his beloved friend and knight, who stole off with the queen. The story is so familiar, and yet the mournful chorus and rumbling orchestra make the blood rush with anticipation as the audience is whisked away to the day it all began.

Broadway regular Bradley Dean commands love and respect as a gregarious, playful King Arthur. Erin Davies as Guenevere is lithe and alluring in her vanity and lust for romance, and awakens in her king a desire to be a great man. In their first encounter they charm and disarm each other with such delight that it's hard to believe there is heartbreak ahead.

"Camelot" exceeds expectations from the first note. Though the theatre is small and intimate, the sound, light, and performances are Broadway caliber. Richly costumed by designer Alejo Vietti, the production is an ongoing exhibition of gowns, fur capes, and armor that ooze with royal splendor and lush textures. The simple but versatile set changes drastically with evocative, dramatic lighting, and creates a very strong sense of place.

There is, however, nothing static about the performance. Superb vocal performances from the leads and ensemble carry notes of joy, excitement, longing, and anguish, making each moment bigger and more powerful. French actor Maxime de Toledo is effortlessly charming as Lancelot, and affable both in his hopeful grandeur and surprising humility. No one is surprised when Guenevere gives him her heart, because the audience has already done the same.

Ronn Carroll plays a hilarious Pellinore and carefree foil to an increasingly mature and troubled Arthur. Adam Shonkwiller slithers about as the villainous Mordred, impossible to like even before he orchestrates the downfall of Guenevere, Lancelot, and all of Camelot. Creative staging by director Rob Ruggiero makes use of the aisles, allowing the actors to make the performance both more intimate and grand.

Full of emotional peaks, beautiful music, and flawlessly timed humor, "Camelot" is an absolute delight that can be relished for days after the final bow.

August 5, 2009

The Disappearing Woman

Berkshire Fringe
Daniel Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
August 3, 2009
by Emily List

The Disappearing Woman was a visually captivating collaboration between four acclaimed performers and the digital media practices that drive their actions. The program, choreographed and danced by Nell Breyer, Alissa Cardone, Lorraine Chapman and Bronwen MacArthur, addressed problems of self-expression in a world where the self is constantly manipulated and reconstructed through video-imagery, digital photos and other technological forms. Just as images of the dancers were elongated, fragmented, inverted and projected on the walls of the auditorium, the women's movements constantly shifted in nature, from elastic arm extensions and fluid arabesques to stilted, jarring walks and violent drops to the floor. More often than not, digital media threatened to envelope the human forms completely.

The ways that digital media can lead to the disappearance of the individual self was a strong message projected throughout the show. Equally strong was the idea of transparency. Immediately upon entering the theatre, the audien was subjected to mediated self-scrutiny, a live-video recording capturing images of the spectators entering the space reflected on a screen opposite the seating area. In a dance that is punctuated by sharply executed pivots and elbow-jabs, the four women moved to the recording of a cell-phone message. At first, the words stood out and it was possible to follow the speaker's train of thought. As time went on and the dance and the message became more harried, the movement and the words blended together, the anxious babbling becoming background noise that set the rhythm for the choreography.

The sound, designed by Justin Samaha, was largely dialogue spoken by the performers or the Slovenian author Renata Selcl, speaking on the "Tyranny of Choice." The Disappearing Woman, with its live and recorded video projections occurring simultaneously with the live choreography and frequent costume changes, presented the audience with the dilemma of choosing where to look at any given moment. While the digitally recorded dances provided a visually compelling backdrop, it would be a mistake to ignore the live performances that do not disappoint in their theatricality, technical precision and playful energy.

August 3, 2009

Koussevitzky Memorial Concert

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 2, 2009
by Debra Tinkham

Danish conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, started the concert's rainy Tanglewood program with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37. Guest pianist, Norwegian born Leif Ove Andsnes, played masterfully and seemed little bothered by the heavy rain which dampened the sounds of the orchestra. This short, three movement Concerto sounded more like a piano Concerto. The clarity of the piano carried crystally clear. Next came an unannounced deluge of showers along with another mass exodus of concertgoers. The crowd was exceptionally small and the intermission was omitted in order to complete a soggy Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27.

Three members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) are retiring at the end of Tanglewood's 128th season and they were to be acknowledged at the end of today's concert. That too was omitted, presumably due to the weather. With a combined total of 123 years of devoted service to the BSO, harpist, Ann Hobson Pilot (40 years), violist, Ronald Wilkinson (38 years) and violinist, Amnon Levy (45 years) will hang up their strings ending three very illustrious careers. Pilot writes, "When I was a young student just beginning the harp, I was not given much of a chance, as an African-American female…Forty years ago, the BSO gave me the opportunity to collaborate with world-class musicians and conductors…"

The day was weather rare and fair weather friends. Neither the weather nor the people were fair to Rachmaninoff, the BSO, or Dausgaard because the commotion of packing and moving instruments, unfortunately, dampened a great deal of the program. Let's hope for fairer weather and fairer friends in the future. Mr. and Mrs. Koussivitzky commissioned the building of the Koussevitzky shed back in 1937 for this very reason.

Railroad Bill

Chester Theatre Company, Chester MA
through August 9, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, an audience watched and listened intently to the world premiere of "Railroad Bill" by TJ Edwards. Described, in part, by Chester Theatre Company's Artistic Director Byam Stevens as "a time when America has its first mixed race president and is experiencing the immediate after-effects of a financial crisis fueled by unbridled speculation, 'Railroad Bill' struck me as an amazingly timely play." Indeed it is, especially as this caustic farce seems to channel the obstreperous segment of the population that broadcasts its intent to torpedo the present administration and to fan racial fears. The script manages to offend any honest publishing houses (as distinguished from the bottom-feeders), as well as whites ("there's no such thing as 'Caucasian'"), blacks, African Americans, Jews, Muslims ("and the camel they rode in on"). There's even a gratuitous joke on feminine hygiene, included, one speculates, for the shock of it.

"The Opportunists" could be the subtitle of playwright Edwards' latest play. The discovery of a handwritten journal by the notorious Railroad Bill (an altruistic train robber who shared his booty with the poor) sets off a mad effort by four greedy individuals to make a killing selling the manuscript to a publisher. Upholding CTC's high standards, the production values befit this esteemed Equity theatre. The set (designed by David Towlun) becomes flexible by simply moving a utility cart. Lara Dubin, lighting designer, creates windows by shining spotlights on the wall. Director Regge Life moves the cast about when it's natural to do so.

And, the cast is excellent. Charles Stransky (Abe) is a wheeler-dealer sociopath. His body language includes the tics of smugness (e.g., shoulder twitch). His bombast, insincerity, unconscionable prejudices, and unsupportive sense of entitlement creates a character worthy of contempt. Warren Jackson (Jess), the hapless intern is believable as one who catches the greed bug and also wrestles with his conscience. Melissa Miller (Sam) is a frisky sexpot whose moods and tactics changes are spot on. As Jones who epitomizes concern for his fellow African-Americans, Terry Alexander is as slick as snake oil.

2009 Concert Under The Stars

August 2, 2009

Harry Chapin: Celebration in Song

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
August 1, 2009
by Karolina Sadowicz

Outnumbered at least 2 to 1 by instruments, Tom and Steven Chapin took the stage with the Steve Chapin Band with no fanfare nor attitude. From the moment the lights go on, they were relaxed, at ease, and warm. This musical tribute to Harry Chapin's catalog included original numbers from both his brothers, and other surprises from the Chapin family.

Weaving in lesser known songs, the Chapin brothers also delivered crowd-pleasing classics like "Cat's Cradle," "30,000 Pounds of Bananas," "Taxi," and "Circle" to a resounding chorus of tapping toes and clapping hands. Tom Chapin shared the spotlight with Steven and guitarist "Big" John Wallace, but as frontman always encouraged the audience to sing along.

Wallace and Steven Chapin also invited their sons to accompany on guitar for several songs, hinting at a Chapin family tradition that will continue for years to come. Anecdotes and friendly banter intermingled with the songs, and bold lighting changes added visual flair to an otherwise simple presentation.

The superb acoustics of the Colonial and overall sound design ensured the music was bold, but always clear, and never overpowering. Even when the Chapins occasionally struggled with a higher note, they still sounded crisp. A true testament to their musicianship, all members of the performing ensemble entertained even when tuning their instruments. During times of spirited, dynamic play, none seemed to even break a sweat.

For a fan of any of the Chapins, the show was a treat, full of familiar words and sounds. The unfussy demeanor of each performer drew attention away from just how skilled they are. The Chapins and Wallace made this look easy, although what they do was anything but. The audience was treated to top-notch musical skill in a performance that felt relaxed and personal, as though it took place at a Chapin family reunion. Everyone was invited to participate, reminisce, and enjoy.

Tanglewood Rehearsals

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
Saturdays, July & August, annually
by Shera Cohen

The sounds of symphonic music compete with the squawking of crows. It's the Boston Symphony Orchestra vs. the feathered creatures. Fierce battle ensues. While the birds hold their own periodically, the BSO always wins out. Such are Saturdays each summer at Tanglewood.

Nearly every Saturday in July and August, the BSO opens its huge tent and pristinely mowed lawn for open rehearsals. Starting at 10:30am and ending at various times - whenever the conductor feels that the orchestra is rehearsed to his/her satisfaction (approximately between 12pm-1:30pm) - hundreds of music lovers enjoy these quasi-concerts. Usually, the music is that of the Sunday afternoon program. Tanglewood's program book lists the composers, pieces, conductors, and guest artists. Audiences know in advance what and who they will hear.

The choice is to sit indoors (actually a huge tent) or outdoors, or both, as there are no designated seats. Many arrive at 7am to get the "best" seat. But "best" is in the mind of the listener, and for many their folding chairs on the manicured lawn is the best seat in the house. But, if arriving at 10:25am, nothing will be missed. Rehearsals do start exactly at 10:30am. The dress is casual with the musicians in shorts and t-shirts. The same applies for the crowd. It's not unusual to see rows people donned in Tanglewood shirts, caps, and sweatshirts.

Symphony rehearsals have become more and more popular, having perhaps taken a cue from the many years of success at Tanglewood. Some may think that by attending a rehearsal there is no need to go to the finished product. In fact, the experience is the opposite. Listening to a rehearsal, with its frequent or not-so-frequent stops and starts for the conductor's corrections and comments, makes the ultimate performance clearer in appreciation and understanding of the work.

The ticket price is $17 for adults and free for children under age 12. It is wonderful to see kids, usually on the lawn, enjoying the music of Bach, Mozart, Ravel, et al. Sometimes the sounds that they hear are only background to their chatting with siblings or playing video games. That doesn't matter. They are there, soaking it all in, even subliminally. It is likely that these kids will be our future generation of symphony goers and patrons, remembering their wonderful trips to Tanglewood.

Tanglewood on Parade

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 1, 2009
by Shera Cohen

In spite of the fact there were no floats or horses, this "parade" was certainly full of music - in fact the best music in all of Massachusetts and probably New England. Started six decades ago, Tanglewood on Parade is an annual all-day event appreciated by more than 10,000 people. Overlooking the throngs of audience goers, particularly those on the lawn, the figure of 10,000 is conservative. The weather undoubtedly increased the expected crowds as this was a perfect Tanglewood day.

Four orchestras performed various pieces from 2pm until the grand finale fireworks at 11pm. Admission included 14 separate concerts to choose from in 7 venues including troubadours on the lawn. This was a who's who of conductors (John Williams, James Levine, Keith Lockhart, Leonard Slatkin, and Rafael de Burgos), composers (Rossini, Enescu, Bernstein, Copland, Tchaikovsky), and other recognizable names (choreographer Mark Morris, Governor Deval Patrick).

The evening's program listed primarily familiar pieces, which is common to Parade, and welcomed by the audience. The overture to "William Tell" was obviously rousing, performed by the "house band," so to speak, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, kicking off the final concert of the day. Enescu's "Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1" is one of those well-known pieces which the average listener does not know by name but only by ear. Gentle and yet swift like a speeding train that had lost its breaks, Enescu's music is memorable.

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (most talented youth) took on the lengthy dances from "West Side Story." The young percussionist worked in fast-motion, and the audience did all but sing-along. Parade would not be complete without the Boston Pops. John Williams conducted his own "Tributes: For Seiji" (Seiji Ozawa), and Keith Lockhart took the podium for Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." Narrated by Governor Patrick, the Pops performed the entire score.

It took a few minutes for the combined musicians of two orchestras to overflow the stage for the "1812 Overture." Every Parade's finale is the "1812" coupled with fireworks. It's been heard before, and will be heard again. Once is not enough, nor are a dozen or 100 times.

Vespers Opus 37

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield, MA
August 1, 2009
by Debra Tinkham

Twenty eight years ago, Berkshire Choral Festival's (BCF) voices of summer began its beautiful music, and this concert continued the tradition. Dale Warland, choral composer and conductor conducted Rachmaninoff's "Vespers Opus 37," an a cappella program. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra had the night off.

The work is all titled the All-Night Vigil. When performed originally, as part of a liturgical service, it could conceivably last as long as fifteen hours. That's a lot of church. There are 15 sections and the third, a Rachmaninoff original, known as "Blessed Is the Man," was beautifully harmonic and somber. The sounds of music were pure and eerie. Section five, "Lord Now Lettest Thou..." from the gospel of Luke, with its moving dynamics, long phrases and very low bass, sings of "...enlightening the Gentiles." The unification of voices in section seven, "Verses before the Six Psalms," from Luke 2 and Psalm 51, shortly proclaimed "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men."

Joyful, festive, dynamic and harmonic would describe section eight's "Praise the Name of the Lord." Allelluias" populated many sections of this vigil, but they were so musically beautiful, there could have been more. "Blessed Art Thou, O Lord" with sopranos and altos, then tenors and basses, then sopranos and altos, and a fast moving tenor and bass finale summed it all up with an even bigger building crescendo of SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass).

Sections ten through fifteen were equally as uplifting and invigorating as the previous nine. Warland looked simultaneously energized and exhausted. This was a triumphant evening performance that started on sweet notes and ended with victoriously abundant sweet notes. The lovely voices of summer of BCF continue their Saturday concerts in August.


New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through August 8, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is an example of masterful playwrighting, "...perhaps the greatest play of its time," according to Johann Hari's recent review in London's The Independent. Its construction - back and forth between 1809 and 1989, in the same stunning room, handling the same artifacts, carrying forward the brilliant hypotheses that tripped off the tongue of a 13-year-old girl almost a century before -- challenged the dexterity and layered nimbleness of Stoppard's talent. Stoppard won.

Director Sam Rush imbues the baker's dozen cast with a sense of purpose: they know their stuff and how to flaunt it. In a major role as the precocious Thomasina, young Shelby Leshine beguiles. As her tutor, Septimus Hodge, David Mason's shaded performance reveals the dedicated teacher, the opportunistic seducer, and a deft bamboozler. Cate Damon as the starchy historian, Hannah, deftly deflects the pompous Bernard Nightingale (Keith Langsdale, a scene-stealer whose enthusiasm amazes). Paul Melendy (Valentine Coverly) is a likeable smartypants, modulated in 1809, nerdy in 1989.

The timeless beauty of the setting soothes. Jacquelyn Marolt's design borrows its graceful curved walls from the Greek; the open circle mimics the play's circumlocution. Grounding the free-flowing action is a parquet floor of mellow woods, a large ten-sided mahogany table where yesteryear's tutor and pupil pursue learning, and where modern academic sleuths explore what really happened within this English country home.

What a labyrinth of theorems dominate conversations, sometimes fleetingly - chaos, algorithms, physics - as well as philosophical discussions; i.e., English literature, landscaping, love, death. No wonder that of all the perplexed remarks overheard at intermission, this one captured the essence: "I can't keep up: my head is spinning!" The easiest remedy is to stop trying to understand every line. Instead, let the flavors of the play - its moments of lightheartedness, perplexity, glee, repudiation, tolerance, intellectual stimulation, and so much more - lumber not like stone weights but dance like sugar plums in your head. Another solution is to neutralize any confusion by seeing "Arcadia" again.

August 1, 2009

Measure for Measure

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 2, 2009
by Shera Cohen

The subject matter of many of today’s movies and television shows is tragicomedy. While this word is probably a relatively new entry in the dictionary, a little known fact is that Shakespeare was one of the first to write a play with equal elements of drama and humor. “Measure for Measure” is such a piece.

Director Dave Demke has updated the play, setting it in 1930s pre-World War II Austria. At the same time, Shakespearian images remain in costuming, staging, not to mention language. As the title implies, the balance of several themes exists throughout the story; i.e. justice and injustice, loyalty and ephemeral causes, wisdom and ignorance, power and succumbing, church and state. Yes, these are serious issues, which make for the “tragic” side of the tragicomedy. They balance with the many Keystone Cop or Marx Brothers-like scenes of slapstick, stupidity, and literal running around in circles with no destination.

Future audiences should not be put off by the fact that the actors are not Equity (professional), but are members of the Center for Actor Training’s Performance Internship at Shakes & Co. This education program is highly selective and well-respected throughout the country. “Measure’s” cast is an ensemble of very talented younger actors, each of whom portrays at least three roles. A lecture by the director as well as a talk on the costuming of “Measure” took place in late-July. Attending either or both augmented understanding of the play, although neither is required to appreciate the story.

Standout performers are Nathan Wolfe Coleman, lecherous townsman Lucio; Emily Karol, low-brow sheriff Elbow; Aaron Sharff; flophouse resident Pompey; and Tom O’Keefe, wise yet bookish Duke. Here again, in keeping with tragi and comedy and measure for measure, each actor (except for O’Keefe in the lead role) played both sides of the ying and yang – not an easy task for seasoned thespians, let alone theatre students.

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 5, 2009
by Shera Cohen

It's no wonder that "Twelfth Night" is often considered one of Shakespeare's best comedies. Proof of that is Shakespeare & Company's current production. Like other works of the Bard, the plot includes mistaken identity, women dressed as men (this was probably even funnier in the 1500s with male actors dressed as women), love triangles, a shipwreck, and sometimes a pompous idiot. This play has all of these elements down to perfection.

Just by looking at the playbill, it was no surprise that the cast of many Shakes & Co.'s masterful "regulars," director Jonathan Croy, and music director Bill Barclay would mount a clever, quick, and comic play. It never ceases to amaze that most of actors do double-time throughout the summer in dramatic roles in either "Othello" or "Hamlet." The versatility of talent is evident on a daily basis.

Croy, who also wears the hat of set designer, has created numerous scenes that receive audience laughs even before an actor speaks. Think Disneyesque topiary, add unnoticed paper on the bottom of one's foot, and stick it all together with bubblegum. This makes for odd and hysterically funny staging. The lovely actress Corinna May puts her entire body into making servant Maria elegant and roughhouse simultaneously. Elizabeth Raetz (sought-after lady) spews both virginity and lustiness. Robert Biggs (Fool) gives his supposedly drunken character great wisdom. Ken Cheeseman (servant Malvolio) should be unabashedly ashamed and equally proud to well-create one of the most ridiculous roles of a blowhard to appear on any stage. Young actor Ryan Winkles (Sir Andrew) is a man to watch. His comedic timing is flawless as he uses every wink of the eye, scrunch of his neck, and fancy footwork to make Andrew the most memorable character in this large cast.

Slapstick, physical humor, and broad strokes form the canvas of "Twelfth Night." But this is more than a meaningless, laugh in the moment, comedy. While not dwelled upon, the plot includes the definition of love and how men and women feel and think differently.