Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 17, 2009

Christmas with the Rat Pack—Live at the Sands

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through December 20, 2009
by R.E. Smith

“Christmas with the Rat Pack” reinforces the notion that “they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. The personalities, the songs, even the tuxes all serve to transport the audience to a different time and place. The time is the ‘60s, the place is Las Vegas, and the performers are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

These are not impersonators, but rather actors portraying a character and they make it look easy. The presence of the originals literally hangs over the stage, to remind us that no one can duplicate the original, but we can invoke their spirit. The illusion works very well and makes for a great night of old-school “showbiz”.

Tam Ward conveyed Sinatra’s effortless phrasing and delivery on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “The Christmas Song”. Michael Howard Smith, captured Martin’s smooth charm and laid back delivery on “That’s Amore” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Of the three, David Hayes (Davis) had the greatest physical likeness to his “character” which served him well as Davis was the ebullient song and dance man.

This is no karaoke revue; the 15-piece orchestra was powerful and tight and the men’s voices were strong and well trained. The score must have been based on the original arrangements, because every horn blast and drum hit had the unmistakable sound of that bygone era. These entertainers use no vocal acrobatics or flashy costume changes, leaving the audience to concentrate on the essence of classic songs, seasonal and secular.

The banter retains just enough political incorrectness to remind you that this was a different era, but the material and songs are suitable for the whole family. Take the grandparents for an authentic taste of the good old days and take the tweens so that they can learn to appreciate true, live entertainment.

December 4, 2009

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, et al

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
by Terry Larsen

When the leader of an ensemble is in complete control it might be said that he had them eating out of his hand. Regarding the Hartford Symphony's concert, it is more fitting to say that the orchestra and guest conductor Andrew Grams were feeding off each other. Each of Grams' evocative gestures was rewarded by an artful response as three courses of delicious Romantic era music were served to an appreciative audience.

Smetana's programmatic piece The Molda" was beautifully performed - each gesture of sound evoking every eddy, ripple, and relentless current of the river Moldau as it transformed from stream to river while passing through the Czech heartland. The players and conductor were in perfect accord, dedicated to achieving every nuance possible. This synchronicity was evident throughout the entire concert.

Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor comprised a contrasting second course of angularity served cold…a work no less passionate than The Moldau, but spiced with the half light of an arctic summer evening. Solo violinist Leonid Sigal was undaunted by the difficult and idiosyncratic solo line, playing with a generous warmth of timber and lyrical fluidity. Maestro Grams successfully maintained a delicate balance between Sigal's bravura performance and the often extroverted, savory underpinnings of the orchestral texture.

The final course, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, requires a large appetite for civil but passionate interaction and the full sonority of all sections of the orchestra; as well as for contrasts in texture, mood, tempo; and compelling melodic contours. The orchestra gave its all with no coaxing necessary as Grams illustrated each passing moment and the spaces between. Solos in the wind section in the second movement were beautifully rendered.

Dessert for the feast unexpectedly appeared in the form of a grin and thumbs up from Maestro Gram to enthusiastic members of the audience who had inappropriately applauded at a grand pause before the final maestoso section of the symphony. This welcome gesture of goodwill reassured all that a concert really is about living in the moment for its own sake. The feast was ended. Those in attendance were well served.

December 2, 2009

“Mamma Mia!”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through December 6, 2009
by Shera Cohen

What can a reviewer write about “Mamma Mia!” the fifth time around? First, this musical is obviously worth seeing over and over again. Second, it’s two hours of sheer joy as nearly everyone in the audience has a constant smile. The smile doesn’t come off for the next two days – just about the same time the humming of “Dancing Queen” and “Honey, Honey” disappears from the brains of those in attendance at the Bushnell. Third, the concept of weaving a story and plot around already existing music to create one huge musical success is not so ingenious, yet why wasn’t it done before?

“Mamma Mia!” is the marriage of the old “B” Gina Lolabrigida movie, “Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” with the “A” hits of ABBA. A young Gina slept with three guys; the result was a baby girl. Who’s the daddy? Gina doesn’t really care, but now 20-year-old Sophie yearns for her father to give her away at her wedding. Substitute former rocker Donna for Gina. She’s spent her life as a successful, tough, and vulnerable single mom. Surprise – three possible dads arrive.

The Greek Isle setting is amass with energetic twenty-somethings and six adults. All have the opportunity to sing and dance – sometimes as an ensemble (an opening number “Money, Money, Money”), other times as duos (the poignant “Our Last Summer”) and a string of solos. Michelle Dawson (Donna) has a raspiness to her voice which gives power to “The Winner Takes It All.” Rachel Tyler (Donna’s buddy Tanya) often steals the show with her terrific voice (“Does Your Mother Know”) and comedic movements. Some voices were weaker against the 10-member, highly skilled, rock band. Choreography ranges from a funny romantic flirting of “Take a Chance on Me” to the big numbers with dancers in big feet (scuba flippers).

It can probably be assumed that “Mamma Mia!” is a chick show. Well, yes and no. It wasn’t just the ladies who popped up for the standing ovation and sing-alongs. The hundreds of kid audience members cheered and clapped as well. Alright, this musical is not a cerebral classic, but isn’t it a joy to see children appreciate theatre?