Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 23, 2010

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez Concert

Powertown Music
Shea Theater, Turners Falls, MA
by Eric Sutter

Powertown music hosted a double bill of Americana and Indie music at the Shea Theater. Powertown is a social enterprise of The Brick House Community Resource Center The group's mission is to provide full service music production with a focus on the artist. They also provide mentoring of young adults to create a thriving sustainable music scene in Turners Falls Their ultimate goal of healthy local economic vitality.

Local Indie artist Heather Maloney opened with a set of acoustic music. Her unique voice was the ached with hints of hurt, triumph and wonder. Her song themes titled with a "Cozy Razor's Edge" showed maturity beyond her years. Let's hear more!

Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez performed in support of their new CD, "The New Bye and Bye." This magnetic duo formed in 2001 -- Taylor as a NYC songwriting legend paired with Texan Rodriguez' twang and joyous swing fiddle. Their chemistry was warm but volatile with love. Their dialogue between them, through their songs, was so right. They caught the rhythm of language between the sexes. "Your Name is on My Lips" simmered without pretension or clutter. "Sweet Tequila Blues" burned with the unabashed anger of boozy loneliness.

Whether it was despair or celebration, the melodies were memorable and lyrics hit home. This is the stuff! From the sparse sadness of "Must Be the Whiskey" to the saving grace of "Him Who Saved Me" the material was moving. The love longing of "Big Moon Shinin'" is a classic epiphany of how we touch each other's loneliness as travelers on the path of life. These songs were elixirs of love and truth enunciated by fine voices and fiddling.

Taylor was the deep voiced rough edge with Rodriguez sweet but edgy honesty counterpart. The melodic love tones continued with many tangled hues. Taylor on acoustic guitar and harmonica, accompanied by Rodriguez, showcased his hit "Angel of The Morning" as a duet. Augmented by fiddle, they fueled a rockin' version of his big hit "Wild Thing" as everyone sang it to the rafters. These troubadours found a special common ground in "The New Bye and Bye."

November 21, 2010

God of Carnage

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
By K.J. Rogowski
through December 19, 2010

The theme of TheaterWorks' comic "God of Carnage" is a slow, but steady peeling away of common civilities and social and 'political' correctness, as two couples meet to discuss, what should be, a reasonably adult situation: a fight between their two sons. What results is something entirely different; as the issues between the two couples themselves, as well as several unexpected changes in allegiances regarding the fight throw the best laid plans of all concerned into childishness. This includes name calling, outrageous pronouncements, inappropriate behavior, and some physical confrontations more appropriate for the playground than the living room. Add to this, as series of 'must take' phone calls regarding a court case whose machinations strangely mirror the progress of the parental conflict. The end product is that the audience is watching the proverbial train wreck in slow motion, and there is no one is at the wheel.

Few topics or taboos are spared the carnage as these four adults take sides, switch sides, and reveal not only some personal confidences, but their own real selves, that dwell somewhere under a fragile social veneer. The comic mix of characters includes Susan Bennett as Annette, as the harried wife with the queasy stomach; Royce Johnson, as her cell phone addicted lawyer/husband, Alan; Candy Buckley as Veronica, the sensitive, artistic and snippy hostess; and Wynn Harmon as Michael, the wild card in liberal's clothing. The evening delivers some well paced, and at times, surprising comic turns under the direction of Tazewell Thompson. While the overall performance is worth while, two items leave an audience member wondering: the use of a racial slur in the heat of a moment that goes unaddressed and unanswered, and an ending that seemss to lack pace or energy.  

November 17, 2010

Irving Berlin's White Christmas

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 21, 2010
by R.E. Smith

Hey kids, let's put on a Christmas show!  Those familiar with the classic movie "White Christmas" with recognize the story and those who haven't seen the film will still recognize the plot.  Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are a successful song and dance team in 1954.  With romance in the air, they find themselves putting on a show in the barn of an inn owned by their former commanding officer.  They've followed the lovely and talented sister act, Betty and Judy Haynes, to Vermont for some romantic entanglements and snappy tap dance numbers.

But calling "White Christmas" a Christmas show is like calling "Meet Me in St. Louis" an Easter show. The score is a showcase for some of the best of Irving Berlin.  There are memorable tunes throughout, including  "Count Your Blessings," "How Deep is the Ocean" and "Sisters." Act One ends with a full out production number set to "Blue Skies" that would do Busby Berkley proud. The ensemble exhibits some first rate hoofing.

One role expanded upon from the film is that of busybody housekeeper Martha.  This affords the opportunity for Ruth Williamson to let loose, in grand show-biz style, on the song "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy".  As Betty and Joan Haynes, Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O'Bryan are top notch. Their strong voices, impressive dance skills and snappy delivery appropriately recalled the starlets of the '50's.  

The sets are beautiful, shifting from the intimate lobby of the Inn to the soaring windows of the Regency Room in NYC.  In the fine old tradition, there are some colorful and massive backdrops used as well.  It's a simple device that is quite effective when showcasing big song and dance numbers like "I Love a Piano".  Even the Bushnell itself was "costumed" for the occasion, with snowflake projections spilling over the building and even across the street.

Even if one is not ready to start decking the halls or roasting chestnuts, "White Christmas" is still a terrific way to relive the glory days of movie musicals and the infectious melodies of Irving Berlin.

November 14, 2010

Sweeney Todd

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through November 28, 2010
by K. J. Rogowski

From beginning to end, the Opera House Players' production of "Sweeney Todd" pulls the audience into the dark, scheming, and tragic world of the demon barber of Fleet Street. This is the place where the plotting of a man obsessed with revenge, merges with the greed of a woman, in a delightfully wicked concoction of songs and scenes told in the dramatic tradition of a 19th century British penny dreadful.

The visual of the street dwellers, with their sunken eyes and tattered clothes, extolling the audience to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," in the very opening scene sets the tone. Erica Romeo and Steve Wandzy as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney, respectively, nicely complement each other, with    Romeo's lively and opportunistic Mrs. Lovett teamed with Wandzy's withdrawn and plotting Todd. The two work well in their songs together, topped off with the rousing, "A Little Priest" in Act I.

The supporting cast provides a strong chorus for the story's exposition, and some fine individual moments. Among these are Eric Rehm and Janet Pohli as the star crossed lovers, Anthony and Johanna, struggling to escape the twisted reality they have become entangled with; Tim Reilly as the bombastic barber Pirelli, who threatens to undo Todd's meticulous plotting: and Stephen Jewell as the simple, yet ferociously loyal Tobias.

The set design and changes work well, jumping among Lovett's pie shop, the streets of London, Judge Turpin's residence, Bedlam House, and the dank cellar where those mysteriously tasty pies are made. Under the direction of Anna Giza, the Opera House Players have brewed up a night's entertainment replete with songs and characters that give a laugh and a chill as they reveal the inner workings of the strange world of Sweeney Todd.

November 12, 2010

The Who's "Tommy"

Greene Room Productions
Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
through November 13, 2010
by Eric Sutter

Greene Room's production of The Who's "Tommy" brings to life the progressive rock opera that pushed boundaries of traditional rock and pop back in the Woodstock era.

Producer/Director Erin Greene's successful has accomplished exactly what is required to make it a success. The opening scene of "Tommy" begins with the marriage of Mrs. Walker (Stephanie Devine) and Mr. Walker (Michael Holt) during "Overture." The scenes change at a rock pace with years flashed on the backdrop to keep the story moving. "It's A Boy" introduces the young Tommy (Michaela Guthrie). Many of the songs are complex group ensemble arrangements like "Amazing Journey," which showcases a strong solo voice answered by a choral group singing. "See Me Feel Me" is sandwiched between the dark themed abuse of "Fiddle About" by babysitter Uncle Ernie (Andrew Gilbert) and the bully "Cousin Kevin" (Paul Adzima). Adzima, by the way, is also a fantastic dancer.

The set is simple with the emphasis on the great music. At times, some voices sound weak, but when the ensemble sings it is glorious. "Eyesight To The Blind" brings more misery to adolescent Tommy (Normand Caissie) in the form of temptation by a pimp and prostitutes. Enter "The Acid Queen" (Kait Rankins) to pump him full of LSD and strap him to a circular lighted wheel for a spin! Poor Tommy... he becomes the idolic "Pinball Wizard" to end Act 1.

The underlying theme of oppression follows him into adulthood in Act 2. He is mercilessly bullied in  "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" by his outlaw in-laws. He seeks help from the Specialist (Jarett Greene) who has a strong moment with "Go To The Mirror Boy." After "Smash The Mirror," Tommy at 20 (Josiah Durham) soars in song with "I'm Free." The theme of idol worship is expanded upon in a song trilogy including "Sensation" in which Tommy became messianic. "Sally Simpson" add more dramatic tension to release with the ensemble's shout of "We're Not Gonna Take It" with French horn accompaniment by Margaret Reidy. Kudos to music director Devon Bakum, choreographer David Wallace, and the entire band. Listen for the special finale featuring Josiah Durham's mighty voice -- it is haunting.

November 8, 2010

Dvorak & Tchaikovsky Concert

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
November 6, 2010
By Debra Tinkham

Melpomene: (poetic) Overture, by quasi-contemporary Bostonian composer, George Chadwick, created this imaginary tragedy in the late 1800s. This work borrowed from such talents as Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Chadwick's serious and somber work is one of the most popular repertoires for orchestra. The orchestra had quite a warm up with this difficult, melodic number.

Antonin Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G minor featured Martin Kasik, a young and most talented pianist from Prague. Among his vast resume credits, this musician toured the United States in 2005 in honor of the 100th anniversary of his beloved idol, Dvorak. Known well for his recapitulations of melodic theme, his technique was well demonstrated in this three part Concerto. Allegro agitato was indeed agitated, but the most notable observations of this work were the back and forth of the orchestra and Kasik. Maestro Rhodes was delightful and well rehearsed, as always, for the action between both. Although he uses a full score, he seems to have each note memorized. Andante sostenuto was melodic and difficult and, through the entire program, had the most in-tune acoustics. The Finale: Allegro con fuoco especially displayed Kasik's articulate and difficult execution on the keyboard. Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn wrote of Kasik, "…his energy is inexhaustible, his immersion in the musical message is absolute..." It was no wonder that Kasik received three standing ovations. His encore was one of talent, dexterity and pure love of the music and the machine.

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, four movements, by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, was the grand finale. Although suffering bouts of depression, Tchaikovsky completed this lengthy and difficult symphony in less than four months. For the most part, this "andante" piece is somber with recapitulations reappearing throughout.

Of note, Kasik will be performing a concert of Chopin and Rachmaninoff at First Congregational Church of West Springfield on November 13, 2010.

November 7, 2010

Jekyll & Hyde

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through November 14, 2010
by Shera Cohen

It is nearly impossible for anyone who has ever seen "Jekyll & Hyde" (J&H) to leave the theatre without singing or humming the showstopper song "This Is the Moment." In the case of Exit 7's presentation, the song title literally describes the success of the production and the entire troupe. Ever since "Big River" (1995), the work of those onstage and backstage has continued to go upstream, sometimes against the tide of what many might expect from amateur theatre.

J&H is a musical rarely performed even by professional troupes, as it is extremely difficult for the actor in the lead role. Yet, Exit 7 tackles this musical head on. Audience members were heard saying, "This is better than Broadway." Save for a large orchestra (instead of Exit 7's excellent six-piece band) and expensive sets (Exit 7's furnishings worked well, particularly with backdrop slides), the comparison between NYC and Ludlow is not a stretch.

Everyone knows the story of J&H - one man, both good and evil. But there is more to the story. The plot extensively details the motivation in this character and the dichotomy of the components that make a man whole.  J&H is a disturbing play with exquisite music and important lyrics - somewhat opera-like.

Kim Lynch seems to have had an easy job directing, as well as Alison Forance choreographing, but only because their cast is perfect. From the kids in the chorus to the Red Rat dancers, those with secondary roles (each well defining his/her character) to the leads, it is difficult to find a single flaw.

Reams of accolades can be written about J&H's star, Ben Ashley. This, too, is the best moment in his career as an actor and singer. The difficulty of switching from Jekyll to Hyde and back again within seconds of each other could have easily become comic. Not so here. These are the tensest moments in the production. Augmenting Ashley's brilliance are Melissa Dupont and Katie Clark, in his duets with each, and their, "In His Eyes," is lush.

The weekend of November 12th is your moment to see "Jekyll & Hyde."

Masterworks Series: Program No. 2

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
November 2, 2010
by Terry Larsen

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra provided yet another moment of great artistic beauty for its dedicated audience under the baton of one more candidate for leadership of the ensemble. The orchestra's ability to bring technical and emotive meaning to every piece of literature programmed while complying to the wide range of intent and gesture posed by the many conductors who have occupied the podium over the past two seasons is nothing but remarkable.  Bravo, HSO! Moreover, the beauty, comfort, and acoustic ambience of the Belding Theater provides added motivation to attend concerts at the Bushnell.

Marcelo Lehninger led three Romantic pieces inspired by revered stories from the literary domain. In Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, Tchiakovsky achieves a wonderful synthesis of strict adherence to sonata allegro form and the progression of dramatic events from the story of the ill-fated lovers. Lehninger's conducting relied on an extremely disciplined baton technique. Each moment of every phrase was defined, specific, and secure without resulting in a rigid, inflexible sound - the musical nuances between pulses were still very evident providing the narrative of each work with a beautiful vehicle of sonority.

Soprano Christiana Pier joined the HSO for Ravel's diaphanous composition Scheherazade, Three Poems for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra. Her voice was beautifully balanced throughout the range and of a pleasing timbre, although it may have been dynamically covered by the orchestra in the lowest range. Once again, Lehninger and the HSO paid attention to every metrical detail, allowing the full palate of orchestral and vocal timbre to emerge from the texture.

This dedication to use of the full range of orchestral timbre is obvious in Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 by the master of orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov, a student of Tchiakovsky and a profound influence on Ravel.  He harnessed his dedication to the exploration of harmony, structure, and timbre to serve a symphonic telling of the exotic adventures of the iconic Sinbad, bringing each of the stories to life in the mind's eye and ear.

This reviewer relishes each evening spent with this orchestra in this beautiful space.

November 4, 2010

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company

Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
November 2, 2010
By Stacie Beland

Oftentimes, the most powerful communication occurs when no words are used. So, what is there to be written about a dance company that wordlessly speaks volumes? It is a difficult thing to review the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company without lapsing into cliché. Words seem to fall short in describing the visual feast that presented.

Lar Lubovitch is known for the musicality of his choreography. Often, his works are without discernable plots. Instead, Lubovitch's dancers become visual representations of music. In North Star, a 1978 piece set to a piece of music of the same name by Philip Glass, movements ranged from a water-like flow to jerky, staccato movements. The result was fugue-like, as if witnessing a dream. Lubovitch is also a master at choreographing negative space (the space that isn't occupied by a dancer's body) and the resulting images are fascinating, which holds particularly true in North Star. The result is breathtaking.

The same musicality could be found in Duet from Meadow and Marimba (A Trance Dance). Both pieces showcased the Company's exceptional precision, their movement almost tide-like-precisely timed, but still beautifully surprising. The Company ebbed and flowed together; their movements powerful, graceful and captivating.

The real highlight of the evening was Coltrane's Favorite Things, a work debuted earlier this year. Performed on a bare stage (the curtain legs and back traveler were removed, leaving the exposed backstage and wings for the audience to see), the piece was set to the John Coltrane Quartet's infamous 1963 live performance of My Favorite Things. The music itself is wildly improvisational and spontaneous. The dancers, outfitted in casual clothing, down to sneaker-like footwear, took flight. The result was magical, a piece as free and as improvisational (yet steeped in mathematical discipline) as jazz itself. The message was clear: that dance, beauty, and music can come from anywhere, go anywhere, and surprise you at every moment in the journey.  It's a concept that holds true for all of Lubovitch's pieces, and it's what makes him one of the world's most dynamic choreographers.

October 30, 2010

Escanaba in Love

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 5, 2010
by Shera Cohen

How does a theatre troupe take a poorly written play and make it a successful production? Not easily. The Majestic, from those onstage to those backstage, do their damnedest to create the absolute best possible work with the material given. For those who experienced "Escanaba in da Moonlight," presented at this venue ten years ago, one cannot help but laugh again, simply upon remembering that play's dialogue and action. Given "Moonlight's" hilarity, it is hard not to expect the same from "In Love."

Taking the production as it stands, there are many fine qualities to what is especially a drama about how to define love, coupled with some laughs. The story takes place in Michigan in 1944 at a hunting cabin. Gramps and the men in the family are on their annual quest to kill deer. No women allowed - this is a guy thing. Greg Trochlil's decrepid, rustic, messy set is exquisite for its purpose. The details are perfect, from the ripped upholstery to the birch trees.

Photo by Lee Chambers
The task of the actors to make their characters' words depict real people is brought to the test. Each in the quintet is excellent, albeit in primarily caricature roles - quite common it many plays. The interaction increasingly becomes better, poignant, and humorous with the entry of each new character. John Thomas Waite's and Chris Shanahan's roles set the long opening-act scene. Save for a few off-color jokes, their story-telling is serious. Enter Shaun Barry (a former Majestic "regular" who has been long missed) as a friend whose role is weaker than the actor deserves. Paul DeVries, as the youngest male in the family, is wonderful as the naïve and smitten son. Upon the scene is "the woman," Big Betty. Meghan Lynn Allen takes her job seriously; at the same time deservedly getting the most laughs in the play. Her make-up is dirt, her clothes are plaid, and her demeanor is raunchy. Yet, Allen gives Betty a hidden charm.

A recommendation is to arrive early to see the Majestic's new second floor gallery. Featuring the work of 30 local artists, this is a lovely exhibit/store.

October 28, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

University of Massachusetts, Ahmerst, MA
October 27, 2010
by Robbin M. Joyce

There's an African Proverb that goes, "Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community." That is what Three Cups of Tea did for the UMass community. Male and female, young and old were in the audience to be educated on Greg Mortenson's quest to make a difference.

Actor Curtis Nielsen appeared in Wynn Handman's adaptation of Three Cups of Tea, written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Redin. Handman took Mortenson's experiences and distilled them down into a 60+ minute series of vignettes about the first school he was able to build in Pakistan. These vignettes alternated in location between Pakistan and the U.S. The stage was bare, save for a single wooden bench representing Pakistan and two mismatched chairs representing the U.S. Perhaps the sparse set was an analogy for how little it takes to educate a child; a mere $600 will pay an annual salary for a teacher.

Nielsen took his audience on a virtual jeep ride of emotion. We sped around boulders, over speed bumps and went off-roading as he relayed the obstacles in his path from his original failed attempt to climb K2 and subsequent stumbling into a remote village whose children gave him his ultimate purpose in life: to promote peace one school at a time. Nielsen adeptly switched pace and volume according to where he was in the world. Although at times his inflection seemed overwhelmingly emphatic, ultimately the picture he painted was touching and real.

Once the story telling was over, the house lights came up for a Q&A session. It was a satisfying opportunity to gain a little more insight into both Nielsen's process and the Central Asia Institute, founded by Mortenson after his initial experiences relayed in this play. And if questions weren't enough, the audience could also donate to Pennies for Peace to help build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

October 27, 2010

Blue Man Group

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 31, 2010
by R.E. Smith

"Ready, go!"  As those words flash across an LCD message board, the Bushnell theatre roars to life as the Blue Man Group takes the stage and transports the audience to a world of wonder.  Rock concert, pantomime, performance art, silent movie, percussion showcase, visual pun; a performance by BMG is all these things and more.

It is safe to say that the Bushnell has never seen anything like the Blue Man Group before.  Using old and new material and rebuilding it for traditional Broadway style houses, the BMG has taken the group experience and made it intimate.  There are new sequences that jab at our multi-tasking culture as well as famous segments featuring black lights, splashing paint and drums.

Who or what the BMG are/is can be left open to individual debate.  Lost tribe?  Alien race?  Mutants from the future?  The missing link?  In the end it really doesn't matter; these silent, bald, and blue beings are incredibly talented.  Lights flash, drums pound, plumbing becomes musical instruments, music becomes something you can see and feel.
Perhaps the show's reputation has made people worried that the show is too "out there" for their taste.  But this presentation appeals to young and old, as was evidenced by the make-up of the audience at opening night.  Grandfathers and children were clamoring for the opportunity to participate.  Who hasn't wanted to play with 10 ft round glowing beach balls, or dance to a song devoted to the human posterior?

The show is playful, intelligent, and good fun.  Whether catching gumballs in their mouths, or creating beats with Captain Crunch, the BMG explores the environment with child-like intensity.  The result is a permanent smile on the face of every audience member.

Any devotee of theatre, music, and/or physical comedy needs to see this show.  Anyone who needs to smile, laugh, or lose themselves for a while needs to see this show.  Theatergoers leave the theatre energized and never looking at a Twinkie the same way again.

October 25, 2010

Radiance - Music of Motown

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 25, 2010
by Eric Sutter

As freedom goes, the music of Motown is about joy. The magic of Motown was presented by the Las Vegas vocal quartet Radiance to a packed house of delighted fans. Guest conductor William Grimes did an "awesome" job of keeping the Symphony Orchestra in time with the hits of Motown. He began the evening with "The Star Spangled Banner." Radiance sparkled with their opening number by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, "Heat Wave." The purple dressed Divas combined to work the audience into a singing frenzy. All the ladies were lead vocalist quality and Wendy Edmead did her best to sing Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love." Lush harmonies and superb voices were crafted in support of classic Supremes' tunes "Come See about Me" and "Love Child" with the Symphony strings as excellent, albeit atypical, back up. The rhythm section of Land Richards on drums and Marcus Van on bass accompanied by Wilson Richardson on piano worked up the Donna Summer disco dance medley to close the first half.

The after intermission concert coaxed the audience into dancing in their seats (so to speak) with "Dancing in the Streets." Dancing ensued in the aisles with "I'm So Excited" along with an emotional piano solo. The girls flirted with the audience and the conductor. Dressed in gold, Edmead's solo "Natural Woman" was a very good interpretation of Lady Soul which imbued the audience with soulful memories. The mid-70's pop love ballad, "When Will I See You Again?" had a similar effect with a nice touch by the strings. "Love's Theme" began with the intricate violin playing of first violinist Masako Yanagita which weaved into the introduction as the girls cavorted in red evening gowns. They finished with a sweet voiced triple play of Supremes' favorites - a shot stopper. Flute, along with touches of percussion (especially xylophone) during the Diana Ross spoken portion of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was a lovely change. Radiance  brought down the house with the hand clapping dance number by Sister Sledge, "We Are Family."

October 21, 2010

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through November 28, 2010
by R.E. Smith

"How to Succeed in Business. . ." is a musical that is as much fun to watch as it is to hear.  Colors, shapes, choreography, and costumes all serve to enhance and propel the story of J. Pierrepont Finch.  "Ponty" is an ambitious window washer who  flatters, winks, and ingratiates himself a quick move up the corporate ladder.  Despite the play's being over 40 years old, the characters of this business world will be quite familiar to today's "tired working man.”

Every member of the cast and ensemble is top-notch.  One could choose to watch any supporting player in the background for a whole scene and still be treated to a well-rounded, smile-producing, performance.  The choreography is energetic and strong.  The show’s biggest stopper, "Brotherhood of Man" can barely be contained in the Goodspeed's intimate setting.

Photo By Diane Sobolewski
Despite the male protagonist, the ladies are really in charge of this "Business.”  Natalie Bradshaw, as Rosemary Pilkington, has the presence and voice of an ingénue from an earlier time.  Her voice is strong but sweet and she has a confident sparkle in her eye.  Erin Maguire as "Smitty," Rosemary's best friend, has the genuine voice, rhythms, and delivery of a classic screwball comedy "pal.”  From Jennifer Smith's executive secretary to Nicolette Hart's blond bombshell, every actress delivers strong style, wit, and comedic chops.

Even the set is a stand out.  Since the Goodspeed is often home to revivals set in more rustic or rural times, it is a bit startling to see the "modern" lines and colors of the early sixties.  But what a unique and lively set it is!  Doors and panels slide about, shuffle, and rearrange, creating offices and elevators.  Desks, chairs, and coffee carts glide around giving every transition a fluid energy.

The score by Frank Loesser includes classics like "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm", "Grand Old Ivy," and "The Company Way".   Audience members will literally tap their feet along with the score.  As always, the Goodspeed proves that "they don't make them like this anymore," but shows like this are every bit as worth seeing as ever.

Monty Python's Spamalot Kicks off Symphony Hall's 2010/11 Broadway Season

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
series through May, 2011

The Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2005, "Monty Python's Spamalot," will visit Springfield for one performance only on November 4 at Symphony Hall. Lovingly "ripped-off" from the internationally famous comedy team's most popular motion picture, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," this musical is the winner of three Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Director (Mike Nichols), as well as the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Musical.  

Telling the legendary tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their quest for the Holy Grail, "Spamalot" features a chorus line of dancing divas and knights, flatulent Frenchmen, killer rabbits, and one legless knight.

Monty Python isn't a person, but a group of British actors and writers (and one American) that performed their famous comedy show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on the BBC from in the 70's, with subsequent international fame and success.

For ticket information on this and the rest of the Symphony Hall Broadway Series (which includes "Fiddler on the Roof," "Grease," and "Legally Blonde") call the box office 413-788-7033.

October 17, 2010

Antony and Cleopatra

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 6, 2010
by Stacie Beland

Hartford Stage is offering a decadent performance of "Antony and Cleopatra," hallmarked by a rich tapestry of solid ensemble acting and stunning production value. With so many aspects of the production being so original, it's difficult to give credit where it's due.

Tina Landau's direction is spot-on. It resonates in the performances of the featured players, but is also visible in the performances of those characters who, under Landau's brilliant direction, remain wordlessly (but not silently) onstage. An example of this lies with Julio Monge's Soothsayer, who witnesses most of the dramatic action from the shadows. Monge never lets his focus waver even as the action shifts away from him. Truly, each and every actor's performance is layered with character development. Alexander Cendese's excellent portrayal of a frat-boy Pompey, Keith Randolph Smith's boisterous and ultimately repentant Enobarbus, Jake Green's much-maligned Messenger, and Scott Parkinson's simpering and snapping Cesar all deserve more praise.

John Douglas Thompson, as Antony, raises the bar for the ensemble. While careful not to outshine any other performance, Thompson sparks onstage. That spark never leaves, even as he is lying motionless onstage after meeting his inevitable end. Thompson perfectly balances clear recitation and honest character. His portrayal of Antony's actions and the emotions behind them were are such that probably each audience member can feel them.

As for Cleopatra, Kate Mulgrew's performance quality is up to the task, but more so than her physicality permits; she seems to push a youthful and impetuous Cleopatra. Her recitation and the sheer exuberance, however, make it an eminently watchable and enjoyable performance.

Every so often, a production comes around that reminds one what it is like to see a Shakespearean performance, instead of a performance of Shakespeare. This is that production. Pre-modern language is made modern, relevant, and eminently alive at Hartford Stage. This is a seamless balance of design, performance, and production that is simply not to be missed.

October 15, 2010

Masterworks Series: Program #1

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 14, 2010
by Terry Larsen

Kevin Rhodes, guest conductor and music director candidate, led a dramatic program of works with compelling spirit and expertise. This would come as no surprise to the audiences of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, long accustomed to his charismatic direction. An audition for future leadership of an ensemble is no small thing. The choice of repertoire enabled orchestra and maestro to fully evaluate each other in a short time. The audience, fully aware of the stakes, showered praise on Rhodes and the orchestra for playing such a demanding program so beautifully.

Johannes Brahms was prompted to compose the Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 in gratitude to the University of Breslau for awarding him a doctorate. "Compose a fine symphony for us!...But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!" His tongue and cheek response was to set four popular tunes of the day with rigorous attention to form and orchestration, subtly poking fun at the academics in his audience. Rhodes and the HSO brought this humor to the audience's attention with a solid, playful performance.

Beethoven's last piano concerto, No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, "The Emperor," was written during Napoleon's occupation of Vienna. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, a frequent collaborator with Maestro Rhodes, played beautifully, rendering this well known work with passion and clarity of technique suffused with subtle power. The HSO supported the pianist perfectly, every entrance and all issues of balance perfectly indicated from the podium. For an encore, Biegel played the Allemande from Bach's 5th French Suite, improvising on repeats of sections.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 4, a work that Rhodes described as "full of pain!", is an enormous undertaking for players and audiences. An earlier work had been officially denounced, forcing Shostakovich to comply with an injunction to simplify his works, to make them more optimistic and representative of "Socialist realism". He managed to assuage the authorities while satirizing the situation with a forced triumphal march in the final movement. The HSO rose to the demands of this monument with fire and determination. The audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.

October 10, 2010

All My Sons

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 23, 2010
by Shera Cohen

One has to dig really deep to find anything possibly wrong with the production of Suffield Players "All My Sons." With the use of a spyglass, there are only two areas that could be improved upon - the trellis on the set and page 5 of the program book. More later.

"All My Sons," Arthur Miller's second play, is one of the single most dramatic and powerful plays written to date. Riveting, emotional, and gritty are words to describe this post-WWII story. The plot is about two families. Yet, Miller tackles something bigger than all of us and cuts to the core of morality.

Credit:  LJB Special Photography
The play opens on what looks like a real yard and fully built backdrop of a kitchen. Family members and neighbors come and go as the play unfolds. Humor is gradually replaced by somber tones and ultimately and painfully to solid stillness onstage and in the audience. Miller wastes no words as we learn about patriarch Joe Keller, his wife, and son; and Ann and George Deever, former neighbors. Each comes with his/her own pack of secrets, lies, and sense of justice. They crash against each other on the battlefield of this backyard. Words as sharp swords draw blood and tears. This is drama at its best.

Director Ed Wilhelms cast the finest actors to portray their personal best as well as ensemble best. Konrad Rogowski's Joe inwardly smolders with a sense of righteousness and guilt. He is the crux of the play. Marge Patefield's Kate (Joe's wife) becomes eaten alive by her own secrets. Rayah Martin and Shaun O'Keefe are the young lovers with the weight of sorrow on their backs - not the expected joy. It is very hard to imagine any of these actors performing better than they did on opening weekend, except perhaps next weekend.

Oh, to the two "faults." The trellis is too busy, with its natural criss-cross design, sometimes distracting the audience from the actors seated by it. And, advice to future audiences - don't read page 5 in the program as it's a spoiler. "All My Sons," however, is no spoiler, but the best community theatre seen in many years.

October 7, 2010

Tyler Tyler

UMass Bowker Auditorium, Amherst, MA
October 6, 2010
by Amy Meek

The program Tyler Tyler, directed by Yasuko Yokoshi, combined the traditional Japanese dance form Kabuki with postmodern dance choreography to create a complex picture of contemporary life. Yokoshi used the traditional epic The Tale of Heike as her inspiration, using classic Kabuki repertory. The Japanese and the contemporary movements contrasted and paralleled each other to create a merging of the two cultures.

The Japanese dancing was choreographed by Masumi Seyama, an authority in Kanjyuro Fujima VI's style of Kabuki dance. The dancers demonstrated the subtlety and grace of Kabuki, slowly and deliberately moving the entire time. They used fans and many twisting and circular movements of the arms and wrists. The modern dancers combined the controlled Kabuki form with out of control, flailing movements. The troupe alternated between the two styles and created one unique style.

Accompanying music was an integral part of the piece. Steven Reker performed live and used a combination of recordings, guitar, traditional Japanese instruments, a toy piano, and his voice. The music was quite monotone, but then would become distractingly loud at moments, becoming almost unpleasant to listen to with the piercing noises.

The director's voice was strongly felt through the program. The performance was an interesting look at Japanese culture, even though some of the references were unclear. The pacing of the show was a little slow at times, but it was nonetheless an educational experience.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
October 2, 2010
by Stacie Beland

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet offered a stunning program of three works as part of the Center Series at UMass. Each piece was expertly performed by its dancers, and often curtain calls had to be extended to satisfy the audience’s need to applaud.

The first, Jo Stromgren’s Sunday, Again, was a hard-hitting work set to Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude,” Motet no. 3 in E minor. The choreography ranged from playfully breezy to brutal, organically moving through every emotion in between. Couples came together and tore apart in a beautifully staged piece that incorporated elements of a badminton game, serving as a nebulous metaphor. Thematically, the dancers were in the leisure whites and always seemed to be ebbing against the shore of some violent conflict. There was a restrained, almost dignified, tension. The concepts of being out-of-bounds and of being partners are explored, and to beautiful success.

In contrast, Jacopo Godani’s UNIT IN REACTION, was a cold and distant work, pushing geometrical patterns set to an almost industrial score by Ulrich Muller and Siegfriend Rossert of 48Nord. Remarkably, the piece captured the imagination, despite its sparse staging. The dancers, androgynously clothed, moved in cold machinations. Despite the almost apocalyptic-like feel, there was spontaneity to the movement, perhaps a chaos-theory answer to this world that seems governed by pulse-like rhythm.

Lastly, Cedar Lake presented Didy Veldman’s frame of view, set to a variety of music of wildly diverse genres. It was an imposing work, with a limited set of a wall-less room hallmarked by three yellow doors. The room was cleverly delineated on the stage, but the doors appeared to be magically suspended. There is a lot of madness that can occur in a single small room, which the audience was witness. Gradually, the metaphor revealed itself (a little too obviously at times) and as music changed, the room filled and emptied. In addition to being brilliantly staged, the piece was remarkably well-lit. Despite simply leading to a few feet away and in full-view onstage, each of the doors offered mystery and intrigue, thanks to an ingenious lighting design by Ben Ormerod.