Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 30, 2010

The Lady With All the Answers

Hartford TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through March 7, 2010
by Jarice Hanson

Biographical plays are always a challenge to mount when members of the audience have an image of the subject in their minds. David Rambo's The Lady With All the Answers portrays the life of Eppie Lederer, known as Ann Landers, on July 1, 1975 -- the eve of writing a deeply personal column. In this one-woman show, the talented Charlotte Booker bears a striking resemblance to Ann, and charms the audience with rapport and charisma by taking polls of the audience, composing her columns at her Selectric typewriter, and talking on the phone with her daughter, her husband, and her twin sister, the other popular advice columnist, "Dear Abby." Booker's attempt to affect a Chicago accent and Landers' quirky speech pattern are inconsistent, and she relies on smiles and warmth to tell the story of this woman who was reputed to have a temper, sharp tongue, and extravagant lifestyle.

Director Steve Campo effectively uses Adrian W. Jones' set in Lederer's Chicago living room, and Kenneth Mooney's costumes contribute an elegance that reflects Landers' popularity. Much of the material comes from the real letters and responses Ann Landers wrote from 1955-2002, chronicling American values and popular topics, from the correct way to hand a toilet paper roll, to the anguish of a 15-year old boy who struggles with coming out, or ending his life.

Booker represents Eppie as a feisty woman with strong morals, but perhaps because the subjects deal with issues from a simpler time, or because Booker has not yet been able to find the contradictions in Lederer's life that give the play the human tension it needs, the show falls flat.

While the audience awarded Booker with a standing ovation, the production still needs to find the appropriate balance between human anguish and humor, which Ann Landers affected so well.

The Lion King

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 14, 2010
by Shera Cohen

While many theatre-lovers have taken sides on the Disneyfication of today's musical theatre - its effects on the medium, audiences, and future audiences - this review takes "The Lion King" strictly at face value. The fact that its Broadway opening earned just about every theatre award given is no surprise. Perhaps a bit surprising to some is that the national tour, in cities such as Hartford, is equal in presentation, skill, special effects, costuming, and choreography. "Lion King" in CT compares equally to NYC's "Lion King."

The story, straight from the movie version, offers some life lessons to lions and to humans, particularly the children in both species. There's drama and humor - the later on two levels for the appreciation of the kids and their adult chaperones. Elton John and Tim Rice's music ranges from contemporary rock ("The Morning Report") to ballads ("The Live in You") to calypso, and more. Of course, there is the expected beauty of "Circle of Life" and contagious beat of "Hakuna Matata." Singers shine, particularly in "Shadowland" and "Endless Night." All of this makes for the foundation of a good musical.

The "wow effect" of "Lion King," and far bigger than the songs, singers, and story combined, is the staging. The real stars are exquisitely talented director/costume designer Julie Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan. Unfortunately, neither appears onstage to receive standing ovations.

"Lion King" is a visual delight with humans portraying life-size animals, birds, and vegetation. It is easy to only see the costumes and masks. Yet the faces of each actor "underneath" perfectly reflect his/her character. The backdrops of shimmering sun, dessert, sky, mountains, and elephant graveyard are massive. Color abounds in the come-to-life imaginations of the young lions. Technology is state-of-the-art in creating the art of live theatre, particularly in the stampede scene. Fagan, known for his choreography of his own famous dance troupe, as well as works performed by troupes across the globe, has created movements perhaps unseen onstage before "Lion King's" debut.

As for opening night's audience, chock full of children, it was a pleasure to hear their sounds of exclamation, lion "grrrrs," and questioning "Is that real?!"

January 27, 2010

Men Fake Foreplay

Men Fake Foreplay
City Stage, Springfield, MA
through January 31, 2010
by R.E. Smith

"Men Fake Foreplay" is neither as simple nor as crude as the title might suggest. In fact, this witty, funny and insightful show is actually quite complex. Emmy award winning comedian Mike Dugan is an affable and candid performer who has set out to win our trust with humor and then teach us a few lessons. Since the lessons are about men and relationships and sex, we get the pleasure of laughing heartily while taking our medicine. Dugan has created a hybrid show designed to examine the seemingly irrational motivations of men.

"Foreplay" is part monologue because of the autobiographical nature of the material and Dugan's sometimes-surprising revelations. The thread that ties the insights and humor together is the story of his personal journey. He reports that in the past he didn't have relationships because "all of my training had been in casual sex". There's also a motivational aspect, as Dugan lays out the path he took to overcome his failings. This includes such insights as the fact that, like the sports men love, "Our feelings are on tape delay."

There's a bit of one-man play present in the structure, because Dugan touches on characters in his life with effortless mimicry, whether putting a dirty spin on "It's A Wonderful Life" or speaking in the vernacular of his childhood friends. But, like a stand-up show, there are bawdy, laugh out loud moments. Dugan reports that, "Women peak at age 40. Men peek at whatever they can."

The performer has some things he is truly upset about, especially the current culture of "playas" that profit from the degradation of women, and his keen observations of social norms and hypocrisies calls to mind George Carlin. Like Carlin, Dugan has a first class mind with an R-rated vocabulary.

"Men Fake Foreplay" is a unique and worthwhile evening's entertainment. Some men will "get it", some men will learn from it and both their female companions will laugh knowingly.

January 25, 2010

Rachmaninoff & Brahms

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
by Debra Tinkham

The house was full, the orchestra was charged and Maestro Keven Rhodes made his usual exuberant entrance for an action packed evening.

Gaetano Donizetti's Robert Devereau Overture, premiered in the mid-19th century, displayed deliberate patriotic percussion and theme. Being a love triangle - make that a quadrangle - this opera originally had no overture until Donizetti added it for a Paris debut. It was a short and sweet start for a night of some heavy music.

Moving right along to a Springfield Symphony Orchestra first was Sergei Rachmaninoff's moody Piano Concerto No.1 in F-Sharp minor. Maestro Rhodes described it as, "a relatively youthful work of Rachmaninoff's, it has all his hallmarks: great melodies, tremendous excitement and incredible virtuosity."

Alexander Ghindin, a Russian native, who at the age of 35 and already a major player on the international piano scene, performed with the SSO in a riveting rendition of typical "Rach-style." Gindin's beautiful hand style certainly gave the "old Steinway," the orchestra and Maestro Rhodes a workout. The Vivace movement opened with heavy brass, conjoined with Ghindin's rapid finger movements up and down the keyboard. Although short and melodic, the Andante movement demonstrated a nice harmony between piano and bassoon. This was a nice change from your typical solo instruments. The Allegro Vivace finale was "show-off" time for Ghindin as well as the orchestra. You either know this stuff or you don't; no second guessing. It was loud and moving and melodic and exhilarating. Of course, Ghindin received a standing ovation.

The finale was Johannes Brahms' Symphone No. 2 in D Major. The Allegro non troppo (first movement of four) brought out Brahms' melancholy mood, and was even more evident as the second movement (Adagio non troppo) transitioned into a minor key. Throughout this work, Brahms incorporated the use of many (solo and group) instruments, as is displayed in the Allegretto Grazioso (Scherzo). By the fourth movement, the orchestra had blasted to a fantastic fanfare. The only thing missing on this evening were fireworks.

January 11, 2010

Almost, Maine

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through February 14, 2010
by Shera Cohen

"Almost, Maine" is charming, delightful, funny, and sweet. "Almost, Maine" is also poignant, sad, powerful, and harsh. This is a non-existent town located in northern Maine where, on a Friday night, one can see the beauty of the aurora borealis lights, taste moose paddies, and fall in or out of love.

John Cariani's dialogue is as crisp as the cold winter night setting. Scene after scene offers the opportunity for clichéd one-liner responses between characters. Yet, the playwright takes the story on a more difficult path. Lines are tossed back and forth, seemingly on one level - then the surprise, or a series of surprises. Cariani's work is clever as he balances the literal meaning of words with ways in which humans understand them; i.e. "falling in love" does not mean to fall on the ground…or does it?

The play is actually a series of vignettes, loosely strung together. Four actors portray many roles each. Every scene is a mini-play about a couple, with actors pairing off in as many ways as the math will permit. Equity actors Sandra Blaney and Dan Whelton perform with non-Equity players Kait Rankins and Tim Cochran. All actors are evenly matched in skill and versatility. To see the range of talent of each player is worth the ticket price. Any one of the foursome shifts from a half-crazed being to a sober and somber person in the time it takes to change a parka. Segues of fast scene changes and minimal props to create both indoor and outdoor settings seem easy, but are probably not. The constant backdrop of stars, projected moving titles, and music help set up each segment.

Director Keith Langsdale, for the most part, orchestrates his quartet smoothly within scenes and between them. On occasion, one actor completely blocks out another. As the play continues to run its course, this will undoubtedly be "fixed."

For theatergoers looking for a "real" play, "Almost, Maine" might not fit their expectations. However, for those seeking fine theatre starring four outstanding actors, a trip to the deep freeze of a pretend town in Maine is worth the trip.

January 6, 2010

In the Heights

The Bushnell, Hartford
through January 10, 2010
by Shera Cohen

While the title of "In the Heights" refers to New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, this is a musical that's high on life, dreams, challenges, and changes. The story may be universal for all eras, yet this is very much a contemporary show evidenced particularly by the multi-racial cast, songs that toss English and Spanish lyrics back and forth, and atypical choreography unlike any that Rodgers & Hammerstein, Mel Brooks, or the Disney staff could imagine.

First to be noticed is the set. Wow! Against the backdrop of the Washington Bridge are floor to ceiling tenements, quite real with cracks to see through windows, doors, and walls. Storefronts create the ground level, where most of the action takes place. Second noticed is Kyle Beltran as Usnavi (leading role) spouting a rap song about his life and community. This reviewer wasn't the only audience member to worry that the entire play would be rap, hip-hop, and generally not understood by anyone over age 25. Any reservation did not last long, as every word of Beltran's song was not only distinct, but carried the plotline forward. While hip-hoppers jumped and jived all over the stage, this was true to their characters. Twentysomethings are not going to waltz or do precision can-can.

The dialogue is minimal, as the songs flow one after each other, with each better and more rousing that the last. There is the usual showstopper - "$96,000" - surprisingly followed by four more showstoppers. It is hard to keep up with and equally hard to stop clapping. Each actor is given his/her moment in the sun. Those in the roles of Benny, Nina, Carla, Sonny and Nina instantly become individuals to like. Beltran's Usnavi is so charming and naïve that it's hard to resist the temptation to take him home as a pet.

Some of the plot of Act II is a bit disjointed, but minimally noticed against constant dancing that comes from nowhere and is contagious, the clever lighting, a pit band to beat the best of them, and one of the best touring companies to reach Hartford and the U.S.A.