Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 21, 2010

Orchestral Fireworks!

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
May 20, 2010
by Terry Larsen

The rich array of tone color, contributed by the diverse instrumentation of the generic symphonic ensemble, was on full display at the Belden Theater, to the delight of the receptive audience gathered there. An appreciation demonstrated by a well-earned standing ovation after the concert and a long, hearty round of applause for the musicians was led by Executive Director Kristen Philips. This concert was not merely flash and glitter; Maestro Edward Cumming designed a program of works chosen from the iconoclastic early 20th Century, with one exception that was emotionally and intellectually rewarding, as well as entertaining.

Music from Martinů's opera La Revue de Cuisine, jocular flapper era dances laced with American jazz and a dash of the ambience of a French sidewalk café, was charmingly rendered by a solo ensemble of violincello, violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano. This provided a rainbow of timbres in playful discourse. This miniature palette of color became magnified and intensified by the full orchestra in Sonata Set, and the conductor's arrangement of excerpts of violin sonatas by Charles Ives featuring violinist Karina Canellakis. This massive structure bursting with sonic bombast, quotes from American hymnody, and Ive's idiomatic harmonic language was beautifully enhanced by the lithe, silver lining of Canellakis' solo violin. Canellakis, a beautiful and very accomplished young woman with a tremendous future as soloist and conductor, returned after intermission to dazzle the audience with Introduction and Rondo Cappriccioso, Op. 28 by the 19th Century master Saint-Saëns. Her technique was sure, her expression loving and palpable. Finally, Maestro Cumming and the orchestra showered the room with a kaleidoscope of color, line, and contrasting mood as they played Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, a composition which helped launch his international reputation, or as Stravinsky said, "The Firebird radically altered my life.

It was a privilege and honor to be in the room with this music and these musicians during this presentation, especially knowing that present hard times have made an event like this all the more dear. Bravi!

May 17, 2010

"Simply Sinatra"-Steve Lippia

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
May 17, 2010
by Eric Sutter

The winds of change have not dampened the effect that Ol' Blues Eyes' music has had on popular American culture. Frank Sinatra has a timeless classy style that vocalist Steve Lippia affectionately interpreted in a loving tribute to the Chairman of the Board. Everything was fine as the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Lonnie Klein, performed a medley of Sinatra hits including the intro "Strangers In The Night" and "That's Life" with the brass leading the way for the lush strings.

Steve Lippia is one of the best interpreters of "standards" and traditional pop music. His energetic style and strong timbre of masculine voice combined to create a perfect blend of Sinatra swoon and up-tempo swing numbers. He is a native of Southington, CT but makes his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. His Vegas style shined brightly with a propulsive vocal prowess as he swung throught hits "I've Got The World On A String", "The Best Is Yet To Come" and "All The Way." Lippia's approach clearly lets hims shift from one style to another without violating the essence of Sinatra's music. He knew and loved these songs, and Lippia's comfort level allowed him to treat them as good friends. The lively "Cheek To Cheek" swung gently. "Witchcraft" was simply as smooth as silk and elicited a mental "ahh." The strings and piano accented "It Was A Very Good Year" nicely.

Jeff Homes stood out on piano as he rolled into the Cole Porter classic, "I've Got You Under My Skin." The audience was touched by the lyrical singing quality of "Send In The Clowns." An animated conductor closed the first half with Lippia singing the swingin' blues of "That's Life."

Lippia connected deeply with a barrage of hits in the second half -- "The Lady Is A Tramp", "Come Fly With Me", "Fly Me To The Moon" and "Luck Be A Lady" all conveyed the haunting Sinatra sound. The smooth tone of "My Way" registered sweetly. A not surprising encore was the soulful sing-a-long "New York, New York." This was quality entertainment for Springfield.

May 14, 2010

Little Shop of Horrors

Greene Room Productions, Northampton, MA
through May 16, 2010
by Shera Cohen

There are two things wrong with "Little Shop of Horrors." 1) This delightful, humorous, sci-fi musical comedy only runs for one weekend. 2) The programs give no actor bios. The first problem is a big one, because those who have not seen advertisements, are familiar with Greene Room, and/or read Spotlight reviews will have missed this community theatre gem. The second problem is smaller, although it would be helpful to read about the actors' backgrounds.

Three ever-present "doo-op" gals sing 50's girl group numbers as they take the audience from scene to scene. These Skid Row alumnae dress alike, prance alike, and are always in synch. The little shop is a flower store where wonders begin to happen - some good, some bad, all hysterically funny. The three main characters are stereotypes: the Jewish boss Mushnik, the ditzy bleached blonde Audrey, and the nebbish Seymour. The fourth star, and certainly the largest in girth, is the carnivorous vegetation Audrey II.

Audiences can count on Luis Manzi to turn in exceptional performances. He does not disappoint, although sometimes his singing talents seem a little too good for his self-deprecating Seymour. Young actor Ryan Duchesne fools us as the 60-something, brow beating Mushnik. While portraying her caricature well, Andrea Wilson is often inaudible. Steve Pierce chews up the scenery and spews it out in the spit-sink, as The Dentist.

Kudos go to the voice of Audrey II, aka The Plant, and her/its manipulator; Kasey Greene and James-Ethan Linton, respectively. This "thing" grows from tiny to gigantic. One would expect such design and costume building from a professional theatre troupe with lots of money. Obviously, producer Erin Greene, director David Wallace, et al, spared no work or dollars to give Audrey II life.

A skilled quartet of musicians, headed by Elisabeth Weber, sets the background for ballads like "Suddenly Seymour" and rock numbers like "Feed Me." These songs, and the rest in the musical, are strewn with lyrics that could stand alone in comedy routines. It's not too late to get to the flower shop, but remember - don't feed the plants!

May 13, 2010

Annie Get Your Gun

The Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through July 3, 2010
by R.E. Smith

Truly the Goodspeed must have magical powers. How else is there to explain the method by which the venerable theatre can fit all the energy of a big top, Wild West show into its compact space? But then it is the vivid characters and intimate songs that really fill the stage in the classic "Annie Get Your Gun," a loosely based account of the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

The list of immortal Irving Berlin songs comprising the score starts with "There's No Business Like Show Business" and proceeds, non-stop, to "Anything You Can Do". Every song is extremely well served by the talent. Jenn Gambatese, late of Broadway's Tarzan, brings a clear, pure voice to rough and tumble, sweet and innocent Annie. She effortlessly switches from steely-sharp marksmen to moon-eyed infatuation at the drop of a clay pigeon. Kevin Earley, as Annie's rival/romantic interest Frank Butler, has an easy charm and precise comic delivery. Earley's tremendous, classic, singing voice causes delighted nods of approval every time he starts a number.

Andrew Cao and Chelsea Morgan Stock as romantic ingénues Tommy and Winnie make a delightful, winning couple (SEE PHOTO). Cao has a physical presence, winning smile and boundless energy that make him a delight to watch, even in the background. Stock was spunky, determined and light on her feet. Their energetic song and dance "I'll Share It All With You," choreographed atop a train car, is an Act I highlight.

Working from the Peter Stone update of the original Herbert and Dorothy Fields script, the show features not only timeless songs, but also witty banter and sharp dialogue. Director Rob Ruggiero's pacing is intelligent and quick, and the staging features delightful techniques to illustrate Annie's sharpshooting skills.

From the moment the audience walks into the theatre and is greeted by the authentic set, taking one inside the tent of the Buffalo Bill's show, it is clear that everyone is in for a delightful evening of musical theatre without a single false note.

May 11, 2010

Lucia di Lammermoor

Commonwealth Opera
Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
by Terry Larsen

Receptive audiences gathered at the venerable Academy of Music to witness Commonwealth Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Premiered in 1835 and now one of the most popular operas in the canon, Lucia di Lammermoor is a tale of the tragic, untimely deaths of two young lovers as a result of the ambitious machinations of their antagonistic families

Lucia, a role revived for 20th Century audiences by renowned sopranos Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and on this occasion sung beautifully with supple tone and agility by Andrea Chenoweth, is forced by her ambitious brother Enrico to marry the politically well connected Arturo, capably sung by Giovanni Formisano, rather than her true love Edgardo, the scion of a rival family. Anton Belov's performance as Enrico was one of the highlights of the day. His confident stage presence and strong, balanced voice provided the motivation for plot and glue for the musical setting. Paul Soper as Raimondo, Lucia's tutor, the conflicted "insider" with feet in both camps, provided a tender and well crafted performance. Joseph Holmes and Gloviry Arroyo brought flesh to their roles in support of Enrico and Lucia. Unfortunately, Jin Ho Hwang seemed to struggle as Edgardo. He has a burly, robust sound, but his singing seemed strained in the high range, occasionally producing a puzzling, raspy quality. The members of the small chorus and the orchestra of about 30 players, led with clarity and vigor by Ian Watson, deserve kudos for their contributions.

The lyrical quality of music of the bel canto style provides a challenge to stage direction. The music is so melodically and harmonically pleasant, so tuneful, that the staging must deliver strong visual cues to deliver the pathos of the tortuous, cynical plot. The stage direction of this rendition of the play seemed somewhat static, particularly in the famous "mad scene" where the expectations of her family, which contradict her own desires, drive Lucia to insanity.

All in all, however, the company provided a passionate, heated 17th Century respite from a blustery spring day in the 20th Century.

May 10, 2010

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
through May 16, 2020
by Shera Cohen

It's not necessary to be knowledgeable about stories of the Old Testament to enjoy Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's early creative collaboration of "Joseph." In fact, it is probably helpful to set all remembrances of Sunday school learning aside. Very loosely based on the tale of Jacob and his 12 sons, one of whom is Joseph, is this delightful energetic musical.

Wilbraham United Players (WUP) takes on the large task of mounting the 30+ member cast in a very small stage space at the pulpit of a church. Kudos go to director Deborah Trimble and choreographer Dina Del Buono for their collaboration with each other and with the cast of singers and dancers in this fast-paced, non-stop production. It seems as if every inch of space is utilized, as actors - initially seated in the audience - jump from their seats to become characters in the aisles and onstage.

While titled, "Joseph…," the star is the narrator played by Carolyn Averill. An Anne Hathaway look-alike with a lovely soprano voice, Averill leads her young "flock" of adorable child singers who are onstage, through every scene. This is community theatre at its best as local youth become actively involved.

The orchestra of seven is so professionally skilled that it could (and should) be hired by area restaurants, nightclubs, and outdoor festivals. However, it does not quite belong in the same venue as the cast. Summing it up - too loud. Solos such as Joe's "Close Every Door" and Pharaoh's "Stone the Crows" are nearly inaudible for those seated further back than the fourth row. Yet the ensemble pieces like the brothers' fun "Those Canaan Days" are unscathed by the belting music, and/or acoustic problems inherent in the facility. Indeed, the group numbers fair especially well, particularly in the endings of Act I and II. Recommendation to the musicians: turn down the synthesizers and percussion.

Watch for Anthony Yacovone (brother Judah) as a young man destined for fame on any theatre stage. His "Benjamin Calypso" is one of the highlights of the evening. He's enthusiastic, humorous, and commands stage presence while never upstaging.

Enchanted April

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through April 22, 2010
By Stacie Beland

"Enchanted April," performed by the Suffield Players, is a simple story of wanting more when more seems out of reach. In dreary London of 1922, four very different women who scarcely know each other somehow manage to arrange a trip to stay in a castle in Italy for the month of April. The lure of wisteria, warmth, and sunshine pull the women to this beautiful location, each for very different reasons. When they arrive, the site begins to change the women in different ways. It seems to settle them all, as if the castle holds the key to fulfilling the loses these women have endured.

The production itself is beautiful, thanks especially to the lavish set design of Konrad Rogowski and Robin Balaska. The stage magically transforms from dour, grey London to a piazza on the grounds of the castle, filled with light and flowers. The costuming, by Dawn McKay and Rebecca Murray, deserves a special mention as the perfect anchor to the play. Problematically on opening night, blackouts in between scenes run long, which has an impact on the flow of the production, though the effective sound design helps.

Director Dustin Sleight has sculpted a fine ensemble of characters out of a refreshing script. Vanda Doyle's Lotty Wilton is portrayed with a mixture of childlike imagination and a sense of frantic urgency. She's a delight to watch, though occasionally the rapid-fire frenetic nature of line delivery impacts the audiences' ability to understand her. Karen Balaska's Lady Caroline Bramble is a charmingly complicated flapper, Anna Marie Johansen gives life to the severe Mrs. Graves, and Amy Rucci is a joy as her Rose Arnott blossoms from being repressed to fulfilled. The supporting cast, too, join together to infuse this production with a breath of spring air.

The Secret Garden

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through May 23, 2010
by Shera Cohen

While in its infancy as a theatre group, the Opera House Players' production of "The Secret Garden" can easily hold a proverbial candle to professional productions. One would not expect much upon entering this old venue. It is dark, the seats need reupholstering, and the actors stand outside (no matter what the weather) as there is no backstage. Pity the place, but not the performances.

Based on the classic children's novel, is the story of Mary Lennox, orphaned at age 10, about to live in England with a stranger, her Uncle Archibald. In this place is mystery and mysticism, accentuated by an interweaving story of Mary's roots in India and ghosts of the cholera epidemic. The two places and their characters never physically touch, yet come so close, as the plot is revealed. Director Sharon FitzHenry's placement and movement of her 20 actors is thoughtful and extraordinary.

Hollis Long portrays Mary whose bravado hides her sadness. Mary seeks friendship, love, and a home without ever admitting it. Growth in a character is difficult for any adult actor, let along a youngster like Long. Perhaps cliché, but Long is at the helm of a dream cast. Carl Calhoun's (Archibald) exquisite tenor voice, especially when coupled with that of Keith Johnson's (his brother) baritone in their duet "Lily's Eyes," is the showstopper worth the price of admission. The eye of affection of both gentlemen is long-deceased Lily. In this ever-present onstage role is Melissa Dupont, whose voice and every nuance exudes love and hope. Amy Facey's (Martha) wholesomeness rings delightful, and Scott Gilbert's (Dickon) charm oozes unassumingly.

It is difficult to find any flaw in this production. The only suggestion would be to add more flowers and greenery to the garden scene, and perhaps a scrim awash with bright color.

Not to be omitted is the pit band, led by Bill Martin, who continues to maintain his reputation as one of the best musical directors in community theatre.

Everyone deserves a bit of earth, a garden, a home with love. Archibald and Mary find theirs together. Audiences can find their own by entering "The Secret Garden."

May 3, 2010

A Night of Beethoven

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
May 1, 2010
by Debra Tinkham

The closing of the 66th classical season of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra began with Ludwig v. Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major. Working on this composition at a young age, Beethoven did not complete or perform it until he was age 30.

Melodically flowing and beautiful, this short Adagio moved into the second movement with impressive dynamics. Next, the Menueto went off at a rapid tempo, with musical complexity, and certainly not your typical waltz style. The fourth and final movement sounded very Vienna-like. After all, that was Beethoven's favorite place. The orchestra seemed to be having too much fun and it was a movement with codas that didn't want to end.

Symphony No. 9, Beethoven's last, was completed with many changes throughout its evolution, and finally performed shortly before the composer's death. This symphony was inclusive of the Springfield Symphony Chorus and the Springfield College Singers -- a culmination of over 150 voices. The stage was full. In addition, the four featured soloists: Mary Wilson, soprano; Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano; Alan Schneider, tenor and Gustav Andreassen, bass, made their entrances to Ode To Joy in the fourth movement, resulting in a very full, robust, beautiful sound.

This five movement symphony is very complex and as Maestro Kevin Rhodes said, "…is one of those rare pieces that only gets better and more meaningful with each hearing." The Allegro was pastoral and, at times, march-like. It appeared that Rhodes was asking the orchestra for more - something he doesn't usually need to do. The lower/larger strings had a nice ascending/descending pizzicato run, with several recapitulations. Molto vivace gave the strings a good finger workout, accompanied by strong, persistent tympani. Adagio molto e cantabile began with brass and, true to its name, was very pastoral and spiritual. The violas had a nice solo turn during this third movement.

Finally, the fourth movement featured cellos, starting this very familiar Ode To Joy tune, then added bass, chorus, soloists and percussion, making for a very dynamic crescendo. Each performer gave his/her all, and Rhodes seemed to emit love from every beat.

May 1, 2010

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
May 1, 2010
by Stacie Beland

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a fairly new company with an already extensive repertoire from the most influential choreographers in the world, presented a stunning showcase of four pieces. The program, which featured unconnected works each by a different choreographer, was tightly bound together by common themes and powerful dancing. Though ballet sometimes has a reputation for being somewhat boringly pretty, these powerful works were nothing short of spectacular.

The first, In Hidden Seconds, choreography by Nicolo Fonte, used stage haze - a shared responsibility of stage design between the choreographer and the lighting designer to create a mood of mystical transition. This powerful show opener presented the company in a stunning exhibition of movement that fluidly moved from staged anarchy to entropy to harmony and back again. It was a riveting, haunting piece.

Twyla Tharp's Sue's Leg followed -- a joyful piece, bolstered by the music of Thomas "Fats" Walker. The dancers, costumed rather contemporarily in khakis and muted colors, moved as though there was a sly and subtle amount of flirtatious underscoring. The controlled actions included a few well-placed finger snaps, winks, and easy movements that highlighted the breezy fun of the choreography.

Slingerland showcased the choreography, lighting design, and costuming by William Forsythe. A contemporary pas-de-deux took a ballerina and her male partner through a series of movements while keeping their hands tightly clasped together the entire time. There was a sense of "catch and release" through each tableau. It was a stirring and beautifully executed.

Lastly, the audience was treated to a work by Jorma Elo. Red Sweet, performed by the company, paired the music of Vivaldi and Biber with calculated, intricate movement. A work of passion, it's comprised of tight scenes of control, release, and play. As the music became bigger, so to did the movements; during the silences of transition between music, Elo set movement with poignancy.

It was a night of stunning, powerful dance -- a visual treat for anyone who stood witness to it. Aspen Santa Fe has leapt into the world of dance and is here to stay.