Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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. 

October 6, 2010

Red Carpet Gala

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
October 2, 2010
by Terry Larsen

SSO opened its 67th season with a flourish of television lights, an honor guard, a handsomely attired audience…oh, and a red carpet at the entrance. Maestro Rhodes, who began his10th season as Music Director and Conductor, and the orchestra received a rousing standing ovation in tribute to their work together over the past decade. Rhodes stated that the reason for "the nine happiest years of my life" to the musicians arrayed on stage. The evening ended with a reception in the Mahogany Room.

Glorious music erupted in the middle of these festivities, beginning with Henri Duparc's tender Poème nocturne, Aux Étoiles (to the stars), featuring a lovely solo played by principal cellist Jonathon Lewis. Although the Duparc is a surprising choice to open such an event, it provided dreamy ballast to Samuel Barber's pyrotechnic Piano Concerto, Op. 38, which pianist Christopher Atzinger played with precision and gusto. The orchestration for the Concerto prominently featured the wind section and extreme use of dissonance without succumbing to the serial techniques so prominent in the works of many composers in the mid-20th century. This dissonance and the varied timbre of the winds could be rendered in an angular manner, and the ensemble provided a facile performance fully complementary to Atzinger's playing, all of which served the lyric nature typical of Barber's works. It must be said, however, that the timbre of the keyboard seemed somewhat muffled from this reviewer's seat under the left balcony of the orchestra.

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 was a vast sea of surging string sonorities rising from the depths of the double basses through the range to the crests of the higher strings, all crowned with a resplendent aurora of gleaming brass. The hint of a folk song and a military gallop might be discerned in the second and fourth movements. The monumental third movement rendered anything other than cantabile strings, rampant above the vast floor of pedal tones in the basses, as mere flotsam and jetsam. This awesome, epic piece was beautifully served by this fine orchestra and its dynamic leader.