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.