Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 7, 2011

The Santaland Diaries

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through December 30, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Ryan Winkles is just so cute. He looks like a flirtatious cherub. Even Winkles’ name is cute. It is no surprise that he is cast as Crumpet the Elf in “The Santaland Diaries.” Yet, don’t look for your usual holiday sweetness and charm (both of which are quite evident in Winkles’ talent) in this one-act play with a season appropriate title. Instead, expect comedy, satire, risqué dialogue, and some pointed jabs at reality.

Playwright David Sedaris penned “Diaries” based on his own experiences as an elf at Macy’s in NYC. Wrinkles portrays a wannabe actor whose dream is to be cast on “One Life to Live.” He chronologically relates the detailed processes of how one becomes an elf. In the first seconds of the play, Director Tony Simotes immediately opens the fourth wall, exposing Winkles to his audience. He plays with us, jumps up the aisles, and asks questions. He has us at “hello.” Simotes and Winkles have been a creative team for several years. They are so in sync that their jobs seem incredibly easy.

The script is clever, the anecdotes are gems, and the story has a point from start to finish. Amid the fun and oftentimes side-splitting humor, are surprisingly serious moments. These ebb and flow smoothly and return to the humor. Is the real Santa white or black? How do parents behave and respect their kids in public? These are subjects to think about, but later.

Although Winkles seemingly portrays one character, he becomes many – chief elf instructor, a smart aleck Santa, a whinny child, and many more. How does he do this while dressed, for most of the play, in a bright multi-colored elf uniform? The answer? Perhaps better than any actor in the Pioneer Valley, Winkles uses his face, particularly his smile and his eyes. A curl of the lip, a darting glance “say” far more than pages of script.

If audiences have as much fun watching “Santaland Diaries” as opening night’s crowd, and as much fun as Ryan Winkles aka Crumpit the Elf exudes, then it’s a new and great way to spend the holidays.

December 6, 2011


Close Encounters with Music 
Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
December 4, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

Franz Liszt’s 200th birthday anniversary converged with the 20th anniversary season of Close Encounters with Music in a program entitled “Lisztomania.” Cellist and CEWM Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani prefaced the concert with an entertaining and informative 10-minute lecture about Liszt, the composer-pianist who became a Catholic priest late in life but never gave up his close friendships with many notable women (Hanani quipped, “he wore the habit but didn’t kick the habit”).

The program featured several of the solo piano works for which Liszt is best known, opening with the lovely “Two Legends” in sensitive performances by Jeffrey Swann, who later played the flamboyant “Les Jeux d’Eau a la Villa d’Este” with color and panache. Hanani joined Swann to present five more piano originals that Liszt himself transcribed for cello and piano. Most striking was “La Lugubre Gondola,” a late piece in which Hanani’s dark tone emphasized its early hints of atonality.  His expressive playing brought a mellower sound to the charming “Romance Oubliee” and three romantic “Consolations.” Swann was a virtuosic accompanist.

To end the concert’s first half, Swann was joined by violinist Yehonatan Berick for a scintillating account of Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” in a transcription for violin and piano. Saint-Saens was one of many fellow composers whom Liszt generously promoted throughout his life.

After intermission, all three principals closed the concert with Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 2,” whose classical structure and emotional restraint contrasted sharply with the rhapsodic freedom of Liszt. But this passionate reading showed that both composers could express deep feeling with different resources. Hearing Liszt on the same program with music by two of his contemporaries gave the audience a nicely rounded portrait of his life and times.

As both speaker and performer, Hanani is an engaging personality, but the program book could have included some notes about the music to expand on his introductory comments. This is a small caveat about an upcoming season of concerts by Close Encounters with Music that all feature a distinguished roster of world-class musicians performing at the Mahaiwe and other Berkshire venues.   

December 5, 2011


Unitarian Society, Springfield & Monson, MA
through December 11, 2011

by Felicity Hardy
There are some shows that appear often in the area. "Godspell" is one of those musicals. The loose structure of the show itself, which is told as a series of parables demonstrated by Jesus, John the Baptist/Judas, and a ragtag group of clown-like disciples, is one left wide open for interpretation and reinvention. The one thing that can be said of "Godspell" is that the same version is rarely done twice.

Director Kathleen Delaney takes this a step further with a complete reinvention of the musical's structure. In addition to Jesus' main band of followers, she has added a Greek chorus, led by the mostly-silent character "Evry1" (played with mystery and commitment by Joshua Farber) designed to be "yang" to Christ's "ying." The chorus seems to have its own story to tell, at times antagonistic and at times adoring, but the already somewhat abstract structure of the show is both helped and hurt by this aspect. This abstractness adds further confusion to a story already struggling to tell itself clearly, but also delivers exciting visuals and innovative staging.

Another departure is the inclusion of "environments" – a series of vignettes introducing each of Jesus' followers as individuals, providing snippets of backstory. While the sequence is drawn out, and perhaps could have been better served with all actors on stage with scene shifts designated through lighting changes, it clarifies these characters.

Steve Pierce makes for a charming and charismatic Jesus, humble, funny, and personable in a way that makes it clear why the rest of the characters want to listen to him. Michael Lorenzo is brooding and dark as John the Baptist, serving as the group's sardonic rebel and lending both humor and drama. The rest of the group is a dynamic and cohesive ensemble, each with distinct personalities. By the play’s conclusion, they do feel like a family, and their chemistry as a unit is what makes for an emotional journey. 

This version of "Godspell" is one that takes risks in order to reinvent itself. Not all of these risks are successful, but the overall message of love and hope is still intact. It is a passionate and sincere production. 

Holiday Masterworks

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through December 4, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

As Music Director of the Hartford Chorale since 2006, Richard Coffey was no stranger to the Hartford Symphony when he led the orchestra in an imaginative program of three “Holiday Masterworks,” the third program in their 2011-2012 “Masterworks” concert series.

Even with no apparent holiday connection, a lively reading of Glinka’s exuberant “Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla” opened the concert on an appropriately festive note. Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 1 from The Nutcracker” was a more familiar but always welcome holiday treat, especially in the HSO’s glistening account. From the delicate celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the sweeping harp in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” every musician played with obvious affection for each movement at Maestro Coffey’s ideally balanced tempos. A snowflake projected across the wall behind the stage added another nice seasonal touch.
After intermission the orchestra was joined by the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and three soloists in the HSO’s first ever performance of the rarely heard Christmas cantata “Hodie” (This Day) by Vaughan Williams. Dating from 1954, this hour-long piece was the composer’s last major choral-orchestral work. Its 16 short movements alternate between settings of Biblical texts about the Christmas story for children’s chorus and settings of poems by various authors for mixed combinations of chorus and soloists.

The performance by all forces was brilliant. The very full orchestra reveled in the music’s wide range of moods and sonorities, from the grandeur of the opening chorus to the jubilant finale. Hushed settings of “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy and a “Pastoral” by George Herbert were the emotional heart of the piece, and both were movingly sung by baritone Eric Downs. Tenor Eric Barry was appealing of voice and clear of diction, and soprano Stephanie Gilbert’s singing was radiant. The adult choristers were magnificent throughout, while the children sang with purity and charm. 

Full texts were included in the program book, but they would have been easier to follow with projected subtitles. Still, the audience was clearly grateful to hear a thrilling new discovery by a 20th century master. 

December 2, 2011

4 Sides of 40

CityStage, Springfield, MA
November 29, 2011
by K.J. Rogowski

CityStage’s “4 Sides of 40,” delves into the trials and tribulations of  four individuals  and the lives they lead as…forty and single, forty and newly married, forty and long time married with kids, and, of course, forty and divorced. This humorous walk through the possible perils of forty is told in an evening with four stand up comics, each with their own style and routine, and each with a tale of woe.

The cast members -- Lenny Marcus, Al Ducharme, Eric McMahon, and Patty Rosborough -- are tried and tested stand up comics, who not only deliver their funny and very salty routines, but also encourage audience participation, ranging from comic movie trivia quizzes, to hugging audience members, (watch out if you sit in the front row), to calling attention to anyone who dares to leave for the bathroom during the show (since there is no intermission), which feeds right into that running gag.

This is a production about adults. For those who attend, be aware, this is an adults only show. The stories deal with all aspects of relationships from the mundane to the intimate, and no topic is spared, told in colorful detail. Name a body part, and it's in there; name a bodily function, and it's in there; name something you don’t think they would dare say, and they’ll say it.

But it is all done for the humor and not to shock or offend, and that’s what makes this evening of comedy that folks can relate to work. It's four folks just telling their stories, like they would to any trusted group of 300 friends. Letting their hair down and cranking the humor up. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 4 sides of 40.

November 30, 2011

In Memorium--Emily List

A lovely, local theatre actress, and "In the Spotlight" writer died this week. She was only 26-years-old, fought cancer as hard as she was able (while still reviewing), but lost.  She will be missed by many.
Read the Hampshire Gazette's obituary on Emily List. It's a beautiful commentary on this talented young woman. 

November 29, 2011

Rock of Ages

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
December 8, 2011
by Eric Sutter

Shannon Mullen
Set in L.A.'s infamous Sunset Strip in 1987, "Rock of Ages" tells the story of Drew, a boy from South Detroit and Sherrie, a small town girl. Both are in L.A. to chase their dreams of making it big and falling in love. This feel good, five-time Tony Award nominated musical is in its second National tour. Shannon Mullen portrays Sherrie. In the Spotlight (ITS) caught up with Shannon to get her viewpoint on this retro 80's rock musical.

ITS: Let's first ask how you got your start in the music business.
 Shannon: I worked hard at roles as Tammy in “Hairspray” and then as Brooke in “Legally Blonde,” in which I was assigned dance captain.

ITS: How did you get the break to play the lead role of Sherrie in this tour of "Rock of Ages"?
 Shannon: Very lucky! I knew the type of singing style I was capable of - this rock belter style in the show. I made a video and sent it to the casting director in New York. I was at SUNY in Buffalo in 2009. Two days before rehearsals for "Rock of Ages," I got a call. After callbacks, I got the role. I was ecstatic and cried a lot.

ITS: How is the fourth wall broken between cast and audience?
 Shannon: The character Lonnie, who is our narrator, talks directly to the audience.

ITS: Do you have a favorite song?
Shannon: Yes, the duet with Drew, “High Enough.”

ITS: Who inspired you to sing?
Shannon: My fun uncle was a child of the 80's and played this music when I was a little girl. Later, Celine Dion became a role model. Now, the music from any Broadway show, especially “Hairspray” and “The Lion King,” has influenced me.

ITS: Any humorous anecdotes to share?
Shannon: Lots, but a moment between Dominique Scott (Drew) and myself, as we exit on opposite sides and pass each other to reappear on stage...we catch the glimmer that keeps us going.

ITS: Any future aspirations for Shannon Mullen?
Shannon: Absolutely! Bring on anything with song and dance. "Don't Stop Believin'."

This show is intended for an audience members age 14 and above.

November 24, 2011

Peter Pan

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 27, 2011
by Walt Haggerty

Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan has become almost as traditional as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade…and she's marvelous! Rigby is no stranger to the "boy who refuses to grow up" and it appears that, now in her fourth tour, that she is equally ageless.

In the current production, Cathy Rigby is constantly in motion - somersaults, cart wheels, twists, turns, and of course, flying - oh yes, especially flying. It would be difficult to imagine a more exuberant or, in fact, endearing portrayal of Peter Pan.

Finding an equally talented actor to fill the dual roles of Mr. Darling and the "slimiest villain of all,"Captain Hook, had to have been nearly insurmountable. However, in Tom Hewitt, success was achieved with a flourish. From tango to tarentella, to waltz, Captain Hook triumphs. Only in his duel with Peter is he undone.

Kim Crosby gives an endearing performance as the mother of the Darling children, balancing her concern for them with respect and understanding for their overwrought father. Crosby is also effective as the grown up Wendy.  Krista Bucellato as young Wendy is delightful, overflowing with tender concern for her brothers and the Lost Boys. Cade Canon Ball (John) and Julia Massey (Michael) perform admirably as Wendy's brothers, each adding special distinctive touches of humor, with Massey a particular standout in the big Act II dance number.

James Leo Ryan, as Hook's sidekick Smee, is the soul of subservience with humor. Clark Roberts, without ever showing his face as either Nana or the Croc, creates distinctive personalities for each as he effortlessly steals each scene. Jenna Wright, as Tiger Lily and rescuer of Peter, charms the audience with her dancing and acting. The music and dance throughout are superb, perfect supplements to the original James Barrie story.

The joy of all participants, principals, Lost Boys, pirates, Indians, et al is evident throughout and rewarded vociferously by a capacity audience. Some final words  -- "Peter Pan" is a pleasure for all ages. If an excuse is needed to attend, borrow some children, but go and enjoy.

November 23, 2011

Still Black, Still Proud-An African Tribute to James Brown

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
Great Barrington, MA
November 20, 2011
by Eric Sutter

An explosively warm presentation of soul funk that turned hot was displayed through saxophonists Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker, along with other guest artists of African origin. Both are legendary alumni of the James Brown Band. The Godfather of Soul would be proud of classics like "Soul Power," furthering his legacy in this exploration of the connection between his music and modern African music. In particular, "No Discrimination" was a socially conscious Afro-Beat number.

Singer-songwriter South African activisit Vusi Mahlasela sang joyous African folk songs in his highly melodic and tonal voice which blended highs and lows exquisitely. Themes of struggle for freedom and reconciliation with enemies dominated the lyrics. He spoke of "Ubuntu" which translates to the philosophy of the African ethic of "I am what I am because of who we all are." Known as "The Voice" in his home country, he proved his title with a beautiful version of the #1 R&B song of 1959 "Try Me." The doo-wop style and a double sax solo dominated.

Vocalist Fred Cross did a bang up job as he channeled James Brown's ecstatic vocal ambiance of the African-American church with "Baby, Baby, Baby" as he danced to the syncopated beat. "A Barama" lit up the stage with African percussion instruments and a chant led by Senegalese musician Cheikh Lo. He danced in the soukous style which translates to "shake," similar to an African version of the Rumba. "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" featured Lo on vocals accompanied by the gospel sound keyboards of Peter Madsen and the funky downbeat of Maceo Parker's sax.

"Say It Loud, I'm Black, I'm Proud" showcased Cross, Lo and Mahlasela in traded lead vocals from each other's respective African heritages in this rendition of this late 60's civil rights anthem. The hard driving brassy jazz swing of "We Want The Funk" ended the evening on a literal high note of Pee Willis sax and dancing in the aisles. The troupe encored with the 70's James Brown Band "Pass The Peas," led by soul man Maceo Parker's singing and hot horn blasts.

November 21, 2011

Magna Opera

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 10-13, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

For the second “Masterworks” series of her debut year, Music Director Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in an exciting program of opera excerpts by five composers, featuring three overtures and two complete semi-staged acts.

A rousing performance of Wagner’s dramatic "Flying Dutchman Overture" captured the eerie mood of that composer’s first successful opera and set the stage for Act III of Verdi’s "La Traviata," in which Violetta is reunited with her estranged lover, Alfredo, later joined by his father, Germont, only to die of consumption at the opera’s close. The 35-minute scene was movingly rendered by students in the Yale Opera program at Yale University, with only Violetta’s bed, a table, and two chairs as unobtrusive props.

After intermission, Kuan began the second half of the program with a lively account of the playful Overture to Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."  Next came the 20-minute Act III of Puccini’s "La Boheme," which finds the lovers Rodolfo and Mimi reuniting after an argument and their friends Marcello and Musetta separating after an argument.  A mostly different cast of Yale students again turned in beautifully engaging performances. The concert ended on a high note with Offenbach’s exuberant "Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld," whose diverse elements of humor, pomp, and dance Kuan unified into a brilliant whole.

All the artists were excellent, with special praise to soprano Jamilyn Manning-White (Violetta) and baritone Cameron McPhail (Germont, Marcello), whose gorgeous voices and nuanced acting skills make them talents to watch. The orchestra, too, sounded wonderful throughout, from Wagner’s blazing brass, to the lush strings of Verdi’s prelude, to Offenbach’s many solo turns.

A number of empty seats suggested that some HSO patrons may have feared the prospect of a night at the opera. They needn’t have worried, as the Maestra’s concise and earthy introductions to both acts summarized the main characters and the action preceding the staged scenes. Her explanation of Offenbach’s uniquely comic take on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was hilarious. The appreciative audience applauded all three of these pieces with standing ovations.

November 14, 2011


Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through November 27, 2011
by Walter Haggerty

There's magic in the air in Broad Brook as the Opera House Players present Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" with an outstanding company. This treatment of the beloved fairy tale was conceived by R&H in 1957 as a special project for live television and served to introduce Julie Andrews to an audience of 107 million viewers in its single performance.

Broad Brook Players' production may not reach as large an audience, but it is no less enchanting. For adults and children in the area, this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity. The music is top drawer R&H with "Impossible," "Ten Minutes Ago I Met You," and "A Lovely Night" among the standouts. In addition to providing the lyrics, Hammerstein also wrote the book with a light and humorous touch.

Impressive performances are contributed by many cast members, most notably Caitlen Fahey, making her Broad Brook debut, in the title role. With seven numbers, she carries the heaviest musical burden performing each song beautifully. Warmth and humor best describe Fahey's characterization which easily captivates the audience.

David Climo and Julie Martini, as the King and Queen, manage their regal roles with great humor, balanced with a special tenderness that reflects their love and concern for their son. As Prince Christopher, Andrew Small is stalwart, handsome, and charming.every inch, a prince.

The trio of Stepmother and "ugly" stepsisters, portrayed by Reya Kieppel, Khara C. Hoyer, and Megan Graul, respectively, temper their "meanness" with enough humor and out-and-out silliness to reward the audience with much laughter.

Sara Steiner is a joy through her singing and nonsensical performance as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. Not to be overlooked are the contributions of two "magical" characters, Sprite and Pixie, played by Jessica Turgeon and Christine Zdebski, who contribute greatly to keeping the production moving forward seamlessly.

The entire cast is elegantly costumed by Moonyean Field; and Debora Curyla manages to make a quartet of musicians sound like a much larger ensemble. Barbara M. Washer, in her Broad Brook directorial debut, rates highest praise for a flawless, highly entertaining production.

Greater Tuna

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
“Greater Tuna”
through December 18, 2011
by K.J. Rogowski

“Greater Tuna,” by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, challenges both its actors and its audiences on several levels.

First, two actors must play a myriad of roles, requiring fast costume and faster character changes. Second, scenes deal with many topics, some just plain silly, and others of a hit close to home nature. Last, the challenge of the show is in which the direction the sets and props best succeed. In this case, basically, less is more. All of these facets must work together to achieve this show’s primary purpose -- a night of raucous comedy.

The Majestic’s production delivers on most of these, but misses some comic opportunities. James Hartman and J.T. Waite dash on and off stage, appearing in numerous funny costumes, depicting 20 of Tuna’s 26 inhabitants, which is no mean task. While most of the scenes/topics play well, several seem to miss that humor mark. For example, a KKK member delivering a diatribe on violence, or the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans has one impact on an audience, and it’s not funny. The possibility exists for the actor to portray the character and his messages with a tone that mocks both the character and the message, to deliver the pointed humor intended.

The ‘less is more’ factor, at times, makes the audience think ‘where are they, and what are they doing ’ before going on to get the laughs. Here the set is especially important, since it is comprised of only two kitchen tables, four chairs, and a radio. An example is when the designated ‘radio station’ table suddenly becomes another kitchen. The same happens regarding the use of props, since there are none. Virtually all props are pantomimed -- phones, violins, papers, dogs, and dishes -- except at the end when a gun just appears. With its funny folks and pointed humor, “Greater Tuna” should deliver greater laughs.

November 8, 2011

Barber, Schuman, & Rachmaninoff

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
November 5, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

SSO President Kris Houghton drew appreciative cheers when she welcomed the audience, many of whom had been without power at home for much of the previous week, to a warm and well-lit Symphony Hall for a concert that included one of conductor Kevin Rhodes’ “favorite pieces” and an “out of body experience” for 25-year-old Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang.

The program opened with Samuel Barber’s most popular piece, the Adagio for Strings, arranged by the composer for string orchestra from the slow movement of his string quartet.  Rhodes led a performance that was deeply moving for its simplicity and restraint. The strings sounded rich and full from the hushed opening to the powerful climax and the quiet conclusion.

Rhodes' told his audience that most would next be hearing William Schuman's Symphony No. 3 for the first time. The Maestro asked orchestra members to play specific themes, thus providing a helpful road map through this “uncharted territory.” The taut and incisive rendition of this 1941 composition perfectly captured the “optimism and perseverance in overcoming great odds” that Rhodes identified as its guiding spirit. While brass and percussion were most prominently featured, the strings again played wonderfully, and the symphony’s closing peroration was particularly exhilarating.   
Following intermission, Joyce Yang’s stunning appearance in a floor-length sleeveless red dress reinforced her thrillingly romantic interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. Her flowing tempo at the opening became more lingering and then quickened as the first movement developed, with Rhodes drawing some portamento from the strings before the soloist’s powerful cadenza. Yang’s reference to the piece in a recent interview as an “out of body experience” was supported by her precise and strongly physical technique, when she almost lifted her body off the bench at climaxes in all three movements. Rhodes led a scrupulously balanced accompaniment, with woodwinds and horns unusually audible.  

After receiving a standing ovation from the audience and a bouquet of roses from the Maestro, Yang extended the mood with an encore of Rachmaninoff specialist Earl Wild’s sumptuous arrangement of Gershwin’s "The Man I Love".

November 2, 2011


Shantala Shivalingapppa
UMass Fine Arts, Amherst, MA
October 28, 2011
by Barbara Stroup

Shantala Shivalingapppa brought a reverent and appreciative audience back in time to an Indian temple in her Bowker Auditorium presentation of Kuchipudi classical dance. Alone with four musicians on the stage, she both interpreted a narrative and made a religious statement with her choreography. Body movement was agile and athletic, hand and facial movement explicated a story, and she captured complete attention throughout.

As Ranjana Devi explained in her pre-concert talk on Indian classical dance, dance is theatre, and music is integral to it: "Without music there is no dance." Four musicians provided vocal expression of story line, flute embellishments, and percussion in absolute synchronization with Shantala's feet. They became a team of five and showed a total dedication to each other and to this art form. Its religious meaning was apparent to the largely western audience, even if the narrative was difficult to follow.

Kuchipudi dance is one of nine government-defined classical dance forms performed by women only, and is characterized by leaps and jumps. Shantala was costumed first in purple and then in white. Henna adorned her fingers and toes, making her long limbs appear even longer. The seven-part program began with an invocation to Ganesha, elephant-headed god of new beginnings and ended with Pasayadan, a prayer of peace and joy for all beings. The stage was mimimally decorated with diaphonous curtains and a small Shiva statue on one of several transparent shelves that floated above the floor.

Swayambhu was offered as part of the Asian Arts and Culture Program at UMass. Now almost 20 years old, the program includes diverse offerings to schools, audiences, and the general community. It illuminates the vast cultural heritage of many Asian and Middle Eastern countries by showcasing events and capturing touring artists for one-time performances here. Kudos to the Fine Arts Center for continuing to support this program.

Water by the Spoonful

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 13, 2011
by Kait Rankins

In this world premiere drama by Quiara Alegria Hudes, “Water by the Spoonful” seems like two separate plays: the first about an Iraq war veteran and his cousin coping with his mother’s death, and the second about a group of recovering drug addicts seeking support in an online chat room. The two storylines are revealed to be deeply intertwined by the end of Act I.

With a play that can easily trip over itself with its complicated settings and heavy subject matter, director Davis McCallum handles everything with a light touch. The settings ebb and flow with quick, quiet changes and shifts in lighting, and cyberspace settings are brilliantly presented with the characters’ avatars projected on the back panel. What could have been clunky and confusing is instead clear.

Hudes’ beautiful writing is wordy and complex, handled effortlessly by seven actors: Armando Riesco (Elliot), Zabryna Guevara (Yazmin), Lisa Colon-Zayas (Odessa), Theresa Avia Lim (Orangutan), Ray Anthony Thomas (Chutes&Ladders), Matthew Boston (Fountainhead), and Demosthenes Chrysan (Professor Aman/Ghost/Officer). In their hands, Hudes’ words are light and quick, between poetry and realistic dialogue, and yet never unnatural. The dramatic themes of addiction, parental neglect, post-traumatic stress, and mourning could  easily pass into self-indulgent melodrama, but they never cross that line. Instead, the result is both funny and heartbreaking, with characters that are easy to care about.

“Water” is about connection. Connecting with one’s family, connecting with strangers over long distances, and the bravery it takes to make (and repair) those bonds. The actors succeed not only connecting with each other, but with the audience, taking the audience on a journey of twists and turns and numerous storylines tied up together.

The second in a trilogy that begins with “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and will end with “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” “Water” leaves the audience wanting to know more about where the characters came from and where they will go. For audience members needing more, Hartford Stage provides copies of “Elliot” (autographed by the author) in the gift shop.

October 24, 2011

Mahler’s “Titan”

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
through October 23, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

In her “Masterworks” series debut as their first female and youngest Music Director, 34-year-old Taiwan-born conductor Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in a program that demonstrated her mastery of the Germanic core of the standard repertoire.

Written in 1794-1795, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19, reflected the classical style of Mozart’s late concertos, but its high spirits foreshadowed the mature Beethoven, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra in the Adagio foretold its more famous counterpart in the Fourth Concerto.  

The boyish looks of the 21-year-old soloist from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Behzod Abduraimov, belied his interpretive maturity.  He balanced measured tempos in the first two movements with a vigorous first movement cadenza and a romp through the final Rondo to achieve a performance of classical poise and grace.

After intermission, Kuan directed an impassioned account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, whose nickname, the “Titan,” has stuck although the composer stopped using it after several early performances. Kuan’s flexible tempos and dynamics heightened dramatic contrasts and accentuated the varied roots of Mahler’s inspiration, from Viennese ballrooms to klezmer bands in the third movement alone. Balances were transparent throughout the piece, so that the triangle and the harp, for example, could be clearly heard even in the loudest passages.
The orchestra has never sounded better. Though the horns in particular were challenged at times in the Mahler, they also turned in some of the evening’s finest playing in the first and last movements. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion were consistently impressive, and all the musicians seemed inspired by their charismatic new Maestra to play their best.

The audience was excited not only by Kuan’s physical energy and engaging personality, but by her spoken introduction to the Mahler, with musical examples played by the orchestra. These were brief but pointed, as when she illustrated repeating themes and Mahler’s belief that a symphony was a “world that must contain everything.”
This positive outreach to her community augurs well not only for the new HSO season but for the hopefully long duration of Kuan’s tenure in Hartford.

Jersey Boys

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 6, 2011
by Shera Cohen

“Oh, What a Night,” is not only the title of one of the Four Seasons’ hit songs, it is also the succinct description of the musical “Jersey Boys.” This chronological story of the creation of the group and the personalities of the men who made it happen is a non-stop, energetic, song filled retrospective. It puts faces to the names of the four young men from Jersey whose music has become instantly recognizable and loved.

It is no surprise that “Jersey Boys” (JB) won the Best Musical awards at the Tonies, Grammies, and Outer Critics Circle. As of July, 2011, 13 million people worldwide have loved JB. As of October 20, 2011 the number is now 13 million + 1. For those readers who are under age 20 and/or have lived in a cave for the past 40 years, the Four Seasons were one of the preeminent guy groups. Think “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Dawn” and try hard not to hum silently. It can’t be done!

Each member of the quartet narrates in four sections (aka seasons) the professional and personal highs and lows of the group and the individual men. The intertwining balance from dialogue to music and back again is seamless, as are the floating backdrops and sliding walls which set the eras apart. The boys inch their way from bowling alley gigs to empty nightclubs to eventual fame.

The main cast are superior singers who can also act. Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie) does well at playing shy; Preston Truman Boyd (Bobbie), the best actor of the troupe, portrays the amiable composer; Michael Lomenda (Nick) has a nice comic touch; and John Gardiner (Tommy) becomes the tough guy. More importantly, the audience wants to hear Bwarie’s falcetto coupled with the other’s skilled voices, and these boys sound as close to the real McCoy as possible. The show closes with “Who Loves You?” The answer: everyone in the Bushnell’s full house.

A note on theatre etiquette. It seemed, because of the nature of the music and story, that many in the audience were theatre newcomers. That’s wonderful – the more who support the arts the better. However, a professional venue like the Bushnell (or any other) is not the place to become inebriated and talk loudly throughout the entire performance. In spite of nicely asking our drinking neighbors to please be quite, being shrugged off, and then the house manager’s Herculean efforts ignored made for a tainted evening for what could have been a fabulous night at the theatre.

October 23, 2011

The Motherf#@ker With the Hat

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through December 4, 2011
by Jennifer Curran

It would seem that a play that cannot be named in polite company might be in need of a gimmick. Considering though that the playwright is Stephen Adly Guirgis, such nonsense is quickly put to bed. Within ten minutes it becomes abundantly clear that there really is no other title that would work. Add impeccable direction by Tazewell Thompson, a break-neck pace that never misses a beat and the result is a terrific show.

Donald Eastman's set design is a sparse outline with plenty of gray space for the actors to fill in the details. From Veronica's rumpled mattress on a bare floor, to Ralph and Victoria's Pier 1 Imports loveseat or Cousin Julio's lovingly attended to cart of lush green plants, the audience is roller-coasted from points A, B and C and back again.

At its very basics, “Hat” is a love story. Jackie (Ben Cole) and Veronica (Clea Alsip) have loved each other since the eighth grade, Ralph (Royce Johnson) and Victoria (Vanessa Wasche) are in a loveless marriage, Cousin Julio (Varin Ayala) may or not love his wife but his love of life and family keep Jackie in line.

The eviscerating verbal sparring lays bare the truth of each the characters: I do as I do and not as I say. There is much here about truth and honesty (one doesn't always have a lot to do with the other), addiction and recovery. There’s more in the script: being held accountable (or not) in a suffocating world where ignorance is far from bliss and language can't begin to communicate the complexities of these characters' struggle for love, understanding and a little bit of peace.

“Hat” isn't a play for everyone. It isn't a “nice” play. Indeed, it’s a blood and guts revelation of a man whose own limitations and ignorance keep him stuck in the same pattern, unable to break out of it and incapable of explaining why. For theatre fans who want to see something without a gift-wrapped ending or a moral tale, one could do no better than a trip to TheaterWorks.

October 21, 2011

Gallim Dance

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
by Emily List

Through the piece “Blush,” Artistic Director and Choreographer Andrea Miller created a body of work similar to Sharon Eyal’s choreography presented by Carte Blanche, the modern Norwegian dance company, at the 2011 Jacob’s Pillow gala.

Gallim Dance:  Blush
“Blush” also could be compared to the theatre game "Evolution" in which performers morph from the floor to more realized forms of expression. The only difference is that the Gallim choreography never evolved beyond primordial soup, though the six dancers executed their movements with precision and power. 

The ensemble’s center of gravity was very low, just above the pelvis, and much of the movement emanated from lunges and yoga-like child poses. Bodies were never really extended, but introverted and flexed. Attitudes took the place of arabesques and even grande jetes were performed with bent knees and flexed feet. The company rarely rose to the level of the wire of light tautly cutting horizontally across the stage. Did this represent humanity’s struggle to raise itself to a certain level of... morality?   Interpretations vary.

Visibility was one of the real struggles of the evening, but there were others. Lighting Designer Vincent Vigilante was too bold with his backlit footlights and flickering spotlights, which rendered the dancers as outlines and shadows rather than fully formed beings. And the music was an assault on the ears, providing a series of beats rather than melodies that would have given the ensemble a story line to follow through. 

The question on the minds of many audience members was: where was the partial nudity advertised in the program? Perhaps nude dancing was considered too blushworthy, at least for the culturally sensitive viewers of the Pioneer Valley.

City Of Angels

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through November 27, 2011
by Jarice Hanson

Billed as a sexy Hollywood Whodunit, "City of Angels" mixes 1940's film noir with contemporary theatre conventions including scene projection, a slow-motion fight scene appropriate for America's Funniest Home Videos, and skull hand-puppets all as homage to tired gumshoes who can't resist a pretty dame. In this production, director Darko Tresnjak has mounted a complicated show with remarkable technical proficiency.

You can't miss with a script by Larry Gelbart, who writes lines like, "Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever," and music by Cy Coleman, who crafted some of the best duets of his career in for this show, What sets this musical apart from others are the witty lyrics by David Zippel. The stock characters -- the Brylcreemed private eye, the femme fatal with the rich, aged husband, and the nubile step-daughter may seem cliche, but the show has many fresh twists.

About twenty minutes into Act I, the audience realizes that all of the characters are in the mind of a writer, hired by a movie studio to pen a screenplay, only to have his work changed by the hilarious studio executive, played by Jay Russell. The action revolves around the back-and-forth world of the movie studio and the life of the script writer, played by D.B. Bonds. There is not a weak character in the cast; and Bonds, Lauri Wells, and Nancy Anderson have wonderful voices and get some of the best tunes.

Some members of the production team warrant a special shout-out;  Michael O'Flaherty's music direction shines, and David P. Gordon's scenic design, enhanced by Shawn Boyle's projections, make this production a visual treat. The show may have been a bit fresher when it premiered on Broadway in 1989 and today's mash-ups and parodies take a bit of the kick out of the script, but the "City of Angels" is smart, entertaining, and this production is top-notch. 

October 18, 2011

Guitarist Richard Thompson

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
by Eric Sutter

Cool and contented in the later warmth of a fall day, guitar legend Richard Thompson appeared on the Mahaiwe stage bringing his mix of love songs and dexterous acoustic guitar stylings to a loyal audience of followers on his and their journey of life.

Thompson's aura was pulsing in a knowing way, with a gracious but amusing passion that flowed. Known as a pioneer in folk-rock circles as a founding member of the British band Fairport Convention, he continually referenced early memories paired with more recent ones. He is particularlyl renowned for amazing fingerstyle guitaring. Gifted beyond belief, Thompson is noted on Rolling Stone magazine's Top 20 guitarists of all time.

"Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" harkened back to the 60's. Thompson's singing and sense of melody are as unique as his lyrics -- he is different than your average pop singer because of his background in the rich tradition of Celtic music. At one point, he picked an album title out of his trademark beret and sang three songs from it: from "1000 Years of Popular Music" he performed an Italian folk song, "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo" by Corazio Vecchi; "Blackleg Miners" from folk songs of British folk singers; and the rock number "A Legal Matter" by Pete Townshend. He easily sang a sea shanty ("Johnny's Far Away on the Rollin' Sea") as his own work ("Persuasion").

Thompson's skill at intricate guitar playing was evident on his well loved "Vincent Black Lightning 1952," about star-crossed lovers James and Red Molly. The powerfully sung "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from 1999's "Mock Tudor" was a perfect example of late-20th century angst. Sometimes twisted, he performed "Stumble On" from his latest CD, "Dream Attic." He then launced into the 1991 MTV hit "I Feel So Good." His love of sound was like a rush from the past that pleased this audience.

Rock On! Broadway

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
by Eric Sutter

With Kevin Rhodes conducting, the opening Springfield Symphony Pops concert of the 68th season was right on! Featuring music from the best Rock musicals of the 70's and 80's, the orchestra was challenged to perform. The "Chess" overture set the mood. The rest of the great evening followed.

Broadway musicals were changed forever in 1968 when "Hair" debuted. Soprano Sarah Uriarte Berry and tenor Ron Bohmer gave an empowered "Aquarius." A nicely done "Easy To Be Hard" featured a lovely Berry  as solo. Bohmer clowned as a long-haired hippie with his singing "Hair." Of course, they finished with a rousing "Let The Sun Shine In." Fantastic!

From "Tommy," the Symphony shined on "Overture" with that great opening electric guitar solo. Piano, horns and strings built tempo to a crescendo ending. The percussion was steamy. Berry sang "Smash The Mirror" in a Broadway shrill that wasn't quite effective with its too high pitch. Bohmer, as Tommy, was better with the thrilling "I'm Free" which resounded triumphantly.  The sound was excellent and lighting superb. A comical Rhodes joined both lead singers doing "The Time Warp" dance from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." By the end of the number, some of the audience engaged in dancing.

After intermission, the "Overture" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" lead the second portion of the program. A solo by Berry, "I Don't Know How To Love Him," was pleasant, acknowledging why this number is a standout. Berry particularly showed her vocal skills in the slower numbers. The strings propelled "Gethsemane" with Bohmer in a heartfelt perfomance. The singers then paired up on the duet of "Seasons of Love" from "Rent." An offering from "Little Shop Of Horrors" was fun. "Godspell" provided a magnificent volley of music that the audience sang along to -- especially "Day By Day." Orchestra and vocalists reprised "Let The Sunshine In" with much singing and dancing. Rebuilding Springfield through the the arts never felt better. 

October 16, 2011

Wait Until Dark

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 29, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Suffield Players are particularly skilled at mounting murder mysteries. This play is the real thing, edge of your seat two hours of theatre. After the final applause, the audience leaves with the communal feeling of exhaustion. That is a powerful statement of cause and effect. The troupe accomplish exactly as planned for “Wait Until Dark.”

The play’s title succinctly describes the plot. Our heroine is a blind woman who is physically and figuratively in the dark. What happens to her in one day is a terrifying test of her metal. Susy unknowingly becomes entrenched in the middle of drug trafficking and murder as she is pitted against three strong sighted men.

Photo by Larry Bilanski
Karen Balaska’s phenomenal success in portraying Susy is her physicality. She plays blind with a capital “B.” Her stance, movement, and manipulation of props are perfect. At the start, Balaska’s character is plucky and naïve. We see gradual changes as her intelligence and inner sight dominate. Susy’s motivation to stay strong and fight is first and foremost for love of her husband. However, Danny Viets is miscast as a too-young and too strict mate, making Susy’s emotional commitment confusing. But Balaska makes us believe.

The first two villains on the scene are portrayed by Bill Mullen (Mike, faux friend of the husband) who effectively becomes the big lug bad guy with a conscience, and Zach Grey (Sergeant Carlino) who plays smugness well. Enter Konrad Rogowski (Harry Roat) as “the brains” of the operation. Rogowski’s acting is the epitome of super psycho intellect. Roat is a relentless crazed man. Young Emma Rucci (teen neighbor) does a fine job as Susy’s smart and smart-alecky ally.

Director Robert Lunde could have taken the easy road on many scenes, particularly those set in pitch dark. Lunde introduces the play, telling his audience that some sections will be completely black. So, it’s not a spoiler to write about the success of these unseen scenes. A  lesser production might have resorted to sound effects to cover up the action taking place in the dark.  Instead, the undoubtedly battered and bruised actors, running on a small stage in the dark (Balaska and Rogowski in particular), and the less battered director, treat the audience to a realistic, powerful ending.