Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 31, 2011

Sweet Honey in The Rock

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
January 2011
by Eric Sutter

Hello love! Joy was in the hearts of all at Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre during a strong tower of faith performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Their music is rooted in the rich textures of African American legacy and traditions. They possess a stunning vocal prowess that captured the complex sounds of blues, spirtuals, gospel, rap, reggae, African chants, hip hop, ancient lullabies and jazz improvisation. Their collective voices were Accompanied by hand percussion instruments, the collective voices of Sweet Honey became a sound of soulful harmonies and intricate rhythms.

In this 38th season, the group began on a high note with a song about God, "I Believe." Many of the songs that followed were spine tinglers that offered deep spiritual exhilaration from Christian and Hebrew traditions. "I Don't Want No Trouble at the River" was one of these with gospel fervor from the sacred. The earthy soul stirrer, "When I Die" started slowly and built dramatic musical tension to release in the form of a ring shout of pure estatic voice and dance by song's end. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," with movement in mysterious ways, was an awesome interpretation. Depth of feeling was evident with "Jesus on the Mainline," a soul warmer gospel rave-up worthy of hand clapping and holy ghost two stepping. "Education is the Key" employed empowered messages with wood block percussion that engaged the audience.

Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" was a quiver of the 70's ecological soul vibe. The five female singers shouted out for higher lessons that the listeners should learn by "Mother Nature." A haunting syncopated Central African rain forest chant transfixed the audience in the sacred, magical and mystical realm with four part in the round singing.

Incidentally, this program was hand signed by Shirley Childress Saxon, who was exceptional at interpreting the words of the songs to the deaf, and educating the hearing audience members that music is a universal language. Her dedication is a bright shining light to humanity. The girls closed with the spiritual healer, "Coming Home One Sweet Day." The encore was the quaking "Down The Road I'll Be Going."

January 30, 2011


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through February 27, 2011
by Meghan Lynn Allen

Melissa James Gibson's "This" examines five friends who struggle to communicate. Gibson very obviously chose the structure of the English language as the vehicle to demonstrate the play. Billed as a comedy, it tackles complex relationships with issues of adultery, death, grief, and guilt. Although there are laughs here and there, it's a melancholy comedy at best. With an all-you-can-eat buffet of misunderstood pronouns and interrupted phrases, the piece plays out less like compelling human interaction and more like a maudlin episode of "Three's Company." Gibson's obsession with the language of the play leaves the characters underdeveloped and unlikable. While it is obvious to see what Gibson tries to do, the script never quite catches the momentum the piece demands. This is further complicated by the director's lack of attention to the pace of the play. Scenes lag. The pace is choppy. There are long actors' pauses. To add salt to the wound, stir in some slow, awkward set changes and mismatched, dramatic set change music.

However, kudos to actors Beth Wittig (Jane) and Clark Carmichael (Tom) for doing their best with what was given. There are, indeed, talented actors beneath the mess of this piece. Sadly, the audience never grows to care about Jane or Tom. The only likable character is Jane's best friend Alan played by Andrew Rein. Rein is given the strongest comic moments and has fun with Alan's dark wit, drinking problem, and sweet and sour demeanor. Rein has the unfortunate task of being saddled with the least convincing plotline of the show: Alan's profession as a mnemonist saves the day when a conversation can't be recalled and little bits of the play need to be packaged up into a tidy box. This sad device is deflating to Rein's good work.

TheaterWorks' usual talent for breathing life into the arts, Hartford, and its audience member falls flat with "This".

January 27, 2011

One-acts poke fun at love, marriage, and remarriage

Vicious Valentines
Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
February 10 - 26, 2011

Suffield Players will present Vicious Valentines: An Evening of Love-ly One-Acts. The slate of plays includes "The Proposal" directed by Dale Facey, "Madam President" by directed by Kelly Seip, and "The Bear" directed by Joshua Guenter. Each play presents a couple in a comical crisis.

In "The Proposal," a nervous young man arrives at a farmer's house to propose to the man's daughter. Despite the farmer's efforts to keep things civil, the couple squabbles about everything. This classic Russian comedy features John Fabiani, Tracey Hebert, and Logan Lopez.

Opposites attract in "Madam President." Novelist Philip Spangler just wants to read the paper quietly, but this becomes impossible when his wife Victoria arrives home chattering about her recent election as president of her women's club, her interpretation of Hamlet, and questions about crossword puzzle clues. This charming piece stars Liz Leshine and Mark Proulx.

In "The Bear," a widow clashes with a man who has come to collect a debt. The quarrel escalates to a duel, but before weapons can be drawn, the pair declare their love for one another. This play of hilarious reversals features Mary Fernandez-Sierra, Anna Marie Johansen, and Allen Nott.

For reservations, call 800-289-6148.

January 22, 2011

Snow Falling on Cedars

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through February 13, 2011
by Shera Cohen

It is opening night and Hartford Stage has its hands full creating and executing three inseparable stories into one plot in little more than two hours. "Snow Falling on Cedars," based on a best-selling novel, achieves nearly all that it strives to attain in story, character development, and the broader scope of historic facts.

At its core is the ashamed internment of Japanese-Americans during and shortly after WWII. One Japanese character softly and strongly says to a Caucasian, "Look at my face." Those four words sum up the deep conflict of the times and the people. The sub-plot of young, forbidden love takes the global crisis to a human level. Finally, is a mystery played out in a murder trial. The latter is the less defined with a pat and convenient ending.

A lot happens in onstage, with 12 actors double and triple cast, a multitude of scenes jumping back and forth from the 1940's to the 1950's, and a stylized set with turning floor. Except, on occasion and at the play's start when some of the double roles are confusing, director Jeremy B. Cohen works a marvel of fast and seamless overlapping segments to become a full and excellent production. Admittedly, there are too many scenes which make the play feel longer than it is in spite of Cohen's swift changes of the set elements. As for Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata's accomplishments, less is more with a sliding backdrop of various pictures and two large moveable ramps expertly depicting nearly everything conceivable on the fictitious island off of Washington.

Primarily an ensemble cast, the lovers might be considered the "stars." Kimiye Corwin and Dashiell Eaves make for a poignant duo. Yet, actors Bill Doyle, Kate Levy, and Ron Nakahara take advantage of their moments to shine.

Part narrative and part dialogue, the play simultaneously tells and shows the progression of the story. Oftentimes, Act II of any script is not as well depicted. "Cedars" is one of the exceptions, particularly with the balance of humor and hands-on war combat action, of which there is neither in Act I.

January 19, 2011

The Wizard of OZ

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through January 21, 2010
by The Smith Family

A faithful and loving recreation of the classic 1939 movie, this "Oz" is a pleasant family experience. Unlike modern "family" entertainment, with snide remarks and ironic references, all can enjoy the simple and sincere story of the young girl who finds that she's "not in Kansas anymore."

The story and score are based directly on the famous film, with a few embellishments to music and dialogue. Here, a trio of singing and dancing crows joins the Scarecrow for his big number, "If I Only Had a Brain." They serve to help the solo number fill the stage and their costumes and jokes were a big hit. Similarly, a threesome of curvy lady apple trees aids the Tinman with "If I Only Had a Heart."

Creative staging is also evidenced in the "poppy field" scene. Dancers, representing poppies, swirl about in an elegant number, with inventive costume changes, that impressed children and adults alike. The show includes the song "Jitterbug," legendary for having been written for, but never included in the final film.

The fresh-faced cast is well assisted by veteran performers like Pat Sibley and her Wicked Witch. Her delivery takes a bit of an edge off the character so as not to be overwhelmingly frightening. However, that didn't stop the audience from being startled every time she exploded on stage in a flash of light and puff of smoke.

But as far as the kids are concerned, the best special effect in the show was Dusty, a real dog, as Toto. Scampering faithfully across the stage after Dorothy, his absence from a scene always prompted a "where's Toto?" from the younger members of the audience. That's the sign of a real star!

Unlike some newer Broadway productions that can overwhelm younger audiences with light and sound, "The Wizard of OZ" takes a simpler, straightforward approach to staging a timeless story. Children will delight at seeing classic characters like the Cowardly Lion come to life and parents will enjoy the chance to escape back to the "Merry Old land of OZ."

January 7, 2011


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
By Stacie Beland and M. Axelson
through February 13, 2010

In its first play of the New Year, The Majestic is offering David Auburn's "Proof."  The plot centers on Catherine, the daughter of a brilliant mathematician (Robert) who, up until his recent death, had been suffering from an unnamed mental illness. Having given up everything to take care of him, Catherine is standing on the precipice of having her own life, a thought that paralyzes her. The audience learns that Robert had one year of lucid thought, during which he took on a doctoral student named Hal. Hal, wanting to bridge a connection to Catherine, makes several awkward attempts to court her. In town for the funeral is Catherine's sister Claire, who has also sacrificed much in order to financially support her family. Hal offers Catherine opportunities for normalcy; Claire offers Catherine opportunities for resignation to madness. Catherine is understandably hesitant to take either path.

This is a fine show, with a richly designed set and a beautiful lighting design. Keith Langsdale, portraying Robert (his character appears in imagined conversations and flashbacks), leads the cast in his portrayal of a range of emotions, heartbreakingly oscillating between madness and lucidity. Lea Oppedisano is brilliant as the tightly-wound Claire, searching for connections and the ability to maintain control. Dustin Sleight is quite effective as the touchingly awkward Hal.

The bulk of the emotions in this show are carried by the character of Catherine, played by Amy Prothro. As Catherine pushes and pulls on her world in an effort to find stability, Prothro does slip into histrionics, slightly losing control over her character. Auburn's words stand on their own, and at times Prothro's portrayal can seem like she is over-reaching to milk emotions, causing the character to be more theatrical than real. There were some timing issues that contributed to this problem, so the fault cannot rest squarely on her shoulders. To be sure, Prothro is dedicated to the character of Catherine, and it shows.

Despite a few issues, the Majestic's "Proof" is a heartbreaking and moving production. The issues of timing and character development will settle as the run continues.  It is a show not to be missed.