Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 23, 2011

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through May 8, 2011
by Eric Johnson

Perhaps this show should be called "Thoroughly Timeless Millie" because
that is exactly what the story line is, timeless. Small town girl hits
the big city lights with a plan and a dream, both of which are
compromised right from the start. It is a story that has been told many
times before, and will continue to be told in various settings and with a
plethora of characters. Everyone loves a story about triumph over
adversity, and good defeating evil.

The beginning of the opening number showcases Dylan Rae Brown as Millie,
the aforementioned small town girl seeking out her fortune in New York
City circa 1922. Brown captivates and charms the audience right from the
start -- her remarkable voice and stage presence are most entertaining.
The chemistry between Millie and Jimmy, the fast talking, street wise
city boy (adeptly played by PJ Adzima) is delightful. The characters are
real and believable throughout.

The skilled and talented ensemble complements the production
wonderfully. A few standouts include Katie Clark as Miss Dorothy, Jeff
Clayton's Graydon, and Dawn Rendell's Miss Flannery. The "scenery
chewing" award for this production is a tie between Pat Haynes as Mrs.
Meers and Kathy Renaud as Muzzy. Each actress takes a turn stealing the
scene in the first act, and when they have a scene together in the
second act it is pure, over the top hilarity.

Director Kim Lynch has done an exemplary job of casting and directing a
show which could lend itself to being too "cutesy" in the wrong hands.
Musical Director Christina Climo and the orchestra do a very nice job
with the score which includes a brief homage to the patter songs of
Gilbert and Sullivan. The choreography by Amy Bouchard works
beautifully -- it is tight and deftly executed.

A combination of built pieces and projections (courtesy of Technical
Director Frank Disco) comprise the set design which also works very
nicely. Exit 7 Players upholds its reputation for high production values
with this show, as evidenced by the standing ovation from the
enthusiastic opening night audience.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie" is an entertaining and skillfully executed
production, thoroughly.

April 22, 2011

John Hammond/Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
April 18, 2011
by Eric Sutter

Two American figures of acoustic roots music shared a double bill at Colonial Theatre. Steady grooves were evident in both John Hammond's acoustic blues, as well as Dan Hicks' quirky brand of acoustic Americana which lent itself as much to swing as to twang. Hammond appeared solo with his guitars and harmonica. He interpreted blues standards, gut bucket boogie, country blues, and his original blues compositions about love gained and lost through the complex narrative of his own wayward soul. His Delta inspired songbook included Robert Johnson's "Come On Into My Kitchen" and Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied." He translated the intensity and authenticity of blues classics "When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too) and "That's All Right." The blues are a living, breathing, and feeling thing and Hammond, now in his 50th year on the road, is a legendary master at live performance. His own songs, "You Know That's Cold" and "Heartache Blues" captured the loneliness of the blues soundscape. His resonator slide guitar echoed nicely. Incidentally, Hammond is up for induction into the Blues Hall of Fame on May 4th.

Dan Hicks' music encompassed a vast body of swingin' country and blues tunes which he dubbed "Caucasian Hip Hop." A phenomenal showman with a flair for absurdity, he performed in a laid back vocal style with The Hot Licks and The Lickettes. The female duo Lickettes provided their sweet background harmonies and percussion to many of his "Tangled Tales" which is the title of their latest CD. The amusing songs, "The Piano Has Been Drinking," "Along Came the Viper," and "I Scare Myself" were fitted with the snuggly warmth of castenets, finger cymbals and Benito Cortez's smooth violin. Clever arrangements of "Waitress in the Donut Shop" and "I Feel Like Singing" featured scat singing by the Lickettes. Hicks, voice is not to be downplayed... he sang the groove out of "Payday Blues." They finished with "Can Music." A raucous call for an encore led to a jivin' "The Buzzard Was Their Friend." 

April 19, 2011

The Odd Couple

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA

through May 22, 2011
by Eric Johnson

The Devil is always in the details.

When one sets out to produce a period piece from 100 or 1000 years ago, 
minor details will go unnoticed by most. Electing to re-create 1968, 
however, is a bit trickier as anachronisms will be noticed.

Director Gina Kaufman states in the program that "the specifics of the 
characters' behavior don't make sense to me anywhere or any place else," 
and she is correct. Neil Simons' play about two men sharing a Riverside
Drive apartment following Oscar's divorce and Felix's estrangement from his wife is most definitely dated and needs to take place in that when it was written.

Now for the details: Greg Trochlil (set) and Ilene Goldstein (costumes) 
do a fabulous job of setting the scene and seeing to all the little things such as shoes, a Roger Williams' album next to the stereo with turntable and 8-track player, and a generous smattering of that awful avocado green color that was a staple of furniture and appliances in that era.

The performances all are genuine and natural. Tim Cochran (Speed), 
Stuart Gamble (Murray), Daniel Popowich (Roy), and Steve Henderson (Vinnie) do a fantastic job opening the show, sitting around the table 
playing cards, smoking and drinking in the litter strewn apartment. Josh Perlstein as the slovenly Oscar inhabits the role convincingly and confidently and commits to some great choices for the character. James Emery's portrayal of the injury prone, obsessive Felix is delightful. Emery does a very nice job with a challenging role. Stephanie Carlson and Cate Damon as the Pigeon Sisters leave the audience in tears from raucous laughter in the date scene.

Kudos go to producing director Danny Eaton and to the cast and crew of "The Odd Couple" for taking on a show that is considered by many to have been done to death. Exceptional production values and excellent casting make this a show worth seeing.

April 18, 2011

Oh, What A Night!

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
April 16, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Question: when is it appropriate to give a standing ovation? One Answer: when it's impossible not to immediately jump up out of the seat with hands clapping almost uncontrollably at the end of a performance. That was the case for over half of the audience at Springfield Symphony Orchestra's latest Pops Concert. This reviewer was among those leading the Standing O.

One might assume that such accolades, particularly in the elegant and formal setting of Symphony Hall, only qualify for works of Brahms and Beethoven, et al. These were the masters; let us rise to the occasion. "Oh, What A Night," however, was an evening celebrating the Top Hits of the 60's. That's 1960's, not 1860's. This was the music whose tunes and lyrics were ever-present in the minds of the nearly 2000 in attendance. We got what we came for, and more!

The placement and pace of the 30+ pieces of music, made for a well-orchestrated (literally and figuratively) show. Genres swayed from Latin (the opening number "La Bamba") to funk (electric guitar intro of "Aquarius"), ballads (the haunting "Unchained Melody') to rock (the only female tribute in "Respect"). Memorable medleys included the Four Seasons, the Beatles, and Smokey Robinson. The entertainment balance shifted from orchestra-only (a rockin' "Tequila") to male vocal trio (semi acapella "Try a Little Tenderness") to solos (a sexy "It's Not Unusual"). Who would have guessed that scholastically trained and talented dramatic Broadway alums (i.e. "Phantom" and "Les Miz") could get down and wild on stage? Ron Bohmer, Tituss Burgess, and Bradley Dean enjoyed every moment that they gave to their audience. One particular skill, and perhaps competition, was holding the final note the longest. Each man's individual characteristics - Bohmer's mugging, Burgess' casualness, and Dean's feigned angst - added to their appeal.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes, along with some members of the orchestra and audience, took the theme of the night seriously. The normally bald Rhodes donned a huge Afro wig, tie-dyed shirt, and leather vest. He might not have been a baby boomer, but he played one at the podium. "Oh, What A Night" was a leisurely, memory-evoking, fun night.

Masterworks Program No. 7

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
April 14, 2011
by Terry Larsen

If one were to "surf the net" for a list of the 100 works most performed by symphony orchestras, pieces by Brahms and Beethoven would be well represented. Works by Paul Hindemith would not appear on the list. For this reviewer, however, the performance of his Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, op. 50 was the most impressive and moving moment of the evening. Its harmonic language is quite idiosyncratic, setting rich timbres of brass and strings sailing on a dark, turbulent sea of dense harmony and compact motivic material. It is a truly impressive and interesting work that invites further investigation. HSO should be applauded for programming that includes music on the margins of symphonic "business as usual".

By comparison, Beethoven's well known Leonore Overture No. 3, one of four overtures written for his only opera Fidelio, seemed all sweetness and lace. The Leonore is customary concert fare that has taken on a life of its own divorced from its seldom performed parent. In it is heard, in microcosm, the themes of love, valor, loyalty and redemption. The HSO played with clarity and precision, bringing this revered work to life with graceful attention to detail.

Brahms' first piano concerto, written at age 25, was not well received by audiences nor by the orchestra entrusted with its care in its premiere performance. Brahms was traumatized by this indifferent reception. Thankfully, time has proven more kind to this massive concerto.  Conductor Edward Cumming, the HSO, and accomplished pianist Matei Varga were in perfect accord, achieving a fine balance between the brilliant passages for piano that are embedded within the enormous orchestral scaffold. Varga won the hearts of the audience with his masterful command of the delicate passages as well as those more pyrotechnical moments, a sweet smile on his face and fire at his fingertips.

It should be noted that Cumming's tenure with this fine orchestra will draw to a close soon. He is a most impressive musician and director who has led with great distinction. Bravo, Maestro!

April 10, 2011

The 39 Steps

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 1, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Only one serious error can be pointed out in Hartford Stage's production of "The 39 Steps" - the ending. No, not the ending of the play, but the curtain call bowing. The cast of four are divided, two then the other two, receiving audience applause. Each member of the quartet deserves equal, and huge, credit.

That being said, the play itself is an extremely clever combination of movie elements from Alfred Hitchcock mysteries (the play is based on his movie of the same name), to 1940's film noir, to Keystone Cops, and Monty Python. Throw in a spy, a corpse, a mansion and it's a flick. In fact, some audience members at Hartford Stage are seated as if watching a movie within a play. There's the handsome run-away hero (with pencil mustache), the double roled femme fatale/woman on the train, and all the rest. The latter meaning two actors take on the incredibly difficult task of portraying dozens of characters each, changing costumes and sexes with split second timing.

Director Maxwell Williams, along with his scenic designer, lighting and sound team, not to mention backstage dressers, is due equal kudos to those onstage. A rather disheveled odd looking set with a stack of motley props becomes numerous indoor and outdoor scenes - sometimes both at the same time. One prop morphs from a waterfall into a train. The train chase is the most creative and funniest moment in the play. While the characters take themselves very seriously, the humor is displayed through their movements. Dialogue alone would not make "The 39 Steps" a comedy, which is probably why Hitchcock knew it worked as a dark mystery.

Robert Eli portrays our matinee hero with spot-on aplomb and a feigned sophisticated demeanor. For most of the play, Christina Pumariega depicts a damsel in distress who underplays her role to help the other cast members receive the laughs. Noble Shropshire and Steve French are "the other cast members." Versatile, malleable, physical, and quick, with accents to fit each separate role, these two take the play from funny to hysterical.


Westfield Theatre Group
Westfield Women's Club, Westfield, MA
through April 16, 2011
by Vickie Phillips

An ambitious task was undertaken by Westfield Theatre Group mounting the Tony award-winning Broadway Musical "Gypsy," pulling out all the stops with 31 cast members, 18 production staff and a dynamite orchestra with Music Director Karla Newmark and Conductor David Kidwell.

The story of the life of famous Burlesque Queen Gypsy Rose Lee from childhood to stardom with domineering mother, talented sister Baby June, and the enduring dreams of performers in show business, is familiar to both stage and screen audiences. Director Bob Laviolette assembled a talented local cast who entertained an appreciative audience. Starting with Kaylee Wilson, (Baby June) and Claudia Tosi (Baby Louise) auditioning for Uncle Jocko's (Rock Palmer) Kiddy Show, the message rings loud and clear. . ."talent notwithstanding prevails". All the unique visuals projected in the background, not only during the overture, but throughout the many scene changes are mega creative.

Jami Wilson (June) and Amy Szczepaniuk Meek (Louisa/Gypsy) have the challenging task of age range. Their duet, "If Mama Was Married" has solid vocal blend and staging. Talk about "growing" into her role, Meek's stature and talent as Gypsy Rose Lee is amazing. Her every Burlesque House scene shows her triumph of becoming a star. Then, the energetic "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" showgirls Winnie Legere (Electra), Rae Banigan (Tessie) and Bump It with a Trumpet Carol Palmer (Mazzepa) pull out all the stops. Palmer actually played that trumpet. These gals do grind their way into the hearts of the audience with their show-stopping moment.  Also, "Together" with Roxanne Labato Bailey (Rose), Steve Bailey (Herbie) and Meek, has a nice and easy on-stage play.

Choreography credit goes to David Bovat, who always creates a visual banquet for the stage. Keeping in mind that not all people in community theatre are actually dancers, Bovat tailors simpler but coordinated steps accordingly. Another outstanding credit goes to MaryAnn Scognamiglio for razzle dazzle costumes - most especially the Burlesque ladies who were bedazzling from head to toe.

Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
April 6, 2011
by Stacie Beland

When an average, uninitiated person thinks of Mariachi music, a number of clichés are immediately conjured. It's not a genre that has received much mainstream attention, perhaps at least partially due to those clichés. The performance given by Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano at the UMass Fine Arts Center, however, was a fine example of harmony, musicality, and beautiful voices. In an age where harmony can be produced by laptops and vocal harmonies are typically mixed in a studio, to be able to bear witness to truly remarkable live music is a rare feat.

The group, which is typical of most Mariachi bands in that it incorporates violins, trumpets, classical guitars, a vihuela, a guitarron, and a harp, was not only a joy to listen to, they were a joy to watch.  Many of the musicians played at least two instruments and additionally lent their vocal stylings to the mix. The band members were also highly engaging, playing all of their songs from memory and tossing more than a few winks and smiles to the audience as they did so. The audience, clearly thrilled by the performance, was often moved to sing along and in some cases, got out of their seats to dance. Mariachi is music of passion, and it was performed by Nati Cano's group with ardor.

Nati Como, the founder of the group, occasionally interrupted the performance to speak directly to the audience (occasionally in English, but predominantly in Spanish), engaging even those audience members who may not have fully understood what he was saying. Como additionally took requests from the viewers, and the band fulfilled most of them (including the famously popular "Cielito Lindo" and "La Bamba"). The song stylings ranged from upbeat, fun dance pieces to stunning ballads of longing and love, sung in voices that seemed to be polished with velvet.  During those ballads, the crowd swooned to the crooners' power. To be sure, Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano  offered musical precision that's nearly impossible not to love.

April 3, 2011

Music of the Ballet

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
by Terry Larsen

In his program, a gala celebration of SSO Music Director and Conductor Kevin Rhodes' 10th anniversary with the ensemble, Maestro Rhodes drew on his extensive experience conducting more than 700 classical musical theatre performances in Europe by programming music from the ballet.

The concert opened with Khachaturian's Saber Dance from Gayane, a well known piece from a seldom performed ballet. This war dance has been "covered" for use in such diverse genres and milieus as jazz, disco, punk, heavy metal, the Andrews Sisters, the Harmonicats, the circus, and the Ed Sullivan Show. Although a suitably upbeat opener to the event, this flashy piece is so familiar as to have become a caricature of itself, and might, therefore be easily dismissed. Thankfully, the SSO saved this chestnut by its spirited performance. Delibes' ballet Coppelia, a great success in 1870, provided a lovely waltz for contrast to the fiery opening number.

A promenade of Russian folk melodies paraded through the hall dressed in the many colors of the orchestra's families of instruments as employed by Stravinsky in his 1947 revision of music from Petrushka, a ballet written in 1910 and choreographed by the legendary dancer Nijinsky. Compositional techniques used in Petrushka foreshadowed music heard in the ground breaking ballet Rite of Spring, which received its riotous premiere in 1913. Once again, the orchestra was at its best, capably rendering the multitude of passages written for a variety of subsets of instruments and soloists, including a wrenchingly beautifully played solo flute performance.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty awoke, to the delight of the gathering, its grand walls of brass sonority, formidable percussive events, and sweeping statements by the strings providing the foundation for the story as narrated by Rhodes between sections. The audience roared to its feet in appreciation.

Afterward, many concert goers packed into the Mahogany Room to express their gratitude to Rhodes for his decade of leadership and artistry.

April 2, 2011

A Steady Rain

TheaterWorks, Hartford, MA
through May 8, 2011
by Stacie Beland & Mark Axelson

Aaron Roman Weiner & Kyle Fabel
It is a rare feat, indeed, when one can be treated to theatre that is so raw, so visceral that the characters and their stories stay with you for hours after you've left the venue. Such is the case with "Steady Rain." The production is bare-bones, driven entirely by its two actors, Kyle Fabel (Joey) and Aaron Roman Weiner (Denny). Fabel and Weiner brilliantly bring (and, sometimes, push) the audience through a tale of morality, dedication, love, and loyalty. At an hour and a half with no intermission, the actors grab the theatregoers' attention from the moment they start speaking until the story reaches its ultimate, devastating conclusion. One scarcely has time to breathe as the rapid-fire pace of the dialogue, coupled with the brilliant sound design of J. Hagenbuckle, batter the senses.

Joey and Denny are police officers who have been friends all of their lives and, more recently, have been repeatedly turned down for Detective badges. Both characters are inherently flawed-they tell their stories with unflinching honesty. What's troubling is that as self-destructive as Denny is and as damaged as Joey is, they can't be hated, despite their actions often ranging far into the category of hateful. They're very human. It is painfully easy to see what drives them to the end of their story.

In a production such as this, there is a lot of storytelling responsibility for the actors. Fabel and Weiner are more than up to the task. As Joey and Denny, they describe their weavings through morality and immorality directly to the audience, only occasionally acknowledging the other actor. They hurl images, written with such exacting language that the audience has no choice but to visualize what Joey and Denny have experienced. Under the expert direction of Tazewell Thompson, who has masterfully choreographed the pace and the movement behind the words, the actors are brutally authentic. The production feels all too real. Thompson is to be congratulated - this is a show that relies heavily on human dynamic which is largely open to directorial interpretation. He delivers perfection.