Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 27, 2011

Niobe: Queen of Thebes

Boston Early Music Festival
Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, MA
June 24, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

The Boston Early Music Festival's superb production of Agostino Steffani's Niobe: Queen of Thebes consistently rewarded the attention of those lucky enough to catch this rare revival. Introduced in Munich in 1688, Niobe received its North American premiere at BEMF's 16th biennial festival.

With a libretto by Luigi Orlandi, the tragedy of Niobe follows the queen from contented wife of Anfione, King of Thebes, and mother of their children, to vanquished victim of the gods for calling her husband and herself divine. Along the way, she falls for Creonte, Prince of rival Thessaly, disguised as the god Mars by the magician Poliferno, himself disguised as the god Mercury. The audience also meets the Theban soothsayer Tiresia and his daughter Manto, who is saved from a wild bear (later providing comic relief as a dancer!) by Tiberino, Prince of Alba. Their blossoming love and Tiresia's enforcement of the gods' will eventually triumph, with Creonte as the newly wise King of Thebes after the gods in vengeance have killed Niobe's children, Anfione in despair has killed himself, and Niobe in her grief turns to stone.

Among the uniformly fine cast, the vivid acting and vocal characterizations of soprano Amanda Forsythe as Niobe and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione were especially powerful. Other notable performances were given by baritone Jesse Blumberg as Poliferno, soprano Julia Van Doren as Manto, and countertenor Jose Lemos as a very funny Nerea, Niobe's nurse, whose observations to the audience often sound surprisingly contemporary, for example: "These modern Boys make a sport of deception" (Act II, Scene XVI).

From the bracingly brisk overture to the stately closing dance, the guttural sounds of the BEMF orchestra powerfully conveyed the range and beauty of Steffani's music. Highlights included the antiphonal brass at various offstage locations and the cushion of lush strings supporting Anfione's mesmerizing aria in the Palace of Harmony in Act I.

Major contributions to the production's success were also made by choreographers Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante and the stylish dancers of the BEMF Dance Ensemble, and by stage director Gilbert Blin, who also designed the functional yet elegant sets.

June 25, 2011

Aston Magna

Simon's Rock, Great Barrington, MA
by Debra Tinkham

Daniel Stepner, violinist and Artistic Director, along with John Gibbons, harpsichordist, had their hands (and fingers) full at Bard College for Aston Magna's concert. They started with a J.S. Bach Sonata in E Major with four movements, with the first Adagio being slow. The most notable physical observation of this movement was Stepner’s lovely bowing hand position. Allegro had precise timing and the usual eye contact between performers was lacking during their upper and lower ranges of valuable dynamics. The delicacy and softness of the Adagio ma non tanto told a sweet story with harpsichord and violin echoing back and forth. Long tones and thirty-second notes were executed with passion and dexterity in some most difficult passages of the Allegro.

Bach’s Sonata in A minor was next performed by Stepner, who humbly stood for this arrangement and used no music. To many unfamiliar listeners of this sonata, this might not be the most pleasing to the ear with its complicated and enharmonic sounds, especially the Fuga, a fast second movement. The last movement, Allegro, was a very typical sounding “Bach Invention” with the vast execution of notes and patterns.

Bach’s Concerto Italian Style in F Major, in three movements, was played for solo harpsichord.  Gibbons executed this movement rather rapidly, with a slight glitch in fingering, at which he laughed at himself. (Otherwise, no one would have known.) The noticeably uneven tempo of the Andante suggested a strong struggle going on and ended with the familiar Presto.

Stepner returned to the stage performing Bach’s Sonata in F minor with Gibbons. The first movement, Largo, was so beautiful, dramatic, romantic and sad. Noticeable was the very subtle and graceful up bow entry of the violin. The second, third and fourth movements were typically Bach, but especially the second movement, Allegro, which was Bach-Invention-Duet-Style.

Last was the music of Bach’s son, CPE Bach, and his Sonata in C minor performed by Stepner and Gibbons. The first movement, allegro moderato, was a clear example of the C minor scale with slight variations and consistent recapitulations. Adagio ma non troppo had a glitch or two at the beginning, but Stepner made light of it and all went well.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 3, 2011
by Barbara Stroup

Ana Reeder, Sam Rockwell
in a scene from
A Streetcar Named Desire

at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival presents a Tennessee Williams classic to open its 2011 season. A tight ensemble manages to use the Nikos Stage set to total advantage, portraying the play’s many dramas (reunion, jealousy, sexual passion, verbal abuse, reconciliation -- the list could go on) in the confines of a tiny two-room apartment. Sam Rockwell as Stanley, Jessica Heft as Blanche, and Ana Reeder as Stella bring a quality of acting to this production that maintains WTF’s reputation for stage experiences of the highest quality.

After the sound of melancholy streetcar bells opens the curtain, Blanche Dubois climbs onto the cramped porch of the Kowalski residence. The play deals with the effects of Blanche’s visit on the marriage of her sister to a man Blanche describes as ape-like. Stanley, in retribution for Blanche’s airs and superiority, uncovers her past. When that past is revealed to all and when he exerts ultimate power over her, she spirals downward quickly.

Using softness and vulnerability but showing the last vestiges of the strength that brought Blanche this far, Jessica Heft commands this production from her opening entrance. Heft inhabits the iconic character completely, bringing just the right balance of physicality and seduction -- her voice is as mesmerizing as a cool breeze on a hot New Orleansnight.

Sam Rockwell keeps Stanley from being a caricature. Despite the character’s habits of cleanliness and attitude towards women, Rockwell's Stanley is multi-dimensional, showing passion, humor, and sly perception. Ana Reeder makes the audience feel all of Stella’s torment, joy and betrayal. She manages to show both Stella’s passion for her husband and love for her sister as their rivalry and deviousness swirl around her.

The blocking, necessarily sensitive to the presence of on-stage seating, often turns faces away during dialog delivery. There were complaints of obstruction from the staircase to the upstairs flat at stage right, and of inhaling smoke from the characters’ many cigarettes. These seemed like minor inconveniences for an evening that totally immersed the audience in a timeless struggle both intimate and cosmic.

Ballet Genève “Romeo and Juliet”

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through June 25, 2011
by Stacie Beland & Mark Axelson

It is hard to re-imagine a storybook ballet as well known as “Romeo and Juliet.” Like it or not, visuals of schmaltzy sets and lavish costumes are what typically come to mind. Perhaps that’s why Ballet du Grand Theatre de Genève chose to strip down their sets and costumes. What’s left is the raw and visceral emotion, the powerful dynamics that push and pull the title characters to their ultimate end. It is a beautifully surprising production.

Joèlle Bouvier’s choreography often gives more to look at than the human brain can process, filling the stage with rich, textured dancing.  Rèmi Nicolas and Jacqueline Bosson’s bare set design, which includes a moveable curved structure, is perfect. Dancers of this level of talent negate the need for a set, particularly as they fill in alternatively as people and structures. Costuming by Philippe Combeau allows the production to remain timeless, as it should be.

Dancing as Juliet, Madeline Wong plays the role with the perfect mix of girlishness, innocence, grace, and strength. At times, it seemed as though Wong was slightly hesitant in her movement, as if she hadn’t received enough rehearsal time on the unfamiliar stage. Regardless, her performance was wonderful, the perfect counterpart for Damiano Artale’s Romeo. Artale’s dancing is filled with emotion and character.  Each of their duets, from their meeting to their demise, is riveting. Bouvier’s choreography utilizes eye contact and body distance to demonstrate the role the two families play in the tragedy; themes of manipulation, relationships, and closeness are beautifully illustrated. The fight scenes, which are truly a sight to behold, showcase the sleek athleticism of Nathanael Marie (Mercutio) and Loris Bonani (Tybalt).

The production is re-visualized as raw, violent, angry, and sorrowful. Despite some technical issues (most surrounding the curved set piece, which was moved somewhat clumsily at times), the production is a joy. Jacob’s Pillow is known for bringing top-notch contemporary and modern companies to the Berkshires, and this is no exception. Running at 90 minutes with no intermission, the show seems only moments long.

June 22, 2011

Guys and Dolls

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield
through July 16, 2011
by Walter A. Haggerty

Broadway Classic, Alive and Well in the Berkshires!

If you're looking for the perfect musical (or just a great evening's entertainment), look no farther than the Barrington Stage Company's staging of the classic, "Guys and Dolls," on through July 16. There's no question that this ageless Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows blockbuster has earned its classical status and is counted among the greatest of all Broadway musicals.

In its current revival, superbly directed by John Rando, it has been given a swiftly moving, meticulous production that scores on every level. When laughs start during the choreographed overture, the audience members know instantly that it is in good hands.

This "musical fable of Broadway," inspired by a host of colorful Damon Runyon characters, features a quartet of youthful performers with impressive Broadway credits. Michael Thomas Holmes' Nathan Detroit has the audience as well as Miss Adelaide, well within his grasp from the moment he steps on stage. Leslie Kritzer delivers an incomparable performance as Miss Adelaide capturing every ounce of humor without missing a beat (or a bump). In a second act duet, this couple hold a note so long that it would have rocked the Met. Morgan James as Sarah Brown sings beautifully and handles the transition of her character, from cold to hot, with style and sensitivity. Matthew Risch gives Sky Masterson class and believability with a flawless interpretation.

As impressive as the principals are, every role is cast with care, directed, and performed to perfection. From Daniel Marcus as Nicely-Nicely Johnson's show-stopping "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" to Gordon Stanley, as Arvide Abernathy, singing "More I Cannot Wish You" to Miss Sarah, each performer becomes a real individual with his or her own personality. Even the ensemble members become distinct, individual characters.

The choreography of Joshua Bergasse is extraordinary in its range and complexity. From sets and costumes to a first rate orchestral accompaniment, this production bodes well for a great summer of entertainment in the Berkshires. Bravo to all!

June 17, 2011

Nancy Holson Pens "Ludwig Live!"

Five-time Emmy Award winner Nancy Holson is well known to Berkshire audiences for her hit comedy The News in Revue which ran for 15 seasons as well as Off Broadway. She recently created Ludwig Live! which is an irreverent song-filled cabaret tribute to Ludwig von Beethoven. The play runs from June 30-August 30 at Seven Hills Inn, Lenox. For information and tickets call 866-811-4111 or check the web at

ITS: Having seen your terrific "News in Revue" several times, I anticipate that "Ludwig" will be a bit irreverent and edgy. Is that the case?
HOLSON: "Ludwig Live!" channels the irreverent spirit of The News in Revue and applies it to the life story of Beethoven. Sounds crazy, no? Well, it is! But somehow it works. I am totally in love with the way this show has turned out.

ITS: Was writing the "Ludwig" script the same as writing lyrics, as you did with "Revue"? Are you fitting your words to Beethoven's "greatest hits"?
HOLSON: I'll bet Beethoven never suspected that his masterpieces could become actual songs. But it's wild how well it works. It is a major challenge to craft lyrics to such iconic music, but all those years writing The News in Revue have been a big help. Also, I recently completed writing a musical version of "The Nutcracker," putting lyrics to Tchaikovsky's music, so I had to learn how to take a classical piece and repurpose it as a song. That was very helpful.

ITS: Why Beethoven? Does he have a particularly interesting or funny past?
HOLSON: Beethoven is a fascinating character. He was arguably the most important classical composer (though the NY Times rates him the second most important!). He was larger than life with a life filled with angst, drama, and brilliance. Does that make him a guy who is lampoonable? YOU BET!

ITS: How much of the play is based on fact? Did the writing process call for research?
HOLSON: Although I take liberties for comic effect, the essentials of Beethoven's life are accurate. I did do a lot of reading about Beethoven's life and felt like I had a real sense of who he was. Comedy comes from heightened reality, so I took all of the key events in Beethoven's life and added a comic veneer. For example, his lover Josephine, a widowed mom, has a touch of Sarah Palin in her as a Mama Bear who takes care of her cubs and can see Prussia from her window.

ITS: How did you find yourself in this business? Any mentors?
HOLSON: What a crazy career I have had. I have been writing and producing "Revue" for 20 years. Plus a smattering of other shows along the way. I had no clue when I started out that this was where I would be at this point in my life. But I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have this career. I have taken my own path and have had to blaze the trail continually. I have never followed the rules when it comes to either writing or producing, so it's not been possible to have had a mentor; I sure wish I had someone to help point the way, but it didn't work out that way. I have had the steadfast support of my wonderful family which has made all the risks I've taken less scary.

ITS: Is the Seven Hills production the premier? What do you hope will be the future of "Ludwig"?
HOLSON: Seven Hills will be the very first home for "Ludwig Live!". It was designed as an entertainment for the Berkshires. I think it is ready-made for the crowds that enjoy visiting Tanglewood. I hope that the audiences will love it and that it will have a future in other parts of the country where there is a classical music scene.

June 13, 2011


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through July 10, 2011
by Stacie Beland and Mark Axelson

There is a sign that greets patrons of TheaterWorks as they enter the theater:  "If you are offended by harsh language, please note that this play was written by the guy who more or less invented the stuff." To be sure, David Mamet has had a long history of incendiary writing. "Race" is no exception.  The plot is simple: two lawyers (both men; one white, one black) and their legal assistant (a black woman) attempt to decide if they will take on a new client.  he client, a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman, maintains that he is innocent. With these dynamics in place, "Race" shows the audienct that no one is innocent.

Tazewell Thompson's direction shines in the production, making this show real, and raw-particularly when dealing with a topic of so many layers and veneers. Each of the four actors' performances are flawless. R. Ward Duffy, in a commanding portrayal of caucasian lawyer Jack, plays his role with emphatic sincerity. He gives us a very real performance, particularly when he is confronted with examples of his own bias. Avery Glymph as Henry, Jack's partner at the firm, offers a subtle performance of a conflicted man, the perfect foil for Jack's fervor. Glymph's Henry is a complicated figure, and watching his delivery is a gift. Taneisha Duggan as Susan, the black legal assistant working at the firm, is a joy. As the show opens, she is onstage nearly the entire time, but rarely speaks. It is Duggan's fine stage presence, even when silent, that allows her character to arc. In Duggan's performance, we see a strong woman who is very, very real. Jack Koenig, as the wealthy accused man Charles, is excellent in his portrayal of a man caught in a windstorm of race, the perception of bias, and real bias. His Charles is the perfect picture of a man who has never had to worry about what others thought until the harsh light of the media illuminates him. Together, these actors give an unblemished production.

To be sure, fine writing and an excellent production are reasons alone to see this show. What is more important, however, is for a production to put its audience on the edge of its seat (so to speak) and drive conversations in the lobby at intermission, on the trip home, and for days afterward. It is a show that makes one think and forces dialogue. What really happened to the woman in the red dress? Who is racist? What is bias? The show does not promise answers, but perhaps discussion is the first step.

June 12, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation in 2010...

yes, last year…and it's getting to be a really good habit!
by Shera Cohen

Several towns and a couple of cities are The Berkshires. It's a space of beauty, culture, diversity, and tourist (like me). National Geographic Society has ranked The Berkshires as a top ten worldwide destination. Additionally important is that The Berkshires are nearby. Permit me to reminisce on last summer's adventure into the hub of the arts in Massachusetts.

Note that the "also" sections do not indicate "also rans," but venues that we couldn't fit into the vacation. Gladly, there are just too many arts to participate in in the Berkshires.

Follow THIS LINK to read the full article.