Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 29, 2011


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 9, 2011
by Emily List

The five young performers in “Traces”— a fusion of circus, dance, comedy and music —actually trace a number of things through the course of this explosively energetic show. They trace the audience members’ journey from the lobby to their seats projected on a big screen at the back of the stage, which elicits laughter as they see themselves entering the theatre. They trace the playful tossing of a basketball as it develops into an aggressive break dance. They use chalk to trace one another’s limp bodies on the floor as a ballpoint pen traces an entire city on the screen. They trace their lives in a slide show and through personal facts spoken ardently into a microphone that frequently descends from the ceiling. “I’m a romantic,” Francisco Cruise breathlessly tells the crowd. “I love cereal.  I especially love Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

The personalization and character development are aspects of “Traces” that make it so endearing. The audience cares for the welfare of the acrobats/dancers because they distinguish themselves as individuals, playing instruments and plunking out different tunes on a wooden piano, from balletic standards to Chinese pop tunes on chop sticks. But they also work as one, seamlessly propelling and flipping themselves through the air.  This is done with the ease as props, such as wooden chairs and basketballs, are tossed through space.

It matters little that the show is strung together as an eclectic, chaotic circus. The audience is pulled immediately into the dramatic action through humor:  “Please take flash photography even if it permanently maims the performers,” is one pre-show announcement. That humor and energy keeps the audience uproariously supportive as the players display incredible agility, suspending one another with hand-to-hand circus techniques, leaping through hoops and climbing up and down vertical poles that reach from floor to ceiling.

 “Traces,” under the creative direction of the Montreal-based Seven Fingers Company, is a show not to be missed.  

September 25, 2011

Mary Zentmyer is “Sister”

Late Nite Catechism
CityStage, Springfield, MA
October 12 – 16, 2011

Many audience members think that Mary Zentmyer is a bona fide nun. That’s true testament to this actress’ skills in her performances of Sister, star of “Late Nite Catechism.” Having donned the habit for a good part of the last 15 years, Zentmyer was one of the first Sisters cast in the role. She was auditioned by the play’s writer team of Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan. There are now approximately 20 Sisters touring throughout the country.

Zentmyer describes her role in three parts: acting, improve, and stand-up comedy. The thought of memorizing a 25-page monologue was scary at first. “This is not your typical play. It’s very interactive,” she said.

“It’s a memory play, a nostalgia play. I connect with the people,” she continued. The target audience is former students (including herself) who experienced the nuns that resembled Army drill sergeants. “We thought they were mean, but it’s no wonder they were cranky, because they wore 20 lb. wool garments every day, all year round,” she laughed. Sister’s strictness is the best humor of the play, and the audience response is incredible. She pokes gentle fun; the show is never mean-spirited.

Mary Zentmyer
Zentmyer has been on the road for most of her career due to her repeat performances primarily in the mid-West and New England. They keep calling her back! “People have been so nice to me. Being a one-woman show, they see that I’m alone and invite me to dinner,” she laughed. The best part of the experience is the Meet & Greet post-performance. It’s like confession, with lines of audience members, each telling stories from their youth.

Asked: do you have to be Catholic to ‘get’ the show, she replied that it does help the audience ‘get’ the full humor. “It plays well to all religions and regions,” she responded. We all like to go back to a different time in our lives, even remembering strict teachers. The show is already sold out for her upcoming run in Detroit. “Middle-America Protestants enjoy it. And New England, with lots of Catholics, certainly ‘get’ it,” she continued.

“Making people laugh for a living – it’s the greatest job,” Zentmyer said.

September 21, 2011

War of the Worlds

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through November 6, 2011
by Shera Cohen

The year? 1938. The day? October 30th. The place? Mercury Theatre, NYC. Shakespeare & Company takes its audience back to an actual episode in history, to the days when radio dramas were as brilliantly told and “visible” as any HD/3D/etc. movie of today.

Tony Simotes directs a play within a play, starring a cadre of the troupe’s best actors. There’s the light-hearted “Jack Holloway Show,” complete with country music (for New Yorkers?), an episodic short drama (“Ace Moran, American Hero”), tap dancing (hmm, hard to see on radio), advertisements (the sales department’s excellent idea to highlight local businesses), and a vignette from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (shameless but hysterical self-promotion). Along with audience participation, a flashing “Applause” sign, and an onstage sound effects man using 70-year-old tools of the trade, Jack Holloway, et al, joyfully entertain their listeners and studio audience.

“We interrupt this program…” With these four words begins the drama within the comedic variety show. Act II takes a 180 degree turn as laughter changes to gasps. Sounds of telegraph machines crank out more alarming words prefaced by “This just in...” Today’s audience knows the outcome of the story, but the scare of Martians invading Earth was very real when Orson Welles performed his live hoax in 1938. Simotes and crew (especially Michael Pfeiffer on sound and Stephen Ball on lights) create a sci-fi time revisited. While Shakespeare & Company’s performance is family friendly, there are many scares and terror of what could have happened long ago and to some degree has actually occurred in this century with other equally horrifying invasions.

The actors take on double and triple roles – something quite common and expected at this theatre. Elizabeth Aspenlieder segues from chipper singer to an on-the-spot reporter meeting her death at the hands of aliens. She switches demeanor, voice, and language texture in a heartbeat. These same skills are those of Simotes’ dream cast – particularly Jonathan Croy, Josh Aaron McCabe, and David Joseph. It is a pleasure to see Joseph (newcomer of the group) excel in plumb roles at this venue.

Lenox, MA isn’t Grovers Mills, NJ, but it very well could be.

September 17, 2011

Little Women–The Musical

Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through September 25, 2011
by Walter Haggerty

Louisa May Alcott's “Little Women” a musical? Well, if you can turn “Les Miserables” into a musical, why not “Little Women”? With a trio of newcomers at the helm - Allan Knee, music; Jason Howland, book; and Mindi Dickstein, lyrics - it works, and it's a delight. The March family comes alive and they sing and they dance and have a wonderful time and so does the audience. Each member of the March family has their moment in the spotlight but, as it should be, there is Jo as the focus of family, around which all else revolves.

Jo, in an inspired and exuberant performance by Meagan Hayes, grows and matures as the story progresses. Hayes dares to relate the melodramatic potboilers that mark Jo's early writing efforts, she pulls it off. In later more serious moments, Hayes proves to be equally adept.

As Marmee, the mother, Donna Schilke is the personification of loving, caring, concerned motherhood, somehow managing while her husband is off at war. Aunt March, played by Mary Jane Disco, offers a formidable, subtly nuanced portrayal of a powerful woman with a soft center.

Daughters Meg, Beth, and Amy, played by Elizabeth Drevits, Kiernan Rushford and Jessica Frye, respectively, are each given their due with distinctive, winning scenes that demonstrate the uniqueness of each character. Paul Lietz brings youthful enthusiasm and humor to the role of Lurie and Brett Gottheimer's Professor Bhaer delivers a superb performance of a conservative, restrained teacher discovering love and doing it without ever losing his impeccable German accent.

Director John Pike is deserving of special praise for finding precisely the right balance between the humorous and serious moments of the story, and in creating an outstanding ensemble performance from his enormously talented company. Projections of period settings and handsome costumes add greatly to the production. Musical accompaniment by a four-piece ensemble is excellent.

For an evening or a matinee excursion to an age of innocence, “Little Women” is worth the visit.

September 10, 2011

Tanglewood Rehearsals

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
by Miriam Hirschhaut

Beautiful weather. Wonderful music. The performers are dressed casually. So are we. Saturday mornings at Tanglewood rehearsals.

The night before, in anticipation of our picnic at the Grill, we packed a lunch: food, wine, candles, and centerpiece. In the morning we set out at 7:00a.m. for the Mass Pike, ready to line-up with our Tanglewood friends at the gate. We would chat about things that happened during the winter. Waiting for the bell to ring, we dashed for seats. There was no more lining up at the gate, no more rushing for seats this summer. That experience is a memory of the past, replaced by assigned seats in the shed. There are certainly pluses and minuses with these changes. It is up to the individual audience member to decide.

Despite the changes, still the same is the excitement of being in the shed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing for the entire summer.
Credit:  Stu Rosner
Before the rehearsal itself, there is a mini-music appreciation lecture about the concert to follow. Unfortunately and at the ninth hour, James Levine was not able to conduct due to health problems. Tanglewood personnel quickly hired guest conductors. Although not an intentional change in the rehearsal format, these maestros were tops in their field. Change is often difficult for everyone. However, it was interesting for us to see the exchanges between these new conductors and the orchestra. In turn, the “language” between those on stage and the audience was different this year. It was a new experience.

We were fortunate to hear other guests – a “who’s who” of talents in classical music: Joshua Bell, Peter Serkin, Emanuel Ax, Yo Yo Ma, and Benedetto Lupo.

The talks, the conductors, the guest artists – we who attend the Saturday morning rehearsals are so fortunate to have the BSO spend their summers at Tanglewood where classical music is at its best.

Yet, I must add one exception to my opening paragraph. Unfortunately, the beautiful weather could not hold out for the season’s final performance. For the first time in 75 years, Tanglewood cancelled Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The reason? A hurricane. A wise decision was made, and even Beethoven would forgive Tanglewood.

The Crucible

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through October 6, 2011
by Karo Kilfeather

A thinly veiled allegory on the communist hearings led by Senator Joe McCarthy, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is a weighty theatrical classic and fine example of pointed social and political commentary. The play is loaded, and the Hartford Stage production wields it like a gun.

Beginning with a loud, chaotic start, “The Crucible” rises to a tension that is never fully released. The audience is as captive as the hapless innocents waiting for their turn at the witch trials.
Choosing a “Grapes of Wrath” meets the Dust Bowl aesthetic over pilgrim attire brings the play closer to us in time, and in spirit. For such a searing political piece, could it be only coincidence that the play produced during the Great Recession recalls the dry somberness of the Great Depression? Indeed, director Gordon Edelstein probably does not want anyone to miss out on possible parallels to today’s political and military events, making some less-than-subtle choices along the way. However, the production overall is so strong, that these are easily forgiven.
The outstanding ensemble cast is led by Michael Laurence as guilt-ridden everyman John Proctor, Kate Forbes as his accused wife Elizabeth, David Barlow as the well-meaning Reverend Hale, and Sam Tsoutouvas as the Deputy Governor who is a powerhouse of self-righteousness and disdain. He is larger-than-life, but never a ham, and matter-of-factly delivers crushing blows to the hopes of Proctor and his friends.
Laurence offers a heart-wrenching portrait of torment as delivered by others and by one’s own self-loathing. He and Forbes create a marriage that is achingly real, and alternately resentful and tender. Rachel Mewbron as Abigail is frighteningly cold and unlovable, and shines coolly when tormenting Keira Keeley’s frightened Mary Warren.
As can be expected of Hartford Stage, the production makes inventive, bold use of a spare and exposed set with well-executed light and sound design. It is a must-see, adult show that grabs the audience and pulls everyone to their seat’s edge. Luckily, Hartford Stage has extended the run through early October.

September 7, 2011

Autres Temps

Wharton Salon, The Mount, Lenox, MA
through August 28, 2011
by Shera Cohen

In its third year, the Wharton Salon troupe continues to mount one Edith Wharton short story each summer. Dennis Krausnick, once again, has adapted the work of Wharton into play form. While the productions of 2009 and 2010 depicted Wharton's style, purpose, and stories admirably, this year's "Autre Temps" fails to do Wharton or Krausnick justice.

Celebrating Wharton's 100-year old piece by staging it in what was once her stable, makes this the ideal and intimate venue for this relatively new and small theatre group.

Many of Wharton's novels and stories focus on the mores of a century ago, class, society, social change vs. tradition, oftentimes reflected through the subject of divorce. The characters, setting, and plot of "Autre Temps" fit the Wharton mold. This was an era when divorce was shameful, and the divorcee was often annihilated from social circles - essentially making her entire purpose for life worthless.

Knowing that Diane Prusha (a Shakespeare & Company acting veteran) was the star showed high promise for the play. Unfortunately, even Prusha cannot pull it all together into a cohesive drama. Basically, the production is just not ready. Actors stumble on lines and many are inaudible (even from the fourth row), either the direction is sluggish or the actors or both, set areas are unused and set changes take much too long. Some important theatre elements are ignored; i.e. the audience's seeing props when a stage door is opened, actors prematurely and inappropriately moving in anticipation of dialogue.

Now, perhaps this third day of performance happened to be an especially bad day for cast and crew? The play's French title means "Other Times." From past experience, it is clear that the Wharton Salon is more than capable of wonderful productions. However, those were "other times" which, hopefully, can occur again next summer.

September 6, 2011

Buddy Holly Returns

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 30, 2011
by Shera Cohen

I would like to think that I am somewhat entitled to a bit of credit for the success of The Theater Project's (aka Majestic Theater) success of "The Buddy Holly Story." With over 100 performances under its proverbial belt from 1997, and reprised shows in 1998 and 2002, neither the Majestic nor its audiences will let Buddy go away. That's wonderful news since it's here again in 2011.

After having seen "Buddy" in England, Danny Eaton (founder, producer, director, designer, set builder, playwright) knew that he must produce this musical. During the early years of The Theater Project, Danny often asked my opinion on the selection of plays and actors. Well, I'm not sure if he sought my learned opinion, or if I forced it on him.

I knew very little about the real Buddy and less about the musical. "Peggy Sue," horn-rimmed glasses, died very young - that was the extent of my knowledge. I researched, learning more about what an excellent talent Buddy had been and what he could have been.

Some readers may remember the community theatre group St. Martha Players. With few exceptions, I made a point of attending their shows. At that time, St. Martha was "the" theatre for consistently well produced musicals. Unfortunately, their venue was not up to par with the quality of the troupe. A church cafeteria was what the crew and actors had to work with. A stage was placed in the middle of the room and the audience sat cabaret style. Sight lines were terrible.

One of my favorite books, made into a musical, was "The Secret Garden." It was next up on St. Martha's calendar. A must-see! Sometimes reviewers are given the best seats in the house (a nice perk), but there was no best seat in this house. I went with a friend, and we sat at a table abutting the stage, with eye-level comparable to sitting in the front row at the movies.

Ben Ashley as Buddy Holly
Photo by Lee Chambers
I knew the reputation of the director (Anna Giza, I believe) and some of the actors, so I came with high hopes. The playbill listed Ben Ashley as the uncle. Hmmm, never heard of him. The uncle is a starring role. Who is this actor? As a very attractive young man took his place onstage, acted well and sang even better, my friend and I mutually nudged each other that here was a guy with potential. We sat close enough to touch his shoes, so for the next two hours, Ben was up close and personal. I thought: Who does he remind me of? He next sand the duet "Lily's Eyes" (with Frank Aronson). I was struck by the beauty of the song and the voices.

I was also struck by who Ben Ashley reminded me of. Put a pair of 50's black narrow glasses on him and a guitar in his hands, along with his already obviously good looks and talent. "I found your Buddy Holly," I enthusiastically informed Danny the next morning.

I don't know all the particulars that happened next. I'd like to think that Danny called the new Buddy saying, "Hey, Ben, I hear you are great. Shera wants to cast you as Buddy Holly for the next 15 years (well, off and on). Do you want the job?" The rest is history.