Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.