Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 7, 2011

The Santaland Diaries

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through December 30, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Ryan Winkles is just so cute. He looks like a flirtatious cherub. Even Winkles’ name is cute. It is no surprise that he is cast as Crumpet the Elf in “The Santaland Diaries.” Yet, don’t look for your usual holiday sweetness and charm (both of which are quite evident in Winkles’ talent) in this one-act play with a season appropriate title. Instead, expect comedy, satire, risqué dialogue, and some pointed jabs at reality.

Playwright David Sedaris penned “Diaries” based on his own experiences as an elf at Macy’s in NYC. Wrinkles portrays a wannabe actor whose dream is to be cast on “One Life to Live.” He chronologically relates the detailed processes of how one becomes an elf. In the first seconds of the play, Director Tony Simotes immediately opens the fourth wall, exposing Winkles to his audience. He plays with us, jumps up the aisles, and asks questions. He has us at “hello.” Simotes and Winkles have been a creative team for several years. They are so in sync that their jobs seem incredibly easy.

The script is clever, the anecdotes are gems, and the story has a point from start to finish. Amid the fun and oftentimes side-splitting humor, are surprisingly serious moments. These ebb and flow smoothly and return to the humor. Is the real Santa white or black? How do parents behave and respect their kids in public? These are subjects to think about, but later.

Although Winkles seemingly portrays one character, he becomes many – chief elf instructor, a smart aleck Santa, a whinny child, and many more. How does he do this while dressed, for most of the play, in a bright multi-colored elf uniform? The answer? Perhaps better than any actor in the Pioneer Valley, Winkles uses his face, particularly his smile and his eyes. A curl of the lip, a darting glance “say” far more than pages of script.

If audiences have as much fun watching “Santaland Diaries” as opening night’s crowd, and as much fun as Ryan Winkles aka Crumpit the Elf exudes, then it’s a new and great way to spend the holidays.

December 6, 2011


Close Encounters with Music 
Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
December 4, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

Franz Liszt’s 200th birthday anniversary converged with the 20th anniversary season of Close Encounters with Music in a program entitled “Lisztomania.” Cellist and CEWM Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani prefaced the concert with an entertaining and informative 10-minute lecture about Liszt, the composer-pianist who became a Catholic priest late in life but never gave up his close friendships with many notable women (Hanani quipped, “he wore the habit but didn’t kick the habit”).

The program featured several of the solo piano works for which Liszt is best known, opening with the lovely “Two Legends” in sensitive performances by Jeffrey Swann, who later played the flamboyant “Les Jeux d’Eau a la Villa d’Este” with color and panache. Hanani joined Swann to present five more piano originals that Liszt himself transcribed for cello and piano. Most striking was “La Lugubre Gondola,” a late piece in which Hanani’s dark tone emphasized its early hints of atonality.  His expressive playing brought a mellower sound to the charming “Romance Oubliee” and three romantic “Consolations.” Swann was a virtuosic accompanist.

To end the concert’s first half, Swann was joined by violinist Yehonatan Berick for a scintillating account of Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” in a transcription for violin and piano. Saint-Saens was one of many fellow composers whom Liszt generously promoted throughout his life.

After intermission, all three principals closed the concert with Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 2,” whose classical structure and emotional restraint contrasted sharply with the rhapsodic freedom of Liszt. But this passionate reading showed that both composers could express deep feeling with different resources. Hearing Liszt on the same program with music by two of his contemporaries gave the audience a nicely rounded portrait of his life and times.

As both speaker and performer, Hanani is an engaging personality, but the program book could have included some notes about the music to expand on his introductory comments. This is a small caveat about an upcoming season of concerts by Close Encounters with Music that all feature a distinguished roster of world-class musicians performing at the Mahaiwe and other Berkshire venues.   

December 5, 2011


Unitarian Society, Springfield & Monson, MA
through December 11, 2011

by Felicity Hardy
There are some shows that appear often in the area. "Godspell" is one of those musicals. The loose structure of the show itself, which is told as a series of parables demonstrated by Jesus, John the Baptist/Judas, and a ragtag group of clown-like disciples, is one left wide open for interpretation and reinvention. The one thing that can be said of "Godspell" is that the same version is rarely done twice.

Director Kathleen Delaney takes this a step further with a complete reinvention of the musical's structure. In addition to Jesus' main band of followers, she has added a Greek chorus, led by the mostly-silent character "Evry1" (played with mystery and commitment by Joshua Farber) designed to be "yang" to Christ's "ying." The chorus seems to have its own story to tell, at times antagonistic and at times adoring, but the already somewhat abstract structure of the show is both helped and hurt by this aspect. This abstractness adds further confusion to a story already struggling to tell itself clearly, but also delivers exciting visuals and innovative staging.

Another departure is the inclusion of "environments" – a series of vignettes introducing each of Jesus' followers as individuals, providing snippets of backstory. While the sequence is drawn out, and perhaps could have been better served with all actors on stage with scene shifts designated through lighting changes, it clarifies these characters.

Steve Pierce makes for a charming and charismatic Jesus, humble, funny, and personable in a way that makes it clear why the rest of the characters want to listen to him. Michael Lorenzo is brooding and dark as John the Baptist, serving as the group's sardonic rebel and lending both humor and drama. The rest of the group is a dynamic and cohesive ensemble, each with distinct personalities. By the play’s conclusion, they do feel like a family, and their chemistry as a unit is what makes for an emotional journey. 

This version of "Godspell" is one that takes risks in order to reinvent itself. Not all of these risks are successful, but the overall message of love and hope is still intact. It is a passionate and sincere production. 

Holiday Masterworks

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through December 4, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

As Music Director of the Hartford Chorale since 2006, Richard Coffey was no stranger to the Hartford Symphony when he led the orchestra in an imaginative program of three “Holiday Masterworks,” the third program in their 2011-2012 “Masterworks” concert series.

Even with no apparent holiday connection, a lively reading of Glinka’s exuberant “Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla” opened the concert on an appropriately festive note. Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 1 from The Nutcracker” was a more familiar but always welcome holiday treat, especially in the HSO’s glistening account. From the delicate celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the sweeping harp in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” every musician played with obvious affection for each movement at Maestro Coffey’s ideally balanced tempos. A snowflake projected across the wall behind the stage added another nice seasonal touch.
After intermission the orchestra was joined by the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and three soloists in the HSO’s first ever performance of the rarely heard Christmas cantata “Hodie” (This Day) by Vaughan Williams. Dating from 1954, this hour-long piece was the composer’s last major choral-orchestral work. Its 16 short movements alternate between settings of Biblical texts about the Christmas story for children’s chorus and settings of poems by various authors for mixed combinations of chorus and soloists.

The performance by all forces was brilliant. The very full orchestra reveled in the music’s wide range of moods and sonorities, from the grandeur of the opening chorus to the jubilant finale. Hushed settings of “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy and a “Pastoral” by George Herbert were the emotional heart of the piece, and both were movingly sung by baritone Eric Downs. Tenor Eric Barry was appealing of voice and clear of diction, and soprano Stephanie Gilbert’s singing was radiant. The adult choristers were magnificent throughout, while the children sang with purity and charm. 

Full texts were included in the program book, but they would have been easier to follow with projected subtitles. Still, the audience was clearly grateful to hear a thrilling new discovery by a 20th century master. 

December 2, 2011

4 Sides of 40

CityStage, Springfield, MA
November 29, 2011
by K.J. Rogowski

CityStage’s “4 Sides of 40,” delves into the trials and tribulations of  four individuals  and the lives they lead as…forty and single, forty and newly married, forty and long time married with kids, and, of course, forty and divorced. This humorous walk through the possible perils of forty is told in an evening with four stand up comics, each with their own style and routine, and each with a tale of woe.

The cast members -- Lenny Marcus, Al Ducharme, Eric McMahon, and Patty Rosborough -- are tried and tested stand up comics, who not only deliver their funny and very salty routines, but also encourage audience participation, ranging from comic movie trivia quizzes, to hugging audience members, (watch out if you sit in the front row), to calling attention to anyone who dares to leave for the bathroom during the show (since there is no intermission), which feeds right into that running gag.

This is a production about adults. For those who attend, be aware, this is an adults only show. The stories deal with all aspects of relationships from the mundane to the intimate, and no topic is spared, told in colorful detail. Name a body part, and it's in there; name a bodily function, and it's in there; name something you don’t think they would dare say, and they’ll say it.

But it is all done for the humor and not to shock or offend, and that’s what makes this evening of comedy that folks can relate to work. It's four folks just telling their stories, like they would to any trusted group of 300 friends. Letting their hair down and cranking the humor up. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 4 sides of 40.