Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 4, 2012

Pachelbel and Tchaikovsky

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
by Michael J. Moran

The first half of the third “Masterworks” program in the current HSO season offered a historical survey of music for string orchestra over several centuries. It played to the strengths of guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet.

Joel Smirnoff
The program opened with Pachelbel’s Canon, likely written around 1694 but lost until 1919, which, for all its familiarity, is rarely performed in concert. The Hartford string section gave it a warm, affectionate reading at a steady, flowing tempo. A smaller ensemble then backed HSO principal violist Michael Wheeler in Telemann’s 1720 Concerto in G for Viola and Strings. Wheeler played this tuneful and appealing showpiece with a sweet, mellifluous tone that earned him enthusiastic applause from the audience and his colleagues alike. Orchestra keyboardist Margreet Francis gave discreet support on harpsichord continuo in both works.

The string ensemble expanded again for a sumptuous account of Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Premiered in 1910, the Fantasia opens and closes with a simple 1567 melody by Elizabethan composer Tallis and features a string quartet and a larger group which build to a rhapsodic climax in counterpoint with the full string orchestra. Smirnoff balanced these antiphonal forces with passion and precision.

The full orchestra appeared after intermission for a terrific performance of Tchaikovsky’s seldom heard Symphony No. 1, called “Winter Dreams” by the fledgling composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes episodic structure and an overly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. The woodwind, brass, and percussion sounded supercharged by their earlier rest period, with impressive solo turns by oboist Stephen Wade in the dreamy “Adagio Cantabile,” principal flutist Greig Shearer in the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo,” and bassoonist Louis Lazzerini in the opening and closing movements.

Smirnoff brought a lively and engaging stage presence to Hartford, earning the affection and respect of both his fellow musicians and an appreciative audience. A return invitation to the Belding podium would clearly seem well advised. 

December 2, 2012

A Christmas Carol

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through December 29, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

From the opening scene featuring dancing and flying ghosts, the audience knows that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is going to be different. The 15th anniversary production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, directed by Maxwell Williams, marks the holiday season in a spirited way (pardon the pun). Originally adapted and directed by Michael Wilson, this production is a masterpiece of family fun that Dickens himself would appreciate.

Bill Raymond is irascible, endearing, and a master of comic timing as Scrooge. His portrayal of the iconic curmudgeon reflects an ability to integrate classic and children’s theatre to entertain audiences of all ages. The venerable Noble Shropshire, in a dual role as Mrs. Dilber and Jacob Marley’s ghost, provides a brilliant catalyst for Scrooge’s epiphanies. The professionals gently guide the children in the cast to realize their own characters, and the result is a caring stage family that resonates with everyone. When Tiny Tim says “God Bless Us Everyone” audible sniffles of sympathy from the audience were heard.

While the story is true to the original text, special mentions are deserved for choreographer Hope Clarke, scenic designer Tony Straiges, costume designer Zack Brown, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel for their contributions. The Spirit of Christmas Past (Johanna Morrison), the Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) and the Spirit of Christmas Future (whom, according to the playbill, was played by “Himself”) are memorable portrayals.

For those who know youngsters who have never seen a live performance before, this production is a wonderful way to introduce them to the magic of theatre. When the performance was over, one bright eyes young girl was asked what she liked best about the production. Her reply was, “All of it.” She might not become a theatre critic in the future, but it's pretty sure she’ll want to go to the theatre again.

November 13, 2012

Barefoot in the Park

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 16, 2012
by Walt Haggerty

In "Barefoot in the Park" playwright Neil Simon has created one of his most endearing and enduring triumphs. The Majestic is presenting a superb production of this first of Simon's long list of hits. In this presentation everything works. From the moment the lights go up on the unfurnished, fifth floor walk-up on New York's East 48th Street, the laughter begins and, except for a few moments of tension, it never stops.

Director Rand Foerster has assembled an amazing cast for this romantic comedy. The plot invites the audience to look in on the first week of a newlywed couple as they settle into their first apartment, immediately following their honeymoon. It is, as Foerster says in his Director's Note, a "flash back in time." Yesterday's audience clearly identified with, and thoroughly enjoyed, that nostalgic view of the past.

Darcie Champagne, as the young and impetuous bride, is perfection. From her opening scene, without a single word of dialogue to help her, she establishes her character while eliciting ever bigger laughs from the audience. Matching her, laugh for laugh, is Matt Clark as Paul the husband, also in a Majestic debut. He delivers a hilarious, boisterous, physical performance that is a joy to witness.

In what would normally be considered secondary roles, Barbara McEwen as the caring but intrusive mother of the bride, and Bill Nabel as the eccentric, charming and impoverished neighbor, are both absolutely wonderful. Their performances are exquisite examples of creating believable, loveable characters from material that might easily be overplayed by less skillful actors. These two are pros who never miss a beat.

Even such brief roles as Roger Patnode's Lord & Taylor Delivery Man and Stuart Gamble's Telephone Repairman become standout gems of humor as presented by these veteran performers.

Set designer Shawn Hill deserves special praise for his excellent apartment setting that is transformed from drab to charming between Acts I and II - and the snowstorm is a convincing winner.

The Majestic is a comfortable, affordable, and easily accessible theatre producing outstanding diversified entertainment. Missing the current production of "Barefoot in the Park" would be a mistake. It is a complete delight.

November 12, 2012

Dr. John/Blind Boys of Alabama

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst
November 8, 2012
by Eric Sutter

Two icons of American music collaborated on the first ever "Spirituals To Funk" concert that is touring America this autumn. Dr. John is an ambassador of all things New Orleans as his music testifies flawlessly. The swampy gris gris of "Iko, Iko" revved up the Lower 911 band he tours with. He showcased music from his latest CD "Locked Down" due out this April. "Revolution" and "Big Shot" had a slight departure from style with a hip R&B sound geared up with a younger set of musicians. Trombone solos by Sarah Morrow were hot. Dressed in a purple suit and fancy hat, Dr. John pounded the funky strutter "Right Place, Wrong Time" with its throbbed rhythms of funk ecstasy which plunged the audience over the edge. "Such A Night" delivered a smooth blues streaked soul sound with solid piano intro and outros by Dr. John.

The tone was set as the gold suited Blind Boys of Alabama stepped into their sacred ground to sing the spiritual "People Get Ready" accompanied by a sweet slide guitar solo by John Fohl. Their pure hearted harmonies humbled and moved the audience to sing and sway. "Spirit In The Sky" had everybody rockin' true. Dr. John backed them on keyboards for the fantastic dazzle of "There Will Be A Light." The gospel rave-up "Free At Last" percolated to a vibrant zenith with group member Jimmy Carter's high mark vocals -- pure musical pairings don't come more inspired. This integrated show explored the connections between jazz, blues and gospel. As the opening chords to "House Of The Rising Sun" began, the Blind Boys sang America's favorite hymn "Amazing Grace" with Dr. John's triumphant keyboard solo adding dimension.

The folk standard "If I Had A Hammer" turned into a glorious gospel jazz handed stomper. Dr. John soloed rock n' roll guitar with a solid punch on "Let The Good Times Roll." Bass player David Barard jazzed a funky bass solo. He sang lead on a bluesy spirited "When The Saints Go Marching In" to the Blind Boy harmony. The concert encored with the gospel standard "Since I Laid My Burdens Down" for the send off.

November 7, 2012

Toots and The Maytals

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
November 5, 2012
by Eric Sutter

The Jamaican musical group Toots and The Maytals appeared at the Mahaiwe on their first ever Unplugged Acoustic Tour. As the creator of reggae music and a key figure in its development, Frederick Hibbert (Toots) combined ska, rock steady and American soul in a vocal group style to help popularize the unique reggae music of Jamaica. He recently received the distinguished Order of Jamaica for his contributions. With a high voltage vocal delivery, Toots began with "Reggae Got Soul" from 1976.

The group, along with vocalists Chantelle Ernandez and Elenore Walters, delivered gospel/soul ballads and exuberant reggae rhythms equally well. It was like being held in the warm tide of a lover's arms -- calmed but stimulated, the music swayed the audience to dance. "Time Tough" and "Pressure Drop" urged folks to move. The laid back groove of 1968's "Do The Reggae," which was the first recording to coin the word "reggae" in music, delighted all. Next was a 2007 love song called "Celia" followed by "Sweet And Dandy" from the breakthrough 1972 reggae compilation recording "The Harder They Come." "True Love Is Hard To Find" featured the distinctive style of call and response interplay of lead singer Toots and the dynamic dual female back-up vocals.

The magical 70's hit "Funky Kingston" worked its vibe on the audience as the charismatic Toots went into the spiritual healers "Amen" and "This Little Light of Mine" with full force female vocal accompaniment. The audience was swept away by the mellifluous gospel tinged ballad of determined optimism, "Dreams To Remember." Toots, et al, performed his first international hit from 1970, a bluesy rendition of "Monkeyman." Two familiar popular songs "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Louie, Louie" featured another interactive vocal feature between the musicians and their fans. The new light spark of "Love Is Not Gonna Let Me Down" engulfed with a great sweep of love upon the ocean of people below, resulting in giant waves of movement. Hallelujah was the call.What a joyful noise! Toots encored with the freedom call "54-46." He segued into a soulful rendition of Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" which satisfied.

November 5, 2012

Electrifying Russian Music

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
November 3, 2012

by Michael J. Moran

“I never need much of an excuse to do an entire Russian program,” SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican. For the second classical concert of its current season he led the orchestra in three pieces which reflect the wide range of emotion and orchestral color of Russian music in performances which fully delivered on the “electrifying” promise of the program title.

The program opened with Overture to Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” Left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1887, it was completed by his colleague Glazunov from sketches and a memory of Borodin’s performance of it on the piano. Its mix of Russian nationalism with exotic suggestions of the opera’s Central Asian setting was deftly captured in an exuberant account that featured strong, cutting brass and warm, lush strings.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 reunited Rhodes with his undergraduate piano teacher Ralph Votapek, who won the gold medal at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 50 years ago playing the same concerto. His long experience with this 1921 piece, written mostly in Brittany and premiered in Chicago with the composer as soloist, and his obvious comfort with his former student yielded a performance of both dazzling virtuosity and relaxed lyricism. At age 73, Votapek’s manual dexterity is exceeded only by his interpretive maturity, and the large audience rewarded his efforts with a standing ovation.

Intermission was followed by an exhilarating rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the “Little Russian” symphony because it quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. Less familiar than the composer’s last three symphonies, its mostly original melodies also sound more folk-like than any of his other works. The opening motif was beautifully shaped by principal horn Laura Klock, and woodwind and percussion players were prominently featured throughout the program. Principal Christopher Cullen gave ravishing voice to the solo clarinet melody that opens the Prokofiev, whose staccato quality was even enhanced by castanets.

The maestro threw himself into his conducting duties with typical abandon all evening, and the orchestra responded with playing of impressive polish and passion.

October 29, 2012

Something's Afoot

Goodspeed Opera House, Haddem, CT
through December 9, 2012
by R.E. Smith

The home of the American musical settles into the dark and stormy nights of fall with a quintessentially British drawing room mystery. Originally produced by Goodspeed in 1973, 'Something's Afoot" is a change of pace in many ways. Owing much to Agatha Christie's novel, "And Then There Were None," ten supposed strangers are trapped in an isolated manor house and one by one meet their ends.

The score, as the director's notes point out, is more music hall than Broadway musical. There are no show-stopping numbers or poignant ballads that the audience will leave humming. However, a few of the show's little ditties are pleasant enough. "Carry On," is a rousing suffragette-style march and "Problematic Solution (The Dinghy Song) is straight out of vaudeville. " I Owe It All (to Agatha Christie)" is a traditional song and dance tune, albeit with literary references.

©Diane Sobolewski/Goodspeed
The performers are certainly game. Ron Wisniski, as Clive the Butler, seemed to connect with the audience upon entrance, by his voice and physical presence. Black-sheep nephew Nigel, played by Benjamin Eakeley, had the most successful solo musical number with "The Legal Heir." Ed Dixon's Colonel Gillweather generates the most smiles. Ever the precise and punctual military man, he has the most unexpected reactions to surprising revelations. Dixon works wonders by underplaying the role at just the right moments

As always, the set is spectacular, resplendent with wood paneling, ornate wallpaper, and period details. Nevertheless, the action seems too confined. The nefarious means of dispatching the guests are somewhat ill conceived by the authors. This is evident when the cast has to reassemble a piece of the set after a murder just to accommodate its continued use.

Students of American Musical theatre will be pleased to add this lesser known work to their inventory, fans of Agatha Christie will be content with all the nods to her famous oeuvre and the Goodspeed audience will be pleased by the "good show, old chap" they have come to except from the venerable institution.

October 27, 2012


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 28, 2012
By Walt Haggerty

“A story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery…” It’s all there in all its sizzling, red hot glory, in the touring production of Kander and Ebb’s paean to the evils of the Jazz age, and the audience loved it.

The original production opened in 1975, the same year as “A Chorus Line.” “Chicago” received good notices and achieved a long run, but “Chorus Line” received the bulk of attention and the awards. In 1996, New York’s City Center Encores presented “Chicago” in concert, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history!” That same year the show was given a full Broadway treatment and deserved awards. Today it is the longest running American musical in history.

The production at the Bushnell is a worthy reincarnation of its Broadway twin, with the incredible “in the style of Bob Fosse” choreography created by Ann Reinking, this time reproduced by Gary Chryst. Scott Faris is credited with recreating Walter Bobbie’s New York direction. High praise is due all.

Star billing is given to Christie Brinkly and she delivers a convincing “Roxie” portrayal with humor and style. Amra-Faye Wright’s “Velma” never misses a beat in a knock-their-socks-off series of show-stoppers, starting with “All That Jazz.” And they just keep getting better.

Kecia Lewis-Evans single-handedly scores a grand slam with “Matron’ Mama’ Morton” with an over-the-top delivery of “When You’re Good to Mama,” and, together with Wright, the duo squeeze every ounce of sardonic humor out of “Class.”

John O’Hurley brings his own brand of “Razzle Dazzle” to Billy Flynn, with great looks, charm, a voice to match, and a winning performance. Ron Orbach’s “Amos,” the forgotten husband, is right on target with “Mr. Cellophane,” and D. Micciche’s “Mary Sunshine” is a gem.

“Chicago” is an inventive masterpiece of theatre. For a thrilling evening of theatre “Chicago” deserves another viewing.

October 22, 2012

Keb' Mo' and His Band

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
October 19, 2012
by Eric Sutter

Singer-songwriter, guitarist and three time Grammy winner Keb' Mo' flashed a Mississippi "Big Grin" in the "Muddy Water" at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Here's the lowdown. Even though the performance spotlighted this gifted musician's guitar playing, much praise should be given to his tight rhythm section's playing and keyboardist Michael Hick's loose soulful groove. Keb' Mo's ease of style guitar playing made for a warm and comfortable downhome experience with stories of love and heartache. Although rooted in the Delta, his music transcends those boundaries to update that sound to modern times with R&B influences. His depth of emotion and living grace typified his persona of the link to the Delta blues.

Beginning solo on "Love Blues" and "The Action" he showcased acoustic rhythm guitar playing and slide. Love songs to females "Loola Loo" and "Rita" were up against electric numbers with full band on "Let Your Light Shine" and "France." He performed one of his best known works from 2009's CD "Live & Mo" in "More Than One Way Home" with a terrific bass solo by Vail Johnson. Drummer Lester Falconer kept a steady beat through "Everything I Need" on the keyboards with Keb' Mo' bringing it home with his mellow resonator slide guitar solo. Slower blues numbers like "Don't Try To Explain" captured the wounded heart of pain and misery. The show featured guitar changes galore, including banjo. His melodic slide glissaded true in "Perpetual Blues Machine." He performed acoustic with harmonica on "City Boy" which showed his neo-traditionalist blues style. "America The Beautiful" moved the audience to singing.

"Whole Nutha Thing" expanded on the theme of the importance of woman in his blues with a laid back groove and strong rhythm section. Good use of lighting made for an authentic duplication of the traditional blues "Come On Into My Kitchen" with Keb' Mo' solo center stage on sweet slide guitar. Incidentally, Keb' Mo' broadened his fan base with the docudrama "Can't You Hear The Wind Howl" in which he played Robert Johnson. He brought the house down with the encore of an early funky blues "She Just Wants To Dance."

Keb' Mo' performs at Symphony Hall, Springfield on October 27th.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Attending the opening of a world premier of any play is pretty special. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is exactly that – special, extra special. While most theatre goers are not familiar with the names Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, they undoubtedly soon will be. This duo, who has penned the book and music, has only begun to see their play’s full potential.

Photo: Joan Marcus
Our protagonist, boy-next-door jobless Monty is a young Englishman in 1909 whose only kin, his mom, just died. Poor Monty. Yet, surprise – unbeknownst to Monty, he discovers his rich lineage. Therein is the wonderfully funny story of just how delightful it is to become a serial killer. With eight heirs in line ahead of Monty, the lad has much deadly mischief to achieve to get the keys to the manor.

Told as flashback, this reviewer had a personal flashback. Hmm, this world premier sounds a bit familiar. “Guide” is, indeed, similar to the 1949 Alec Guinness movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” with Guinness portraying all of the heirs (male and female) as they are bumped off one by one. At Hartford Stage, actor Jefferson Mays takes on the herculean and hysterical task. Mays has even more work to do than Guinness because he must also sing and dance. Playing off of Ken Barnett’s Monty, this duo attacks the brunt of the script, seemingly effortlessly.

Darko Tresnjak’s direction is precise in his tableaux pictures, exaggerating the movements and caricatures. In particular, the numerous death scenes are clever and whimsical. The creative crew deserves bravos on set design, lighting, sound, and costumes. A colorful vaudeville-like set within a set with changing scenes and backdrops creates a cartoon atmosphere.

One suggestion would be to make a few judicious cuts solely for the sake of time. While there is not a single song that should be removed (the lyrics are especially integral), many are too long. By dropping a paragraph or two in each tune, this perfectly delicious show can be perfect.

The play’s first song, “A Warning to the Audience” [to go home] is, of course, not heeded. No one should leave the theatre until our serial killer hero and his eight victims receive standing ovations.

October 17, 2012

Beethoven’s Ninth-HSO

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 11–14, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Leave it to the programming genius of Carolyn Kuan not only to upend tradition by launching her second season as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the season closer at Tanglewood every summer) but to make practical use of the same vocal forces to introduce an unfamiliar work to local audiences which reflects her own Chinese heritage.

The “Yellow River Cantata” was written in 1939 by Xian Xinghai in the Chinese city of Yanan, partly as settings of poems by Guang Weiran celebrating the river, and partly in defiance of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. Though Xian had studied in Paris with D’Indy and Dukas for several years, the music sounds most inspired by Soviet socialist realism.

But its use of Chinese folk idioms and of several Chinese traditional instruments makes for a colorful half-hour score which drew a stirring performance from the orchestra, the Hartford Chorale, the Farmington High School Chamber Singers, the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford, and three vocal soloists, of whom Chinese-born baritone Yunpeng Wang made the strongest impression.  

The account of Beethoven’s Ninth that followed intermission was blazing and driven, in the tradition established by Arturo Toscanini. The first movement was intense and relentless, and there was no easing off of tension in the scherzo second movement, including a rapid-fire trio section. The third movement, though taken at a flowing tempo, achieved a rapturous calm before the high drama of the finale, in which the orchestra was joined by the three choruses and four vocal soloists.

Wang was again the standout singer, but soprano Yahan Chen, mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, and tenor Laurence Broderick also acquitted them well. The choruses did fine work in both pieces, singing with clarity, precision, and enthusiasm, and blending well with each other and the soloists. English translations of the texts were helpfully projected over the stage.

The focus of both works on global harmony among peoples served not only as a grand opening statement for the HSO’s new season but as a timely message in a divisive political season.

October 15, 2012

Venus in Fur

Hartford TheaterWorks
through November 11, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

First, thunder and lightning. Lights up on handsome Thomas (David Christopher Wells), complaining the actresses he auditioned for his new play were so bad that all he wants is "an actress who can pronounce the word 'degredation' without a tutor." Thunder, lightening, and in comes beautiful, baffled Vonda (Liv Rooth). Is it a coincidence she has the same name as the character in the script, or is it fate? She seems to be the another air-headed actress-wannabe, but she soon turns the tables and shows Thomas that she embodies Vonda, and knows the script better than the author. Coincidence or fate? Turn-abouts, twists in meaning, classical allusions, and contemporary culture are all woven into patterns that are achingly funny, frightening, truthful, and powerful "Venus in Fur."

David Ives' intelligent script allows these actors' talent to shine. Ives' work lets the audience participate in constructing the meaning of the play, and "Venus in Fur" may be his most complex script to date. Director Rob Ruggiero wields his skill by combining lighting, the impending storm, and the seething undercurrent of sexuality and seduction that alternately motivate the dual-portrayals of Vonda and Thomas as actress and  author, contrasted with who they become as they read the script together. Both Wells and Rooth are captivating in their portrayals. The audience knows that they will be attracted to each other, but surprises come as their lives begin to blend with the characters in the script-within-the script. What is funny, turns tragic, and what is tragic, turns into feminist resistance to male domination.

When this play appeared on Broadway, the general buzz was it was hard to describe, but that the character of Vonda was one of the most powerful roles written for a woman in years. There will be future academic conferences dedicated to this show and to what it means, but for now, take a deep breath, leave the kids at home, and experience theatre that might be a little uncomfortable to watch, yet make viewers think, and at the same time be  delighted with the play's intelligence and masterful performances.

October 14, 2012


Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through October 28, 2012
By Eric Johnson

Strong, solid, spirited. All words that aptly describe the title character of Aida as well as this production of the rock opera by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Director Kim Lynch and Musical Director Christina Climo have assembled and guided a wonderfully talented and dedicated ensemble cast of performers, all of whom possess the skills, talent and experience to make "Aida" a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. Choreography by Amy Bouchard is impressive, fluid and agile movement that compliments the plot and the music nicely and, as with all good choreography, looks effortless even though one knows better.

Chae-vonne Munroe (Aida), Ryan Slingerland (Radames) and Chris Willenbrock (Amneris) all bring stunning vocal ability and a completely believable chemistry to the characters they portray. The intensity that Munroe channels into Aida is almost disturbing at times, yet thrilling to watch. Slingerland portrays Radames internal battle of duty and conscience subtly yet most effectively. Willenbrock is a joy to observe as she deftly showcases the many facets and trials of Amneris. The remaining lead actors and ensemble do a fantastic job with pace and energy in this show, keeping it flowing throughout.

The multi-level set by Josiah Durham, Paul Hamel, and Ken Samonds is a very nice addition to the production. The artwork by Samonds goes a long way towards transporting the audience into Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Lighting design by Frank Croke is, as usual, a perfect compliment to set and scene. Costumes by Solvieg Pfluger and Moonyean Field integrate evenly into the overall aesthetics of this show.

With "Aida," Exit 7 once again proves that their reputation for high quality community theatre is both well deserved and hard earned. It is obvious that there was a lot of careful planning, inspired vision, and just plain hard work that led up to this enthusiastically received opening night performance.

October 12, 2012

Interview: Actor Josh Aaron McCabe

The 39 Steps
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through November 4, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kevin Sprauge
Josh Aaron McCabe (seated in photo at right) is one of the four actors starring in "The 39 Steps" where he portrays at least 30 roles all within 2 hours.

Q. Tell us about the rehearsal process under director Jonathan Croy?
Jon is the kind of director who believes strongly in the collaborative process. So we are all encouraged to dive in and try things - often slipping on the ice before we can skate on it. This show is technically demanding, and we spent quite a bit of rehearsal in "tech," trying to figure out how to make this machine operate smoothly with its many moving parts. There are set pieces continually rolling in and out, trunks used in different formations, over 200 sound cues, lighting effects to create all sorts of locations, racks and racks of specially designed costumes that allow us all of the quick changes. The thing about a comedy like this is that it is actually a lot of drudge work in trying to craft the humor amidst the story telling. When we add the final piece of the machine - the audience - we learn very quickly how well we've put it together and where we still need to oil the moving parts. Luckily, we have an amazing team of designers, actors, stage management, and a brilliant director.

Q. Do the actors offer direction suggestions; i.e. your fun with the stuffed cat was hilarious.
We all offer ingredients into the mix. Jon is very open and encouraging of the actors (and designers) to bring ideas. The cat was actually born in Jon's mind before we ever started rehearsals. I recall him asking me over the summer: "So, do you think you'd have fun with a cat?" Then he turned me loose to experiment and play. There were various adaptations: a stuffed animal, a custom built "cat puppet." Finally we took a stuffed animal and made a puppet out of it.

Q. How much is ad lib?
Ad-libbing is often entertaining, but can also become a slippery slope. There are different types of ad-libbing. In the rehearsal process - some ad-libs actually became a part of our script. They just worked and we kept them. The goal is to try to stick to the rehearsed script. However, in a wild show like this things are bound to go wrong and we then speak off the cuff a bit to get us back on track. This show also has veteran actors who are very adept at handling mishaps in a clever and fun way. The slippery slope comes into play, though, because we only want to go to that cow so often for the milk. The basic rule of thumb is: use the improv when necessary when we derail, but otherwise execute the show that we rehearsed.

Q. You have a voice that can handle any role: male, female, young, old. How did you learn to "do" voices?
I don't know that I ever learned anything other than to let myself "play". As a kid I would often imitate actors that I saw in movies. I also memorized most of Bill Cosby's sketches and had all of his inflections down. But, I also had a lot of vocal problems, even as an adult. I carry a lot of tension in my throat that works against having a free voice and actually can limit me quite a bit. I was blessed with an amazing voice teacher in graduate school, Susan Sweeney, who was determined to help me work through this. What I finally learned is that if I allow myself "to play," to get out of my head then my voice will naturally free up and I am fortunate enough to have a range that I can play with.

Q. You especially have a knack for portraying old women. Is that your specialty?
Shakespeare & Company really has some game when it comes to this genre of comedy. There are so many skilled actors and directors here that bring a high level of expertise (and nuttiness) to this style of storytelling. I'm just lucky enough to be surrounded by such a multi-talented Company that allows me to continue to learn and play in the sandbox, too. As far as playing old women, I plead the fifth.

Q. Any backstage anecdotes you'd like to tell us?
It's an ongoing challenge playing these multi-character roles. Not only is it about creating the characters, but then also keeping track of who appears when. The other night in performance I ran off the stage as a policeman and did my quick change into Professor Jordan. I was waiting backstage to do my entrance, when it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually supposed to be entering as the Pilot on the opposite side of the stage! That was a lovely moment of panic. I tore through the backstage hallway - clothes flying everywhere - and entered as a rather disheveled Pilot. It was a nice reminder that I can never get too laid back about the story telling.

October 10, 2012

Lord of the Flies

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through October 21, 2012
by Jennifer Curran

Somewhere between the drum beats, the savagery and the lost innocence lives a world of desperation and the desire to hold onto what is precious. William Golding's classic and controversial "Lord of the Flies" has been daringly adapted by Nigel Williams and brought to life with a raging and brutal blast at Barrington Stage.

As in the novel, a plane that was to deliver a group of British schoolboys to safety away from the war (likely WWII) ravaging Great Britain crashes into a deserted island.  What at first seems like a vacation in the land of plenty to the survivors quickly turns as the boys split into factions of savagery versus civility. As the boys' fears grow, they become certain that somewhere in the heart of the forest lives a beast ready to devour each of them.

In a unified vision, the direction (Giovanna Sardelli), lights (Scott Pinkney), scenic design (David M. Barber), sound and haunting music (both by Anthony Mattana), Barrington Stage has brought to New England something far beyond expectation. In a bold and brave production, audiences watch as young boys slowly and violently beat back the beast, spill the blood and kill the pig.

John Evans Reese as Jack Merridew delivers the sort of antagonist you love and hate at the same time. Pitted against Jack is Ralph (Richard Dent); the reluctant leader who questions his ability and desire to lead. Dent's ability to take us from an innocent boyish romp on a lost beach to murderous stomps and then utter desolation is a performance audience members will likely not forget. As Jack and Ralph take sides, there in the midst of it all is the sacrificial lamb, Piggy (Matthew Minor). Minor's Piggy is endearing and thoroughly engaging. It is Simon (Chris Dwan), however, in a moment of prophetic truth that is able to see who they have become and the treacherous path they follow. "Maybe there isn't a beast. Maybe it's only us."

October 8, 2012

Mozart & Haydn

Arcadia Players, Smith College, Northampton, MA
October 6, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

The Arcadia Players, an instrumental and vocal ensemble based in the Pioneer Valley and presenting music of the Baroque and earlier periods in historically informed performances, launched its 24th season with a varied program of concertos and other works by Mozart and Haydn. They were led by Ian Watson, beginning his ninth season as their Artistic Director.

The concert opened with the two-minute Overture to the one-act comic opera "Bastien et Bastienne" by the twelve-year-old Mozart. It was notable for introducing the guttural but full sound of the Arcadia strings and for a passing melody that foreshadowed a theme in Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony.

This was followed by Mozart's first work for a wind instrument, his only surviving Bassoon Concerto. Still the major repertory concerto for the bassoon, it showcased the formidable interpretive and technical skills of soloist Andrew Schwartz, who returned to his seat as a member of the ensemble for the rest of the program. His colleagues gave him solid support.

The first half of the concert closed with a piece by the mature Mozart, his Keyboard Concerto No. 12, in an exuberant performance on the fortepiano by Monica Jakuc Leverett. The metallic sound of the fortepiano, a cross between a harpsichord and a modern piano, took some getting used to, but the soloist's sensitivity to the concerto?s shifting moods displayed its full expressive potential.

Following intermission Watson led Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 from keyboard continuo in a thrilling account with Arcadia cellist Guy Fishman as soloist. After playing the virtuosic cadenzas in both the first and second movements, Fishman dispatched the Allegro Molto finale at record speed. The tone of his Baroque cello was rich but slightly sharp-edged.

The concert closed with a radiant performance, featuring soprano Kristen Watson, of Mozart's motet "Exsultate, Jubilate," which Fishman, in his witty and literate program notes, calls a "concerto for soprano and orchestra." Watson's clear, bell-like voice brought the program to a lovely close.

October 1, 2012

Opening Night

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
September 29, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

In his familiar tradition of programming something new with something familiar, Kevin Rhodes opened his twelfth season as Music Director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra with three varied pieces by Central European masters, including two SSO premieres and a warhorse.

After another tradition of launching the new season with the orchestra playing and the audience singing the national anthem, the concert proper began with the seventh of Liszt's 13 symphonic poems, "Festklange (Festive Sounds)." With its blazing brass fanfares and exuberant climaxes, this 15-minute rarity proved a welcome program opener, especially in the SSO's exciting account.

Peter Serkin, the soloist in Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, is no stranger to the orchestra or to Springfield, where he played a benefit concert for the SSO as recently as last year. Reflecting Hungarian folk and American jazz influences, this concerto is one of Bartok's most accessible works, and Serkin has been among its strongest advocates since recording it while still in his teens. With the SSO he offered an ideal mix of muscular, athletic playing in the two outer movements and hushed delicacy in the prayer-like theme of the sublime central "Adagio Religioso." All sections of the orchestra provided nimble and sensitive accompaniment.

An exhilarating performance of Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in C minor followed intermission. The forceful opening notes set an urgent tone for the dramatic first movement. The slow second movement was lovingly shaped by lush strings and woodwinds. The third movement was taken at a lively pace, which gave it a brisk, playful spirit. The main theme of the finale was nicely prepared by an almost ominous start and followed by a thrilling race to the triumphant close. The work of conductor and orchestra was strong, natural, and cohesive all evening.   

The absence of any spoken introductions to the music by the famously loquacious maestro and of the "Rhodes's Reflections" column from the program book was a relatively small price to pay for a stimulating program that got the new SSO season off to a promising start.

September 28, 2012

Interview: Regina St. John

Chena River Marblers, Amherst, MA
Presenter – Paradise City Arts Festival
Northampton, MA – Oct. 6 – 8, 2012

Tell us about your process of creating hand marbled books and silks.
We love to show people how marbling is done. It seems counterintuitive to see someone sprinkle paints on the surface of a liquid, comb intricate designs on the surface of that liquid and then in an instant be able to permanently capture that pattern on paper or fabric. In a year we may marble 400-500 yards of silk and hundreds of sheets of paper.

How is your art unique?
Initially, as casual practitioners of the art, we had little appreciation of the depth of the craft, yet 26 years later we are humbled by our constantly growing understanding of the history, science and artistic dimensions of the art of marbling. The science of marbling is enough to challenge the best of chemists. My husband Dan, a chemist at heart, is always looking for the why and how of it. Totally free of the science and/or history of it, a well-executed marbled paper will illicit wonder and admiration as it finds its perfect place in a well bound book.
How does a married couple work together?
Chena River Marblers has existed for 26 years. Dan has been an integral part of our whole as bookbinder, builder of all tools, practitioner of old-style marbling, historian and chemist. Over the years, I have specialized in marbling beautiful papers for hand bookbinders. Dan is our own hand book binder. The books that are sold by Chena River Marblers are made either by Dan or under his direction and beautified by our own hand marbled papers.

What is your art background?
Well, you know one does not grow up thinking, “I want to be a marble.” It wasn’t even on the list. Its existence was unknown to me, but the desire to create beautiful things and to work with my hands was always there. Early in the 1980’s some marbling on a greeting card caught my eye. It was several years later, after we had moved back to Western MA and found ourselves in a vibrant book arts community, that I had an opportunity to study with Faith Harrison, a nationally known production marble. Soon after that Dan began his bookbinding studies with Bill Streeter. There is no school of marbling.
Why should visitors buy from local living artists, other than to support them monetarily?
There is much to gain from having the opportunity to meet an artist. A few questions open up a world of understanding about an object that might simply have been admired. We love getting a chance to share with our customers our excitement about the work. As a collector, I particularly cherish the pieces that come with the added memory of having heard the artist’s thoughts about the work.

September 23, 2012

Blood Brothers

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
through October 28, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Reprising the Majestic Theater’s hugely successful production of “Blood Brothers” in 1998 was undoubtedly a task that faced many pros and cons for the director and actors. The end result is not without its own pros and cons, yet stressing the “pros.”

A soothsaying narrator tells the audience the saga of a poor but ever-pregnant mom living in Liverpool in the 1950s. The focal point is the separation of her twins at birth – one of whom is given to her affluent yet barren employer. While growing up, seemingly worlds apart, Mickey and Edward unwittingly become best buddies. The boys pledge their oath of friendship becoming Blood Brothers. Through fateful circumstances, frequently crediting the Devil and superstition, the boys’ troubled lives continue to be thrust together.

Some light moments brighten this otherwise dark play. Produced infrequently in this country (kudos to the Majestic for mounting “Brothers”), this musical continues to be a hit for 18 years in London.

The three lead actors have stepped into their roles seamlessly, with the age factor (yes, they are 14-years older) nil. In spite of the men portraying boys at age 7, Doug Major and Ben Ashley are extremely effective. The audience does not hesitate for a moment to believe each. Their bond as brothers is sincere and sweet, rough ‘n tumble. Christine Greene (their mother) continues to prove that she is one of the best sopranos in the Pioneer Valley. She infuses her solos with sadness and bravado. We believe her angst. One newcomer is Beau Allen, whose narrator is much too sinister with a voice that doesn’t quite fit the range called for. Another newcomer is Tyler Morrill (Mickey’s brother) who mixes his character with boyish spunk and hardcore reality. Here is a young actor to watch. All actors maintain British accents – not a small feat.

Actors Doug Major (left) and Ben Ashley

Slow at its opening, the pace only goes up a notch throughout the bulk of the play until a speedy end. Sometimes this works, and sometimes not. The big question which only applies to those who had already seen “Brothers” is: where is the beginning? Choice was made to cut out a visually important scene which sets the movement and the mood.

Mitch Chakour leads his band in soft jazzy pieces accompanied by eerie percussion. Greg Trochlil’s set parallels the boys’ lives, simply and effectively.

September 16, 2012

Mary Poppins

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through September 23, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Why would an adult enjoy a performance of “Mary Poppins”? Let me count the ways. 1. To re-capture pleasant childhood memories. 2. To experience the joy of accompanying a youngster to perhaps his/her first musical. 3. To awe over numerous, interchanging, spectacular 3D sets (the park scene wows in Technicolor). 4. To cheer the creative choreography and swift kickin’ chimney sweep rooftop dancers. 5. To sing along to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” front words and maybe even backwards.

What adults in the audience will not get is a profound script (that’s a given), fine acting (hardly necessary), and the Uncle Albert segment from the movie version (never liked it anyway).

“Mary,” the practically perfect nanny of the Banks’ household, brings order, life lessons, and new-found joy to all. Bert, a wannabe artist and chimney sweep, serves as narrator. Madeline Trumble’s (Mary) sweet soprano voice and Con O’Shea-Creal’s (Bert) cockney tenor are appropriate to their character. The kid actors are cute, the Bird Woman shabby, and the banker brittle. All of the elements shine to make “Mary” a treat.

This version of the classic tale adds many new songs, most of which are uninteresting. Yet the goal of those producing this hugely successful music was probably to appeal, even more than already accomplished, to a youthful audience. It works. Interspersed are reprises of the familiar “Chim Chim Cheree” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Indeed, “Mary” would not be a hit without everyone (yes, everyone) humming or singing at least one of the infectious tunes on the drive home.

Back to point #4. Mary, et al, rev up a slow paced “Super…” to a top-speed “YMCA”-like spelling (in body movement) – Act I’s show stopper. In Act II, Bert and his dusty friends perform a rollicking number seemingly on the rooftops of London for “Step in Time.” Again, a show stopper.

A third, yet unintended and literal show stopper on opening night was the recorded loud speak voice, smack in the middle of “Feed the Birds,” to “evacuate the building” to the sidewalks and parking lots. A scary situation particularly for most of the youngsters, they were calmed upon return to the theatre a half-hour later, by a soothing announcement that everything was okay and that the problem had been due to a special effect. Huge kudos goes to Bushnell staff, volunteer ushers, and audience for acting swiftly, orderly, and professionally.

September 10, 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through September 23, 2012
By Walt Haggerty

Charles Dickens’ "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was the great British author’s final work. Unfortunately death inconveniently intruded before the master had arrived at a conclusion. Ever since, other writers and mystery enthusiasts have offered as many as 500 theories as to Dickens possible intentions.

In the current presentation of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a musical adaptation, presented by The Opera House Players, there are at least five – possibly six - potential murderers. Or, did Drood actually survive? A visit to the Broad Brook lets the audience decide.

In a triple-threat capacity, Rupert Holmes has contributed book, lyrics and a delightful English Music Hall-flavored score. Great credit is also due the artful staging of John Pike, musical direction by Melanie Guerin, and lively choreography by Kelsey Flynn. A special bow should also be given for the elegant 19th century costumes by Moonyean Field and Solveig Pflueger.

As is customary with Opera House Players, casting is impeccable. Brandon Nichols, in his debut, is outstanding as Chairman of "The Music Hall Royale Players." Will Caswell is a formidable villain as John Jasper. Theresa Pilz contributes equal measures of sweetness and innocence as Rosa Bud, without ever becoming cloying.

Brother and sister, Neville and Helena Landless, are effectively portrayed by a stalwart Mike King and an exotic and enchanting Elizabeth Drevits. Erica Romeo skillfully blends charm and mystery into her captivating performance as Princess Puffer. Charles Della Rocco and Matt Falkowski are perfection as a cockney-accented father and son.

The score provides several strong production numbers for the entire company, including the spirited "There You Are" and a rousing "Off to the Races." Each of the principals also has opportunities to shine in solos and/or duets.

The only disappointment of the afternoon was the number of empty seats. This impressive company deserves better. Although this musical may not be as familiar as many of the hits of the past, it is a "Best Musical" winner with a fascinating story that involves the audience in its outcome, a charming and melodic score, and is a perfect opportunity to introduce young family members to Charles Dickens and the theatre.