Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 29, 2012

Country Royalty

CityStage, Springfield, MA
through April 1, 2012
By R.E. Smith

“Country Royalty” is billed as a ‘tribute” show, but it is more than just a standard greatest hits review. In addition to singing the “role” of Hank Williams, Sr., performer Jason Petty acts as lecturer, evangelist, and unabashed admirer of the “Father of Country Music.” Consequently, the show succeeds on many levels.

Dedicated fans are obviously quite pleased with Petty’s portrayal, lavishing him with generous applause, as if he was the legend himself. The uninitiated come away with a richer understanding of a talented man with the added bonus of a toe-tapping soundtrack. Williams was influenced by and wrote in a variety of styles, from honky-tonk rave-ups to spirituals. Even those who are not country music fans have undoubtedly heard “Hey Good Lookin’, “Move It On Over” or ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.

In an unusual twist on the tribute show format, the second half, focusing on Patsy Cline, is also narrated by Petty, albeit as himself. Carolyn Martin’s remarkable voice is well suited to all of Cline’s hits, from “Walking After Midnight” and “Crazy” to “Sweet Dreams.” In fact, her strong voice seems to be taxing the sound system at CityStage to the limits, causing some distortion. Though Cline’s career was shorter than Williams own brief career it did seem her story was given a shorter shift .

Backing both performers is the “The Country Royalty Orchestra,” a talented, tight, and polished ensemble of piano, drums, bass, slide guitar, and fiddle. It is unfortunate that they are not given named credit in the program insert. Their authentic sound is every bit as important to the success of the show as the remarkable talent of the leads.

“Country Royalty” is a unique, educational, and entertaining night of music, bringing to life two important and historical figures in a vibrant, compelling way.

March 15, 2012

Russian Masters

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
March 8, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

In the sixth “Masterworks” series of its current season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in a program of two orchestral staples and one comparative rarity by three Russian composers.

Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” in the familiar orchestral arrangement by the composer’s friend Rimsky-Korsakov, led off in a galvanizing account that shook the rafters of the Bushnell’s Belding Theater.  Brass and woodwinds rousingly depicted a nocturnal witches’ sabbath, while strings and percussion gently evoked the ringing of church bells at daybreak in the quiet conclusion.

The Maestra introduced the next work, Shostakovich’s seldom played “Symphony No. 9,”
with her own commentary and musical examples. Noting that most composers’ ninth symphonies are grander statements than this modest 27-minute piece in five short movements and that it defied expectations from Shostakovich for a heroic celebration of the recent Soviet victory in World War II, she pointed out an ironic quotation in the fourth movement from the massive finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The orchestra’s lithe performance nicely captured the sardonic humor of the work, from what Kuan called the “Haydn symphony meets Back to the Future” quality of the first movement to the mock-dramatic “Allegretto” finale.

The program closed with perhaps the most popular of all violin concertos, Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto in D Major,” which featured 17-year-old South Windsor native and first HSO “artist in residence” Sirena Huang. With years of professional training and performances with 40 orchestras in 12 countries already on her resume, Huang’s interpretive maturity belies her age. Her technical command of this challenging piece, which was pronounced “unplayable” by its first intended performer in 1878, was clear from the big sound and rich, focused tone that Huang produced in all three movements, with considerate support from Kuan and the orchestra throughout. Huang’s probing account of her encore, the opening “Adagio” from Bach’s “Sonata No. 3” for unaccompanied violin, suggests a promising future for this young talent, and the enthusiastic local fan base that cheered her on at this sold-out concert. 

March 12, 2012

Brahms & Harris

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
March 10, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth concert in its 2011-2012 “Classical” series, Music Director Kevin Rhodes led the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in what he called, in a recent interview with the Springfield Republican, a “bizarre collection of pieces” which he promised would be “a wild experience to hear…together” for their common “reuse in the best sense of the word” of pre-existing material.

Two familiar works of Brahms surrounded two rarities by American composers. The concert began with the “Variations on a Theme of Haydn,” which Brahms wrote in 1873 as a theme, eight variations, and a finale. The opening theme, which later research has shown may not actually be Haydn’s, is ingeniously varied and transformed in each succeeding variation, and the slightly reduced orchestra rendered its every contrasting shift of tempo and dynamics with unerring precision and charm.

Next came a thrilling performance of Roy Harris’ “Symphony No. 3,” a 1938 masterpiece whose craggy harmonies evoke the wide open spaces of the composer’s native Oklahoma. In one 18-minute movement with five sections, the piece reflects a wide range of influences, from medieval plainchant to Renaissance polyphony to American folk music. This powerful score deserves to become a repertory staple, and kudos to Rhodes for reviving it.

Intermission was followed by the least known and most exotic work on the program, Alan Hovhaness’ 1979 “Guitar Concerto No. 1.” Soloist Denis Azabagic launched into a virtuoso account of this dramatic and gorgeous 32-minute piece, which adds a Spanish flavor to Hovhaness' special love for Armenian traditional and liturgical music. Along with shimmering percussion throughout, a series of guitar duets with solo woodwinds and strings in the central slow movement were especially lovely.

In a counterintuitive but canny stroke, Rhodes and his musicians closed the concert with a joyous romp through Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” an 1879 commission from the University of Breslau which quotes several student drinking songs and ended this imaginative program on a crowd-pleasing high note.

March 7, 2012

Les Miserables

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 11, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Only six shows left to see the best musical ever set to stage! Sounds like a clearance sale ad? Yet, the urgency is the same, and in the case of the former – being “Les Miserables” – there is truth in advertising.

Victor Hugo’s epic novel turned musical of the French Revolution, plagued hero Jean Valjean, and unrelenting nemesis Javert is flawless. Both are real men with a mutual relentlessness in their personal lives and their relationship. That said, “Les Miz” is so, so much more: love, sacrifice, regrets, despair, camaraderie, and even joy.

This 25th anniversary production is billed as “new.” Oftentimes, “new” is followed by “improved.” Yes, this “Les Miz” at the Bushnell is indeed new in many facets of its production, but certainly equal to all perfect “Les Mizes” that came before. Gone is the circular turning center stage measurably moving scenes from one to another. Gone is the weaving crash of the monstrous barricade assemblage. Here is a dark and scary prison ship opening number. Here is escape through a 3D ever twisting sewer. The new elements do not replace the old, but surprise those who have seen the musical several times and wow first timers. 

Just when you think there can be no better singer/actor than the man who last portrayed Jean Valjean, another surprise. J. Mark McVey’s outstanding performance sets the bar high. Not only does “Bring Him Home” echo throughout the huge Bushnell hall, but the audience cheers do the same. Unique to McVey is his onstage aging process in demeanor, gate, and voice. Andrew Varela portrays the police officer in pursuit of his version of right at any cost. At first, Javert is pure evil, but Varela slowly embodies him with vulnerability. Although not one of the most hummable songs, his “Stars” is a thing of beauty.

Lovers Cosette and Marius (Julie Benko and Max Quinlan) make a fine melodic and sympathetic match. Chasten Harmon’s Eponine creates sadness personified, and Shawna Hamic and Richard Vida (M/M Thenardier) provide needed comic relief.

There are just too many highly skilled professionals onstage and backstage who deserve accolades in mounting superb theatre such as this near-Broadway caliber production. The sets, lights, orchestra – all fabulous!

The Whipping Man

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 18, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Applause goes to Hartford Stage for mounting new plays by young writers – in this case, “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez. Bravos are also deserved by the cast of three men who impart compassion, rivalry, hatred, and compliance to their characters. This play has a lot going for it.

The fault, however, lies in the script. A suggestion would be for the playwright to return to the computer. While each character is fully human, the sequences of their life events goes astray, sometimes at an irregular pace to stress the unimportant more than what is important.

The time is ante-bellum Civil War. The specific time is Passover. The place is a destroyed Southern Mansion. It might seem odd that the white soldier is Jewish, not to mention that his two slaves were brought up Jewish. Needless to say, religion plays a large underlining significance. The analogy between Moses and Jewish slavery and Lincoln and black slavery is perhaps novel at first thought, but the subject belabors itself throughout the play’s 90-minutes.

Josh Landay (Caleb, the soldier) delivers true angst to his character as slave owner. Leon Addison Brown (Simon, the older slave – now a free man) shows wisdom as he often sits exactly center stage facing the audience. Che Ayende (John, the younger former slave) sasses with a bravado that works perfectly. One particularly long and gritty scene with the three men onstage together, is acting and direction at its best. Given another play to star in, the trio could have blown the audience away.

Hana S. Sharif also faces some problems in directing. Oftentimes the language is straight out of the 21st century, therefore difficult to deal with. For the most part, Sharif moves her actors about realistically. Without giving a spoiler, it is important to say that after Caleb deals with an especially excruciating physical problem, his attitude and pain become blasé.

Not enough praise can be given to set designer Andromache Chalfant and lighting designer Marcus Doshi. From the play’s first moment to the finale, this duo’s work magically creates a dark and haunting period in the lives of the characters and their time in history.

March 2, 2012

Forever Kings

CityStage, Springfield, MA
through March 4, 2012
by Eric Sutter

What a lucky day to view not one but two tributes to popular music with the bravado of Matt Lewis in tribute to Elvis Presley and the soul of Edward Moss with tribute to Michael Jackson. Phenomenal dancers superbly complimented both performers. Matt Lewis began with a clutch of older Elvis tunes interspersed with period pieces. Fun was the word from the get go with "Blue Suede Shoes" which thrilled the audience as Ed Sullivan show clips enhanced the sensuality. By "Love Me Tender" chests were heaving from heated audience interaction. The "Jailhouse Rock" scene spelled trouble as four dancers synergized with prison uniformed Lewis with jazz hands all around. In the '68 comeback in black leather Lewis rocked blues tune "One Night."

A nice ballad, "If I Can Dream," prepared the way for Edward Moss as Michael Jackson who upped the energy with his "Dangerous" persona on songs "Stop Pressuring Me" and "You Want To Be Starting Something." "Thriller" took the swagger right to the top with a climax that produced four ghoulish dancers who groped on to the stage awkwardly around Moss' center stage gyrations. A soulfully sung "Man In The Mirror" featured a backstage Moss surrounded by dancers up front.

Act II captured the white jump suited King in Vegas with a fiery medley of old and new. The cabaret style slickness of C.C. Rider exhilarated towards the time period...he supplied a lingering warmth to "Are You Lonesome Tonight" which fueled a swampy "Polk Salad Annie" which satisfied. A bluesy update of "Houndog" packed an emotional punch that set up the thrill of a dramatic take of "Suspicious Minds." The energy was exciting by the patriot's dream of "American Trilogy."

Moss danced back to the 70's with the Jackson oldie "The Love You Save." More tricky dancing brought "Beat It" center stage with a simulated fight scene that simmered hot. The uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson was strongly evident on "Billie Jean" and it's smooth moonwalk dance. The great entertainment in the heart of downtown Springfield ended with a "Black and White" finale which featured both performers in traded vocals on the chorus line. See this show... it will bring you up!