Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 24, 2012

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin

Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
by Michael J. Moran

Rafael Schaechter
Subtitled “A Concert Drama,” the second program of BCF’s 2012 season was a moving tribute created by guest conductor Murray Sidlin to Czech musician Rafael Schaechter (1905-1944), who trained 150 of his fellow prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp to sing Verdi’s “Requiem,” of which he led 16 performances there from a legless piano between 1943 and 1944 before he and most of his singers perished at Auschwitz and other death camps.

A complete account of the Verdi “Requiem” by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, the 180-member BCF Chorus, and four soloists was supplemented between movements with video testimony about these Terezin performances by surviving singers, excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film about Terezin, and a narration about the historical background. To suggest how the Terezin performances may have sounded, the orchestra was replaced in a few passages by solo piano.

The BCF performance was impassioned and intense. Soprano Rochelle Ellis, mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins, tenor Scott Ramsay, and bass Stephen Bryant sang well individually and in various combinations. The large chorus sang with consistent clarity and unanimity. The orchestra played with distinction throughout, from the thundering brasses and percussion of the “Dies Irae” to the hushed strings of the “Offertorium.”

Three narrators, including Sidlin, also made strong contributions. Actor and bass-baritone John Arthur Miller read the words of Schaecter; and acclaimed British baritone Benjamin Luxon, sounding as mellifluous as on his many recordings, read testimony of various Terezin survivors.

Perhaps the most touching part of the performance was the end, when the chorus exited through the audience singing a Jewish lullaby, accompanied only by clarinetist Michael Sussman and concertmaster Robert Lawrence, the rest of the orchestra having exited backstage. A video projection requested a moment of silence for Schaecter in lieu of applause.

In a program note, Sidlin quotes Schaecter as telling his Terezin Choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” This “concert drama” poignantly reaffirmed the power of music to bring “absolute joy” (which one survivor remembered feeling when she sang Verdi’s “Sanctus” at Terezin) even in the face of death.

A Thousand Clowns

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through July 28
by K.J. Rogowski

The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of “A Thousand Clowns” is a tight, well paced and very funny show. As with any good comedy, it calls for great timing and delivery, and this cast does indeed deliver.

CJ Wilson and Russell Posner as Murray and Nick, respectively, set a lively pace with their ongoing banter, songs, games, and general disregard for whatever the outside world may think of their cavalier take on life. Their situation, of Murray being five months unemployed, and Nick not really being under his legal care, is punctuated by the antics of James Barry and Rachel Bay Jones as the wonderfully uptight Albert Amundson, and his partner/ fiancée, the very sympathetic Sandra Markowitz of child welfare. Add to this comic mix the characters of Murray’s brother and agent, Arnold, played by Andrew Polk, who makes every effort to bring Murray back on board to write for the Chuckles the Chipmunk television show, and Jordan Gelber, as the jolly old chipmunk and equally self-centered and irritating kids show host, and the audience has a host of memorable characters, and comic moments to appreciate.

The story of Murray and Nick plays out a gamut of emotions, expectations and disappointments, pitting their off the cuff life style against the demands of social norms, legalities, and the oftentimes drudgery of every day life and survival. The play depicts the art of compromise and the test of wills in action. Randall Parsons’ set design too plays a role, with its tall dull grey walls looming over Nick and Murray’s apartment sanctuary, dotted with colorful stuffed toy eagles, and too many clocks ticking away their hopes. "A Thousand Clowns" is an evening of wit and wisdom, played out by a fine cast, delivering close to a thousand laughs.

July 23, 2012

Far From Heaven

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA





The Hong Kong Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 22, 2012
by Amy Meek

The Hong Kong Ballet’s debut performance at Jacob’s Pillow was a beautiful and eclectic program. The company presented three contemporary works showcasing the dancers’ technique and artistry. All of the components of choreography, dancing, costumes, and lighting contributed to make the performance emotionally powerful.

The first ballet, "Black On Black," by Kinsun Chan, explored the different meanings of the color black. The dancers worked together well, dancing in geometric shapes with grounded movements. The dramatic music, costumes and lighting created an intense effect of beauty and strength.

Peter Quanz’s ballet "Luminous," in contrast, had an airy feel and sustained movements. This piece showed the complex emotions of human relationships. The dancers, clothed all in white, alternated between exuberance and control. The music by Marjan Mozetich was breathtaking and communicated the feel of longing in the ballet.

The final ballet was "Symphony in Three Movements," a work choreographed by Nils Christe. This war-inspired piece, set to Igor Stravinsky’s score, was a display of power and technique. The ensemble group sequences were the most intriguing to watch with the dancers in unison through many dynamic and percussive passages.

The Hong Kong Ballet truly howed off their versatility and talent as a company. The audience was very responsive, rising to their feet at the end of the performance.  Jacob’s Pillow once again has given Western Massachusetts a summer season filled with the highest caliber international dance companies.

Green River Festival

Greenfield Community College, Greenfield, MA
through July 15, 2012
by Eric Sutter

A hot and humid weekend had folks cool drinking during a euphony of music in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday. Three stages and three generations of Guthries made for a festive family reunion. Main-staged Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion kicked it off with a folk song about their Berkshire home, "When The Lilacs Are In Bloom." Wonderful harmonies colored Woody's "Pastures Of Plenty" and their own "Bright Examples." The Meltdown Stage featured the whimsy sounds of the Sweetback Sisters. Kids also loved Eloise the Great with the ukulele. Chuck Prophet rocked a "Summertime Thing" for older kids. He posed the question, "Who Put The Bomp?" in a modern rock style.

The hip-shakin' Charles Bradley expressed deep emotion with the splits, sweat and a slow burn of soul wrenching heartache. His pain conjured a funky, "Heart Of Gold" and his "Never Give Up On Love" rave. A kids Mardi Gras parade ensued to the beat of Dixieland. Later, couples danced to the Latin roots-rock hits of Los Lobos. As dusk settled, hot air balloons lifted as the last of the frisbee players left yonder field. The Guthrie clan sang "Kindness" to the main throng of the large audience. Arlo and Sara Lee sang "Oklahoma Hills." The whole family rocked "Coming into Los Angeles" with Abe's stand-out keyboard solo. His son Krishna handled electric guitar on Wilco's "Airplane To Heaven." The fun sing-along ended with a spirited "My Peace." Day two caught the "Ramblin' Round" spirit of Woody.

Day two featured Nashvillian Elizabeth Cook, who performed country and gospel. Her take on Merle Haggard's "Today, I Started Loving You" raised smiles. With a voice that tingled, she took the stage by storm with the gospel rave-up "Hear Jerusalem Calling." Chris Smither mellowed down easy with his fingerstyle guitar Delta Blues. Master British guitarist Richard Thompson performed songs from "Walking On Wire" including his classic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Peter Mulvey sang a warm vibed set at the Meltdown Stage ending with "Knuckleball Suite." The Reggae music of The Alchemystics competed with an appearance by powerhouse zydeco player C.J. Chenier on Yonder Stage. Green River had something for everyone, including awesome food.

July 15, 2012

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis in D Major, op. 123


Berkshire Choral Festival
Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
by Kait Rankins

Every year, the Berkshire Choral Festival brings together choral singers from around the world to live and breathe the music for a week, attending music classes and rehearsing for five hours a day. Each singing week culminates in a concert for the public. While BCF's home is in Sheffield, MA, they also have singing weeks in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Mondsee/Salzburg, Austria. This year BCF opened their season in Sheffield with what Beethoven acknowledged as his greatest work: the Missa Solemnis, a liturgical work containing the text of the Latin Catholic Mass.

Under the leadership of guest conductor Craig Hella Johnson, the 80-minute performance flew by, taking on the highs and lows of worship: quiet pleas for mercy and triumphant declaration of faith in God. The choir was accompanied by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, BCF's partner for the past 31 years, who handled the complex piece with masterful ease.

The concert featured soloists Mary Wilson (soprano), Emily Lodine (mezzo-soprano), Derek Chester (tenor), and Kevin Deas (bass), all of them accomplished classical vocalists who came together to create a magical quartet that led the 200-member choir. Of particular note was Wilson, whose bell-like soprano was bright and easily distinguishable from the choir's rounder sounds. Her tone added clarity and precision to the performance, particularly when paired with Lodine's mezzo-soprano in close harmonies.

At times, the choir seemed to lag slightly and didn't always seem to be together when it came to diction (one notable moment being the clatter of "t" consonants ending a short "et" during the Credo), and there were moments when the tenors and basses should have been in focus but the far more numerous sopranos and altos overpowered them. However, the overall sound was full and majestic, inspiring whispered praise from the audience following the Gloria.

BCF continues its season with three more concerts in Sheffield, starting with Defiant Requiem, a concert drama about Jewish prisoners during WWII created and conducted by Murry Sidlin. 

Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Williamstown Theater Festival-Nikos Stage, Williamstown, MA
through July 22
by Jarice Hanson


The genius of Neil Simon is that his characters evoke empathy. In “Last of the Red Hot Lovers”, Brooks Ashmanskas ably portrays Barney Cashman, a middle-aged restaurateur caught in the shifting mores of the ‘60s sexual revolution. He’s never cheated on his wife, but he would like to find “something beautiful and decent” with another woman, at least once. Ashmanskas is a terrific physical performer who embodies the humor of Barney’s self-consciousness and desire. His portrayal of a man having his first experience with marijuana is side-splittingly funny.

Barney’s big problem lies in the women he tries to seduce. Comic Susie Essman plays Elaine, a cynical woman who would rather have a smoke than a smoking Barney. Leslie Bibb is Bobbi, the wacko actress-wannabe Barney meets in a park. Finally, there is Jeanette, played by Heidi Schreck; a depressed friend of Barney’s wife, who is achingly funny in her melancholia. It’s no spoiler to say that Barney’s sexual frustration grows as we learn about the women’s baggage. The dialog drives home the pain of a nice guy who just wants to be bad once, even though the only place he can have a tryst is in his mother’s apartment.

Director Jessica Stone has found the timelessness in this 1969 script. She focuses on the desire to connect with someone in a loving, decent way, while the rest of society gives way to hedonistic pleasure. On opening night, the cast was working hard, but the three sets of relationships had not yet crystallized. The three female roles are challenging, since the actors need to create a rapport with the audience beyond character type while keeping comic tension. Ashmanskas’ Barney develops nicely, with humanity, desire, and a quintessential Neil Simon resolution.

"Auld Lang Syne”


New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
Through July 21, 2012
by Dave Chivers

With "Auld Lang Syne,” New Century Theatre co-founder Jack Neary has written a witty, engaging, thoughtful play that provides for a delightful evening of theatre.

The play receives a workmanlike performance from its two actors, Anne Scurria as the solidly Catholic, middle class Mary and Barry Press as Joe LeCedra a two-bit mobster with hopes of becoming something more. Before being brought together on New Years' Eve for a purpose that is slowly revealed, their only previous connection in life had been as elementary schoolmates some fifty years before.

The play begins with a rat-a-tat opening that seems right out of the best of Abbott and Costello, with silly wordplay and misunderstood double meanings. But under Neary's sure writing this eventually evolves into something more - an unexpected, but not out of place, exploration of questions such as the relative merits of Heaven and Hell, the existence of God, and what makes life worth living - or not.

Throughout most of the first Act the two actors provide a finely tuned madcap performance that is engaging and fun. Barry Press is especially convincing as Joe, a guy who keeps messing up his life, but keeps trying to make better despite himself.

Near the end of the First Act, the pace begins to lag a bit. As the Second Act opens, the play takes on a darker, more reflective tone. The script remains strong, but the acting to pull off such mood change in more extended monologues falls a bit flat. Attempts to recapture the energy of the first act didn't quite come together in this opening performance, and while the play ends with a satisfying, thoughtful conclusion, it lacks a bit of vitality that it might well find as the run goes on.

The set and staging is well done, with the effects of off-stage comings and goings of cars and trucks (crucial to the plot) very convincing.
This is only the second staging "Auld Lang Syne" but given the strength of the writing, it should be a play that finds itself produced regularly in the future.

July 12, 2012

A Chorus Line

Berkshire Theatre Group
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
through July 21, 2012
by Amy Meek

The Berkshire Theatre Group’s presentation of “A Chorus Line” is filled with high energy and emotion as its cast takes over the stage during the opening sequence. Within the first few minutes, the audience finds itself immersed in the world of a dance audition complete with the tension, competitiveness and even humor of the experience. On the stage are nameless people. Only as the show goes on does the audience see a glimpse into the characters’ inner selves, which is the beauty of this musical.

The original production was created, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, a dancer/director who wanted to make a show by dancers about dancers. “A Chorus Line” was immensely successful, winning nine Tony Awards. This production recreates the essence of the original, while giving it a fresh look through updated costumes and interpretation.

The cast works together beautifully as an ensemble. There is no one star, although there are certainly some standout performances. Natalie Caruncho (Diana) gives a nuanced portrayal of the spunky, idealistic Puerto Rican dancer. Matthew Bauman (Mike) and Neil Totton (Richie) wow the audience with strong technique and bravado in their solos. Eddie Gutierrez (Paul) delivers his intense monologue with strength and ease of emotion. Nili Bassman (Cassie) is stunning as she sings her difficult “Music and the Mirror” number, fighting for her place on stage. Noah Racey (Zach) holds the show together with his intensity and authority as he manipulates all of the dancers during the course of the audition. There are too many individual moments to mention, but every performer is given a chance to shine.

The choreography by Gerry McIntyre, a mixture of the original and new material, is spot-on and executed well by the dancers, especially the “Montage” and “Finale”. The vocals, directed by Steven Freeman, are also very strong. As a whole, Eric Hill’s direction of the show allows the dancers’ individual stories to shine through in the songs and dances. While an amazing spectacle to watch, the show is also introspective as it deals with the many issues dancers face during their struggles to make it in the dance world.

July 9, 2012

Animals Out of Paper

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through July 15, 2012
by Robbin M. Joyce

Chester Theatre Company is a gem tucked into the foothills of the Berkshires. Its reputation for producing top-notch productions continues with this 23rd season, "Uncommon Love Stories." May Andrales directs the first of four shows on this theme of love: “Animals Out of Paper” by Rajiv Joseph.

The show opens on Ilana's apartment. She is a world-renowned Origami Artist and the set, designed by Vicki R. Davis and lit by Lara Dubin, is in utter disarray; it is strewn with paper, drawings, take-out boxes and origami animals, including a five-foot wide hawk composite hanging from the ceiling. Ilana, played by Elizabeth Rich, is clearly folding in upon herself while trying to deal with her failed marriage and the loss of her dog. When Andy, played by Chad Hoeppner, shows up uninvited and asks her to take on one of his troubled students as an origami apprentice, she has to decide whether to stay crumpled up or introduce a whole new set of folds and pleats into her life.

This play draws the audience in during Act I.  It's full of raw emotion and vulnerability that feels real and spontaneous. The dialog among the three characters is witty, fresh and funny. Rich embodies the frustrations of her character with ease. Hoeppner is adorable as the nerdy, besotted love interest. Vandit Bhatt, as Suresh, is delightful as a mouthy teenage prodigy trying to sort out his emotions after a life-altering tragedy.

In Act II, however, the tone turns serious. Although some of the action becomes very static, the actors are still a joy to watch. They take the raw emotion and vulnerability seen earlier and transform it into heartbreaking tension. Rich lithely transforms her character from eremite to mentor with a compassion that, unfortunately, is misinterpreted. Hoeppner's wrenching portrayal of an irreparably harmed suitor is a stark contrast to his earlier sunny self. Bhatt's teenage angst is genuine and serves as a reminder of the need for hope, however tenuous it may be.

Peppered with hip-hop music, at the hand of Sound Designer Tom Shread, this sprightly comedy is the perfect start to the summer theater scene.

As You Like It

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Hampshire Shakespeare Company
UMass, Amherst
Center for Renaissance Studies
August 1 - 12, 2012

In preparation and rehearsal for one of Shakespeare's funniest comedies, "As You Like It, " Hampshire Shakespeare Company is making great use of the of the natural forest and meadows of its new home at the Center for Renaissance Studies, in Amherst. Instead of mounting the play on a traditional stage, both the players and the audience will share the beautiful grounds, cavorting in the Forest of Arden under the sunset and the starry night. 

According to Steve Henderson, the play's director who conceived this creative production, "You might find yourself mistaken for a tree that a love poem has been left upon, or taken to be a sheep in one of the play's pastoral moments, as the actors move around and through the seated audience." And speaking of seating, audiences can avail themselves of the usual chairs, or bring their own blankets and picnic baskets to enjoy as they watch the play.

Performance dates and times are August 1 - 5 and 8 - 12 at 7pm. In case of rain, the play will be performed indoors, and a rain check for another performance will be honored. Advance tickets are available at Amherst Books (Amherst), Broadside Books (Northampton) and Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley). General admission is $16, seniors and students $14, children under 12 for $6. For information email slcomedy@comcast.net.

You are sure to like "As You Like It."

July 5, 2012

The Blue Deep

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
www.wtfestival.org
through July 8, 2012
by Jennifer Curran

"The Blue Deep" is the sort of play that borders on something big, but bogs itself down with trying too hard. Too much obvious symbolism undermines the play’s real world message. It simply doesn't need dreams-as-symbols or actors suspended from the fly space. While beautiful to see, it is out of place. The play could be told with two characters rather than five. As fun and charming as Becky Ann Baker, Finn Whitlock and Jack Gilpin are, their characters really have no story or even purpose.

Blythe Danner stars in Lucy Boyle’s new play as Grace Miller; a mother and wife dealing with the loss of her husband. Danner finds that perfect balance between strength and vulnerability. She rules the stage as Grace rules her perfectly tended yard. Everything in its place, kindly brushed under the carpet as Grace runs and darts and dodges the shadow of grief that seem to be looming ever closer. When Grace’s daughter Lila (portrayed beautifully if not predictably by Heather Lund) arrives with a few plastic bags of clothes, Grace's life comes to a screeching halt.

What the play gets right is the fight between Grace and her daughter. Their fight is within themselves and finding a place for their sadness as well as finding a place in each other’s life and ultimately deciding upon who gets to claim the deeper pain. The words they haven’t been able to say are let loose in a stunning torrent of despair.

Unfortunately, the play falls heavy by too many obvious choices. A cookie jar urn -- we know where this is headed. A bag of pot shared among three boomers? That joke again? The predictable pattern of fight – walk out, return, act like nothing happened became old.

There are moments of brilliance found buried among the mundane. The best example is the scenic design by  Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata. Sag Harbor never looked so perfectly poised. Danner’s acting is raw and honest and almost hard to watch. In those moments, it makes all the rest superfluous. Why speak in riddles when the plainness of language bears such weight when delivered by a woman at the top of her game?

July 1, 2012

Dr. Ruth, All the Way


Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 21, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

The world premiere of "Dr. Ruth, All the Way," tells the life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the    pioneer sex educator known to many from her books, radio and television appearances. Through playwright Mark St. Germain’s chronological script, we learn that Dr. Ruth’s public persona is the result of a most extraordinary life. Born in Germany, Karola Ruth Siegel was sent to Switzerland on the Kinder transport at 10. At age 16 she worked on a Kibbutz in Palestine and was trained to be an Israeli freedom fighter sniper. Eventually, she came to New York, where she began studying at the New School. Her story is peppered with self-deprecating wit, visual projections that help the audience relate to her family, and the choices history forced upon her.

Debra Jo Rupp turns in an outstanding tour-de-force in this one-woman show, engaging the audience as new friends, conscious of the theatrical setting and the dramatic tensions of the story. Her accent, a combination of Dr. Ruth’s own, identifiable cadences marked by the influences of English as her fourth language, is flawless. The actress' energy and command of the material should have future audiences leaping to their feet after each performance. An actress small in physical stature, she is not as tiny as the 4’7” Dr. Ruth, but the set, costumes, and wig are all of a scale to emphasize the Dr. Ruth’s own life force, and Rupp’s sweet, expressive face communicates the joy, the heartache of loss, and love of husband, children, and grandchildren.

Under the skilled direction of Julianne Boyd, and Rupp’s outstanding characterization of Dr. Ruth, we are reminded that to truly live and be loved, one can’t fear change, but see life as a journey of discovery.