Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2012

Satchmo at the Waldorf

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 16, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

There are two stars in the wonderfully imaginative, one-man play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf." The gifted actor, John Douglas Thompson represents Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong backstage, at his last performance in 1971. Thompson affects a vocal growl and the bowed-leg stance of the sick, aging musician, but also transitions into two very different characters—Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager and friend, and Miles Davis, from a different generation of Black entertainers who criticized Armstrong for pandering to White audiences and being an “Uncle Tom.” While never resorting to impressions, Thompson physically and vocally creates a dialog with the audience that allows the trio of characters to explore the soul of a genius, race in America, and the human cost of success.

The second star is Terry Teachout’s well-written script, which gives Thompson the opportunity to explore the pain of  racial bias, the evolution of jazz, and an era of performance in which the mob controlled business in the night clubs of major cities. Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, has written a biography of Armstrong and knows his subject intimately. In this, his first play, he scores a home-run with an intelligent, honest script, superbly directed by Gordon Edelstein, with a set designed by Lee Savage, and sound designed by John Gromada. Special kudos go to lighting designer Matthew Adelson for punctuating Thompson’s transitions from character to character effortlessly, and collaborating with Thompson to transform him into Miles Davis through light and actor artistry. 

One-man plays often have a tendency to venerate the subject, but in this production Thompson and Teachout each perform their craft through the story of Armstrong. The audience does not watch, as much as participate in this play, and is given the gift of seeing theatre at its most magical. The standing ovation was well earned, shouts of “bravo” mark this production’s success.

The Joffrey Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA
through August 26, 2012
by Amy Meek

Photo by Christopher Duggan

Jacob’s Pillow ended its 80th season with the historical and dynamic Joffrey Ballet. The choice of this renowned Chicago-based company shows Jacob’s Pillow’s expertise in selecting and exposing audiences to eclectic, thought-provoking dance groups. The history between the Pillow and The Joffrey goes back over 50 years, starting with appearances by Robert Joffrey, the company’s founder. During this special engagement, East Coast audiences experience this talented company in their first appearance back at the Jacob in 47 years. The program consists of three works showcasing the varied repertory of the company and its dancers.

The first piece, "Age of Innocence," choreographed by Edward Liang, takes a look at females in Victorian Era society as depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. Through the use of traditional English social dances, the ballet shows the repression of Victorian society over the women and relationships between women and men. This constraint contrasts with beautiful moments of partnered dancing, which exemplify the passion and love which lies beneath the surface. The ballet proves the dancers’ wonderful lines, musicality and balance. The choreography works with the music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman in a creative way, especially in the timing.

"Bells," the second work, is choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. It is lighter work filled with stylistic flair. The variations on costumes and lighting help convey the expansiveness of the piece, as does the music by Rachmaninov.

The third work, "Son of Chamber Symphony," is a Jacob’s Pillow World Premiere choreographed by Stanton Welch. With great athleticism the male This work shows dancers focus on leaps and turns. The lone ballerina evokes images of a music box dancer caught in a chaotic world. This intriguing work, with its sweeping music by John Adams, concludes the performance. The evening was enthusiastically applauded by the audience, ending a successful summer season at Jacob’s Pillow.

August 21, 2012

Brace Yourself

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through August 25, 2012
by Kait Rankins

Directed by two-time Tony Award winner James Naughton, “Brace Yourself” is the story of Sunny, an uptight and tense mother of two who just wants to hold on to control of her life. But with an easygoing husband who just wants to go fishing, a daughter rebelling against her meticulously-planned and lavish wedding, a son who’s gaining a reputation for being promiscuous and extremely noisy neighbors, keeping control isn’t easy. Add to that a 92-year-old aunt dying suddenly in her living room and a hurricane threatening evacuation of the island, things feel about as out of control as possible.

David Epstein’s breezy one-act comedy about kids growing up and leaving the nest threatens to become predictable, but it’s saved by a few plot surprises, unexpected irreverence, and charmingly funny characters. Golden Globe winner Jill Eikenberry is brilliant in her deadpan and grouchy portrayal of Sunny, and her chemistry with real-life husband Michael Tucker (Sunny’s husband Milt) is spot-on. Also of note is Clea Alsip (the son’s girlfriend) with adorable believability that makes her a breath of fresh air. Jackie Hoffman steals the show as Sunny’s chain smoking friend and neighbor Jeannette, delivering most of the play’s punch lines.

Special recognition needs to be given to scenic designer Hugh Lendwehr, lighting designers Paul Gallo and Craig Steizenmuller, costume designer David Murin, and sound designer Scott Killian for creating a fully-immersive set that can make the audience forget that they’re sitting in a theatre and not at Sunny and Milt’s island summer home.

Both the cast and the design keep the play grounded in realism, which is ultimately its greatest asset. “Brace Yourself” could easily fall flat if played solely for laughs, but Naughton’s direction keeps the characters from becoming abrasive caricatures. The plot can read like a sitcom episode where all the characters shout at one another and mug for the audience, but that kind of heavy handed approach is gracefully avoided. The result is a production that is lighthearted but realistic, and it’s a charming end to BTF’s summer season.

The Betrothed

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 26, 2012
by Robbin M. Joyce

Chester Theater Company concludes its 23rd season, “Uncommon Love Stories,” with the regional premiere of Dipika Guha’s “The Betrothed.” This unusual love story, directed by CTC’s Artistic Director Byam Stevens, is presented in the Commedia Dell’Arte style and has the feel of a middle-eastern fairy tale in which magical realism abounds.

The staging, designed by Vicki R. Davis, sets the cartoonish tone and the music and sound effects by Tom Shread reinforce it. As the play opens, Simon is en-flight, sitting in the middle seat and talking to his invisible seat mate. It’s an utterly amusing monologue that reveals he’s going to the Old Country to meet the woman to whom he’s been betrothed for 30 years.

As he arrives at the home of his beloved, the stock characters typical to Commedia Dell’Arte begin to appear: the old hag, the lothario father and the lustful priest. What unfolds is a wacky love story with all the twists and turns of a gnarled walking stick.

Chad Hoepnner stars as Simon and is endearing as the naïve, eager suitor. Caitlin McDonough-Thayer is a delightful dichotomy, easily shuffling characters from the ugly, hunchback crone to her cold, beautiful daughter and back again.  John Shuman entertains as both the potion-making, gender bending Priest and the nearly silent best friend of Simon’s father. Anderson Matthews rounds out the cast as both the woman-stealing father and Simon’s future son.

“The Betrothed” is presented in a single, 90-minute showing without an intermission. It starts out strong and interesting, with comic moments that engage the audience; but the action slows down mid-show. Is this love story meant to have a moral like so many fairy tales? What is the social commentary? The audience is left wondering as the play comes to its conclusion. Perhaps the moral of the story is: in this case, magical realism is neither real nor magical.

August 18, 2012

See How They Run

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 26, 2012
by Kait Rankins

Barrington Stage's production of Philip King's farce "See How They Run" is the story of Penelope Toop (Lisa McCormick), a former actress who has married Reverend Lionel Toop (Cary Donaldson), the vicar of an English village. Thanks to her free spirit and modern mindset, she struggles with fitting in - frequently drawing the ire of the buttoned-up Miss Skillon (Michele Tauber). When Clive (Michael Brusasco), an old acting friend who is now a British soldier, comes to call, Penelope insists on seeing a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," a play they toured in years ago. There's only one catch: Clive can't travel too far away from where he's stationed. If he's seen in his uniform, the consequences are dire. Refusing to take "no" for an answer, Penelope dresses Clive in the vicar's clothes to allow him an escape for the evening.

"I've played in too many plays where characters have done this sort of thing, and something's always gone wrong," warns Clive. He's right: what follows is a madcap plot relying heavily on wordplay, physical comedy, mistaken identity, slamming doors, elaborate chase scenes, and no fewer than four men dressed in identical clothes.

With the play's frothy, lighthearted subject matter and broadly-drawn characters, it seems easy to dismiss it as an easy play to perform; it isn't. Director Jeff Steitzer and fight choreographer Ryan Winkles had their work cut out for them in crafting a fast-paced comedic spectacle that relies on timing and complicated movement. The nine actors must work as a team as if they're partners in a dance. If one visual gag fails, the breakneck momentum of the play is lost.

They succeed. In fact, they succeed so well that it all appears effortless. Each character is a piece of a puzzle, where timing is everything. Characters are drawn with a broad brush, but they're played with skill and precision. Despite the ridiculous nature of events, actors never cross into self-indulgence and mugging. While all members of the ensemble excel in their roles, Dina Thomas, Michele Tauber and Jeff Brooks give standout performances.

"See How They Run" is a feat of comedic skill and the perfect summer treat.

August 13, 2012

Homestead Crossing

Berkshire Theatre Group
through September 1, 2012
by Shera Cohen

The program book for “Homestead Crossing” states that the play is “about life, love and relationships.” Well, those three subjects seem to describe the subject matter of just about half of the plays ever written. “Romeo and Juliet” fit the bill, as does “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Indeed, if one was to mix the pair of couples, put them in one setting, then lighten them up (a lot) the end result is a bit like Berkshire Theatre’s world premier of “Homestead Crossing.” However, even though the story is fun does not mean that it is without depth.

Anne and Noel (Corinna May and David Adkins) live a middle-aged boring life in their lovely home. Enter Claudia and Tobin (Lesley Shires and Ross Cowan) who are younger, eager for life, and lost in the midst of a proverbial dark and stormy night. Each pair is in the midst of arguing. Seemingly disparate couples, the dialogue take delicate steps to intertwine the four personalities through experiences, dreams, mores, and expectations. May and Adkins easily don the demeanor of a mundane married couple with mutual comfort. Their crisp repartee, with undertones of solemnity, creates a real duo to watch, albeit relatively uninteresting to the audience. Shires and Cowan’s characters intrude and infuse quirkiness into the scene (both actors are terrific at quirky). They are the polar opposites of Anne and Noel. Or are they? Ah, the mystery. Now the foursome comes alive.

Director Kyle Fabel moves his quartet on an even level in the one-set (living room). While in some important segments the actors seemed to be blocked by furniture, there is, after all, just so much that can be done in one static room. Whether unintentional or not, the relatively even and motionless set added to the purpose of the play’s focus. Although seemingly insignificant, the title “Homestead Crossing” is, in hindsight, absolutely perfect.

Kudos to playwright William Donnelly on his world premiere and to Berkshire Theatre for mounting this special story of live, love, and relationships.

Capitol Steps

Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA
through September 2, 2102
by Shera Cohen

The following are just some of the very important reasons why audiences should participate in the laughs at Capitol Steps.

Cranwell Resort in Lenox is the locale; lush site, free parking, and air conditioned.

Another Capitol Steps? How often can a person see it? The answer is once a year, at least. After all, the news changes constantly, and Capitol Steps keeps up.

Pianist is the forgotten guy at the piano in the corner; he’s a great musician playing from rock ‘n roll, to country, to jazz, keeping the show fast and fun.

I have seen Capitol Steps about 8 times, and have no doubt that I will enjoy it at least 8 more times in the future.

Thirty years ago is when Capitol Steps began their long and continuing run of spreading mirth throughout the land.

Original material is written constantly to keep up to date with the news of the day, needless to say.

Laughs, and many more laughs are assured; although having read a newspaper or watched MSNBC in the last 12 months might help.

Songs are familiar, but with specially written lyrics to fit the segments; they are a hoot.

Tale told backwards in with consonants are juxtaposed in phrases (trust me, you have to hear it) are hilarious; i.e. “pea tardy” is “tea party.” This is the funniest segment of the performance.

Election year brings out the best and funniest performances; no one can ignore Obama, Romney, et al.

Politics, professionals, and just about everyone else whose names you have heard of are equally, yet humorously bashed in song.

September 2nd is the final date to see this hilarious show.

August 5, 2012

The North Pool

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 11, 2012
by Shera Cohen

It’s safe to assume that each summer Barrington Stage Company (BSC) will present one or two new plays. Perhaps mounting an unheard of piece is risky business. However, not only has Barrington taken on the difficult task, but relishes and thrives on it. Two years ago, “Freud’s Last Session” took the stage in Pittsfield, and from there the play traveled for a long and current off-Broadway run. Last year’s “The Best of Enemies” was, without a doubt, the Berkshires’ finest work. Let’s not forget that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” came to life at BSC’s old home, which at the time was only a high school auditorium in Great Barrington. Many Tony Awards later, “Bee” is one of the most popular musicals performed throughout the U.S. This summer highlights the East Coast premiere (a sole production took place on the other side of the country) of “The North Pool.”

The two-character, 90-minute, one act performance begins with Vice Principal and student in a high school setting. Dialog and action are a bit slow and seemingly cliché. The writer leads the audience in softly with each deliberate step. Layers form, questions asked, assumptions made not only between the two onstage, but also by the audience and characters. In a sense, the play is a mystery. The intrigue smolders, eventually erupting through the interaction of both men through their words and silences. In the talk-back following the production, the actors painted an analogy between the plot’s unraveling and an onion being peeled.

Without explaining the play’s title or spoiling the exposition, not to mention the ending, without hesitation, “The North Pool” can stand proudly alongside “Freud,” “Enemies,” and “Spelling Bee” – all originally unheard of, yet huge winners each.

Barrington’s experiment in presenting “New Works Initiative”– which includes world premieres, second opportunities for a new play, and first time musicals – is in itself worthy of praise. “The North Pool” exemplifies one particular example of a very successful end result.

Haydn & Schubert

Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA
August 4, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Guest conductor Kathy Saltzman Romey, Director of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota and Artistic Director of the Minnesota Chorale, led urgent performances of two cornerstones of the standard choral repertoire – Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” and Schubert’s “Mass No. 5” – to close the Berkshire Choral Festival’s 2012 season in Sheffield.  

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra and the 180-member Berkshire Festival Chorus were accompanied by four vibrant soloists: soprano Mary Wilson; mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek; tenor Christopher Pfund; and baritone Paul Max Tipton.

Both works are products of their composers’ artistic maturity, written just over 20 years apart. As Laura Stanfield Prichard points out in her insightful program notes, the Schubert is performed much less often than the Haydn because Schubert’s “ambitious writing and heady textured harmonies make this work too difficult for most ensembles.” But the Schubert’s lyrical warmth makes it sound more comforting than the tragic drama of Haydn’s Mass, which is also subtitled the “Mass in Time of Anguish” because of the ongoing Napoleonic wars it reflects. 

Performances by all the musicians were strong. Wilson’s radiant soprano was touching in both works, as in the closing measures of Haydn’s Credo” or the “Gratias agimus” passage of Schubert’s “Gloria.” Tipton’s mellow baritone was the other standout solo voice. His “Qui tollis peccata mundi” in Haydn’s “Gloria” was resonant, clear, and moving. They blended beautifully with the other two soloists in their frequent ensemble work. The chorus demonstrated some fine unison singing in Haydn’s “Credo” and did full justice to Schubert’s often rich and dense harmonies. Romey drew sensitive playing from brass and strings in both works and particularly from the additional woodwinds in the Schubert.

The exemplary program book also included the full Latin texts of the five standard Mass liturgy sections used by both composers (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), along with an eloquent tribute to the concert’s dedicatee, the late Mary Hunting Smith, founding executive director of BCF, whose career paved the way for “generations of women arts administrators to come,” like the night’s conductor.


Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 12, 2012
by Robbin M. Joyce

Some experts says runners need not run more 20 miles on their long training runs in the weeks leading up to a marathon. The theory behind that opinion is that given a properly-followed training regiment, a runner will find the inherent determination and endurance for the final 6.2 miles on the day of the race. It's a leap of faith, per se.

Much like a runner training for a marathon, Chester Theatre Company has taken a leap of faith in producing the New England premiere of "Running" by Arlene Hutton. The third of four shows in its 23rd season, "Uncommon Love Stories," director Ron Bashford has taken on a 90-minute, no intermission, glimpse into the neurotic world of wannabe runners and best-laid plans gone astray. Is this a love story?  Perhaps.

Enter Emily and Stephen, respectively played by Melissa Hurst and Jay Stratton.  Emily has fled England and her husband without a plan for accommodations and desperately puts out a plea for help to her former roommate. Stephen is home alone while his wife is away on business and comes to Emily's rescue. He's running in the New York City Marathon the next morning, but allows his very structured routine to be interrupted because it's what his wife would have done.

Stephen and Emily, initially very awkward with each other, warm up eventually and talk the night away. They discover they were roommates in that apartment at the same time briefly 30 years earlier and that discovery leads to further confessions and soul bearing.

Melissa Hurst gives a performance that's free-spirited and vulnerable. She easily embodies the pain of betrayal while peppering her remembrances with gleeful nostalgia. She's a delight to watch. Jay Stratton gives an equally strong performance, but seems less suited to the role. He appears to be much younger than the 50-something character he's playing. Yet, he elicits an empathetic longing for Stephen's youth and passion, both irreparably lost as time runs on.

The conversation flows quite naturally, at times feeling like an uphill slog and at other like a downhill sprint; but it's not compelling. Questions get raised but never answered. The actors in this "uncommon love story" have done their training work and it shows in their strong performances, but the script can't take them the final 6.2 miles.

August 3, 2012

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through September 29, 2012
by R.E. Smith

            Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is a “classic” musical, bringing with it all the benefits and drawbacks such a title conveys. The benefit is that no one does “classic” better than Goodspeed and there are songs, performers, choreography and technical elements in this production that shine. The drawback lies in some elements of the book, characters, and dialogue that are rooted in the time of its creation.
            As Musical Director Michael O’Flaherty’s marvelous orchestra whisks us along to the lilting “Prologue”, we meet Billy Bigelow, rugged and handsome roustabout and Julie Jordan, reserved but restless New England mill worker. Good girl meets bad (but sensitive) boy, boy and girl fall in love; romance and tragedy ensue.
            The show is a compendium of many different theatrical elements; a blending that at the time of its creation was innovative. There are elements of light opera, ballet, and pantomime. There are familiar “show tunes” like “June is Bustin' Out All Over,” and ”You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There is also “A Real Nice Clambake,” which is probably the only time a picnic menu has been successfully set to music.
            Director Rob Ruggiero, who helmed last year’s wonderful production of “Showboat,” makes the New England setting a character unto itself. A background of abstract clouds combines with Alejo Vietti’s costumes, to create tableaus straight out of a Winslow Homer painting. He skillfully mixes real and fantastic elements.
            James Synder as Bigelow, has a truly impressive voice, especially in the Act 1 closer “Soliloquy.” He balances the torment, tenderness, and damage that could prove unsympathetic if not done right. Teal Wicks brings a unique,  straight forward, Yankee, sensibility to Julie but her lovely voice is underserved by the score. (Erin Davie will replace Wick in the role as of August 8.)
Jeff Kready & Jenn Gambatese/Photo by Diane Sobolewski
            Audience favorites are the characters of “Carrie Pipperidge” played by Jenn Gambatese and her somewhat reticent but ambitious beau “Enoch Snow” played by Jeff Kready. The spunky Carrie gets the best lines, the cutest songs, and the better man and makes the best use of her Down east accent.
             The show does have a dark undercurrent, some of it stemming from Billy’s discontent. More of a problem is Billy’s unscrupulous friend Jigger, who not only leads the barker down a ruinous path, but also tries to assault a woman. The book attempts to lighten his brutal moments with humor, but an uncomfortable sensation remains.
            “Carousel” does succeed overall; at times, tender, moving, romantic and sentimental. As always, the Goodspeed production is well acted, sung and beautiful to watch. Fans will be well satisfied and newcomers are bound to find themselves fondly recalling magical moments both large and small.

The Quality of Life

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through August 4, 2012
By K.J. Rogowski

Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life,” playing at the New Century Theatre is a production that pulls out all the stops, and takes on the topic of death, both recent and impending, with forthrightness, wit and humanity.

The script introduces the thoughts, emotions, and philosophies of four individuals, two couples and old friends, whose views on death are as divergent as possible. One couple has lost a daughter to a senseless crime, murder. The other is facing a terminal illness and the plans they have devised to deal with it. As their stories are revealed, so are their stances -- be they emotional, religious, legal, or just common sense/practical. Arguments are fought, alliances are made and broken, and friendships and marriages teeter not only on the brink of their losses, but of impending dissolution.

Dinah and Bill, played by Laurie Dawn and Sam Rush, are the practical mid-Western, church going visitors. Jeannette and Neil,acted by Cate Damon and David Mason, are their free spirited, free thinking West Coast friends, who are dealing with Neil’s terminal condition, and a devastating fire that has just destroyed their home. Their culture and lifestyle conflicts alone are a strain on their meeting, but as the painful layers of each couple’s suffering and style of coping surface, anger and indignation build, and other secrets are revealed.

Set against the skeletal remains of Neil and Jeannette’s burnt out home, this play hits hot button after hot button, for the characters and the audience alike, and what seems to be the answer to the pain and loss now, is soon upended by an unexpected plot twist. “The Quality of Life” makes for a quick paced, challenging and rewarding evening.

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 28, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Berlioz called his “Damnation of Faust” a “dramatic legend in four parts,” but given its life-and-death text, its larger-than-life characters, and the passionate intensity of its music, he could just as aptly have called it an opera in four acts. The concert performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under frequent BSO guest conductor Charles Dutoit brought the score to vivid life in the suitably grand acoustics of the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

The orchestra was impressively joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite, tenor Paul Groves as Faust, baritone Sir Willard White as Mephistopheles, and bass-baritone Christopher Feigum as Brander, along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus, well prepared by their respective conductors, John Oliver and Andy Icochea Icochea.

The BSO has a long and distinguished Berlioz tradition, most notably under French music specialist Charles Munch, but among living conductors only Sir Colin Davis rivals Dutoit’s command of the composer’s singular style. This riveting account of “Damnation” featured a wide palette of instrumental colors, from the coarse tuba-like ophicleide with the drunken chorus in Auerbach’s cellar to the lovely solo viola that accompanies Marguerite’s plaintive song about the King of Thule. The sensitivity of Berlioz’s orchestration could be heard not only in the massive choral-orchestral passages but especially in the delicate sounds of three piccolos portraying will-o’-the-wisps and two harps evoking heaven in the final scene.

The contributions of the vocal soloists and choruses were consistently fine. Graham lightened her sumptuous tone to express Marguerite’s youthful innocence, then deepened it to summon the ecstasy of her romance with Faust and her grief when he abandoned her. Groves was by turns a movingly world-weary scholar, an ardent lover, and a tormented victim of his lust for life. White drew an often humorous, over-the-top portrait of Mephistopheles as a prankster who reveled in his deadly work, while Feigum sang a rousing “Song of the Rat” poisoned in Auerbach’s cellar.
Prolonged applause after the two-hour-plus intermission-less concert should alert BSO management that this large Tanglewood audience would welcome the presentation of more eccentric but rewarding masterpieces like this one.

Brahms: Complete Solo Piano

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 26, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Pianist Gerhard Oppitz
Brahms completists had a rare opportunity last month to hear every piece that composer wrote for solo piano in a series of four concerts over two weeks by the protean German pianist Gerhard Oppitz. By mixing longer, shorter, earlier and later works, each program showcased not only the soloist’s staggering virtuosity but the remarkable variety of Brahms’s piano music. At the age of 59, Oppitz also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to familiar images of the composer around that age.

His approach to Brahms combined the deep, resonant tone of Claudio Arrau with the lighter keyboard touch of Julius Katchen, the first pianist to record all of Brahms’s solo piano works, as Oppitz has also done. His tempos were steady but flexible, always striking a perfect balance between youthful abandon and mature restraint, according to the particular piece he was playing. His use of rubato was sparing and carefully judged, honoring Brahms the classicist as well as Brahms the romantic.

The ease with which Oppitz played even the most challenging repertoire, like the symphonically-scaled “Sonata No. 3” and both books of the “Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” may stem from his already having performed the complete Brahms cycle a number of times. But familiarity didn’t keep him from revealing fresh insights even in some of the most popular works, like the dramatic “Two Rhapsodies” and the exuberantly Viennese “Sixteen Waltzes.”

The most impressive moments of these concerts may have been the rapt attention Oppitz commanded from the audience during quieter pieces, like the meditative intermezzi among the four sets of piano miniatures that Brahms wrote in his final years. It’s hard to imagine that any other pianist could have expressed the melting lyricism of Op. 118, No. 2 or the eerie desolation of the “Dies Irae” theme in Op. 118, No. 6 more compellingly.

Oppitz’s monumental achievement was further enhanced not only by the marvelous acoustics of Ozawa Hall, which allowed every note to be clearly heard, but also by the extensive and detailed program notes about each musical selection by Brahms biographer Jan Swafford.

A Month in the Country

Williamstown Theatre, Williamstown, MA
through August 19, 2012
by Walter Haggerty

A very deep bow is owed to Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for their vibrant and lucid translation of Ivan Turgenev’s 19th century Russian masterpiece “A Month in the Country.”  Williamstown Theatre Festival, with Nelson’s masterful direction, has given this comedy-drama new and exciting life. Last seen at Williamstown in 1978, this 2012 production is staged in a vastly different and stimulating manner.

Taking a page from the legendary director Stanislavski, Nelson has presented the story with great simplicity, virtually scenery-less, with only basic, essential furnishings. On a thrust platform, extending into the auditorium, the capacity audience, seated on three sides, is all but enveloped within the production – and responds with rapt attention.

The cast delivers an ensemble performance that matches the best of British repertory companies. In the most demanding assignment, Jessica Collins delivers an extraordinary, bravura performance as Natalyla (Natasha), convincingly managing instantaneous mood swings from deep depression to almost juvenile silliness – all brilliantly. Charlotte Bydevell, as the ward of Natalya and her husband, transitions from an immature 17-year old to a jealous young woman ready to fight for young love.

As a “friend of the house,” Jeremy Strong’s Mikhail Rakitin contributes loyalty, dedication, understanding and sympathy while subverting his own love. The young tutor, Alexei, played by Julian Cihi, and the subject of Natalya’s infatuation, has the difficult task of maintaining an air of naiveté, until finally confronting reality.

Louis Cancelmi as Arkady Islaev, Natalya’s husband and wealthy landowner, is first constrained in demonstrating his deep love for his wife, until the point when his caring character is clearly and convincingly defined. Sean Cullen, as a doctor, dispenses friendship and advice with sardonic humor. As a wealthy neighbor with an inability to approach women, Paul Anthony McGrave creates an indelible cameo, generously embellished with humor. 

Others in the smaller roles are Kate Kearney, Elizabeth Waterson,Parker Bell and Harry Ford – all contribute brief but important moments to this amazingly rewarding production.

To see a rarely performed classic in an exhilarating new translation and dynamic presentation, “A Month in the Country” should not be missed.

August 1, 2012

Shakespeare & Company at age 35

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
by Shera Cohen

The following are 35 reasons to love Shakespeare & Company.
  1. Tina Packer – the dynamic founder of S&Co.
  2. Tony Simotes, who has taken the helm as Tina slows down
  3. “The Tempest” – with a new, feminine take (thru 9/12)
  4. Ensemble acting at its best
  5. Elizabethan language made understandable
  6. Modern plays (even world premiers) are produced
  7. Theatre adaptations of stories and novels
  8. “Tartuffe” – a rollicking Moliere under a tent (thru 8/25)
  9. The kids in the audience who “get” Shakespeare
  10. At least four plays/ activities in a single day
  11. “Cassandra Speaks” – story of Dorothy Thompson (thru. 9/2)
  12. The Studio Series – weekly staged play readings
  13. The same actors who spout “Tempest” character’s words in the matinee and “Lear” in the evening performance, and they never get mixed up
  14. “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” – an irreverent comedy (thru  9/1)
  15. Friendly cast who honestly appreciate audience comments
  16. Wednesday Q&As – after the plays with actors & directors
  17. The lovely indoor, air-conditioned Founders Theatre
  18. The cozy, also air-conditioned Bernstein Theatre
  19. Parasite Drag” – a gripping drama (thru. 9/2)
  20. The actors applaud the audience
  21. Behind the Scenes Tours – see costume & scene shop & more
  22. Great gal actors: Merritt Janson, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Kristin Wold & more
  23. Great guy actors: Jonathan Croy, Kevin Coleman, Jonathan Epstein & more
  24. Up & coming actors: Ryan Winkles, David Joseph, and more
  25. Author! Author! – Sunday morning series by well-known authors
  26. “Satchmo at the Waldorf” – Louis Armstrong comes to life (8/22 – 9/16)
  27. Founders’ Talks – world-class thespians impart their knowledge
  28. Free Stuff – Preludes & Riotous Youth by acting students
  29. Josie’s Tavern – quick goodies & drinks at Founders
  30. Volunteers – top notch, polite, and they even act
  31. Costumes & coifs for all eras
  32. Music –Shakespeare didn’t write it, but would love
  33. Fall Season – this venue does not close up after Labor Day
  34. Winter Season – this venue doesn’t even close up after Christmas
  35. Website – and a great, colorful website to learn a whole lot more