Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.

September 8, 2012

Hedda Gabler

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through September, 23, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Before the play begins, one is struck by the enormity of the setting – completely occupying stage left to stage right, floor to ceiling. Yet this largesse is full of gaping holes, as the image of a house is wrapped around scaffolding. Rain drenches the backdrop, and as the lights go down the almost deafening sounds of storm command the attention of the visual and aural senses. It is loud and clear that the classic drama “Hedda Gabler” is about to capture its audience.
Photo: T. Charles Erikson
Many may be familiar with Ibsen’s flawed strong-willed women characters whose lives are caught in the mores of the late 19th century. He has created Hedda as harsh, demanding, and self-serving seemingly with no redeeming factors other then her beauty. Yet, in the very capable hands of actress Roxanna Hope, she has ensconced her character with intelligence, torment, futility, and madness. It’s easier to hate Hedda than to understand her, but Hope demands that the effort be made.

The play displays several character triangles from the past, present, and future. The triangles overlap. None are pleasant. Some are deadly. Hedda is the lynchpin in every scenario particularly through her control of her new husband. John Patrick Hayden epitomizes this put upon “nice guy” through many nuances in speech, movement, and demeanor. At the same time, Hedda is cagey and encaged by others in her small world.

The play runs two and a half hours and not a second is wasted. Director Jennifer Tarver orchestrates her actors and their movements as Hedda manipulates those in her grasp. Is Hedda pure evil? Is she sick? These are important questions for each audience member. However, adding an element to the confusion of just who is Hedda, is the script penned in Jon Robin Baitz’s adaptation and/or Tarver’s direction. While the entire play need not be laden in doom and gloom, at times the humor seems inappropriate to the era and the setting. That may be a small element among the many pluses in this production – so many, and most importantly the suburb skills of the actors. The audience gave all an instant standing ovation.

September 4, 2012

Albeniz & Falla

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA

August 25, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

The next-to-last concert of the 2012 Tanglewood season presented two rarities in an all-Spanish program led by popular annual guest conductor and peerless interpreter of this repertoire, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.

The performances opened with the Tanglewood premiere of five movements from Albeniz’s “Suite Espanola” in Fruhbeck’s own orchestrations of these pieces originally written in the 1880s and 1890s for solo piano. The 25-minute work sparkled with glittering percussion, including maracas, in the opening “Castilla,” “Sevilla,” and the closing “Aragon” and luxuriated in lush strings and soulful woodwinds in “Granada” and “Asturias.” The performance was relaxed and genial, with conductor and orchestra clearly enjoying each other's company.

After intermission, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soloists joined in for a gorgeous account of Falla’s 1904-1905 “lyric drama in two acts and four tableaux,” “La Vida Breve,” (“Life Is Short”). In Act I, the young gypsy Salud and her wealthy lover Paco affirm their love near a forge in the gypsy district of Granada; in Act II, she and her uncle crash Paco’s wedding in another part of the city to a bride of his own class with tragic consequences. The moral of the story can be summed up in these words from Salud’s first aria: “life for the poor who suffer is bound to be short.”  

The cast of mostly Spanish soloists was consistently fine, but mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Salud was a standout for her radiant singing and dramatic gestures that underscored the wide emotional range of her character. While the women had the meatier parts, tenor Gustavo Pena was outstanding as “A Voice in the Forge,” whose periodic short arias reinforced the opera’s grim message. The Spanish flavor of the production was enhanced by a folk singer and a guitarist at the wedding and especially by flamenco dancer Nuria Pomares Rojas, who stopped the show after both of her dances.

Despite a number of empty seats in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on an aptly sultry evening, the audience response to this adventurous musical fare was enthusiastic, with a prolonged standing ovation at the end.