Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.