Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 13, 2012

Barefoot in the Park

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 16, 2012
by Walt Haggerty

In "Barefoot in the Park" playwright Neil Simon has created one of his most endearing and enduring triumphs. The Majestic is presenting a superb production of this first of Simon's long list of hits. In this presentation everything works. From the moment the lights go up on the unfurnished, fifth floor walk-up on New York's East 48th Street, the laughter begins and, except for a few moments of tension, it never stops.

Director Rand Foerster has assembled an amazing cast for this romantic comedy. The plot invites the audience to look in on the first week of a newlywed couple as they settle into their first apartment, immediately following their honeymoon. It is, as Foerster says in his Director's Note, a "flash back in time." Yesterday's audience clearly identified with, and thoroughly enjoyed, that nostalgic view of the past.

Darcie Champagne, as the young and impetuous bride, is perfection. From her opening scene, without a single word of dialogue to help her, she establishes her character while eliciting ever bigger laughs from the audience. Matching her, laugh for laugh, is Matt Clark as Paul the husband, also in a Majestic debut. He delivers a hilarious, boisterous, physical performance that is a joy to witness.

In what would normally be considered secondary roles, Barbara McEwen as the caring but intrusive mother of the bride, and Bill Nabel as the eccentric, charming and impoverished neighbor, are both absolutely wonderful. Their performances are exquisite examples of creating believable, loveable characters from material that might easily be overplayed by less skillful actors. These two are pros who never miss a beat.

Even such brief roles as Roger Patnode's Lord & Taylor Delivery Man and Stuart Gamble's Telephone Repairman become standout gems of humor as presented by these veteran performers.

Set designer Shawn Hill deserves special praise for his excellent apartment setting that is transformed from drab to charming between Acts I and II - and the snowstorm is a convincing winner.

The Majestic is a comfortable, affordable, and easily accessible theatre producing outstanding diversified entertainment. Missing the current production of "Barefoot in the Park" would be a mistake. It is a complete delight.

November 12, 2012

Dr. John/Blind Boys of Alabama

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst
November 8, 2012
by Eric Sutter

Two icons of American music collaborated on the first ever "Spirituals To Funk" concert that is touring America this autumn. Dr. John is an ambassador of all things New Orleans as his music testifies flawlessly. The swampy gris gris of "Iko, Iko" revved up the Lower 911 band he tours with. He showcased music from his latest CD "Locked Down" due out this April. "Revolution" and "Big Shot" had a slight departure from style with a hip R&B sound geared up with a younger set of musicians. Trombone solos by Sarah Morrow were hot. Dressed in a purple suit and fancy hat, Dr. John pounded the funky strutter "Right Place, Wrong Time" with its throbbed rhythms of funk ecstasy which plunged the audience over the edge. "Such A Night" delivered a smooth blues streaked soul sound with solid piano intro and outros by Dr. John.

The tone was set as the gold suited Blind Boys of Alabama stepped into their sacred ground to sing the spiritual "People Get Ready" accompanied by a sweet slide guitar solo by John Fohl. Their pure hearted harmonies humbled and moved the audience to sing and sway. "Spirit In The Sky" had everybody rockin' true. Dr. John backed them on keyboards for the fantastic dazzle of "There Will Be A Light." The gospel rave-up "Free At Last" percolated to a vibrant zenith with group member Jimmy Carter's high mark vocals -- pure musical pairings don't come more inspired. This integrated show explored the connections between jazz, blues and gospel. As the opening chords to "House Of The Rising Sun" began, the Blind Boys sang America's favorite hymn "Amazing Grace" with Dr. John's triumphant keyboard solo adding dimension.

The folk standard "If I Had A Hammer" turned into a glorious gospel jazz handed stomper. Dr. John soloed rock n' roll guitar with a solid punch on "Let The Good Times Roll." Bass player David Barard jazzed a funky bass solo. He sang lead on a bluesy spirited "When The Saints Go Marching In" to the Blind Boy harmony. The concert encored with the gospel standard "Since I Laid My Burdens Down" for the send off.

November 7, 2012

Toots and The Maytals

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
November 5, 2012
by Eric Sutter

The Jamaican musical group Toots and The Maytals appeared at the Mahaiwe on their first ever Unplugged Acoustic Tour. As the creator of reggae music and a key figure in its development, Frederick Hibbert (Toots) combined ska, rock steady and American soul in a vocal group style to help popularize the unique reggae music of Jamaica. He recently received the distinguished Order of Jamaica for his contributions. With a high voltage vocal delivery, Toots began with "Reggae Got Soul" from 1976.

The group, along with vocalists Chantelle Ernandez and Elenore Walters, delivered gospel/soul ballads and exuberant reggae rhythms equally well. It was like being held in the warm tide of a lover's arms -- calmed but stimulated, the music swayed the audience to dance. "Time Tough" and "Pressure Drop" urged folks to move. The laid back groove of 1968's "Do The Reggae," which was the first recording to coin the word "reggae" in music, delighted all. Next was a 2007 love song called "Celia" followed by "Sweet And Dandy" from the breakthrough 1972 reggae compilation recording "The Harder They Come." "True Love Is Hard To Find" featured the distinctive style of call and response interplay of lead singer Toots and the dynamic dual female back-up vocals.

The magical 70's hit "Funky Kingston" worked its vibe on the audience as the charismatic Toots went into the spiritual healers "Amen" and "This Little Light of Mine" with full force female vocal accompaniment. The audience was swept away by the mellifluous gospel tinged ballad of determined optimism, "Dreams To Remember." Toots, et al, performed his first international hit from 1970, a bluesy rendition of "Monkeyman." Two familiar popular songs "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Louie, Louie" featured another interactive vocal feature between the musicians and their fans. The new light spark of "Love Is Not Gonna Let Me Down" engulfed with a great sweep of love upon the ocean of people below, resulting in giant waves of movement. Hallelujah was the call.What a joyful noise! Toots encored with the freedom call "54-46." He segued into a soulful rendition of Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" which satisfied.

November 5, 2012

Electrifying Russian Music

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
November 3, 2012

by Michael J. Moran

“I never need much of an excuse to do an entire Russian program,” SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican. For the second classical concert of its current season he led the orchestra in three pieces which reflect the wide range of emotion and orchestral color of Russian music in performances which fully delivered on the “electrifying” promise of the program title.

The program opened with Overture to Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” Left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1887, it was completed by his colleague Glazunov from sketches and a memory of Borodin’s performance of it on the piano. Its mix of Russian nationalism with exotic suggestions of the opera’s Central Asian setting was deftly captured in an exuberant account that featured strong, cutting brass and warm, lush strings.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 reunited Rhodes with his undergraduate piano teacher Ralph Votapek, who won the gold medal at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 50 years ago playing the same concerto. His long experience with this 1921 piece, written mostly in Brittany and premiered in Chicago with the composer as soloist, and his obvious comfort with his former student yielded a performance of both dazzling virtuosity and relaxed lyricism. At age 73, Votapek’s manual dexterity is exceeded only by his interpretive maturity, and the large audience rewarded his efforts with a standing ovation.

Intermission was followed by an exhilarating rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the “Little Russian” symphony because it quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. Less familiar than the composer’s last three symphonies, its mostly original melodies also sound more folk-like than any of his other works. The opening motif was beautifully shaped by principal horn Laura Klock, and woodwind and percussion players were prominently featured throughout the program. Principal Christopher Cullen gave ravishing voice to the solo clarinet melody that opens the Prokofiev, whose staccato quality was even enhanced by castanets.

The maestro threw himself into his conducting duties with typical abandon all evening, and the orchestra responded with playing of impressive polish and passion.