Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 28, 2013

Masters of the Fiddle

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
March 24, 2013
by Eric Sutter

Two of the world's most celebrated fiddlers -- Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy -- heated a cold Berkshire night to hot. They combined French, Celtic and American Bluegrass styles with MacMaster's Cape Breton fiddle work for a medley of jigs and reels from her latest CD "Cape Breton Girl."
It seemed especially apropos that this married pair performed a warm and relaxed "Anniversary Waltz" that especially touched the audience. Life, love, and laughter showed, especially when many family members joined Leahy and MacMaster on stage.

Donnell Leahy played the lengthy moody piece, "Fiddler's Despair" which ebbed and flowed with vibrant passion. Another fiddle tune brought out the sparkling Leahy children to play their wee fiddles and step dance. Youngsters Mary and Michael dazzled the audience. The impish Claire made a surprise visit for truly a joyful family affair. The entire family demonstrated some fancy dancing as well.

"Madness" was a mix of whimsical piano and fiddle sounds that brightened delightfully. Erin Leahy stood out on a ragtime piano piece followed by the Canadian fiddle duel of "Orange Blossom Special." As MacMaster herself exclaimed, "Holy Smokers!"

The second half of the concert brought Donnell Leahy to the forefront. The intense "Gypsy Boy" seared with heat. The musicians joined forces and blended their talents on the beautiful Scottish air "Professor Blackie." This plunking piano piece caused an emotional stir.

This was a literally forceful performance. Apparently in the past, and particularly when they have had an extended blast of reels, while sawing away a string would break. On this evening it was Leahy first, and then MacMaster followed. The duo, who carry extra equipment, simply made everything "well" again as they continued on.

MacMaster began a blast of reels that drove the show into an overdrive of pure exhilaration. The headliners did some magical step dancing of their own, set to a Cape Breton groove. The encore sizzled with a quick reel of dueling fiddles which included a surprise "Jingle Bells." This was brilliant music that appealed to all.

March 11, 2013

The Liar

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through March 24, 2013
by Shera Cohen

About 370 years ago, playwright Pierre Corneille penned one of the most cunning farces of that era, titled “Le Menteur.” Oddly, Corneille was dubbed “the founder of French tragedy,” yet the gentleman probably needed a break from gloom, because brought to Shakespeare & Company’s stage in the gloom of New England winter is “The Liar.” The story is light, and includes love and feigned love, mistaken identity, a funny maid (actually two), etc.

There’s no need to know French to enjoy this brilliant fabrication set to rhymed couplets. Contemporary playwright David Ives has accomplished the task of translating or adapting the original into quick-witted dialogue. Sometimes the rhyme is a bit of a stretch, making the words even more humorous. Bravo to the seven actors who speak, seemingly, effortlessly. Director Kevin Coleman, a master of moving his cast fast and furiously through many Shakespeare & Co. farces, has exceeded even his own benchmark of talent.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
Our hero is a handsome young man whose occupation is that of an inept professional liar. David Joseph, an actor who has certainly proved his metal at this venue, has moved up the ranks to leading role. His Dorante (Liar) is suave yet slippery, intelligent yet dumb, egotistical yet soft-hearted. He’s a loveable cocky SOB. With a rapid fire tongue, Joseph rips through his rhyming repartee, while at the same time running, jumping, and fighting. Indeed, the duel between Dorante and Alcippe (Enrico Spada) becomes the high point of the play. Imagine an aggressive sword fight without swords with each exceptionally choreographed lunge simultaneously described by Joseph as both the participant and referee.

The entire cast is always on point, and apparently having a super time pulling off this comedy. Of particular note is Dana Harrison in the dual role as twins Isabelle and Sabine, one sister as dim and frothy as the other is prim and stern. Both are a hoot.

There's so much more to write about this terrific cast; and…there’s backstage “stuff”: 1600’s indoor/outdoor settings with minimal staging, costume designs worthy of prizes and booby prizes (Pops dressed like a bumble bee), sound effects.

Dorante’s motto is, “Never, ever, ever speak the truth.” Alas, truth must be spoke…get ye to “The Liar” foresooth.

Opera Night

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
by Shera Cohen

Maestro Kevin Rhodes called the evening “a potpourri of opera.” With 15 arias – primarily dramatic with a smattering of comedic –penned by 11 different composers, Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s “Passion, Love, Murder & Mayhem: It’s Opera” was a success on many levels.

As expected, Rhodes’ exuberance was contagious. The members of the SSO responded to their director’s enthusiasm in kind.  Each section had its moments to shine, and each of these professional musicians could easily hold the proverbial candle to the talents of those in more well-known symphonies in larger cities throughout the United States. Rhodes, equally delightful as a storyteller, preceded the performance of the arias with a mini-synopsis. Particularly for those uninitiated to opera, placing the upcoming piece into context made the music even more special.

The job of assembling the concert’s five vocalists must have been daunting, because these three women and two men could not have been more perfect. Mary Wilson’s high soprano trills in Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia was joyful. Amy Johnson’s Pace pace from Verdi’s La forze del destino was as lush as her harp accompaniment. Verdi work represented a good portion of the second part of the concert, including the full orchestra’s rousing Overture to this same opera. O don Fatale, from Don Carlo, highlighted Stacey Rishoi’s vibrant mezzo-soprano. Verdi’s La Traviata’s duet Un di Felice featured Wilson and Eric Ashcraft. At this point in the evening, Ashcraft had already shone his talent in pieces from La Giocana and Madama Butterfly capping with the poignant Vesti la guibba from I pagliaci. Finally, it is not often that the bass singer is given solos, but the SSO gladly shared its stage with Gustav Andreassen who was particularly deep and dramatic in two roles as the Devil in Faust and Mefistofele.

While seemingly something small to notice was the stance of the singers – simply put, they didn’t just stand there. Without props or staging, they “acted” their roles in the operas. Solos and duets formed the two hour presentation, with an ensemble work as an encore – a fun piece, whose composer is obviously not identified in the program book; after all it was an encore. Let’s hope SSO encores Opera Night each season.

March 9, 2013

Sunset Boulevard

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham-Monson Academy
through March 16, 2013
by Walt Haggerty

...and now, "Sunset Boulevard" is ready for its close-up! In the supremely capable hands of Director Mark Giza, Theatre Guild of Hampden is giving this difficult Andrew Lloyd Weber classic a production that is amazing.

For more than six decades, the singular character of Norma Desmond has been a challenge to actresses of both stage and screen. Norma was a star of the silent screen - a BIG star. Now she wants to return. To tackle the role of Desmond an actress must have a rare combination of gifts, a credible singing voice, and exceptional acting ability, capped with the looks of a faded beauty.

In Anna Giza's performance as Norma, all these gifts and more are there, in abundance. Giza gives an unforgettable bravura portrayal of that faded actress determined to "return" to the screen. Her electrifying performance throbs with desperation. Her Norma reaches deep below the surface as she uses everything at her disposal to draw a complete character - her eyes, her mouth, voice, arms thrust upwards, fingers grasping, caressing - everything is used and everything works. Beyond that, she performs Weber's two glorious arias, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" like a diva. Giza IS Desmond, and she is extraordinary.

Josiah Durham's Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who has hit bottom, grasps at straws for survival. Durham convincingly capture Gillis' easy slide into acceptance of the benefits of being "a kept man" until he suddenly realizes what has happened to him and tries to escape. Kiernan Rushford, as Betty Schaeffer, Gillis' new love interest, is a perfect young innocent finding that love has crept into what had been simply a "business relationship." The pair is excellent in their "Too Much in Loved to Care" duet.

As Max Van Mayerling, Michael Lorenzo is excellent; giving his character a taught, even threatening, treatment. The deft direction of the production permits even minor characters to have complete personalities. Sets and costumes are superior, particularly the endless series of hats, gowns and ensembles worn by Giza in a virtual fashion Parade of 1920s Hollywood style.

Theatre Guild of Hampden deserves extra bows for meeting the many challenges of "Sunset Boulevard." Bravo!

March 6, 2013

Savannah Visit: The Picturesque South

by Shera Cohen
Think of the artsy quaintness of Northampton with the slight warmth of an early summer’s day anywhere in New England. Envision many series of street blocks, each bordered by manicured hedges, seating areas, and tall statues and monuments. White houses, all large and most with outside staircases on both sides of the entry door, align the streets. Within walking distance is the cobblestone River Street with dozens of boutiques separated between each by small restaurants. Finally, think of pre-Civil War “Gone with the Wind,” with its elegance, charm, and perhaps most of all the airy grey-hued Spanish moss floating from the trees. This is Savannah.

My Georgia vacation included museums, famous homes, theatre, music, and shopping. The impetus was to visit my nephew, who lives and works near Savannah. Along with my other nephew, his brother, we journeyed for five days. I must say that I am an excellent planner – skilled at fitting in a whole lot of culture into a short period of time. I admit, however, that some of the highlights of this trip were the unscheduled. Sometimes, expect the unexpected.

Planned Visits:
Savannah Philharmonic – I had the pleasure to attend “A Night of Great Opera.” Conductor Peter Shannon led the orchestra, chorus, and three soloists as they performed exactly what the program’s title stated. Segments of drama and comedy from great operas by Rossini, Verdi, and Bizet filled the bill. It was especially lovely to participate in one of the more elegant, dress-up, cultural events in Savannah.

Lucas Theatre for the Arts – This home of the Philharmonic looks like a movie house of yesteryear – actually it was, dating back to 1921 – complete with two floors and huge rotunda. Performances throughout the year include opera, country stars, and film series. During the day, Lucas’ management offers tours.

Savannah Theatre – The guide books call this theatre, “the oldest operating theatre still located on its original site that is still open.” The 1818 building is located in one of the most historic sections of the city. I saw “Southern Nights,” a revue featuring lots of extremely talented young singers and musicians performing rock, country, Motown, and pop. The lively show ended, not surprisingly, with “Georgia.”

Museums or History in Homes – Rotundas, picturesque seating gardens, statues, drawing rooms, elegant dining rooms, servant-run kitchen galleries make for a tourist’s dream. 

Juliette Gordon Low House – On the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Girl Scouts (founder Ms. Low); it was a special delight to step into her birthplace. The interior tells the story of Juliette, her commitment to young girls, and is surrounded by all things “Girl Scout,” the mansion and garden have been owned by the Girl Scouts since 1956.

Telfair Museums – boasts three separate museums and are the oldest public art museums in the South, especially lauded for their fine architecture. Owen-Thomas House – Tourists first enter the Owens’ family carriage house, and then assemble in a slave cabin built in 1819. Every piece of furniture and articles in the home are authentic from the 1800’s and 1900’s. A singular claim to fame is that Lafayette slept here. Jepson Center – The antithesis of all of our other visits is the modern, colorful, whimsical, and youngster-appreciated art of Jepson. Telfair Academy – Once a family mansion, visitors see aligned the rooms with 19th and 20th century art.

Ships of Sea – A museum, once the Scarbrough House (built for the principal owner of the ship Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic) featured room upon room of precise to-scale replicas of ships including those that brought the first colonists and slave ships. This self-guided tour permits the visitor to experience all things nautical.

Davenport House – The tour guide was especially knowledgeable in giving her audience detailed facts and anecdotes of the era and the rich Davenports; means to keep Southern homes comfortable in the summer months, what “sleep tight” meant, and why “tossing out the baby with the bathwater” became a common phrase.

Harper Fowles House – Dating to 1842, was yet another seaside mansion with its elegant dining room, antiques, and small garden. Common among these homes are the large white columns, giving the appearance that the large interior of the houses is even larger than life.

The Unexpected Treats

Bonaventure Cemetery – Those who know me are never surprised that I get lost a lot. This time, my lost was a gain. While en route to some of the homes on my “plan,” I found
myself walking into and around a graveyard smack in the middle of town. Its serpentine sidewalks guided me to stones of three centuries ago.

Food – Johnny Harris Restaurant (first time having chicken & dumplings), Vinnie Van Gogo’s (white pizza to die for), and Leopold’s Ice Cream. After eating a sundae or two at this lovely antique shop, it’s no wonder Leopold’s has won “best of” every Savannah magazine. The usual flavors were accompanied by lemon custard and rum bisque with toppings like huckleberry.

City Market – Experience fine or fun dining, boutique stores, working artists on a long architecturally intriguing street end-capped by a huge square and fountain.

Tybee Beach – We crossed the state line to South Carolina to arrive at the nearest beach. Too cold to swim, only a few (including myself) walked the shoreline in the calm low tide. This was exactly the way a beach should be – white dunes, soft sand, and the proverbial "as blue as the eye can see" ocean.

March 5, 2013

Man In a Case

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 2, 2013
by Jennifer Curran

Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar team together to bring Anton Chekhov’s 19th-century short stories "Man in a Case" and "About Love" to life in a format that is ground-breaking, original, and yet out of reach for those unfamiliar with Chekhov. Parson and Lazar fuse together theatre, dance, music and video to tell two stories of love, denial, and fear and how those three little things can bring joy as easily as they can abject sadness.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jess Barbagallo, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo and Aaron Mattocks combine to formidable stature. In a constant, brilliant format of storytelling, the audience is drawn into the tales of two hunters who tell the story of a teacher whose life of routine and safety and predictability takes a dramatic turn when he meets an audacious young woman whom he falls in love with. In the second movement, we meet a farm worker who tragically falls in love with a married woman. Their tale, doomed from the start, draws themes from the first piece, linking them in ways audience members will likely discuss at length for days afterward.

Chekhov’s works are often misunderstood or produced in ways that refuse to acknowledge the writer’s intent. His theatre is a theatre of mood as much as it is about story. In big broad strokes of a brush, the beauty is in the world of the play as much as it is in the details. This is a production of the finest pedigree. Larson and Lazar capitalize on Chekhov’s refusal to conform to a stage and introduce his work to the 21st century in a completely original format.

This is not a night of theatre for the uninitiated. It is also not a night of theatre for patrons looking to see Baryshnikov dance either. There is certainly movement and a few moments of folk dance, but Baryshnikov is a storyteller here and he is masterful in doing so. Of course, watching Baryshnikov move across a stage with the grace and liquid movement of a cat certainly counts as dance. For those familiar with Chekhov, this is a victorious production of two challenging pieces of writing. For those willing to break out of a comfort zone, a little bit of reading will bridge the worlds of interpretive theatre and realism in ways that one can only begin to imagine.

March 1, 2013

Skin Deep

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through March 30, 2013
by Shera Cohen

“Skin Deep” might be labeled a “chick play.” That description works, but there is far more depth than froth. If such a term exists, perhaps “human play” is a better fit.

Photo By Lee Chambers
Playwright Jon Lonoff (never heard of him, but hopefully more of us will soon) has penned an adorable relationship story chock full of quick repartee, one-liners, and pungent words of wisdom. Neil Simonish in tone and text, Lonoff takes his characters steps further, from caricatures to real people. In the case of “Skin Deep,” the story is seemingly simple – 30 or 40-something Maureen Mulligan (Liliane Klein) and Joe Spinelli (Buzz Roddy) are about to have a blind date. Both actors exude the awkwardness, vulnerability, sweetness, and sadness of their characters. Klein, in the lead role and in every scene of the play, is a newbie to the Majestic. She is instantly likeable, particularly as she pokes fun at her ice cream loving full figure size. She is sarcastic with a sense of humor that is able to soften her own blows. Lonoff and Klein could have easily put Maureen in a very dark place, but that would have been an easy out. Instead, this is a woman with an equal share of doubt and hope for her future.

Danny Eaton, Majestic founder and “Skin Deep” director, gently takes his audience toward some profound issues of relationships, friendship, and love. He moves the Maureen/Joe story along slowly, yet bumpy. Initially appearing as a complete contrast to this duo are Sheila and Squire, Maureen’s sister and her husband. Sheila is the pretty one with the adoring husband. Life for them is easier than for Maureen. Maybe not? Cate Damon, a Majestic regular in one of her best roles to date, portrays Sheila as shallow, but in many ways she is as insecure as her sister.

This might seem unusual for a play review, but kudos to whomever writes the program book. Bios and photos of the production staff and crew are given equal space as the actors. Theatergoers can read about the creative team that brings the text come to life.