Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 28, 2013

Bashir Lazhar

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center
through June 8, 2013
by Jennifer Curran

It began as a twenty-page monologue written by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. Later, it would become an Academy Award-nominated film and now “Bashir Lazhar” is a one-man, 80-minute play. The story tells of a French-Algerian political refugee finding solace and escape from unspeakable horror and sadness in a Canadian elementary classroom.

M. Lazhar, portrayed with bravado by Juri Henley-Cohn, is not a professional teacher. Rather, he attempts to become an educator, intent on finding a way to start over and help his new students while healing from the traumatic event that led to his employment. The story he tells unfurls in its own time, perhaps too slowly for a one-act play. 

“Bashir Lazhar,” directed by Shakina Nayfak, begins a conversation about the constructs that attempt to define citizenry, education, war, and what happens when those worlds crash together. In this tiny microcosm, we see a single man try to come to grips with what has happened to his life while attempting to instill in his students a love of life, play and learning.

If the length of the play wasn’t already a hurdle, Mr. Henley-Cohn was also tasked with set changes. A risky choice and one that doesn’t always work well and ultimately detracts from the final moments of the play. Watching the actor side-step set pieces inexplicably left strewn around the stage from an earlier scene distracts the audience.
Attempts at unique lighting and sound cues to signify scene changes worked well enough, but at times, the play seemed more of a staged reading than complete production. It’s too bad this was the case; the story and the actor deserved more than creative cheats by the lighting and sound designers.

What the play doesn’t do is tie it all up in a lovely bow by curtain call. It opens the door and asks the audience to come inside and reflect on what it means to be a teacher, a student, and a citizen of any country. It reminds us that we are all three in our daily lives but nothing is more important than remembering to carry a light in ourselves, that a do-over isn’t always as easy as wiping a chalkboard clean, but it is always a possibility.

May 15, 2013


Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
through May 19, 2013
by Shera Cohen

The musical “1776” is not often performed in community theatre, one good reason being that the cast includes 25 men. From the start, mounting this show is a huge undertaking. Add to the “crowd” on stage, the fact that not many are familiar with “1776” adds stress to the troupe to get decent size audiences. While Wilbraham United deserves praise for taking on the challenge, the results sometimes fall apart.

The plot is the one learned in elementary school – the founding of these United States – focusing on the personalities of the Declaration signers and set to song. Assuredly, there is much fiction, and at the same time a humanized history lesson. All of the usual suspects appear; i.e. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, et al. There is not much opportunity to individualize the other 22 men.

Brad Shepard and his character John Adams hold the play together which is a difficult job because there are so many people onstage, let alone on very small stage. Little did the audience know that the original Adams was “obnoxious and disliked,” performed admirably and with intelligent humor by Shepard. Franklin (Paul Nesbit) and Jefferson (Brian Freeman), as Adams’ cohorts in creating a new nation, hold their own. Except for solos by South Carolina’s Rutledge (Jay Lee), Pennsylvania’s Dickinson (David Chivers), and Virginia’s Lee, the rest of the founding fathers just happen to be in the room. Color-blind and sex-blind casting has become familiar, yet casting some women in these roles was a mistake, even when desperate for actors to audition.

It’s probably a good guess that few readers have ever heard of the songs “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Both are lovely warm duets and highlights of “1776” as sung by Adams and his wife Abigail (Teri LaFleur). In spite of the fact that LaFleur is only slightly visible as she stands behind a scrim throughout the play (why?), a mature romance comes through because of the ability of the two actors. Although a minor role, JohnMartin Patton’s courier sings a haunting “Mamma, Look Sharp.”

Director Deb Trimble, whose work has wowed audiences in the past, moves her actors at a very slow pace, oftentimes blocking each other. A good effort is made in costuming, although the ill-fitting wigs are distracting. Perhaps “1776’s” second weekend will pick up and/or sections cut and/or choruses deleted.

May 10, 2013


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 12, 2013
by Jennifer Curran

Tallula Bankhead was the first. Notorious for her outrageous lifestyle, that rasp and baritone voice; she was the original crude, hard drinking, pill popping cougar character viewers see on nearly every sitcom (think "Two and a Half Men" and "Arrested Development") lately. “Looped” brings Tallula back to life in big, brash, over the top, vaudevillian style.

First appearing on Broadway under the direction of Rob Ruggeiro, who directs the tour production as well, and starred Valerie Harper, who won a Tony for the role, “Looped” is more comedic character study than biography. Valerie Harper’s recent tragic diagnosis with brain cancer meant she would not be able to tour. This sad turn delayed the opening of “Looped” and brought to the role the wonderful Stefanie Powers.

Powers, with precious few rehearsals, brings Tallula to blinding life. She delights in her role and has more fun than she ought to be having. She sidles across the stage in Tallula’s “feet enter first” manner of moving across a room. Shoulders tipped back, hips forward and a veritable Jessica Rabbit is about to cross to center stage. She does it with no effort and it leaves one wondering why nobody else walks that way.

“Looped” (written by Matthew Lombardo) takes place in a 1960’s era sound room (set design by Adrian W. Jones) where Ms. Bankhead has been asked to come in and record a single line of dialogue for what would become her last film, “Die, Die My Darling.”

Instead, our main diva takes the opportunity to riddle the sound editor, Danny Miller, (played by a wonderful Brian Hutchison), with her…well, herself. Hours later and inebriated, her inability to simply deliver the line, "And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me” nearly drives Danny Miller and his sound engineer Steve, (played by Matthew Montelongo) out of their straight-man trees.

“Looped” is great fun and the cast, while still sporting that showroom shine, is strong. With a few more times around the block our heroine and her sound-room victims will bring newly discovered moments and perhaps fill in the spaces that the audience so desperately needs topped off.

Shakespeare for the Terrified 101

…or Get Thee to Hartford Stage, Suffield Players, Hampshire Shakespeare, Barrington Stage, and Shakespeare & Company, forthwith!

By Shera Cohen

I would like to take credit for the title of this article, but alas, I cannot. It is the name of one of the courses offered at the Globe Theatre in London. In an interview with the Globe’s Vice President of Education, we discussed many of the opportunities offered to youth to study and perform Shakespeare’s plays. What about the huge number of adults who say phrases like, “I don’t understand Shakespeare,” “The language is confusing,” and the often heard lament “I hated it in high school”?

The answer to satisfy the fears of these theatre goers was the Globe’s course, “Shakespeare for the Terrified.” Such a class should be given across the pond to help, in a non-didactic and fun way for adults who don’t want to miss out on these classics; i.e. “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and far more from this prolific writer considered the best playwright in history.

The best way to be ride of Shakespeare anxiety is by watching the comedies. They are far more understandable. Realize that you will not “get” every word; just get the essence. Trust me; unless you have a PhD in Literature, no one understands line for line. You can easily figure it out. The comedies’ plots are essentially the same, with common elements: disguises, twins, wooing, mistaken identities, physical action, spritely tunes, a happy ending (usually a wedding), and laughs. Laughter is the universal language. Don’t be terrified to laugh.

Playgoers of the early 17th century never fully understood these plays, particularly because The Bard coined many words – approximately 1700. The groundlings heard words for the first time at the Globe; i.e. madcap, skim milk, eyeball, zany, gloomy, unreal, advertising, blanket, elbow, gossip, bedroom, luggage, and cold-blooded. It’s hard to think that none of these were in our lexicon until Shakespeare penned them.

Have you been coaxed or even forced to attend a production of a Shakespeare comedy, drama, or history play? There’s nothing the matter with reading an online synopsis prior to going. Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare’s write nearly word for word translation. Important to know is that plays are not meant to be read, but to be seen on a stage. Do the play justice – see it. Maybe you saw one of the many “Romeo and Juliet” movie versions, or four-hour “Hamlet,” or Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branaugh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”? That’s a good start. But, they were not as Shakespeare planned; his plays are onstage productions. See the “originals” as much as you can.

That said, what about troupes that update these classics? Setting the 1500s in the 21st century, background hip-hop music, “Star Trek” costumes, and major editing? I have seen all, and more. I had thought that I was a purist – the play MUST be kept as written and as close to how it must have looked five centuries ago. Then, I experienced a modern look at “The Winter’s Tale.” What do you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the novice, the familiar settings and accoutrements might make the language and action easier to comprehend.

Start local (you don’t have to travel to London) with a comedy. are no longer terrified. In fact, you might want to attend a second comedy or even a drama.

The following are recommended Shakespeare comedy productions on stages in our area now or this summer:
  • “As You Like It,” Suffield Players (through 5/18/13)
  • “Twelfth Night,” Hartford Stage (starts 5/19/13)
  • “Much Ado About Nothing,” Hampshire Shakespeare
  • “Much Ado About Nothing,” Barrington Stage
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare & Company

May 8, 2013

Springfield Armory: Music in the Air

by Shera Cohen

Question: Think downtown Springfield. Now think outdoor summer music. Put these two thoughts together. What is the answer to this combo?

Answer: Of course, Biker Night – the sounds of hot 70’s & 80’s bands on Thursdays at Stearns Square.

And there’s a second answer: A new series, about a half-mile from Stearns, just up the hill on the beautiful grounds of Springfield Armory (on the grounds of STCC). The music brings nearly all genres to downtown, except perhaps hot rock. The schedule also fits convenient times, except for Thursdays.  In other words, there’s so much music to literally fill the air for many different audiences, right there in the center of Springfield.

Springfield Armory’s five concert series – with at least one concert each month – takes place on its pristine acres of lawn. Located at the corner of Federal and State streets, there is lots of free parking on the grounds. All concerts are free.

Beginning summer early is the U.S. Coast Guard Dixieland Jazz Band on Monday, May 27th at 2pm. Appropriately in keeping with the Armory’s significant role in the history of the United States will be a Memorial Day Commemoration Concert. The Dixieland Jazz Band was organized in 1970 to perform classic jazz, blues, and rags with a New Orleans flavor. The eight-member troupe has entertained audiences across America, as well as in Europe, and Asia. Notable venues included Preservation Hall in New Orleans and Times Square in New York City.
One of the important features of Armory Day, now in its 15th year, is the music of the Victorian Quadrille Orchestra, joined by the Small Planet Dancers’ Civil War Ballroom performance on Saturday, June 22nd at 1pm. The seven-member Quadrille and 12-member dance troupe will perform their 90-minute concert/dance which includes: quadrilles, mazurkas, polkas, waltzes, and reels. The Victorian Quadrille repertoire of songs has been arranged and orchestrated for the era. All participants will be dressed in historical period costumes.
July brings the Annual Big Band Concert. In the tradition of the actual Benny Goodman Band, which performed at the Armory in 1943, this summer’s headliner is Blue Skies Big Band on Saturday, July 13th at 6:30pm. See PRIME’s July issue for more about this fabulous concert. In the meantime, consider this a “Hold the Date” notice.

The U.S. Army continues the theme of military band concerts at the Armory. On Wednesday, July 24th at 7pm, the 215th U.S. Army Band will take the outdoor stage. This band numbers 42 and their music will include genres from Broadway to blues, classical to country, R&B to rock ‘n roll. This is the first time that the 215th has performed in Springfield.

On a personal note (pun intended), I’ve been counting the number of military bands concerts which I have been involved in producing in the Springfield area. Having worked for the cities of Springfield and Chicopee, Bravo and In the Spotlight, and Springfield Armory, the 215th will be my 100th concert. The first was in 1980. I told my boss at the time, “No one will come to these military concerts. Who wants to hear two hours of patriotic music?” None the less, I was instructed to make it happen. Well, that was a huge, “I told you so.” Was I ever wrong when I saw 1500+ in attendance listening to music of all genres. And, yes, there was the finale of the traditional Armed Forces medley.

The series’ finale, once again, features the U.S. Army – this time the 94th U.S. Army Reserve Band on Saturday, August 17th at 7:30pm. The eight members will bring contemporary pop music to the Armory.

The rain site for Springfield Armory concerts is Scibelli Hall Theatre, adjacent to the Armory at STCC. Credit for the Victorian Quadrille concert is given to the Springfield Cultural Council. For information check or call 413-734-8551.

Charlie Allen & The Outlaws

Palace Theater, Stafford Springs, CT
June 8 & July 14, 2013
by Eric Sutter

Indie-country artist Charlie Allen is touring the Northeast in support of his latest CD, "That Was Then, This Is Now." He's come a long way from down home song in Granpa's choir to the Bonnaroo and CMA festivals. His song "American Farmer" has been featured on Discovery Channel's American Farmer Series. In The Spotlight (ITS) spoke to him recently.

ITS: Hi Charlie...How did you begin your music career?
Charlie: I was raised on guitar. As a 7 year old round about 1969, my daddy got me on stage with Hank Williams, Jr. at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, TX. Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn were among that company.

ITS: Your voice is real country and genuine. Who inspired you to sing in your youth?
Charlie: My mom inspired me most. She was part of my hometown Bristol, TN's "Farm and Fun Time" television show which featured country stars Faron Young and Conway Twitty. Daddy worked with Hank Williams Jr., and that first show I did was in front of 5,000 fans.

ITS: How about your guitar playing... any mentors?
Charlie: Old country... where I come from, it was either man up or get out! I was raised in the birthplace of country in Bristol. It's all country down there. I wrote a country theme song for Bonnaroo in 2009 when I played in Manchester, TN.

ITS: Your songwriting is superbly anthemic. It's so Americana. What are your favorite songs?
Charlie: I enjoy singing great songs that connect us as Americans. I like my signature song, "Grandpa's Recipe" which was produced by Henry Paul, the lead singer of The Outlaws." "No Welcome Home" about the plight of Vietnam Veterans is a favorite. I also like one I wrote for Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant called "100 Proof."

ITS: It appears you've had many highpoints in music. Is there any time where it all came together?
Charlie: Well, it has been lessons from life and listening to others. I think working with Clint Black and meeting president Diane Delena from River Run Records have been milestones. Certainly, Kim Everitt's take on "Mother's Love" was a highpoint. Also, my latest CD.

ITS: Thanks and all the best to you.
Charlie: Your welcome and thank you kindly.

May 5, 2013

Mozart & Beethoven

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
May 4, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Springfield Symphony Orchestra Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican that he hoped "the path [from Mozart's Requiem to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony] would be a rewarding one worthy of a season's grand finale." The concert of both works, which he led to close the orchestra's 69th anniversary season, fulfilled that hope resoundingly.   

The high drama of this Requiem performance was clear from the solemn first notes of the opening Introit movement. Momentum built to an urgent level in the Kyrie, to moments of terror in the Dies Irae, and to shattering power in the Rex Tremendae. There was moving tenderness in the Lacrimosa and Offertorium sections, and playful abandon in the joyous Sanctus. The orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, played with sensitivity and precision throughout.    

The Springfield Symphony Chorus sang almost without a break in the Requiem, and their work displayed consistent enthusiasm and unanimity of phrasing. All four vocal soloists made distinguished contributions, from the sweet-voiced soprano, Monica Yunus, to the warm tenor, Eric Ashcraft, the bracing mezzo-soprano, Stacey Rishoi, and the penetrating bass, Gustav Andreassen. The contrasting timbres of their voices produced an ideal blend in the frequent passages when all four sang together.  

Though some audience members would have known the Requiem text, newcomers at this well-attended event might have felt more engaged if a printed text and translation had been included in the program book and/or projected above the stage.

Returning from intermission, the audience was greeted by probably the four most familiar notes in all of classical music as an inspired account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony got off to a thrilling start. As he had done in the Mozart, Rhodes deftly balanced the forward thrust and drama of the outer movements with passages of almost chamber-like intimacy in the inner ones.

In pre-concert remarks, season sponsor MassMutual spokesman and incoming SSO President John Chandler said that retiring SSO horn player Thomas Haunton had told him that the "trust and mutual respect" the orchestra's members show each other give the SSO a special excellence. Those qualities were everywhere in evidence at this season's closer.

Next to Normal

Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through May 19, 2013
by Felicity Hardy

"Next to Normal" is the story of Diana, a wife and mother suffering from bipolar disorder, delusions, and hallucinations. Dan, her steadfast husband, tries to hold the family together in the wake of Diana's illness and a years-old family tragedy that he doesn't want to acknowledge. Natalie, her teenage daughter, struggles to find herself despite feeling neglected. As Diana experiences the highs and lows of her mental illness and attempts new methods of treatment. The audience is left wondering: will this family survive?

This is not an easy show to produce. Few moments of laughter help keep "Next to Normal" from becoming a preachy melodrama. Without genuinely heartfelt dedication from both the acting and direction, the play is two-dimensional. Under the direction of Sharon FitzHenry, the Opera House Players manage to find that delicate balance between tragedy and humor. Sarah Gilbert (Diana), Luis Manzi (Dan), Tomm Knightlee (Gabe), Kate Elmendorf (Natalie), Josiah Durham (Henry), and Randy Davidson (Doctor) are each exceptional in their roles, offering powerful and nuanced performances. They flawlessly handle Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's complicated pop-rock score (helped along by a phenomenal pit orchestra led by Bill Martin), but never forget that first and foremost, they are actors telling a story. The plot is mostly expressed through song, and the actors' diction and the clarity of the sound design are paramount that every lyric can be understood.

A couple of microphone mistakes and a wheelchair getting caught on a corner were the only noticeable glitches, with the rest of the show running at a smooth, fast pace which rare for an opening-night community theatre performance. This production of "Next to Normal" takes the best of what community theatre has to offer and delivers a professional and heartfelt production with a message of hope.

The audience was small, but captivated by the show's plot, often too engrossed in the material to find places to applaud. "Next to Normal" is a must-see night of theatre.

As You Like It

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through May 18, 2013
by Shera Cohen

Love at first sight is all around in the French palaces of Shakespeare’s era some four centuries ago, its Robin Hood-ish forest, and on the stage at Suffield Players. One of the Bard’s richest comedies, “As You Like It,” abounds with action, comedy, and swooning. The play is such a delight that audience leaves the theatre having “liked it” very much.

As is familiar with Shakespeare’s humor, the play includes his basics: mistaken identity, banishment, the wise Fool/Jester, gutsy women, sidebar stories, and of course love. Place most of the action in the Forest of Arden with four passionate or convenient duos, and a philosopher; the result is “a comedy of errors” coupled with the “all’s well that ends well” happy ending. There are no surprises in the script. However, there might be some in the production for those who are not frequent Suffield Players’ fans.

Surprise #1) A community theatre troupe so successfully mounts a Shakespeare play and the cast memorizes Elizabethan language without a blip. #2) The cast of 20 move, romp, and love on a very small stage without bumping into each other and forest accoutrements. #3) The time is present day, complete with cell phone props. #4) Lead actors fit their roles perfectly. This last surprise is especially important because most community theatres mount their season finale in May, so many of the “best” actors are grabbed up. Suffield selected some of their regulars along with newbies to form an excellent mix.

Chris Rohmann directs his actors in purposeful poses when needed (“I am no woman” quartet) and running and chasing, also when needed. The bottom line is, there is no time for anyone in the audience to look at his watch or, more importantly, even want to. The dialogue and action are tight.

To single out a few actors is difficult, yet…Becky Rodia Schoenfeld’s Rosalind plays spunky and intelligent with aplomb, Rylan Morsbach’s Orlando personifies naiveté, Robert Lunde’s Touchstone (Fool) displays the devil-may-care, and Nathan Rumney’s shepherd portrays bumpkin with a capital “B.”

The set! Kudos goes to designers Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip for masterful creation of the Forest of Arden. During Act I, drably painted doors of a court open to trees, flowers, shrubs, and a brook; from gray to in-living-color. Far more to say, but instead of reading this, get ye to Suffield.

May 3, 2013

Paradise City Arts Festival 2013

Northampton, MA
May 25 - 27, 2013

Editih Hunsberger
Enjoy this fabulous bi-annual festival of award-winning fine and functional art. Hundreds of artists, all of whom have been adjudicated, display and sell their works.

“In the Spotlight” especially encourages readers to support local artists. Among the many are Editih Hunsberger and Linda Kaye-Moses.

May 2, 2013

Good News!

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
Through June 22, 2013
By R.E. Smith

The Cast of “Good News!”
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
"Good News" is the musical theatre equivalent of comfort food: familiar, pleasing, and it fills you will smiles. Just to prove that this is an true song and dance show, the night begins with a choreographed overture complete with tap dancing football players. The story is slight, and part of the charm: college football hero falls for his astronomy tutor while co-eds frolic and sorority girls swoon.

Further enhancing the warm and fuzzy feelings is the score of recognizable standards: "The Best Things in Life are Free," "You're the Cream in My Coffee," "Keep Your Sunnyside Up," and "Button Up Your Overcoat." Closing out the first Act, "Varsity Drag" earns the energetically physical cast a thunderous and lengthy round of applause

As jock and tutor, leads Ross Lekites and Chelsea Morgan Stock are Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds personified. Slapstick sidekick Barry Shafrin (Bobby) displays the rubbery comedic chops of Huntz Hall and Danny Kaye. Shafrin is paired up nicely with Tessa Faye's bombshell Babe O'Day, who countless intermission-goers likened to a young Carol Burnett, with her broad delivery and angular movements. The chemistry is not limited to the youngsters either, as Beth Glover's Professor and Mark Zimmerman's Coach Johnson, prove that the "responsible" adults can get just as moon-faced as the kids.

It would be easy to say that the show is filled with musical theatre archetypes, but since the show was first produced in 1927, these characters are really the original molds. Jeremy Desmon's adaptation and Michael O'Flaherty's direction pull off the admirable feat of staging an old fashion show, with modern methods, as a loving homage to itself without being condescending.

One mesmerizing feature of the show is the color scheme. While the physical set time is fairly simple, it, and every aspect of the show, has a dazzling color design. Vivid blue backgrounds, vibrant red uniforms, dazzling accents are all enhanced by a saturated lighting palette. The costumes, the make-up, the props, every detail is awash in living colors, making for a singing, dancing rainbow of old fashion entertainment.