Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 28, 2013

Les Miserables

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through October13, 2013
by Shera Cohen

It is habit for theatre audiences to give standing ovations no matter what the show's quality. Your neighbor stands and so should you? Not necessarily. The standing ovation "rule" is to laud only the exceptional. On opening night before a full house, "Les Miserables" (Les Miz) deserved and received an instantaneous ovation.

A community theatre troupe's tackling "Les Miz" is a Herculean undertaking, requiring insight into many lead characters, directing smooth transitions, selecting top notch singers and a "cast of thousands." Exit 7 accomplishes all of this.

"Les Miz" is the epic, set in early-19th century France, of Jean Valjean -- a19-year prisoner all for the wont of stealing a loaf of bread -- and Captain Javert, his eternal nemesis. Their lives entwine to test the metal of what makes a man good. On the surface, there is the hero and the villain. The story's crux is justice and injustice.

Ben Ashley portrays the smoldering, tortured, and loving Jean Valjean. He creates an exemplary larger than life character while physically aging on stage. Ashley successfully outdoes himself with each song, especially "Who Am I?" The true test falls on the fatherly determination of "Bring Him Home." He nails it. Peter Thomsen's Javert is cold, merciless, and yet vulnerable. The play allots him two songs, "Stars" and "Soliloquy," both of which are masterful.

There are many superlatives to write about each of the featured players. In general, three types of performers populate musical theatre: singers who can act, actors who can sing, and those who can do both. Exit 7 selected an even balance of each type to compose the best of all worlds. Special bravos to talented youngsters Wynton Jarvinen and Lily Girard in demanding roles.

Still more kudos, yet this review's word count mounts: director Jeffrey Flood's skills in mounting the barricade/battle scenes, the authentic-looking period costumes, and conductor Christina Climo and her dozen musicians!

Is it the applause still ringing in this reviewer's ears or the surging power of "One Day More," the sweet "In My Life," the boisterous "Master of the House," or the sorrowful "On My Own?" All of the above.

September 27, 2013


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 10, 2013
by Shera Cohen

A woman in the audience at "Macbeth" was overheard asking her companion, "What the hell is she [Lady Macbeth] saying?" The other person did not respond, but neither returned to the performance after intermission. Both did themselves an injustice by, what seemed to be, never attempting to understand Shakespeare's play. Surely, scholars do not "get" every word. It's not necessary to translate 16th century script into 21st century language to fully appreciate "Macbeth" -- one of the Bard's best known, shortest, and accessible plays.

Enough lecturing on the merits of Shakespeare's work. In the case of Hartford Stage's presentation, the merits are extraordinary. Most theatergoers are familiar with this tale of ambition forsaking all else. Macbeth says that he has "vaulting ambition." His wife describes her strength as a "woman on an evil mission." Set in ancient Scotland, Thane Macbeth and his lady chart a swift and evil course to obtain the keys to the kingdom. Soothsayers, in the form of three disgustingly ugly witches (Brava to the young actresses and to costumer designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb), set the look, tone, smell, and color for what will follow in this literally and figuratively dark drama.

The set is essentially bare with sometimes-lit columns in the rear, the clothing is black or grey, the shadows are giants, the lightning cracks deafening. Director Darko Tresnjak has created small rooms and large, castles and forests on the same stage, sometimes simultaneously with a use of a one simple prop. More would have been too much for this production. Instead of the accoutrements, Tresnjak relies on his actors and Shakespeare's words. Never before has a script (almost lyrics) focused so intensely on each syllable.

Portraying the ruthless couple are Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes. Each is formidable in their roles. Rauch places every sound and body movement into creating a crazed Macbeth. His head ticks, his shoulder edges up, he becomes a man who would be king, yet terrified of himself. In the few scenes where he is absent, one hopes that he will show up to see such powerfully perfect acting. Forbes holds a near-candle to Rauch, also in demeanor and speech.

Doesn't there have to be something "wrong" with this production? Well, it is quite bloody and death scenes (without giving specifics) are over the top. On balance, however, this "Macbeth" is a theatrical gem.

September 26, 2013

Valerie Bunnell

Ceramic & Mixed Media Artist
Paradise City Arts Festival
Northampton, MA
October 12 -14, 2013

The following is an interview with artist Valerie Bunelle of Florence on her first time participation at Paradise City.

Q: How did you learn your craft? How long have you been doing this?
A: I have always been interested in clay. I dabbled in high school and unofficially minored in ceramics in college. After school, I worked in several apprenticeships in Vermont and worked on mostly functional pottery. Not until my early-30's did I return to school to earn a BFA from UMass ,and went on to receive an MFA in ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1990. Since then I've continued using clay in a more sculptural way.

The Art Institute influenced me greatly because of its interdisciplinary focus. I had the opportunity to study art history and develop varied technical skills. Along the way, I was exposed to self-taught artists and discovered outsider art. After my formal education, I embarked on a series of hand-built slab constructions that were tower like. I am still inspired by unusual architecture and man-made mechanical constructions. Intrigued by antique dolls and old marionettes that my mother collected, I began making mixed media and ceramic figures.

Q: What gives you inspiration?
A: So many diverse inspirations. Child-related toys and other items (antique dolls, marionettes, automatons, clowns, board games), to folk  traditions (fairy tales, myths, fables, Tarot, medieval costumes), to scientific illustrations, relics,to science (robots, mechanical debris). Very important to me is inspiration from art of numerous  countries -- especially Africa.

Q: What is your process of creating? How is your craft and/or designs unique?
A:  I employ slip molds, press molds and hand building in creating my figures. Using form, texture and text, I tell stories through my characters which are made in separate parts and assembled with wire, providing movement and animation. Many of the figures have wings, lending them a sense of potential. They spin, hang, bounce or balance on a pointed stand. A good number of my latest figures are entirely hand-built and highly textured. I have recently begun to collect and incorporate found objects, making each piece one of a kind.

All surfaces are stamped, textured and drawn on, then stained and rubbed off in varying degrees before and after firing. This treatment suggests a layered history and gives mystery to the figure which is often made in parts like a 3D puzzle.

My work incorporates many ideas and themes which are unique and varied, and as an evolution. The best pieces are arrived at by observing and following up on ideas and directions that occur while I am actually in the process. The difficulty is in making the time to do this kind of slow work in such a fast-paced world and choosing the best ideas to explore.

September 19, 2013

Miss Saigon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through September 22, 2013
by Shera Cohen

This review is somewhat different from "In the Spotlight"'s norm -- reason being that the Bushnell's season opener of "Miss Saigon" is nearly like all of the other "Miss Saigons" previously seen at this venue, in Boston, and in New York. ITS' website archives do not include these earlier reviews because they originate from our print-media days.

Let this critic and the readers quickly proceed to the "givens" and then focus on the smaller gems.

The plot is "Madame Butterfly." The set is the dark, war-torn dregs of 1970's Vietnam. The voices of the two lovers (Manna Nichols' Kim and Charlie Brady' Chris) are exquisite and strong. They are a physically beautiful duo. The third lead (the Pimp of Saigon called "The Engineer" portrayed by Orville Mendoza) is as slimy a conman as they come. The actor doesn't need a melodic voice, but one befitting his smarminess. All of these vital elements lay in this current "Miss Saigon." No one will be disappointed.

Then, there are other necessary elements which serve to make this musical seemingly eternal. Although termed "minor roles," the words denigrate the importance and talent of the full cast. For example, Meggie Cansler's Ellen (the wife back home) delivers a poignant "Now That I've Seen Her" to bring tears to audience members' eyes. While many are familiar with the lovely "Why G-d Why?" and "Last Night of the World" duets by Kim and Chris, Ellen's song with Kim, "I Still Believe," is a standout. Nkrumah Gatling's John (Chris' Army buddy) wallops a wrenching "Bui-Doi," accompanied by video of abandoned Amer-Asian children.

Now, for everything else, those details which usually go unnoticed to an average audience when done so perfectly. The choreography of Vietnamese soldiers shows creativity unexpected in war scenes. The attempted escape scene by Kim and others, barricaded by turning gates connoting both sides of the walls to freedom, is masterful. The klieg lights and flashes in pitch dark envelop the horror of humans and geography. Beat the drums for the pit orchestra (conductor Kevin Stites), especially those on jungle-like percussion.

With all of the perfect people and pieces going for it, the helicopter is really unnecessary in an outstanding "Miss Saigon."

September 16, 2013

33 Variations

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 27, 2013
by Shera Cohen

The Majestic open its 17th season with a quirky but interesting, funny yet somber, contemporary yet period piece (1800's), "33 Variations." The play focuses on Dr. Katherine Brandt, a present day musicologist, and Ludwig Van Beethoven. While both have lives devoted to music, "Variations" focuses on the relationship and affect of the two on each other. The obsession for perfection, particularly under crucial deadlines, is the crux of two intertwining stories.

It is nearly impossible for anyone entering the Majestic's stage to not "wow" at Greg Trochlil's set. The floor to ceiling library is exquisite. Also serving as numerous smaller sites (usually with the aid of a single prop), the set easily creates 21st and 19th century settings simultaneously. The trappings are more than a landscape, but an essential piece of the stories, equal in importance as the actors and dialogue.

Barbara McEwen, a Majestic "regular," portrays her character (Katherine) with intelligence, strength, and stubbornness. McEwen's Katherine is feisty, determined, in spite of an illness. [Not a spoiler alert.] This is McEwen's top performance to date. Buzz Roddy, a Pioneer Valley regular (New Century Theatre), exudes every adjective associated with the genius of Beethoven. Roddy buffers the bravado with his character's struggle to create as he bears the weight of his own malady. This, too, is Roddy's best character portrayal seen in years. While the two characters are rarely on stage together, and never speak to each other, the duo develop an important kinship especially at the conclusion of Act I.

Director Maxwell Williams has attended to the minutia -- making character movements, set pieces, and overhead projections purposeful, although some scenes and/or parts could have been snipped. The play is long enough to look at one's watch a few times.

Huge kudos to the sound crew, especially in creating Beethoven's oncoming deafness. And, speaking of sound, pianist Larry Picard (who never leaves the stage) is a one-man extremely talented "orchestra."

Equity and non-Equity actors nicely step into roles of both centuries: Darcie Champagne, James Emery, Jaris Hanson, and Jonathan Saulmon. It is difficult to know if Benjamin Cole (as a music producer) is a skilled actor or not. His booming voice envelops every word of dialogue and inordinately and negatively affects those on stage with him. Tone down the volume control or the director should pull the plug.

Words of note: it helps if audience members are knowledgeable about Beethoven. A short read in Wikipedia is suggested before attending the play. This homework assignment will ultimately make the play more enjoyable.

September 10, 2013


Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through September 22, 2013
by Walter Haggerty

“Company,” introduced in 1970, was the first “concept” musical. Today the show is a classic and has transitioned through revivals, concerts, and never-ending renditions. The lyric, “Art isn’t easy,” is from a later Sondheim work, however, it applies aptly to “Company.”

Art isn’t easy, and neither is Sondheim, considered a creative genius of contemporary musical theatre. Sondheim is a challenge to perform for the artists who give life to his characters, and sometimes to audiences. His music is magnificent, his lyrics inspired.

The Opera House Players are to be commended for accepting the Sondheim challenge of “Company,” and they make it work. The talented cast delivers an ensemble performance that is a miracle of acting and direction. The performers have captured each little quirk and eccentric nuance from every character to develop a series of portraits that stay with the audience long after the evening has ended.

The story focuses on several couples who live in an upscale Manhattan apartment house, and have gathered for a surprise birthday party for Robert, the lone single member of the group. Several side interludes reveal the conflicts and foibles of the various marriages and introduce a trio of prospects for consideration as a wife for Robert.

”Company” is overflowing with memorable performances. Sue Dzira’s “Getting Married Today” stops the show, and Julianne Rhone’s “Another Hundred People” is a lacerating take on New York. Becky Rodia Schoenfeld gives April just the right touch of off-center innocence, but it is Kathi Such who earns the evening’s highest accolades with an electrifying delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

The role of Robert fits Steve Wandzy perfectly. He captures Robert’s warmth and caring as well as his confused and superficial side. With “Someone Is Waiting” and “Being Alive,”Wandzy’s acting overcomes any vocal shortcomings, allowing the impact of each number to shine through.

At Broad Brook the cast delivers 100%, but the audience needs to work too. Every word is important, there is meaning that goes deeper than what is being said. “Company” demands and deserves attention. It’s worth it and the rewards are great.

September 6, 2013

Toronto – just the buildings

By Shera Cohen

The topic of most of my articles is theatre. I decided to be spontaneous (hmm, is that a contradiction) during my visit to Toronto. No theatre this time, just buildings. These were not row houses aligning expensive and cozy streets (well, there actually were many), box stores (either I wasn’t looking for Wal-Mart, et al, but I didn’t see any) or malls (although one of the biggest in the world was five blocks from the hotel), but libraries, museums, and castles. So, I use the word “buildings” broadly.

The Hop On & Off bus with cartoony map cost only $31 to be used for three consecutive days to view up to 24 sites. A true bargain. Needless to say, we hit several key spots, drove by others, and missed several. The tour guides, mostly college students, were a fun bunch, often veering off the script on their megaphone with their own anecdotes.

The Royal Ontario Museum, surely the largest museum in one building that I had ever seen, included everything “old” from every continent. A monstrous size dinosaur greeted us in the entry. Of course, Canadian artifacts were paramount; impressing me most were the extremely high, intricately designed totem poles. As part of the Toronto Photography Festival, then taking place, special exhibits were devoted in numerous galleries. Displayed treasures on four levels were Ming Tombs, the Bust of Cleopatra, and the Tagish Lake Meteorite; atop the museum laid an elegant dining room. Especially intriguing was the Textile Room with pieces from ancient Canadian Indian tribes to 1950’s Christian Dior. Those who know me can attest that I easily get lost – outdoors and indoors. ROM’s map was one of the most helpful for people like me. Allotting only a three hour tour did not do the museum and us justice.

I hopped off the Hop On & Off Bus when the guide pointed out the Toronto Reference Library, which happened to be near something else that didn’t interest me. I’m not sure if he said it was the largest reference library in the world, or one of the largest, but it was big, modern, state-of-the-art, quiet, and lovely with its indoor flowing waterfall and garden. The library’s architectural design, mass of computers, cushy upholstered furniture, and cafĂ© provided all a book lover would want. While I didn’t ask about the stats – number of books, pictures, maps, etc. – the count must have been enormous. The tour guide’s story of the Arthur Conan Doyle Room was enough for me to voluntarily hop on over. And, I do use “hop” literally, as I was still recovering from recent foot surgery. Why would a library in Toronto mount an exhibit of Sherlock Holmes?  Well, a man who lived in the city just happened to have found dozens of first editions simply by chance. He made a grand donation.

The Bata Shoe Museum is not for shoe lovers only. I can’t resist stating that a visit is a “step” into history. From pre-historic days in Africa to turn of the last millennium Asia to high-style 18th century Europe to Prada sneakers, Bata is a four-story gem right off the main street. A special room was devoted to the all-encompassing sneaker exhibit which included videos, the progression of sneakers over 150 years, and those worn even by the famous and infamous; i.e. Michael Jordan. The museum’s pamphlet questions, “Why shoes” and answers its own question with, “Although feet are the same around the world, what people choose to wear…is incredibly diverse.” Bata, which opened in 1979, boasts a world-class collection of more than 13,000 footwear and related artifacts. I hadn’t googled Bata prior to my Toronto visit, nor did I expect much from a shoe museum when I walked in the building. It would have been a mistake to remove Bata from my tour.

The bus guide called Casa Loma “the castle just around the corner.” Indeed, doesn’t every city have one of these giant, architecturally unique, spacious, multi-floored, stone-gaited structures in their downtown? The owner was Sir Henry Mill Pellatt (the Thomas Edison of Canada), financier, industrialist, and military man. He made it rich in harnessing electric power from Niagara Falls, and in 1911 spent $3,500,000 to build a medieval castle. A decade later, Pellatt lost his fortune (it’s a sad story of business betrayal and red tape) leaving his lavish home to the country of Canada. And, Canada now has the opportunity to show off this grandeur of the three-story structure with its huge library, dainty study of Mrs. Pellatt, round rooms, garden, hidden stairways, stables, and unfinished indoor Olympic-size swimming pool.

Toronto, definitely a cosmopolitan city with a capital “C,” has many firsts. The list was recited throughout each Hop On/Off ride. I forgot most of the names, except there was a the man who decided to provide tiny bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo in hotel rooms. What a helpful guy he was.