Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 28, 2013


Westfield Theater Group, Westfield, MA
through November 2, 2013
by Eric Johnson

Community theatre:  a full time hobby and passion for those involved, and an opportunity to see our family, friends, and neighbors do something they love.

Creating a musical comedy from a story is quite an undertaking, and finding the laughs in Bram Stokers chilling 1897 Gothic horror novel is not a challenge to be taken lightly. The team of Kathleen Palmer and Marion Dunk of Westfield Theater Group rose to the occasion and did just that: wrote a comical, family-friendly take on the original vampire story.  

The cast of 30+ actors, comprised of WTG veterans and some newcomers, all appeared to be having a wonderful experience on the stage, working together to create an evening of entertainment for an enthusiastic audience. Special kudos to Jay Torres for stepping into the lead role, and doing an admirable job of it, with only a few days notice. Generally, there are no understudies in community theatre, so the company prays to the theatre deities to keep all healthy through the run. Most of the time they come through, but not always.

"Dracula's band is ably led by composer/music director Marion Dunk through the 25 (give or take) musical numbers that drive the 2 hour 40 minute show. Several of the numbers are plainly exposition, such as “Woman’s Work," a solo for Keri Klee (role of Mina). No crime there however, as this is oftentimes done in professional theatre as well. 

A bit of scene stealing is good for some memorable comic moments courtesy of Gene Choquette (Van Helsing), Carol Palmer (Cneaja), Rock Palmer (Sam), and John Farrel (Quincy).

For those seeking some enjoyable, family friendly Halloween entertainment, Westfield Theater Group's family, friends, and neighbors provide it with "Dracula."

October 24, 2013

Anatomy of a Melody

Close Encounters with Music, Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
October 19, 2013
by Barbara Stroup

Because the concert title seemed to require it, and to bring clarity to the evolution of this world premiere, some background explanation was provided at this Close Encounters' concert. Cellist Yehua Hanani provided cogent details so that the audience would have a more critically tuned ear for the appearances of a singular musical element. Hanani described the source of the melody, the early opera tune “Love the Sailor,” helping listeners to further appreciate the skill composers use as they weave variations over a single theme.
Beethoven, for instance, used it in the 3rd movement of his piano trio Opus #11.

The highlight of the evening was the premiere performance of a commission by composer Paul Schoenfield who titled his use of the theme “Shaatnez for Ady.” Ady was present in the audience and far from alone in appreciating this modern composition. The piece was complex, tuneful, harmonic, bright, and the conclusion brought the audience to its feet. The piece was generously commissioned through the organization itself and if only every local musical group could manage this same generosity, audiences could continue to revel in Schoenfield’s skills.

For the trio and the commissioned piece, Hanani was joined on the stage by Miriam Fried (violin) and Renana Gutman (piano). These musicians exemplified all that is best about chamber music – a sensitivity to each other’s line when required, and a joy at leading when that opportunity was clearly their own. Perfectly balanced as a threesome, the sound periodically blurred during the final piece by Brahms. Perhaps the change from three lines to four was too abrupt for this venue or too sudden for these ears.

The venue itself deserves mention: the Mahaiwe has magic as one approaches the twinkling neon marquee and is drawn into the renovated facility, which shines in its refurbished state and lends itself to happy audiences with good sightlines and fine acoustics. Both this pleasant atmosphere and the early hour of the performance lent a feeling of being in the artists’ living room for an intimate evening of music making

This concert marks the beginning of the “Close Encounters with Music” season, which includes five more concerts between now and June 2014 at various venues in the Great Barrington area.

October 20, 2013


Theater Guild of Hampden, Hampden MA
through October 27, 2013
by Eric Johnson

Attraction, animal magnetism, chemistry, lust. Call it what you will, it is in the air at this production of William Inge’s 1953 play, "Picnic." Andrew Ingham as the handsome, boorish Hal Carter, and Brianna Paine as the beautiful and vapid Madge Owens display a steamy chemistry on stage from the first time their eyes meet.

Director Mark Giza has made excellent choices in casting, as all of the players seem relaxed and comfortable in the skins of their characters.

Heath Verrill’s portrayal of Alan Seymour is spot on, if a bit cliché. That is not to be taken as a negative, as this play is full of cliché that begs to be served. There is no ambiguity in Verrill’s performance -- he is the textbook good catch who cannot quite keep Madge’s attention when Hal comes to town. Brad Shepard and Tracey Hebert provide wonderful comic moments as Howard and Rosemary in scene stealing, scenery chewing, supporting roles. Other actors shine: Darlene Cloutier, Gail Weber, and Mindy Meeker. Millie Owens and Bomber are delightful supporting characters, ably played by KK Walulak and Ian Weber. Jeanne Wysocki gives a heart-rending performance that elicits some audible sobs from the opening night audience.

The intimacy of the space works well for this production. The audience is not insulated by distance from the intensity that this fine cast brings to life from Inge’s script. The staging does face some challenges, but they are well handled by Josiah Dunham, who has crafted an impressive set featuring two separate and complete houses.

If any criticism can be made, it is picky, and forgivable. Anachronisms. Stonewashed blue jeans were not sold in 1953; ear piercings were only on the lobes, etc.

At its core, the play is about choices and consequences. This production of "Picnic" contains good, solid choices, and strong chemistry. The consequence is a show well worth seeing.

October 17, 2013

Flashdance, The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 16, 2013

Jillian Mueller
Flashdance” the film is 30 years old, and nostalgia informs much of the stage version of that 80’s touchstone. Even then, the story of a beautiful welder by day/exotic dancer by night with big dreams, took a back seat to the kinetic visual and musical styles of the day. Much dialogue, choreography, and costuming are in direct homage to the film, which makes for a visually arresting show.

Without a doubt, the women own the stage. Jillian Mueller, as steel worker/dancer Alex Owens is a delightful triple-threat. She belts songs, dances with abandon, and quickly wins the audience over with her delivery. Many of her numbers were capped by whoops of delight from the audience and much of the show’s success rests solidly in that connection.

Alison Ewing and Dequina Moore back up (literally and figuratively) as Tess and Kiki, Alex’s seen it all co-workers. Each is given sharp lines and knockout numbers to perform with “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Manhunt.” Their curtain call prompted the audience to leap to its feet.

As befitting a show so firmly rooted in the video age of the 80’s, the scenery is created using spectacular high definition video projections and sliding panels, creating a dynamic and paradoxically organic canvas that is enthralling to watch.

The dance numbers range in style from modern, to ballet to hip-hop, but each element seems separate from the other. That said, there are some amazing, physical, passionate performers on display.

Five Top-40 hits from the soundtrack are included in the score but it is strange that none of these are sung by the leads. Sixteen additional songs have been written, of which “Steeltown Sky” and “Here and Now” work particularly well, but not all the new additions are necessary.

Like its cinematic source, “Flashdance, The Musical” is both visually and viscerally exciting. A jolt of electricity surges through the crowd when Alex performs her famous “water dance” as it combines Mueller’s boundless energy with superb stagecraft.

October 15, 2013

The Most Happy Fella

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
through December 1, 2013
by Walt Haggerty

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Once again, Goodspeed Musicals has given the theatre-going public a wonderful reason to celebrate. The current production of Frank Loesser’s masterwork, “The Most Happy Fella,” is a glorious, jubilant, triumphant revival. Like virtually every production at Goodspeed, “Fella” could be transferred to Broadway intact, outshining most of the shows already there.

Considered one of the most “musical of musicals,” “Most Happy Fella” is an unlikely romance between a middle-aged grape grower and a young waitress. The setting is a Napa Valley vineyard in the 1950's. The colorful, enormously talented cast seems born to bring Loesser’s wide-ranging score to show-stopping life.

In the pivotal role of Tony, Bill Nolte is magnificent. He captures the full range of his character's exuberance, anger, and ultimately, warmth, all backed up by a fantastic voice. As Rosabella, Mamie Parris is perfection in her transition from early disappointments and confusion, to true understanding and love, beautifully expressed with her soaring soprano and sensitive interpretation.

In this production, Tony’s sister, Marie, is given an opportunity to define her character through the restoration of “Eyes Like a Stranger.” Ann Arvia’s version reflects Maria’s foreboding and moving sense of loss. Doug Carpenter captures the restless, complicated, personality of Tony’s foreman, Joe, in an impressive performance of the song “Joey.”

Natalie Hill’s Cleo and Kevin Vortmann’s Herman are ideally matched, adding welcome humor at precisely the right moments. Martin Sola, Greg Roderick, and Daniel Berryman each contribute an authentic Italian flavor to the performance in a series of numbers. 

The amazing score reaches from the “pop tune” fun of “Big D” and “Standing on the Corner" to the Puccini-esque operatic richness of “Somebody, Somewhere” and “My Heart Is So Full of You.”

Goodspeed, with two Tony Awards, is recognized as America’s leading producer of first class revivals of Broadway’s treasure chest of musicals. With the inspired direction of Rob Ruggiero, spirited choreography of Parker Esse, and an outstanding cast, it is easy to see why this is so.

70th Anniversary Opening Night

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
October 11–12, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

Carolyn Kuan opened her third season as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra with an imaginative program of three works that featured two contrasting solo instruments.

The version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that began the concert included not only the solo organ for which it was originally written but the full orchestra in a transcription by Leopold Stokowski. Organist Edward Clark and the brass and string players made the most of their prominent roles in this dramatic account. The Bach was followed by an unannounced but delightfully effervescent performance of the rousing Overture to Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride.

Like last year, Kuan included in this opening night program not only a piece but also a performer reflecting her Chinese heritage. Wu Man was the crowd-pleasing soloist in Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra, written in 1997 for a festival celebrating the 80th birthday of the Oregon-born composer, who died in 2003. The pipa is an ancient Chinese lute with a short neck and four silk strings, and Ms. Wu was the soloist in that 1997 premiere.

The highlight of the half-hour-long concerto was the second of its four movements, called “Bits and Pieces,” with sections like “Three Sharing,” in which the pipa and principal cello and bass players struck the wood on their instruments for some dazzling percussive effects. Ms. Wu plucked her pipa with such obvious enjoyment and winning virtuosity that the enthusiastic audience called her back for a lovely traditional Chinese encore called “White Snow in Spring.”  

A highly charged reading of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony,” followed intermission. Clark again played the Bushnell organ with appropriate languor in the lush Poco Adagio second movement and majesty in the maestoso finale. The full orchestra played all four movements with excitement and precision.

A notable result of Maestra Kuan’s educational outreach efforts to the local community was the participation in the Bach and Smetana pieces by members of the Connecticut Youth Orchestra. Prepared by their Music Director Daniel D’Addio, they blended seamlessly with the HSO.

October 11, 2013

The Lion in Winter

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 26, 2013
by Bettie Hallen

With the leonine Robert Lunde as King Henry II of England and the regal Debi Freund as Eleanor of Aquitane, "The Lion in Winder" unfolds on the Suffield stage in all of its 12th Century royal panoply, intrigue, and chicanery. The gorgeously costumed family Plantagenet is as dysfunctional and love-hungry as any group could ever be, and all in it are masterfully portrayed.

Will Matus is the eldest son, Richard the Lionhearted: tall, handsome, and soldierly; his brother in the middle, Geoffrey, is played by Nathan Rumney with conniving perfection; and Christian Tarr is “to a T” the callow youngest, John. These three young men are certainly King Henry’s boys reincarnated on the stage at Suffield Players' Mapleton Hall.

Marisa Clement plays the lovely Alais, Henry’s mistress, raised by Eleanor to be the eventual wife of Henry's heir -- until Eleanor was imprisoned ten years earlier by Henry for leading a revolt. To round off the cast, Brian Rucci cleverly provides a great deal of comic relief as Alais’s brother, the new young King Philip of France, but a “foolish boy” to Henry.

Lunde's and Fruend's characters glibly toss barbs back and forth as they scheme to get their own different favorite son to become successor to the throne. Of course, there are three sons, and only one can be king, so parents and children take and change sides as they machinate into a thrilling conclusion, leaving the audience gasping in a rush of adrenaline.

The play, which tells the unforgettable tale of one of England’s most fascinating couples, is directed by Rayah Martin who adeptly leads her cast into an interpretation which gives the audience nearly three hours of fast-paced, relevant medieval history while, Martin states, "allowing the brilliantly written script to stand on its own merits.”

Suffield mounted this play in the 70's, and is one of the few plays they have brought back to their stage – and a finer revival could not be imagined.

October 8, 2013

Opening Night

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
October 5, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra opened its 70th anniversary season with a program of three works that had “optimism and excitement bursting from every seam,” as Music Director Kevin Rhodes described his goal for opening night in a program note.

After a stirring performance of The Star-Spangled Banner to mark the start of a new season and brief introductory remarks from new SSO President John Chandler and new SSO Executive Director Audrey Szychulski, the formal concert began with an exuberant romp through Shostakovich’s uncharacteristically upbeat Festive Overture. Brass and percussion members especially relished their featured roles, but everyone played with polish and good cheer.

Gilles Vonsattel
The orchestra and soloist Gilles Vonsattel next tore into the jazzy start of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with gusto. The high energy level continued through the Gershwinesque first movement and the fleet closing Presto.  But the heart of the concerto is the central Adagio, in which a dreamy waltz is introduced by the solo piano and later picked up by the woodwinds and eventually the whole orchestra. With a flowing and flexible tempo, soloist and ensemble fully realized the hushed radiance of this sublime movement. The Swiss-born Vonsattel, winner of several international piano competitions, Juilliard School graduate, and now an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Massachusetts, earned an instant standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience.

Intermission was followed by a dramatic account of a piece that Rhodes first played with the SSO when he was a candidate for his current position in November 2000, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor. After a blazing brass fanfare denoting “fate,” a broader than usual tempo heightened the contrasts among the multiple themes of the long first movement. The Andantino second movement was poignant and reflective, while the Pizzicato scherzo was delicate and playful.  Maestro and orchestra pulled out all the stops for a thrilling finale, and every section played brilliantly throughout the evening. 

Along with the welcome return of the “Rhodes’ Reflections” column to the program book, this notable opening concert promised an exciting season ahead.

October 7, 2013


Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 20, 2013
By K.J. Rogowski

The universality of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” is demonstrated in Playhouse On Park’s production of this saga of jealousy, deception, and passion.

Director Sasha Bratt moves the action into a sparse and desolate contemporary setting described as: “An all too familiar world of constant war,” with a cast dressed in army camouflage, carrying automatic weapons. The set design reinforces the focus of this production on character and motivation, through its simplicity, using fabric and draperies to create the changing settings. The multiple scene changes are smooth and well choreographed.

Our re-introduction to the many familiar characters is carried off with particular skill by Tom Coiner (the ever scheming Iago), and one of his many unwitting companions/victims, Austin Seay (the ever-trusting Roderigo). The interplay between these two actors is a refreshing take on the characters, delivered with a believable contemporary cadence and attitude. Coiner switches affect and presentation, with the cunning glibness of a sociopath, and Seay follows his lead like a witting, yet pitiable, dupe. Likewise, Aiden Eastwood-Paticchio as Cassio presents a youthful naive quality that leaves him sadly open to the treachery that surrounds him. The other two key players in this tragedy, Othello and Desdemona, portrayed by RJ Foster and Celine Held, deliver their roles with a more ‘traditional’ characterization, which certainly carries the theme and action of the play, yet leaves desire for more vulnerability and humanity.

For those who enjoy Shakespeare, and the many diverse times and settings in which it can be played, and reinforce its relevance and insight into who we are, what we do, and why we do it, this may be a version to add to your experience.

October 2, 2013

Clybourne Park

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through October 13, 2013
by Jennifer Curran

There will be a moment during this production, this glorious and beautiful and heartbreaking production, where audience members will see themselves in a character, and likely not share it with anyone but themselves. Act I takes place in 1959 in the house at the center of the novel A Raisin in the Sun; Act II is 50 years. Throughout the play, the audience realized that a lot has been said about race relations, but is anyone listening. Clybourne Park, masterfully crafted by playwright Bruce Norris, attempts to bring to life the important ideas, history, and truth that humans can’t seem to say out loud to each other.

Giovanna Sardelli is a director who is fierce in her ability to tell a story simply. She somehow never gets lost in her journey, and with razor sharp control she delivers a production that makes the original Broadway show a far away memory.

Russ and Bev Younger (Remi Sandri and Carol Halstead) reveal motivation in selling their home to the first black family in a white zip code. It isn’t a pleasant view from inside the nearly empty living room or the equally barren marriage. Banalities replace conversation as the two characters wonder about everything except a certain dark truth that brought them to this place. As the neighbors stop by in vain attempts to get them to not sell to the black family on their way, they also try and fail miserably to sound like anything other than the racists they are. 

Act II – flash forward a half-century – and the walls of the house have been torn down. In a mirror image of language and rhythm through the lens of modernity, the coin has flipped. A young, erudite white couple has decided to begin the gentrification of the neighborhood by purchasing the home only to tear it down and build an even bigger monument to good intentions. This news has not come happily to the Historical Society. In a diatribe about history and preservation, the truth is merrily danced around, sometimes politely spoken and avoided handily. 
In the end, the playwright and his characters all have so much to say and yet so little time to listen. This is Clybourne Park.