Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 10, 2014

Mozart and Dvorak

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
through December 7, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Though HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan is a multi-talented musician, guest conductor William Eddins did something in the third program of this season’s Masterworks series that Kuan hasn’t done yet in Hartford (but give her time): performed as featured soloist and conductor in the same concert. He also did something Kuan does regularly and well: spoke to the audience.

He opened by leading ten wind instruments from the piano in the HSO premiere of the nine-minute “Homage to Friendly Papageno” written in 1984 by Jean Francaix as “a hymn of gratitude to Mozart.” Sounding like a sprightly mash up of Mozart and Poulenc, it was played with charm and bite, and it led nicely into Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, in which Eddins led a larger ensemble of winds and strings again from the piano as soloist.

William Eddins
Not rising from the bench or leaving the stage between these pieces, he engagingly discussed the themes from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” quoted by Francaix and Mozart’s pet starling, which loved quoting the main theme of this concerto’s coda but could never get all the notes quite right. From its lively opening Allegro through a flowing Andante and vigorous romp of a finale, the affectionate performance showed why this was one of Mozart’s own favorites among his concertos. The conductor’s clear and decisive head motions complemented the dexterity of his fingers.

A white-hot reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 by the full orchestra followed intermission. The dark color of the opening cello chords made clear that this would be a powerfully dramatic interpretation. A warm, loving Poco Adagio, a stately, Czech-flavored Scherzo, and a passionate, intense finale brought the audience to its feet. Here Eddins was a full-body and high-energy conductor (think Leonard Bernstein), who led without a baton or score all evening but with obvious communication skill.   

Music Director of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor of major orchestras throughout the world, and at 18 the youngest graduate ever of the Eastman School of Music, this gifted and charismatic musician can’t be invited back to Hartford soon enough.

"Fabulous!" Is Just That…Fabulous

Times Square Arts Center, NY, NY
extended through January 5, 2015
by Jenn Curran

Ten years ago, composer Michael Rheault had a vision. He saw a pair of star-crossed-dressers standing on the deck of a ship. A little bit “Some Like it Hot,” a little bit “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” and a lot brand new. It was from this idea that the latest Off-Broadway hit, “Fabulous! The Queen of New Musical Comedies,” was born. With his writing partner, Dan Derby, the two men crafted a musical that is two parts throwback and one very large leap ahead. Michael and Dan both live in Greater Springfield, MA.

Our two heroines are Laura Lee Handle and Jane Mann, also known in the dive bar circuit as Mann Handle. The two ladies have found themselves without options, victims of mistaken identity, and a robbery gone bad. This pair of would-be divas land themselves jobs on the cruise ship Queen Ethel May heading to New York City, where they hope to find themselves real employment, men and new shoes.

On the surface, "Fabulous!" is fun and it sparkles with energy. Don’t let the title fool you though; look and listen closely and you will find that "Fabulous!" has a deeper meaning at its rhinestone-encrusted heart.

In the hysterically funny and poignant song “Falling for a Girl In the Closet," the audience sees a very closeted Hollywood movie star fall in love with someone he assumes is a woman. The song is an honest peak into one man’s struggle with his sexual identity.

“This is one of the songs we have re-written the least. We wrote it and haven’t really touched it much since. It just worked from the get go,” said Dan Derby.

Michael and Dan both wanted to create songs you can’t get out of your head. Michael stated, “We hoped to write a show that people left feeling happy, singing a song and believing that the world is a pretty good place. There aren’t a lot of new shows on Broadway like this today.”

According to a very positive review by the New York Times, a sweet and light-hearted show is exactly what Dan and Michael have delivered. When asked about the Times review, both men admitted to serious nerves, but excitement too. “The New York Times can be rough. It was very positive though, and we were elated!” Dan added.

December 5, 2014

Festival of Trees on Safari

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
through January 4, 2014

Berkshire Museum’s current exhibits make for a somewhat odd duo -- festive Christmas trees and an African Safari. Odd, but so effective, artistic, fun, and wide open to all sorts of creativity that the Museum is a must see early this winter.

For those who have attended “Festival of Trees” in the past, this very successful annual exhibit is new each year, featuring holiday trees of all shapes, sizes, colors, materials, and (most important) decorations. Dozens of trees are displayed throughout the second and third floors. Coupled for the first time with an equally important exhibit called “Lions & Tigers & Bears: Through the Lens with National Geographic,” the two shows exemplify this season’s theme, “On Safari.”

“Lions & Tigers & Bears...” (it’s difficult not to follow with “oh, my”) is a compelling look at wildlife photography featuring 50 photos from three of National Geographic’s top photojournalists — Michael “Nick” Nichols, Steve Winter, and Paul Nicklen. Observe the profound impact of visual storytelling with stunning images of these massive animals. Interesting reading on the displays’ signage is the story of a photographer’s harrowing experience sinking into quicksand, and a head-on shot of a majestic tiger.

In touring the Museum, trees seem to be situated around every bend and in every corner -- some larger trees stand alone, some in a mini-forest scene, and dozens of tiny trees which have been decorated by elementary schoolers on festival scaffolding. The latter is titled “The Kid Zone.” The “stars” of the show are the ornaments, all made and carefully placed by numerous Pittsfield community groups, senior centers, schools, clubs, farms, art agencies, health programs, and other non-profits.

Nearly any ornament that one can imagine dons the trees. Yes, there are the traditional decorations, and they are lovely. Especially fun are ornaments depicting a safari and wild animals made from paper mache, clothe, drawings, cutouts, and stuffing. Visitors can expect to see lots of wonderful trees with animals incorporated into the designs.

The two exhibits are sponsored by many businesses in and nearby Pittsfield. The proceeds benefit Berkshire Museum’s education program.

November 24, 2014

Death and the Maiden

Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
through November 23, 2014
by Phil O’Donoghue

Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden” is not an easy play to watch. Set in the aftermath of Chile's dictatorship rule in the 1990's, which included kidnappings and torture on a daily basis, Maiden is just one story about those abuses; but one story can be a harrowing experience.

Panache has gained a well-earned reputation for choosing plays that are challenging. Maiden is a complex play about Paulina, a victim of torture and interrogation. Her husband, Gerardo, works on a Human Rights Commission of the play’s unnamed country. The visitor, Roberto, is a seemingly innocuous man, eager to help, and is just as eager, if you believe him, to see his country’s past abuses made right.

When the play starts, Paulina seems to be a nervous, slightly scattered woman. Gerardo is solicitous to his wife, yet concerned that her frail condition will upset his career. When Paulina hears Roberto’s voice, her persona takes a sudden turn. She is stunned, shocked, and finally, determined. Paulina knocks Roberto out, ties him to a chair – and the play begins.

Believe it or not, there is a danger of the script being, what some critics of the original Broadway production referred to as, somewhat of a light play. There are lines where the audience nervously laughs, almost making the situation absurd. Thankfully, this community theatre's experienced director and cast walks that tightrope with ease. Marge Huba’s Paulina is overpowering in her rage and her need for vengeance. Hal Chernoff, as her husband, makes his character change into a weak, helpless onlooker – making his audience understand how a country can bend so easily under a forceful personality. Mark Ekenbarger, in the role of Roberto, shows a wide range of emotions. He is terrified at first, but ultimately almost contemptuous of Paulina. It is a fascinating standoff.

Kudos to Panache, its director, cast, and crew for undertaking this difficult production. It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking evening.

November 18, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof

Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through November 30, 2014
by Jennifer Curran

"Fiddler on the Roof," that classic and beloved musical, stands the test of time for a simple reason: it’s got a heart of gold. So, too, does Broad Brook with it current production. "Fiddler" is filled to the brim with sweetness and gentleness that has seep into the boards of the stage and reaches up to the open beamed ceiling.

Inside the playbook was a small note sharing that Director and Musical Director John DeNicola had been hospitalized and therefore others had stepped in to finish his work during those incredibly trying final weeks of rehearsal. And they did, with rousing success. 

Brad Shepard’s Tevya is a gentle giant with a humanity that stretches right out to the back row. Could this be his best performance thus far? Anna Giza, always a terrific performer, is a Golde worth sparring with and falling in love with. It could have been, and often is unfortunate, to play the conflict between these two characters. Shepard and Giza never let the audience forget that these two characters love each other. It’s more than a song; it's how they treat one another with playful jabs. Such nuances, which may be over-done in lesser productions, are underlined with true affection. The relationship between his man and woman is clear and important, raising the stakes for the audience and adding that extra dimension to a marriage whose lasting power exists for more than mere tradition.

Huge kudos go to the beautiful, rich voices of Kaytlyn Vandeloecht (Tzeitel), Stella Rivera (Hodel) and Madeline Lukomski (Chava). Also of note in this charming production is Gene Choquette as Lazar Wolf. Every scene that he is in has its own energy and lightness; Choquette brings out the best in his fellow actors. 

This is a "Fiddler" that is endearing and delightful. With a delicate ballet routine performed quite beautifully by Randy Davidson (Fyedka) and Madeline Lukomski (Chava), this production runs lovingly. If comedy is hard, ballet is certainly a way to raise that barre. Well done, Broad Brook and get well wishes to John DeNicola.

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through November 16, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The second program in the HSO’s Masterworks series this season focused on music from the German tradition, but with an unusual (and educational) twist. The season’s closing concert next June will feature Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and this was one of several earlier programs in which Music Director Carolyn Kuan is finding connections to that work in other repertoire.

She led off with a dramatic performance of Brahms’ alternately turbulent and consoling Tragic Overture, which he wrote as a darker companion to his jubilant Academic Festival Overture in 1880. Kuan’s leadership and the orchestra’s playing were taut and incisive.

Before the next work on the program, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration, the musicians played an excerpt from the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth. In spoken comments Kuan noted that the composers, born four years apart, were lifelong rivals, or “frenemies,” whose music influenced each other’s. After this preface, the HSO’s sublime rendition of the Strauss, which depicts an artist only finding his ideal after death, made it sound more Mahlerian than usual, from the vividly painful climaxes to the transcendent hushed conclusion. Brasses, woodwinds, and two harps were particularly evocative.

Martina Filjak
Intermission was followed by a riveting account of Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto, nicknamed the “Emperor” presumably for its grandeur but also because it was written in Vienna during 1809, when Napoleon was conquering the city. The young Croatian-born soloist, Martina Filjak, met its considerable technical demands with dazzling virtuosity. She also scaled its interpretive heights with maturity and balance. Orchestra and conductor were with her all the way, strings providing a warm bath of support in the slow movement and the whole ensemble opening and closing the piece with appropriate pomp and circumstance.      

Responding to the audience’s enthusiastic applause, Filjak then offered something completely different as an encore – a quiet “study for the left hand” by Scriabin. The delicacy of her playing here in contrast with Beethoven’s massive sonority was impressive. The early return of this rising star to Hartford would clearly be most welcome to her many fans at this concert.

November 17, 2014

The Yeomen of the Guard

Valley Light Opera, Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
through November 16, 2014
By Mary Ann Dennis

Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Yeomen of the Guard," is a favorite of both author and composer, as well as the VLO family. Although the darkest of the G&S operas, pointed satire and punning one-liners abound. There are plenty of topsy-turvy plot complications and many believe that the score is Sullivan's finest. The plot involves ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.

It is said that the sign of a great director is in the casting. The VLO's perfect cast gives an almost perfect rendition of this masterpiece, giving full vocal and histrionic justice to both text and music. Jacqueline Haney’s direction is spot on and musical director Aldo Fabrizi shapes the decrescendos with great sensitivity including outstanding acapella pieces.

Phoebe, played by Kate Saik, opens the show with a solo and literally sets the tone from the start. Saik embraces this character from head to toe, moving about the stage through intentions, not just blocking. Jonathan Klate as Jack Point, in one of the most difficult roles, does a wonderful job as he plays a subtle account of this sad, lonely, self-mocking clown. Jonathan Evans, who performs Fairfax, sings some of his moments with such a sweet falsetto. He has a beautiful tone, especially in his wooing Elsie. Not only can Elaine Crane, who plays Elsie, sing, but she brilliantly “takes on” the emotions needed for this demanding role. The stunning contralto, Dame Carruthers, played by Kathy Blaisdell, has all the right stuff; a rich voice and a magnificent stage presence. Michael Budnick, who plays Wilfred the Jailer, is hilarious in his conflict. Although he doesn’t have the pipes of the rest of the cast, he makes it work.

The chorus is tight in their vocals and diction. The stunning set and lights complement the show perfectly. Elaine Walkerk and Laurla Glenn's set and costumes bring authentic early 1500’s to life. Seems like it would take years to make just the costumes.

For G&S fans and for those who are not, this production of "Yeomen" is a must see.

November 10, 2014

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
 through November 16, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

“The Man Who Came to Dinner,” an inspired comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, was a major success in 1939, and still sparkles with its authors' sophisticated wit, much of which was derived at the expense of their friend, Alexander Wollcott. Wilbraham United Players' production is a delight, capturing all the humor of the original through the efforts of a multi-talented cast expertly directed by Deborah Tremble.

As the story unfolds, Sheridan Whiteside is a reluctant house-guest in a small Ohio town, where he was to deliver a lecture. Entering the home of the Stanley’s, he has fallen. In his least charming and most aggravating manner, he proceeds to terrorize everyone. Paul Nesbit plays Whiteside with great vigor and matchless timing, never missing a laugh at the expense of his hosts or anyone else.

In addition to Nesbit, other standout performers include the Stanleys, expertly played by Kevin Kary and Patricia Colkos. Janet Crosier as Whiteside’s frazzled and frustrated nurse is priceless. Stacy Gilmour is outstanding as the patient and understanding secretary in love with the strong, handsome local editor, ideally played by David Chivers. Carolyn Averill’s Lorraine Sheldon is hilarious in her dual pursuit of the editor as she awaits a long sought proposal from a stuttering English lord.

The play overflows with amusing cameo appearances by Whiteside friends and others including Mark Jacobson as a devastatingly funny Beverly Carlton. Don Clements contributes knockout comic twists that nearly derail the proceedings, and Paul Rothberg as Dr. Bradley has only to appear to have the audience roaring. Other cast members giving winning interpretations include Joe Van Allen and Christine Zdebski, the Stanley children and Michelle McBride as Mr. Stanley’s sister. Jay Muse and Gina Marieparo are the Stanley’s butler and cook, (whom Whiteside is trying to hi-jack to New York).

 “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a perfect example of a laugh-a-minute comedy from another era when theatre did not need to resort to shock or foul language to find success.


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 14, 2014
by Jennifer Curran

"Harvey," written in 1944 by Mary Chase, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 beating out Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie." Williams’ play is performed routinely by high schools, community, regional and professional theaters across the country, while "Harvey" is significantly less popular. "Harvey" can be a terrific play, but one that is extraordinarily difficult to get right. Most recently, it was successfully revived on Broadway and starred Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory."

Our hero of the play, Elwood, has a best friend that nobody but he can see: a six-foot tall rabbit named Harvey. Elwood, (David Mason) is affable, likable, and absolutely committed to sincerity. Upon meeting someone he likes, he immediately becomes their friend. Mason’s Elwood is childlike and completely endearing. Unfortunately for Mason, an ensemble comedy depends on all of the actors’ ability to jab and punch and dance to a specific timing that is unique to each production.

Director Randy Foerster comes close, but sadly, this production falls flat. With actors clumped together in awkward poses or quite literally shoulder to shoulder, the audience members sitting anywhere other than the center section almost never see the face of one of the characters. With a stage design as gorgeous as Greg Trochlil’s is, there is little excuse to see the director’s hand or not see an actor almost at all.

The Majestic’s production of this American classic tries hard, but ultimately forgets that "Harvey" is supposed to be funny.

November 7, 2014


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 25, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

“Wicked,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, has become one of those modern phenomena – a Broadway musical that just runs forever. Currently in its tenth year on Broadway, “Wicked” is making a return visit to Hartford, certain to achieve another sell-out run, attracting both new and repeat enthusiastic fans.

Based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, the story relates the pre-Dorothy origins of the “Wizard of Oz” good witch Glinda (pronounced Ga-linda most of the time) and not-so-good witch Elphaba. Key to the plot is the audience's discovery of the women's personalities. Staged as a spectacular production, complete with flying monkeys, “Wicked” creates an electrifying evening of theatre, no matter how many times it is seen, and this production ranks with the best.

In the pivotal roles of Elphaba and Glinda, Laurel Harris and Kara Lindsay, respectively, are impeccable, with Harris delivering a complex characterization confirming Kermit the Frog’s conclusion, that “it’s not easy being green.” On the other hand, Lindsay eagerly shares her appreciation of, and entitlement to, being “Popular,” one of several show-stoppers distributed generously, like gems, throughout the score. Another special moment occurs in Act II, as Elphaba and Fiero sing “As Long As You’re Mine.”

The entire cast shines in their execution of a series of demanding characterizations. Among the most memorable are Matt Shingledecker as Fiero, the object of both Glinda and Elphaba’s affections. Kathy Fitzgerald’s Madame Morrible is the personification of evil, and Jenny Fellner is a tenderly moving Nessarose. As the Wizard, Wayne Schroder’s performance of “Wonderful” is introduced as a welcome touch of old-time vaudeville at precisely the right moment.

This touring production of “Wicked” matches the Broadway original in every way, from its amazing scenery and gorgeous costumes to an enthusiastic and highly talented cast giving their all as though each performance is opening night. “Wicked” also delivers a message that is not limited to children.

October 27, 2014

Kings, Angels & Lovers

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
October 25, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

While no kings are depicted on this program, its title accurately suggests the outsize emotional power of all four works. But its theme might better be described by the old bridal adage “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Maestro Kevin Rhodes began the concert with “something borrowed”: the chorale “It Is Enough” from Bach’s Cantata BWV 60, which was quoted in the next work on the program, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. The three-minute chorale was radiantly sung by 24 male and female members of the Springfield Symphony Chorus, beautifully accompanied by a reduced SSO, a performance they repeated after a 10-minute mini-lecture by the maestro that was vintage Rhodes, informative and entertaining, as he illustrated at the piano how the chorale fit into the concerto.

Caroline Goulding
The audience seemed to appreciate this helpful introduction to Berg’s final masterpiece, whose dissonant surrealism can still be a challenge to modern ears. But not to the fingers of soloist Caroline Goulding, whose technical virtuosity and interpretive maturity were remarkable for her age (twenty-two). Dedicated “to the memory of an angel” (Manon Gropius, a close friend of Berg who died of polio at age 18 in 1935), the concerto has a solemn and lyrical beauty that the SSO players captured with delicacy and finesse.

Intermission was followed by something completely different from Berg’s “something blue”: two symphonic poems written by Tchaikovsky but inspired by Shakespeare: “The Tempest” (something new) and “Romeo and Juliet” (something old). If the haunting opening and close, soaring love themes, and thrilling climaxes of “The Tempest” could impress Nadezhda von Meck enough to become Tchaikovsky’s patroness, it seems odd that the work is so rarely played today. A more inspired account than this one by Rhodes and the SSO would be hard to imagine.

And how better to follow it than with an equally riveting performance of the more familiar “Romeo and Juliet"? Ideally paced to maximize the contrast between the violent music of the warring Montagues and Capulets and the famously ravishing love theme of their young progeny, it brought a dramatic evening to a fittingly moving end.

October 25, 2014


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 16, 2014
by Phil O’Donoghue

In the Hartford Stage production of Hamlet there is a moment in Act III when Hamlet is giving the Players advice before their Court performance. He beseeches the troupe to, “…suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” One cannot help but think, while watching Zach Appleman’s superbly controlled performance in the title role, that that was precisely director Darko Tresnjak’s advice for his leading man, and the production as a whole.

Appleman is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and his standout performance reflects the rigorous discipline that school of acting promotes. Many actors choose to convey Hamlet’s descent into madness – or fake madness - with manic displays of energy, stressing huge gestures, and physicality. Not so Appleman; his performance is so well thought-out, so disciplined, that when he does choose a gesture - a turn of the head, a feint to the center, a finger slashing across his throat – the audience reacts as if he has just screamed.

Darko Tresnjak’s mark on this Hamlet starts with his own scenic vision for the show: a runway with a short stage at each end, like a large letter I. The runway is lit from below, which allows the texture of the scenes to change with each location. It is brilliantly spare, and the lighting design by Matthew Richards only adds to the vision of the play.

Andrew Long’s performance as Claudius, Hamlet’s scheming uncle, is appropriately evil, yet also rough around the edges. He manages to find empathy in a decidedly unsympathetic character. Kate Forbes’ performance as Gertrude is seamless. In the role of Polonius, Edward James Hyland provides the audience with some wonderfully comedic moments that break up the almost unrelenting tension of the show.

Two performers stand out in particular: James Seoul, portraying Horatio, is a charismatic and riveting actor who also makes his debut at the Hartford Stage. One hopes it won’t be his last. And Brittany Vicars as Ophelia is a true find. Her character’s own descent into madness is spellbinding, as Vicars sings her lines in high, trilling voice, foreshadowing her own tragic end.

The Normal Heart

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Hampden, MA
through November 2, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

It was the early 80's. At first, cases were remote, isolated. The public was unaware, but seemingly, out of nowhere, people were seriously ill, and dying…and they were virtually all gay! It was determined that whatever this illness was, that it attacked the body’s immune system, leaving it incapable of fighting the infections of this 20th century plague. And no one was doing anything about it.

That is the overriding story of Larry Kramer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “The Normal Heart,” presented by the Theatre Guild of Hampden, in a courageous production directed with great sensitivity by Mark Giza.

The cast is impeccable -- every role meticulously cast. The early scenes crackle with often sardonic humor as a group of friends attempt to deal with the situation. Luis Manzi, as Ned, takes up the challenge of recognizing and accepting that the reality that this illness must be faced and fought. But, this small ”band of brothers” cannot do it alone. Manzi’s performance is masterful, capturing every nuance of his character’s determination, dedication, frustration, and anger.

Equally brilliant is Arnaldo Rivera as Felix, who convinces Ned that he can love and be loved. Felix’ deterioration is tragic to witness, but managed touchingly and with dignity. His performance is flawless.

The thoroughly professional cast is amazing. Paula Cortis as Dr. Brookner, conveys professionalism, sympathy and understanding while, seemingly, facing a hopeless task. Brad Shepard has the difficult assignment of portraying Ned’s older brother who can’t quite accept his sibling’s homosexuality. Andrew Ingham is perfect as Bruce Niles, a CityBank Vice President who accepts the leadership of the group’s organization while still trying to hide his own gay persona.

Steve Sands as Mickey, mostly lighthearted, in Act II delivers a tension-filled attack on Ned that reveals the true depth of his character. Kellum Ledwith contributes several light moments in his portrayal of Tommy, as an almost stereotypical young, gay man, untouched by the tragic circumstances that surround him. Important contributions are made by Kevin Wherry, Silk Johnson, and John Flynn in lesser roles.

For a riveting evening of theatre, delivering high drama tempered by flashes of humor, “The Normal Heart” has it all, but only until November 2.

October 23, 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Westfield Theatre Group, Westfield, MA
through October 25, 2014
by Mary Ann Dennis

With a mental ward standing in for everyday society, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is insane (in a good way). Based on Ken Kesey's novel and directed by Jake Golen with depth and understanding, this is a comically sharp indictment to urge establishment to conform. Playing crazy to avoid prison work detail, manic but free spirit Randle P. McMurphy, played by Carl Schwarzenbach, is sent to the state mental hospital for evaluation. There he encounters a motley crew of mostly voluntary inmates, all presided over by the icy Nurse Ratched.

Ratched and McMurphy recognize that each is the other's worst enemy: an authority figure who equates sanity with correct behavior, and a misfit who is charismatic enough to dismantle the system simply by living as he pleases. Schwarzenbach as McMurphy is stellar. His approach to this boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel is performed with finesse. He commands the stage and is a delight to watch. Janine Flood’s Nurse Ratched is passive-aggressive in shining armor. Flood’s approach is sterile and self-controlled which “works” for the character. Flood’s interpretation is consistent and valid, but a bit more whimsical playfulness would make a proper ingredient to the syrup manipulations.

The evidence of Ratched’s authority is shown in the lobotomized character of Ruckly, played by Paul Bridge. Although few lines are delivered, Bridge pulls off the idiosyncrasies, twitches, and outbursts so believably that the audience is mesmerized. Bridge makes his acting debut with this production and is sensational in this intricate and most necessary role.

Thomas LeCourt is successful as Dale Harding, a man simply trying to figure why, what and how but is scared and has been shut down from life. Kevin Montemagni exuberantly puts himself into the role of Scanlon – a paranoid bomb-making maniac. Martini, played by John Kielb, is perfect for his role. Rob Clark's Chief evokes unexpected compassion from his audience.

McMurphy's message to live free or die is ultimately not lost on the “inmates,” revealing that escape is still possible even from the most oppressive conditions. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax. This is an intricate show; a display of life and the conflicts everyone faces.

October 21, 2014

Opening Nights: Porgy and Bess

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
October 16–19, 2014
by Michael J. Moran
Carolyn Kuan

The HSO website calls the weekend of concerts opening their 71st season “a monumental journey commemorating struggle, bravery and hope (through) passionate anthems of independence.” All four pieces on the program fit this description in varied ways.

While HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan began with the traditional season-opening “Star Spangled Banner,” this lavish presentation included not only the HSO musicians but the Hartford Chorale, whose male and female voices expressed that passion for independence with explicit fervor.

The jubilant performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” that followed kept the Chorale onstage to sing in English the haunting Russian hymn “God, Preserve Thy People” at the outset and the Russian national hymn “God Save the Czar” at the end. With the large orchestra further amplified by voices, these familiar melodies sounded respectively even more somber and celebratory than usual. 

The first half of the program concluded with the HSO premiere of Japanese composer Tadao Sawai’s 1985 piece “Flying Like a Bird” for koto and orchestra, featuring, in her HSO debut, Japanese koto player Mayaso Ishigure. The koto is a stringed instrument that sounds like a zither and looks like a dulcimer. Its exotic sound and Ishigure’s virtuosity rendered the sound of flight as vividly as any instrument could. The enthusiastic audience called her back for a lovely solo encore that depicted another bird with traditional Japanese harmonies.

An exuberant account of a 40-minute suite from Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” closed the concert after intermission. The orchestra was joined in many selections by soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, bass-baritone Kevin Deas, the Hartford Chorale, and/or the First Cathedral Praises of Zion Choir.

All the musicians were in top form, with Chandler-Eteme radiant in “Summertime” and poignant in “My Man’s Gone Now,” while Deas displayed deep feeling in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and great comic timing in “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It was fun to watch the enlarged choir follow his movement cues when he swayed, bowed, or even jumped on several occasions.

The HSO’s new season is off to a promising and exciting start.

October 20, 2014


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 9, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Some reviewers take notes during a production. Some reviewers use special pens that double as flashlights -- useful for writing in the dark and very annoying to fellow audience members. Some reviewers take no notes. This reviewer tends to fall into the first category. Those productions that make the short list are exceptional because the last thing for a reviewer to think about is to interrupt the concentration, understanding, and personal connection by clicking a pen and trying to find the next clean page of a notebook. “Annapurna” is the latest entry in the third (and best) group.

Two characters, ex-marrieds, hold this one-act play together as its audience hopes for a second act, third, or the rest of the characters’ lives. While no blood is shed, sweat and tears fill the stage from start to finish, and at the same time softened by humor. Debra Jo Rupp portrays the ex-wife who walks into her former husband’s trailer unannounced 20 years after she walked out, and Vasili Bogazianos dons the apron of a poor slob -- at first. Crisp, short, funny scenes with blackouts between each open the story. Mixing Rupp’s dead-pan responses to Bogazianos’ broad and often salacious remarks kick off what will soon become a see-saw of jibes, love, hurt, love, secrets, and love.

Debra Jo Rupp & Vasili Bogazianos
The actors make it obvious that this woman and man have each gone through their own versions of hell, separately and together. Yet, “obvious” is a misnomer. The actors, along with director Rob Ruggiero, have accomplished unbelievably difficult work in creating what is seemingly “obvious.” At the fulcrum of the verbal and sometimes physical see-saw is another character, unseen but ever-present. The exes’ conversations (and silences) about this third player bring him to life. No easy task to fulfill.

Another “character,” albeit not living or breathing, is the set design by Evan Adamson. Every bit of “decor,” from the minutia of the location of a filthy burnt pan to the large unmade bed strewn with smelly blankets (well, they looked smelly) is exact.

After the play, a young patron was overhead saying, “It was so much like real life I forgot it was theatre.”

October 17, 2014

Holiday Inn

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through December 21, 2014
By R.E. Smith

Sometimes one cannot mince words: this is a remarkable show. Every aspect of Goodspeed’s original adaptation of the 1942 Crosby/Astaire movie musical glitters and shines with sincere attention to detail and love of the material.

Rebuffed by his fiancée and left by his partner, song and dance man Jim Hardy moves to a country house in Connecticut to start a new life. To make ends meet, he calls on his show biz friends to perform at the inn on holidays. Singing, dancing and romantic complications ensue. The solid book improves the plot of the movie, retooling some characters, scenes, and motivations to make a whimsical but grounded storyline.

To start, the tunes are so familiar that it is hard to believe this was never on stage before. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”, “White Christmas” and Easter Parade” are just a few of the 25 standards easily integrated into the action.

The choreography by Denis Jones is spectacular, sometimes echoing the source and inventively interpreting the styles. Tap dance extravaganza “Shaking the Blues Away” had the audience on its feet and every number took advantage of the ensemble’s top-notch skill. Alejo Vietti’s costumes elicited “ooh’s and ahh’s,” providing authentic, colorful icing on this giddy song and dance confection.

Patti Murin and Noah Racey
Photo (c)Diane Sobolewski
Male leads Kelly Sessions (Jim) and Noah Racey (Ted) hint at the movie’s stars personalities, but create fine interpretations of their own. Sessions has to be sympathetic without being a patsy and Racey must be likable but self-centered. Patti Murin portrays love interest Linda’s arc from guarded teacher to energized star in authentic fashion. Susan Mosher’s “Handyman” Louise is a showstopper with just a few well-timed one-liners and facial expressions.

Highlights abound, from the Thanksgiving ensemble number “Plenty to be Thankful For,” to Sessions’ poignant vocal’s on “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” to Racey’s amazing footwork in “Let’s Say It with Fireworks”. As one gentlemen announced, to no one in particular, as he was leaving the theater: “I think they (Goodspeed) have a winner with this one!”