Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 31, 2014

Guys and Dolls

Westfield Theater Group, Westfield, MA
through April 12, 2014
by Eric Johnson

What’s playin’ at the Roxy? A tight, well rehearsed, energetic and thoroughly entertaining production of "Guys and Dolls."

First time director John Farrell and seasoned music director George Garber Jr. work well together. The casting choices, including a few bold ones, serve this production admirably. Farrell’s objective to keep it simple, using projections along with a few easy to move set pieces, keeps the scene changes short and the action flowing.

Garber leads a 10-piece band through the score by Frank Loesser with deft precision and an ear for detail that sets a very high bar for a community theatre produced musical. The instruments and voices blend so well that the balance rivals that of a recording, and all of this at a very comfortable volume.

The members of the ensemble cast work together like the proverbial well-tuned and oiled machine; a machine with some mad vocal skills as well. Soloists and chorus alike bring some lovely voices to the party.

Stand out performances from supporting roles come from Pat McMahon as Nicely Nicely Johnson; his timing and physical comedic ability are quite entertaining. Paired with Jay Torres as Benny, the two elicit belly laughs galore from the receptive opening night audience. Rick Buzzee contributes a wonderful, grounded performance as Arvide; his solo “More I Cannot Wish You” is a wonderful moment.

Lead performers Tom LeCourt as Nathan, Martina Haskins as Adelaide, Carl Schwarzenbach as Sky and Lyndsey Ryder as Sarah, all work very well together. LeCourt is not subtle in his portrayal of Nathan, creating some hilarious moments. Schwarzenbach's Sky is a bit more subdued, adding a contrast between the two inveterate gamblers. The chemistry between Schwarzebach’s Sky and Ryders’ Sarah is obvious. A bit more range of emotion from the Sarah character would be welcome, especially in the duet with Adelaide. 
This leads to the strongest performance -- Martina Haskins as Adelaide slams it home with poise, talent, and skill. The emotional range in “Adelaide’s Lament” is both heart wrenching and hilarious. The chemistry between Nathan and Adelaide is there, especially in “Sue Me.”

Kudos to cast and crew for putting together a polished and enjoyable show.

March 25, 2014

Enigma Variations

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 20–23, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Guest conductor Michael Lankester was warmly welcomed to the Bushnell’s Belding Theater for a program that played to many of the strengths he demonstrated as HSO Music Director (1985-2000): an English symphonic favorite; and a lesser-known Bruckner symphony.

Michael Lankester
The concert opened with a deeply felt account of Sir Edward Elgar’s masterpiece, formally titled Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” but usually called simply the Enigma Variations. Following a stately opening theme, each of the fourteen variations depicts a friend or family member of the composer, varying widely in pace and mood, from the tender first variation on Elgar’s wife, Alice, to the “Presto” seventh variation on a high-spirited friend, to the noble ninth variation (“Nimrod”), a tribute to Elgar’s publisher, which is often played separately as an elegy. 

Though some of Lankester’s tempos were daringly slow, all sections of the orchestra did themselves proud in this loving rendition of a work by a fellow Englishman that sounded very close to the conductor’s heart.

None of Anton Bruckner’s nine symphonies are programmed very often, perhaps because of their enormous length, but the third appears less in concert than the more familiar fourth, seventh, and ninth. So hats off to Lankester for leading a monumental performance of the 67-minute piece after intermission. Bruckner was a church organist for many years in his native Austria, and the symphony’s huge sonorities resonated much like an organ in the ample but intimate Belding acoustics.

With spacious tempos in all four movements, Lankester emphasized its majestic grandeur, which evokes for many listeners the high peaks and deep valleys of the Austrian Alps. The HSO brass made a glorious choir in the symphony’s blazing climaxes, while the woodwinds played many softer passages with contrasting delicacy.
During his tenure as HSO Music Director, Lankester showed a special feeling for the English repertoire, with memorable local premieres of contemporary works by John Taverner and Michael Tippett, as well as for large-scale pieces like Mahler’s eighth symphony. Both strengths were well served by this Elgar/Bruckner program, and much of the audience seemed anxious for a return engagement soon.

March 22, 2014

The Other Place

TheaterWorks, Hartford,CT
through April 19, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Playwright Sharr White has constructed a poignant, wild roller coaster ride of emotion for the audience in "The Other Place." This totally engaging play is part mystery, part thriller, and an intimate portrait of mind, memory, and love. The script is beautifully written and sizzles thanks to director Rob Ruggiero and a production team that includes a magical set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, John Lasiter’s lighting, and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design.

The extraordinary actress who carries the show is Kate Levy, whose depth and command of the role is staggering. As Juliana Smithton, the research scientist whose life begins to shatter because of a devastating disease, Levy evokes empathy and compassion. Her work is artistic perfection. The story begins as her character pitches a new pharmaceutical to a gathering of doctors, but then her eye catches someone in the audience who provokes a series of mental connections that drive the story through a twisting, turning loop of related thoughts, memories, and pain.

Juliana becomes obsessed with her daughter’s disappearance and is haunted by past events, while the audience starts to question which memories are real. Her husband, Ian, played by R. Ward Duffy is an excellent counterpoint to Juliana’s emotional swings, and he becomes the character for whom we sympathize as the family’s story unravels. Amelia McClain (billed as “The Woman”) plays three roles – all to perfection, and Clark Scott Carmichael (“The Man”) establishes presence in a series of cleanly executed multiple roles.

So much happens in this well-crafted play that is disorienting, familiar, and devastating, that any description of plot would give it all away. In the hands of a lesser cast and crew, this play could become trite or maudlin, but Ruggiero’s cast and crew hit the nerves just right. "The Other Place," whose title is integral to the story, is theatre at its best, and TheaterWorks deserves kudos for delivering its audiences a powerful story, well-crafted, well-told, and unforgettable.

The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 30, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Most potential audience members of “The Book of Mormon” have assumptions before setting foot in the theatre. Solely based on the playbill’s credits -- the team that founded “South Park” is the same who created “Mormon” -- expectations include: hold no one or anything sacred, lambaste all ethnicities, demean sexual orientation, and ‘crucify’ every religion.

Okay, then why see such rubbish? The answer to that question is the same to...why does “South Park’s” 15 year run continue? The answer -- it’s funny, very funny. Good clean fun, it’s not. It’s the funny stuff that you wouldn’t dare say yourself or perhaps admit to enjoying.

The solid plot follows two Mormon training school graduates, Elders Price and Cunningham, on their mission of converting souls. Their assignment: Uganda. Head-of-the-class Price is especially bummed because he had his heart set on Orlando. Disneyworld is a running theme through the musical, as is repeated maligning of “The Lion King.”

The stage is essentially populated by white boys in white short-sleeved shirts whose sacred chanting of “I Am Africa” is utterly ridiculous, and motley dressed black Ugandans whose rendition of Mormon history is a hoot.

In the midst of this R-rated story, is perhaps surprisingly some beautiful music. Taking the notes by themselves, “Baptist Me” and “I Believe” are lovely pieces. But, alas, the salacious lyrics outnumber the music in importance. That seems to have been the creators’ plan for their audiences -- don’t leave the theatre humming, leave the theatre laughing. Each Act has its show-stopper. In Act I, the rockin’ “Man Up” praises “The Man” Jesus. The deep red special effects and nefarious dancing historical characters of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” justifiably stop Act II.

“The Book of Mormon” boasts a young and energetic cast blasphemously opening the pages of this wonderfully campy and hokey script for an appreciative audience that willingly lets raucous humor trump divinity for at least two hours. It is difficult to imagine a more professional, deftly executed, swift paced, colorfully designed, and creatively choreographed musical on a Broadway stage.

March 17, 2014

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
through March 23, 2014
by Eric Johnson

Like many Neil Simon plays, this one is set in NYC, and features a neurotic leading male character on the verge of a life crisis. And, it’s really funny.

Mel Edison is living in a time and place when “job security” is more or less an oxymoron, recession is wreaking havoc on the economy, and the radio is rife with would-be prophets spewing forth conspiracy theories and touting that they know who is to blame for the plight of the middle class. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Director Mark Ekenbarger makes an interesting production choice in giving the audience no solid clues as to what era the action takes place. There is even one recorded sound snippet that suggests an alternate reality. 

Gene Choquette in the lead role carries a great deal of experience to the stage, and it shows. Mel Edison is a complex character and Choquette is a very entertaining and engaging actor. He handles the moods, madness, and humor of Edison’s life crisis quite ably. Mel’s wife Edna, played by Deb Libera, is a multifaceted character as well. The audience sees Edna transition from housewife to breadwinner, and empathize with her pain as Mel’s downward spiral accelerates. Supporting cast John Toms, Marge Huba, Stephanie Chertoff, and Linda McLaren (Mel’s sisters and brother) have a nice scene in which they discuss how (and how much) they can help their brother through this.

The criticisms one might have of this production are few and vary in impact, but, number one is pace. While not a farce, this comedy still demands a very strong, fast pace and comic timing which isn’t quite met throughout the piece, especially in the scene with the rest of the family. "Getting a word in edgewise” doesn’t appear to be that much of a challenge.

Overall, this production of "Prisoner of Second Avenue" is a very entertaining evening of theatre, and really funny.

March 13, 2014

Sweet Charity

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
through March 23, 2014
by Walter Haggerty

“Sweet Charity” was one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Tailored to the unique talents of the incredible Gwen Verdon, directed by the incomparable Bob Fosse, with a book by Neil Simon, score by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, “Charity “ couldn’t miss. And it didn’t.

With that history as a challenge, director Mark Giza and choreographer Kathleen Delaney have recreated “Charity” in a fantastic Theatre Guild of Hampden production with a stellar cast of home-grown Talent…and that capital “T’ is not a typo.

“Sweet Charity” is the story of a New York dance hall “hostess,” a girl who doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve; it is tattooed on her arm. Searching for love, Charity falls for every hopeless prospect that comes her way, always with the same result, but never without hope. Charity, played by Diane Fauteux, is totally convincing throughout in her acting, singing, and exceptional dancing. Her caring, warmth, and vulnerability are skillfully blended in an award-worthy performance. She is a pro!

The entire cast is superb, especially Charity’s best friends, Nickie and Helene, played by Aileen Terzi and Chae-Vonne Munroe. The FanDango dancing girls are never carbon copy members of a chorus line. Each gives a meticulously conceived portrait of a distinct, individual character with Terzi and Munroe particularly memorable.

Other standout performances are contributed by Heath Verrill as Oscar, Charity's latest prospect; Brad Shepard as Daddy Brubeck, who delivers a show-stopping “Rhythm of Life"; and Mark Gagnon who does the same with “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Arnaldo Rivera is star-perfect as Italian matinee idol Vittorio who is amusingly matched by his girlfriend Ursula, delightfully played by Christine Arruda.

In  “Where Am I Going?” Charity’s fragile character shines through. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby Dream Your Dream” each deliver with humor the underscore of frustrations and disappointments faced by the dance hall girls. Other powerful and better-known numbers include “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now."

“Sweet Charity” is musical comedy at its best supported by a great score, a humorous yet moving story and most importantly performed by a cast that is never less than perfect.

March 10, 2014

Cowboy Junkies

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
March 8, 2014
by Eric Sutter

"There are always ways to shine without gold" is a line from the song "Take Heart" on the Cowboy Junkies latest recording "Kennedy Suite." It is music that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. The song's lyrics are rambling thoughts from the perspective of a motorcycle cop's mind on that fateful day. This Canadian band of diverse musical influence performed at the Mahaiwe while on their Nomad Tour in support of their latest music.

Margo Timmins is an accomplished vocalist who, along with her brothers Michael on guitar, Peter on drums and Alan Anton on bass, has pursued an artistic vision of brutally honest music from light and darker realms. In particular, the lyrical angst of "F##k, I Hate The Cold" testified.

"We Are Selfish" featured voice, strummed acoustic and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird's harmonica. He proved a valuable asset whether on harmonica, mandolin or percussion. "Demons" worked a quiet intensity with Timmins' vocals out front. "Damaged From The Start" was a relationship song about bruised and battered hearts. On the lighter side was "Late Night Radio."

The second half of the concert featured more familiar music and covers. Jeff Bird's harmonica played a prominent role in "Cheap Is How I Feel." Alt-country mixed naturally with blues, folk and rock styles. "Cutting Board Blues" and "Angel Mine" showcased acoustic guitar love ballads from different lyrical viewpoints. Timmons spoke of her love of Bruce Springsteen and performed an intense cover of "Thunder Road" from 2004's "One Soul Now." The cover of Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" was true to their ethereal hit sound from 1989. Another song from that period, "Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis)" conjured the imagery of yearned heartfelt feelings for true love. The star's unique voice and deeply affected blues harp kept the music lively. Cowboys' encore of countryman's Neil Youngs' "Don't Let It Bring You Down" was inspired. Another line from "Take Heart" echoed true to the audience..."Come on and give hope a little elbow room."

March 6, 2014


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 6, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Three men, each of whom has experienced some of the worst human horror imaginable, find themselves residents in a senior citizen home for veterans. They live in a lovely site in France overlooking an expanse of near-pristine nature. Each seems well-to-do, dressed in suits of the late 1950’s era. On the surface their lives in these last years have turned 180 degrees from their four decades earlier on the battlefields in Europe in WWI. This is “Heroes.” Each man was a hero and, although current circumstances are rather mundane and even boring, each man is still a hero.

Director Keith Langsdale, along with a lot of help from set designer Greg Trochlil, have created a surface tranquility as the antitheses of the inner, sometimes overt, turmoil of the gentlemen. While the play is chock full of more dialogue than movement on stage, the repartee between the members of the trio is brisk, crisp, and seemingly unrehearsed. In fact, slowing down a bit is recommended in order to give the audience a moment to process many of the characters’ quips and asides.

J.T.Waite (a regular at the Majestic) shares the stage equally with Walter Mantani and J.C. Hoyt. It is a cliché term, but the actors do fit the roles perfectly. While their characters aren’t friends, they are comrades who face the very real problems of old age together as a force to be reckoned with. Plotting a “getaway” from the residence keeps them busy in a fantasy world that pleasantly revs up the action in Act II.

The audience cannot but like these former soldiers, although it is not necessarily to be enthralled with or fully understand them. Even today, many do not understand the reasons for the war supposedly “to end all wars.” How can an audience fully comprehend such conflagration or the men who faced it and lived through it? “Heroes” offers a brief yet in depth look at survivors, depicted well on the stage at the Majestic.

March 1, 2014

A Song at Twilight

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 16, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

With themes of closeted homosexuality in the twentieth century, and looking back at one’s life, wondering what could have been, "A Song at Twilight" resonates with today’s audiences on a number of levels. Noel Coward wrote this play in 1965 and called it “the most serious play I have ever written.” The script has the unmistakable Coward touch; wit that cuts through hurt and cruelty unleashed by the aid of alcohol, but it also expresses sadness and loss that shows the pain of living a lie in an era of denying one’s true love.

The talent in the show is undeniable. Mia Dillon is brilliant in her portrayal of Hilde, the efficient wife of convenience; Gordana Rashovich as Carlotta, the former lover, is chic and powerful. The women’s parts are written with such clarity and purpose that their stories almost overcome that of the famous aging writer whose reputation could be ruined by the scandal Carlotta could affect. Brian Murray as Hugo has a voice that can turn from honey to flint in one sentence, but Director Mark Lamos panders to today’s audience with unnecessary music and visualizations of flashbacks, and presents Murray with competition on stage that ruins the mood he tries to create.

In this production, the actors cannot overcome a set that is too large and colorful for such an intimate portrait of fame, love, and the “complacent cruelty” that comes with introspection, desire, and loss. Rough patches in the opening of the production will probably become smoother throughout the run, and the crisp dialog is a treat for the ear, but audiences must realize this is a cerebral play, and those hoping for more may be disappointed.