Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 28, 2014

Hairspray-The Musical

Stafford Palace Theater, Stafford Springs, CT
through May 3, 2014
by Eric Sutter

Set in the early 60's, "Hairspray" tells the story of a plus-sized girl Tracy (Meghan Allen) who dreams of being a featured dancer on "The Corny Collins Show" -- the equivalent of "American Bandstand." The musical mimics much of that time period's pop music sound with new lyrics set to sock hop style dancing.

To start, a simple set features a bed on which Tracy awakens and breaks out in song with "Good Morning Baltimore". A "Cool Jerk" sounding song called "1960's Town" brings the play's characters into a campy fun roll call. Toe-tappers ease the integration of the show's dancers which include cross-dressers and role reversal humor. "I Can Hear Bells" displays a troupe dance around the innocence of first love. Racial and gender barriers are broken down with strange twists. Of course, male authority figures such as Passion Park High's principal (David Sartori) try to suppress the music. Tracy is given detention for her discovery of Negro Day. (Remember, the show is a period piece and a satire.)

Josh Farber, in the role of Tracy's mom Edna Turnblad, is hilarious as a drag queen. A Top 40 hit, "It Takes Two" is crooned by Tracy's love, Elvis clone Link Larkin (Joe Lucenti). Many gyrations later, Link kisses Tracy. A "Supremes" style "Hey Momma" features Tracy and mom. Motormouth Maybelle (Jasmine Keane) sings a hot R&B number "Run and Tell That" with a life-affirming message of it being “OK” to be's time to integrate!

Act II opens with "Big Doll House"...girls behind prison bars. As comic as the actors are, there is an honest, loving, relationship between Tracy's parents. Michael Holt portrays Tracy’s dad and the comical repartee by the Turnblads during "Timeless To Me" makes light of gender roles. Without giving away the ending, know that multifunctional hairspray saves the day.

Kudos to stage, set, and costume crews for a unique production. Title song "Hairspray" by egomaniac Corny Collins is fun. "You Can't Stop The Beat" proves an appropriate hand-clapping finale. Don't miss the final entrance of Edna Turnblad and Maybelle's soulful solo.

9 to 5: the Musical

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through May 10th 2014
by Eric Johnson

Yes, the 1980 movie is also a musical.

Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick will not likely be compared to Rogers and Hammerstein for this work; however, the show is good for quite a few laughs and some toe tapping.

Jeff Clayton plays the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Franklin Hart just enough over the top (verbally and physically) to elicit enthusiastic laughter from the opening night audience. Kathy Renaud is most entertaining in her portrayal of the hopelessly infatuated Roz, Hart’s executive assistant. The chemistry between Doralee, Judy and Violet, is crucial to this show and Jami Byrne-Wilson, Emily Stisser and Diane Lamoureaux pull it off without a hitch. The characters' relationship changes and grows dramatically and swiftly. These extremely talented actresses handle it deftly, creating many moving comical, and dramatic moments. The scene stealing supporting role award goes to Heather Maloney as Margaret. She reels across the stage sipping from a flask eliciting numerous laughs. All supporting characters and ensemble did a very nice job and complemented the production ably.

Music director George Garber Jr assembled competent, talented musicians to provide the soundtrack for the evening’s entertainment. The opening number ("9 to 5") did seem to be going a bit fast for performance as an ensemble piece and, as a result, was a bit shaky. There are, however, many enjoyable musical highlights to the evening. The songs "I Just Might," "Backwoods Barbie," "One of the Boys" and "Let Love Grow" all showcase the assembled musical, vocal and dance talent present in the theater.

Director Scott Nelson, along with Mike Crowther, created a very stylish and functional (albeit sparse) set design using modular, multitasking pieces. Fiendishly clever.

If criticisms must be made, the show could benefit from some general tightening up, pace and timing were not consistent. Perhaps opening night jitters are to blame for that. There were numerous anachronisms in costumes and hairstyles. If the show is set 300 years ago, few will notice, when it is set 35 years ago, that’s a different story.

That said, an on-stage office full of singing, dancing and jokes galore is a nice way to wrap a week of one’s own 9 to 5.

April 21, 2014

Next to Normal

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through June 1, 2014
by K. J. Rogowski

Musicals by their very nature can present a challenge, in finding the right singers who can act, or actors who can sing. But, add to that, a serious central theme such as a family struggling with the impact of a family member with a long history of bi-polar disorder, and that challenge is increased.  

That said, this presentation of "Next To Normal" meets and exceeds on both of those challenges. Working with an excellent script, which relies on very little dialogue but conveys the characters' inner struggles and situations, and interpersonal conflicts between the family members through their songs, this cast of six easily draws the audience into the instability and anxiety of trying to get through a single day and some of the most mundane daily tasks, when no one knows what might happen next.

Sue Dziura and Tom Nunes as the parents, trying to hold their marriage together, and Emery Henderson and Daniel Plimpton as their teen children caught in the middle, portray an average family, living with a real, puzzling, and sometimes debilitating disorder. As their story unfolds, visible are parallels between the parents' struggles and those of their daughter and her new found boy friend, played by Josiah Durham. Add to this upheaval, the many visits to Doctor Fine and then to Doctor Madden, both played by Freddie Marion, is the question of which plan and medication cocktail will bring some relief and stability which blur like the patient's view and hope of normalcy. The authors play a name game, with our average family, the Goodmans, treatened by their doctors, "fine" and "madden."

Greg Trochlil's set design, comprised of clean institutional lines and generic panels, with smooth gray steel furniture, and puzzle piece gray floor reflect and enhance that gray zone that is the Goodman's life, and the disorder that they must deal with. The strength of this show is the strong voices of the cast, both in their ability to deliver on the music and to create characters who are real/next door people who tell their story, and make us care about what happens.

April 14, 2014

Gershwin & Rimsky-Korsakov

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
April 12, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

At first glance, this program of three works by German, Russian, and American composers looked more miscellaneous than most SSO concerts. But at least two underlying connections became clear: the first two pieces had surprise quiet endings; and all three pieces required a larger-than-normal orchestra.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes led off with a rousing rendition of Richard Strauss’ early symphonic poem “Don Juan.” In his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, he recalled that a performance he conducted of this piece for his Master’s degree got him his first professional job in Europe. Its personal meaning to him was evident in the vital playing and vivid characterization the orchestra brought to each episode, depicting several of the Don’s lovers and culminating in his death.

This familiar opener preceded a rarity by Rimsky-Korsakov, his second symphony, called “Antar,” which the composer later revised and called a “symphonic suite.” In colorful orchestration that recalled Rimsky’s famous “Scheherazade,” it told the story of a great Arabian warrior who finds power, love, and death in the Syrian desert. To make it more accessible to the audience, Rhodes introduced each of the piece’s four movements with a helpful explanation of what events it depicted in Antar’s life story. The audience appreciated both the expert performance of this exotic score and the maestro’s engaging commentary. 

Joyce Yang
Two years after her sensational SSO debut with Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, 27-year-old Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang returned for an equally distinguished account of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. From her first entry after the jazzy opening, Yang demonstrated an authentically American sense of rhythm and swing. She played with great delicacy in the bluesy middle movement and with a forcefulness that never allowed the orchestra to overpower her in the rondo finale. Yang’s triumphant return engagement fully justified the faith Rhodes expressed in his “Reflections” column that this concerto would be “a perfect vehicle for her amazing talent.” 

The orchestra played magnificently throughout the evening. Brass, woodwinds, and the enlarged percussion section, which even featured a trap set and wooden blocks in the Gershwin, did themselves particularly proud.

April 1, 2014

Prokofiev & Beethoven

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 29, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Despite his absence from its title, it was Bach whose music set the tone for this program, first in the scheduled opening presentation of his third Brandenburg Concerto, and then in an encore by guest soloist Yevgeny Kutik of the “Largo” from his third sonata for solo violin.

Yevgeny Kutik
None of the six Brandenburgs turn up much in live performance, but as the shortest in the set, with only two chords for a central slow movement, the third makes a perky concert opener. SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes conducted a slightly reduced orchestra from the harpsichord, where his strong keyboard skills were sometimes not audible enough. The players seemed to enjoy working with their leader in this fresh way, and their lively, disciplined account of the concerto reflected the order and balance of the classical tradition.

The national profile of the charismatic, young (late-20s) Kutik was raised by a recent New York Times article about his new album, “Music from the Suitcase.” Born in Minsk, Belarus, he moved with his family in 1990 to the Berkshires, where he grew up to win several awards, one of which led to a Boston Pops debut in 2003.

Kutik's passionate account of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto proved him both a master technician and a mature interpreter of this challenging score. He played with a full, rich tone, which he roughened for some dramatic passages in the opening and closing movements and lightened for the softer music of the rhapsodic slow movement. The orchestra matched the commitment of his performance with a flair and color of its own, from the dark strings to the bass drum and even castanets in the finale.

Prompted by a tumultuous ovation, the Bach encore confirmed Kutik’s stature as a major talent who could hold the audience rapt even in this quiet piece. And it reminded listeners that both Prokofiev and Beethoven, whose modest fourth symphony followed intermission, learned much from the strong architecture of Bach’s music. 

There was nothing modest about the SSO’s blazing rendition of the Beethoven, which Rhodes’s energetic baton brought to memorable life.