Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 19, 2014


Northampton Center for the Arts & Skyscraper Project
Northampton, MA
May 17, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

One of the most influential architects of his day, Louis Sullivan transformed city space by constructing the skyscraper; a marvel of engineering and an artifact that signaled the change of urban life and drew they eye toward the sky, complete with creativity, and a vision of endless possibility. In director Chris Rohmann’s skillful hands, the realization of the play, written by David Auburn, becomes a metaphor for the Northampton Center for the Arts’ transformation of a former health club into the Valley’s most exciting new arts space.

The play takes place in 1997 on the eve of the demolition of Sullivan’s last skyscraper to make way for even taller, more contemporary buildings. Each member of the acting ensemble -- John Sheldon, Katelyn Tsukada, Carissa Marie Dagenais, Pam Victor, R. Steve Pierce, and Troy David Mercier -- ably play their parts honestly and with passion. While much of the play takes place with characters in dyads, each group has moments of wonderful connection to each other. The performers go beyond any stereotypical traps of characters playing for the laugh, and as a result, the play richly unfolds and allows the imagination of the actors and the audiences to “see” the building as it was, and suggest may become. Weaving romantic comedy, memory, history, and contemporary notions of what it means to really care for people and art, the play presents the magical realism of theatre and good storytelling.

Director Rohmann uses the space wisely, suggesting a multi-dimensionality of “place” with minimal props, lighting, or theatrical contrivance. Still, the running crew deserves a shout-out for such fine timing and professionalism.

This is the first play to “inaugurate” the Arts Trust Building, which will soon be refashioned into a black box theatre and arts venue. "Skyscraper" involves many of the Valley’s most ardent theatre contributors, and as one of the first public performances in a space dedicated to collaboration and creativity, the play marks an important passage of time, promising good things to come as the arts and the community evolve together.

May 16, 2014

The Light in the Piazza

Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham, MA
through May 18, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

With “The Light in the Piazza” the Wilbraham United Players have created an unforgettable evening in the theatre. One of the most beautiful of recent musicals, as well as one of the most challenging to perform, the United Players are giving “Piazza” a thrilling, luminous realization by an extraordinary cast.

A young girl has suffered a brain injury through an accident at an early age that has impeded her development, while physically she has matured as a beautiful young woman. Now in her twenties, Clara, played with amazing range by Carolyn Averill, is on a European vacation with her mother, Margaret, performed as unforgettably tender and caring by Teri LaFleur. A chance meeting with a handsome young Italian, Fabrizio, passionately delivered by Franklyn (Jay) Lee, sets the romantic story off on its difficult path. The exceptional performances of these three are most demanding and contribute immeasurably to the success of this production.

With book by Craig Lucas, and an incredible musical score and lyrics by Adam Guettel, (grandson of Richard Rodgers), the story flows through a series of gorgeous musical interludes, bordering at times on the operatic. The enormously talented cast is blessed with outstanding voices that are always up to the vocal demands of the score.

Fabrizio’s parents are flawlessly played by Kevin Kary and Lisa Woods, with warmth, plus meticulous Italian accents. Fabrizio’s brother and sister-in-law, Joe Van Allen and Shelly Capen, provide humor tinged by flashes of friction. Clara’s father, in his brief scenes, is brusquely acted by David Chivers. A large ensemble contributes effectively as tourists, priests, nuns, and other locals.

The setting, by Greg Trochlil, conveys the atmosphere of Florence without attempting a literal treatment. The superb musical accompaniment by Larry Picard and a six-piece ensemble is exemplary, particularly in view of the complexities of the score.

Top honors go to Director Deborah Trimble, who has brought this fragile, beautiful work of art to life. It is a not-to-be-missed production for every theatre lover.

Justin Hayward

Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA
May 15, 2014
by Eric Sutter

 A wonderful evening of mellow music delighted fans of the legendary front man Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues fame. Hayward was on a solo acoustic tour in support of his latest "Spirits Of The Western Sky." His opening gig of his tour, at the beautiful Colonial, featured a young finger-style guitarist in Great Britain's Mike Dawes. His virtuoso guitar strumming combined Celtic and folk in a instrumental. His original song, "The Impossible," proved an energetic fusion. His unique playing on acoustic guitar transformed Gotye's pop song "Somebody I Used To Know."

 Next up, Justin Hayward was joined by Dawes and accompanied by keyboardist extraordinaire Julie Ragins on back-up vocals. They performed early Moody Blues hits, "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Lovely To See You," with back-drop scenery of a soothing setting sun on water. In impressively amazing voice, Hayward performed "In Your Blue Eyes" which inspired his latest recording. Dawes played the first of his many electric guitar solos. Ragins' magical dream-like keyboard sound colored "The Western Sky" with a sweeping majestic call to adventure about the music that came from the West that inspired Hayward.

Familiar songs such as  "I Dreamed Last Night" and "New Horizons" were well-chosen companion pieces in romantic song ballad form. The night's music was reflective and serene with a mix of Moody Blues and new songs. "The Eastern Sun" was a beautiful and gentle love song by Hayward. The hypnotic keyboard work captured a ethereal heavenly background sound. "Your Wildest Dreams" brought an excited audience response as the lyrics added sweet memories of mid-80's Moody Blues with soaring vocal harmonies. As the concert ended, a compilation of contrasts was heard. The wistful and bittersweet "Forever Autumn" with heartfelt acoustic guitar by Dawes was follow by Haywood's rapid acoustic guitar prelude to "Question."

The beloved "Nights In White Satin" became a warmly sung audience favorite. As Dawes soloed in finger picking style, the stage light background turned blue. Hayward and company encored with the hopeful pop hit of love and longing in "I Know You're Out There Somewhere" for a fountain of youth effect.

May 12, 2014

Objectify: A Look into the Permanent Collection

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
by Shera Cohen

In a sense, it looks as if the staff of Berkshire Museum have rummaged through the attic, basement, and various closets for whatever they could find to fill galleries for their next big exhibit. In fact, the first segment of "Objectify" appears to be messy, a bit like a tag sale, with old crates on the floor or standing on end with the concept being the creation of a storage site. But, this is no tag sale -- the found items are priceless, and the disarray is purposeful.

"Objectify: A Look into the Permanent Collection" is, indeed, a major year-long exhibition in honor of the Museum’s 110th anniversary which spans the length and height of four large rooms. The pieces run the gamut of media (paintings, sculpture, toys, and clothing), artists (Impressionist art, and 20th century abstract paintings, more recent and local Hudson River School selections) science (a crocodile skull, colorful minerals, and hooting owl -- well, I thought it hooted), and history (Pahat the Mummy, ancient Roman jewelry, and original Civil War paintings). Objectify displays the most significant and fascinating objects from the Museum’s holdings of more than 40,000 artwork, specimens, and artifacts.

Some months ago, Director of Public Relations Lesley Ann Beck treated us to a pre-exhibit tour in which only the first gallery was complete. While walking from one area to the next, we could see the behind-the-scenes process of just how such an eclectic display is mounted. Every inch of space, and even empty space, is important for the visitor to see as a continuity and flow. The lighting in each gallery is especially important as the design progresses by themes and chronologically. The first room is slightly dimmed, and the last room is very bright and white -- representing the present, the here and now.

The celebratory opening reception was held in April, so museum-goers will now see the finished product.

Two local artists, designer Peter Garlington, and artist Leo Nash, are the guest curators. Their creative work has resulted in an innovative exhibition that highlights the best of the Museum’s extensive collections in unexpected and surprising ways. According to Beck, “Museum visitors who have been [here] over the years will enjoy seeing favorite objects and artwork in a fresh setting.”

Look for the most fun in gallery #4. Visitors will find a sophisticated version of a ‘selfie’. A large empty painting frame is suspended from the ceiling, just ready and waiting for anyone, any family or friends to create their own portrait. Who needs Whistler’s grandma, when you can memorialize your own?

Berkshire Museum also includes an exhibit on the history of Pittsfield’s famous inventors ("The Innovation Process"); a lovely large aquarium with smaller adjacent ones for frogs, turtles, and the like; "Little Cinema", which runs foreign and indies throughout the year, and an annually changing summer exhibit. Last year’s "Paper Works" was inspired. Another recent exhibit featured live frogs -- not my favorite animal. However, these tiny multicolored creatures (some less than the size of a pencil head eraser) were a joy to watch as long as they stayed behind glass. Butterflies, in exhibit cases and flying in a specially designed pavilion, are this summer’s invited guests.

How do you find the Berkshire Museum? It’s in the heart of Pittsfield, MA, open every day of the week. Check their website or call 423-443-7171. Once you arrive, look for the sculpture of the Stegosaurus on the front lawn.

Objectify is sponsored by Crane & Co. and TD Bank.

May 5, 2014

Anything Goes

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through May 18, 2014
by Shera Cohen

Creating a small theatre stage into a boat -- no, an ocean liner -- is a herculean task of thought, ingenuity, hammering, and painting. The scenic design team of Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip has once again, as they have in so many Suffield Players productions, launched “Anything Goes.”

Set in the 1930’s, Cole Porter’s music has been contagious for the past 80+ years. No matter what the age of the audience goer (and it was wonderful to see youngsters in the audience) he/she is familiar with and can probably hum most of the melodies: “You’re The Top,” “It’s Delovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through the Night,” and title song

Two comedic plots immediately interweave punctuated with lots of mistaken identity, a love triangle, con men on the lamb, and hackneyed one-liners. All of that is okay in efforts toward purposeful silliness.

“Anything Goes” has lots going for it, and so does Suffield Players -- usually. It seems as if the troupe relied heavily on “newbies” at the helm, particularly the director and choreographer. “AG” demands spunk, frivolity, and get up & go. Sadly, this “AG” didn’t get up. The pace drags, several actors are far too old for their characters, and (sadly) many singers’ voices crack.

Two actors stand out: Kimberly Spera, whose soprano voice is sweet; and Peter Hicks, whose comic timing works well.

What particularly shines in “AG” are, as stated at the top, the excellent tech qualities: Dawn McKay’s costume design, Jerry Zalewski’s lighting, and Hal Chernoff’s sound design.

“AG” has lots of potential. And Suffield Players has proved its skill and success for 60 years. They have, and they will, do better the next time the curtain rises.

Les Miserables

Broadbrook Opera House, Broadbrook, CT           
through May18, 2014
by Shera Cohen

How many times can one see “Les Miserables”? There can be many answers, one being “never enough” and another “four times.” Yes, audiences in the Pioneer Valley had the opportunity to enjoy four community theatre productions during the 2013/14 season. This is a very big musical, and the locals took on the task of mounting each “Les Miz” brilliantly.

Broadbrook (BB) is the latest and last of the quartet. Where to begin with the accolades? Setting aside kudos to Victor Hugo and to those who wrote the original musical, we jump to BB’s leaders: Producer Moonyean Field (who knew BB had the talent to face this challenge), Director Sharon FitzHenry (who doubled and tripled as set and lighting designer), and Music Director Bill Martin (who lead his 4-piece band to sound like a full orchestra). These musicians are ever-present, keeping the momentum of every action taken and every syllable sung.

Let’s assume that every reader knows this story spanning several decades in 19th century France. The simplistic staging of large multi-purpose scaffolding (as a courtroom, gate, stairs, streets, sewer) against a pure black backdrop, accentuated by hauntingly imprinted shadows creates the mood and human psyche of the important characters.

Luis Manzi steps into the body, mind, and heart of our sad hero Jean Valjean. A community theatre stalwart, Manzi has shined in dramas and comedies. Valjean, however, is the character he was meant to become. His signature piece, “Bring Him Home,” is equally beautiful as it is difficult. Manzi nails it.

Valjean’s nemisis Javert, portrayed by Tim Reilly, is given two exquisite songs -- “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide.” Reilly is a singer who can act, looks like Russell Crowe with a far superior voice. The death scene has been directed in various ways; Broadbrook literally takes a unique and creative leap of faith.

The women of this “Les Miz” are strong in character and voice, especially Gabrielle Carrubba as Eponine, whose “On My Own” is poignant and rich. Kendra Scott as Fantine sings a wrenching and beautiful “I Dreamed a Dream.” Kaytlyn Vandeloecht as Cosette brings such innocence and love to “In My Life.”

There’s more, much more -- the talented chorus, the sympathetic young actors, seamless scene changes, spectacle, the furling red flag, and “One Day More.”

SSO 70th Anniversary Concert

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
May 3, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Kevin Rhodes
For the celebratory close of SSO’s 70th anniversary season, Maestro Kevin Rhodes noted in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book that he wanted to include music by his “two favorite American composers” in the first half of the concert and to close it with an “unjustly neglected masterpiece” by “one of the most popular composers” that he and the SSO have championed.

He opened with a lively account of William Schuman’s exuberant “American Festival Overture,” which the composer began with three notes reflecting the boyhood “call to play” with his New York City friends. The entire orchestra “played” with controlled abandon, but the large percussion section (which remained for the other two works) seemed to be having an especially good time.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” written in 1965 for the cathedral choir in that English city and sung in Hebrew, featured perhaps the youngest soloist ever to appear with the SSO, 10-year-old boy soprano Dylan Cranston. A three-year veteran of professional choral performance, the Trumbull, CT native sang Psalm 23 with clarity, sweetness, and confidence. The men and women of the Springfield Symphony Chorus accompanied him with a robust and exhilarating sound in excerpts from five other Psalms. Chorus Director Nikki Stoia joined the orchestra and singers for a well-deserved ovation.

After intermission, Rhodes led the SSO in a loving performance of the “Springfield, MA debut” of Rachmaninoff’s third symphony 78 years after its world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. As the maestro also wrote in his “Reflections,” it completed the SSO’s presentation of all that composer’s major orchestral compositions over the past few seasons. Their affinity for Rachmaninoff was evident in the warmth and affection of their playing, which highlighted the composer’s melodic genius, even if less inspired here than in his greatest works.  

That Rhodes and the orchestra are a match for the ages was confirmed when SSO President John Chandler announced before the concert that the Maestro’s contract had just been extended for three more years. The cheering audience has much musical magic to look forward to.

May 2, 2014

Interview: Odette Yazbeck, Canada’s Shaw Festival

by Shera Cohen

The impetus for our theatre trip to Canada was Stratford Festival. While googling, map questing, and researching by other means of electronic know-how, one constant popped up -- Shaw Festival. Never heard of it. Of course, I was familiar with George Bernard Shaw, but the titles of his plays didn’t come tripling off the tongue as those of Shakespeare.

Planning continued, this time focusing on transportation. My desire to go direct -- point A to B -- didn’t work from Springfield, MA to Canada. Just like the song’s lyrics go, planes and boats and trains plus buses, trollies, and cabs were necessary for the journey to Stratford. In many ways, getting to London and back was easier. But, little gets in the way of my pursuit of all things Shakespeare. Here again, while checking routes, rails, and rentals, was more information on Shaw.

I finally became curious. What was this Shaw thing all about? He wasn’t even from Canada. Well, neither was Shakespeare. More research ensued, until l quickly noticed that nearly all of the results of my "Googling" overlapped the two theatre festivals -- Stratford and Shaw. Better yet, the venues were within 3 hours of each other, which is quite a close distance considering the length and breadth of Canada. With Toronto placed at the mid-way spot, there was no doubt that Shaw beckoned.

In the past, I have written about both Stratford and Shaw -- their plays, theatres, environs, etc. As Shaw’s 2014 Season revs up in May (it started with some previews in April) and hits its peak in July and August, this is my opportunity to talk about our private backstage tour and interview with Public Relations Director Odette Yasbeck. 

Odette sped through the Festival Stage (the large main stage -- one of four), yet pointed out everything important, as we walked the first floor maze, then bowels, then upstairs again, then somehow directly on a play’s set. There are rooms for each department. In particular, the costume design area was divided by eras, male and female, hats and shoes, props. If I had to retrace my steps, I would still be in Canada today. I tried to hide the fact that I was in dire pain throughout this entire sojourn due to foot surgery three weeks prior. The scenery, both literally and figuratively, was well worth the agony. The last stop was the cafeteria.

Odette is one of the stalwarts of Shaw, having worked there her entire adult life. The following is a paraphrased interview.

Why Shaw?  Why here?
Odette: A local attorney, Brian Doherty, deserves credit for starting the Festival in the 1960’s, with Shaw plays presented only on weekends in the summer months. Never intending to become a massive, six-month long event, things were casual and informal in the beginning years. As an astute businessman who saw the decline in industry, Doherty believed that theatre, Shaw in particular, could boost tourism in this area called Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

How is the Festival planned?
Odette: Initially, all of the Festival’s plays were those written by Shaw. Later on, works by Shaw contemporaries were added to the bill. Ultimately, and as the present Festival is designed, modern plays carrying the themes and/or styles of Shaw completed the repertoire.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell selects the plays, with the “Shaw categories” just referred to as the first criteria. The second criteria is popularity. It is a puzzle to piece together based on the availability of actors, directors, and rights to plays.

Who are your actors? Your audiences?
Odette: A good number of the actors are returnees, because a lot are asked back. Some have participated over 35 years. However, auditions take place annually, and a good number are new to the Festival. And the actors love it here. When actors are hired, they are offered the opportunity to take a series of workshops we call the Mandate Intensive, which is a two-week emersion in Shaw.

Just as many actors return, so does approximately 75% of the audiences. The Shaw philosophy is relatively simple --  stick with a successful product, and when someone goes to a play, they will likely go to more. Theatre begets theatre. Being in a theatre house with others sitting beside you is an important experience.

The full time staff numbers 120, primarily in administration and management. In the summer, the artistic population increases to 500.

The Festival adheres to another mandate -- there is the expectation that everything that the audience sees and hears is authentic, from language to props. Our dialogue coaches, designers, and crew are top notch.

What is repertory performance?
Odette: Repertory is what we do at Shaw, and it is quite difficult. Many skilled actors are not able to perform in as many as three different plays in two days, some of which can be dramas or musicals, written for different centuries, etc. Those who are the most successful are cerebral actors. They are intelligent. They are always listening. Acting is not a solitary business, each actor gives back to each other; these are the best ensembles. They learn their lines, create their characters, and work as a team as athletes do. Respect is important.

Niagara-on-the Lake? I’ve never heard of it.
Odette: There’s a beauty of history and nature here. Just 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, hikers and cyclists and golfers, in addition to theatre-lovers are out and about. There are lovely parks adjacent to the Festival Theatre, and rows of cozy restaurants and boutiques near the Royal George Theatre about a half-mile away. Shaw works hand-in-hand with the town, its restaurants, and wineries.

How do you like your job here?
Odette: After 27 years, working at Shaw is still a feel good job.

This year’s selection of plays includes “The Philadelphia Story,” “Arms and the Man,” “Juno and the Peacock,” and “The Philanderer,” and “Cabaret.” For information on Shaw Festival 2014 check

Damn Yankees

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through June 21, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

Praying for a Red Sox win? Turn off the Sports Channel and head for Connecticut. Yes, East Haddam, CT, where Goodspeed musicals have launched a winning season with that old favorite, “Damn Yankees.” This time around instead of dealing with the familiar frustrations of Washington Senators fans, a brisk and hilarious new adaptation of the original book puts the Red Sox in the spotlight – and it works – brilliantly! Joe DiPietro is due well-deserved credit for this swiftly moving, laugh-filled adaptation of the book, and the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross score is still one of the best.

As is customary at Goodspeed, casting is impeccable – every performer is spot-on perfect. Their Red Sox team actually looks like a baseball team instead of a chorus line. Each player has his own distinct personality and maintains that characterization throughout. Special credit goes to Director Daniel Goldstein for that accomplishment and to Choreographer Kelli Barclay, who has devised a series of spirited, challenging and inventive ensemble dance numbers that have the audience cheering. The cast performances of “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe” are show-stoppers, especially the latter as led by Lora Lee Gayer as Gloria Thorpe.

David Beach’s delightfully deceptive, double-dealing Devil delivers the kind of evil that audiences love to hate. The irony of his “Good Old Days” solo is priceless. As his seductive temptress/assistant, Lola, Angel Reda is perfection, most notably in “Whatever Lola Wants.” Stephen Mark Lukas is every inch the strong, stalwart hero who really could be the answer to the Red Sox prayer. And WOW – what a voice.

As Meg and Joe Boyd, Ann Arvia and James Judy, respectively, bring endearing moments of warmth to their characters, notably with “ A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You.” Kristine Zbornik and Allyce Beaseley, as Meg’s best friends and over-the-top Red Sox supporters, demonstrate the extremes of dedicated fans.

“Damn Yankees,” resurrected from the memory book of great musicals of the past, has been given a well-deserved, vibrant new lease on life in this current Goodspeed production. It’s a winner.