Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 27, 2014

My Bountiful Berkshires

by Shera Cohen

Up until 1995, the Berkshires meant two places to me: Tanglewood and Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF). While not a frequent visitor, I had thoroughly enjoyed concerts and theatre, respectively, at each venue. Shortly after mid-decade I realized that these two sites were “musts” for, what I later determined to be, my Top 20 Go-to Places in the Berkshires.


June 24, 2014

Laughter On The 23rd Floor

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through June 28, 2014
by K.J. Rogowski

New Century Theatre's production of Neil Simon's "Laughter On The 23rd Floor" is living, laughing tableau of the quick witted and frenetic lives of seven joker writers and their manic and unstable TV star boss, Max Prince, during the golden age of live television. The daily trials and tribulations of churning out yet another stellar script for live programming each week are only topped by their own personal frustrations and foibles.

Their world is confined to the 23rd floor, a classic 50's office, designed by Emily Singer, complete with water cooler, typewriters, and lots of danish. Lucas is the new kid who has to prove himself both as a comedy writer, and as a match for the razor-like wit of his six coworkers, who see every issue as pure comic fodder for their verbal barrages. Then there's Milt, whose daily wardrobe challenges rule his day; and Val the Russian, who takes speech lessons to learn to perfect his English "F-bombs." Ira is dying every day from something exotic, and Brian is certain that today is the day that some movie studio will discover his yet un-written script. Helen is just trying to get pregnant, and Kenny is the somewhat stable glue that holds them together.

Their story, is a bitter sweet one, because while having to deal with a neurotic comic genius boss, and their own personal problems, there looms the real life threat of the television network bosses who see the changing future of what the American viewing public wants.

The play rolls out like an actual variety show, with Lucas as host, addressing the audience like a TV M.C. Each character gets their own entrance and time to feature their unique brand of comedy. The troupe comes together in take-offs and skits, playing off each other like a pack of cartoon pinballs, cracking wise and working the laughs to top each other. Director Sam Rush takes full advantage of this good old, almost vaudeville like, machine gun humor, with characters jockeying to top one another. The laughs on both the 23rd floor, and in the audience, come fast and furious, making for and evening of pure fun.

June 19, 2014

Kiss Me, Kate

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield
through July 12, 2014
by Shera Cohen

“It’s delightful. It’s delicious. It’s de-lovely.” Cole Porter’s own words from another of his musicals perfectly describe Barrington Stage’s (BSC) production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” Let’s bring on the’s energetic, playful, and endearing.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
BSC has set its own benchmark so high in producing musicals that it has the difficult task of, at the very least, reaching the mark. At best, exceeding it. Exceed, they do as BSC literally jumps into its 20th season with the first of “Kate’s” memorable songs; “Another Op’nin, Another Show.” The show? “Kate” is a play within a play where backstage problems and personalities come center stage. “Kate” mingles Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” with a post-WWII city-to-city pit-stop theatre company. It’s The Bard meets Damon Runyon. And, it’s two love stories.

Nearly all of Porter’s 18 songs are familiar (the sweet “So In Love,” the comic “I Hate Men,” and the rousing “From This Moment On”). It would be difficult for any audience member not to leave the house humming a medley. Porter’s lyrics are full of double entendres and farce, and are sometimes ridiculously funny. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” falls into all three categories.

Elizabeth Stanley and Paul Anthony Stewart portray squabbling exes behind the play’s curtain and Kate and Petruchio on the stage within the stage in front of the curtain. Got that? It doesn’t matter. What matters most is the truth and humor they give to their characters in their private moments and interactions with each other. Bravado and ego abound -- loudly, relentlessly, and hysterically. Oftentimes, theatres hire actors who can sing, or singers who can act. There is a difference. Rarely are the skills equal. Stanley and Stewart make for a perfect match. Stanley’s soprano voice is almost operatic. Stewart holds onto his songs with passion.

The pit orchestra -- yes, they are really in a pit with dancers jumping and spinning in precarious moves within inches of the players’ heads -- makes 12 musicians sound like 25. Joe Calarco’s direction and Lorin Latarro’s choreography are as in synch as their lead actors and the two plays. “Too Darn Hot” opens Act II as the entire ensemble mixes jazz, ballet, and modern dance into a sultry, sweaty, and steamy showstopper. And the costumes…the sets…Just get ye' to Pittsfield.

June 12, 2014

Ghost-The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 15, 2014
By R.E. Smith

For a story about intimate connections and lost love, “Ghost-The Musical’s deepest impact comes courtesy of its grand, broad, cutting edge visual gestures. For instance, as befits a musical whose source material is a movie, “Ghost” features its own opening credits sequence.

With book by original screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, Sam and Molly are young, successful and in love, until tragedy strikes (see the title). Sam must bring closure to his life and their love, while protecting Molly and dealing with his initially powerless state.

Like another recent movie-inspired musical, “Flashdance,” “Ghost” relies on high definition video projection and intense lighting to create a show that is part play, part rock concert. Unlike that show, the effects are used for more than just scenery. Unique stage magic tricks and creative blocking serve to create an otherworldly environment in a surprisingly organic way. A subway sequence is especially cinematic; combining fast paced set changes with unique physical movement, shifting perspective at lighting speed.

The choreography by Ashley Wallen, too, is inventive and unique, ably served by the ensemble. Slow motion, freeze frames, and fast reversals of direction serve to underscore the ebb and flow of the rhythms of life.

The creators have wisely chosen not cast doppelgangers for the film’s original stars, and letting the performers bring more original portrayals of tenderness and longing. The role of suddenly relevant psychic Oda Mae Brown could easily go over the top, but Carla R. Stewart plays the comedy with a deft and realistic touch. Her big production number “I’m Outta Here,” as well as Katie Postotnik’s (Molly) plaintive “With You” were stand outs among the rock/pop score.

Iconic moments from the film, such as the pottery wheel and “Unchained Melody” are present, but woven in more subtly than one would have expected. This helps to make “Ghost-The Musical” a unique companion to the film. The sights and sounds will wow your senses, but the story will still touch your heart.

June 10, 2014


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
through June 8, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Carolyn Kuan
As the exclamation point after its title suggests, the goal of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan in designing this program must have been not only to dazzle her listeners but to end the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season on a high note.

The trumpet fanfare that opens Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” got the concert off to a rousing start. This is one of several Italian melodies the composer heard when visiting Rome in 1880 and quoted in this musical memento of his trip. The HSO and Kuan deftly rendered the piece’s shifting moods, from the somber main theme after the fanfare to the exuberant closing tarantella.

In complete contrast to the high spirits of Tchaikovsky’s curtain raiser, the program continued with the radiant “Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major” by his favorite composer, Mozart. Principal HSO flutist Greig Shearer was the mellifluous soloist, and his colleagues supported him with a delicate performance of classical poise.

After intermission, this quietest selection on the program was followed by the loudest: the Hartford premiere of up-and-coming American composer Mason Bates’ “Alternative Energy for Orchestra and Electronica.” In opening comments, the Maestra explained its four movements (depicting energy sources at different times and places), and orchestra members demonstrated such exotic sounds as a car muffler and a hubcap (Kuan praised principal HSO percussionist Robert McEwan for finding them in a local junkyard).

Despite some harsh moments of clashing dissonance, this colorful score is compulsively listenable, and electronic sounds from a laptop enhanced its drama. The huge orchestra played it with flair, and the near-capacity audience loved it.

Closing the program was its crowd-pleasing title piece, Ravel’s “Bolero.” Like the jazz bands that inspired the composer in the 1920's, all the musicians stood to play their solos. Later, 10 members of the University of Connecticut Drum line marched onto the stage from throughout the hall, each playing the same ostinato rhythm on a snare drum with which the music had begun.

The HSO has in Kuan an inspiring leader who draws memorable performances from her orchestra and a canny programmer who educates and entertains her audiences.

Roger McGuinn

Academy Of Music, Northampton, MA

June 6, 2014
by Eric Sutter

 Folk minstrel and living legend Roger McGuinn of "The Byrds" fame appeared at the Academy of Music with his collection of guitars and banjo. Possessed with a strong personal magnetism, he shined with song and story about his life in music. A good singing of Dylan's, "It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)" with the chiming jangly sound of his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was met with enthusiastic response.

McGuinn was in warmly fine voice with acoustic folk ballads "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Ballad of Easy Rider." Lively stage banter about "The Basement Tapes" preceded Dylan's great country-rock tinged "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." His musical mix included an Appalachian banjo tune, the propulsive blues of "Rock Island Line" and the wayfaring psychedelic rock "5D (Fifth Dimension)." His stories paralleled his song writing career. "Grapes Of Wrath" was a moving song with lyrics about the movie of the same name.

Familiar originals "Lover of The Bayou" and "Chestnut Mare" were pure bliss with the audience taking obvious delight in a sing-along. The close and personal format of the performance lent to an intimate and uncluttered feel. The fun-spirited sea shanty, "Randy, Dandy Oh" integrated McGinn's  trademark vocals and magnificent acoustic guitar work. The traditional ballad, "The Water Is Wide" played well alongside the jangle-pop folk rock "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn."

McGuinn's true mastery of guitar was exhibited on the jazz-raga-rock 12-string guitar rip of his hit "Eight Miles High." He specifically name-dropped his Byrds' band mates with a special nod to Gene Clark who co-wrote many folk-rock classics. In his remembrance, McGuinn sang "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" with the Rickenbacker guitar sound. Closing with a sincere rendition of the Irish blessing, "May The Road Rise to Meet You," one could not help but feel a special musical evening was shared.

Incidentally, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame-r was listed as the "95th Best Guitarist" in Rolling Stone magazine.