Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 28, 2015

The Dining Room

Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT
through March 8, 2015
by Mary Ann Dennis

There's something about dining rooms that stick in our memory over the decades. Wooden tables and cabinets set the scene for family reunions and celebrations, the sharing of relatives' secrets and discussion of their tragedies.

A.J. Gurney's 1982 play "The Dining Room" is an actor’s dream show. Set in a single room, 18 scenes from different households overlap and intertwine. Director Sasha Bratt is brilliant. He gently leads six actors, who play 50 characters between them, like a master orchestral conductor. The sets, lights and costumes are perfect and the amount of quick changes could have wound up on America’s Got Talent.

The actors portray a wide variety of characters, from little boys to stern grandfathers, from giggling teenage girls to housemaids. The versatility of these actors rotating among the many roles makes for a thrilling experience.

Ezra Barnes excels in his command of the stage as a grouchy grandpa to giddy kid -- his “acting gymnastics” are a perfect ten. Annie Grier is brilliant as she moves from a servant to a mom to a mischievous pot smoking college student. Susan Haefner is alluring as the middle-aged seductress, perky as a young girl who doesn't want to go to dancing school, and alternately poised and aloof as an older women.

Sean Harris plays nine characters; he is stunning to watch. Susan Slotoroff, sparks in her many roles. Jay William Thomas is flawless as he embraces changing personalities and ages with virtuoso skill.

The fact that the culture of private clubs, boarding schools and well-dressed maids has vanished won't bother many viewers; although it makes it a bit harder to feel sympathetic for the characters.

So much has changed in both home styles and families since Gurney penned his play. Still, most people can relate to universal themes of family change, and avid “theater goers” will find the work mesmerizing.

February 27, 2015

10X10 New Play Festival

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through March 1, 2015
by Shera Cohen

While math is not one of my many skills, I easily managed to fully enjoy ten 10-minute plays by 10 playwrights featuring six actors in 21 roles, directed by two talented women on one stage -- Barrington’s St. Germain Stage.

Heavy snow (hmm, sounds familiar) postponed my attending opening weekend.   Fortunately, Barrington and I rescheduled. All worked out well, as last Sunday was a balmy 38 degrees in Pittsfield. Recent journeys up north in the past few months by several Spotlight writers substantiate the fact that the Berkshires do NOT close their doors in December and reopen in May. Apparently, lots of other theatre goers know this, because there was not a single empty seat in the theatre.

10x10 is a jam-packed two-hours of near rapid-fire mini-plays. Each “playette” (is that a word?) is complete and not connected to any of the other plays. The six actors (three men, three women) double as stage crew.

The playwrights are experienced with resumes to prove it, as are the actors who are all Equity except for one. This is a very talented sextet who work well as an ensemble.

Most of the plays in Act I are comedies. Act II provides some drama. The stories feature just two characters for the most part. One play immediately follows another, no curtain calls, just next, next, and next.

Certainly, it is impossible to enjoy all ten plays. Out of my own seven “nominees,” one comedy and one drama tie for “best play.” Sorry, I can’t help the analogy to the Oscars, aired later that same day.

The plot of “Mandate,” by Kelly Younger, is a very funny forced “bromance” by the wives of two disparate men who have just met. One man begs to be the other’s BFF. The humor oozes from the awkwardness.

Playwright James McLindon’s “Broken” pits two political prisoners in one small cell. The situation, the place, the era do not matter. It’s raw and dramatic.

You might think...a play that’s only 10 minutes? How good could it be? When 10 minutes is all you need, it can be very good at Barrington Stage.

February 9, 2015

The Music of Michael Jackson

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 7, 2015
by Eric Sutter

Guest conductor Nick Palmer orchestrated the SSO to "The Music of Michael Jackson" from the Jeans 'n Classics Group who were Dave Dunlop (guitar), Steve Heathcore (drums), John Regan (keyboards), Mitch Taylor (electric bass) and backing vocalists Katalin Kiss, Andrea Koziol, and Lis Soderberg.

Lead vocalist Gavin Hope sang everything from early million sellers "ABC,""I Want You Back," and "I'll Be There" to "Billie Jean" from the biggest selling album of all time "Thriller." The amazingly versatile band proved it could handle the soul-pop of "Never Can Say Goodbye," the slow ease ballad "Ben," and the finger poppin' R&B of "Rockin' Robin." The slower numbers allowed for peaceful audience cell phone wave participation. On a high note, the first half ended with "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from Michael Jackson's 1979 solo album "Off The Wall."

The Rock 'n' Soul of "Working Day and Night" got the Symphony's horns pumped to the groove. The taut, confrontational funk of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" had vocalist Hope making familiar MJ gestures. Good dancing revved up with "Beat It" rock dalliances. Dunlop provided crystalline brilliance in his rhythm-friendly percussive attack on his sizzling lead guitar solo. The sparkle and zing of "The Way You Make Me Feel" kept the audience in song and dance. The warm glow of "Human Nature" was smooth harmony with back-up vocals. Hope had the audience palms up again with peace waving zest.

Hope and company closed on the strength of "Thriller" with its crisply articulated rap of the Vincent Price howling original. The Symphony's strings and percussion performed magnificently on the crescendo. The confessional "Man in the Mirror" became an ideal encore with an exceptionally good vocal by Hope.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through February 22, 2015
by Tim O'Brien

A musical comedy based on the film of the same name, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" offers tremendous overall charm despite some inherent weaknesses in the script. With over 20 song and/or dance numbers, they can't all be winners, and a few of the tunes fall a little flat through absolutely zero fault of the terrific Opera House Players.

Sly direction by Denise Boutin smooths away the rough spots and injects abundant, richly observed subversiveness into scenes dogged at times by David Yazbeck's slightly inconsistent song craft. Actors break the fourth wall and offer self-referential jokes while the better-than-usual (and nicely choreographed) chorus gets lots of tongue-in-cheek moments of their own throughout the production.

Boutin has cast a solid love triangle. Brian Rucci brings debonair ennui to veteran con man Lawrence, emcees smoothly through the proceedings, and gets even better in the later going as the over-the-top Dr. Shuffhausen. The other primary scoundrel Freddy is played with boundless energy and standout vocal chops by Randy Davidson. Christine Voytko is winsome and deceptively earnest, spot-on in the character of, well, Christine.

Among the secondary leads, Michael King consistently pulls the biggest laughs as the mildly corrupt but always human police chief Andre. His love interest Muriel (Tracy Funke) matches King's excellent singing and shows sweet vulnerability. Emily Stisser brings lots of life to the essentially cameo role of Okie cowgirl and heiress Jolene.

Kudos to the stage crew; the seemingly simple set transforms ingeniously in a flash and scene changes are done with the precision of an Indy pit crew. Musical director Paul Feyer leads a clever four-piece band that sounds bigger than it is. Of note to parents, there are a few highly suggestive moments on stage, plus some salty language.

In the pet-peeve department, this reviewer wishes the body mics worn by the principals were less visible; but on the plus side, every word is audible and the audience's experience is the better for it.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is top-shelf community theatre.

February 4, 2015

Nice Work If You Can Get It

The Bushnell, Hartford CT
through February 8, 2015
by Sharon Smith

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” marks a homecoming for the musical, which traces its origins to the Goodspeed Opera House down the road in East Haddam. The show went through many changes on the journey from CT, to Broadway, to Tony winner, and back again, but in all incarnations the heart and appeal lies in the classic music of George and Ira Gershwin.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
In the madcap world of 1927 Prohibition, bootleggers, high society types, and a bevy of chorus girls collide in a mix of romance, mistaken identities, and slapstick high-jinx. This is the type of light and frothy story that finds gangsters posing as butlers and the vice squad partakes in more vices then it foils.

Mariah MacFarlane as rum-runner Billie Bendix is a splendid talent, with a strong voice and crack timing. It takes such a balance to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” while holding a shotgun. A supporting cast of star-crossed lovers is top notch. Highlights include Aaron Fried and Stephanie Gandolfo’s, “Do It Again” and “Blah, Blah Blah.” Reed Campbell and Stephanie Harter Gilmore’s, “Looking for a Boy” is also a stand out, sung as it is from a swinging chandelier. In addition to “Looking” the choreography delights throughout, with the bathtub based “Delishious” yielding a bubbly surprise.

Any “new” Gershwin musical is sure to invoke comparison to 1992’s “Crazy For You” and while “Nice” may not have the rock-solid book of that show, it does have exciting choreography, delightful performances and the kind of exuberance that can make any audience temporarily forget the chilly weather outside.