Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 27, 2015


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 31, 2015
by R.E. Smith

“Once” the musical, is, indeed, many things at once. It is concert and recital, intimate and expansive, personal and universal. It is humorous, heart breaking and hopeful, understated, but technically brilliant. It is a true original in style, score, and execution, despite being based on a 2007 movie.

Set in Dublin, it is a simple story of passions lost and found. “Guy” is about to give up on his music when he is rescued by a muse in the form of a Czech “Girl.” Despite their mutual interests, and attraction, their love remains chaste. Their collaboration is of an artistic order. The folktale atmosphere is only heightened by an Irish pub setting, as if this is a story being told amongst friends over a few pints.

Photo By Joan Marcus
And what friends these are! Every performer is a quadruple threat: singer, actor, dancer, and musician. The ensemble serves as the on-stage orchestra, stepping in and out of the roles of Guy’s mates and Girl’s family. Each is given a moment to shine in both book and score, but all work seamlessly as a whole, as any good house band would. While there are no “dance” sequences per se (credits are given for “movement”), the unique staging, swift scene changes, and introspective gestures make even the quietest moments fluid and engaging.

The music, including the Oscar winning song (in a Tony-award winning musical!) “Falling Slowly,” is almost anti-Broadway. Rooted in folk and Irish traditions, the songs can be melancholy. But their beauty is undeniable, embellished with violins, cello, ukulele, concertina, and mandolin. Like any “traditional” show tune, the passion of the performers reaches out and engages the audience.

Stuart Ward as “Guy” is a study in contrast; awkward and unsure in personal relationships, he sings his songs of loss with a rock star presence. Dani de Waal as “Girl,” conveys subtle longing and sadness while winningly providing no nonsense practicality.

“Once” uses the simple tagline “his music needed one thing: her”, but this show is a beautifully complex experience, making for a unique, heartfelt evening unlike any other.

A small warning: the Bushnell acoustics sometime make it difficult to understand dialogue, add to that Irish brogues and Czech dialects and some subtleties can be lost. Be prepared to concentrate.

Kiss Me Kate

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT 
through June 14, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

Photo Credit: T. Charles Ericson
“Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” but not just any show. A review of "Kiss Me Kate" at Hartford Stage could be summed up in one word, “WOW,” but this tell-it-all interjection should be expanded upon a bit, for Director Darko Tresnjak has given his audience yet another crowd-pleaser.

"Kiss Me Kate" follows the backstage antics of a theatre company presenting a musical version of Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" (a play within a play) starring divorced Broadway legends whose feelings for each other have obviously not totally dried out, though each is claiming a new love interest. Throw in their new flames and two gangsters who’ve come to the theatre to collect on a large gambling debt (and refuse to leave their charge unsupervised), and the plot—both onstage and backstage—thickens.

Terrific vocals render Cole Porter’s music and lyrics in grand fashion. Anastasia Barzee, in the dual roles of Lilli (offstage) and Katharine (onstage), the shrew whom none would wed, and Mike McGowan, as actor Fred Graham (offstage) and Petruchio, the suitor who's "Come to Wive It Wealthily," both have big rich voices, whether tenderly reminiscing with "Wunderbar" or belting out "Kiss Me, Kate." Barzee’s "I Hate Men" (as Katharine) is a showstopper—and does she ever hold that note! Megan Sikora, Fred Graham’s flirty, flighty sweetheart Lois Lane, persuasively declares the opposite as she proclaims (as Bianca) that either "Tom, Dick or Harry" will do. This number, an audience favorite, is great fun, the choreography bawdy and delightful.

Brendan Averett and Joel Blum, the determined gangsters, stand by their charge, Fred Graham, like decorative bookends, their costumes, and wigs accenting their mugged expressions, and hilarity definitely ensues their showpiece "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

Kudos to all involved in this toe-tapping extravaganza, from the leads to the entire company, from Tresnjak to costume designer Fabio Toblini, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, choreographer Peggy Hickey, music director Kris Kukul and all who contributed to making "Kiss Me Kate" the success that it is.

What’s not to like? Perhaps the fact that the show will only run through June 14.

May 14, 2015

Buy Local

Paradise City Arts Festival
3 County Fairgrounds, Northampton, MA
May 23 - 25, 2015
by Shera Cohen

As I looked on my calendar this week, I realized that it was the time of year for my bi-annual Paradise City article. Hmm, what to write? There has been the overall preview, the interview with co-producer Linda Post, and several one-on-one pieces on artists. Jewelry, pottery, furniture, clothing, paintings -- I have probably penned an article from each genre.

When stumped for an idea (writing or otherwise), my usual “go to” spot is CVS. It’s probably during the walk to the store and back, more than the final destination, when I become inspired. I always take pen and paper with me on my very short journey.

Returning to my condo, I purposely looked around the rooms as if I had never seen the site before, remembering that Mother’s Day, 25-years ago, was my moving day. One of many thoughts at the time was, “How am I ever going to fill all of this wall space?” Little did I know that Paradise City would help me enormously in answering my space question.

While my home is rather small, through the years, I have acquired and displayed approximately 60 pieces of art. Those object not currently on the walls are in my attic storeroom. Every two years or so, I move things around, add and subtract. It’s fun and gives me new images to look at, even if they aren’t really new.

How did I know the number was 60? I literally walked from room to room, counting. Among the pastels, acrylics, line drawings, wall hangings, mirrors, and photography were 39 original works, most of which were created by local artists. Among the 39, I had purchased 19 at Paradise City.

Given a choice and the same spending cap, I always choose original art over copies. Extra points in my purchasing decisions go to living artists and/or those who live locally; i.e.Pioneer Valley, The Berkshires, Northern CT.

Sure, I have some prints on the walls, mostly Mary Casatte, Boulonge, and flowers. They are all beautiful, and a lot less expensive than the originals, of course.

I usually attend Paradise City, comparing it to a window shopping venture coupled with a browse through several art galleries and museums. I never go with a “what to buy” check list. In fact, I do not recommend that -- keep your eyes and other senses open to all that fills Paradise City.

I am proud that I have purchased 19 pieces for myself, and I am not even counting the numerous gifts for others. It is generally difficult to buy art for someone else’s taste. However, I make exceptions during my visits to Paradise City. Either I have picked the perfect work or the recipient is a perfect actor, effusively praising both me and the art.

May 13, 2015

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
through May 17, 2015
by Mary Gibb

Panache Productions has brought the quartet of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," a Tony award winning play, to Springfield.

Director John McKemmie begins Act I with Vanya and Sonia, squabbling siblings living in the family farmhouse. Neither is married; both are frustrated with life, yet their bantering stimulates the audience into howls of laughter.

Sister Masha, a flamboyant, out of work actress arrives unannounced and  more hilarity ensues. She brings along her very young boyfriend who is a vain wannabe actor played by Jeremy Thayer, who delivers a clever twist with his tushie shaking antics. Surprisingly, hilariously, and literally, the happenings onstage put the characters in fairy tale costumes.

Carol Palmer (Masha)  has boundless energy and enthusiasm in playing her roll. Linda McLaren (Sonia) does her part justice as a frustrated unhappy woman devoting her life to become her parents’ caretaker. Rock Palmer (Vanya) is the fiftyish brother who squandered his life as caretaker of his parents, and hasn’t worked in years. Marie McCutchen (Nina), an innocent youth thing, portrays her character a little too innocently.

The highlight performance is by Karen Bellavance-Grace (Cassandra) as the Russian accented, fortune telling cleaning lady, who sails across the stage with energetic dance moves all the while chanting and predicting what truths are about to be revealed. Her theatrical quotations and dialogue are interspersed with devilish grins. Her costumes sparkled and dazzled.

The pace, in Act II slows down particularly when Vanya’s monologue takes what seems like innumerable time. The play is comedic, heart-warming, and delightfully enjoyable.

May 11, 2015

Guys & Dolls

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through June 20, 2015
by Shera Cohen

Most musicals include two or three memorable songs for audience members to hum upon leaving the theatre. The exceptional shows might offer four or five. Then, there are the “Guys & Dolls-type” productions in the musical cannon, which boast at least 10 top hits that stick in your brain for days or weeks at a time. It seems impossible for anyone to not know and enjoy the following: “A Bushel & A Peck,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sue Me,” “The Oldest Established,” “If I Were a Bell,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” not to mention the title song.

Nancy Anderson & Mark Price (c) Diane Sobolewsk
Originally staged on Broadway in 1950, two Damon Runyon stories morphed into “Guys & Dolls” -- a tale about men and women in boot-leggin’ NYC. The guys are gamblers with dice; their gals are gamblers in love. The focus of the plot are two couples; Sky and Sarah (both quite handsome), Nathan and Adelaide (both quite average). The audience roots for love to conquer all in spite of numerous setbacks for this quartet of vulnerable people. Most productions “star” Sky and Sarah. After all, they are the pretty ones. Yet, Goodspeed’s star is clearly Adelaide. Nancy Anderson is a knockout. Yes, she can sing (with a droll nasal New York accent), and her body and legs are something to hoot at. More importantly, this gal can act. This reviewer has oftentimes dismissed Adelaide as stupid and whiny, given filler songs to beef up the show with humor. Anderson takes the shell that other Adelaides on other stages have worn and fleshes her out, body and soul.

Mark Price (Adelaide’s beaux Nathan) plays conniving with a sweet touch. Manna Nickols (Salvation Army drum-beating Sister Sarah) uses her near-operatic voice throughout. Tony Roach (Sky Masterson...whata’ great name) sings well, spices up “Luck Be a Lady” choreography with nice moves, but shows little emotion in romantic scenes.

Superb is the word to describe the skills of the ensemble of singers/dancers. Their accoutrements embellish their many fun moments; i.e. herring bone suits, fedora hats, bouffant hairdos, and speaking style (just try leaving out’s not easy.) The jazzy, colorful set is primarily NYC in lights, with side trips to the mission house, crap game cellar, and Havana. The eight-piece band (only eight?) never eclipses the voices. So, be a lucky lady or guy, and enjoy some great talent at Goodspeed.

May 6, 2015


Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through May 17, 2015
by Shera Cohen

If you like “Camelot,” then “Spamalot” is a must see, and if you hate “Camelot,” then “Spamalot” is a must see. Based closely on the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” politically incorrect movie spoof (1975), this musical version provides the same spirit, laughs, irreverence, characters, shrubbery, coconuts, and killer rabbit in telling a version of King Arthur; his knights; the Lady of the Lake; and ”one very, very, very large round table.”

Broad Brook pulls out all the stops and spares no expense in this blockbuster show, topping off their 2014/15 season and besting its own decade-long record. In the case of “Spamalot,” less is more. The talented Bill Martin and trio serve as a full orchestra, five young women kick up their heels as the chorus line, and ten extremely versatile actors portray 25 roles.

While Broad Brook’s theatre is large (how wonderful to see a near-full house), its stage is not. How to manipulate these many roles with several costume changes in lickity-split time along with numerous backdrops is, to say the least, a director’s nightmarish joy. Sharon FitzHenry faces this challenge with aplomb. She executes what easily could be theatrical chaos, especially with all actors on stage in ensemble pieces, into an assemblage of people and pieces (lights, sound, props) each with their own purpose, resulting in outrageously funny scene after scene.

FitzHenry has exceptional help in making “Spamalot” a rousing success from imaginative choreographer Melissa Dupont, and artistic costume designer Moonyean Field. This trio of talented women infuses every chorus number with gusto, color, and talent.

Oh…there’s more…the actors/singers. Gene Choquette plays a rather dimwitted Arthur, Luis Manzi schleps around as a loveable lackey, Paul DiProto nails an effeminate Sir EE, and Tim Reilly steals the show as a pompous Dennis (aka Sir Galahad). There are not many women in “Spamalot,” but again, less is more. Erica Romeo as Lady of the Lake commands every minute on stage with the humor of an erstwhile diva, the throaty jazzy physique of a femme fatal, and the strong voice of a Top 10 singer.

Note: Broad Brook seems to be the only theatre group that starts on time. Bravo.

May 3, 2015


Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through May 16, 2015
by Shera Cohen

During these three weeks at the end of the community theatre season, musical offerings seem infinite. Toss in a couple of comedies, and the dozen troupes in the Pioneer Valley are mighty busy. Why, then, would anyone seek out a heavy-duty drama as a choice of entertainment? In the case of “Hearts,” perhaps a substitute for “entertainment” should be “experience.”

Playwright Willy Holtzman’s work is an emotional ride for its lead character and empathetic journey for its audience. The story’s focal point is Donald Waldman, whose life is viewed pre-WWII, during, and after. The set’s center point begins at a card table where Donald and three war buddies play their regular game of Hearts. Of course, “hearts” serves as a somewhat metaphor, as Waldman slowly exposes his heart to others, and they to him.

The piece is a tour-de-force performance for whoever is cast as Donald. Konrad Rogowski, one of Suffield’s stalwart members, puts oftentimes-irreverent passion into every syllable of dialog and nuance of movement. Rogowski becomes Waldman, as his character shifts from remorse to laughter, from struggles to joy in his two hour soliloquy.

Ed Bernstein, Wesley Olds, and Gio Castellano -- completing the foursome -- each portray numerous roles as the eras and settings change. The actors take on these responsibilities well and seemingly instantaneously. Kudos to them and to Tammy Young Cote, also in multiple roles.

While director Jeffrey Flood’s pacing during Act I is a tad slow, Act II makes up for it. Many of the combat scenes are very well choreographed, as is an extremely poignant “dance” (to say more would not be fair) in Act II.

The proscenium stage of grey stucco-like paint is extended out two levels into the audience, developing a close rapport between characters and viewers -- sometimes purposely too close during some intense scenes.

Suggestion: Add pounds to Rogowski’s middle. There are at least 20 references to Donald’s eating too much.

A question to many in the audience: Why would anyone boisterously laugh at scenes about death on the battlefield, hospitalization for PTSD, and savagery in Nazi death camps? Sadly, perhaps someone at Suffield should have informed ticket buyers that this was not a comedy.