Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 28, 2015

An Opening in Time

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT 
through October 11, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

Thomas Wolfe insisted, “You can’t go home again.” Christopher Shinn’s “An Opening in Time” supports this premise. From the outset, Shinn’s protagonist, the recently widowed Anne (Deborah Hedwall), moving back to her Connecticut hometown after a long absence, notes how things have changed (there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner). She painstakingly discovers that those she left behind have changed as well, and, though she doesn’t at-first acknowledge it, she herself has changed significantly.

Anne has returned for two reasons—to be closer to her estranged son, a convicted sex offender, and to possibly rekindle a lost romance. Time blurs memories, as both Anne and Ron (Patrick Clear), her estranged love interest, now divorced, soon discover as they piece together their puzzled past. They once sacrificed their chance at love. Will time and circumstances allow them a second chance? There are still obstacles; especially what Ron considers being Anne’s double obsession—her son Sam (Karl Miller), and George (Brandon Smalls), a disturbed teen the former teacher has befriended.

The script is a challenging one for scenic designer Antje Ellermann, who has cleverly made use of mini-sets rising out of trapdoors in the floor. Though the technique is efficient, it soon becomes tedious, especially as one of the main settings, a diner counter and stools, repeatedly “pops up.” The mini-sets also have drawbacks, such as Anne having to sit with her back to the audience for an entire scene. Ellermann’s predominant setting, distinctly New England clapboard houses amid barren trees, is somber and staid, a fitting backdrop for Shinn’s bleak drama of love and loss, heartbreak and misunderstanding.

In their respective roles, Hedwall and Clear portray their characters’ uneasiness and indecision almost to a fault, and Smalls is appropriately reticent and hesitant, although his character is not allowed sufficient time to unfold. After only brief encounters, he shares a deeply held secret with Anne.

There are time lapses that are not always clear and questions left unanswered, such as who is responsible for Anne’s broken windows and why Kim (the perky Molly Camp), a neighbor who is George’s foster mother, keeps inviting and dis-inviting Anne to dinner.
Perhaps Wolfe was right after all.

September 24, 2015

The Illusionists-Live from Broadway

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through September 27, 2015
by R.E. Smith

“The Illusionists” is a magic and sideshow review that packages up timeless bits in shiny new ways, making for an entertaining evening that’s comfortably familiar while managing to amaze anew.

First, a few minor points to better understand the show structure. Despite the “Broadway” in the title, there’s no story here (or singing!), and that’s OK. Also, three of the seven performers are actually not magicians but rather showmen with nicknames like “The Escapologist” and “The Daredevil.” While they’re not pulling rabbits out of a hat, their presence adds to a sense of bearing witness to some cherished show-biz traditions.

“The Trickster,” Jeff Hobson is part “classic” street magician and part Liberace, who instantly has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. His are simple, traditional tricks with a “fabulous” spin. His diametric opposite is “The Anti-Conjurer,” Dan Sperry, whose own bio warns that his act is not for the weak of heart. With an avant-garde twinkle in his eye (masked by heavy Goth makeup), some of his illusions had people squirming in their seats. His routine with live birds, however, is fast paced, amusing, and beautiful. Yu Ho-Jin is a “manipulator” recently named “Magician of the Year” by his peers, whose graceful sleight-of-hand ability is nothing short of wondrous.

Andrew Basso has one act in the show, but it is a doozy: he re-creates Houdini’s “Water Torture Cabinet” escape. Many in the audience had to watch through their fingers as he hung suspended underwater for over 3 minutes, picking locks and holding his breath. It is definitely not something you see everyday, but something everyone should see at least once in person.

Many of the performers have been featured on television, but these acts are best appreciated live. The audience interaction with Jonathan Goodwin as he demonstrates a bed of nails, or escapes from handcuffs while in mortal danger, gives an intimacy that only amplifies the thrills.

“The Inventor,” Kevin James, notes that he is there to “remind people of that important sense of wonder they felt as a child.” His twist on sawing a person in half will certainly do that, as will this entirely unique evening of entertainment.

September 15, 2015

A Streetcar Named Desire

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA 
through October 18, 2015
by Konrad Rogowski

Directed by Rand Foerster, the Majestic Theater's production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is both an emotional and energetic show, as it tells the tragic tale of those caught in the web of lost loves and riches, and those struggling to eke out a life in the present.

Photo by Lee Chambers
Solid performances are delivered by leads Justin Fuller and Ashley Malloy as Stanley and Stella, and by Suzanne Kimball and Tim Cochran as Blanche and Harold. The four play off of each other well, and deliver on the emotions and the physicality that these roles demand. The actors portray characters of the culture of the gentile South of days long lost colliding with the harsh reality of the hard working, hard drinking, and hard living common/everyman. Ultimately, not all can survive intact.

Nicely juxtaposed to the fates of the lead characters are the often-overheard domestic conflicts of their upstairs neighbors, Eunice and Steve, echoing the ongoing trials of those who live and love in an imperfect world. The backdrop for this tale is a gritty two-story set by Greg Trochlil that captures the now faded elegance that once might have been this streetcar stop in the French Quarter. Similarly, the soft warm lighting design of Daniel D. Rist helps keep the secrets and the lies that dwell just below the surface of these intertwined lives out of sight until the searing light of truth exposes them.

This streetcar ride is well worth the fare. 

She Loves Me

Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through September 27, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick are best known for their monster hit “Fiddler on the Roof,” which this company presented last season. But its more modest sibling, “She Loves Me,” has long been respected, in the words of this production’s resourceful director, Meghan Lynn Allen, as a “crown jewel of the golden age of musicals.” And “Good Morning, Good Day” is among the greatest of all opening numbers.

Based on a 1937 play by Miklos Laszlo, the story also inspired several films, including "The Shop on Main Street" and "You’ve Got Mail". The plot focuses on a romance between two pen pals, Amalia and Georg, who’ve never met but later find themselves as fellow clerks in a pre-World War II Budapest perfumery who are often at odds with each other. Other employees provide not only comic relief but contrasting dramas of their own.

J. McCann & M.G. Morales
Bock’s lush score often evokes the Hungarian sound world of Franz Lehar’s operettas, while Harnick’s clever lyrics recall the patter of Gilbert and Sullivan. The cast of 20 singing actors is consistently engaged and compelling. Michael Graham Morales brings a wide emotional palette and a fine singing voice to Georg. Few scenes are more stirring than his exuberant rendition of the title song. The versatile Brad Shepard is avuncular and poignant as Mr. Maraczek, the shop manager.

The standout vocalist is Jennifer McCann, who perfectly captures the neurotic charm of Amalia. Her touching “Dear Friend” and winsome “Vanilla Ice Cream” echo the gorgeous lyric soprano of Barbara Cook, who originated the role on Broadway in 1963, and her comic acting chops make “No More Candy” a highlight of the evening. In smaller roles, Martina Haskins is a hoot as the lovelorn Ilona, Thom Knightlee haughty as the caddish Kodaly, and Joshua Prouser endearing as the ambitious Arpad.

Greg Trochlil’s set design is elegant and simple. Karen Anne McMahon’s choreography is imaginative, particularly in a delightful “Twelve Days to Christmas.” And musical director Steven Cirillo leads a well-drilled and impressively larger-sounding band of four.

This lovely production will appeal to musical theatre audiences of all ages.

September 10, 2015

Mini-vacation in Boston

by Shera Cohen

Most people who live in Springfield, MA do not consider a trip to Boston as a vacation. For those like me, who until the recently rarely traveled further than Chicopee (well, okay, there were trips to FL), Boston was an opportunity for a journey filled with culture. For those who read my “On the Road” articles, it should be no surprise that within three days, I packed in six museums, two plays, improv, and a walk on Newberry Street -- one of my favorite pedestrian-friendly sites in the U.S. that’s east of Main Street, Disney World.

“Shear Madness,  Charles Theatre, Boston

"Shear Madness"
We started with laughter provided courtesy of “Shear Madness.” How often can a person see this show without being board? In my case, I had already been twice, and this third time was just as much fun as the first and second. Obviously, I must not be the only one who thinks that since “SM” started its run in 1980.

As you would guess from the title, the set was a beauty salon (ah, ha, “shears”). “SM” was a slapstick farce with a tad of mystery thrown in; a “who done it.” But, no one in the audience cared, because the plot was just so purposely stupid. Although, to avoid a spoiler alert, there were numerous endings to these shenanigans. Malaprops, demonstrative entrances, comic asides, and missed lines added to the game of who’s afoot.

The seven actors onstage seemed to be having as much fun -- in fact, as much as the audience members. It would have been very easy for this septet to phone in their lines, so to speak. However, this “SM” freshly shined as in the past.

Improv Boston, Cambridge

Surprisingly (to me), I had never attended improv. For some reason, I was always in fear of being called up to the stage to join in. Didn’t happen. Whew!

Five young cast members acted like a well-oiled machine, each taking his/her turn at the wheel. Yet, as the proverbial wheel slowed, one in the troupe instantly started a new story. There’s a skill in knowing when a skit has worn out. If you thought that improv is fast, it’s even faster than that. One could almost see the brain cells dancing in the actors’ heads as they thought about the plot (such as it is) as words simultaneously spewed out. It was a bit of a masochistic joy to watch. I’m not sure, however, if the words preceded the thinking. By its nature, these onstage people become playwright/actor all in one.

The theatre and its stage were small, as improv works best in an intimate setting. Lots of college kids sat nearby -- some of them “got it” before we (Baby Boomers) did. That was okay; it was not a contest. We all won an evening of fun.

Museum of Fine Art, Boston

My impetus for seeing this museum was the exhibit “Over There - Posters from WWI.” I think I can safely say that so few of us in the U.S. know much about this incredibly devastating war -- on all sides. “Over There” ran the length of at least three long corridors. Frankly, I got a bit lost, so I might have missed some of the pieces.

The “Hokusai” showing provided a excellent second reason for coming. Many may  not know the artist, but think “The Wave” -- that’s Hokusai. Surprisingly, that famous work is rather small, yet other art spanned the length of an entire museum wall. Not necessarily related to this exhibit, was a powerfully compelling Japanese photographic display of post-earthquake/tsunami of 2011. Strews about the museum in strategic posts were giant glass, modern, and multi-colored sculptures.

With six art genres and eras on three floors (including works of Gordon Parks, the Rothschild Family Treasures, and da Vinci), at least two visits are mandatory to experience most of what MFA offers. If, however, you have stamina and/or time, there are four in-museum restaurants to stop for lunch.

“City of Angels” at Lyric Stage

There’s no reason for me to write my usual play review of a play seen last April which ended in May. Instead -- some broad strokes. I had not been to Lyric Stage in over a decade; enough time for me to forget the high-quality, professional productions mounted here. Yes, Boston has a few neighborhoods occupied by several large, old, grand theatres which showcase the best of Broadway but in MA. Then, there are a few of the smaller venues whose companies tackle plays and musicals that are or weren’t blockbusters. Lyric Stage is at the top of this list.

Lyric skimps at nothing. Equity actors each in dual roles, a top notch band, an onstage chorus, a multi-level set indicating two stages, expensive costumes, and whatever else I neglected to mention make this venue’s productions worth a trip to Boston. Trust me, you can see “Phantom” anywhere. But a rarely produced musical a la film noir as “City of Angels” is a surprise treat. Why this play is not done more often is a shame. Yet, staging in particular, seems an extremely difficult assignment. Needless to say, Lyric Stage was undaunted, and the results proved excellent.

Peabody Museum, Cambridge

I naturally thought when I inquired about going to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology that my visit would be two or three hours, until I was told that Peabody was actually a complex of four museums, two of which are connected, the other two directly across the street. The main museum displayed artifacts from the Americas (the current exhibit was Native Americans) in three floors of galleries.

Exiting, which meant walking a small hallway, to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the highlight for me were hundreds of glass flowers displayed in their own exhibit room.

The two smaller museums which I also ventured into were the Harvard Semitic Museum and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, both of which were free to the public.

This museum’s draw was Arts of War which showcased the intricacies of armor, weaponry, masks used by warriors through the centuries. What a novel concept for an exhibit, that I wondered why I never seen anything at all similar in my decades of museum visits.
Peabody Museum is one of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture. All Harvard museums mentioned in this article are part of this consortium.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The most striking component of this elegant museum/mansion is its courtyard. Upon entering and walking down stoned corridor lined with tapestry, the next turn faces one of four sides of the lush gardens, fountain, maze-like walks, and statues. Large open archways on the first and second floors of the museum align the periphery of the pristine courtyard. The beauty of this natural work of art was amazing in the spring months. Although, when I visited the museum on a mid-winter day several years ago, the courtyard still displayed a loveliness, and by no means dark and somber.

Each of the large rooms spoke to the demeanor and style of the Stewart-Gardner riches. Besides the paintings by artists of renown and elaborate furniture, the architecture created an amazing intricate design.

I had not realized that a new wing extended the museum, primarily housing a large three-story performance auditorium showcasing the talents of young classical musicians. I was also unaware of workshops, lectures, touring exhibits, and youth activities offered by the museum. With each visit, I learn and see more.