Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 17, 2015

Talents Gather for Holiday Benefit

"4 X’Mas" by George Cameron Grant 
Mapleton Hall, Suffield Players
December 4, 5, & 6, 2015

An ensemble of 15 talented local thespians are gathering to produce four holiday themed one-acts, plus one bonus festive monologue, on December 4 and 5 at 8 pm, December 6 at 2 pm at Mapleton Hall in Suffield CT.

General admission; no reservations
$10 donation suggested

Man of La Mancha

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through November 29, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

The triumph of hope over adversity is the timeless theme of the hit 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha.” But its play within a play structure and its dark prison setting can make it a hard act to pull off. The Opera House Players make an honorable effort.

The show’s book by Dale Wasserman is based on his non-musical 1959 television play “I, Don Quixote,” which tells the story of the fictional knight as enacted by Cervantes, author of the 1615 novel “Don Quixote,” and his fellow prisoners while they await their hearings before the Spanish Inquisition. With music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the score’s most familiar number is the much-recorded “The Impossible Dream,” but it also features many other memorable tunes.

Those familiar with John Baran as the host of “As Schools Match Wits” will be pleasantly surprised to find what a credible Don Quixote he makes, bringing solid acting skills and a strong singing voice to the title role. That this engagement ends a 30-year absence from the stage after training at the Hartt School and some early musical theatre credits makes his performance all the more impressive.   

But the best reason to see this “La Mancha” is the stunning account by Erica Romeo as Aldonza, the self-described “kitchen slut” whom Quixote transforms into his lady Dulcinea. Her contempt for the muleteers who regularly abuse her makes “It’s All the Same” a bone-chilling scream of outrage, and her disbelief of Quixote gives “Aldonza” a poignantly cutting edge.

Jim Metzler does fine work as the Padre, and Brad Shephard as the innkeeper brings his usual vocal heft to the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Carl Calhoun sings a delightful “I Really Like Him,” but his rendition of Sancho Panza is otherwise under-characterized.

Moonyean Field’s costumes are distinctive, and musical director Steven Cirillo leads a stellar ensemble of three, with particularly atmospheric contributions from guitarist Daniel Hartington. Scene transitions are sometimes distractingly clunky.

Not a perfect “Man of La Mancha,” then, but worth seeing for at least Romeo’s outstanding performance.

November 10, 2015

Jesus Christ Superstar

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through November 21, 2015
by Stuart W. Gamble

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s modern rock-opera masterpiece “Jesus Christ Superstar” is electrifyingly staged by Exit 7 Players. Directed by Paul DiProto, it perfectly balances the epic and intimate moments of the greatest story ever told.

DiProto sets the final days of Jesus in the 21st century during the recent Occupy Wall Street events.  Jesus’ followers tweet against corporate greed. A slideshow depicts images of the disenfranchised with those of Gandhi. et al.  Placards that read “People not Profits” and “Occupy Everywhere” underscore this theme.

Although JCS is Jesus’ story, Judas’ inner conflict is equally compelling. Paula Cortis’ Judas’ internal suffering in “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Damned for All Time” show the conflict between the character’s loyalty to Jesus and fulfillment of the gospel. Cortis displays both superb vocals and shattering dramatic power. Wearing combat-like fatigues, she is the militant counterpoint to Jesus’ pacifism.

David Wallace is perfect as Jesus. From the musical’s opening to the very end, Wallace convinces the audience of Jesus’ suffering especially in the show-stopping “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” Wallace’s Jesus demonstrates both fear of death and a quest for answers.

The villains of the piece are played with menacing aplomb by Justin W. Smith, Erin Wallace, Gene Choquette, and Ryan Bird as, respectively, Caiaphas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod. Choquette’s  velvet-voiced Pilate, Wallace’s champagne-swilling Annas, and Smith’s stone-coldness, exude evil in their solos. The amusing, Vegas-style “King Herod’s Song” is performed with devilish-delight by Bird.

Nikki Wadleigh’s Mary Magdalene is purity incarnate. Her  arias “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” are underscored by Cliff Schofer’s flute and Kevin Barker’s percussion. Unfortunately, these iconic songs are placed down-stage right, making visibility difficult. Wadleigh’s duet with Peter (Michael Garcia) “Could We Start Again, Please?” provides a welcome reflective moment .

The 13-member ensemble is completely invested throughout. Their versatility is commendable. The guitar, bass, and synthesizer of Scott Sasanecki, Sheri Jyringi, Bill Martin, and Michael Rhealt blend well with the actors. Musical director Bill Martin, choreographer Melissa Dupont, lighting designer Frank Croke, costumer Judy Hemingway, and Croke and Mike Crowther’s set create a polished production.

Lloyd Webber’s 70’s classic may be familiar, but Exit 7’s current production proves that everything old is new again.

Haydn Trumpet Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
November 7, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

For the second concert of the SSO’s 72nd season and his own 15th season as music director, Kevin Rhodes gave the spotlight to two featured soloists from the orchestra in a varied program of two pieces from the baroque era, two from the classical period, and one from the 20th century.

The Overture from Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” began the concert in grand style, with brass and winds in full cry for the stately opening, followed by scampering strings in a lighter Bouree dance rhythm. Strings alone then followed with a lovely rendition of Albinoni’s heartfelt “Adagio in G minor,” in welcome contrast to Handel’s boisterous romp.  
Thomas Bergeron

SSO principal trumpet Thomas Bergeron then stepped forward to center stage as soloist in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major. The South Hadley native and veteran of the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra has performed widely with other classical and popular music ensembles, and is beginning his fifth season with the SSO. He dispatched the technical challenges of this virtuosic masterpiece with aplomb, and his lively playing in the opening and closing Allegros nicely complemented his quieter tone in the central Andante. 

The concert continued after intermission with a ravishing account of Copland’s “Quiet City,” a nocturnal meditation that featured Bergeron again on trumpet and SSO principal oboist Nancy Dimock on English horn. The surprising delicacy of Bergeron’s instrument and the haunting beauty of Dimock’s playing were warmly supported by the SSO strings.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, the least often heard of his last three symphonies, brought the evening to a triumphant close. Its optimistic energy belies the financial difficulties that plagued the composer when it was written in 1788. As in the preceding Handel and Haydn works, Rhodes led the full SSO in the Mozart, but his careful balances and close attention to detail ensured that all three performances never sounded heavy-handed. From the lush opening Adagio and sprightly Allegro, the flowing Andante, the pert minuet and trio, to the exuberant finale, the intimacy of a period ensemble rewardingly met the richness of a modern symphony orchestra.

Bold Beethoven

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 5–7, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

If you were an expert conductor and pianist, what better composer could you find to showcase your skills than the protean Beethoven, who played and conducted his own piano concertos on multiple occasions? Returning to Hartford after his triumphant HSO debut last season, that’s exactly what guest conductor William Eddins did.

His all-Beethoven program opened with an exciting account of the dramatic “Coriolan” Overture, inspired by a then recent play about the ancient Roman warrior Coriolanus. Eddins is a full-body conductor, and his vivid gestures (with no score, baton, or podium all evening) drew committed and responsive playing from every section of the orchestra, which was reduced throughout the concert to about 40 musicians, the size of a classical orchestra in Beethoven’s tine.

William Eddins
For the third piano concerto, Eddins was seated at the keyboard center stage facing the orchestra with his back to the audience. Beethoven’s only concerto in a minor key, it opens in a somber mood, which is sustained through much of the long first movement and most of the Rondo finale. In the radiant central Largo, the conductor/pianist caressed the keys in contrast to his more thundering approach in the opening movement and a lighter, more playful touch in the finale. Whether by nodding his head, leaning his torso, or waving his arms when free, Eddins maintained steady contact with the musicians and elicited a stirring orchestral performance to underline his incisive piano playing.

Bypassing the more often played odd-numbered symphonies, he closed the concert after intermission with a robust rendition of Beethoven’s eighth and most joyous symphony. Moderate tempos in all three pieces on the program gave the music time to breathe and highlighted details not always heard at faster speeds. The blustering bravado of the opening Allegro, the bubbly humor of the Allegretto, the pastoral charm of the minuet and trio, and the rollicking spirit of the monumental finale were all brilliantly realized by conductor and orchestra.

It was heartening to see an even slightly more diverse than usual audience welcoming this African American superstar back to the Belding Theater. Another encore, please.

November 2, 2015

Rear Window

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 15, 2015
by Shera Cohen

You’ve seen the movie (Hitchcock, Stewart, binoculars, wheelchair) – a classic. Now see the play. Well, that really can’t happen because Hartford Stage has the casting and marketing genius to achieve a complete sell out.

The movie and play share the same title, not much else. Yes, there’s a murder, body parts, voyeurism, and snippets of lives of obscure people. We have our erstwhile hero. Jimmy’s everyman charm has been replaced by a reclusive alcoholic. Where is Grace Kelly or any swell-looking smart blonde to match strategies and banter cute witticism with Jimmy? Albeit, an attractive young African-American man fills that void, but for a completely different purpose that strains the story line. “Rear Window” should stand alone as near-perfect as it is or how it is remembered, without adding broad subtexts of racism, police brutality, power or lack thereof of the press, and homosexuality.

McKiley Belcher III & Kevin Bacon
If only Hartford Stage’s play had a different title, the audience would have different expectations. This “Rear Window” is essentially a compilation of the movie’s script and the life of its writer, Cornell Woolrich – a man with more than his share of demons. Since few know of Woolrich, the main character is a man who even fewer care about because the text does not give the audience enough to decipher about this man.

It is painful to write any derogatory words aimed at Kevin Bacon -- T.H.E. movie star of the memorable “A Few Good Men” and “Apollo 13,” his award-winning “Taking Chance,” and the hysterically funny “Tremors.” Yes, “Tremors.” Bacon throws himself into the role of Hal Jeffries as much as any skilled actor can possibly do. As hurting as Hal is, he is superficial. Bacon needs dialogue to express his character that just isn’t there. It is only in some scenes with McKiley Belcher III (a promising actor) as Sam, that the people onstage become…well…real people.

“Rear Window” is film noire set to stage, delivered loud and clear as the screeching rush of trains on railroad tracks and dingy neon marquee against dirty grey bricks create the period. The set is amazing (such an overused word), but no synonym suffices. As the play quickly moves from scene to scene, the staging becomes even more amazing if that can even be possible. The star of “Rear Window” is scenic designer Alexander Dodge, who can share the accolades with sound designer Jane Shaw and lighting designer York Kennedy.