Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 22, 2015

Passing Strange

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through December 20, 2015
by Eric Sutter and Stephanie C. Lyons-Keeley

“Passing Strange,” directed by Sean Harris with book and lyrics by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, is an aptly named musical which entwines music, theater, and dance in a strangely engaging way. Vibrant and spirited dancing is top-notch thanks to choreographer Darlene Zoller.

A masterful song and spoken word narration by Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator) effectively weaves together the convoluted story. It is a tale of a young bohemian known only as the Youth (Eric R. Williams) from a black middle-class American background who looks deep into his soul for “the real” through sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Raised by a conservative Christian single mother, his journey takes him from 1976 LA to Amsterdam to Berlin.

In a very layered Act 1, the high-energy dance number “It’s Alright” sets a lively tone with a rocker/cheerleader dance piece performed by Williams, Garrett Turner (Mr. Franklin/Joop/Mr. Venus) and Ensemble Karissa Harris, Skyler Volpe, and J’Royce that quickly roused the audience. A shift to the gospel number “Baptist Fashion Show” with Mother (Famecia Ward) and the Youth thickens the plot.  As time passes, the strong-minded Youth smokes his first joint at a wayward youth prayer circle in “Arlington Hill.” He later is part of a short-lived punk rock band, but the Youth and the other band members learn more from failure than success. He makes the decision to leave home to develop his musical talents and sets out for Amsterdam, where fun numbers including “We Just Had Sex” keep the action hot. Later he heads to Berlin where he makes yet another life changing decision and learns another hard lesson in “Paradise.”

In Act II the Youth reaches a crossroads in West Berlin. With beauty in the midst of chaos, the audience is again roused with wild song and dance. Deepening glimpses of “the real” surface cabaret-style with “Identity” and “The Black One.” The Youth’s experiences begin to change him in his passing from place to place. Christmas soon approaches bringing with it the mounting issues with his mother; he eventually comes of age.

“Passing Strange” is heady stuff… and just as the Youth does, one might ask is this “the real”? What is “the real”? And is there something more?

December 7, 2015

Joyful Voices

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
December 3–6, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Leave it to path-breaking Maestra Carolyn Kuan to upend yet another classical music tradition by inviting concertgoers not to turn off their cell phones but to turn them on! Pre-concert publicity had encouraged them to download a free bell-ringing app and participate in one piece on the program. 

Worth and Moore
But first HSO Board Chairman Jeffrey Verney dedicated the orchestra’s performance of the opening work, Faure’s Requiem, to the people of Paris as they recover from the terrorist attacks there last month. This is the gentlest of all Requiems, and Kuan and the HSO gave it a fresh, flowing account. Two world-class soloists – soprano Melody Moore and baritone Matthew Worth – made the most of their solo opportunities, including a ravishing “Pie Jesu” from Moore. But they never overshadowed the 160 men and women of the Hartford Chorale, who sang with careful modulation and total conviction.

The Hartford premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s short orchestral piece “blue cathedral” then lifted the solemn mood to a transcendent level. Commissioned in 1999 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she teaches, the piece also became a memorial for her brother, who died of melanoma while she was writing it. The colorful orchestration includes Chinese exercise balls played by many orchestra members as they lay down their instruments in the quiet closing moments. Kuan cued the audience to ring their phones in the last 20 seconds, and the sound was delicate and shimmering. The piece soared in a luminous rendition by all participants.

Intermission was followed by a full-blooded presentation of substantial excerpts from the first two parts of Handel’s “Messiah,” culminating in the famous “Hallelujah” chorus that ends Part II. Moore and Worth returned to excel in their multiple solos, and the Hartford Chorale impressed throughout, hushed in “For unto us,” nimble in “All we like sheep,” and jubilant in the finale. All sections of the orchestra played their hearts out.

It was encouraging to see a large number of young people in attendance, particularly for the overdue introduction of an outstanding contemporary American woman composer to local audiences.

December 4, 2015

Christmas on the Rocks

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through December 23, 2015
by Jarice Hanson

For those who think that Christmas can no longer capture the magic it held when we were children, and think that those holiday television specials and old films can no longer evoke the optimism of the season, get ready to enjoy a truly original telling of old favorite stories at TheaterWorks, with their wacky, wonderful production, “Christmas on the Rocks”.

In the seven short plays with three actors playing a dozen characters, director Rob Ruggiero has given a gift to grown-ups who can remember “the good old days” through the eyes of some of the most iconic Christmas characters, all of whom have grown up themselves. The laughter is contagious and the parodies jaw-dropping, and the result is an evening of pure fun.

Seven noted playwrights including John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Matthew Lombardo, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sanchez and Jonathan Tollins authored the twisted tales that alternately bring the man (Matt Wilkas) and the woman (Jenn Harris) to a lonely bar on Christmas Eve, where the bartender (Ronn Carroll) helps lift their spirits. Each of the seven plays has a unique style and theme as the energetic actors infuse each character with vibrancy.  The first to arrive is grown-up Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” complete with eye-patch.  When the bartender asks, “Did you shoot out your eye?” Ralphie informs him that no, it happened on the job. He’s now a “certified safety instructor for the NRA.” Get the idea?

The production team at TheaterWorks consistently realizes every detail in a production.

Michael Schweikardt gives the audience a seedy, but cheerful bar room, Alejo Vietti costumes the cast flawlessly, John Lasiter lights the stage with seasonal depth, and Michael Miceli interweaves sound clips from the old standards with contemporary music as a counterpoint to the nostalgia these stories evoke. 

This is the third season for “Christmas on the Rocks,” and it deserves to become an adult Christmas classic. It is safe to say that the play(s) will make everyone feel the joy of the season, at the same time marveling at the actors’ skill and the best of holiday story-telling. This is one to definitely share with friends.