Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 25, 2016

Battle of the Batons

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
January 21–24, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

The “battle” in this program title refers neither to the labor dispute between HSO musicians and management that was resolved just days before these concerts, nor to winter storm Jonas, which forced a rare cancellation of Saturday’s concert, but to a competition among three young musicians for the orchestra’s new Assistant Conductor position. Each led two pieces on the program, one with a featured HSO principal soloist and one with orchestra alone.

Valentino, Crust & Kerry Boyles
Principal Bassist Edward R. Rozie, Jr., opened with a rousing account of two movements from the second concerto for double bass and orchestra by 19th-century Italian composer and double bass player Giovanni Bottesini under the energetic baton of Adam Kerry Boyles. Robert McEwan next performed a haunting solo in the first movement of French composer and percussionist Emmanuel Sejourne’s jazzy 1999 concerto for vibraphone and orchestra, sumptuously led by Andrew Crust. Concertmaster Leonid Sigal closed the first half with a virtuoso rendition of Saint-Saens’ familiar "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" under the balletic direction of Patrick Valentino.

Based in Boston, and also a composer, Valentino followed intermission with a grand but lively reading of the "Overture" to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Also based in the Boston area and active as a choral and solo singer, Boyles next led an unusually flowing account of Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun". Based in Montreal and Colorado and also a music writer, Crust ended the evening with a colorful and vibrant presentation of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s "Prince Igor."

The musicians responded beautifully to all three different personalities with polished and enthusiastic playing. While each conductor had a distinctive way of communicating his intentions – Valentino with kinetic energy, Boyles with technical precision, and Crust with fluid grace – any one of them would be a fine addition to the HSO roster.

The generous spirit of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, who had just taken a voluntary pay cut commensurate with that of orchestra members to reach a contract settlement, seemed to fill the Bushnell’s Belding Theater with new hope for the bright future of this essential ensemble.

January 20, 2016

Reading: "Elementary, My Dear Fellow"

A New Play about William Gillette by Shera Cohen
Thursday, February 11, 7:00pm,
Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT

“Elementary, My Dear Fellow” tells the story of William Gillette, renowned actor/playwright/inventor, Hartford born and bred, and most importantly, the original Sherlock Holmes. In 1896, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle literally handed his celebrated books to this constantly employed yet rarely satisfied American actor, telling Gillette to do whatever he pleased with Sherlock as he was tired and bored with the detective. This was the impetus to Gillette’s famous and long career. Gillette not only molded the Holmes’ stories into plays and wrote many of his own creation, it was Gillette who dressed Holmes in what has now become the character’s instantly recognizable image.

However, William Gillette was far more than Sherlock Holmes. Admittedly, even Gillette often entangled the two – man and character – through much of his later career and life. The play is William Gillette’s journey onto the stage, the people who helped him, his joys and tragedies. It may not be surprising that Gillette was a rather quirky, sometimes naive, and enigmatic man…certainly, a man worthy of meeting.

Cast List & Readers
William Gillette read by Martin Shell
Charles Frohman read by Frank Aronson
Helen Nichols read by Jarice Hanson
Yukitaka Osaki read by Luis Manzi
Arthur Conan Doyle read by Tim O’Brien
Woman read by Kristen Anne Ferraro
Man read by Keith Purcell
Narrator/Stage Manager -- Julie Waggoner

Free will offering.
Reservations recommended: (860) 247-0998

Buyer & Cellar

Theaterworks, Hartford, CT 
through February 14, 2016
by R.E. Smith

“Buyer & Cellar” is a very made up story inspired by facts so “preposterous,” that they could only be true. The “Buyer” in this case is Barbra Streisand; the “Cellar” is the basement of her palatial Malibu estate, which she has made into a museum that mimics an old fashion Main Street USA, complete with storefronts and a staff of one.

Tom Lenk as Alex More
A one-person show is only as good as the performer, and Tom Lenk is outstanding. An actor of stages and screens big and small, he brings a comfortable familiarity to Alex More, an out of work actor who has lucked into what seems to be the best job ever. The audience invests their trust in him immediately. He brings to life over a half dozen characters, each with distinct voice and physicality. Lenk’s facial expressions are especially fluid, and just a simple change to the set of his eyes was enough to indicate a character change.

The TheaterWorks venue is the perfect setting for this basement-based tale. The set is simple, the props are minimal, and any more would just distract from the intimacy. There is one notable exception: Streisand’s actual coffee table book, “My Passion for Design,” the inspiration for the play, has a large role, serving as the footnote source for some of the “strange but true” details.

Director Rob Ruggiero uses all of Lenk’s skills to the fullest. The pace never drags when Lenk is portraying Alex and others, so whenever “Barbra” enters the room, there is an almost palpable sense that the very walls are holding their breath in "her" presence.

Playwright (and Connecticut resident) Jonathan Tolins has crafted a well-balanced story, amusing, charming, and totally believable despite the out of the ordinary premise. There is amateur psychology, meditations on success, and dissertations on loneliness, but all with a solid underpinning of laugh out loud humor and lightness of spirit.

One person leaving the show was heard to remark, “I wonder how long he (Alex) worked for her?” This suspension of disbelief is the true mark of all elements working in harmony to get the audience invested in the story. Barbra fans will find it a love letter, non-fans will find it very funny, and both will enjoy “Buyer & Cellar” immensely.

January 18, 2016

The Body of an American

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT

through January 31, 2016

by Bernadette Johnson

Photo Credit: Hartford Stage
You may recall being shocked at Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo of a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 – equally shocked at the brutality and the publication of so graphic an image. Or you may recall the controversy surrounding the 2001 war documentary “Black Hawk Down,” which chronicled the ordeal that precipitated the desecration of the body of William David Cleveland, the dead soldier in the infamous photo. Most likely, you know little more about Watson, the man behind the camera, and the “voice” that haunted him the rest of his life. “If you do this, I will own you forever,” Watson “heard” Cleveland say as he took the photo.

Playwright Dan O’Brien, himself plagued by “ghosts,” intrigued by Watson’s story, pursued him through emails and phone calls, attempting to befriend Watson and probe his psyche. O’Brien’s multi-award-winning play “The Body of an American” is less about the infamous photo than about Watson and what became of him, as well as O’Brien’s own introspection, a 90-minute dialogue between O’Brien himself, portrayed by Michael Crane, and Tony-Award nominee Michael Cumpsty as Watson.

There is virtually no set, barring two chairs and a split-panel backdrop that serves as a screen on which images are projected, the split screen distorting the images – unfortunately. Richard Hoover’s sparse setting works, as it focuses all attention on Crane and Cumpsty and their interaction, the emptiness of their lives, their regrets and desperation.

Their constant rearranging of the chairs moves an otherwise static scene, and brings a bit of much-needed comic relief in an Arctic scene, in which the chairs become dogsleds.

Crane and Cumpsty are masterful in voicing their at-times confusing dialogue and monologues, as they exchange characters, one becoming the other (outside himself), or adopt other roles – passengers on a plane, Watson’s translator and guide, even Mother Teresa. Crane is alternately timid and persistent as the driving force in this relationship/friendship. Cumpsty portrays a despondent, disillusioned Watson. Focused as it is on the men themselves and the phantoms that haunt them, O’Brien’s work simply probes the underbelly of human motivation, memory and guilt, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.

An Inspector Calls

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA

through February 14, 2016

by Shera Cohen             

From the title, the opening scene, the background music, and the inspector’s entrance, one might expect a Columbo-ish mystery-comedy in “An Inspector Calls.” Mystery, yes. Comedy, no.

The lush trappings of the British Birling home set the tone of what will quickly be realized as a political socioeconomic comment on pre-WWI disparity. Five exquisitely dressed well-spoken family members celebrate an engagement announcement. Their world is clean, rich, proper, and orderly. Surprise! The uninvited Inspector Goole arrives, informing all of the recent suicide of a young impoverished woman. This becomes messy business which grossly interrupts everyone’s life as the inspector relentlessly forces each character to deal with secrets, guilt, consequences, responsibilities, and morals.

Photo by Lee Chambers
John Thomas Waite (Inspector Goole), a semi-regular at the Majestic, is the personification of this role. Waite’s gentle voice, easy gate, and “every-man” demeanor purposely hide the Inspector’s mission. This is, after all, a mystery. Walter Mantani (father) portrays a blustering caricature. Cate Damon (mother) depicts the epitome of prim and proper rather well. Myka Plunkett (daughter) represents the character with any depth and change. Plunkett’s facial nuances and hand gestures often say more than her words. All onstage require English accents; some succeeding better than others.

Director Zoya Kachadurian has a difficult task in moving her cast in any meaningful ways around a single set. In other words, very little physicality is needed, making the play seemingly wordier than it already is. But the director must take what is given by the playwright. However, revving up the pace might have been possible in some sections.

Is it possible for Set Designer Greg Trochlil create bad work? Never, or at least not so far. His 1912 dining room/living room with its three levels is exquisite without being gauche.

There is another character named Eva Smith. Although never onstage, she is very much present at the center of the play’s purpose as the antithesis of what the other characters do not see and the audience does see.

A “warning” about the theatre – it’s cold. Almost half of the audience wrapped their coats around them. Yes, it is January, but the Majestic is pretty much always cold. Just wear something warm.

January 13, 2016

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through January 17, 2016
by Sharon & Gwen Smith

Finding your happy ending is a pursuit that almost everyone, young and old can relate to and so, too, will theatergoers of all ages find something they can enjoy about the current touring version of “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella”.

Douglas Carter Beane updated the script in 2013 for (can you believe?) the show’s first Broadway run. Going back to the fairytale’s original French roots to avoid comparisons to a certain film version, he found details that flesh out both the Prince and his kingdom and how they both benefit from Ella’s kindness.

Impressive technical achievements abound. The scenic design of Anna Louizos is colorful, practical, and fluid, especially in the opening forest-set number, “Me, Who I Am.” From small cottages, to spectacular staircases, the scenery enhances every aspect of the show. The costume design of William Ivey Long goes far beyond the practicality of helping create characters; they practically become characters themselves, as they take on life changing roles of their own.

The score, by the indubitable duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, includes tender ballads such as “In My Own Little Cottage,” the classic “Impossible” and rousing productions such as “The Prince is Giving a Ball”. This last number was highlighted by spectacular choreography and strong, physical dancing by the company. The ball, too, featured a youthful exuberance one would not expect in such a formal setting.

With the surprisingly contemporary take giving his Prince more depth, (including a real name: Topher), Andy Huntington Jones cuts a dashing figure, with a fine voice and kind heart. Of course, the show is nothing without the right Cinderella, and Kaitlyn Davidson is the complete princess package, with a winning smile, lilting voice, and endearing presence. Each supporting character lends a little magic to the proceedings, especially Kimberly Faure as one of the not really so evil stepsisters and the enchanting fairy godmother played by Liz McCartney.

With every aspect of the show exhibiting a touch of stage magic, this production of “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” is, as the song suggests, “ A Lovely Night” of musical theatre.