Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 29, 2016

I Hate Hamlet

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through March 13, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Photo By Rich wagner
Springfield area theatergoers would be well advised to discover the treasures presented at Playhouse on Park, a mere 30-minute drive away, but light years closer to Broadway standards, where this play was first presented. Following Park’s success of “The Chosen,” a serious drama, this young and vibrant theatre presents the comedy “I Hate Hamlet.”

The play is superficially focused on the career of Andrew, who is both new to the city and to an apartment previously owned by a famed Hamlet actOR. John Barrymore’s ghost does not hesitate to appear when summoned by a frivolous séance led by Andrew’s real estate agent, Felicia. Outrageously garbed and speaking with exaggerated Brooklyn style, Julia Hochner does a fine comedic job in the role.

Ownership of the stage (and the entire play), however, goes to Ezra Barnes as Barrymore. His interpretation is perfection – just grand and sweeping enough, with the right amount of schmaltz or tender sensitivity when needed, as he expounds on his life and its failures, his acting, the craft, the stage, and on art itself. It is a role that could make a buffoon of the Barrymore ghost character; Barnes saves that from happening. He is so appealing that some audience members would be happy to watch him just pushing a cart down a grocery store aisle.

Barnes gets serious competition, however, from David Lanson (as Andrew’s Hollywood-style pal) who even received spontaneous applause after his appearance in Act I – this actor knows how to build a character quickly. As Andrew’s fiancé Deirdre, Susan Slotoroff is engaging and almost always in motion, sometimes distractingly so.

The set is a bit confusing: draping is overdone, the table is mundane, and if Andy likes modern, why did he decorate in Victorian style? Some reflectors on the white lamps might help to reduce the brightness shining into eyes on the far side of the theatre.

“I Hate Hamlet” is a well-written play by an expert playwright; direction in this production is tight with taut pacing. This presentation goes down as another success by Playhouse on Park.

Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess", Copland, Schwantner & Ellington

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA 
February 27, 2016
by Carol Resnick

This is not a review, per sé, but some “bravo” from a lifetime resident and long-time appreciator of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra – for over a half-century.

How lucky are we to have in our community the Springfield Symphony Orchestra under the direction of gifted maestro, Kevin Rhodes. On the evening of February 27, I had the privilege of attending the concert whose theme was honoring Black History Month. The diverse program offered selections from Copeland, Ellington, Gershwin, and Schwantner.

“Porgy and Bess,” as a concert-style performance, featured four outstanding soloists as well as the Symphony Chorus. This was a big undertaking that was well received. The most outstanding performance, to me, was "Daybreak of Freedom" by Schwantner. He was inspired to write the music by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. – teaching brotherhood and justice. This particular music was stirring and spiritual, underlined with a sense of struggle. With penetrating resonance, the renowned actor Avery Brooks masterfully narrated King’s words.

In our troubled world, music, theatre, and other arts are a panacea. They offer beauty and challenge our souls beyond modern technology. Treat yourself and support these cultural opportunities in the Pioneer Valley.

February 25, 2016

Centennial Sinatra: Celebrating the Music of Ol' Blue Eyes

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 13, 2016
by Eric Sutter

The celebration of the music of “Ol' Blue Eyes” was a huge success. Sharp dressed vocalist Steve Lippia treated a fun audience to the music of Frank Sinatra, under the direction of guest conductor Steve Sigmund. A dramatic instrumental overture of Sinatra classics set the mood. The prelude of strings, woodwinds, and horn section built a triad of sound to create a relaxed ambiance, bringing forth Lippia in fine form for "All or Nothing at All."

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra was up to the task of accompaniment for "I'll Be Seeing You" and "I'll Never Smile Again." "Without A Song" had a galvanic effect as the horn section gave it a blast. Lippia possessed a smooth flow and cool mannerism while sharing interesting tidbits of information about Sinatra along the way. His deep baritone commanded mightily on "One For My Baby", while the genteel piano of Jeff Holmes played an enlivening compliment. A beautiful rendition of "Old Man River" showcased the string section, producing a swelling, layered effect of string sound, staggered in succession. Nice job!

Act 2 began with the familiar "I've Got You Under My Skin,” featuring a crescendo of stringed gusto. The audience swooned to "Summer Wind" and "Strangers In The Night" due to Lippia's spot on vocals. The moody "Softly As I Leave You" delivered a harmonic connection. Shifting sounds, the horn section hit hard in the middle portion of "Fly Me To The Moon", as the woodwinds and percussion competed to show their stuff. A suave treatment of Billy Joel's masterpiece "Just the Way You Are" was met with approval, highlighting nice changes in tempo and timbre. Conductor Sigmund conjured up perfectly timed horn blasts for "Luck Be A Lady" to noticeable audience satisfaction. The obligatory "My Way" was alive with Sinatra magic while a robust "New York, New York" made for a light, playful finale.

February 23, 2016

Romeo and Juliet

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT 
through March 20, 2016 
by Bernadette Johnson

Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak wasn’t taking any chances. For this, his 25th production of Shakespeare’s works, his fifth in as many seasons at Hartford Stage and his first of “Romeo and Juliet,” Tresnjak not only directed, but cast his favorite actors and designed his own set, thus ensuring the integrity of his creative vision for this classic tale of star-crossed lovers. Bravo!

Braving the controversy over “modernized” productions of the Bard’s plays, Tresnjak has preserved Shakespeare’s text all the while challenging his audience’s preconceived notions, stripping historic Verona down to a gravel pit, which serves equally well as town square, the friary, a meeting place, a hall in Capulet’s house and a burial crypt with naught but a rising/arched platform for variation. Ever prominent is a columbarium backdrop, engraved niches housing the cremains of the feuding Capulet and Montague families, a section of which transforms into Juliet’s balcony. The pièce de résistance, however, is an imposing stage-width “iron” gate that descends to heighten the final tragic scene.

Tresnjak’s casting is impeccable. Chris Ghaffari’s Romeo and Kaliswa Brewster’s Juliet are perfectly paired. Ghaffari is the embodiment of the love-struck, swooning suitor, his expressions and movements playful and endearing. He delivers his lines so effortlessly that one tends to forget it is Shakespeare’s dialogue he is speaking. Brewster looks the part with her youthful features and convincingly dramatizes Juliet’s transformation from naïve 14-year-old to impassioned lover. The chemistry between Ghaffari and Brewster is tangible.

The other actors are superb as well. Wyatt Fenner’s Mercutio is the poster boy for ADHD, especially in his dream ramblings. As Romeo characterizes him, “He’s a man who likes to hear the sound of his own voice.” Also notable are Charles Janasz’s embodiment of the compassionate Friar Laurence and Timothy D Stickney’s gripping performance as Capulet in his paternal demands of obedience from Juliet. Adding a touch of humor are Kandis Chappell's Nurse, whose disgruntled expressions speak volumes, and Raphael Massie as the illiterate servant Peter.

Kudos to lighting designer Matthew Richards, whose shadows loom ominously during Mercutio’s dream narrative and over Juliet’s drugged form, and whose vigil lights hint of the hope that can emerge from tragedy.

Don’t miss this one.

Night Sky

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT 
through February 27, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

The opening moments of Suffield Players’ "Night Sky" transforms the theater into a galaxy of stars causing an audible gasp from the audience. What follows is a well crafted two hours of entertainment that allows each of the cast members to shine. Director Chris Rohmann weaves together the subtle story lines about relationships and communication, despair and inspiration.

Susan Yankowitz’ 1991 play about an astronomer who has an accident that results in aphasia, a traumatic brain injury that makes verbal communication challenging, is sometimes played to twist the audience’s emotions toward the inevitable conclusion, but this production finds greater nuance in the relationships and is not afraid to establish scenes that show the humor of the human dilemma. When Anna, played by Virginia Wolf, is struggling with regaining her verbal abilities, another patient, played by Shaun O’Keefe, provides a counterpoint to the words themselves. This scene effectively makes the most of the performers’ abilities on two levels; the actors breathe life into the script with excellent comic timing, creating a connection with the audience that is both uniting and compassionate. We’re left with questions to ponder; if we couldn’t communicate, how would we find meaning in life?

Metaphors of family, aging, and resilience abound in the script. In addition to Wolf and O’Keefe, Emery Henderson as Anna’s daughter, Brian Rucci as Anna’s boyfriend, Karen Balaska, as the speech therapist, and Dana Ring as Anna’s university colleague, Bill, are all “giving” actors who perform as an ensemble. Each commits to his/her role and are not afraid to show vulnerability.

Director Rohmann’s clever sound design, Jerry Zalewski’s lighting, and Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip’s set design are perfect for the intimate stage and theater, and a first-rate production crew keeps the interwoven elements tight and well paced. “Night Sky” is Suffield Players’ 150th production, and all involved can take pride in the group’s reputation for first-rate entertainment.

February 11, 2016

Love Letters

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 14, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

Love means never having to say you're sorry, doesn't it? In A.R. Guerney's romantic dramedy "Love Letters," lifelong intimate friends Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner seem to constantly be apologizing for something each has said or done over the course of nearly 50 years. Casting Ryan O'Neal as Andy and Ali MacGraw as Melissa is sheer genius. Re-teamed 45 years after their Oscar-nominated roles in 1970's "Love Story," these well-matched actors displayed great versatility and a strong emotional connection, despite only speaking to one another through letter writing. Being primarily film and television actors, their volume was a bit low at the start of the show. But as the evening drew on, their voices became stronger and filled with love, hate, anger, and despair.

MacGraw comes off particularly well. Her strong acting skills are brought to full power here. As the wealthy and rebellious Melissa, her restless nature is heard in her point-on, stinging retorts and later in her desperate cries for help against an omnipresent, conformist society.

O'Neal is full of surprises. Seeming rather bland at the in the opening minutes, his eleventh hour monologue moves the audience in its emotional strength. He is an actor of great skill.

Seeing this pair on stage together is a moment to savor. Both have led rich lives and have worked with and been personally involved with so many diverse Hollywood figures (Steve McQueen, Robert Evans, Farrrah Fawcett, and Barbra Streisand come to mind) all of whom have influenced who these two actors are today. They are truly a seasoned pair, worthy of their legendary status.

Opening night of "Love Letters" at the Bushnell was a near perfect evening of theatre, with the exception of a cacophony of audience coughing and somewhat poor acoustics that, unfortunately, overshadowed some witty lines.

February 9, 2016

Grieg Piano Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
February 6, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

What better way to mark the belated arrival of winter in the Valley than with a concert of Scandinavian music? For the third classical program of the season, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes selected two familiar masterpieces, and one that should be better known, by three composers from Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

Sibelius’ patriotic tone poem “Finlandia” was a rousing opener in the orchestra’s dramatic performance, tense at the foreboding start, warm in the central hymn-like theme, and thrilling in the triumphant conclusion. The brasses were firm and blazing, while shimmering strings and delicate woodwinds provided sonic and emotional contrast.

Rising American pianist Claire Huangci was featured next in a dazzling account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Her technical finesse and interpretive depth made this repertory staple sound new again. From the thunderous power of the opening Allegro, to the glowing hush of the tender Adagio, and the romping energy of the folk like finale, Huangci was in total control. Her greater maturity since her SSO debut in Chopin’s F minor concerto at age 18 in 2008 was impressively evident. The orchestra were equal partners in bringing Grieg’s wide palette of instrumental colors to life. Huangci’s chops were even clearer in her finger-busting encore of Turkish pianist Fazil Say’s jazzy take on Mozart’s Turkish March.

Intermission was followed by a visceral rendition (the SSO’s first) of Nielsen’s rarely heard third symphony. Called “Sinfonia Espansiva” after the “Allegro espansiva” tempo marking of its first movement, the entire piece radiates the zest for life also suggested by its nickname. The vigor of the opening movement, the languor of the pastoral Andante, the gentle humor of the Allegretto, and the high spirits of the finale were all delivered with polish and conviction by Rhodes and his players. The Andante ends with a wordless vocal passage for soprano and baritone, rapturously sung by Dana Lynne Varga and John Salvi, whose voices blended magically with the orchestral instruments.

By evening’s end, the goal stated in the Maestro’s program book “Reflections” to highlight the distinctive individual sounds of three Nordic composers was abundantly achieved.

February 6, 2016

Avenue Q

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through February 21, 2016
By R.E. Smith

By turns hilarious, touching, topical and raunchy, “Avenue Q” has everything one could hope for in a puppet musical, especially if one is hoping for catchy songs and intimate, R-rated, felt-based relationships. The story tracks the lives of the millennial denizens of a street not unlike one called “Sesame,” (complete with educational animations), as they deal with “real life” and their relationships with each other.

Half of the team that wrote the book, music and lyrics, is Robert Lopez, also partly responsible for “The Book of Mormon” and “Frozen,” so expect zippy one-liners set to hummable ditties such as “It Sucks to Be Me, sung by performers operating puppets. It takes some real musical chops to create a humorous tune on the topic of “Schadenfreude” as song by a fictional Gary Coleman.

As broadly humorous as the idea may seem, a lot has to go right for concept to succeed and not seem like amateur hour. Fortunately, the Opera House Players have mastered all the elements, starting first and foremost with the cast. Although speaking through their puppets, one cannot help but split one’s attention between watching the puppet and the actual performer. Whichever one is chosen, both deliver an enjoyable performance.

Kellie Comer, as Kate Monster, never wavers in her commitment to making sure her furry counterpart is always “emoting,” all the while giving a multi-dimensional performance herself. She can deliver a curse word and sing the tender “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” with equal aplomb. Ryan Pipke manages 2 totally different characters, “Trekkie Monster” and “Nicky”, sometimes at the same time. In these cases he is often assisted by Alysa Auriemma, who still gives complete performances even when she is
literally lending an extra hand. Pipke’s vocalizations definitely carry a hint of familiarity that helps underscore the humor in “The Internet is for Porn” and “If You Were Gay.” Auriemma’s solo as “Lucy” in “ Special”, showed that a puppet can be droll and ribald simultaneously. Michelle Ortiz-Saltmarsh and Daniel Viets as the “Bad Idea Bears” were perfect comic foils, cute and cheerfully malevolent. On the wholly human side, and more caricature then the puppets, is “Christmas Eve” given real energy and presence by Sandra W. Lee, especially when she explains the conflicting emotions that occur “When You Ruv Someone.”

“Avenue Q” takes the familiar, turns it sideways, gets your toes tapping, and leaves a smile on your face. Perfect for a February date night at the theater!

February 3, 2016

The Chosen

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through February 14, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park presents a serious play about growth with “The Chosen.” It takes place in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s. The themes are many: parental love and filial devotion, emerging identity and community, and friendship and its many tests. But perhaps the theme that emerges most sharply, and which has the most immediate relevance, is stereotyping – reacting to surface appearance instead of looking beyond it. Two boys, both Jewish, overcome their own stereotypes about each other to form a lasting bond. “The Chosen” is a wordy play, but the dialog reaches the essence of this growth.

Reuven is the son of David Malter, a thoughtful, talkative liberal Jewish scholar – we see their love and mutual support. Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, a stern Hasidic leader, who has chosen near-total silence as his best approach to parenting. Can these two opposites both have positive outcomes? Can there be truth in two conflicting statements from God? And can both ways of being a Jew not only co-exist but be true to the Talmud upon which they are each based? Danny and Reuven’s friendship helps them grow away from home ties and toward independence and self-definition, even as it is tested and distorted by the emerging truths of the Holocaust and by their fathers’ conflicting positions on Zionism.

The minimal set gives a distracting prominence to the center-stage entrances and exits. The script demands a lot of the five actor cast; each of the men more than measured up. One might be permitted to wonder, however, what the girls and women were doing in these communities in mid-century Brooklyn.

Playhouse on Park opened this play to a sold-out and enthusiastic audience, some of whom exhibited their own Talmudic knowledge in their reactions. But the play appeals to anyone who can think about his or her own stereotypical thinking enough to overcome it, learn and grow.