Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 30, 2016

Anything Goes

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through June 16, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Shortly before attending “Anything Goes,” my theatre friend asked if she would hear any familiar tunes. Besides the title song, I could only think of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” These are the two energetic dancing/song belting ensemble big numbers. However, there’s a lot more. Cole Porter’s music and lyrics include a list of 1930’s best known songs: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “All Through the Night.”

Aside from Broadway, Goodspeed’s productions set the bar of excellence in musicals pretty much everywhere, all the time. Audience goers should expect the best, and that’s exactly what they get. “Anything Goes” is tried and true; a good bet for success. But, Goodspeed doesn’t rest on laurels. The crew has swabbed the deck and spit-polished the staircases of this ocean liner set. The skilled musicians perform onstage on the ship’s top deck. BTW, how could only seven sound like a full orchestra? Director Daniel Goldstein keeps the dialog snappy (lots of shtick) and the pace smooth. Choreographer Kelli Barclay finds an even balance of Astaire & Rogers moves with tap dancing to blow the roof off the theatre.

The musical’s plot is thin with absolutely no redeeming value; the characters are the epitome of caricatures. The story in one sentence: a motley group of folk, some with British titles and others with machine guns, meet on a ship. There’s the popular mistaken identity theme, not to mention boy meets girl then leaves girl then returns then…it’s all so silly and so funny. “Anything Goes” does not call for the talents of good actors. Instead, the stage/ship is populated with singers or dancers or those who can handle both tasks superbly and simultaneously.

Worldly Reno Sweeney (Rashidra Scott) is the central character. Scott plays Reno with sass and class. More importantly, Scott’s mezzo sound is smooth in her solos and brassy in the big, all hands on deck, pieces. Stephen DeRosa (a Groucho-ish Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin) unabashedly milks every line or lyric for laughs. He is a gem. While the forlorn lovers Billy (David Harris) and Hope (Hannah Florence) have fine voices in solos and duets, and each actor is solid in his/her role, a smile or swoon or two could have beefed up the charisma. Ah well, “It’s De-Lovely” is…well…lovely.

A step back to tap dancing. I’ve seen this musical before, so there was no imperative reason to go again. My guess, however and knowing the work at Goodspeed, was that the title’s showstopper alone would be worth the price of admission. It was. Wow!

April 28, 2016

Matilda – The Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 1, 2016
by Tim O’Brien

Looking for a top-shelf, high-energy music that is wildly entertaining and also truly appropriate for the whole family? Look no further than Matilda – The Musical.

Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s Matilda character (Lily Brooks O’Briant) is an uber-brainy 5 year old girl regarded as an annoyance and embarrassment by her shallow, self-absorbed parents. School is another nightmare, ruled by the monstrous Agatha Trunchbull (David Abeles). Brave little Matilda’s only refuge is the local library, where she devours weighty classics with ease while mesmerizing the librarian (Ora Jones) with a serialized tall tale she appears to be making up as she goes along. When compassionate teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) recognizes Matilda as a prodigy, conflict arises and the little girl must find strength she’s never known herself to possess.

Such is the plot. This production is so well-staged, so energetically -sung, so kinetically-danced and filled with clever production moments (nifty lighting and sound effects) that had it been performed in an obscure Nepalese sub-dialect this reviewer (and young daughter in tow) would still have enjoyed the daylights out of it. Imaginative set pieces create a dark “Brasil” feel, with nods to Tim Burton and Dr. Suess, and moments in the school scene music recall Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

Though clearly older than five, O’Briant is consistently winsome and forthright, driving the show in many stretches and a solid singer in her solo numbers. As Matilda’s comically awful, un-doting mom and dad, Cassie Sylva and Quinn Mattfield get big laughs and would deserve a spin-off series of their own, if this were TV. Jones adds an earthy West Indian flavor to her librarian, and Blood shows a nice arc as she goes from mousey and “pathetic” to a firm-chinned advocate for the children. But it’s Abeles as the loathsome school principal who steals the show with a searing, sneering presence that’s both malevolent and hysterical.

Photo by Joan Marcus
So was it perfect? Nearly. Some ensemble song lyrics were hard to understand on opening night. And while the setting is ostensibly England, only the adult actors affected British accents. A directorial choice that didn’t harm anything, but it did raise an eyebrow. Pish-posh, as the Brits might say – now I’m nitpicking.

May 1 ends this lovely run far too soon.

April 27, 2016

“Fiddler Off the Roof"

Close Encounters with Music
Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
April 17, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

The eclectic “Close Encounters” series at the Mahaiwe continued with “Fiddler Off the Roof,” a program of Jewish (?) music. Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani again offered insights (in the form of questions!) into what might make such a definition possible, noting that the element of “longing” must be included, and referencing the relationship between the inquiring nature of Talmudic study and the uprising (questioning) interval of the syncopated fifth. 

The program varied from Mahler to Gershwin -- and the musicians were of the same high caliber that the audience has come to expect from this series. This review, however, must start by attending not to the performers at the front of the stage, but to the pianist behind them. Michele Levin’s artistry was superb – both forceful and delicate, whichever the music required. Her solid and accomplished support provided the backbone for everything the soloists did, and, finally, was beautifully highlighted in the post-intermission Mendelssohn Trio. 

The program started with a fine example of the inquiring interval mentioned above: two David Schiff Divertimenti featuring clarinet, cello and violin. In all of Sarah McElravy’s violin playing (she was also featured in the “Hebrew Melody” of Paul Ben-Haim), there was fine technique highlighted by a rapt attention to dynamics. She accomplished an incredibly quiet reverence with her ultra pianissimo passages. Paul Green’s clarinet sound was crystal clear – both instrumentalists avoided over-reliance on vibrato – and his “Klezmer Medley” that concluded the first half was rhythmic enough to inspire toe-tapping. Alex Richardson provided vocal selections that ranged from Mahler to Gershwin and his fine operatic tenor was well-suited to them all. 

The program included a premier of “ZEMER” by Paul Schoenfield that featured a folk-like melody by Rabbi Max Roth, who was in the audience; it concluded with an inspired performance of the Piano Trio. Once again, Hanani brought his own cello artistry to the Mahaiwe stage. Audiences hope for much more of his “Close Encounters” programming genius in the future.

April 26, 2016

Blockbuster Movie Scores

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
April 23, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Maestro Kevin Rhodes asked the near-full house audience at Symphony Hall to name the single piece of music that everyone could instantly name by the orchestra’s only playing the very first note. Actually, pretty much everyone on the planet (a bit of an exaggeration) would get this one right. The answer: “Star Wars.” Needless to say, the SSO’s salute to John Williams had to include the composer’s signature piece. Take note for future Pops, not to put on your coat at the program’s end as there is always an encore. SSO offered a dramatic Darth Vader composition.

While my person favorite part of any orchestra is the percussion section, admittedly, Williams keeps the brass players quite busy. Directly aligned with the drums, et al, my orchestra seats could not have been any better. Watching the percussion quartet of young men compared to seeing a choreographed dance. The brass players especially shined in “Olympic Fanfare & Theme.”

John Williams
Themes from 13 of Williams’ many films showed off Rhodes’ finesse and humor, and SSO’s dramatic and whimsical interpretation. The movie music created a list of “who’s who” primarily among Spielberg blockbusters. The softer refrains from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” contrasted with the spirited theatrics of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman.” In a category all its own was “Amistad,” underlined with the sounds of African drums. Of course, topping the list as inarguably the most delightful moment of the performance had to be the “E.T. Flying Theme.”

A few comments that are not necessarily found in a review are important to say. First, thank you to the MC who, in addition to asking (no, telling) the audience to turn off cell phones, said that texting and the bothersome accompanying shining light was highly discouraged. I asked myself, who on earth would find a need to text during a symphonic concert of the hits of John Williams? Second, kudos to the kids, and some adults, who added extra fun to the evening by dressing up as recognizable characters from Williams’ movies. Saw a few Princess Laias and Superman/men. Third, was the SSO’s invitation to a little post-concert party at the Sheraton. Since the seating was family-style, we munched with two of the musicians at our table. The soiree was a lovely treat at the end of the evening.

Thank goodness, that at age 84, John Williams continues to prove that he is a music genius.

April 25, 2016


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through May 8, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park continues its season in a serious play about death with “WIT.” Wearing a hospital gown throughout, Dr. Vivian Bearing hears her diagnosis, receives her treatments, and spends her final days in the sterile University Hospital Cancer Center. Dr. Bearing tells us the conclusion at the very beginning; it’s how she traverses those final days that give the audience dramatic stoicism, obsessiveness, some humor, and finally exceeding tenderness.

Photo by Meredith Atkinson
Dr. Bearing is a proud and solitary academician who cannot let go of her fascination with words, even as she receives her diagnosis of terminal illness. The audience listens as she parses her favorite poems by John Donne, as well as the medical terms favored by two very detached physicians. Much like her in affect, a former student played by Tim Hackney is her ‘research fellow.’ The intimacy of touch during a pelvic examination almost undoes him with nerves; but his lack of bedside manner is much like his teacher’s prior lack of warmth with her students.

Flashbacks reveal snippets of Dr. Bearing’s past as she declines, even during treatment with massive doses of experimental medication, and as she absorbs the verdict that nothing has helped. Elizabeth Lande in the title role acts this descent with poignancy, and her pain is primal and chilling. Warmth and kindness are exuded by Suzy, her nurse, played by Chuja Seo, and ease Dr. Bearing’s lonely passage into a morphine-induced silence. An especially caring moment has them laughing together, even after a discussion about signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. The contrast between Suzy and the other medical staff could serve as a lesson for all hospital personnel.

Most poignant are the moments of a final bedside visit Dr. Bearing receives from a former professor, convincingly played by Waltrudis Buck. Without sighs, or head shakes or other ‘business,’ she gives Dr. Bearing exactly what she needs at the end, a monumental contrast with her medical professional “caretakers.” Writer Margaret Edson received a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for this play, and the spare, tight production in West Hartford honors it well.

April 11, 2016

Beethoven & Brahms

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
April 9, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

The classical repertoire doesn’t get any more bread and butter than Beethoven and Brahms. In his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes adds that while these two of the three B’s “go together so well,” the two works played at this concert – Beethoven’s “lightest symphony,” his eighth, and “the most massive” of all piano concertos, Brahms’ second -  also balance each other at opposite “end(s) of the scale.”

The Maestro goes on to observe that the symphony “doesn’t even bother…to indulge in a proper slow movement, opting instead for four light and relatively fast movements.” From the mock grandeur of the opening Allegro, the genial humor of the Allegretto, the boisterous swagger of the Menuetto, and the rollicking high spirits of the Allegro finale, the fleet and buoyant SSO performance, their first ever of this piece, got the evening off to a delightful start.

The “four monumental movements,” as Rhodes notes, of the Brahms concerto that followed intermission can make it sound more like a “symphony with piano obbligato” than a concerto. The piano part makes considerable demands on the soloist, but American pianist John Novacek, in his SSO debut, met them all with room to spare. His first notes were plush and full, reaching deep into the keys to produce the rich and resonant sound so characteristic of the mature Brahms. Novacek’s muscular technique, perhaps honed in his long experience playing ragtime music, insured that he could always be heard in louder passages. But he also excelled when a lighter touch was required, as in his magical account of the Andante.

The orchestra sounded just as luxurious and polished in the concerto as the soloist, with strings and brass working especially hard. Principal horn player Lauren Winter was lush and radiant in the horn solo that opens the work, and principal cellist Aristides Rivas was mesmerizing in the Andante’s opening and closing solo passages.

Mozart & Hartt

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
April 7-10, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

These concerts were first scheduled to feature a “dramatic concert staging” of Gluck’s complete opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” but following the settlement of the HSO’s contract dispute earlier this year, they were “reprogrammed,” according to an orchestra press release, “to celebrate the HSO community – including its dedicated musicians and talented, emerging young musicians from the Hartt School Community Division.”

The program opened with Mozart’s 38th symphony, nicknamed “The Prague” after its 1787 premiere in that Czech city. One of the composer’s last four symphonies, its three-movement structure replaces the traditional minuet with an expansive Adagio introduction to the opening Allegro movement. A reduced-size HSO gave the piece a warm, affectionate reading.  

Next came Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard fourth suite for orchestra, known as “Mozartiana” because its four movements are his arrangements of Mozart originals. The standout movements are the third, a ravishing setting of the motet “Ave Verum Corpus,” and the brilliant closing set of variations that Mozart improvised on a Gluck aria. The performance by the full HSO was lively and dramatic.

After intermission, HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal delivered a touching spoken tribute to his longtime predecessor in that role, Bernard Lurie, who had died a week earlier. Sigal then played the violin solo in a moving account by the orchestra of the lovely “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera “Thais” in Lurie’s memory.

Yeh-Chi Wang
More Mozart followed with a smaller HSO, his 1774 concerto for bassoon and orchestra, written in his early maturity at age 18. HSO principal bassoonist Yeh-Chi Wang was a treat to watch as he made his quirky but distinctive instrument sing, capturing the surprisingly wide range of moods in the concerto’s three short movements with unfailing grace, precision, and beauty.

Almost half the HSO players were then replaced by teenage members of the Connecticut Youth Orchestra from the Hartt School in the five-movement first suite that Bizet derived from his 1873 incidental music to Daudet’s play “L’Arlesienne.” Some of the young musicians even sat in for first chair HSO members, and the spirited but cohesive reading of this colorful score by the combined forces closed the concert on a festive note.

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 15, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

Pull up a chair and set a spell. We’ve been invited into the Mount Vernon, NY, home of black centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, and we are about to be entertained, engaged and enthralled by the wit, wisdom and joie de vivre of these inseparable spinsters. The year is 1993. Sadie is 103 years old, and Bessie is 101.

The second and third of ten siblings born to an education-loving former slave, the Delany sisters are a far cry from stereotypical. Both college graduates, Sadie, with a Master’s Degree in education, has distinguished herself as a teacher in New York City’s schools, and Bessie, a Columbia University Dental School graduate, was the second black woman to become a licensed dentist in New York State.

The sisters’ tales of family are interwoven with American history, in particular as it impacted their lives and the lives of black families in what was a century of struggle — racial segregation in the Jim Crow era, prejudice, the Civil Rights movement, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, two world wars, Rosa Parks, Montgomery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Having lived so long together, the sisters complement each other seamlessly, often speaking in unison. However, they are far from carbon copies. Olivia Cole is soft-spoken Sadie. She is the quiet, gracious one, seeking peaceful resolution in times of conflict, whereas Brenda Pressley’s Bessie is outspoken and opinionated, spunky and feisty. She doesn’t hesitate to express her true feelings, and her one-liners generate much laughter. Their warmhearted give-and-take reflects their singular bond.

Under the masterful direction of Jade King Carroll, Cole and Pressley don’t miss a beat as they move about the set, even prepare an elaborate meal to celebrate their deceased father’s birthday. From the outset, they shift gears casually as the memories tumble forth and Delany family photos are projected above the back wall.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Alexis Distler’s set is a third “grandmotherly” character. The sisters’ Mount Vernon home is an inviting three-room single set with a charm and history of its own.

April 7, 2016

The Dining Room

Theatre Guild of Simsbury, Simsbury Methodist Church, Simsbury, CT
Through April 10, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

A.R. Gurney’s plays have been staples of the theatre for over 30 years (“Love Letters,” “Sylvia,” etc.), which makes the latest local incarnation of his cleverly written “The Dining Room” seem familiar. Simsbury Theatre Guild immediately immerses its audience in the world of upper class W.A.S.P. society full of neuroses and humor, heavy on the scotch and soda.

For those not familiar with the dramatic structure of this comedy/drama, the action revolves around various families at the dining room table in a home somewhere in the suburbs. If the table could talk, it would reveal much about the denizens of this house. But since it can’t, the theatergoers are given brief glimpses into the lives of some 50 characters played quite convincingly by only 15 actors.

Act I is weaker than the second, but a couple of scenes standout, one of which takes place at the breakfast table of a very uptight family. Father (Steve O’Brien ) cannot tolerate a single seed in his freshly squeezed orange juice and controls and contradicts every word and action of his impressionable young son (Nick Parisi). Both actors mine hilarity that anyone who has been a parent or child (all of us) can understand. At the same time, the play introduces the privileged world of the noblesse obliged with its tennis courts, private schools, and accompanying prejudices.

Act II takes off with funnier and more poignant moments. Perhaps the best of these is the show-stopping eleventh hour scene in which an outrageously pompous clan ( Nick Parisi, Virginia Wolf, Donna Sennott, and Steve O’Brien) and their faithful Irish maid Bertha (Penny Carroll) react in hilarious fashion when the uncle’s “bachelor attachments” (homosexual) are called into question at the country club besmirching the family’s honor. Played at such a frantic, farcical pace, the direction is aptly able to make earlier, less funny moments seem better than they are.

Although overall well-cast, a half-dozen of the actors bear special mention: Melissa Veale in dual roles of picture-perfect mothers and a rebellious teen; Penelope Kokines as two very troubled adulterous alcoholics; Nick Parisi in a hilarious turn as father of the dishonored family; and Phillip Godeck, who becomes a variety of sleazy characters.

Top acting honors belong to Steve O’Brien and Virginia Wolf. O’Brien stages each of his characters with such distinction that it seems as if different actors are playing each one. The same goes for Wolf, who relishes her roles with perfectly timed comedy.

Credit belongs to Director Rosemarie Beskind, whose deft hand takes care that none of the scenes or characters outstay their welcome. Beskind understands that in order to capture and maintain the audience’s attention, the action must move, and fortunately, it does.

Often, backstage crew members are forgotten in reviews. That said, kudos to costumer Tracy Weed and set designer Dian Pomeranz’s. Every prop is perfectly places, even the finger bowls.