Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 28, 2016

Queens for a Year

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through Oct. 2, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

T.D. Mitchell’s play “Queens for a Year” opens the Hartford Stage’s 2016-17 season with a big bang. This contemporary drama of a family of multi-generational women military personnel is a truly compelling piece of theatre which offers its audience much to ponder both during and long after the final curtain falls. Set in 2007 with its action shifting between rural Virginia and Camp Lejeune, Iraq, this play treats its universal theme of sexism in the military with candor, raw emotion, and well-delivered humor.

“Queens for a Year” is the story of 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas (Vanessa R. Butler), who along with her comrade in arms PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) unexpectedly arrives late one night at Molly’s family home during their tour of duty in Iraq. Among this motley crew are Molly’s Aunt Lucy (Heidi Armbruster), Gunny Molly (Charlotte Maier), Molly’s gung-ho grandmother, and Grandma “Lu” (Alice Cannon), Molly’s wheelchair bound, yet still very active great grandmother. Each of these women have proudly served in the U.S. Marine Corps spanning U.S. military history from World War II to Desert Storm. With the arrival of Molly’s pacifist mother Mae (Mary Bacon), things take a turn for the worst.

The show is uniformly well- performed by a top-notch cast. Standing out among these fine actors is Alice Cannon. Her feisty exclamations that “Civilians are idiots” and “the higher the hemline (of female soldiers), the higher the boys’ morale” elicit much needed laughter from the audience, diffusing many intense dramatic moments. Special mention should also be noted to Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler whose portrayals of the darker side of military personnel are as chilling as the harsh military cadences they bark at their subordinate officers.

The play is presented through impressionistic scenes set in the present and past. Daniel Conway’s country house kitchen is literally loomed over by a loft with piled-up sandbags suggesting the dry, middle-eastern desert. Beth Goldenberg’s simple contemporary costumes runs the gamut from down-home jeans and flannel to authentic marine uniforms to traditional Muslim dress.

“Queens for a Year” sheds much light on recent military history and the personal costs exacted on women officers. At times, particularly in the last half-hour of the show, “Queens” slips into shrill melodrama and verbosity, losing its central dramatic focus, yet overall, this new production, directed by Lucy Tiberghien, offers an evening of intelligent, solid theatre.

Eva Camacho-Sanchez

Eva Camacho-Sanchez
Stylish Felted Clothing and Bags
Lana Handmade
Paradise City Arts Festival, Northampton, MA
October 8, 9, 10, 2016

What is wearable art? Eva Camacho-Sanchez is one of hundreds of artists who create art
that is meant to be worn -- and not just jewelry. This particular crafts-person, from Northampton, works as a fiber artist who creates nuno felt by combining fine silk and the finest merino wool. While many think that the Paradise City Arts Festival hail from throughout the United States – and that is true – dozens call the Pioneer Valley their home.

Traditionally, felt is created by using water, soap, wool and agitation. Felting takes time, physical labor and patience. She usually starts by hand-dyeing the wool (with natural dyes she has created herself from plant matter), which is then felted together with fine silk.
To create patterns on the silk, Camacho-Sanchez uses techniques such as free motion embroidery, hand-stitching, beading and printing. Her work is the result of a fusion of the ancient art form of felt making with modern techniques to create new and elegant styles.

For further information on Paradise City check

Love Letters

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through October 2, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

When I heard that two of my favorite actors, Mark H. Dold and Debra Jo Rupp, were performing “Love Letters,” I figured I had to see what these two gifted performers could literally, bring to the table. Upon entering the intimate St. Germain space, you see the proverbial table, two chippendale-style chairs, and an ornate rug. The d├ęcor reflects privilege and the moneyed class. The actors sit inches apart and read letters they have exchanged over a fifty-year relationship but never directly interact. Playwright A. R. Gurney’s directions to the actors encourage them to “listen” to each other rather than playing the action, but director Julianne Boyd knows these performers’ style well, and allows them to bring their individual strengths and physicality to the production. 

Photo by Elizabeth Nelson
Dold, as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, is the more animated performer. His face registers shifts in the relationship over time, while Rupp, as the troubled Melissa Gardner, vocally makes her point, but internalizes the character’s feelings until erupting with hand and arm gestures that signal the emotional explosion we know she’s repressing. The pacing of the actors’ speech and the time lapses between correspondences is palpable, and, with credit to Gurney, the carefully crafted words are still powerful.

Often, “Love Letters” is an inexpensive vehicle for theatres to get patrons into seats to see well-known actors who might have a personal relationship. While Rupp and Dold are friends, their relationship with the Barrington audience comes from the years of fine work they’ve individually brought to the stage. The performers do not disappoint, and provide more than a “relationship play.” They produce a cultural commentary on nostalgia, gender, class expectations, and loss.

As an audience member who has seen many productions of “Love Letters” and who has performed in it, I confess to a desire to dissect the performances and the script, and at the end of the show, I wondered if the audience could still be “wowed” by the manipulative nature of the beast. But then I overheard a less-jaded patron remark, “Well, I never saw that coming.” That’s when I was sure that in such capable hands, “Love Letters” can still pack a wallop.

September 26, 2016

SSO Opening Night-A Tchaikovsky Gala

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
September 24, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 73rd season and his own 16th season as music director, Kevin Rhodes presented the first all-Tchaikovsky concert of his tenure, which moved, as he noted in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, from “a festive opening” through “tragedy and drama” to “a big final act in which heroics both musical and technical carry the day.”

After a lively audience-participation “Star-Spangled Banner” to launch the new season, the rarely heard “Festive Coronation March” got the evening off to a rousing start. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander III for his 1883 coronation, it quotes the same hymn, “God Save the Tsar,” that also appears in the composer’s more familiar “Marche Slave,” but it was refreshing to hear it in this different setting. The musicians performed it with snap and verve.

The “tragedy and drama” came next in an urgent performance of Tchaikovsky’s sixth, or “Pathetique,” symphony. From the dark opening bassoon solo, to the gentle, waltz-like second movement, the exuberant third movement march, and the quiet desolation of the “Adagio lamentoso” finale, the passionate commitment of the orchestra’s playing under the maestro’s kinetic baton fully conveyed the “highly emotional” meaning of the work’s subtitle.

Fabio Bidini
“Not wanting to finish Opening Night on anything other than a high note,” Rhodes says in his “Reflections,” he cannily followed a longer-than-usual first half with a shorter “big final act” after intermission, when Italian pianist Fabio Bidini made his SSO debut in a full-blooded account of perhaps the most famous of all piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s first. From the majestic introduction, through the lyrical Andante and the rip-roaring finale, Bidini skillfully varied his touch from delicate to thundering as the music ran its volatile course. Conductor and orchestra supported him masterfully.

In the musical humor department, Rhodes took a selfie with retiring SSO principal bassoonist Andrew Cordle during a pre-concert ceremony honoring his forty-year career with the orchestra, and later, replacing a part of the podium which had fallen to the floor during the concerto, he quipped “call me for all your plumbing needs.” Who could pass up the next chance to spend a musical evening with such a fun guy?

September 22, 2016

Ozawa Hall Concerts 2016

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
by Michael J. Moran

Ozawa Hall photo by Steve Rosenthal
Memories of the 2016 Tanglewood season linger not just for the Boston Symphony programs in the Koussevitzky Music Shed but for two series of concerts in the smaller Ozawa Hall, one presented by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the other by various visiting artists.  Both series offered musicians performing at or near the world-class level of their BSO colleagues.

The TMCO, whose membership changes annually, consists of emerging professional musicians from across the world. Its alumni are estimated to comprise 20% of all players and 30% of first- chair players in American orchestras. Four 2016 concerts illustrate the vast and challenging range of TMCO repertoire: four Bach cantatas; the U.S. premiere of a 2015 TMC-commissioned song cycle by British composer George Benjamin, along with the “Turangalila” Symphony by Benjamin’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen (a 1945 Koussevitsky/BSO commission); a pairing of Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins” with Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony; and a relatively conventional program of Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

The already high level of technical proficiency and emotional maturity in the TMCO’s performances of these works was further enhanced by the collaboration of many seasoned veterans: composer/conductor John Harbison led the Bach program; soprano Dawn Upshaw and baritone Sanford Sylvan alternated with TMC vocal fellows in singing the eleven poems set in Shostakovich’s symphony; and Gil Shaham played Tchaikovsky’s concerto, while Charles Dutoit conducted.

Standout performances included: TMC tenor Christopher Sokolowski’s mellifluous solos in Bach’s Cantata #116 and the Weill ballet; impressive TMC countertenor Daniel Moody in the Benjamin; searing accounts of Apollinaire’s “The Suicide” by Upshaw and Kuchelbecker’s “O Delvig, Delvig!” by Sylvan in the Shostakovich; and nimble TMCO clarinetist Erin Fung in the Kodaly.

Among highlights of five concerts by visiting artists were: soprano Renee Fleming’s supple renditions with the Emerson String Quartet of music by Wellesz and Berg; vibrant Monteverdi, Mahler, and Muhly from the versatile male chorus Chanticleer; eloquent Brahms and Chopin from master Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire; a taut and entertaining Stravinsky “Soldier’s Tale” from Dutoit, guest violinist Chantal Juillet, BSO soloists, and actor Carson Elrod; and a brilliant “Medieval to Modern” mashup by protean pianist Jeremy Denk.

Blessed by geography with easy access to these musical treasures, classical concertgoers in the Pioneer Valley can depend on the prospect of another great Tanglewood season in 2017 to weather the coming winter.

September 19, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors

Playhouse On Park, West Hartford, CT 
through Oct. 16, 2016
by Stuart W. Gamble

Love and hate, happiness and tragedy, life and death, humor and horror—“Little Shop of Horrors” playing at Playhouse On Park offers these and wonderful tunes that make two hours simply melt away. Directed and choreographed with style and verve by Susan Haefner, “Little Shop,” with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken (the creators of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) and Roger Corman’s film, offers an evening of hummable melodies and theatrical abandon.

The Little Shop of the title is Mr. Mushnik’s (Damian Buzzerio) skid row flower shop that does zero business. His schleppish employee Seymour (Steven Mooney) has a hobby of cultivating strange plants. Audrey (Emily Kron), Mushnik’s other employee, is a sweetly simple soul with a penchant for picking abusive boyfriends, including the sadistic motorcycle dentist Orin (Aidan Eastwood). Seymour’s discovery of a carnivorous plant that he names Audrey II, in honor of his secret love for Audrey, soon creates havoc for Seymour as he desperately tries to keep Audrey well-fed.

photo: Meredith Atkinson
The singing and acting of the entire cast is prime. Mooney’s appealing performance as Seymour deserves attention. His transformation from an awkward, be-speckled misfit to a self-assured man of the world is highlighted in his duet with Kron, the show-stopping “Suddenly Seymour.” His other duets with Buzzerio, the tango-inflected “Mushnik and Son” and with Audrey II  “Feed Me” are comic highlights. Kron nicely underplays Audrey, which is evident in her doleful rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green.” Rasheem Ford’s basso-profundo voice of Audrey II and Susan Slotoroff’s  physical manipulation of Audrey II are commendable as well.

Since “Little Shop” is essentially quite theatrical and depends on various elements to create its almost cartoonish quality, credit must be given to Scenic Designer Brian Dudkiewicz and Costume Designer Kate Bunce, who transform the nearly single set from drab grey and black to Oz-like technicolor.

Despite all its wonderful qualities, the four-member musicians at times drown out some of the singers, most notably in the title number sung with perky enthusiasm by the street gals’ chorus.

But this doesn’t prevent the show from delivering its message that fame costs much in human sacrifice(s).

September 13, 2016

Million Dollar Quartet

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 23, 2016
by Tim O’Brien

On December 4, 1956, rockabilly star Carl Perkins and his band prepared to cut a record at legendary Sun Studios in Nashville. When Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley dropped by, the jam session that took place was dubbed by a local reporter as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”

Based on that true event, the musical version rocks and rolls, packing 20+ hit songs, jubilantly played and sung live by an impressive group of musician/actors. With the Majestic’s own Danny Eaton producing and directing and Pioneer Valley music master Mitch Chakour overseeing musical direction, there’s no chance anything would go wrong in their very capable hands.

Jay Sefton is excellent as Sun impresario Sam Phillips, regularly breaking the fourth wall to describe the action and the subtext of the action on that long-ago December night. Phillips is determined to ink the fast-rising Cash to a contract extension this very evening, a deal that should lock up a lucrative future for both. Sefton plays his character adroitly with equal parts southern gentleman, sharp-eared discoverer of talent and shrewd businessman.

Colin Patrick Ryan also shines as Elvis, not yet 22 but already near the peak of his powers. By backing well away from the campy, bloated figure of his destiny, the young “King of Rock” is still vulnerable, self-aware and simply looking to enjoy a night of music among these talented friends.

Corbin Mayer takes on Johnny Cash, in real life nearly three years older than Elvis at the time. Mayer’s youthful face and trim haircut do little to help create that image of relative maturity, but he sings with a rich, soulful baritone that does great justice to the canon of familiar Cash tunes.

Dan Whelton has a nice turn as the guitar-slinging Carl Perkins, ever-smiling and county-dignified as the rockabilly luminary desperately seeking a follow-up hit to “Blue Suede Shoes.” Kaytlyn Vandeloecht is the lone female presence as Dyanne, Elvis’ date for the night. She stands out with a couple of solos (“Fever” is plenty hot, indeed), sweet harmonies, and lots of energetic tambourine playing.

Brian Michael Henry as Jerry Lee Lewis grabs this reviewer’s attention the most. Opinionated, cock-sure of his talent and with a chip on his shoulder, “The Killer” reminds the others that rock ‘n roll is the playground of the devil, all the while rocking the piano with the fury of Lucifer himself.

A smart, compact set and a snappy rockabilly trio of local players flesh out the production wonderfully.