Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 22, 2017

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through March 5, 2017
by Stuart W. Gamble

Eugene O’Neill, one of the finest dramatists of the 20th century, unfortunately seems to be underappreciated now in the 21st one. Apart from his greatest work, Long Days Journey into Night, few of his plays are regularly produced. This is unfortunate, because his last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, is a show full of top talent, monumental drama, and most surprisingly, truly timeless comedy.

Set on a rock-strewn farm in rural Connecticut during the early 1930’s, the story opens with Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) a lanky, tough-talking farm woman helping her younger brother Mike Hogan (Michael Hinton) escape from the control of their “tyrannical” father. Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), the father, is a scrappy Irish immigrant who knows the land and his whisky (both bonded and moonshine). The Hogan’s precarious existence as tenant farmers is further complicated by conflict with their wealthy neighbor T. Stedman Harder (Thomas Daniels) whose ice pond is perpetually invaded by the Hogan’s hogs. The play’s major catalyst comes with the arrival of James Tyrone Jr. (Anthony Marble), their landlord who threatens to sell the home to Harder. Plot complications multiply bringing the play to a not quite happy, yet perhaps melancholic close.

Although the Hogans face opposition from the outside world, it is the conflict between Josie and her father Phil that stirs our emotions and most rewardingly tickles our funny bones. Elise Hudson is marvelous as Josie. She calls herself “an ugly, overgrown woman,” The audience sees a strong-willed, independent woman who could oppose any male, including her father. Conan McCarty’s Phil Hogan is a wily and blustery. The love-hate relationship between these two is evident as they endearingly refer to each other with derogatory descriptions. The two both evoke the strong, spirited existence of people who till the land on a back-breaking daily existence.

The evening’s dramatic highlight is provided by Anthony Marble’s James Tyrone Jr. Marble’s theatrical, ne’er do well man of the world who breaks down in the play’s climactic third act, is truly touching. Clutching to Hudson’s tender yet grounded Earth-Mother, Marble literally lays to rest after an evening of binge-drinking.

Apart from the splendid cast, under Joseph Discher’s direction, the show’s other feats demand attention. Emily Nichols’ simple, yet timely farmhouse set evokes its time and place. Collette Benoit’s costumes further reflect the sepia-toned 1930’s. Both Joel Abbot’s sound design filled with Irish fiddle music and lighting designer Christopher Bell’s soft, romantic blue moonlight and blazingly hot sunshine further enhances the play’s contrasting long night’s journey into day.

At three hours, this play is well worth time spent at Playhouse due to its beautiful performances and the richly poetic language that is Eugene O’Neill’s legacy to the American Theatre.

A Life in Opera – Celebrating Leontyne Price

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
February 18, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Othalie Graham
To honor Black History Month and the recent 90th birthday of trailblazing African-American soprano Leontyne Price, Maestro Kevin Rhodes and his soloist, Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham, devised an imaginative program of excerpts from operas associated with Price’s distinguished career, highlighting some unfamiliar fare by famous composers.

There was also much familiar fare, beginning with the arias “Ritorna Vincitor” and “O Patria Mia” from Verdi’s “Aida,” a favorite role on the opera stage for both Price and Graham, who invested the first aria with dramatic ardor and the second with tender poignancy. Between arias Rhodes and the SSO presented the rarely heard “Sinfonia,” a ten-minute overture which Verdi composed for “Aida” but ultimately rejected. The musicians provided sensitive support in the arias and played the “Sinfonia” with blazing intensity.

Next came a sinuous and highly charged orchestral rendition of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the opera “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, whose music Price performed more often in concert than on stage. One of her favorite Strauss arias was the “Second Wedding Night” from the little-known opera “The Egyptian Helen,” in which the lustrous tone of Graham’s powerful, full-bodied voice easily carried over the dense and colorful orchestration. 

A Puccini segment followed intermission, with a radiant account of the moving orchestral “Intermezzo” from “Manon Lescaut” preceding the title character’s central aria, “Vissi d’Arte,” in “Tosca,” which Graham rendered with searing desperation in a role that both she and Price have portrayed with distinction on stage.  

The concert concluded with two excerpts from Samuel Barber’s seldom performed operatic setting of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned for Price as the first production at the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Graham segued effortlessly from the light-hearted playfulness of “Give Me Some Music” to the somber tragedy of Cleopatra’s death scene.

The evening was immeasurably enhanced by Rhodes’ engaging introductions to the music and by an insert of lyrics and translations in the program book. In a classy closing touch, Graham bowed to Rhodes out of respect for him as an “all-too-rare singer’s conductor.” 

February 17, 2017

The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 19, 2017
by Stuart Hawk

The Broadway smash “The Book of Mormon” fills the Bushnell with uplifting songs and slapstick comedy. At the same time, the script explores the dark topics of intense poverty, religious proselytism, and societal acceptance.

“Mormon” was written by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame. Any audience goer who is familiar with either of these shows will not be surprised to hear that there’s quite a lot of vulgarity in this musical. Though crudeness is used as a comedic device and is not central to the story, if you’re offended by foul or non-politically correct language, this may not be the play for you. The writer’s voices clearly come through, thematically, musically, and occasionally even through a distinct tone, which diehard fans will pick up on immediately.

The songs are gorgeous and fun, as well as hilarious. Though the show is stylistically rooted in traditional musical theater, the writers occasionally break away into other genres. In “Joseph Smith American Moses” the song moves through popular styles of 1970’s West African music --  Afrobeat, Juju, and Highlife -- while staying true to the theatrical nature of the scene. On a different note, the song “Baptize Me” takes us to a tone reminiscent of 1980’s movie love scenes.

After opening on Broadway almost six years ago, the show is currently on its second U.S. tour. The ensemble cast sells the show, with the secondary actors playing multi-roles. The leads are perfectly cast; those who especially stand out are Gabe Gibbs as Elder Price, Conner Pierson as Elder Cunningham, Leanne Robinson as Nabulungi, and PJ Adzima as Elder Mckinley. Each talent is equally strong between dialogue, song, and the big dance numbers.

Fans of South Park and/or Avenue Q will find similar style and humor in the signature comedy and social commentary which is alive and well in “The Book of Mormon.” Though the play certainly has moments which devout Mormons could find blasphemous, it is not an attack on religion. For those open-minded and not offended by some vulgar language, they’ll find a story about people born into very different worlds, struggling to find joy and faith in difficult circumstances. The message is surprisingly positive and uplifting. Lovers of musical theater, who don’t happen to also enjoy South Park, can still love this production.