Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 27, 2017

Book Review: Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain

by Shera Cohen

In a chatty, conversational manner, Jacqueline T. Lynch tells readers the story of Mt. Tom’s summer theatre in her most recent non-fiction book “Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain.”

While this book could have easily become a textbook, Lynch presents an informal insight at both local history and regional theatre. At the same time, she is strict on detail and chronology. It is obvious that she has done her research.

Lynch blends the history of Valley theatre, yet never forgetting to lay it in the context of the region’s growth and economic history. Mt. Tom Playhouse is far more than a building; more importantly, it is the community of entrepreneurs, crews, actors, and audiences who built seven decades of comedy and tragedy in Holyoke, MA.

There’s a lot of name-dropping throughout the 250-pages. The book gives a close look at “who’s who” in theatre at the time. Delightful anecdotes by thespian locals – in particular, George Murphy and Barbara Bernard – give those readers who grew up, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s, a sense of time and place.  There’s also lots to tell about a young Hal Holbrook and other fledgling stars.

It may or may not be true, but a picture is worth 1000 words. If this case, Lynch has put her hands-on dozens of photos of actors, sets, and playbills, all of which either take the reader down memory lane, whether he or she was there or not.

The story of Mt. Tom Playhouse is one of ups and downs; i.e. finances, audiences, media, and those with, or think they had, star power at the time. It is clear that for the close-knit group of people who essentially gave birth to this artistry atop a nearby mountain, it was a labor of love. It is nice to read about people who love what they are doing, which Lynch expresses to her readers in her own love of theatre.

The book is written for: anyone who lives in the Valley (past, present or both); those who enjoy theatre no matter where it is; and theatre history buffs. No piece of fiction or non-fiction is for everyone, but these three groups certainly include a lot of people.

March 23, 2017

Jersey Boys

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 26, 2017
by R.E. Smith

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
To everything there is a season, and, so too, it goes in the story of the boys from New Jersey who would become the most popular rock & roll act prior to the advent of "The Beatles": “The Four Seasons.” As the show’s name implies, their story is as rooted in the rough and tumble culture of the Garden State as it is in their unmistakable musical talent. In fact, there is a warning at the door that the special effects include “authentic” NJ language!

The four leads each take a turn recounting the stages of the group’s history. Tommy DeVito, played with volatile humor and swagger by Matthew Dailey starts things in motion more by trying to make an easy buck than an artistic statement. Dailey lets the audience know that under the machismo is a clearly a guy who is often over his head. DeVito’s polar-opposite, partner-in-crime is Keith Hines’ Nick Massi, with his stoic demeanor and deadpan, audience-tickling delivery. Cory Jeacoma’s earnest and levelheaded composer Bob Gaudio provides a lightness needed to offset some of the darker elements of their journey from rags to riches.

Despite equal emphasis on each member’s contributions to the group, the success of the quartet is only going to be as strong as the voice of the show’s Frankie Vallie. Aaron DeJesus literally hits all the right notes as the singer who would make The Four Seasons stand out from the crowd, and eventually eclipse the group itself. It is rare that a mid-show solo elicits a standing ovation. But make no mistake; each is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and musician, making the non-stop pace and momentum of the show seem effortless.

If the against all odds story, rock and roll setting and snappy choreography weren’t enough, there is of course the eminently tuneful music. Even those under the age of 50 will recognize the songs from movies, TV shows, and commercials. Classics like “Walk Like A Man,” “December, 1963,” “My Eyes Adored You,” and “Who Loves You”, just to name a few.

If there is any question from regular theatre-goers as to whether this group really warrants musical-theatre treatment, one only has to look around at the audience, evidently made up of a good number of patrons more accustomed to concert venues than proscenium shows and visibly fighting the urge to dance in the aisles.

March 15, 2017

A Faust Symphony

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT|
March 10-12, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Classical music lovers who heard Kevin Rhodes and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra perform Franz Liszt’s “Faust Symphony” in October, 2009 could be pardoned for assuming this might be their only chance to hear it. Not to be outdone by her northern neighbor, Carolyn Kuan and the HSO didn’t just give local concertgoers another crack at this rarely heard masterpiece but added some theatrical flair.    

The historical Faust who practiced astrology, alchemy, and sorcery in 16th-century Germany became a popular symbol in later Western literature of how special powers in earthly life could cost a man his soul. Goethe’s 1808 play about Faust inspired musical settings by Berlioz, Schumann, and Liszt, whose “Faust” symphony is in three movements, each depicting a major character in the story: Faust; Gretchen, the young lover who redeems him; and Mephistopheles, the Devil who promises him wealth and restored youth.

Colin McEnroe
The symphony was written in 1857 as an instrumental work, but Liszt added an optional epilogue with tenor and male chorus singing the final lines of Goethe’s text. While Rhodes included this epilogue, Kuan replaced it with a new script by Connecticut writer and media personality Colin McEnroe. Hartford TheaterWorks artistic associate Eric Ort directed two Equity actors, Crystal Dickinson and R. Ward Duffy, in gripping performances of McEnroe’s scenes, several of which were interspersed in each movement. These mostly showed individuals reflecting on ethical dilemmas in their 21st-century lives, from hedge fund management to scientific research. Perhaps the most moving scene was the last one, Dickinson as a redeeming God.

The music, lasting almost 90 minutes, is among Liszt’s most technically demanding and harmonically ambiguous scores, and a very full HSO rose to the challenge with a riveting performance. Kuan clarified the massive textures of the Faust and Mephistopheles movements, and the delicate duet between principal oboe Heather Taylor and principal viola Michael Wheeler in the Gretchen movement was especially radiant.

In a post-concert discussion hosted by Kuan, with helpful contributions from McEnroe, Ort, Dickinson, and Duffy, audience comments and questions confirmed this imaginative presentation as another triumph for the path-breaking maestra and her community-minded ensemble.

Scotland-A Celebration

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
March 11, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

“A musical trip to the Scottish Isles” is how, in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, SSO maestro Kevin Rhodes describes a concert in which two pieces by one composer, Felix Mendelssohn, were inspired by travel to Scotland, while just “knowing the music of the country sufficed [for another composer, Max Bruch] to create a work which sounds authentically Scottish.”

The opening “Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture” began with a haunting musical phrase that echoed the sound of waves against the shore which Mendelssohn heard when he visited the Hebrides islands off Scotland in 1829. Subsequent calm and stormy passages reflected the vagaries of Scottish weather before the Overture returns to the opening theme for a quiet ending. The SSO and Rhodes gave this colorful score an energetic performance.

Yevgeny Kutik
Inspired 50 years later by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Bruch quoted various Scottish folk songs in his “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra. Its four movements depicted contrasting moods, from a solemn introductory Adagio to a lively Scherzo, a radiant Andante, and a joyous Finale. Rising young Boston-based Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who dazzled in his SSO debut three years ago with Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, brought technical virtuosity to spare and interpretive flair to this brilliant showpiece. Orchestra and conductor gave him exemplary support, especially principal harpist Judy Saiki.

Unlike Bruch, Mendelssohn quoted no folk tunes in either the “Hebrides Overture” or the work which closed the program after intermission, his third symphony, nicknamed the “Scottish” because it derived from the same 1829 visit to Scotland, though it took the composer until 1842 to finish it. Rhodes led the SSO in a blazing account, heightening the drama of the turbulent first movement by taking a repeat that’s often omitted. The dance-like Vivace movement had an exhilarating spin, the glowing Adagio was deeply felt, and the triumphant Allegro finale blended vigor with grandeur.

Even without the benefit of spoken commentary by the often talkative maestro, the appreciative crowd who braved the wintry chill was rewarded with the warmth of his enthusiastic leadership.

March 13, 2017

Cloud 9

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 19
by Jarice Hanson

Caryl Churchill became an internationally recognized playwright with her 1979 gender-bending satire of politics, both sexual and political. Hartford Stage’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson’s directorial debut at Hartford Stage is successful on many fronts, with a cast of exceptionally fine actors and creative use of the theater from multiple playing spaces, including the back brick wall of the theater. Actors make entrances and exits through aisles only to show up moments later with complete costume changes in another area of the theater entirely. The energy of the actors and the multi-directional staging works to keep the audiences slightly off-kilter, which seems to be a theme of the play.

Act I takes place in colonial Africa as we are introduced to Victorian themes of sexual expression and gender performance. “Betty,” the wife, is played by a male performer and “Edward,” the son, by a woman. “Joshua,” the African native, is portrayed by a White male, and one female performer plays two female characters, almost magically becoming transformed with complete costume change in seconds. Act II takes place in London, with some of the same characters having grown up and expressing their new sexuality (and sexual confusion) in more contemporary terms. In a fanciful, farcical performance, Clive the father from Act I, becomes his own niece, “Kathy,” in Act II. 

It takes fully committed performers to find the truth in each of these characters, and “Cloud 9” is blessed with a strong, ensemble cast, though two performers are standouts. Mark H. Dold as Clive/Kathy is one of the most impressive actors working today, and he is complimented by Mia Dillon, as Edward/Betty, whose Act II monologue is told with heartbreaking clarity and insight for the sexual mores and attitudes that span the two time periods.

“Cloud 9” is a complicated play that can be difficult for some audience members. It does, however, underscore how powerful Caryl Churchill’s voice has been in demonstrating how theater can lead us to face emotions and relationships that are hard to talk about, and to understand. Almost 40 years after its debut, “Cloud 9” is still effective. Whether you like it or not, “Cloud 9” gives the audience plenty to think about and appreciate.

March 7, 2017

Painting Churches

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 2, 2017
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

“The question he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.”
-Robert Frost, The Oven Bird

Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches,” a play about the relationship of an aging poet, his distracted wife and up-and-coming artist daughter, is performing now with grace and style at The Majestic Theater in West Springfield.

Director Rand Foerster has created a lovely, authentic portrait of the diminishment which growing old brings, and the powerful effect the decline has on family. Foerster has kept the tone of this show light, though the subject is rather sad; there is far more joy than sorrow in the Majestic’s fine production.

Ellen Colton’s comic timing and facial expressions as Fanny Church, the long-suffering and somewhat savage wife, lay waste an audience. She is especially superb in the interplay with her failing husband, alternately berating and cherishing him. Some actors can get you to smile through your tears; this one makes you laugh.

Anderson Matthews is equally amazing in his role as Gardner Church, the fading poet. His performance never stoops to caricature or sentimentality, though his character gets a little foolish at times. Gardner’s dignity always shines through; and one of the highlights of this production is hearing Matthews recite serious poetry, especially Yeats.

As Margaret, the artist daughter of this remarkable pair, Eve Passeltiner is engaging, passionate and completely believable. She portrays the next generation of gifts in her waning family with sincerity and conviction, and is a pleasure to behold onstage.

More kudos: Dawn McKay’s costumes are both lovely to look at and cleverly designed. They move beautifully to suit the actors’ actions, and complement the story being told (Fanny’s hats are incredible).

Set designer Greg Trochlil has built a gorgeous set complete with architectural details of a fancy townhouse in Boston, on walls that don’t exist. Sound Designer Justin Letellier plays elegant piano waltzes as the backstage crew make complicated scene changes. Meanwhile, Lighting Designers Matt Cowan and Amber Tanudjaja create lighting suggestive of a child’s crayon drawing over the entire set…and lovely effects throughout the rest of the show, too.

Majestic Theater’s “Painting Churches” has the makings of a masterpiece. Go see it for yourself!

March 2, 2017

Lowell in the Winter of 2017

By Shera Cohen

Surely, there are enough sites in the country to venture to in the winter months than Lowell, MA. Yet, I had particular reasons for this visit; 1) I had never been to Lowell, 2) I could “bunk” at a friend’s nearby condo, 3) I was heartily invited by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and 4) now that I’ve taken a surprise liking to National Parks, it was an opportune time to go to Lowell’s Park. As it worked out, I hadn’t realized until arrival that, indeed, Lowell area hosted even more cultural venues to experience. Who knew?

New England Quilt Museum
Housed in what appeared to be a renovated factory building was a world-class exhibition

of quilts of all sizes, shapes, materials, and history. We were free to roam the second floor, and the docent who seemed to magically appear was happy to guide us. At near-closing hour, there was a lot to see when rushed. I would return, for another of their changing exhibits, and to spend time in the large gift shop full of fabric, threads, spools, and other apparatus that I knew nothing about, yet. The Museum boasts the collection of the most historically important and beautifully preserved antique quilts in America.

I discovered that quilt makers and historians eat, sleep, and breath quilts, and have done so for centuries. It was/is a communal activity melding social aspects with culture and an actual purpose/need for products; i.e. bed quilts in New England winters in days of old. The Museum changes its main exhibit nearly every month, and hosts lectures, lunches, discussion groups, and competitions. For information contact

Worcester Museum of Art
I have mentioned this is other articles, and will repeat my thoughts -- a docent or tour guide can make or break a cultural experience. Fortunately, not only did this lovely woman have an exquisite French accent, but she knew her stuff, imparting that knowledge passionately and seriously to her assemblage of visitors. One woman in our group stated, “I’ll never look at art the same way again.” And I thought, “I’ve got to finally sign up for that nearby Art Appreciation course.”

Our guide was particularly proud to tell the story of the John Freake family, who were represented in two paintings, dating back to the 1670’s, which were the first ever painted in the Americas.

I’m not sure why I had the preconceived idea that this museum was petite. I was wrong. Again, I would return, because there wasn’t nearly enough time to see all exhibits. The highlight was “The Remarkable Ed Emberley,” renowned storybook artist. Admittedly, I was not familiar with his talent – an indescribable whimsy appealing to children and to adults.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre
For several years, my Lowell friend had encouraged me to come to Merrimack. She was an avid fan and usher. In looking at flyers from many seasons, Merrimack has mounted an excellent variety of drama and comedy. Kudos to them, that their repertoire included many premiers, and did not rely on old chestnuts.

The venue looks as if it has been a prominent theatre house in its day. Upon entering, I met several of Merrimack’s artistic and administrative staff. All were so gracious and welcoming that you might have thought that I represented the New York Times.

Opening night of “Women in Jeopardy” by Wendy Macleod, just happened to be the first sell out performance of any opening in Merrimack’s history. Bravo to them!

This questionable-murder, mystery, comedy focused on a trio of middle-aged women who were, or so they thought, “in jeopardy.” Ahh, what to do about it? The plot was thin, the actors sharp, the set perfect. The audience spent two hours laughing, came home without cerebral wonderings, and simply enjoyed the evening. That’s good enough for me.

Mill No. 5
I admit my fear walking on a stony parking lot pathway under a highway in near darkness. Then, things got worse -- the dead end. Fortunately, an elevator door squeezed into the side of the building opened, taking us to the third floor. I felt as if this was a speakeasy and/or I was dealing some nefarious product. In any case, some teenage girls entered the elevator as well. For some odd reason, I felt safer.

The smells of incense and various candles through a wide corridor greeted the visitors/customers into this little culture tour of small art studios (some sold desserts, as well). The painters and musicians were young. I felt a bit out of place, as I could easily have been anyone else’s mother or even grandmother. But these “kids” were all gracious with their, “Come on in.” I have no doubt that millennials loved these studios, and loved supporting each other’s talents.

Lowell National Park
Because I have been affiliated with another National Park for the past eight years, a stop at Lowell’s park was a “must” on my list. I already realize that this is just the first of at least two visits for the future.

Sometimes, guests skip the introduction film at “my” park (Springfield Armory National Historic Site). That’s a mistake. Take the 15-minutes or so to get an overview of what you will then see throughout the museum, up close and personal; the textile industry in New England. By the way, this is the best produced Park video that I have ever seen.

What I hadn’t realized was the campus of the Park included three museums/homes, the entire property, and in the summer months, a guided cruise on the adjacent river. The Park is free. So, here’s my pitch. Please take advantage of discovering far more about our country, one-on-one; just you and history.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
by Stuart Gamble

The last few months in the U.S. have shown us the infinite power of women to raise and discuss issues intelligently and non-violently, such as the political campaign of a woman for President and the recent Women’s Marches. It seemed utterly logical to showcase dramatic works about women and their unique perspective on love and life. The Suffield Players recently staged production of Alan Ball’s (of “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” fame) comedy “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” was a fine case in point.

Directed in a relaxed, natural style by Kelly Seip, the show featured a quintet of VERY different women: Naïve Frances (Amy Lambert), high-strung Meredith (Tina Sparkle), blowsy Georgeanne (Trish Urso), cerebral Mindy (Jen Rawlings), and sensible Trish (Karen Balaska). These women, reluctant bridesmaids at a swanky wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee, hideout and pour their hearts out in Meredith’s upstairs bedroom.

Each one tells her story in humorous and touching ways. Act I, with all of its exposition, paled when compared to the much livelier Act II. Among the fine cast, Urso, Rawlings, and Balaska stood out. Urso’s bellowing Georgeanne swilled her champagne and bragged of her sexual conquests with comic aplomb. Rawling’s lesbian Mindy downed platefuls of appetizers and offered well-played wittiness. Balaska’s maternal Trish stood her ground against bible-thumping Frances and the advances of the play’s lone male character (nicely played by Shaun O’Keefe) with bawdy verbal jousts like a modern Mae West.

Though most of the characters expressed their dislike of their bridesmaids’ dresses, costume designer Dawn McKay’s melon taffeta garb sparkled like glasses of a fine, summer rosé wine in stark contrast to the play’s darker issues of rape, STD’s, and drug abuse. Set in the early 1990’s, set designer Seip enhanced the look of this era with boom boxes and cross-fit machines, along with references to the Julia Roberts film, “Pretty Woman.”

Although it resembled “Steel Magnolias,” Ball’s play was a refreshingly more adult, R-rated vision of the camaraderie among a group of diverse women.