Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 29, 2017

Circus 1903-The Golden Age of Circus

The Bushnell, Hartford CT
through April 30. 2017

Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova)
The grand traditions of circus art are alive and well in "Circus1903-The Golden Age of Circus" a theatrical experience being staged at the Bushnell. Mortensen Hall, usually the setting for musicals, plays or concerts now adds “big top” to its list of magical transformations. For this truly is a circus, albeit one where the audience’s appreciation of the strength and physical mastery of the performers is amplified and pushes you to the edge of the seats. Seeing contortionists, acrobats, and jugglers in this more intimate space is an experience not to be missed.

The producers of "The Illusionists" (another thrilling “out of the box” show that the Bushnell has hosted) have given the circus an "HD" upgrade, with gorgeous lighting, propulsive music and beautiful costuming. But none of these trappings would be effective were it not for the depth of talent and artistry on display.

Many of the acts literally defy description but are wondrous to behold. Not only youngsters, but adults, teens and tweens all found something to be captivated by in this fast paced display. Acts with names like “Les Incredibles” (aerial cradle), “The Great Gaston” (juggling), “Lucky Moon” (aerial ballet), and “The Elastic Dislocationist” (contortion) dazzle and delight, with agility, speed, strength, balance, and skill. Even the children of the audience get in on the act thanks to the “critter wrangling” of polished ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (Davis Williamson).

To truly invoke the circus of yore, one needs an animal act and it is here that “Circus” displays some true stage magic. “Quennie” and “Peanut” are elephants, portrayed by skilled puppeteers using life-size puppets crafted by the designers of “War Horse.” When they first appear on stage, all disbelief is suspended and by those under a certain age, the illusion never dissipates.

Somewhat ironically, the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus is playing at this same time in Hartford at the XL Center. While the passing of a 146 year old tradition can be disheartening, it is comforting to know that the special human talents that are so unique to the circus have found a new home for a new age.

The show is absolute fun for the whole family so if you cannot catch the circus before it leaves town, look for it at a “big top” near you.

April 26, 2017


Please note that the MA Critics Circle Walter Haggerty Scholarship has been postponed for 2017.  This award, for high school seniors from WMA and Northern CT who have been accepted by any college leading to a degree in any of the arts, will resume in 2018.

The scholarship categories are: theatre, music, dance, writing, backstage, mime, painting, sculpting, choreographer.

The award was named in memory of Walter Haggerty, theatre critic for In the Spotlight. Besides his family, Walt’s great love was theatre, especially musicals. In particular, Walt was an avid supporter of community theatre.


April 24, 2017

La Cage aux Folles

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA 
through May 28, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kait Rankins
One of the most recognized songs from “La Cage aux Folles” is the often-reprised “The Best of Times.” There could not be a better time for the Majestic to mount the Tony Award winning musical “La Cage Aux Folles.” While a tiny bit of politics fills the story-line, more apropos is the general populous’ contemporary issues on gay acceptance. More directly and importantly, however, the subject is the all-inclusive emotion of love of family. “La Cage” was penned over 40 years ago, when TV and storybook households looked nothing like that of married couple Georges and Albin. Whether the year is 1974 or 2017, it is still old-fashioned love that holds a family together.

Ben Ashley (Georges), as always, proves himself a fine actor with skills that nearly reach the artistic level of his tenor voice. Georges essentially plays straight man (pun intended) to Luis Manzi’s Albin (aka drag queen Zaza). The question of whether one role is more difficult than the other can only be answered by the actors. Manzi plays big -- big ego, big presence, big voice. At the same time, Albin is sensitive and vulnerable. His emotional “I Am What I Am,” the musical’s signature song, could not have been better sung by anyone.

There are many actors to praise, but I single out Doug LeBelle, a newcomer to me. His maid/butler role is so off the wall scene stealing that she/he deserves her/his own musical.

The setting, a French nightclub/home, is yet another example of Greg Trochlil's perfect staging work. The design is simple – spanning the entire width of the stage and up as high as the painted clouds. Huge kudos to Dawn McKay, Christine Thompson, and Tony Isham who dress their dancers aglow with sequins and an array of colors, from hairdos to heels.

Stacy Ashley has cautiously realized her chorus line as female dancers (although portrayed by male actors). They take their jobs seriously while having fun, yet never exploiting or campy. That was a thin line to cross.

“La Cage” is long at 3-hours. Act II was a bit sluggish, perhaps because director Danny Eaton had many scene changes to contend with. The band (Mitch Chakour, once again at the helm) played background medleys continuously, which helped diminish the lag time.

The main problem with “La Cage” is the playbill’s missing song list. That page is, after all, the most important in any musical’s program. However, I will manage to live without it.

April 14, 2017

Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
April 8, 2017
by Shera Cohen

I’m not going to pretend to have anywhere near the high credentials of In the Spotlight’s seasoned classical music reviewer, Michael Moran. You will read no Latin words or phrases in my description of this music. Yet, I have attended symphonic concerts since I was a child. Those were the days when buses were filled with kids from nearly all the neighborhood elementary schools, and set them en route to their own private concert in Symphony Hall. It is wonderful to know that that indoctrination to classical music (for me, some 50 years ago) continues. Seeing the dozen or so yellow school buses aligning the streets at Court Square brings back memories. At the same time, I hope that those youngsters in attendance will create their own memories.

SSO is winding down its season with “…Gardens of Spain.” The evening’s music proved a smorgasbord of composers, styles, and eras. Maestro Kevin Rhodes called the first piece a “symphonic poem,” distinguishing itself from a “normal” symphony concert. This meant that linear lines of melody and instruments didn’t fall naturally in place as the listener might expect. This style of presentation applied to the program’s first two selections – Franz Liszt’s “Prometheus,” and Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Youth of Hercules.”

Rhodes’ repartee with his audience is always educational in a charming, non-didactic way. I always learn more about music, composers, and musical instruments than I ever expected.

Pianist Washington Garcia deftly put himself to work interpreting Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Previously, Rhodes advised his audience to listen for a Moorish undertone throughout. This was the case in all three movements, as Garcia and the SSO created exotic and colorful music to reach the rafters in the beautiful, and acoustically-correct Symphony Hall. After this long work, it’s difficult to decide who was happier – the audience having just heard a masterpiece, or pianist Garcia who seemed to puff up with pride and joy, both justifiably.

Rimsky-Korsakof’s Capriccio Espangnol provided most of the Spanish sounds in the evening’s program, which also concluded the performance. Five folk song pieces formed the core of Capriccio. Sprite and whimsical, lovely and stirring. It took five percussionists to generate the power to conclude the concert.

April 10, 2017

The Planets: Different Worlds

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
April 7-9, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Earth is the only one of the eight known planets missing from the featured work on this program, Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets,” when he wrote it during World War I (Pluto came and went later). But the ninety-years-newer opening piece, “Liquid Interface,” filled that gap by exploring “water in its variety of forms” on earth. Composer Mason Bates notes in the program book that living near Lake Wannsee in Berlin inspired him to write it.

Maestra Carolyn Kuan helpfully preceded the HSO’s first-ever performance of “Liquid Interface” with a spoken introduction to each of its four movements, and brief excerpts played by orchestra members. A 40-year-old Philadelphia native, Bates has worked as a DJ in pop music clubs and incorporates electronic elements into many of his compositions. A laptop operator seated near the percussion section produced a range of atmospheric sounds throughout the 23-minute piece.

Recorded snippets of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic extend crashing orchestral chords in the first movement, “Glaciers Calving.” The following “Scherzo Liquido” has a lighter, more playful quality. The third movement, “Crescent City,” showcases big-band jazz in New Orleans. The quiet finale, “On the Wannsee,” depicts, in Bates’s words, “a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise.” The HSO delivered this challenging but engaging score with flair and won a standing ovation from the enthralled audience.

No greater contrast with this lush ending could be imagined than the fierce martial tread of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” which Kuan and an enlarged orchestra invested with relentless power as they launched into “The Planets” after intermission. The tranquil “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” then restored the radiant glow of Bates’s finale. And so it went through the nimble energy of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger;” the robust optimism of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity;” the solemn grace of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age;” the awkward humor of “Uranus, the Magician;” and the eerie mystery of “Neptune, the Mystic.”

The musicians presented this colorful suite with emotional intensity and brilliant virtuosity. The seven-member choir that fades out at the end of “Neptune” brought the concert to a magical close.

April 4, 2017

Next to Normal

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT 
through May 14, 2017
by Stuart W. Gamble

David Harris & Christiane Noll
“Next to Normal” is not for the faint-hearted. With its strong subject matter: mental illness, family dysfunction, and extreme medical treatment and its ear-shattering rock-opera score, it is definitely a test of its audiences’ emotional stamina. But it is also an extremely poignant tale of a family’s daily struggles, sacrifices, and  bonds of love.

With music composed by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this durable show is worth every note and word of its 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Christiane Noll (Tony nominee for “Ragtime”) is Diana, the at-first seemingly perfect wife and mother as shown in the show’s opening song “Just Another Day”. But soon its evident that all is not well with Diana who suffers from bi-polar disorder. Her understanding but aloof husband Dan (David Harris)  tries unsuccessfully to support Diana as voiced in the songs “It’s Gonna Be Good”, “Better than Before”, and “Song of Forgetting”.

Diana and Dan’s only child Natalie’s (Maya Keleher) teenage angst is compounded by her mother’s illness. However, her knight in shining armor comes in the form of pot-smoking fellow musician Henry (Nick Sacks) and their special bond is tenderly expressed in “ Perfect for You”. Diana’s psycho-pharmacologists Drs. Fine/Madden (J.D. Daw) attempts to help Diana with a variety of treatments. But the root of Diana’s depression and anxiety is linked to the figure of Gabe (John Cardoza) who is not all he seems to be.

The score is magnificently sung by the entire cast and the show’s well-known hits “I Miss the Mountains”, “I am the One”, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, and especially Gabe’s rendition of “I’m Alive” are sublimely memorable. Rob Ruggiero’s glossy direction keeps the action moving which prevents the story from becoming maudlin. Adam Souza’s musical direction is lively and powerful. Tricia Barsamian’s costumes are simple and modern, playing second fiddle to John Lasiter’s stunning and bold lighting design. Wilson Chin’s fussy, overly ornate set, however, resembles more of a Pottery Barn showroom than a living room.

Despite its 2 ½ hour running time, “Next to Normal” will leave you emotionally sapped and perhaps a bit dewy-eyed as well.

The Berkshires Are Open in the Winter

by Shera Cohen

As I write this piece, it’s technically spring on my calendar, but my porch is full of snow, albeit melting. So, for the sake of clarity, here is my recollection of my two-day late winter/early spring Berkshires cultural experience in my effort to prove that the Berkshires are not for summer stays only.
The Ten Tenors
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield: The Colonial is one of four venues in the Berkshire Theatre Group – the oldest (1903), the largest, and the most charming. PBS programs have aired numerous 3-men tenor groups whose music is semi-opera, classical, and contemporary. Some singers are from Ireland or Italy or USA. They are wonderful. In the case of The Ten Tenors, multiply any of these fabulous trios x 3 + 1 for a perfect evening of glorious music. The Ten hail from Australia as they bring some popular “down under” songs to the stage. Their Four Seasons’ medley complete with choreography was a hoot. The tribute to Prince and Leonard Cohen gave both artists due praise. Every song included all 10 singers, sometimes focusing on a “lead,” sometimes not. Imagine ten, good-looking, young-ish men in tuxes singing “Unchained Melody.” That was the show-stopper. The highly anticipated “Nessum Dorma” (the finale to most of the trio concerts) seemed to set the lush Colonial interior aglow.

Curiosity Incubator
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield: You’ve seen the ads - children and adults wear goggle-like apparatus on their heads, walk around a room like zombies, and shout “wow, cool, look at this!” Maybe I was the only person on the planet who didn’t know about this high-tech toy. Anyway, Berkshire Museum’s exhibit “Curiosity Incubator” featured these odd things. Many activities at the museum are hands-on; it is highly encouraged. I donned the goggles. “Wow, cool, look at this!” You see what wasn’t there 30-seconds ago. Magic?

The “Tell Me More” Exhibit brought the visitor for the first time to the North Pole. “The Science of Color” offered a bright spectrum on how colors change what you see. Of course, the museum has its standard collections on display; my favorite being the pristine aquarium. A bravo to the staff – whether employees or volunteers, all are there to make the visitor enjoy. It wasn’t so many years ago when I went to the museum basically to kill time before the next play, concert, etc. I have done a 180degree turn-around, as this venue has become one of my favorite destination points.

Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington: The venue has seen many changes in design, performing arts, economy, and its place in downtown Great Barrington, all the while never closing its doors. Silent films and vaudeville show names fit the marquee in the early days. Now, Mahaiwe presents concerts (all genres), dance, theatre, comedy, lectures, and films (primarily Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera).

Steep Canyon Rangers
Just this week, Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage with their B&B&B – banjo, blues, and bluegrass, mixed it up with country sounds, deep porch music, wildfire finger-pickin’ and humor. The Rangers, known for their performances with actor/banjo player Steve Martin, have received numerous national awards (Grammy) in their field for the past eight years. Along with their instruments and vocal music came a huge supply of hillbilly hand-clapping, and a surprise harmonica.

Joe’s Diner, Lee: It’s tiny with 1950’s décor and as many chairs and stools that can possibly fit. The patrons dress “down.” Sometimes, table sharing is encouraged. With no offense, it seems as if the waitresses have worked at Joe’s since its opening; maybe they have, since it’s a family-owned business. Get the best and least expensive breakfast in the Berkshire. A plus for me was pudding…7 different puddings, in fact, for each day of the week.

The District Kitchen & Bar, Pittsfield: Located in downtown Pittsfield is a charming, rustic eating spot. The bar and dining tables are surrounded by metal, tin polls, etc. The District is mid-scale, with a small list of food choices, but just enough, in each category; i.e. appetizer, entrée. If you weren’t specifically looking for it, you might pass it by. The clientele are the locals of all ages. I usually skip dessert, but the lemongrass & vanilla crème brulee was very special.

Lee Premium Outlets, Lee: This is definitely not cultural, so I list it last. But, when you’re staying a mere three miles from a major, inexpensive shopping experience, of course, I had to go. I guess that I also just had to buy that pair of boots.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do in two days. I recommend a longer stay for next year. What we missed were:

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield: 10 x 10, that’s 10 original plays, each 10-minute long at a fast and furious pace

Town Players, Pittsfield: 96 years of community theatre – wow! Missed the production of “The Whale,” but more shows to come

WAM, Lenox – professional theatre of relatively small unknown plays in Shakespeare & Company’s theatres

The Mount, Lenox – its annual retreat of training, networking, and commiserating for writers at all levels of skills and interests

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge – the whimsical work of Hanna-Barbera; i.e. Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, et al; some readers might not know who I am referring to, but I remember them well

For more information on the Berkshires visit

April 3, 2017

Seeking Music Reviewer

In the Spotlight seeks music reviewers who know their music and can write about it.

Genres: classical, country, rock, Broadway, pop, folk, ethnic.

This is not a job, but an opportunity to attend (gratis) concerts from time to time to inform readers about your recommendations.

See examples HERE.

Contact Shera Cohen at

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through April 23, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Mathew Murphy
In 2008, actor/writer/storyteller James Lecesne published a book about a young gay man’s disappearance and murder as told through the eyes of his cousin, a 16-year old girl. In 2015, he adapted that young adult novel for the stage and is now performing the piece at Hartford Stage. The point of view has changed for the stage—the story is now told from the perspective of the hard-boiled New Jersey Detective assigned to the case whose job it is to “look for shit in the shadows.” In the telling of the story, Lecesne seemingly morphs from one character to the next, totally embodying male and female roles as diverse as a 16-year old girl to an 80-year old watchmaker.

We never meet Leonard Pelkey, other than to see a blurry image of him on a screen where other clues in this modern “who-dunnit” are projected, but we get to know him through the words of others whose lives he has touched. Lescesne is a gifted actor and we’re drawn deeper into the police procedural through the witnesses he creates, sometimes in the blink of an eye, or a spin on stage. With direction by Tony Speciale and original music by Duncan Sheik, the performance feels more like a fully staged production than a one man show. The story is simple and seems so familiar you may think it was ripped from the headlines, but it actually is a story of personal acceptance and finding the brightness in one person that gets passed on to others. Leonard, we learn, accepts himself for who and what he is, and in doing so, changes the lives of everyone he meets.

Lecesne wrote the novel shortly before the topic of cyber-bullying became well known, and the theme of personal acceptance and community support is subtle, but very present. The message is upbeat and heart-warming. Equally heart-warming were the number of young adults in the lobby, waiting for Lecesne to sign copies of the book. This, as much as the standing ovation, tells you that the story is timely, important, and James Lecesne a gifted cultural critic as well as an interpreter of human emotion.