Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 15, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Hamilton

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through December 30, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Did you realize that we look at the face of Alexander Hamilton at least a few times each week? There he is in the middle of a $10 bill. Other than this claim to fame, who was this man? He had probably done something important during the Revolutionary War? Doubtless that Hamilton knew George Washington on a first-name basis? And, wasn’t he the man who was killed in a duel? Is this enough subject matter for a musical, not to mention a game-changing, Tony Award winning, world-class musical on Broadway? Yes!

It was obvious that a large percentage of the Press Night audience at “Hamilton” at the Bushnell had seen this now-classic (even in its infancy as a musical production) before. It was eager with anticipation when many of the songs and movement began.

Photo by Joan Marcus
The unique music style is a trademark of “Hamilton.” Would a traditional theatre audience grasp, value, and literally understand the music, and especially the lyrics of rap? Do you have to be under age 30 to “get it”? Being a bit leery after the first five minutes of Aaron Burr’s opening number, which thankfully were not paced on warp speed, easily opened the door to an appreciation of the next two+ hours of rap. In many ways, “Hamilton” replicates the text of Shakespeare; it is not necessary to hear or recognize every word. The essence is there. No one need question, “Is ‘Hamilton’ for me?”

Lin-Manuel Miranda – writer of “Hamilton’s” book, music and lyrics -- has become a near-household name, defining creativity, innovation, and talent. Coupled with the genius of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail, the visuals are remarkable. There are no static moments; the dance and songs never stop. Accentuating the steady beat of rap is discordant movement all about the stage. “Hamilton” is truly your atypical musical with juxtapositions of costumes and wigs of various eras, dialogue from the 1770’s and 2018 creating a joy in the experience.

The dark monstrous staging asks little of the audience’s imagination to “see” numerous indoor and outdoor settings. Strong flashes of lighting are synchronized with onstage movement to the timing of a millisecond.

Few musicals can pack in one dramatic song almost immediately followed by another; one superb voice after another. Austin Scott and Hannah Cruz (Alexander and Eliza Hamilton) lead the cast of approximately a dozen actors, each with exemplary voices. But, “Hamilton” is not merely a production of song upon song. The story is profound; the balance of one man’s adversity with the hardship of future Americans founding a new home. Exciting as it may be, this tremendous musical does not always paint a pretty picture of that era

Note: The Bushnell’s “Hamilton” run is longer than the one-week performances in the Broadway Series.

December 14, 2018

PREVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, A Connecticut Christmas Carol

Goodspeed Musicals, Terris Theater, Chester CT,
through December 30, 2018
by R.E. Smith

Say the name “Goodspeed” to anyone in New England (or perhaps the country) with even the slightest knowledge of musical theatre and they will probably describe the majestic site of a well-restored late 1800’s Opera House sitting on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam CT.

However, that structure, and its dedication to the American musical, is really only half the story. Sitting a mere 5 miles south, in Chester, CT, is Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theater, dedicated to the discovery, creation and refinement of new American musicals. The shows staged here might not be quite ready for the lights of Broadway, but this place can get them closer than anywhere else. Chester center during the holiday season, with its festively lit shops and restaurants, is as quaint looking as any small town you would see in a Hallmark Channel movie, so it is only appropriate that the current production at the Terris is a new show called “A Connecticut Christmas Carol”.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
After debuting last year, this “Nutmeg state”-centric retelling of the Dicken’s classic returns and it continues to evolve and shape itself into a top-notch, family-friendly seasonal production. Speaking of winter. . .the show has not been “frozen”, meaning that it could/can/will undergo changes like many shows at the Terris do. At a talkback after the show there were a number of people who had seen both this year’s production and last’s, giving the author an opportunity to gauge what was thought of various changes. Some of those changes included the addition of a new song, an intermission and the switching out of an entire character.

While core figures like Scrooge and the Cratchits remain the same, various other characters, locations, and even the “spirits” are now decidedly Connecticut-themed. There are references and representations of notable regional figures such as Igor Sikorsky and JP Morgan, as well as famous Hartford landmarks and businesses. Like a kid’s cartoon with adult humor, the show can be enjoyed on multiple levels. Having knowledge of Connecticut history will enhance your enjoyment of the show, but it is not absolutely necessary to appreciate this timeless tale of redemption. L.J. Fecho’s book is rife with actual quotes from the famous denizens of the Constitution State, skillfully woven into the script.

Goodspeed’s long-standing musical director, Michael O’Flaherty has crafted some memorable new songs such as “How Can You Resist the Irresistible” and “Everyone But You” that practically beg for a bigger stage and a larger chorus. Robert Cuccioli as Scrooge/William Gillette, a Tony-nominated actor, leads the cast, so rest assured that this smaller second stage is in no way “second best”. The entire cast, many returning from last year, is talented and engaging, from Michael Thomas Holmes’ multiple “ghosts” to Robbie Berson’s Tiny Tim. Though familiar, the various scenes of past, present and future move along briskly and feature some inventive stagecraft.

No matter the season, a trip to a Terris Theatre production is an experience no musical theater buff should miss, and seeing “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” during the holidays is the gift any musical theater fan will appreciate.

December 10, 2018

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, A Holiday Celebration

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
December 8, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Holiday concerts are expected to have at least a smattering of familiar tunes and seasonal jokes, but the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s holiday program also celebrated the diversity of the community and the talent of many musical artists with a program that left the audience with a smile on their faces and warmth in their hearts.

From the time conductor Nick Palmer bounded onto the podium in red pants with candy canes, members of the Symphony, and the Springfield Symphony Chorus treated the audience to seasonal favorites and some special numbers that captured the magic of the holiday season.

Special guests including the Children’s Chorus of Springfield, Mary Lambert, Cantor Elise Barber, the Extended Family Choir, and young Brynn Cartelli, winner of NBC’s “The Voice” entertained the enthusiastic audience with songs and musical renditions that reflected a myriad of musical styles appealing to all ages. It was obvious that many families were introducing their youngest members to an evening at the symphony, and the children were treated to a few special appearances by Santa, who at one point, ascended the podium and conducted “Sleigh Ride” with some comic hip swings and an appropriately jaunty attitude.

The first hour of the concert featured a number of familiar tunes along with Cantor Elise Barber’s soulful interpretation of “Ki Eilecha” and “Ocho Kandelikas,” but the second hour left no doubt that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra is a first class musical organization. Their two selections, “Wizards in Winter” and “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” were breathtaking in their complexity, complementarity, and musicianship.

All received a well-deserved standing ovation for providing the sold-out audience with an evening of warmth and heart, despite the frigid temperature outside.

December 4, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Firsts

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 30–December 2, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

To open the second “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan selected the elegant “Polonaise” from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin.” The orchestra’s stately and refined account set a festive tone for the evening.

Szymon Nehring
The program continued with a sensational HSO debut by rising 23-year-old Polish pianist Szymon Nehring in a full-blooded performance of perhaps the best known of all piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s first. From the majestic introduction, through the lyrical Andante and the rip-roaring finale, Nehring, now a student of Boris Berman at the Yale School of Music, skillfully varied his touch from delicate to thundering as the music ran its volatile course. In a novel and engaging use of technology, an image of the keyboard was projected on a large screen above the Belding stage as Nehring played, making his fluid fingers visible throughout the hall. Kuan and the HSO supported him with equal passion and precision.  

A standing ovation brought Nehring back on stage for a dazzling rendition of the lively “Russian Dance,” one of three movements which Igor Stravinsky arranged for solo piano from his ballet “Petrushka” for Artur Rubinstein, who could hardly have done it better than his fellow Pole.

The concert closed after intermission with a vibrant account of Tchaikovsky’s seldom-heard first symphony, called “Winter Dreams” by the young composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes-episodic structure and slightly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. Committed playing by all HSO sections under Kuan’s dynamic leadership, from the haunting “Allegro” opening, through the dreamy “Adagio cantabile,” elfin “Scherzo,” and spirited finale, made a strong case for the piece.

Just before the symphony, Kuan tearfully recalled the sudden passing in October of HSO assistant principal cellist Eric Dahlin and expressed the musicians’ sorrow at his loss with a single red rose at his chair and a heartfelt performance of the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” This was a classy tribute to a beloved, world-class musician, who will be sadly missed by Hartford audiences.

November 8, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Fiddler on the Roof

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Joan Marcus
The oft-told tale of Tevye the milkman is given a fresh interpretation at Hartford’s Bushnell. Filled with timeless music composed by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, “Fiddler on the Roof” pays honor to tradition and nursing undying hope for the future. Opening night showed that this Broadway behemoth has lost none of its charm for the audience.

The success of this production lies largely, but not totally, on its central character. Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov makes a warm and welcoming Tevye. His sardonically funny quips and comments to God and the audience are full of just the right combination of chutzpah and sentiment. His Tevye is a feisty pushover to his strong-willed daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shrprintze, and Bielke. But his comic confrontations with his wife Golde show who wears the proverbial pants. Musically, Lazarov does a solid job with his fine baritone voice, particularly when singing the opening “Tradition” and his signature “If I Were a Rich Man.” Maite Uzal’s Golde demonstrates the tireless energy needed to keep abreast of Tevye and their five daughters.

Mel Weyn’s Tzeitel pleasantly joins her sisters in the sweeping “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Hodel (Ruthy Froch) also displays defiant strength when choosing love and devotion over tradition and oppression as she liltingly sings of her torn loyalty to Tevye “Far from the Home I Love.” But most rebellious of all is middle daughter Chava (Natalie Powers), whose inner strength towers above her small stature. Each daughter is well matched with her prospective groom: Tzeitel’s intended Motel (Jesse Weil, a rubber legged comic gem), Hodel’s beau Perchik (the sharp witted and blunt speaking Ryne Nardecchia), and Chava’s gentile boyfriend Fyedka (the sweetly affable Joshua Logan Alexander).

This production is visually sumptuous yet simple. The brown and red overcoats, peasant dresses, head scarves, and caps are carefully tailored by costume designer Catherine Zuber. The huge ensemble moves effortlessly in this historical garb choreographed to rousing effect by Hofesh Schechter and Christoper Evans. The stunning sunset backdrop for the wedding scene and the quiet hymn “Sunrise, Sunset” is by scenic designer Michael Yearn. Direction by Bartlett Sher cannot be faulted. The actors are all comfortable in their characters’ skin.

Worth noting is the final image of the silhouetted denizens of Anatevka, off to their various destinations (Poland, the Holy Land, and America) moving in a continuous circular caravan.

November 7, 2018

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The War, and Walt Whipple

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 9, 2018
by Konrad Rogowski

The new original play by Danny Eaton, “The War, and Walt Whipple,” lives up to the words that he writes in his director’s notes, … “a warm and gentle play.”

Photo by Kait Rankins
This is a story of war fought on two fronts, that of the great battles of World War II and the hard trials they bring to the Whipple family; and the war churning in Walt Whipple’s head and heart, as his home, his values, and his prejudices are assaulted by the realities of a world changing faster than he can. These conflicts are told as a retrospective by a narrator, “older Ted” (John Thomas Waite), setting the scenes, and offering the insights of Walt’s youngest son Teddy (Christopher Rojas).

Greg Trochlil’s set reflects a safe and homey space from which the Whipples take on their problems, big or small. Walt’s struggles, adeptly portrayed by Ron Komora, are paralleled by those of his family. His wife, Alice (Sue Dziura), keeps him in touch with all that he would prefer ignore, while bartering gas stamps with a black market, cigarette smoking nun.

Walt’s renter, Charlie (Cliff Blake), a man badly scarred by an industrial accident, deals with a world uncomfortable with his presence. Walt’s son Hank (Tom Dahl) is wheelchair bound as a result of the war, and longs to see his wife live a ‘normal’ life.

Eaton’s direction of these troubled characters strikes a fine balance between the drama of their lives, and the daily humor of life’s little surprises, and delivers genuine, solid performances across this cast. Truly, Walt faces many trials, like his three sons’ wives living with him while their husbands are at war, which strains the bounds of his set bathroom conventions. For Walt Whipple, a house full of women and the diverse perspectives and values they bring may just be his greatest challenge.

In the end, life goes on for the Whipples, and audience members feel good for having spent an evening with them on their warm and gentle journey through, and beyond, whatever life’s wars try them with.

November 6, 2018

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Beauty and the Beast

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
Through November 25, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

In her “Director’s Notes” for the OHP production of “Beauty and the Beast,” Becca Coolong attributes the continuing appeal of this “tale as old as time,” most recently retold in two Disney films and this popular Broadway musical, to the fact that it’s “a story of hope, of love, and of acceptance.” Her diverse cast of 30 singing actors, including a Beast with dreadlocks, brings it to colorful and affecting life.

With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, the story has two settings. The first is a medieval French village, where the bookish Belle (“Beauty”) and her artist father Maurice are regarded with curiosity by other townsfolk. The other is a nearby castle, where a prince has been transformed into a Beast for his selfishness and his servants are gradually turning into household objects. To recover his and their humanity, the Beast must learn to love Belle. 

Kaite Corda is a radiant Belle, with a gorgeous singing voice and acting chops to match. Frank Cannizzo’s Maurice is a dignified and doting father. While less impressive than his co-star, Silk Johnson's "the Beast" has perhaps the show’s most poignant moment, when he releases Belle from captivity to find her lost father. Tim Reilly plays the self-important ladies’ man Gaston with hilariously over-the-top swagger, and Harper Laino is a hoot as his obsequious henchman LeFou.

Kaite Corda & Tim Reilly
Musical highlights include: Reilly’s exuberant celebration of himself, “Gaston;” a joyous “Be Our Guest,” as Michael Graham Morales’ suave Lumiere and the Beast’s servants welcome Belle to his castle; a lovely “Beauty and the Beast” from Stevie Norman’s warm-hearted Mrs. Potts; and Erin Dugan’s Madame de la Grande Bouche deliciously nailing a coloratura Mozart aria passage.

Resourceful set design by Francisco Aguas allows for seamless transitions between the two settings, and musical director Devon Bakum’s four-member ensemble sound deceptively larger and consistently spot on. Inventive choreography by Krista Brueno, ingenious costume design by Moonyean Field, and Coolong’s skillful use of off-stage space at the company’s temporary home in the Enfield Annex (formerly Fermi High School) further enhance this entertaining production.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Brass & Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 2–4, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

To open the second “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony since 2005, selected Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s first published work, his “Little Suite” for strings. Dating from 1888, when Nielsen was 23 years old, its three short movements were expressively played by the HSO string section under Wilkins’s subtle, restrained leadership.

HSO Horn Section
The concert continued with the 1850 “Konzertstuck” (Concert Piece) for the unlikely combination of four horns and orchestra by Robert Schumann. The brash fanfare which opens the first of its three short movements introduces a variety of technical challenges over the next 20 minutes for the four soloists, in this case all members of the HSO horn section. Principal Barbara Hill and her colleagues John Michael Adair, Hilary Ledebuhr, and Nick Rubenstein made it a showpiece for their notoriously demanding instrument, and they received spirited backing from Wilkins and the orchestra.

Intermission was followed by a dramatic account of the 1883 third symphony by Schumann’s protégé Johannes Brahms. The quietest of the composer’s four symphonies, it was refreshing to hear the opening “Allegro con brio” movement played with more vigor than usual, as Brahms wanted. But Wilkins’s flexible approach also gave full play to the flowing languor of the “Andante” second movement and the reflective melancholy of the “Poco allegretto” third movement before the energetic “Allegro” finale subsides into a peaceful hushed close. The conductor’s focused direction elicited sensitive and committed playing from the ensemble.

The Saturday audience was so pleased with it that the program closed with an encore, a blazing rendition of the closing “Furiant” from the 1879 Czech Suite by Antonin Dvorak, a composer much admired and even mentored by Brahms. Here Wilkins was more animated than he had been all evening, and his warm reception suggested that his HSO debut this weekend should not be his last Hartford appearance.

REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through November 18, 2018
by Mary Kate Sylvia

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a classic play looking into injustice, the treatment of the mentally ill, and control. The play takes place in the 1960s in a mental asylum and showcases the treatment of those living an institution vs those who run it. Playhouse on Park and director Ezra Barnes remain faithful to the script, and do not shy away from its politically incorrect scenes which include homophobic slurs, racism against Native Americans, jokes about rape, and rampant sexism. The theatergoer must be aware that they will likely be uncomfortable. Warnings aside, the play is valuable through its discomfort and, in some cases, rectifies its jokes and shortcomings with insight into the prejudice that was made light of earlier in the play’s storyline.

Photo by Curt Henderson
Every actor in this production does a superb job individually, becoming their characters and giving them multidimensional personalities; even those who rarely speak. What is so nice about this particular cast is the chemistry among the entire ensemble. Every actor can play off their castmates realistically and enthrallingly so that the audience is left totally immersed in each scene. In a play as heavy as this, a cast that does not vibe well can effectively leave the production dragging itself to its miserable end. The Playhouse ensemble ensure that all the right beats are hit and dialogue snaps so that the audience stays immersed right up to the painful end.

Overall, Playhouse on Park’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is incredibly well done. The set is utterly clinical, and the stage features practical fluorescent lighting which gives off an eerie hum that perforates the audience in times of silence. The inclusion of the audience does not stop at a realistic set, however. A patient named Martini, played by Harrison Greene, suffers from severe hallucinations and uses the audience as his basis for them. Though funny, the hallucinations seem meant to invoke a feeling of helplessness or guilt from the audience. Those seated see the horror depicted onstage, are vicariously included multiple times, and yet can do nothing to stop it. Bluntly and figuratively, the production rips the audience’s heart out.

One final note; the lobby of Playhouse on Park is filled with pamphlets on different mental illnesses that theatergoers can take to learn more about social stigmas. It is thoughtful gesture and underscores the idea that, while the play may be irreverent, the subject matter has serious, “real world” implications.

October 27, 2018

In Memoriam: Jenn (Hebert) Marshall

In the Spotlight (and formerly Bravo Newspaper) note with sorrow the sad loss of Jenn (Hebert) Marshall. From the very start, Jenn and the entire Hebert family became synonymous with Exit 7 Players of Ludlow. Jenn was a producer, director, choreographer, actress, and teacher for the past 30 years. Jenn was one of the stalwarts of the Pioneer Valley’s excellent community theatres. To our local theatre world, her family, friends, and fans, Jenn is irreplaceable and will be missed. 

October 23, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Henry V

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

The wages of war run high and nowhere in the oeuvre of William Shakespeare is that seen more than in the saga of his titular king. A follow-up to the epic “Henry IV parts one and two,” “Henry V” explores the darker side of war with less comedy (mostly provided by the iconic buffoon Falstaff, whose death occurs at the top of this play) and focuses more on the moral choices of leaders and the consequences brought on to their people.

King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush) must decide whether to wage war on France to reclaim French soil that he believes rightly belongs to him. Urged on by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta) and the memory of his father, Henry decides to go forward to battle with France despite the pleadings and bribery of the King of France (Nafeesa Monroe). With much strife and hardship, including the loss of his beloved cousin, England reigns victorious leaving its enemy with massive casualties.

As directed by Hartford Stage’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, “Henry V” is pared down to its essentials: actors and text. The stage has been reconfigured into the round for this production, much to its advantage. Actors, particularly Peter Francis James, whose velvety voice clearly paints the time and place of the action, speak directly to the audience. Grush’s Henry also boldly addresses the audience as if to the Nobles who question his actions.

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
The cast is a perfect blend of actors of both genders performing various roles. Baron Vaughn stands out among the rest. His sharp wit and fluid delivery greatly liven up the play’s somber tone. Vaughn’s turns as Mistress Quickly and Fluellen display his brilliant grasp of Shakespeare’s language. Kate Forbes portrays various French officials with equal assurance. Anthony Michael Lopez nicely plays the waspish Dauphin. Karen Aldridge’s Duke of Exeter is stoically loyal to Henry. Miles Anderson as pistol has some mildly comic moments. Evelyn Spahr’s Anglo-challenged Katherine and Latta’s Alice (mis)interpretations bring much needed laughter. Grush’s Henry is deeply intense, much like a David facing his Goliath.

Set Designer Nick Vaughan’s work consists solely of a floor-inlaid map of England and France, leaving space for actors to interact. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are contemporary fatigues and uniforms in green, brown, and grey (Team Henry) and military blues (Team France). Stephen Strawbridge (Lighting Designer) and Matt Hubbs (Sound Designer) pointedly fill the space with flashing cannon blasts and smoke suggesting the fierceness of battle.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Berlioz and Rachmaninoff

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 20, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the second concert in the SSO’s 75th anniversary season and his own 18th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes presented three orchestral showpieces, including what he calls in the program book “the titan…in the pantheon of piano concertos.” Each piece requires a high level of virtuosity from all players, which every musician delivered abundantly.

The program opened with John Harbison’s 1985 “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra),” a musical reflection on The Great Gatsby which resurfaced in the overture to Harbison’s 1999 full operatic setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Jazzy and densely orchestrated, this lively eight-minute romp was executed with flair by the SSO and Rhodes, who also revealed that acting concertmaster Marsha Harbison is the Boston-based composer’s cousin and welcomed in the audience concertmaster Masako Yanagita, recovering from a broken shoulder sustained in a recent accident.

Natasha Paremski
Russian-born pianist Natasha Paremski next made what Rhodes later called “one of the most exciting debut performances I’ve ever conducted” in a dazzling account of that “titan…piano concerto,” Rachmaninoff’s third. Playing professionally worldwide since age nine, the 31-year-old’s technical facility and interpretive maturity came as no surprise. But her imaginative tempo shifts in the long opening “Allegro,” her radiant yet restless lyricism in the melancholy “Adagio,” and her fluid energy in the jubilant “Finale” revealed new facets in a work that can sound overfamiliar. Orchestra and conductor matched the intensity of their soloist.      

After a hilarious spoken introduction by Rhodes to the “Symphonie Fantastique,” the program closed with this one-of-a-kind 1830 masterpiece by Hector Berlioz. Its five movements colorfully depict a composer’s fever dream of his unrequited love for an actress in: a yearning “Largo;” a sparkling “Waltz;” a ruminative “Adagio;” a harrowing “March to the Scaffold;” and a feverish “Witches’ Sabbath.” The hyperkinetic Maestro and his ensemble pulled out all the stops, with woodwinds, brass, and percussion doing standout work, in an aptly shattering preview of Halloween.

The continuation of last season’s “real time notes” via cell phone after intermission seems to have attracted more young people to this concert and increased their enjoyment of the “Symphonie.”

October 18, 2018

REVIEW: Suffield Players, Ghost of a Chance

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 27, 2018
by Mary Kate Sylvia

The first thing the audience will notice as they walk into historic Mapleton Hall is a cabaret setting. Tables are set up with electric candles flickering in the center of each. After taking in the actual theater, it’s quick to note that set designer David Crowell’s staging is extraordinaire. The decor looks like a man cave mixed with a hunting lodge, which is just what the setting of this play calls for. From the little details, like the shoe rack stacked with various types of boots, to the large ones, like the exposed beams on the ceiling and the fireplace and chimney on stage left, the set pulls the audience in and prepares them for the show to come.

The play itself is interesting and attempts to fit quite a lot of commentary into its plot. It touches on life, death, dying, love, loss, relationships, and of course attempted murder. (Not one but two instances!) A major plot point is its seamless inversion of character traits. Each character changes immensely through the course of the play. Big, burly, and loveable mountain man Chance is not the same character at the show’s end. His constant romantic pursuit of Bethany has a more malicious tone at the end of the show than the audience might imagine at the beginning. Each character goes through a similarly unlikely change by the conclusion of “Ghost of a Chance”. The play is so immersive that the audience almost wonders what happens to these characters’ personalities even though they have been subtly changing the whole time.

 Save for a few opening night jitters, the cast performed very well. Each actor took his/her role wholeheartedly and acted without fear.  The stand out players were Barbara Gallow who portrays overbearing mother-in-law to be, Verna; and Mark Popovitch who plays her dweeby, good-natured son, Floyd. Gallow’s straight-faced delivery wins the audience over in the first scene. These two have fantastic onstage chemistry. They perfectly embody the comedic codependency trope and deserve every ounce of this praise for their hilarious portrayals.

All in all, “Ghost of a Chance” offers two distinctive ways of viewing. First, it is at its heart, a comedy filled with everything a comedy should have; romance, jokes, vacuuming up a dead husband. Second, this show can be looked at on a deeper level. It touches on many difficult issues and presents ways to cope. There is no need to be into edgy drama to enjoy this show, but “Ghost of a Chance” and Suffield Players offer a thought-provoking play which can invite further discussion

October 15, 2018

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT.
through November 25, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
In “The Drowsy Chaperone,” our narrator, known as “Man in Chair” says, “this musical is all about fun,” and how right he is! The plot is improbable, but that doesn’t matter. In this throwback to a day in which musicals were vehicles for singing, dancing, and tapping your toe, “The Drowsy Chaperone” draws on stereotypes and characterizations of old-style, 1920’s vaudeville and slapstick.  And the result is absolutely marvelous.

Director Hunter Foster has created an homage to the musicals of yesteryear with a heavy dose of warmth and heart. The stellar cast is headed by John Scherer, who as “Man in Chair” has a remarkable ability to create a rapport that draws the audience in to the small, basement apartment where he sits, feeling “blue.” To lift his spirits, he plays a record of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an old musical that has a link to his past. The characters come alive and act out the music while “Man” and audience become charmed by the cast of 18 talented actors.

Choreographed by Chris Baile who must use a shoehorn to fit everyone on the small Goodspeed stage, the show contains tap dancing, roller skating, and production numbers that include a biplane.  There is not a weak performer in the cast but some standouts include Jennifer Allen (Chaperone), Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet), Jay Aubrey Jones (Underling), and the brothers, Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh, as the well-coordinated slapstick duo (the Gangsters). Clyde Alves and Tim Falter are master tap dancers with strong voices, and John Rapson plays Aldolpho with loads of chutzpah. But without a doubt, this is “Man’s” show, and John Scherer tells the story of his favorite musical with passion and masterfully. There is a contemporary message, and the audience does not miss it. As “Man” reminds his audience, if musicals can lift your spirits and provide escape—they serve an important purpose. 

“The Drowsy Chaperone” won five Tony Awards, and the Goodspeed production sparkles just as well as the 2006 Broadway production. Music Director Michael O’Flaherty’s eight musicians sound like many more, and the book, written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, is often called a “valentine” to the tunes and people who created the Jazz Age musical. Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison leave nearly everyone humming the tunes and keep the good feeling going.  

Kudos to Goodspeed Musicals for this outstanding production and for giving their audiences a couple of hours to escape from reality and allowing them to feel pure joy.

REVIEW: Theaterworks, The River

Theaterworks, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2018
by Barbara Stroup

After its first three productions this season, Theaterworks will move temporarily to the Wadsworth Athenaeum while renovations are completed at the Pearl Street venue in the spring and summer of 2019. For its "renovation season" production, Theaterworks presents “The River” by Jez Butterworth. Inhabited by only three unnamed characters, the play focuses on The Man (and his method of serial seduction?), who brings The Woman to his inherited cabin to “fish.” He reveres the nearby river and the silver trout that, when conditions are perfect, are available to “catch.”

Critical restraint forbids revealing more than would rob future patrons of the enjoyment they deserve, so plot points cannot be contained here. There is an air of mystery to the reality of the two female characters, but no mystery envelopes the very real fish-gutting that The Man performs on stage, posturing and contemplating the silvery flesh on the table in front of him.

Patrons will not need hands-on experience with fly fishing to appreciate The Man’s speech about how his love of it began – it’s a beautiful fish story and the highlight of the play, raptly absorbed by The Other Woman. Their vows of love – forever - seem sincere. The Other Woman in turn reveals much about her past and describes the scene of her father’s death that is reminiscent of the fish just dressed before our eyes. Unfortunate staging places her back to the audience during the delivery of this speech.

Entrances and exits are pivotal in this play, and the set design aptly places them at center stage where they belong. Gentle night sounds permeate the intimate space and lighting works its magic, too. But too many mysteries abound during it all (and afterward as well) to lead to satisfactory drama. The Man might be trying hard to step in the same river twice but being witness to his success or failure does not allow the viewer much sympathy. The audience is held in the cabin as tightly as the two women, and breathed sighs of relief at the surprise ending. But all was not revealed, and much discussion must have ensued on the drive home.

The 2018-2019 season includes a return of “Christmas on the Rocks,” their popular holiday show.

October 12, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The Glass Menagerie

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through October 21, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Before the lights go down in the theatre, a Narrator steps forward from behind a back wall onstage to address the audience. He speaks the poetry of Tennessee William’s story, “The Glass Menagerie,” foreshadowing a world about to be revealed.

Photo by Daniel Rader
The set presents a huge, floor to ceiling, backdrop; lighting permits giant-sized human shadows; sounds emit thunder contrasted with notes of a violin. The era of the Great Depression with WWI looming forms the all-encompassing location. At the base is the small shabby Wingfield home. Amanda (the mother) and her two adult children reside here. The physical and emotional lives of each hang by a thread. The fragility of these individuals speaks intensely; anything can break the relationships and destroy the future.

Mark H. Dold, as son Tom, exhibits a man smoldering inside, so much that he is about to explode. His sole salvation from his miseries is as an erstwhile poet. Dold, a BSC Associate Artist, proves to continually outdo his acting skills with each play he takes on. His precise diction and enunciation automatically put him at the forefront onstage, yet never scene-stealing. In his dual role as the Narrator, Dold depicts a man who pretends to himself that he is wiser than Tom.

The gentle demeanor in movement and voice of Angela Janas, as Tom’s sister Laura, shows a young woman, literally holding on to whatever sliver of happiness she can imagine – because imagine is the best that she can do. Laura’s small glass animals bring her joy. There is a thin line between pitiful and sad. Janas never lets Laura become pathetic. A staging suggestion would be to bring Laura’s menagerie downstage or spotlight the glass toys, making this key element in the story more visible to the audience.

Caitlin O’Connell’s mother role gives her audience a picture of a woman with sweet, feigned memories of her past balanced with harsh reality of the present. O’Connell portrays Amanda with more humanity than others in this role. It seems a reasonable choice to give likability to Amanda. O’Connell’s delivery of lines is flawless, but she often addresses the audience directly, as if in monologues, instead of the characters she speaks to.

Certainly, casting actors best fit for his/her roles is vital to make a production successful. Just how old are these characters? Laura is six years out of high school. Tom is four years out. Neither actor’s real age comes close. Is this discrepancy a huge blunder? No. Yet, it is a surprise because Director Julianne Boyd and BSC are near perfect.