Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 28, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 25, 2018
by Shera Cohen

It’s difficult to think of a writing team of opposites whose work together (albeit, each from a different century) creates a near-perfect weaving of mystery and wit. Hartford Stage’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is a seamless script with elements of illusions and macabre from Queen of Crime author Agatha Christie placed in the hands of Ken Ludwig, one of the 21st century’s best playwrights whose forte is humor.

Hartford Stage’s production presents its audience with a gift – which on every level looks like the exact image of an authentic train called The Orient Express, complete with a cast of a dozen dazzling characters. Before any significant action, it is clear that a story of upper crust glamour is about to hit the rails. Equal to the talent of the play’s director and actors is the exquisite precision by set designer Beowulf Boritt, sound designer Darron L. West, and costume designer William Ivey Long. Spotlight’s reviews usually end with a short comment or two on the accomplishments of those backstage geniuses. In the case of “Orient Express,” this triumvirate of talent must be given special accolades. Boritt’s creation of the exterior and three-car interior of a decadent mid-20th century European train, West’s music and sound effects’ programming, and Long’s expensive fashions are nearly as important as the actors in telling Christie and Ludwig’s story.

Over the years, many Hercule Poirots have taken to the movie screens and television, conjuring up various personal images of this private investigator extraordinaire. Actor David Pittu, creates our over-dressed, well-spoken, intellectual hero. With Ludwig’s dialogue and emphasis on merriment more than mystery, Poirot reminds us of a dignified Inspector Colombo. Pittu is a slight man, yet in his own quiet way presents a Poirot whose presence shadows all other actors, as he well should. Pittu does, however, have competition from Julie Halston, an excellent actress playing a poor actress – that must be difficult. Emily Mann has directed her cadre of actors to play over-the-top, befitting their characters, aka suspects.

Perhaps, oddly, the question of “who the murderer is” wasn’t that important to me. Watching the wheels in Pittu’s brain lead Poirot to deduce the events leading up to the disastrous deed, was fascinating. Not that I’m a genius or that I had seen the movie, but I did guess the culprit shortly into Act II. It was Ludwig’s deft hand at comedy that was paramount over mystery, and that was perfectly fine

February 25, 2018

HSO: The Keys to Romance

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
February 16–18, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the fifth “Masterworks Series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan presented what the orchestra’s web site billed as “a night of epic love” in music for Valentine’s Day weekend.

The concert began with a ravishing performance of the tender “Intermezzo” from Pietro Mascagni’s beloved 1890 one-act opera of tragic, doomed love, Cavalleria Rusticana. This was followed by an affectionate account of Haydn’s last symphony, the fruit of a mutual love affair between the Austro-Hungarian master and his British admirers. Nicknamed the “London” for its rapturous reception there in 1795, this 104th symphony features a spacious opening “Adagio-Allegro,” a gripping theme-and-variations “Andante,” a courtly “Menuet,” and a sparkling “Spiritoso” finale. It glowed in the warmth of a classically reduced HSO.  

Anderson & Roe
The second half of the evening belonged to the Anderson and Roe piano duo, formed in 2002 by Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe as students at the Juilliard School with the mission, in their words, “to make classical music a relevant and powerful force around the world.” Their first two selections included full orchestral backing. The mercurial opening movement of Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra,” reflecting his love of Parisian popular music, was humorous and unpredictable. Anderson’s imaginative “Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen for Two Pianos and Orchestra” showcased even more virtuosity by all the musicians, especially the soloists, in another story of love and death.

But they came into their own when the orchestra left the stage. After a lush “Night of Love” movement from Rachmaninoff’s first suite for two pianos, the duo moved into livelier territory with four excerpts from Bernstein’s Romeo-and-Juliet update, West Side Story. By their finale, a tempestuous “Tango” by Astor Piazzolla, they had switched seats several times at one piano, reached across each other’s hands at the keyboard, and plumbed the piano strings in a full-on display of the high spirits that have made them a YouTube sensation.

Alongside Kuan in Oprah mode, Anderson and Roe introduced each piece with engaging commentary, earning extra kudos from an enthusiastic audience that would welcome their early return to Hartford.

10X10 New Play Festival

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through March 4, 2018
by Shera Cohen

The numbers add up well for the 7th annual “10X10 New Play Festival” as 6 actors portray over 20 roles in 10 plays (each 10 minutes in length) penned by 10 playwrights under the astute direction of 2 creative professionals. Although I don’t know the number of seats at Barrington’s St. Germain Stage, the plays hosted a full house for its opening performance.

While the plays are short, each is a complete full story with a beginning and end. Other common denominators include: small casts, very little staging, few props, and costumes pretty much off the rack (except for one). Judiciously connecting these “playettes” (it’s fun to coin a word) are music and sound effects. Segues are filled with ideally selected and arranged well-known songs or improv jazz. In other words, it’s a fast afternoon at the theatre.

Given one week to rehearse these 10 plays, the result is perfectly charming. Most stories are comic, featuring only two characters. Each actor depicts roles in four or five plays. These skilled actors seem to turn on an internal switch as they change from a precocious middle-schooler to the Virgin Mary, in one example. Kudos to the playwrights who add elements of poignancy into the comedies and humor into the tragedies. In the mix is one laugh-out-loud slapstick, with no dialogue, titled “The Fly.”

Isn’t it wonderful for Barrington Stage to highlight the works of so many writers? Some playettes work better than others, but remember than none are destined for Tony Awards, and are only 10 minutes long. My favorites include: “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” depicting the awkwardness of a young teen couple wannabe; “Perspective,” taking the subjects off a Michelangelo-type canvas, giving them New York accents and contemporary swagger, and dissing Mona Lisa’s obviously fake smile; and “The Secret to a Healthy Relationship,” demonstrating how a romance can go awry in a matter of minutes.

This exciting and hugely successful Barrington Stage program is a significant component of Pittsfield’s 10X10 Upstreet Arts Festival which also features art exhibits, films, museum activities, poetry, and dance. Pittsfield, like many middle-sized somewhat snow-covered New England cities is “open” to visitors seeking arts and culture in the off-season.

February 14, 2018

SSO: Vivaldi Four Seasons

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
February 10, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Many years ago, when eager to find a dance critic for Bravo Newspaper, two prominent dancers told me, “Just write the review yourself.” I didn’t feel comfortable doing what they suggested, considering that my knowledge of dance is somewhat limited to only what I like. “That’s exactly what we are saying,” repeated the dancers. “Say what you like, and you have a review.”

Classical music, for me, falls in the similar category of not knowing the subject matter very well. Admittedly, my understanding of music far exceeds that of dance. Yet, I can’t quite define words like fortissimo, and others with Latin roots. That said, this “review” is one for people who like, even love, music but are by no means an expert. I am guessing that this is a large group who made up the near-full house at Symphony Hall last evening.

Caroline Goulding
My guess that the primary reason for the near-full house at Symphony Hall was the performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Many of us have heard segments of this popular classical music. However, the SSO and solo violinist Caroline Goulding had their work cut out for them, playing all four movements in full. Goulding stood for the program, instrument in hand, looking at her sheet music on the stand in front of her, literally putting her entire body into the concert. This petite young woman brought each season to her audience with unexpected power.

As much as Vivaldi was the “draw,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92 was so mesmerizing that, frankly, I forgot to take my usual review notes. Occasionally closing my eyes brought the piece even closer to my soul. I was unfamiliar with this particular Beethoven work. Yes, I liked it. I loved it.

Some other notes on my symphony experience…

Venue – Symphony Hall is the acoustically and aesthetically premiere venue in the Pioneer Valley. If you’ve never visited, take a short walk-about at an SSO concert, especially to the second floor Mahogany Room.

Text Messages – A new element for some audience members to enhance their symphony experience are tidbits of information displayed on Iphones simultaneous with the notes performed on the stage. Not being technologically savvy, I did not participate, but many did.

Program Book – It’s chockfull of information on the selections, soloists, conductor, and composers. No worries, a “Jeopardy” quiz will not follow. However, given some insight adds to the enjoyment and understanding of the classical music.

Apparel – Remember the years when it was mandatory to wear your best duds to the symphony and similar cultural happenings? While I think it’s lovely to dress up to add a bit of elegance to your evening, the dress code has changed.  I don’t recommend cut-off holes in the knees jeans, but just about anything comfortable goes.

Advice to the novice classical music listeners – several SSO concerts remain in its 2017/18 season. Check their website, then check them out.

Sister Act-The Musical

The Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through February 25, 2018
by Rebecca Phelps

Hats off to The Opera House Players as they celebrate their 50th anniversary of producing and performing quality and affordable musical theatre in northern and central Connecticut.  Although sad to leave their home of the past 15 years in the historic Broad Brook Opera House, they plan on returning to their original location in Enfield, CT next season and continue their mission. For all its quirkiness and theatrical challenges (virtually no wing space, no access to backstage without passing through the audience, no orchestra pit) the Opera House is homey, comfortable, rife with charm and historic interest, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

The show “Sister Act,” is not to be confused with the movie of the same name. The musical has a completely different score. The songs are much more Broadway and less Hollywood, with no shortage of rousing numbers, just made for harmonizing and choreographic opportunities for women in habits.

Depending entirely on its actor/singers to carry the energy and character development, there are minimal sets or technical aspects. With a somewhat slow start, the musical picked up speed, and by the finale the audience was on their feet with enthusiasm and appreciation for the obvious energy, fun and talent displayed by the cast and this heart-warming tale of forgiveness and redemption.

Especially notable were Mother Superior, played to a the hilt by newcomer to Opera House Players Jenna Levitt; and Tracy Funke as Sister Mary Patrick -- a real scene stealer with her high energy and exuberant dancing. Dennis J. Scott portrayed the perfect villain and his side kicks made equally entertaining back-up singer/dancers. Jim Metzler was hilarious as the deadpan Monsignor; and as Deloris, Nikita Waller’s vocals were fabulous, sensitive and not overplayed. The skillful five-piece pit band lead by Kim Aliczi did a stupendous job of providing all the high powered momentum without drowning out the performers.

“Sister Act” was an evening of pure, unadulterated fun.

February 3, 2018

SSO: Mozart Piano Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 20, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth concert in the SSO’s 74th season and his own 17th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, he chose three musical pieces whose “power, drama, and turbulence” reflect the revolutionary politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in which they were written by the three greatest composers of the day.

Haydn’s symphonies and string quartets are staples of the classical repertoire, but his twenty-plus operas are almost never performed. So it was a rare pleasure to hear as the evening’s opener the overture to his opera “The Desert Island,” in which two sisters are stranded for 13 years on a deserted island before they’re rescued. The brief but tempestuous score received an aptly dramatic reading from Rhodes and the SSO.

Diane Walsh
Seasoned American pianist Diane Walsh next made her SSO debut in Mozart’s tumultuous twentieth piano concerto. She echoed the almost frightening power of the orchestral introduction with the force of her opening solo in the “Allegro” first movement, then rendered the contrasting radiance of the “Romance” with lyrical breadth, and the dark energy of the closing “Rondo” with brilliant urgency. The stunned audience rose to its feet in appreciation not only of Walsh’s virtuosity but for the equally impassioned playing of the SSO and leadership of Rhodes.     

The program closed after intermission with a visceral account of Beethoven’s third, or “Eroica” (Heroic), symphony, revolutionary for its new harmonies and unprecedented scale (twice as long as most earlier symphonies). From the brisk opening notes through the somber “Funeral March,” the scintillating scherzo, to the triumphant theme and variations of the finale, Rhodes and the orchestra inflected the music with shifting but always forward moving tempos that hammered home the still shattering impact of this two-hundred-year-old masterpiece. 

In a tradition continued from the start of this season, Rhodes announced that audience members in the balcony could again receive “real time notes” about the Eroica on their cell phones while the music played. The large number of young people present seemed delighted.

HSO: A Scottish Fantasy

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 19–21, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, guest conductor Stefan Sanderling took his listeners on a musical journey through Scotland.

The concert opened with “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise,” which the Boston Pops commissioned Sir Peter Maxwell Davies to write in 1985. Born in Manchester, England, Davies had lived in the Scottish Orkney Islands since 1970, and after depicting a local wedding and its drunken aftermath, this 13-minute piece concludes with the next day’s sunrise, “denoted,” in Davies’ words, “by the entry of the bagpipe.” Kilt-clad Manchester (CT)-based piper Mike MacNintch processed dramatically from the rear of the Bushnell’s Belding Theater to the stage, and the delighted audience rewarded him, the HSO, and Sanderling with a standing ovation for their vivid performance of this colorful score.

Gareth Johnson
The evening’s second soloist, violinist Gareth Johnson, was next featured in a riveting account of Bruch’s 1880 “Scottish Fantasy,” whose four movements quote several Scottish folk songs. With technical flair and an interpretive maturity beyond his thirty-two years, the accomplished soloist captured all the piece’s varied moods, from the poignancy of the opening “Prelude,” the buoyancy of the surging “Allegro,” the ardor of the lyrical “Andante Sostenuto,” to the bracing grandeur of the “Finale.” HSO principal harpist Julie Spring excelled in her featured role, while orchestra and conductor provided exemplary support.

Intermission was followed by a thrilling rendition of Mendelssohn’s third symphony, inspired by his 1829 visit to Scotland and nicknamed the “Scottish” symphony by the composer himself, who quotes not a single folk tune in its four movements, which are played without pause. From the brooding opening and stormy development of the “Andante…Allegro,” to the exuberant high spirits of the “Vivace,” the sublime rapture of the “Adagio,” and the lively excitement, then majesty of the finale, Sanderling drew passionate, committed playing from all sections of the ensemble.

Son of the late legendary conductor Kurt Sanderling, whose gravitas he mixed with a lighter touch, Stefan Sanderling made a distinguished HSO debut with this program and, from the audience’s warm reception, he would be welcome to return anytime.

February 1, 2018

Something Rotten!

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 4, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Imagine Shakespeare with punky dyed hair, ever-so tight black leather pants, shirt open to the naval who could pass as Sting’s identical twin. He is one of the 30 or so characters in the hilariously funny “Something’s Rotten” […as “in the state of Denmark”]. The title is an instant clue that, to some degree, “Hamlet” will be significant. But, you say, I don’t like Shakespeare, don’t understand it, haven’t read a play since high school, and left my Cliff Notes at home. Not to worry. Playgoers familiar with The Bard have a slight edge up on appreciating “Rotten,” however, the humor is accessible to everyone. It also helps to be a Broadway buff.

Written by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, their story’s leads are brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, poor wannabe playwright contemporaries of Shakespeare. While the latter is #1 on the Best Seller list, Nick & Nigel have yet to even make the bottom of the list. “Rotten” is their journey from obscurity to continued obscurity. Sounds like a downer. Ah, but there’s the rub – this show is the exact opposite. In fact, it is one of the most sidesplitting musicals I’ve seen. The N&N duo are so na├»ve and sweet at the center of the saga, while most of the uproarious comedy surrounds them.

Rob McClure (Nick), Josh Grisetti (Nigel), and Adam Pascal (Shakespeare) star. McClure is a slight man with a loud voice whose character has big hopes. We love him. Grisetti plays nerdy to perfection. It’s not until Act II that the audience is given the opportunity to hear his magnificent tenor voice. Pascal portrays pompous with a capital “P.” His lines and lyrics are so fast that you might have to strain your ears a bit to catch up with his words, but it’s worth the effort. Pascal’s “Hard to Be the Bard” is my favorite.

“Rotten” is a rare musical. Just when you think you’ve seen the absolute funniest section of a song/dance number and you think the piece can’t possibly be better, it tops itself. “A Musical,” the show-stopper in Act I, and “Make an Omelette,” the Act II show-stopper are perfect examples. “Rotten” is jam-packed with hummable songs (ballads, country, gospel, and lots of rock), rapid-fire tap-dancing (the dance-off between Nick and Shakespeare is a hoot), colorful period costumes, and musician quartet (sounding like a full orchestra).

Kudos to the Bushnell on its opening night full house for a relatively new musical.