Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.

October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 5–7, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

The “Star-Spangled Banner” launched this opening weekend program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season. On Saturday, when 10 Connecticut residents became American citizens at the orchestra’s second annual naturalization ceremony 90 minutes earlier on the same stage, Carolyn Kuanjj welcomed these new Americans to special seating at the concert. Beginning her eighth season as HSO Music Director after acquiring her own American citizenship at the same ceremony in 2017, Kuan led the national anthem with fervor and aplomb.

Both works that followed fittingly featured no guest soloists but the HSO itself in two orchestral showpieces which owe their existence to Boston Symphony maestro Serge Koussevitzky. When Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was treated for leukemia in New York in 1943, Koussevitzky offered him an orchestral commission, and the resulting five-movement “Concerto for Orchestra” has become one of Bartok’s most enduring masterpieces.

In a broad and sweeping account by Kuan and many HSO soloists, the opening “Introduction” was dark and haunting; the “Game of Pairs” was jaunty; the central “Elegy” was, in the composer’s own words, “a lugubrious death-song;” the “Interrupted Intermezzo” hilariously mocked the German march quoted in Shostakovich’s contemporaneous “Leningrad” symphony; and the upbeat “Finale” was a whirlwind of energy. In a classy touch, Kuan had the five pairs of woodwind soloists stand on their first appearance in the second movement.          

A magisterial reading after intermission of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” written in 1874 for solo piano and orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 for Koussevitzky’s pre-Boston orchestra in Paris, brought the program to a colorful and triumphant close. Mussorgsky depicts 10 paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann from a posthumous exhibit with music, including a repeatedly varied “promenade,” of immediate melodic appeal and great emotional depth.

While it might have been more instructive to project the Hartmann paintings which inspired Mussorgsky, the New Britain Museum of American Art exhibit “that provides a modern interpretation” of his art (listed in a program insert) is often stimulating and confirms the Maestra’s refreshing desire to think outside the box and engage with new community partners.

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Naked

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through  October 28, 2018
By Stuart Gamble

Luigi Pirandello’s puzzling, philosophical, and poetic drama “Naked” is set in Rome, Italy during the 1920’s or 30’s. This existential drama forces the audience to bare the truth of human existence while stripping away the lies that protect beings from despair, loneliness, and ultimately, death.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
“Naked” tells the story of Ersilia, a troubled woman who has just been released from a (mental?) hospital and is taken in by kindly novelist Ludovico Nota. Among the antagonists who threaten to dredge up her past include Ludovico’s gossipy landlady Signora Onoria, her jilted fiancĂ© Franco La Spiga, a trouble-making journalist named Alfredo Cantavalle, and her married lover Counsil Grotti. “Naked” is a pot boiling melodrama. Its audience is sure to anticipate and accept that all will probably not end well.

Berkshire Theatre Group’s actors are all well cast and well-played by this small ensemble. Tara Franklin, as Ersilia, has the most challenging role. She shows the seething rage of a woman manipulated by men, who nonetheless must cope with the consequences of the choices she’s made, including prostituting herself in economic need. Rocco Sisto, as Ludovico Nota, also shows great skill as a man who tries to care for and help heal Ersilia, through his eyes as an objective observer. James Barry’s (real-life spouse of Franklin) Franco La Spiga expresses great, operatic passion that seems missing from some of the other performers. Barbara Sims (Signora Onoria) and David Atkins (Alfredo Cantavalle) do the best they can with essentially (as written) one dimensional characters. Jeffrey Doormboss’ loathsome Consul Grotti has a scene with Franklin that is quite disturbing, echoing recent headlines.

Eric Hill directs with simplicity and honesty. Allowing the actors to speak directly and frankly with each other, he wisely avoids any artificial theatricality that would detract from the play’s serious, psychological themes. British playwright Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of “Naked” uses succinct, contemporary language that keeps the show’s running time to 90 minutes.

Costume designer Yoshi Tanokura dresses the actors in earthy browns, blues, white, and black suits and dresses that exemplify the period of Mussolini era fascism. Randall Parsons’ set design beautifully envelops the actors. The deeply cracked walls, newspaper-strewn floor, and piles of moldy books perfectly reflect the inner turmoil of these six characters in search of the meaning of life.

October 1, 2018

PREVIEW: Paradise City Festival, Pattern Play: Rhythm & Decoration in Art & Design

Paradise City Festival, Fair Grounds, Northampton, MA
October 6, 7, 8, 2018

Piece by Ira Frost
Playful, mesmerizing, seductive, even startling patterns captivate visitors at Paradise City Festival with their clever, intricate rhythms.

Patterns are all around us, playing an important role in our ability to navigate through life. Some scientific studies suggest seeing patters will even make you smarter. And what a pleasure it is to be mesmerized by the pattern found in a snowflake’s design, a tiger’s symmetrical stripes, or the never-ending spiral of a shell.

Following in nature’s footsteps, artists use patterns to repeat or echo important ideas in their work, letting a pattern communicate a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, or movement. Drawing patterns is one of the oldest art of rms. Think of the re pleating patters of lotus leaves carved into the great tombs and monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs. From the 7th century on, the ultimate pattern masters had to be the Islamic artists whose geometric patterns still inspire our awe in magnificent buildings throughout the world.

Piece by David Winigrad
At Paradise City, artists and makers of all stripes continue to enchant with their pattern play. Handmade textile and clothing designers turn useful coast and scarves into fashion extravaganzas wit the clever us of repeating designs. Jewelers transfix us with gold, silver, and precious stones  placed in delicate, rhythmic arrangements.  Painters, photographers, ceramicists, woodworkers, glass blowers, and all manner of metalsmiths us patterns to create works of art that let us lose ourselves in their intricacy.

This year’s Paradise City’s theme is “Pattern Play!” Discover the mysterious power of patterns to communicate ideas, create new connections, and spin a web that draws you deep into the artist’s imagination.

On-the-Road: Eclipse Mill Gallery

Eclipse Mill Gallery, Preparing for its 14th Annual Open House
North Adams, MA
by Shera Cohen

1881 Drawing, Eclipse Mill
Each year I include one venue that is new, at least to me, to write about in my summer Berkshire articles. Surprisingly, I had never heard of Eclipse Mill Gallery which has been in its present stage for over 15 years, and in its initial stage as a cotton mill started in 1896. Until now, my visits to North Adams were only to visit Mass MoCA while en route to other art offerings in nearby Williamstown.

Gail Sellers, part-owner with her husband Phil, of Riverhill Pottery was the guide for five woman, each dabblers or professionals in various performing arts genres. None of us came with a great deal of knowledge about the creation of visual art and crafts. Of course, we each had our own personal tastes.

A huge thank you to Gail who gave us a three-hour private tour of many of the studios/lofts, along with walks through the hallways that once housed cotton-making machines. Her discussion encompassed an historic look at this long stretching building of brick and pipes and its role in the growth of North Adams. The three-floor factory had been carefully restored, now housing 35 artists, each site with 14-foot ceilings and 10- foot windows. Every unit is unique in size and shape. Eclipse Mill is its own neighborhood.

More and more, some communities, especially those throughout New England, are restructuring factories and other such large buildings for modern-day purposes. What a wonderful alternative this repurposing philosophy is to the “tear it down” years. It is obvious that Gail and Phil, her husband are effusive in their pride of what the Mill has become.

We had the rare opportunity to be invited to meet six artists, their studios/homes, and their works. Most are “locals,” meaning that the artist had lived in the Berkshires proper before moving to Eclipse. Like Gail, there is a commonality in their appreciation of the landscape and leisure of this aesthetic piece of New England.

Art genres not only included the expected visual arts (painting, sculpture, guilting, photography, metal-work) but performing art as well. One dance choreographer/teacher taught us a few moves prior to her students’ class. An instrument builder gave us a chance to show off our terrible skills on his finely carved design.

Gail & Phil Sellers pottery
I had anticipated that Gail arranged some “peaks” into the art and homes of her selected group. But, even better -- each artist was extremely welcoming, inviting us in, answering questions about their creative process, and showed us such mundane things as the bathroom – unique and artsy, of course. Whenever questioned, each took the opportunity to explain the conception, the process, and the meaning of the piece of art.

Every few months a trio of artists produce their own gallery design in a large, empty space. This is the formal setting for visitors to attend Eclipse events and to appreciate the finished products of the artists’ labors. The displays feature disparate genres, which makes the setting eclectic and enjoyable.

Gail and Phil generously opened their studio.  If there had been a contest for “best studio,” this unit would have received a score of 10 in many categories. Their genre – rope woven pottery; their home – seemingly as long as two city blocks; their design – a circular-fashioned connection of living space and studio. This was a gem.

Julia Dixon, painter
Before readers think, isn’t this lovely that North Adams’ folk make arts and crafts for fun, think again. Each is a professional in his/her field, having exhibited and sold commissions throughout the world. However, the walls boast the works of most of the tenants – Eclipse is a museum in its own right.

The fact that these professional artists permitted five strangers into their homes, cheerfully welcoming us, was lovely to experience.

Eclipse Mill will host the 14th annual North Adams Open Studios,  Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14, from 11 am to 5 pm both days. The event is free and fully handicap accessible. The Eclipse Mill is at 243 Union Street , North Adams.