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.