Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 17, 2019

Review: The Bushnell, The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 20, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Irreverent, hilarious, and sophomoric, “The Book of Mormon” has become a cult classic. With book, music, and lyrics written by Matt Stone, Robert Lopez, and Trey Parker, the show won the 2011 Tony for Best Musical on Broadway and since 2012, has spawned touring companies all over the world. The company presently performing at the Bushnell is an energetic, fully committed group of 34 actors who obviously revel in presenting this over-the-top show with tunes you might be appalled to learn, linger in your head for days.

There is not a weak performer on stage, but magic happens between Liam Tobin (Elder Price) and Jordan Mathew Brown (Elder Cunningham), two devout Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to convert the natives to what they passionately believe is the true religion. These two charismatic actors work brilliantly together. Once in Africa, they find poverty, a sadistic war lord, and a group of jaded villagers who have been the target of do-gooders for years, with no appreciable improvement in their lives. The Mormons are ill prepared for the horror of life in Uganda, and thus, the set up for whether redemption may or may not take place that fuels the through-line of the story. Elder Cunningham, an inveterate liar, becomes an unexpected hero when he converts Nebulungi (a stunning Alyah Chanelle Scott) to Mormonism, having found a way of expressing the idea of the Church of Latter Day Saints without ever reading or understanding many of the core beliefs.

Audiences should realize that this type of show—especially with authors who are known for their irreverent and non-politically correct animated television show, “South Park,” will contain possibly offensive language and situations. Indeed, at least two audience members left during Act I, but the comedy comes from satirizing religion and youthful passion for doing what you’ve learned is the “right thing.”

What makes the show a real winner is the music. When Tobin sings “I Believe,” he is so convincing that the audience can’t help but better understand a young man’s zeal for making a difference in the world. When Brown sings “I Am Here For You,” his compassion for his new friend shines through. Big production numbers are plentiful but two standouts are “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (with guest appearances by Lucifer, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Darth Vader), and “I Am Africa” (Mormon and Villager ensembles) in which true compassion for humanity triumphs over cultural materialism and religious fervor.

The production was appropriately summed up by one of the audience members who said, “It’s just so good to feel free to laugh this much.” That’s a tribute to a great show that understands its mission.

October 15, 2019

PREVIEW: Classical Music World Premieres, Tres Classique

Kimball Towers, Springfield, MA
October 16, 2019

There will be a world premiering of the musical works of composer Timothy Ballan, on October 16 from 5:30-6:30pm at Kimball Towers located at 140 Chestnut Street in Springfield. These solo and chamber works were each written within the past year, most written specifically for performance by the Très Classique ensemble.

Of his compositions, Ballan says that “Each of the pieces is evocative of traditional Americana, whether in the landscapes and times they bring to mind or the folksong-like melodies around which they center."

The pieces on the program are as follows:

1. Vocalise (for solo wordless voice)
2. Glances Through an Arboretum (for flute and piano)
3. American Folk Song (work for solo piano)
4. The River (for flute and piano)
5. The Hidden Thought (art song for piano and voice)
6. Five Songs for the Countryside (five-movement work for solo piano)

Timothy Ballan is a composer and writer who has been teaching piano in Western MA since the age of 17, and currently lives in Agawam. He holds a Certificate of Piano Pedagogy from Valley City State University, and national certification in piano pedagogy from the Music Teachers National Association.

In his compositions, Timothy is mostly influenced by Western and non-Western folk music, melodic cinematic music, and minimalism. The scale of his nearly 100 works ranges from solo to symphonic.

Très Classique is supported by grants and donations, most particularly the Springfield Cultural Council, to bring live classical music to underserved neighborhoods.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

All the ingredients for chamber music heaven came together in this concert: arguably the finest string quartet now before the public; three cornerstones of the string quartet repertoire over three centuries; and ideal acoustics in a storied venue.

Formed in 1976 and named after American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, three of the quartet’s founders are still members: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate first and second chairs, and violist Lawrence Dutton. In 2013 founding cellist David Finckel was succeeded by Paul Watkins, to whom the program notes attribute “a profound effect” on the ensemble, infusing it “with a warm, rich tone and a palpable joy in the collaborative process.”

The concert opened with first violinist Setzer leading a relaxed performance of Mozart’s late (1789) Quartet in D Major, K. 575. An arrestingly gentle opening “Allegretto” set the stage for a lyrical “Andante,” a lively “Menuetto” and trio, and a serene “Allegretto” finale. The Emersons’ trademark technical precision was enhanced by a sweet and singing sound.

Moving ahead to a century later (1878), the program’s first half ended with a glowing account of Dvorak’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51 with Drucker as first violinist. A sunny opening “Allegro ma non troppo” precedes a melancholy “Dumka,” or Slavic lament, a graceful “Romanza,” and a rousing “Allegro assai” finale, partly in the rhythm of a fast Czech dance called the skocna. The players captured the full range of the quartet’s shifting moods with unerring accuracy.

Intermission was followed by a gripping rendition, with Setzer back in the first violin chair, of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5, in B-flat Major, Op. 92. Though written in 1951, it was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953. Selzer asked the audience to imagine the quartet’s effect on its first listeners, after a period when Shostakovich and other Soviet artists were routinely persecuted for their work. The Emersons played the three continuous movements – an earthy “Allegro,” a haunting “Andante,” and a stark “Moderato” – with eerie intensity.

The first season in the second century of this iconic chamber music series founded in 1918 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge could not have ended on a higher note.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue

Hartford Symphony, The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 11-13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To launch the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and her own 9th season as its Music Director, Carolyn Kuan selected an all-American program which fittingly began with the traditional season-opening singalong national anthem, backed by a projection of the American flag behind the stage of the Belding Theater at the Bushnell.

The concert proper kicked off in high gear with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide Overture.” In an elegant, refined account, Kuan’s careful balancing of orchestral sections at a barely restrained tempo revealed more inner detail than often emerges in a live performance of this exuberant score, but with no loss of the requisite excitement.

Kevin Cole
Long recognized as one of the world’s leading Gershwin pianists, Kevin Cole next played  an energetic rendition of that composer’s virtuosic “I Got Rhythm” Variations, followed by an even more bracing presentation of his jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue.” Kuan and the musicians supported him with panache in both works, particularly principal clarinetist Curt Blood’s sinuous take on the opening clarinet solo in “Rhapsody.” Standing ovations brought Cole back on stage for two solo encores: his own dazzling embellishments on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and, one more time, “I Got Rhythm.”

In a brief interview by Kuan between pieces, Cole told her that he had probably played “Rhapsody” over a thousand times by now. Even more remarkably, he has been deaf in one ear since 2018.

The concert closed after intermission with a vibrant account of what many critics consider “the great American symphony,” Aaron Copland’s third. Written in 1944-1946, it incorporates the composer’s famous 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man” in its last movement. Committed playing by all HSO sections under Kuan’s dynamic leadership, from a spacious opening “Molto moderato,” through a forceful “Allegro molto,” a brooding “Andantino quasi allegretto,” and a stirring final “Molto deliberato – Allegro risoluto,” made a strong case for the piece.

The American theme of this program was also appropriate to follow the third annual naturalization ceremony in which this year ten Connecticut residents became new citizens of the United States on the Belding stage just before the Saturday concert.

October 8, 2019

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, Nunsense

Apologies to Playhouse on Park are in order. Due to technical difficulties, this review is posting much later than expected. Luckily, there is still time for readers to see this production!

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 13, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Dan Goggin’s silly, infectiously funny musical comedy “Nunsense” has found a welcoming home at Playhouse on Park. Goggin’s show first premiered in 1986, winning the Outer Critic’s Award, was filmed for TV’s A&E Network featuring actress Rue McClanahan, and has spawned four sequels. But it’s always good to go back to the beginning.

The cast of Nunsense
The Little Sisters of Hoboken, NJ are having a fundraiser to pay for the burials of four of their sisters, who are among the 52 of their fellow sisters who’ve perished from tainted vichyssoise. Heading the Order is the imposing Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) who is ably assisted by Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter). In addition, there’s the nuns’ chauffer and physical education teacher Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), ever-forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), and blithe Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland). Despite some obstacles along the way, these habited ladies reach their goal.

First of all, the multi-talents of these five performers must be praised. Since “Nunsense” is a pastiche of musical numbers and comedy routines, its structure is a bit loose. While most of the numbers are tuneful, they are mostly unmemorable. The comedy also runs the gamut of outrageously hilarious to utterly lifeless. Examples of the former include the conclusion Act I when Reverend Mother inhales a bottle of “Rush” found in a student’s gym locker, which causes her to slur her speech, literally fall and not get up. The other is Sister Robert Anne’s shtick that includes stand-up jokes and imitations of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Miss Gulch (riding in on a bicycle and a witch’s hat), Cher, Judy Garland, and even Katherine Hepburn. The low points include Sister Amnesia’s sadly unfunny puppet routine with her lips moving to boot. Perhaps it would have worked better with only the puppet visible to the audience.

Musically, these five women can truly sing and dance angelically: Sister Mary Leo’s graceful ballet moves, the four Motherless Nuns snappy tap dancing (in colorful blue, green, black, and purple tap shoes from Costume Designer Lisa Ann Steier), and Sister Amnesia’s lovely soprano. Three numbers stand-out: Sister Hubert and Rev. Mother’s duet “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” Sister Robert Anne’s show stopper “I Just Want To Be A Star,” and especially Sister Hubert’s grand finale, the Gospel-inspired, high-spirited “Holier Than Thou.” Congratulations to Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller and Musical Director Melanie Guerin for bringing this wonderfully, feel-good show to local audiences.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 6, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Chamber music concerts most often feature duos, trios, or quartets. This one presented an unusual program of one string sextet and two string octets, including the acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and a brand new piece commissioned for the current ensemble.

Founded in 1958 by conductor Sir Neville Marriner and now led by Music Director (and violinist) Joshua Bell, the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra formed its chamber ensemble in 1967, according to their program notes, “to perform the larger scale chamber music repertoire with players who customarily worked together.” The performers at South Mountain are all principal players of the orchestra.

Only two days after giving its world premiere in Columbus, Georgia, the ensemble opened the concert with British composer Sally Beamish’s 18-minute Partita for String Octet. She writes that since a partita is “traditionally a suite for a solo instrument,” she treats the eight musicians as both “a single entity” and “an ensemble of soloists.” Incorporating subtle quotes from Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn respectively, its three short movements sparkled with grace and stylistic variety in this nimble performance.

The program’s first half ended with a heartfelt account of the second string sextet by Brahms. Completed in 1865, the piece recalls the composer’s deep infatuation of several years earlier with the young soprano Agathe von Siebold. From a glowing opening “Allegro non troppo” through a delicate “Scherzo” and tender “Poco adagio” to a life-embracing “Poco allegro” finale, the ensemble was deeply engaged.

Intermission was followed by a stunning rendition of Mendelssohn’s octet, which quotes the same Handel theme as Beamish does. Dating from 1825, when the composer was only sixteen, its most famous movement is the fleet “Scherzo,” which these musicians played exactly as Mendelssohn specifies: “Allegro leggierissimo” (as fast and light as possible). They were equally commanding in the brisk opening “Allegro,” the radiant “Andante,” and the exuberant closing “Presto.” 

The scenic Berkshire setting in the wooded hills of Pittsfield and the warm acoustics of the 101-year-old concert hall has attracted discerning audiences since 1918 to this celebrated early fall chamber music series established by legendary music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

October 7, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Opening Night

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 5, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as its music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in the program book, that he selected three pieces only because he “really wanted to play each one for an opening night.”

After a lively sing-along season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concert proper began with the Overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous operetta “Die Fledermaus,” named after a character who attends a costume party dressed as a bat. Orchestra and conductor played this appropriately festive opener with a uniquely Viennese effervescence that he likely absorbed from his frequent work in the Austrian capitol with the Vienna State Opera.

John Novacek
Making his second appearance with the SSO since 2016, American pianist John Novacek then gave a thrilling account of Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed first piano concerto. Written when the Russian composer was only 18 for his 1891 graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the piece was soon overshadowed by his hugely popular second and third concertos. But Novacek’s powerful advocacy made a strong case for it, from the dramatic opening and emotional turmoil of the first movement, to the lyrical beauty of the second, and the “virtuosic-ally” impetuous finale. Rhodes and the SSO supported him with equal intensity and conviction.

Novacek rewarded the audience’s standing ovation with a delightful but knuckle-busting encore, his own “Intoxication” rag, which packed more notes into two minutes than even Rachmaninoff at his most demanding.

The program closed after intermission with what Rhodes called “an insanely beautiful work,” Czech composer Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Written in 1889, its four movements progress from a turbulent “Allegro con brio” through a quietly adventurous “Adagio” and a melancholy “Allegretto grazioso” to a jubilant closing “Allegro ma non troppo.” Under the maestro’s kinetic baton, the musicians delivered an exhilarating rendition of the colorful 36-minute score.

For this concert, the ever-innovating Rhodes swapped the locations on stage of the cellos and second violins, which were now at stage right, across from the first violins, and moved the bass section to the center rear, launching the new season with a rebalanced SSO sound.

October 3, 2019

REVIEW: The Goodspeed, Billy Elliot

The Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through November 24, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy Elliot, Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The home of the American Musical is currently staging a show set in 1980’s North Country England, which just goes to prove that some dreams and struggles truly are universal.

In this case, 11-year-old Billy is growing up in a rough and tumble coal-mining town, living with his widowed father, angry older brother and unfocused grandmother. The miners are going on strike, his best friend is slightly quirky, and Billy has no interest in the boxing lessons he’s supposed to take. But when he stumbles into a “girls” ballet class the young “bairn” discovers that when he dances he feels “Electricity” and is given a chance to change his future.

Adapted from the 2000 movie, by original screenwriter Lee Hall (also lyrics), with music by Sir Elton John, the story transforms the Goodspeed into a Union hall with an ever-changing mine shaft set designed by Walt Spangler, utilizing the performers to move parts around and, at times hold pieces up. The staging is quite inventive. The choreography by Marc Kimelman, too, is exciting and original and diverse. The ensemble dance numbers are especially effective, like “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”, when it seems every person in the theatre is in motion. The entire show has a crackling energy that feels apparent even in the calmer moments, highlighting the theme of conflicts, large and small, that fill the story.

Sean Hayden as “Dad” navigates through grief, anger, confusion and acceptance, making him very sympathetic yet at times quite funny. Michelle Aravena, as the dance teacher accomplishes the feat of being a rather sullen, downtrodden showstopper as she exhorts her pupils to “Shine”. Every member of the ensemble cast is first rate and given nice moments to highlight them.

And then there’s Billy himself, played at this performance by Liam Vincent Hutt. In addition to ballet, he has to “angry tap,” join in a kick-line and give a little of the old razzle-dazzle. But he also has to act and sing and he does very well indeed on all counts. His Billy is not wise beyond his years, he is young and flawed and confused and Hutt conveys all this in a very natural way, without resorting to “cute kid” tactics. His duets with best friend, teacher and mother all serve to showcase a very natural, giving performer.

There is a flaw in the book: Grandma, played by Barbara Marineau, quickly becomes an audience favorite and has an important, defining relationship with Billy, but after her delightful “Grandma’s Song”, she practically disappears until the final scene. Her absence is a bit distracting.

There is some salty, albeit British profanity, and talk of British class warfare, but the themes of solidarity, friendship, family and acceptance will resonate with theatergoers young and old. As befits a show about an 11-year-old boy, Billy Elliot bursts with boundless energy and an eagerness to please that is irresistible.

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Quixote Nuevo

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through October 13, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
If one word describes Hartford Stage’s opening play of its 2019/20 season it is “colorful.” Exuberant costumes, lighting, wigs, set pieces, music, and language modernize the classic saga of “Don Quixote” ahead five centuries and beyond. Playwright Octavio Solis has fashioned nearly every important character of the original Cervantes’ novel and “Man of La Mancha” musical into accessible figures for today’s audiences.

For those who know the story, all is not light and bright in this revised version of the Spanish Inquisition. This new Quixote maintains the pained sole of an aged man on his last journey. Jose’s (Don Quixote) quest is to find his Dolcinae, yet his family’s plan is to force Jose into an assisted living facility. The updated antics of the play create obvious images from the novel and musical; i.e. a bicycle substitutes for Jose’s trusty steed, a gigantic Good Year blimp for monstrous windmills. The play is awash with fun, gymnastics, and froth, yet, not so subtle politics continuously pepper the dialogue into the 21st century.

Emilio Delgado, immediately recognized as a “Sesame Street” regular, portrays Jose/Quixote with all mannerisms, down to the minutia of detail, of both of his characters as naïve in his expectations of righteousness, bewildered as to how he can help those around him, warry of single-handedly trying to unwrite the wrongs. The audience quickly feels sad that this man must travail in his pursuit of his dream. It is near impossible to picture another actor in this demanding role, in which he takes center stage in every scene.

Nine actors portray three or four characters each. With precise direction from KJ Sanchez, there is never confusion of who’s who. If Hartford Stage had prior concerns if its patrons would grasp much of the Spanish dialogue, no worries. Save for a few snippets from scenes, all is clear from watching the interaction on stage. Some in the audience referred to the dialogue at “Spanglish.” In any case, nothing important is missed. Interesting to note is that every actor, all of whom make their Hartford Stage debut in “Quixote Nuevo,” are of Spanish descent.

Juan Manuel Amador shines as Sancho Panza. While comedy seems his forte, the poignancy required in the last scenes rings true to his character. By the way, Sancho makes good use of an old ice cream cart as his donkey.  

Hartford Stage starts its season under new management. The new team have a lot to be proud of.

Review: The Bushnell, SpongeBob Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 6, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

It may be obvious that if there is a toddler in your life, “SpongeBob The Musical” is not to be missed. Could there be any way better to introduce a child to theatre than attending a full-blown, colorful fantasy of life in the undersea location of Bikini Bottom? There is a reason why this show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2018 (it won only one, for Best Scenic Design). “SpongeBob” has a lot to amuse adults too, especially with music and lyrics from luminaries like Cindi Lauper, John Legend, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and many, many more. But along with the visual spectacle of amazing costumes, wigs, projections, and special effects, the sheer auditory volume of this production is so jarring that you wonder whether children’s’ ears (as well as adult ears) are being harmed by this technological tsunami.

Making the transition from an animated television show to a staged production requires a definite suspension of disbelief. The story of a fast-food worker who becomes a hero when a volcano threatens his community makes a statement about climate change and racism as much as it plays with the idea that every-day items (like sponges, for example) can come to life. Skateboards are a part of the show’s innovative and very clever choreography by Christopher Gattelli.

The 25 members of the touring company at the Bushnell bring energy and sass to this musical, and present the audience with a sheer joy that is contagious. There are some standout performers. Lorenzo Pugliese as SpongeBob is a charming hero, and Cody Cooley as Squidward Q. Tentacles steals the show with his energy and characterization. He also gets to perform in one of the most creative costumes in a show that prides itself on a lot of creative costumes. Meami Maszewski plays a number of characters, but when she sings in the role of Pearl Krabs she demonstrates that she has the type of voice that makes you want to shout, “more, please, more.”
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

“SpongeBob The Musical” is the type of show that is “theatre” as much as Cirque du soleil is circus. If there is a youngster in your home who grew up with the television show “SpongeBob SquarePants,” it will probably be remembered as a cult classic. But for everyone else, it provides a measure of how theatre can be a technological extravaganza while the actual story just gets lost at sea.

September 30, 2019

Review: Berkshire Theatre Group, What The Jews Believe

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 20, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

When pre-show music includes both country and klezmer music, we start to think that this new play is probably something a little quirky and maybe even, funny. Even the set-up is humorous. A young boy in rural Texas is studying for his Bar Mitzvah with the aid of a correspondence course and old records recorded by his grandfather, complete with Yiddish accent. But very quickly, a number of surprises begin to reveal the heart of the play’s message that revolves around faith, love, and the desire to want to understand our place in the world.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
Playwright and director Mark Harelik has crafted a touching new play with a refreshing approach to religion and what it means to find faith. The situations he presents theatergoers with are real, and his dialog is honest. The first-rate cast does an impressive job of creating a collective, beating heart that is at the center of this drama which, despite the early chuckles it provides, deals with some very heavy problems, ideas, and situations, including the fundamental problem of what religion does to us, as well as for us. A bombshell drops at the end of Act I that is so unexpected, the audience can’t wait for Act II.

The story is based on Harelik’s own experience growing up in the only Jewish family in a small town in Texas. The cast features Benim Foster as the father urging his son toward his Bar Mitzvah, Emily Donahoe as the mother facing a terminal illness, Cynthia Mace as Aunt Sarah, who brings her own faith to the mix while attempting to “help out,” Robert Zukerman as Rabbi Bindler, and young Nathan, played by an exuberant Logan Weibrecht who blends in well with the more seasoned professionals in this cast. What is so touching about the family these actors embody is that they collectively create a bond of love that is palpable.

“What The Jews Believe” is a slightly misleading title in that what this play gives is the opportunity to think about what everyone believes, no matter what our religion or lack or religious affiliation. It goes well beyond the cultural snapshots that are the basis for many contemporary stories, and brings us back to some of the central questions that form the basis for humanity. This is a beautiful play, well-told, brilliantly acted, and deeply moving.

September 9, 2019

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Bright Star

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through September 22, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Photo by Mike Druzolowski
In his “Director’s Notes” for the OHP production, John Pike calls “Bright Star” a “compassionate story of loss, redemption, and forgiveness.” After a four-month 2016 Broadway run that earned five Tony nominations (all won by the blockbuster “Hamilton”), a national tour, and several regional productions, Pike’s appealing cast of 22 singing actors brings this first non-professional presentation in Connecticut to poignant and entertaining life.

With music, book, and story by comedian and banjo player Steve Martin, and music, lyrics, and story by folk rock singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, the story was inspired by a turn-of-the-twentieth-century newspaper article headlined “The Iron Mountain Baby” about a lost child. It was reset for the stage to North Carolina during the 1920s and post-World War II 1940’s, which, in Pike’s words, “would be advantageous to the musical’s bluegrass stylings.”

To the central role of Alice Murphy, the formidable editor of the Asheville Southern Journal,
Nicole Wadleigh brings much of the same brightness and warmth with which Carmen Cusack created the role on Broadway. As her lifelong love interest, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, when the story flashes back from 1945 to 1923, Andrew Rosenstein exudes youthful ardor and a brilliant singing voice. To Billy Cane, an aspiring writer just returned from World War II, Stephen Koehler brings sensitivity and exuberance. As his childhood friend and, later, fiancée, bookstore manager Margo Crawford, Jackie DeMaio is fervent and affecting. Rodney K and Lindsay Ryan are hilariously over the top as Alice’s assistants Daryl and Lucy.

Musical highlights include: Koehler’s exhilarating “Bright Star,” celebrating Billy’s literary ambitions; Wadleigh’s hopeful “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” as Alice leaves her rural home for college; and Rosenstein’s shattering “Heartbreaker,” after Jimmy Ray receives tragic news from his father. Kim Aliczi’s six-piece orchestra is a true bluegrass band, featuring Ann-Marie Messbauer on fiddle, Tim Maynard on banjo, and Ron Calabrese on guitar and mandolin. Even their “Entr’acte” is stunning.

Clever set design by Jeff Clayton allows for seamless transitions by the actors between scenes. Inventive choreography by Hannah Gundersheim, resourceful costume design by Moonyean Field, and Pike’s skillful staging of the many ensemble numbers further enhance this must-see production.

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The Tuna Goddess

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 13, 2019
by Shera Cohen

After dispensing with the quirky and nonsensical title of Majestic Theater’s season opener, “The Tuna Goddess” is one of the most spirited plays in this theatre company’s 23-year-run. For those audience-goers who enjoyed “Outside Mullingar” last season, “Tuna” will be quite reminiscent; not so much in plot but character development of its two leads.

Set in the early years of the turn of the century – this century, the 21st – in a small Cape Cod town, fishing tuna is the trade. The text tosses in some nautical jargon, assuming that everyone watching the happenings know what all of this stuff is. We don’t. We don’t care. It is the interaction of the characters that is paramount; each knowing the other in their tiny world.

The word (is it a word?) “dramady” has become popular when writing reviews. Is seems that gone are the early days of Neil Simon and Woody Allen; replaced by a dramatic story with humor and humanity mixed in to create the closest to real life as is possible. Playwright Jade Schuyler, a relative newbie as a writer, paints her picture of present day, the past, and sometimes simultaneously. The best example is Lexi Langs’ Alexandra (a high-power business exec) standing across the stage with Larkin Fox’s Young Alex (age 8 or so, playing fisher-girl at the dock).

The crux of the tale is the question: will high school friends Alexandra and Pete (portrayed with intense struggles by Erick Kastel) ultimately hook up in spite of many roadblocks; the biggest being their own thoughts and passions.

The play is quite long. Not that verbal banter and visual movement for each character isn’t well written, a few sections could have been completely deleted. Better yet, snips here and there in many scenes could smooth out the play, emphasize the reality of day-to-day conversation, and avoid repetition.

For many years, writers for In the Spotlight (and its predecessor Bravo Newspaper) have sung the praises of Greg Trochlil, Set Designer. As a full-stage kitchen turns in a circle to become a boat deck, the audience is in awe of Trochlil’s talent. Kudos to the quick moving well-choreographed set movers as well.

When a production of an excellent play is to be critiqued, sometimes there is little to write. So, here’s some minutia. Cate Damon is the only actor to maintain a Cape Cod/Maine accent throughout. Actor Tom Dahl’s lines call for belching, blaring laughter, and too many “F” words to count. Yes, these are the words of the play, but Dahl goes over-board. Finally, and most importantly, one very disturbing factor, which surely Majestic staff can “fix,” was clear-as-a-bell talking by two or three stagecrew members behind the curtain, stage right, disturbing an extremely emotional scene by the lead male. This interruption is a theatre “no-no.”

Note: Before bringing young kids to see “Tuna,” realize that the language is often PG or R rated.

August 28, 2019

Some Last Notes on Summer 2019

by Shera Cohen

The final notes of Beethoven’s Symphony #9 are the traditional sign that summer in the Berkshires has ended. I was there on August 25th, along with a shed full, and lawn equally full, of thousands of music-lovers. On a lovely, low-humidity, 74 degrees, semi-sunny Sunday, the day seemed hand-picked for Tanglewood’s swan song.

However, a correction is in order. Neither Tanglewood, the BSO, or even Beethoven had the last words or notes of the region’s season. Summer is not over in the Berkshires, yet.

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox: “Time Stands Still,” a contemporary drama, takes the stage in September into October. Occasional readings are scattered throughout the fall including the Bard’s “Julius Caesar.”

South Mountain Concert Series, Pittsfield: For five weekends in September and October, small-group classical music performing “A List” composers by professional musicians takes place.

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield: BSC’s summer season showcased some heavy-duty dramatic plays and will mount one more for the entire month of October; “American Underdog”.

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge & Pittsfield: Because BTG encompasses five stages, there is lots of room and time for summer to extend. “What the Jews Believe,” on the Stockbridge campus begins in late September, and Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, continues year-round with music, dance, theatre, and comedy.

Berkshire Bach Series, Great Barrington: Beginning in November, monthly concerts are performed, primarily on Saturday afternoons. Combining the Berkshires with Bach makes a wonderful duo.

The Whit, Pittsfield: Whitney Center for the Arts mounts three plays, one each month in the fall which include “Orion,” Dream Awake,” and “This Wonderful Life.” The latter is a one-man play based on (you guessed it) “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

WAM Theatre, Lenox: Where Arts & Activism Met, WAM is a collaboration primarily of women artists performing for women and men. Its next full-length play, “Pipeline,” will be seen in October.

Close Encounters with Music, Great Barrington: Mahaiwe Theatre is the perfect venue for the six concerts of CEWM series of professional orchestral concerts by small groups performing classics and newly penned compositions.

August 27, 2019

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “Topdog/Underdog”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 8, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo courtesy of Shakespeare & Co.
Two black brothers: as close as they can be and as far as they can ever be. One “the winner” (Topdog), one “the loser” (Underdog). Then circumstances switch and switch again as soulmates quickly become Cane and Abel. At one point, the younger of the two asks, “Do you think we’re really brothers?” The older man says that they are. But what is kinship? If people just happen to live in the same house, does that make them even remotely the same?

“Topdog/Underdog” poses these questions between the brothers and for the audience. All the while, Booth (performed by Deacon Griffin-Pressley) acts like a puppy dog jumping around, literally and figuratively, trying to be noticed by Lincoln (Bryce Michael Wood), the more mature and steadfast of the two, yet very much a man with his own problems. Packed with symbolism, the play’s text takes every opportunity to blatantly pose difficulties that seem unsolvable. From the very start, the characters’ name, Booth and Lincoln, set up the action, which the audience will immediately realize, will not end pleasantly.

Director Regge Life has staged this two-plus hour play, equally balancing the good and bad, pros and cons, hits and misses that can possibly make each or both brothers succeed. The director throws out tiny bits of hope that maybe, if these brothers united it could be them against the world. Yet, the audience knows that this is a long shot.

Griffin-Pressley portrays immaturity and bravado with a child-like attitude. His career is that of a petty thief. He probably doesn’t love his brother, but more importantly, he respects his skills. Wood’s character has been there/done that and learned the hard way. While far from perfect, he gives the straight life a try, at the same time humiliated by his efforts.

“Topdog/Underdog” is a very good, well-written play that sets the issues, the place, and the characters connected seamlessly to each other. Yet, this is a play where the two actors’ talents are superior to the script. The audience is often left questions; i.e. is Booth feigning his involvement with Grace (an unseen character), conniving his next moves, or just so crazed by his own impossible life that he barely exists as a real person?

Some thoughts about the set: the NYC co-op is much too large with decent furniture; the elegant chandelier in a rundown building makes little sense.

Note: Looking around the theatre, it was obvious that there were few or no people of color in the audience. That is a missed opportunity; theatre is for everyone.

August 26, 2019

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone

Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA
through August 31, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Hershey Felder is a multi-talented performer who researches the lives of some of our great composers and weaves their personal histories into tapestry of music and heart-felt storytelling and performance like no other. Seated at the Steinway piano, Felder concertizes, expounds on artistic inspiration and genius, and takes his audience by the hand and heart to better understand the music and the composers who have given us a rich cultural history of music.

In “Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone” at the Colonial Theatre, part of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s summer season, Felder examines the work of one of our greatest American composers who transcended Tin Pan Alley to crossover into opera with “Porgy and Bess”) and symphonic work, such as “Rhapsody in Blue.” From the time Gershwin started playing as an accompanist for theatrical performers at the age of fifteen, through the first sale of one of his compositions (“Swanee”) to Al Jolson at the age of twenty-one, to his untimely death at the age of thirty-eight, Gershwin composed some of the most memorable music of his day. Songs like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “S Wonderful,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” are but a few of the thousand-plus songs he penned over a short lifetime.

The Gershwin show includes some incongruous moments, such as George’s self-promoting radio show in which his tune, “The Man I Love,” and the Parisian car horns that inspired “An American in Paris backed the Feenamint commercial for laxatives.” His close relationship with his brother, Ira, the lyricist of the duo, is a prominent feature of the current show.

Photo by Mark Garvin
Felder is an accomplished musician, but his own evocative style as a pianist, singer, and raconteur shows a special understanding of genius, time in history, and understanding of the human spirit. He does not try to imitate the composers he features, but he suggests mannerisms and speech styles that are true to the subject at hand. He works with the audience to touch the right cords of emotion that help him communicate effectively, appearing to work effortlessly, but in reality, drawing on his own skill and desire to make the music of bygone artists accessible and meaningful for a contemporary audience. Watching his concentration at the piano is a moving experience, and the beauty he creates with “Rhapsody in Blue” brought tears of emotion to many in the audience.

Whether you love the American Songbook, or just appreciate an artist at the top of his game, you owe it to yourself to see Hershey Felder in action. There is an honesty and artistry in every moment of a Hershey Felder production.