Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 25, 2019

REVIEW: St. Michael’s Players, Oliver!

St. Michael’s Players, East Longmeadow, MA
through November 24, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Attending the performance of Lionel Bart’s treasured musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist” is truly a community event.

Directed with professional panache by Frank Jackson along with Assistant Director/Producer Rose Stella, this familiar story and staple of the musical theater is brought to vivid life by an extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.

The oft-told tale of Oliver Twist (terrifically sung and acted by Gavin Grout) takes the audience through the young boy’s episodic childhood starting as an orphanage inmate (beige prison-like uniforms and grey-brick walls were reminiscent of a workhouse prison).

Ultimately rescued by the Artful Dodger (scrappy Emma Linehan), Oliver is tutored in the art of pick pocketing by the sly Fagin (wonderfully played by Peter Hicks) and eventually finds a loving home with the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (John Laviolette).

St. Michael’s Players gives such fresh life in their interpretation of “Oliver!” that it felt like it was a brand-new show, despite its over 50 -year existence. The well-played and sung roles are to be commended. The jaunty, on the beat entrance of the young orphans singing their hearts and empty stomachs out for “Food” starts the show with a bang.

Peter Scully’s deeply resonant bass and Sue McNary’s lilting soprano make a comic duo. Melissa Butcher’s sensitive portrayal of the tragic Nancy powerfully belts out “As Long as He Needs Me,” “It’s A Fine Life,” and rousing “Oom Pah- Pah” – the latter with beer hall denizens that were true showstoppers.

Peter Hicks’ Fagin earns a well-deserved ovation for his eleventh-hour soliloquy “Reviewing the Situation.” AJ Berube’s intense Bill Sikes adds just the right menacing tone and the most authentic cockney accent in the cast.

The more than 50 cast members fill the stage for “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?” aided by the simple, yet clever choreography of Courtney Normand and the steady underscoring of the seven-piece orchestra led by Frank Jackson. Karen Bonci’s colorful and authentic Victorian costumes might benefit dirtied-up to create gritty atmosphere. Sue Maciorowski and Jackson’s set designs are the perfect backdrop with bits of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral peeking out.

Despite the obvious warmth and sentimental love infused into the musical, themes of child exploitation and human trafficking are just as disturbing now to contemporary audiences as they were for readers in Dickens’ time.

The theatre posts a sign that a portion of “Oliver!” proceeds will go to Christian’s House for Battered Women. St. Michael’s truly walks the walk.

November 18, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Brahms and Haydn

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 15-17, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

While familiar works by Brahms and Haydn were played in the second Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and Carolyn Kuan’s 9th season as their Music Director, the centerpiece of the program was actually a new work by Christopher Theofanidis. The Maestra’s canny sense of programming connected the three pieces in unexpected but enlightening ways.

The concert opened with a vibrant account of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn.” Research after its 1873 premiere suggests that the theme that opens and closes the work was not even written by Haydn, but it has retained its title as one of Brahms’s most popular works. Kuan and the orchestra drew strong contrasts among the varied moods and tempos of the eight variations, culminating in a jubilant triangle-tinged closing outburst of color.
Percussion Collective

That triangle was not among the huge array of percussion instruments showcased in a brilliant performance of Yale music professor Theofanidis’s compulsively listenable “Drum Circles.” Co-commissioned by the HSO, the 2019 piece features a solo percussion quartet and three percussionists from the orchestra. Four members of the Percussion Collective – Svet Stoyanov, Doug Perry, Ayano Kataoka, and Victor Caccese – played a range of instruments focused around bells, marimbas, and drums.  

Five short movements with thought-provoking titles like “Sparks and Chants” and “How Can You Smile When You’re Deep in Thought?” evoked a glittering range of sounds from the agile soloists, who were in almost constant motion from one instrument to another throughout the 25-minute piece. An arrangement by composer Garth Neustadter of a tango by Astor Piazzolla was an imaginative and crowd-pleasing encore.

The concert closed after intermission with a joyous rendition of Haydn’s next-to-last symphony, No. 103. Dating from 1794, its opening drum roll (the source of its nickname), dramatically played by HSO principal timpanist Eugene Bozzi, made it sound much newer to an audience with “Drum Circles” still ringing in its ears. While missing the Haydn theme used by Brahms, the variations on two folksongs in its “Andante” second movement echoed the form and feeling of the Brahms opener. An expressive opening “Allegro” movement, a lilting “Menuetto,” and a jubilant finale closed a smartly integrated program on a high note.

November 14, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Hello, Dolly!


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through Nov. 17, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Eager theatergoers braved frigid temperatures to be wowed by the warmth of Jerry Herman’s joyous score and Michael Stewart’s farcically fun story, that is Hello, Dolly. By evening’s end, the orchestra swayed the audience out of the house, re-iterating the score to the accompaniment of impromptu singing and humming. Even the trumpeter who rattled out the title tune in front of the theater made viewers forget the cold night air and take in the joie de vivre that is the essence of this perennial favorite.

This reviewer was fortunate to have enjoyed the recent Broadway revival featuring Bette Midler and the Boston show with Betty Buckley. This marathon tour stars multiple Tony nominee Carolee Carmello, who ably fills their shoes. Carmello’s Dolly is funny, ebullient, and a songstress without equal. Her Dolly smiles and connives her way into the hearts of both the audience and especially the crusty, half-a-millionaire Horace VanDerGelder (John Bolton), who is a perfect match for Carmello. Other cast members of note include Analisa Leaming as Irene Malloy, whose thrilling soprano matches her natural beauty and her comic flair. Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker is a phenomenal performer: he sings, dances, and clowns around with astronautic zeal. Burns and Daniel Beeman’s Cornelius Hackl work in comedic tandem doing double and sometimes triple takes to the audiences’ delight.

Hello, Dolly! Is the kind of show in which one recalls memorable moments, due to its episodic dramatic structure.  There is the joyous “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” number at the Yonkers’ Train Station, with the ensemble seeming to float across the stage, twirling their parasols and tipping their bowler hats costumed by Santo Loquasto, looking like violet, yellow, aqua, pink, and blue dyed Easter eggs. The grandiose and off-kilter courtroom, also designed by Loquasto features Cornelius and Irene’s tender 11th hour ballad “It Only Takes a Moment.” Also of note is the cotton candy pink Molloy’s Millinery where Cornelius and Barnaby frantically outwit Vandergelder with the help of Irene, Minnie, and Dolly. Finally, there is, of course, the dazzling title number featuring raven-gowned and diamond-studded Dolly and the prancing and leaping wait staff at the Harmonia Gardens, whose whirling dervish-like spectacular dancing earned a minute-long audience ovation.

This staging of one of musical theater’s most beloved shows is indeed a memorable one. Though ably supported by the incredibly talented cadre of singers, dancers, and comedians, it belongs to the titular star. Carolee Carmello is that rare performer who can touch our hearts when singing the rousing anthem “Before The Parade Passes By” and tickle our funny bone when clownishly devouring a turkey leg and slurping and gargling gravy while popping down a dozen dumplings at the elegant Harmonia Gardens. This extended scene is priceless, as is the entire production.

November 11, 2019

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Matilda

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through November 24, 2019
by Tim O’Brien

One of the pleasures of reviewing is the occasional ability to contrast professional productions with those of community theater groups. I was fortunate to review a touring production of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda – The Musical” at Hartford’s Bushnell in 2016. And thus, it was not far from my mind for the Opera House Players’ opening night.

In a word, my 6th-grade daughter and I were delighted to see how well a non-professional presentation of this charming script could be executed by a cast of gifted amateurs.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, budding 5-year-old genius Matilda must find a way to rise above her own family of dullards and a school ruled by a monstrous headmistress while coming to terms with her own prodigious intellectual gifts.

The troupe of students hit the opener “Miracle” with great energy, and we settled back happily, knowing this would be a treat. And we weren’t disappointed: across the board, director Becca Coolong, musical director Devon Bakum, and choreographer Krista Leigh Brueno have molded their mostly young actors into a solid, versatile unit. The staging for “Matilda’s” signature “Quiet” is particularly impressive.

Standout performances: young Camille Dziura nails the title role with a perfect blend of winsome and naughty and handles the heavy load of lines and lyrics like a pro. Erin Dugan (Miss Honey) is earnestly sweet and shows the best voice of the cast. Trish Barry (Miss Trunchbull) – while a physically smaller person – nonetheless rules the school with an iron fist.

The few flaws are technical and easily forgiven on an opening night. Set changes could have been crisper overall. The talented band’s volume was frequently too loud for the performers’ lyrics to come through clearly, and Mark Proulx (Mr. Wormwood’s) body mic often scratched intrusively against his face.

“Matilda” is an engaging, enduring story of identity and finding oneself, and the Opera House Players have done Roald Dahl proud.

November 8, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Passionate Performances


Springfield Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
November 2, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

In his “Reflections” on the second concert of the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes cites no other unifying theme for the three pieces on the program than perhaps the best one of all – the “passion” of the performers to play them.

Continuing the orchestra’s ongoing series of works by American women composers, the evening began with Missy Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” a 2016 piece which the young New York-based composer calls “music in the shape of a solar system.” Featuring harmonicas played by brass section members to make the ensemble sound, in Mazzoli’s words, like “a makeshift hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space,” the SSO and Rhodes made it nine minutes of shimmering, playful adventure.

Viktor Valkov
In a smashing SSO debut, rising Bulgarian-born pianist Viktor Valkov next gave a brilliant account of what Rhodes calls Tchaikovsky’s “unduly neglected” but “absolutely amazing” second piano concerto in its own first SSO performance. Conceived on a grand scale, the 47-minute 1880 piece opens with a commanding fanfare, and the vigorous “Allegro” first movement includes a huge (six-minute) solo piano cadenza. In the luminous “Andante,” concertmaster Masako Yanagita and principal cellist Emily Taubl eloquently soloed with Valkov as a piano trio. He played throughout, including the short and fleet finale, with dazzling technique and interpretive depth, forcefully backed by orchestra and conductor.  

The program closed after intermission with Brahms’s magisterial fourth and last symphony. Rhodes calls this 1885 masterpiece “perhaps the most perfect of works by the man who has no single measure which is not perfect.” From an autumnal opening “Allegro” through a quietly reflective “Andante” and a surprisingly exuberant scherzo to a somber closing series of variations over a ground bass theme, the maestro and his musicians presented a powerfully convincing rendition.

One reason why Rhodes is so beloved in Springfield was on particular display tonight. His engaging and informative spoken introduction to the Mazzoli piece, including brief snippets played by selected orchestra members, and his clear explanation of the ensemble’s new seating arrangement, kept the capacity audience at rapt attention all evening long.

November 4, 2019

Review: Playhouse on Park, A Shayna Maidel


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through November 17, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Meredith Longo
“A pretty [little] girl. A pretty one”:  this is a Shayna Maidel. Wikipedia’s succinct definition states that it is most often used by bubies for their own granddaughters. In the case of this play, two shayna maidels, in essence strangers -- one in America and one in Poland -- create a warmth, camaraderie, and family in post-WWII New York City.

Sisters, worlds apart, literally and figuratively, Americanized Rose and immigrant Lusia meet as adults in 1946. As Rose has made a conscious commitment to assimilate, Lusia has taken her first hesitant steps as an immigrant into the United States. Circumstances of the War have shaped these young women with completely different temperaments, goals, and comportment. Lusia and Mama remained in the old country. Rose and Papa crossed the ocean. The audience watches and cares about the growing connection between Rose and Lusia. Yet, an underlying plot, focusing on Papa, is unexpected and disturbing.

Laura Sudduth (Rose) portrays a sprite Shayna maidel, eager to become a part of her family’s story. Sudduth throws her dialog and whole body into her character. She is the one to watch in every scene, even when Rose is in the background. Sudduth’s Rose playfully and nervously dashes around the apartment setting.

Katharina Schmidt (Lusia) takes on a more demanding role. Schmidt’s Lusia cowers, standing in one corner of the room. Schmidt shines in her hesitant yet impatience to speak English. Never missing a stumbled word, it is the actor’s tremendous skill to keep an accent going. The audience also sees glimpses of Lusia’s playful side in memories of her husband. Both Rose and Lusia are three-dimensional characters, each a Shayna maidel.

Four additional actors fill out the roles, each character. In a pivotal role is Mitch Greenberg as Papa. He has few lines, but those that he does have are vital, yet tossed out capriciously. A director’s or actor’s choice isn’t important for this review. A recommendation would be to punch up the dialog in these moments of discovery.

“A Shayna Maidel” is a beautiful story by Barbara Lebow written with love, about love. However, the key flaw in the script and the production is the length. Shakespeare’s classics are chopped all the time. Ms. Lebow’s play or Dawn Loveland Navarro’s direction cries out for scissors for entire scenes or portions of scenes; i.e. Papa’s birth in Act I, the sisters’ picnic song, Lusia’s friend’s Hannah chatting with Mama, and more. There is still time in the run of the play to cross out pages. “A Shayna Maidel” is a beautiful story that could easily be a beautiful SHORTER story.

Review: Hartford Stage, Cry It Out


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 17, 2019
by Tim O’Brien

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
New moms Jessie and Lina meet just happen to meet in the supermarket and are thrilled to  discover they live in abutting sides of a Long Island duplex perched on the edge of a tony village. They bond during hurried backyard coffee-klatches while keeping ears cocked for their baby monitors.

Playwright Molly Metzler Smith’s work is as much about class and privilege in America as parenthood itself. Healthcare worker Lina and her unseen partner John are decidedly lower-class, hanging on in the duplex largely due to the fiscal largesse of John’s meddling and possibly alcoholic mother (dubbed “The Beast”). Middle-class attorney Jessie and husband Nate are comfortable; his monied parents urge them to buy a Montauk cottage while she wrestles with telling her mate she doesn’t want to return to work.

Enter Mitchell, upscale neighbor from the wealthier side of town. His jewelry-designer wife Adrienne seems to be having difficulty connecting with their own new bundle of joy.

The performances are strong across the small cast, Evelyn Spahr’s Lina is brash, plain-spoken and gets most of the early punch lines. Rachel Spencer Hewitt’s Jessie is sweetly filled with self-reproach. Erin Gahn plays Mitchell with good-natured earnestness and a dose of Steve Carell. But it is Caroline Kinsolving who stands out as Adrienne. While logging the least actual stage time, her turns are the most dramatic and thought-provoking.

It is sometimes a struggle watching Rachel Alderman’s direction; she moves her actors around the simple (and well-executed by designer Kristen Robinson; it actually rains!) round stage with blocking that at times seems clearly forced, plus postures that are overwrought. A bit more restraint might go a long way. However, this is the first week of the run, and there is lots of time to think about any changes, or not.

Smith’s script, while nothing we haven’t seen or heard before in endless TV sitcoms about smelly diapers and lack of sleep, produces plenty of laughs from a house that had likely been-there done-that.

“Cry It Out” is ripe with comedy with some unexpected sharp twists, and it certainly pleased this opening night audience.

October 30, 2019

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, Forever Plaid


Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 8, 2019
by Barbara Stroup

A slow procession of four male singers makes its way to a stage bathed in blue, while singing church-like music that ends with the word “Shaboom.” Caught between two worlds after the car crash that killed them, the four members of the 50’s boy band “Forever Plaid” must perform their show in order to progress to the hereafter. And so begins this fantastic review of the best ballads of the era, sung flawlessly by Tomm Knightlee (“Smudge”) the bass-baritone, Bryan Austermann (“Jinx”) a high tenor, Brian Michael Henry (“Sparky”) tenor, and Chris Coffey (“Francis”) tenor. Their vocal ranges exceed these designations, and they contribute equally to a fabulously blended sound. The ballads of choice have more complex chord progressions than the standard do-wop chart, so the audience never tires of listening to the lineup of love songs that fill this two-hour production.

Nor can the audience tire of watching, because Stacy Ashley’s choreography fills the stage with movement. Using all of the space, the singers croon close to and distant from each other, and never lose the pitch. They are always graceful and sometimes even acrobatic in reviving the arm swings and leg movements that have come to characterize the boy groups of the era. The choreography suits the words, sometimes whimsical, and often even humorous as the audience recalls watching groups like “The Lettermen” and “The Four Lads.”

Act I includes a  list of hits that includes a bow to both Perry Como and Harry Belafonte. A high point for this audience member was their rendition of “No Not Much,” and Bryan Austermann’s “Cry” deserves special mention. Act II does not allow the attention to wander as it opens with every piano student’s duet, “Heart and Soul” (with audience participation). The music program morphs easily into a hysterical “re-broadcast” of Ed Sullivan’s greatest guests, a choreographic peak of entrances, exits and costume changes.

Director Ben Ashley states that he, “fell in love with this show” decades ago, and his devotion shows. He allows the music to be the focus  and does not muddy the production with staging quirks or gimmicks. Majestic audiences who revere him as Buddy Holly, now have a chance to appreciate his directorial skill and hope to see more from him. The indomitable and multi-talented Mitch Chakur and his group continue to provide awesome instrumental support. With this production of “Forever Plaid, the Majestic Theater continues to fill the house by offering audiences worthwhile theatre-going experiences.

October 29, 2019

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, American Son


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 23, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Having experienced the world premiere of “American Son” at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield three years ago, seeing the play again was a must. This powerful, dramatic, and timely story kicks off TheaterWorks’ 34th year.

While “kick” is used metaphorically, the word serves as a perfect description of the crux of the play. “American Son” is a kick in the gut to audience members no matter what side you are on, or color. Each of the four characters has his/her own perspective on situations. In the case of “American Son,” the situation is life or death.

Racial tension at its height, racial profiling, interracial marriage, the race card, and black lives matter; it’s all there in your face, especially if your face is black. It would have been impossible for writer Christopher Demos-Brown to pen “American Son” 20 years ago, even 10 years ago to share the tension and meaning of its message. At the very least, patrons likely would have felt that the plot was unfamiliar; yet in the 21st century the story is, as the phrase goes, “ripped from the headlines,” and uncomfortable.

The central characters are an estranged couple; wife is black, husband is white. The set is a police station waiting room. The pair start off as any worried parents would, waiting for their missing teenage son. with questions and angst. Layer upon layer the plot adds questions, angst, remorse, speculation, and psychological and physical combat.

Ami Brabson (wife/mother) paces every crevice of the room. She enunciates her words and speaks “white,” having assimilated into the world that her PhD requires. She speaks fast, as if rushing will make her crisis over sooner than later. Brabson displays internal torture, oozing out of every pore in her body and every syllable from her lips.

J. Anthony Crane (husband/father) portrays a dad who has raised his son in the practical ways of life. Without ever seeing the main character, the son Jamael, the audience knows who this young man is, especially through his relationship with his father. Brabson and Crane make for a purposefully uneven match in a marriage which had problems even before it began.

Supporting actors John Ford-Dunker (young police officer) and Michael Genet (senior police officer), flesh out the story primarily through their often-used and hesitant politically correct dialogue.
“American Son” is a tough play to watch, perhaps more difficult for black audience members. It speaks to any parent who cares for and fears for his/her child. Not being in either of these categories, “American Son” cannot help but affect everyone.

Kudos to TheaterWorks on its renovations. TW has turned their once dreary and somewhat confusingly navigational venue into a spiffy venue. Finally, the theatre looks worthy of the quality of TW’s productions.

October 23, 2019

REVIEW: Silverthorne Theater, The Diary of Anne Frank


Hawks & Reed Arts Center, Greenfield, MA
through October 26, 2019
by Shera Cohen

It might seem odd to think of the drama, “The Diary of Anne Frank” as joyful, uplifting, and beautiful. The antithesis immediately comes to mind; i.e. sad, horror, and ugliness in a world that permitted (and oftentimes still permits) humanity to become inhumane.

The play depicts one extended family in the center of WWII, literally in the middle of the war’s timeline in 1944 in The Netherlands, at the midpoint of Europe’s west coast. The Franks represent a small group of familiar Jews, multiplied thousands of times to equal the millions of Jews and others deemed unsuitable to Nazi Germany as members of the human race. However, “Anne Frank” is far more than a prototype of thousands of personal stories that have and could have been written. Anne Frank’s account is true, as are the people who live with her in a small attic hide away. The real Anne is the star of her own play, as so much of the script is attained from her diary; profound and serious at times, light and juvenile at other moments.

The producers and/or director have picked an exemplary troupe of 10 actors, eight of who are crowded into four rooms on a proscenium stage, as if sliced in half for the audience’s view. John Iverson’s set components are as important as any one of the actors. Dark and dreary, cramped and claustrophobic, Iverson has designed a replica of the actual site in 1944.

Samantha (Sammi) Choquette shines, even in the dramatic and bleak moments. At the same time, she portrays a typical young teenager who longs for fun and boys. Choquette creates a balance of coquettish schoolgirl with a young woman who must grow up too fast due to her circumstances. Choquette is pure joy to watch.

The leader of the family, in all ways secular and religious, is Otto Frank. Frank Aronson gives Otto a soft and tempered exterior. At the same time, the audience can envision the wheels ever spinning in Otto’s head, as the burden of every moment of every day falls on him. Seemingly, without trying, Aronson represents a wise and extremely caring father, husband, and friend.

Director Keith Langsdale moves the many characters around the multi-room set. In spite of the lack of doors from one room to another, it is always clear where his characters are going and why.

Plays performed at Silverthorne Theater are worth seeking out.

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.