Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 30, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Cats

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 3, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Like the eternal debate between “cat lovers” and “dog people,” so too does the legendary musical “Cats” tend to split theatergoers into opposing camps. With roots in early 1980 and visions of copious leg warmers, some remember the show only as a punch line, but for others it is the infectious songs, and playful idea of cats attending a ball, that make for a warmer “memory” (Yes, the reviewer just went there!)

Based on the poems of TS Eliot, the “book” is really a series of sung-through vignettes and character studies about various felines who, it seems, are just like us. The songs are unmistakably Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” has a bouncy melody that swiftly propels us into the junkyard-gathering place of our various protagonists. “The Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” has distinct echoes of “Joseph’s Dreamcoat. . .” right down to a multi-colored LED jacket. But the one song everyone is here for is “Memory.” Sung by the “faded glamour cat,” Grizabella, here poignantly embodied by Keri Rene Fuller, it does not disappoint and Fuller’s passionate delivery inspired many people to leap to their feet.

The costumes have been tweaked a bit, and newer stagecraft technology has been employed to make things a little sleeker and shinier, but the biggest production change was to hire “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler to update the original choreography. His influence seems to be in the speed of the movements and the more modern athletic aesthetic touches. It is here, in the dancing, that Cats really stands out. One would be hard-pressed to find a show with more company-heavy numbers, each one requiring, at almost all times, intense precision and the undisputed talent of the 22 performers. Some might just come for the songs, but you'll leave remembering the dances, too.

Caitlin Bond, as the white kitten Victoria, may not have her own song or story, but her character is a strong presence throughout. With her impressive ballet background, Bond is a featured in many of the numbers, embodying the more physics-defying attributes of a young cat. Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone’s duet dance number “”Mungojerrie and Rumplelteazer” was a pure physical delight. McGee Maddox’s “The Rum Tum Tugger”, was an audience pleasing glam-rock number and “The Old Gumbie Cat”, led by Emily Jeanne Phillips, proved that cats and mice AND cockroaches can tap dance.

Billed as “not your grandparents' Cats,” this tour boasts the involvement of almost all the original Broadway production staff, but gives it just enough new polish to make the show worth revisiting, or simply seeing again.

January 25, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, The Engagement Party

Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT
through February 3, 2019
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As “The Engagement Party” begins, we see a happy, wealthy couple preparing to celebrate with their oldest and dearest, and hoping to make memories that will last a lifetime. In their multi-million-dollar Park Avenue apartment, Alison (Beth Riesgraf) and Josh (Zach Appelman) set out their finest crystal before the arrival of Alison’s rich parents and a few of their not so fortunate, hard-working college and childhood friends. They have prepared a delicious meal and bought lots of wine, and happily receive congratulations and gifts from all. The happiest of times or a setup for disaster?

As one actor described it in the post-play talkback, Samuel Baum’s “The Engagement Party” starts as a comedy, turns into a mystery and ends as a drama, an apt description for Baum’s witty writing and plot evolution. No spoilers here: but audience members cannot hold back their surprise, audibly gasping as the play unfolds in the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom upstairs. Secrets from even the distant past can surface and impart a growing mistrust – its tentacles far-reaching enough to eventually “engage” not only the couple but also their family and their friends.

This production shines in every way. Scene Designer Alexander Dodge created three rooms and two levels perched on a rotating base. The design deserves medals and awards; Dodge and Matthew Richards (lighting design) collaborated to make every angle and movement a stunning visual experience: they have a great future together. The set made direction especially complicated, and Director Darko Tresnjak achieves perfection. Even the moments of rotation bring a feeling of suspense as the audience wonders “What next?”

The ensemble of actors works seamlessly together. Appelman and Riesgraf create the “happy couple” and are supported beautifully by the rest of the cast. Brian Patrick Murphy’s dialect as Johnny is an achievement in not going overboard (his real speech was revealed in the talkback!), and Brian Lee Huynh as Kai contributes just the right amount of negative disaffection.

The unfolding plot of “The Engagement Party” postpones the creation of empathy for the characters; the play asks its audience to be absorbed in their back-stories before we become sympathetic to their angst. We observe the characters with detachment for a while, before we begin to share their feelings. The witty pre-dinner chatter brings laughter, the growing suspense brings wonder, and the unfolding drama finally allows us empathy and understanding. The enigmatic ending might lead some playgoers to want a sequel. And many may also discuss the intertwined roles of trust and of lies – great lies, white lies, and lies of omission – on the drive home. May Samuel Baum continue to write on the theme of deception and bring more theatre experiences like this one to the stage. “The Engagement Party” is a total success.

January 24, 2019

PREVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The 8th Annual 10x10 New Play Festival

Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, MA
February 14 – March 10, 2019

2018 production "Joyride," photo by Scott Barrow
Once again Barrington Stage presents ten 10-minute plays for Pittsfield’s Upstreet Arts Festival.

Last year’s 10x10 was a wonderful exposure to ten new mini-plays. Each performance filled  the house. Please refer to the BSC website on February 25 for information on the format and actors. The formula remains the same. It is the actors who change roles in each piece.

Directors for this winter’s crop of “playettes” are Julianne Boyd, Barrington Stage’s Artistic Director and Matthew Penn, an Emmy-nominated director whose talent is seen often in the Berkshires.

Most of the plays are comedies or dramedies, yet a few are quite serious. Oftentimes, it doesn’t take more than ten minutes to shape a meaningful piece of theatre. The showcase offers the opportunity to see the work of ten playwrights, one after another, on the same stage.

For more information, call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413-236-8888 or visit

January 22, 2019

PREVIEW: Playhouse on Park, Murder For Two

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through February 3, 2019

Shows Added to Murder For Two Run at Playhouse on Park

After a string of sold-out shows in “Murder For Two's” opening week, Playhouse on Park has added two additional performances to its calendar. The added shows are Saturday matinees at 2pm, on January 26 and February 2, respectively.

“Murder for Two” is an uproariously funny musical murder mystery with a twist: one actor investigates the crime, the other plays all of the suspects - and they both do this while playing the piano. A zany blend of classic musical comedy and madcap mystery, “Murder For Two” is a highly theatrical duet loaded with killer laughs.

This fast-paced whodunnit stars John Grieco as The Detective and Trevor Dorner as The Suspects. Kyle Metzger directs.

Tickets have sold out for the first weekend of the play, which runs through February 3rd. For additional information, call 860-523-5900 x10 or visit

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Bach & Beyond

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 18–19, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Lisa Rautenberg
The fourth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 75th season showcased their own concertmaster Leonid Sigal and associate concertmaster Lisa Rautenberg as guest conductors in a varied selection of music by or related to Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert opened with two short pieces by French contemporaries of Bach: the overture to Rameau’s opera-ballet “The Temple of Glory;” and a chaconne from Lully’s opera “Phaeton.” Yale early music specialist Grant Herreid played theorbo (14-string bass lute) in both works, and baroque dancer Carlos Fittante added graceful movements to the chaconne, a stately dance for the court of Louis XIV. Rautenberg led a reduced HSO in animated performances.

Rautenberg then picked up her violin to play the solo part, and lead the ensemble from the bow, in a supple account of Bach’s first violin concerto. In his familiar third orchestral suite, Rautenberg drew fleet renditions of all five movements from her musicians, with an especially flowing “Air” on the G string.  

The concert’s first half closed with two rarities: the “Gran Chacona,” a secular song by Bach’s Spanish predecessor Juan Aranes; and a sonata-variations on the traditional theme, “La Follia,” by his Italian contemporary Vivaldi. Herreid returned to introduce, sing, and play baroque guitar in the Chacona, which he had researched and reconstructed (relishing the robust “a la vida bona” [to the good life] chorus). Both pieces featured loving accompaniment by Rautenberg and the orchestra and stylish poise, with elegant period costumes, from Fittante and fellow dancer Robin Gilbert Campos.  

Intermission was followed by two relative novelties from twentieth-century composers. Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9” for string orchestra combines rhythms of the composer’s native Brazil with Bach’s beloved “prelude and fugue” structure. The Bach-era title of Jacques Ibert’s “Divertissement” suggests the light entertainment value of this colorfully orchestrated piece, which includes hilarious parodies of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz. Sigal’s kinetic leadership elicited both the profundity of Villa-Lobos and the pzazz of Ibert.

The cross-generational appeal of this imaginative program was clear to an eight-year-old patron who had enjoyed the singer, dancers, and “circus clown” sounds she heard in “Divertissement.”

January 8, 2019

Preview: Panopera, “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
January 25 & 27, 2019

The following is an interview with Alan Schneider, one of the co-founders of the Panopera (PO), and one of troupe’s three managers. Schneider has worn many hats, both literally and figuratively: sung leading roles, sung in the ensemble, directed, and made sure the shows broke even. Panopera, a relatively new artist-led opera company based in Western MA, will perform “Sweeney Todd”’ for two performances only.

ITS: How and why did PO start? What is the mission?
PO: The purpose of Panopera since its beginning in 2014 was and is to make use of local artists and local resources to create performances for public consumption. Think of us as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), but for the arts- a Community Supported Arts organization. The company presents some of the best local talent and resources in full length, high quality opera.

Part of Panopera’s mission is “to create a sustainable model for live opera by employing primarily local talent, cultivating a large and diverse audience, performing a wide variety of repertoire, and sharing profits with artists and other creative partners.”

ITS: How are operas chosen?
PO: We choose repertoire based on a few criteria: scale of the musical forces, since we have yet to present a work with a reduced orchestration (although our string sections tend to be on the small side), whether or not we can cast it with primarily local artists, and, for these first few years, whether or not the orchestra parts are in our library.

ITS: What would you say to potential audience members who “fear” opera?
PO: I would say that opera is theater, plain and simple, and, language barrier aside, if you like musical storytelling of whatever genre, opera will probably appeal to you.

ITS: I’ve noticed in PO photos that the cast members seem to be dressed in contemporary style. Do you think this makes the work more accessible?
PO: We give no thought at all to making a work “accessible” beyond what one does normally to make any production clear and consistent. We believe that the idea that the public needs special help to understand or appreciate a work of art is unnecessary.

ITS: “Sweeney Todd” -- a wonderful musical, is not an opera. Why was “Sweeney” selected?
PO: Interestingly, the very first American company to produce “Sweeney Todd” after the original Broadway production and touring was the Houston Grand Opera, in 1984.

Here’s an interesting anecdote. (courtesy of Wikipedia) It is said that on opening night Harold Clurman, the doyen of American theatre critics, rushed up to Schuyler Chapin, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, demanding to know why he had not put it [Sweeney] on at the Met. To which Chapin replied: "I would have put it on like a shot if I'd had the opportunity. There would have been screams and yells but I wouldn't have given a damn. Because it is an opera. A modern American opera."

Also, we’re in a position to present the piece with its original orchestration, which is a rare thing nowadays, 2019 is the 40th anniversary, and we have yet to present a piece in English.

ITS: What are you most proud of about PO?
PO: I am most proud of the group of artists who have assembled to do each of our projects. I am grateful that so many of my professional colleagues are willing to invest their time and effort to expand the theater and music market in the Valley, which will ultimately benefit all of us.

ITS: What are plans for PO?
PO: To continue to find collaborators, as we have with Pioneer Valley Ballet, to present an ever-wider selection of opera to the public.

“Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” will be performed on January 25th at 7:30pm and January 27th at 2pm at the Academy of Music, Northampton. For ticket information contact the Academy box office: 413-584-9032 or

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The Mountaintop

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through February 10, 2019
Konrad Rogowski

The Majestic Theater's current production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” directed by Gilbert McCauley, is an intriguing combination of fact, faith, and fantasy, based on the last hours of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

Photo by Kait Rankins
This fictionalized account is a powerful two-person show, a showcase for the talents of Jamil A.C. Mangan as Dr. King, and Lynnette R. Freeman as Camae, a housekeeper at the motel, and director McCauley capitalizes on those talents, as both actors deftly portray a wide and genuine emotional spectrum. The play works on the concept of “what if …” in order to bring the audience closer to what Hall describes as: “…the man, not the myth…this extraordinary man – who is actually quiet ordinary.”

That humanity is reflected in the everyday trials of a man who must travel, who finds no toothbrush in his suitcase, has holes in his socks from marching, and orders a late-night cup of coffee. That simple action brings the spirited and disarming Camae to his door, and there begins the unexpected journey that shakes the core of Dr. King’s thoughts and values.

What starts as a casual interaction of social pleasantries between the two, begins to morph and grow into a series of stranger and more probing exchanges. Each of these interactions forces Dr. King to examine, question, and defend his actions, his motives, and his very faith. Who is this late-night visitor who troubles him so? Is she actually a housekeeper, an undercover spy, or even a temptress? 

Mangan plays the role of Dr. King with a down to earth authenticity, ranging from humor and optimism to languishing uncertainty over his legacy, while Freeman fills the stage with a thought-provoking mixture of street smarts and incisive questioning. Hall’s script takes her audience through all of these challenges with a gritty humanity and surprising humor that gives a fleeting and inspiring look into the dichotomy of greatness and self-doubt, and which brings an audience to its feet.