Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 30, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through April 20, 2019
by R.E. Smith

It may be a familiar cliché, but it could not be more appropriate: from the moment the curtain goes up on “Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense” absolute hilarity ensues.

Photo by T, Charles Erickson
Based on the works of renowned British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, this show within a show has young English gentlemen, and member of the “idle rich,” Bertie Wooster, staging a one-man show. Quickly realizing that such a project requires a lot of concentration (and work) he enlists his faithful “gentleman’s man” Jeeves, to assist. Jeeves, in turn, brings along game but elderly butler Stebbings. As Bertie regales the appreciative audience with his tale, Jeeves and Stebbings act the parts of all the other people Bertie encounters along the way.

Chandler Williams as Bertie Wooster, with his broad smile and jovial demeanor instantly ingratiated himself to the audience. As Bertie tends to be a bit vague, at times his character seemed to be enjoying the show as much as the audience. Looking like a young Colin Firth, with superb clowning skills, he made for a master storyteller as he narrated Bertie’s many misadventures.

Arnie Burton, as Jeeves, (and a stuffy judge, and a expert on newts and TWO romantically inclined young ladies!) could convey an entire performance with his facial expressions alone. Unflappable manservant, blowsy paramour and blustery barrister all portrayed perfectly with elastic voice work, energetic eyes and moustache with a mind of its own.

Finally, Eddie Korbich as Stebbings (and an overbearing Aunt, and a Scottish butler and a violence prone dictator) completes the “three hander”, delighting with expert physical shtick, fully committing all his resources to the endless silliness.

Making its American debut at Hartford Stage the show is directed by the original London director, and Olivier Award winner for it, Sean Foley. The madcap pacing never lags, the fast changes from character to character by the same actor are executed flawlessly and every inch of the stage seems to be filled with madcap energy at every minute. As the night goes on, Alice Power’s set becomes more and more integral to the proceedings, and practically gets its own laugh-lines. Her costume design is vital to the execution of many of the heartiest laughs. The script has not a single false note or wasted word.

“Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense” is truly comedy “perfection”, in which every aspect of the production contributes to the most enjoyable comedic “nonsense” one could ever imagine.

March 27, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
March 26 – 31, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Is it necessary to be familiar with the music/singing of Carole King to thoroughly enjoy “Beautiful”? The simple answer is “no.” The longer answer is “absolutely not,” as proved by the instant standing ovation at the Bushnell on opening night.

The format is familiar: a fictionalized biography of a now famous singer(s) and/or composer(s) set to his/her/their own music. Think “Jersey Boys.” Presented in chronological vignettes, “Beautiful” is a musical with a story; not just a bunch of songs, albeit 25 terrific and memorable songs. For those in the full audience an “American Bandstand-type” visual backdrop, energetic ensemble characters, and the new sounds of rock & roll create perfect staging and mood. The set also doubled as a recording studio and the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show.

Many causal theater-goers probably have no idea of King’s pre-“Tapestry” talent as a writer for other singers. From the bubble-gum rhythms of “The Locomotion” and “Be-Bob-A-Lula” to the serious “It’s Too Late” and “Up on the Roof,” King and her husband Gerry Goffin were a successful team that put performers front and center.

Sarah Bockel & Dylan S. Wallach
Sarah Bockel (Carole) delivers an outstanding yet subtle Carole. She sings, she plays the piano, she acts. Not all leads in musicals hit the trifecta. She gives her character a humble, matronly demeanor whose family comes first. Yes, Carole knows she is talented, but even more important to her than the appreciation of audiences is her relationship with Gerry. However, as the music gets better, the marriage does not. Dylan S. Wallach (Gerry) nicely depicts a confused young man who doesn’t know where he is headed. Wallach’s best talent is his voice – in duets with Bockel and solos. Note that Bockel will soon take the Broadway stage as Carole King.

Much of “Beautiful” pits the music-maker team of King & Goffin vs. Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann (“On Broadway”). The BFF couples banter as to whose songs will make it to #1 on the charts. Alison Whitehurst (Cynthia) and Jacob Heimer (Barry) perform well together as opposites, with her sophistication and his kvetch-iness.

There are no ensembles of high kicking choreography. Instead, each vocal group performs the movements just like the original guy/gal quartets. Picture a lead singer with three backups striding and snapping in unison, often dressed in purple. It didn’t look quite as funny then as it does 50 years later.

The staging works well to meld what could have been slightly boring song-writing desk scenes immediately and without a hitch into mini-performances with theatrical lighting, giving the musical smooth transitions and pops of energy and color.

“Beautiful” pays fitting tribute to a beautiful talent.

March 18, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony, Mozart Meets Klezmer

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 15–17, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The title of the sixth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 75th season may sound strange at first glance, but the musical tradition of Eastern European Jews known as klezmer often features the clarinet, one of Mozart’s favorite instruments.

The concert opened with an ebullient account by the orchestra and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan of the little-known overture to Mozart’s early opera “Lucio Silla.” Written when the composer was only sixteen, it lacks the seamless structure and emotional depth of his later opera overtures, but some dramatic passages and the quiet central section hinted at the mature Mozart to come.

David Krakauer
Next, clarinetist David Krakauer was the featured soloist in Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” composed in 1994 for clarinet and string quartet and arranged in 2005 for clarinet and string orchestra, as heard here. An Argentinean-born Jew, Golijov was inspired by writings of Isaac, a 12th-century French rabbi, and mystic, to base each of its five short movements on a different Jewish prayer.

The quiet opening and closing movements showed off the hushed radiance and full mellow tone of the clarinet that may have appealed to Mozart. But in the livelier inner movements it sometimes revealed a harsh, dissonant, frenzied sound as well. These qualities were even more prominent in Krakauer’s two encores: a “semi-improvised” recap of his decades-long career, and a klezmer-wedding dance. Accompanied by a buoyant Maestra and orchestra in the Golijov and the dance, he tossed it all off with virtuosic control and jubilant high spirits.

Following the two HSO premieres in the first half, the program concluded after intermission with Mozart’s familiar 39th symphony, the first of the final trilogy that he wrote within two very productive months during 1788. Kuan led an affectionate performance, relaxed in the opening Adagio-Allegro movement, flowing in the Andante, playful in the Minuet, and exuberant in the “Allegro” finale.
In introducing his encores, Krakauer cited the joy of the klezmer tradition he had inherited from his Eastern European ancestors to condemn recent violence against Muslims in New Zealand and Jews in Pittsburgh, comments that clearly resonated with the appreciative audience.

March 15, 2019

March 14, 2019

Review: The Bushnell, Rent

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

While exiting the opening night performance of “Rent” at the Bushnell, one could hear amongst the throngs of patrons such enthusiastic responses as: “It was a great show!” and “It was worth coming to see!” The production marks the 20th anniversary tour of this iconic musical drama.

More of a rock opera than a conventional musical, Jonathan Larson’s epic late 20th century story is a reworking of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”. Set among the New York artistic communities of Alphabet City and East Greenwich Village, “Rent” comprises the inter-twining travails of several artistic denizens: there’s filmmaker Mark and his guitarist/songwriter roommate Roger, their upstairs neighbor and exotic dancer Mimi, Roger’s ex-girlfriend and performance artist Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne, Jack of many trades Tom Collins and his beloved drag performer Angel, and their turncoat friend Benjamin Coffin III.

This production is smashingly performed from the namesake opening number performed by the entire company to Roger’s (Joshua Bess) cathartic closing number “Your Eyes,” which he dedicates to the ill Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker). In between these first and last scenes, the talented cast lets loose with some fabulous songs including Tucker’s spirited “Light My Candle” and “Out Tonight,” Collins’ (Devinré Adams) and Angel’s (Javon King) loving ballad “I’ll Cover You,” Mark (Logan Marks) and Joanne’s (Lencia Kebede) comical “Tango: Maureen,” Maureen’s (Lyndie Moe) satiric poem slam “Over the Moon” and the company’s rousing Act I curtain closer “La Vie Boheme”. Only the show’s well-known Act II ensemble number “Seasons of Love” seems to lack the vibrancy of the show’s other numbers. Perhaps this was due to the number’s over-familiarity and chorus line style presentation.

Paul Clay’s metallic, bare-bones set imaginatively creates many spaces including a garret apartment, a hospital room, an AIDS support group meeting-place, and street landscapes. The striped tights, mini-skirts, baggy jeans and shirts, vests and denim jackets all owe their mid-1990’s look to Angela Wendt’s inventive and extremely colorful costume designs. Matthew DeMaria’s spot-on musical direction is well-matched with Keith Caggiano’s sound design and Jonathan Spencer’s mood-enhancing lighting design.

Much has changed since “Rent’s” revolutionary debut in 1996: the frightening specter of AIDS and HIV have been somewhat diminished by more effective medicine; the internet which has allowed artists to market their work worldwide; and the gentrification of many New York areas which have changed the face of our world. Unlike Coffin’s (Marcus John) statement that the Bohemian life is Dead, the music and lyrics of Larson’s “Rent” prove quite the contrary.

March 9, 2019

PREVIEW: WAM, Lady Randy

WAM, Lenox, MA
April 20-May 5, 2019

Lady Randolph Churchill, c 1880
Most people have no idea who Lady Randy was. Yet, Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill, was the proverbial female force to be reckoned with in her own right. She was a woman who was at once so ahead of her time and yet very much a product of her era.

The world premiere of “Lady Randy” by Anne Undeland takes the Shakespeare & Company Bernstein Theatre stage this spring. The play kicks-off the first production of WAM’s 10th Anniversary. The play was first developed by Undeland and director Jim Frangione at the Berkshire Playwrights’ Lab, making this a true collaboration of outstanding regional talent.

“Lady Randy” began its life at Berkshire Playwrights Lab (BPL) and has been in development by WAM staff for the past year and a half. BPL’s mission is to give playwrights a safe and supportive environment.

Undeland will play the title role, with WAM newcomer Mark Zeisler portraying the roles of Winston Churchill and nine other smaller roles. Undeland is well known to local audiences for her one-woman shows at Ventfort Hall, and performances at Mixed Company in Great Barrington and Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, VT.  Zeisler has extensive credits on Broadway and in regional theatres across the country. In the Berkshires, he has performed for the last two seasons with Shakespeare & Company.

In 1875, the American heiress, Jennie Jerome, seemed to have have it all. She had married an English lord; she was young, rich, and beautiful; and she had just given birth to Winston Churchill. “Lady Randy” takes the audience on a dizzying ride through the treacherous, kaleidoscopic sexual and political landscape of her marriage.  A woman ahead of her time, Jennie kept everyone watching, kept them guessing, and she never, ever surrendered.

PREVIEW: Goodspeed, The Music Man

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
April 12 - June 20, 2019

TROUBLE Is Coming To Town!

River City’s about to get the last thing they expected ̶ and the very thing they need ̶  in “The Music Man.” Goodspeed Musicals kicks off its 2019 season with the rip-roarin’ dance-filled classic running April 12 – June 20, 2019. “The Music Man” is so popular that, even before the run has started, nine performances have been added.

You got trouble in River City! Professor Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian march into their first appearance at Goodspeed in a rousing new production of this great American musical. When huckster Harold promises to save an Iowa town by selling the dream of a boys’ band, Marian is the only skeptic, until she starts to buy his pitch. Fall in love with “76 Trombones,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Trouble” and “Till There Was You.” This is considered to be one of America’s glorious classic musicals. The mastermind creators of “The Music Man” are Meredith Willson (book, music, lyrics) with story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey.

The huge cast of professional actors, singers, and dancers include many Goodspeed returnees, while others make their debuts. Several in the cast and crew have found homes on Broadway stages.

A few words about the Goodspeed venue. This is not your typical theatre, but a large, old, elegant, three-floor mansion-like building. Somewhat like a mini-castle, the site it white with classic designed trimmings. Once inside, immediately at the center is a sprawling staircase, carpeted in deep red, branching off to each side. Patrons walk up to the first floor. [There is also an elevator.] Goodspeed seats fewer guests than one might expect.

One of the most amazing aspects is its postage stamp-sized stage. Through the years, Goodspeed’s choreographers have directed their dancers to tap, waltz, Lindy Hop, Charleston, rock ‘n roll in solo pieces, duets, ensembles, and full cast Broadway-like spectacular numbers. Easily (actually, maybe not so easily), more than 30 dancers have occupied the space at any one time. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” probably boasted the biggest number. Here’s guessing that “The Music Man’s” young musicians, their parents, townsfolk, and leads will fill Goodspeed’s stage to the brim. It’s a challenge for any choreographer, and all have fully succeeded.

March 3, 2019

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, Boeing Boeing

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through March 31, 2019
by Konrad Rogowski

They say you can tell how good a silly sex farce is by the number of doors through which folks suddenly enter, just as someone else is making an equally sudden exit to avoid drastic/comic results. To his credit, director Rand Foerster has five such doors, which adds up to an evening of very funny “how will they get out of this mess?” moments.

The plot is as thin as the ethics and motives of the lead, played with appropriate physical and facial mugging by Jack Grigoli, as he plots how to balance his three (yes, three) airline stewardess “fiancés’” travel schedules to keep his love life from going into a tail spin. This is somewhat complicated, since they all live with him in his Paris apartment, each on a different shift.

Photo by Kait Rankins
His grounding force in this madness, is his maid, Bertha, played with delightful disgust and dismay by Christine Anthony, as she hurriedly whips up appropriate foods for his American, German, and Italian conquests, and runs about swapping out pictures and anything else that might give the whole scheme away. Jack’s long-lost friend arrives, played by Scott Renzoni, who tries, and fails, to be the voice of reasons, as he slowly succumbs to the wiles of all three women. Kyle Boatwright, Katie Mack, and Larissa Marten round out the cast, each as comically high flying as the next.

The set is straight out of the 1960’s Paris chic playbook, right down to that obligatory shag rug. The comedy all comes down to that final scene that could nose dive everyone into disaster, but is saved by the quick-talking guys whose logic, defies both reason and the laws of gravity. “Boeing Boeing” is a barnstorming night of fun and frolic.