Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 28, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, The Flamingo Kid

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through June 15, 2019
by Stuart W. Gamble

Lately, there have been a slew Broadway musicals based on films of the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s (think Pretty Woman, and most recently Mean Girls and Tootsie). Hartford Stage’s latest musical debut is based on a sleeper comedy The Flamingo Kid, which starred Matt Dillon and was directed by Gary Marshall. Judging from the audience’s thunderous curtain call applause, this show could be on its way to Broadway in the future.

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
Set in July, 1963, The Flamingo Kid tells of Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), who along with his buddies bemoan their plight in the opening number “Another Summer Day in Brooklyn”. Soon, Jeffrey finds himself at the exclusive El Flamingo Club, where wealthy Long Islanders play gin, surf, and sunbathe. Jeffrey soon meets card shark Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) who charms Jeffrey with the jazzy “Sweet Ginger Brown”and “The World According to Phil, Parts 1 & 2”. Jeffrey becomes a cabana boy at the club and romances Phil’s niece, Karla. Conflict arises as Jeffrey’s working class parents, Arthur and Ruth (Adam Heller and Liz Larsen), vie with Phil for Jeffrey’s soul.

The first act of Flamingo Kid is bouncy, effervescent, and colorful, emphasized by Linda Cho’s incredible array of polka-dotted, stripped, floral, neon-colored Havana shirts, skirts, stretch pants, short shorts, halter tops, bikinis, and house dresses and Alexander Dodge’s early 60’s gaudy décor. Humorous songs such as “Cabana Boy” and “A Plumber Knows” add to the soufflé textured tone. Act II, however, offers less gaiety, and three musical reprises. Ruth’s tender “Not For All The Money in The World” and Phyllis’ (Lesli Margherita, Phil’s unhappy wife) Sondheim-ish, vitriolic “The Cookie Crumbles” offer the best musical moments. One might expect that the male leads would carry the show with big, booming, and/or dramatic pieces. This is not the case. The women, sometimes subtly and occasionally overtly, give this new musical texture and depth.

Another question to ask might be, why musicalize this relatively unknown film from 1984? In this writer’s mind, it represents the brief moment of American culture between the doo-wop/Juke Box sound and the soon-to-be onslaught of Beatlemania and hard rock. It also gives its audience an insider’s view of Jewish-American culture, unknown to some, in which white fish salad and latkes with applesauce smack of comfort food.

May 21, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, 75th Season Finale

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
May 18, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

For the “grand finale” of their 75th anniversary season, the SSO’s Music Director Kevin Rhodes paired a brand new piece written for the occasion with two of the most popular selections in the classical repertoire, one of which (Dvorak’s “New World” symphony) was performed in the SSO’s very first concert on March 5, 1944. This retrospective focus also felt like a nod to the recent passing of Rhodes’ SSO predecessor (SSO conducting years 1955-1969) Robert Staffanson.

The concert opened with the world premiere of the “Overtura Rocambolesca” by the SSO’s own principal bass player, Salvatore Macchia. In a pre-concert talk, the sometime composer and 40-year SSO member translated the title as “rambunctious” or “celebratory” overture, not only for the anniversary but for individual orchestra colleagues. The colorful 13-minute piece was exuberantly performed, including virtuosic solo passages for new principal flute (Ann Bobo) and bassoon (Yeh-Chi Wang) players.

Yevgeny Kutik
The other star of the evening was Belarussian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who grew up in Lee, MA, in his third SSO appearance in five years. What distinguished his riveting account of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto from those of other gifted young soloists was not just his mastery of its stringent technical demands but his careful attention to its musical details. He captured the dramatic mood swings of the long opening movement with rare passion; his tenderness in the slow “Canzonetta” made it clear why Leo Tolstoy wept on first hearing it; and his dark, weighty tone perfectly conveyed the lumbering humor of the Russian dance finale. The enthralled audience gave him the first of two standing ovations after the first movement!

The fresh energy which characterized the SSO’s rendition of Dvorak’s ninth symphony after intermission confirmed Rhodes’ assurance in the pre-concert talk that he never gets tired of conducting it. The solemn start and lively main theme of the first movement have seldom sounded so intense; the familiar “Largo” (later adapted as “Goin Home”) was hushed and radiant; the scherzo movement was fleet and insistent; and the “Allegro” finale had exhilarating sweep.

If the SSO’s April 27 concert (“Mozart and Mahler 2”) was this season’s “first grand finale,” as Rhodes called it then, tonight’s follow-up was fully its equal.

PREVIEW: Tres Classique

Kimball Towers, 140 Chestnut Street, Springfield, MA
Monthly through December 2019, third Wednesday, 5:30pm
by Michael J. Moran

The goal of Très Classique is described on its web site as “to make classical music accessible and available to the…Apremont Triangle neighborhood of downtown Springfield.” In March 2019, with primary funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Armoury Quadrangle Civic Association, the project launched a monthly series of free chamber music concerts in the lobby of historic Kimball Towers.

Repertoire focuses on short pieces, often movements from larger works, arranged for a rotating ensemble of two or three musicians. Lead artist/host, local resident, and flutist Karoun Charkoudian was accompanied by her mother, pianist Bethel Charkoudian, for the first three concerts. Karoun will be joined by cellist Norma Wanegar at the next concert, on June 19.
The atmosphere is decidedly informal, with guests invited to mingle, watch the musicians play, and enjoy light refreshments. Attendance has steadily increased each month, as 25 or so appreciative concertgoers stayed for the whole hour at the May concert. In addition, Kimball Towers residents or visitors passing through the lobby often stopped to listen for short periods, several even taking photos of the musicians on their cell phones.

Karoun Charkoudian
Performances by the Charkoudian duo of music by a wide range of composers, from Bach and Handel to Schubert and Tchaikovsky, were consistently spirited and sensitive, clearly heard in the resonant acoustic and visually enhanced by the elegant marble columns and oriental carpets of what was built in 1911 as the Hotel Kimball and now houses 132 residential and commercial condominiums. Highlights included Schumann’s lovely “Traumerei” and several themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

Karoun’s enthusiasm for this project is infectious as she introduces each piece, and this month’s audience was diverse enough so that she easily persuaded two volunteers to step forward and turn sheet music pages for the pianist. Word of mouth seems to be retaining loyal attendees and attracting new ones. Guests are asked to sign in as they enter, and those who list an email address receive a monthly reminder a few days ahead of the next concert in the series.

This admirable initiative to bring the joy of classical music to new listeners deserves widespread support and participation not only from the local neighborhood but from the entire Springfield community.

May 15, 2019

PREVIEW: American Music Festival: Sing Out! New York
May 30-June 2, 2019
Tour: June 6-9, 2019
by Michael Moran

The Albany Symphony recently announced the 2019 American Music Festival, Sing Out! New York, a two-weekend national festival and regional tour of musical performances and new art happenings, in concert venues in Troy, New York, and in public parks throughout New York State’s Capital Region. Sing Out! New York runs from May 30 - June 2, in Troy, and concludes with a four-concert tour of the greater Capital Region, from, June 6 - 9.

David Alan Miller
Two milestone anniversaries frame the festival: the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Sing Out! New York draws inspiration from both events, and celebrates New York’s leading role in championing equal rights. Curated by GRAMMY® Award-winning conductor and Albany Symphony Music Director, David Alan Miller, the festival will present 55 new or recent works by 38 American composers, including 27 world premiere performances.

The Festival’s programs include world premieres by numerous talented composers. Performers joining the Albany Symphony and Music Director Miller include the vocalists, solo musicians and small groups. 

According to Miller, “The Albany Symphony is committed to telling the stories of our time, place, and history through the creation of compelling new music and collaborations between composers and fellow artists. The fight for women’s equality in the 19th and early 20th century, and for LGBTQ rights beginning in 1969, are great New York stories. To tell them, we paired new works by emerging composers with established ones by composers who have told related New York stories, and have designed immersive events that celebrate the things that bring us together as New Yorkers and human beings.”

Sing Out! New York includes more than 22 concerts and related events. On Friday, May 31, the orchestra’s new music chamber orchestra, Dogs of Desire, will premiere five new works on subjects ranging from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to Frederick Douglass’ participation in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, from the aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion to Alice Duer Miller’s Women are People and Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. On Saturday, June 1, the full orchestra will premiere a suffragist-inspired piece by composer/performer Tanner Porter, alongside Pop-Pourri, with soprano Hila Plitmann, David Del Tredici’s first work based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Phillip Fisher. Committed to giving new music life beyond the concert hall, the Albany Symphony will also record both Pop-Pourri and the Piano Concerto for commercial release.

Other festival highlights include: the powerful new documentary film, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” in which composer John Corigliano tells the story of his Symphony No. 1, commemorating the friends he lost to AIDS; Del Tredici’s Bullycide, performed by the Argus Quartet in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, one of the only fully integrated Tiffany interiors in the world; and a free family-friendly concert and suffragist- themed street fair in Monument Square on Sunday. On Saturday afternoon at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Miller and a 14-member chamber orchestra will premiere four newly commissioned melodramas. 

The following weekend, the Festival will break out of the concert hall with free outdoor concerts at Hudson Crossing Park in Schuylerville (June 6), Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady (June 7), Albany’s Jennings Landing (June 8), and Basilica Hudson in Hudson (June 9), NY. Executive Director Anna Kuwabara notes, “the program in each community includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, sing-alongs, and summertime favorites. The centerpiece of each is one of the newly commissioned works from the Dogs of Desire concerts earlier in the Festival. Along with great music, we look forward to bringing attention and business to each site with family activities, food trucks, fireworks, and other festivities.”  

For over 20 years, the American Music Festival has served as an incubator for new American music by showcasing the diverse voices of America’s living composers with several world premiere works and dozens of composers-in-residence programs.

May 14, 2019

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Newsies

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through May 19, 2019
by Shera Cohen

“Extra, extra, read all about it!” This was the resounding chant of young newsboys throughout the boroughs of New York City in the late 19th century. With a cute title like “Newsies” starring lots of kids who seem to keep coming out of nowhere – theatre aisles, backstage, stage wings – one might anticipate a frothy musical. Yet, it’s characters, story, and setting are far from shallow. “Newsies” is the realistic, albeit with song and dance, bit of American history. That said, an important lesson can be taught with a whole lot of fun at the theatre.

Opera House Players (OHP) has taken on a huge challenge; the most obvious is casting 28 talented boys (plus a few girls with their hair stuffed into caps, voila – another boy appears). The big ensemble numbers, of which there are many, require ability in dance, agility, and gymnastics, not to mention acting. This is a demanding requirement for any director to oversee with a cast of adults, let alone children.

It is obvious that Sharon FitzHenry does not heed the famous W.C. Fields’ quote, “Never work with animals or children.” As OHP’s perennial director, FitzHenry must enjoy challenges; she has guided many of the “big musicals” on OHP’s community theatre stages for many years, receiving numerous accolades.

Our hero Jack (sweetness and sincerity portrayed by Christopher Marcus) and sidekick Crutchie (sorrow exuded from Max Levheim) team up with Davey (smarts and sensibility from Josiah Durham) and Les (cuteness personified by Alex Barry), and ultimately the other 24 newsboys to create a brotherhood of down on their luck, nice kids, looking for small opportunities to survive by selling newspapers. They are newsies. The story presents the audience a look at the highs and lows of children working for a living. Ultimately, Jack, et al, challenge the renowned publishers of the era (Pulitzer, Hearst) for fair wages and safe working conditions.

Standout moments include: Amanda Urquhart’s high-spirited “Watch What Happens,” Tim Reilly’s bombastic and humorous Pulitzer, Bill Martin’s multi-tasking orchestra conductor and keyboardist, and Josiah Durham’s imagination as set designer. Special kudos to choreographers Aileen Merino Terzi and Karen Anne McMahon. Dance can make or break this musical. OHP’s should be proud that these two brilliant women, along with dance and assistant dance captains, deliver ensemble pieces that shine. “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” are inspiring and profound.

May 7, 2019

PREVIEW: Children's Chorus of Springfield, Spring Concert

Children's Chorus of Springfield, The Community Music School Of Springfield

Saturday, May 11, 2019, 12:30 pm
Community Music School of Springfield's Robyn Newhouse Hall
127 State Street, Springfield, MA 01103

Featuring Chicago Children’s Choir and Young at Heart Chorus.

The concert is free and open to the public.

Come see the Children’s Chorus of Springfield showcase their hard work!

REVIEW: Goodspeed Opera House, The Music Man

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through June 20, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Musical theatre doesn’t get more classic than this 1957 Tony-winning “Best Musical” love letter by composer, lyricist, and book writer Meredith Willson to his roots in 1912 small-town Iowa. So, as Jenn Thompson, director of this exhilarating revival, notes, “It seems impossible that Goodspeed [America’s favorite musical stage] has never produced The Music Man before now.”

With a “Golden Age” score that melds jazz (“Rock Island”), barbershop quartet harmony (“Lida Rose”), and hit parade standards (“Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Till There Was You”), this is exactly the kind of show that nobody does better than Goodspeed. So it’s no surprise that an outstanding 28-member cast and production team bring Franklin Lacey’s story of a huckster boys band salesman gone right to rollicking life in its belated debut on this historic stage.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Created by Robert Preston (and to be recreated by Hugh Jackman on Broadway in 2020), no better choice could have been made for the title role than Edward Watts, previously seen at Goodspeed in Thoroughly Modern Millie and 1776. His ringing tenor voice, unctuous charm, and magnetic stage presence command the attention of Iowa’s “River Citizens” from his opening number, “Ya Got Trouble.”

Watts is well matched by co-star Ellie Fishman, featured in Goodpseed’s Rags, as spinster town librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo. Fishman’s crystalline soprano and serio-comic acting skills memorably convey Marian’s quirky path from suspicion to love.

In supporting roles, D. C. Anderson is a hoot as the word-mangling River City Mayor Shinn, and Stephanie Pope is inspired zaniness personified as his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Amelia White relishes the wry humor of Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo, and Alexander O’Brien is touching as Marian’s younger brother, Winthrop. Barbershop quartet members Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner, and Kent Overshown steal the show whenever they appear.

As in Hamilton, and so many plays and musicals produced in the last decade, the director has chosen diverse casting for this production. Goodspeed’s limited stage, through imaginative use of the theatre’s aisles, fits comfortably into the 21st century. Hilarious (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” “Shipoopi”) or exuberant (“Marian the Librarian”) choreography by Patricia Wilcox, period-perfect scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III, elaborate costumes by David Toser, and pitch-perfect music direction by Michael O’Flaherty further distinguish this not-to-be-missed Music Man.

REVIEW: Beethoven’s 5th, Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
May 3–5, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The three pieces on the eighth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 75th season, led by their Music Director Carolyn Kuan, packed about as much musical variety as possible into a single concert, thanks largely to the featured soloists, genre-defying string trio Time for Three (Tf3).

The program opened with a shattering performance by the large orchestra of the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes.” Reflecting the tortured soul of the title character, a fisherman on the Suffolk coast of England, where Britten grew up, the music also evokes the overwhelming power of nature over the lives of his village community. Kuan and the HSO captured the full range of its shifting moods and colors.

Time for Three (Tf3)
Consisting of violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, Tf3 next came bounding out on stage to join the orchestra in Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3,” written for and dedicated to them in 2007. Inspired by the bluegrass music she heard growing up in East Tennessee, it “incorporates,” in Higdon’s words, “Tf3’s unique string techniques … mimicking everything from squeaking mice to electric guitars.” The casual attire and rock star motions of the energetic trio added visual thrills to the concerto’s fast-slow-fast movements, titled “The Shallows,” “Little River,” and “Roaring Smokies.”

Kuan and the HSO clearly enjoyed letting their hair down with Tf3 here and in the first of their two dazzling encores: a tribute to Beethoven written by the band and sung by Yang; and an uninhibited take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The concert closed after intermission with a forceful account of perhaps the best known symphony by any composer, Beethoven’s fifth. Written over a four-year period (1804-1808) when, as Yang had just sung, the composer was about two-thirds deaf, its four movements depict the typical symphonic progression through struggle to victory.

From the iconic opening four-note motif of the stormy “Allegro con brio” first movement, through the calm “Andante con moto” and the tempestuous “Allegro” scherzo, to the triumphant final “Allegro,” conductor and orchestra reveled not only in the vigor and clarity of Beethoven’s notes but in the sheer joy of music-making that even his deafness could never take from him and that everyone on the Belding stage exuded.

May 6, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Movie Night

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
May 4, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Question: whose name immediately comes to mind when asked, “Name a movie composer?” Answer: 99% will respond with “John Williams.” We’ll get to Mr. Williams soon.

While in a dark theatre watching a film, it seems reasonable to say that one of the least noticeable factors that makes a good movie, great, is the background music.

A large audience filled Symphony Hall for SSO’s Pops 2018/19 finale titled “Movie Night with Maestro Rhodes.” Resulting in three deserved standing ovations, it seems that everyone loves movie music. There are two key reasons for this common appreciation. 1) The compositions are excellent mini-symphonies. 2) The music stirs memories of movie classics.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes brought the listeners through the evening chronologically from the 1930s to 2010s, offering bits of information on each composer. Rhodes’ commentary prior to the orchestration contributed delightful repartee – both helpful and humorous. Some of the composer names were well known: Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein. Most of the names were unfamiliar. Yet, in the case of every piece played, the common denominator was the familiarity of the music.

The lighter fare included the jazzy “The Sting,” comic delight of “Back to the Future,” and whimsy of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The more melodic, perhaps dramatic, pieces were the slow strings of “The Godfather” and the haunting theme of “2001, A Space Odyssey”.
For the bulk of the program, SSO brought out “the big guns” – meaning lots of percussion, booming brass, and endings packed with punch from each section of the orchestra. In this category were: “The Magnificent Seven,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Cleopatra,” “Ben Hur,” and “The Ten Commandments.” Rhodes called the final compositions, “bible music.”

Some special moments filled the evening; i.e. SSO female chorus members singing “Titanic,” and Rhodes’ opening part two of the program without audience fanfare, but simply addressing a piano, front and center, fingers looming over the keyboard to produce familiar and catchy moments from “The Sting”. The music continued when Rhodes was joined by a jazz quintet, scooped from his orchestra, on “Ragtime Melody.”

Any patron of an SSO Pops Concert knows that an encore is a “must” to the repertoire. No movie music program would dare omit John Williams; Rhodes and SSO pumped up the verve, volume, and vibrancy to the sections of rousing music from “Star Wars.”

This was a super evening of music in this galaxy or on one far, far away.

May 2, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Come from Away

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 5, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Canadians are the nicest people in the world. Everyone knows this. The musical “Come from Away” proves it.

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Imagine 7,000 uninvited visitors arriving, all at the same time, in your tiny town whose own population numbers approximately 9,000. The initial response might be, “Get the heck outa’ here.” Yet the folk of Gander, Newfoundland, depicted by an ensemble of 12 amazingly talented actors, not only open their doors wide; set up dormitories; cook up meals (albeit, not the best cuisine); pour on the beer, and install as many phones as Gander can find. What a start for a musical – a little crazy but true, about the day of 9/11/2001 and the few days that follow when 38 planes were diverted to Canada. With much bigger and horrific challenges in the world that week, most didn’t even know about this little episode in history.

“Come from Away” flies by as a non-stop musical (airplane puns intended) presented in one-act. With only one opportunity for audience applause, following the stirring opening number “Welcome to the Rock,” the story, songs, and foot-stompin’ dance seamlessly move from one vignette to another, yet are never rushed. There are no starring roles – this tale of friendship and camaraderie is the lead. While there are no instantly hummable tunes for the drive home, every piece is uniquely atypical from most musicals; country meets ballad meets sea-shanty, making them distinctly memorable.

Every actor takes on at least two roles; each portrays a townie as well as a visitor (from countries around the globe), switching roles in as short a time as one second. It’s almost as if a switch changes a subtle Maine accent to one from Texas, and back again. A hat, a prop, a gesture transforms one unique and distinct personality into another. Never for a moment is the audience confused.

Throughout the performance, many of the musicians are visible onstage, casually dressed and blending in with the action. They are a fun, talented group, playing on an eclectic ensemble of instruments: pipes, mandolins, and bouzouki, and bodhran (a stringed instrument and a drum, by the way)

Bare trees on both sides of the stage keep most of the movement front and center; featuring spirited choreography and a lot of “musical chairs” to illustrate airplane seating for the exhausted, hot, disheveled, and frustrated passengers.

“Come from Away” is a joy. What is especially unique about this show is that, even though it is incredibly inventive in style, music, and staging, it still manages to be a deeply affecting and moving, true account of people simply being nice to each other.

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, My Name is Asher Lev

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through May 12, 2019
by Barbara Stroup

Although his name secures him to a family and its legacy, and although his parents dote on him, Asher Lev (the child) is confused. He seems to have been born with a pencil in his hand and feels compelled to draw, but his Hasidic parents have other plans for his free time. Parental expectations conflict with his need for self-expression-which is as real as hunger-and it is this drive that characterizes his childhood.

Photo by Meredith Longo
Narrated directly to the audience as a memoir by the title character (played winningly by Jordan Sobel), we see the continuing artistic search for self-definition and identity. Asher struggles not only with parental authority and filial obedience, but also with the conflict between creative expression and orthodoxy, between art and inherited cultural paradigms. “How could lines on a paper help anything?” he asks, as he continues drawing. He learns, he progresses, and his ability becomes obvious to a well-chosen mentor, but during it all he carries the weight of parental disapproval and conflict.

Staged sparingly, the three Playhouse on Park actors effectively manage both their changing roles and choreographed set changes. On stage throughout the 90-minute play, Jordan Sobel has a challenging role. The actor captures the character’s certainty about his destiny as well as his need to resist his father’s autocracy, without overplaying the latter. Dan Shor plays Asher’s father as well as a variety of other male characters with convincing alacrity. The beautifully expressive Stefanie Londino embodies the suffering that only a mother could have as she watches these two in conflict. There is no doubt of her immense love for her son. Londino also reappears in dramatically different smaller parts, handling each without a hint of the others. (The costume department went a little overboard with a flared taffeta dress that seemed momentarily to engulf the stage).

A lighting effect in the play’s conclusive scene creates gasps for its effectiveness, and the play’s resolution lets Asher find his identity and continue his art. With a will and a genius like his, there was little doubt about the choices he would make for his journey through life. “My Name is Asher Lev” is a well-written play, and works well in the context of theatre-in-the-round. Playhouse on Park continues to choose pieces that provoke us to contemplate important issues even after we leave the theatre.