Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 28, 2019

Some Last Notes on Summer 2019

by Shera Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 27, 2019

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “Topdog/Underdog”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 25, 2019

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Boston Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 25, 2019
by Josephine Sarnelli

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Last appearing at Jacob’s Pillow in 2004, the Boston Ballet’s return visit was long overdue. Their program highlighted versatility and their commitment to classical roots, yet an understanding that any art form should be forward-looking to remain meaningful. The standing ovation demonstrated the audience’s agreement.

The Bach Cello Suites opened the evening with ten dancers and cellist Sergey Antonov. It was a beautiful marriage of contemporary ballet with concert quality cello playing. Jorma Elo, the resident choreographer, employed movements that demonstrated the strength and athleticism of the performers with nontraditional lifts and asymmetrical balancing.

The Boston Ballet is fortunate to have the only domestic licenses to the choreography of Leonid Yakobson, a contemporary of George Balanchine. The Pas de Quatre, performed to selections from Bellini’s opera Norma, was the climax of the program for lovers of classical Russian ballet. Of note was the setting; the backstage of the theatre was open to reveal the night forest. Costumed in long white tutus, the four ballerinas were personifications of grace and beauty. Their emphasis on hand and arm gestures was true to the Russian style. It was a magical and memorable performance.

The second choreography by Yakobson was entitled Rodin, as it brings to life four sculptures by this artist. Through expert lighting, the four couples clothed in metallic unitards transform from inanimate statues to take on human emotions. The dancers exploit the realism and physicality that were the focus of criticism and controversy surrounding Rodin’s works. The Eternal Spring expresses newfound love with playfulness. The Kiss explores tenderness. Intimacy and passion are manifested from The Eternal Idol. The piece dramatically concludes with the lustful Minotaur and Nymph.

The finale, excerpts from Playlist (EP), was a pleasant surprise of classical dance movements juxtaposed to hip hop music. Newly choreographed by William Forsythe, it premiered in Boston in March. It has the many qualities of a team sport with quick formations and costumes with names across the back. The male performers’ high leaps, multiple pirouettes and batterie bring to mind the Enrico Cecchetti ballet style and worked well with the fast, upbeat tempo. Equally impressive was the performance by the six female performers en pointe. Their jazz-style movements were overlaid on exquisite technique. As Forsythe had expressed in an interview, this “…. work is just another way to love ballet.”

August 20, 2019

Review: Chester Theater Company, Curve of Departure

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Stacie Beland and Hilde Axelson

Curve of Departure, by Rachel Bonds, is an extraordinary play that is beautifully brought to life under Keira Naughton and through its performers, who portray a snapshot of a family. The set, lighting, and sound design allow us to truly feel as though we are inside a small New Mexico hotel room. Tiny details—such as flashes of blue as a family member watches TV and the many bottles of medications, visible but not prominently displayed, tucked near the bathroom sink—allow us to become fully engrossed in what unfolds before us.

Fascinatingly, there is no antagonist in the script, though it is not without conflict. It is a simple study, a slice of American life and daily struggle. We first meet Rudy and Linda as Linda is ironing Rudy’s funeral clothes in the room. Rudy’s son, Linda’s ex-husband, has passed. Linda, despite the divorce, has remained a dedicated caretaker and companion to her ex-father-in-law. They are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Felix, Linda’s son and Rudy’s grandson. Felix is expected to arrive with his boyfriend, Jackson. As we wait for the boys to arrive, it becomes clear that Rudy is struggling with some unnamed form of dementia; he is struggling with memory loss and is burdened by a body that is turning against him. Linda remains upbeat and unflappable. When the boys arrive, it is revealed that they are caring for and potentially adopting Jackson’s niece, something for which Felix feels unprepared.

Ami Brabson’s is a wonder as Linda. She is a woman on the edge, but is never hesitant to speak her mind and offer advice. Whether cheerfully escorting Rudy to the bathroom, cleaning him, or counseling both Felix and Jackson, all among the undercurrent of her ex-husband’s death and having to face his “new family,” she is the glue that holds this night (and morning) together. When she finally breaks down, it is decidedly well earned. Her portrayal is stunning.

Raye Birk, as the aging and curmudgeonly Rudy, portrays his character with perfect precision in loveable dotage. When Rudy reveals his plans for the future, we grieve with his family but also cheer for what may be his last assertion of his wishes. He is a man that has lost so much, but not so much that he’s ignorant to the loss itself. Birk is a fantastic in this role.

As Jackson and Felix, Jose Espinosa and Paul Pontrelli (respectively), are an engaging couple. Truly, Pontrelli’s Felix steals the show and somewhat overshadows Espinosa’s Jackson. Pontrelli’s intensity on the stage is unmatched; there is never a moment where he isn’t completely engaged in what is happening around him. His subtle facial expressions and barely perceptible nervous affectations combine to form a well-rounded, highly believable character.

Truly, upon seeing this performance, one cannot help but leave the theater and want to spend more time with this family, to somehow ingratiate oneself into their fictional lives—you develop such a care and concern for all of them that, upon waking the next day, you want to call them to make sure they’re okay. It is a fantastic, highly believable performance.

August 16, 2019

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Fall Springs

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 31, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The cast of "Falls Springs"
With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos and book and lyrics by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, “Fall Springs” is making its world premiere full production at Barrington Stage after seven years in development. The title setting is “a town somewhere in the USA” which sits atop “one of the largest Essential Oil reserves in the country.” The nine-member cast includes five middle-aged adults, four of whom are single parents; and four teenagers, one child of each parent.

Mayor Robert Bradley introduces the town (“Fall Springs”) and promotes its advantages “as the 4th fastest growing, the 11th safest, and 14th most aesthetically pleasing smallish town not including locations near water or mountains.” After his daughter, aspiring geologist Eloise, worries about environmental damage (“Gimme Science”), Beverly Cushman, head of the Fall Springs Essential Oil Drilling company, gets the Town Council to approve “Hydraulic Fracking,” which threatens the community’s very foundations.

The teenagers’ band, “Impending Doom,” is convinced that the town is “Sinking in to Oblivion,” and when more potholes and pavement cracks are reported, the adults wonder if “The Birds Have Come Home” to roost. Disaster strikes by the end of Act One, and its aftermath is explored, with humor, pathos, and hope, following intermission in Act Two.

The cast, all but one experienced Actors’ Equity members, bring the satirical spirit of the text and the plot to stirring life. Matt McGrath is a pompous and superficial Mayor, while Ellen Harvey’s Beverly is a hilariously over-the-top monster of corporate greed. Alyse Alan Louis is a forceful yet touching Eloise, while Sam Heldt is haplessly endearing as Beverly’s nerdy son Felix. Ken Marks is an affecting scold as Nolan Wolanske, “the town genius/vagrant” scientist colleague of Eloise’s late mother, who perished in a mysterious accident.

Mike Pettry’s five-piece band, featuring keyboards, guitars, percussion, and bass, nails the infectiously appealing rock-based score, which also sports witty and incisive lyrics, and supports director Stephen Brackett’s absurdist vision of this ecological parable. So does imaginative scenic design by Tim Mackabee, resourceful costumes by Emily Rebholz, and zany choreography by Patrick McCollum.

In the honorable tradition of 2001’s “Urinetown,” this delightful production delivers a sobering message in an entertaining package and deserves a longer life in this era of the ongoing discussion of climate change.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 11, 2019
by Karoun Charkoudian

Yo-Yo Ma photo by Jason Bell
Imagine playing a musical instrument alone for two and a half hours straight without an intermission, in front of thousands of people. A feat of stamina -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. Who was up for this? Yo-Yo Ma, of course. This night was a part of Ma’s “Bach Project,” performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in one sitting in 36 locations around the world.

After sitting through grueling traffic (because two Tanglewood concerts were scheduled back to back, both with big names), the crowds gathered, looking forward to a 7:30pm concert, only to find out that the concert was rescheduled to 8pm. The evening was off to a late start and the audience wasn’t happy.

Yo-Yo Ma, with incredible energy and vivaciousness, had clearly been working with audiences for decades and understood, not only was this concert an Olympic feat for him, but it was a feat for the audience as well. He included a “7th inning stretch” after Suite No. 3, and between Suite No. 5 and Suite No. 6 he did not stop for applause, only paused for a few seconds, so no audience members could slip away in hopes to beat traffic. For those who did stay until the end, they earned a special surprise when James Taylor appeared on stage to play the encore (this concert was in fact sponsored by Caroline and James Taylor in honor of Andrew Previn).

The Bach Suites are all structured similarly, all with seven movements with almost identical names. Highlights were the deep extended regal chords of the Sarabande, the dance-like feel of the Menuett (sometimes replaced by a Gavotte or Bourree), and the fast and fiery Gigue which concluded every Suite. The third and sixth suite are purportedly the most difficult, (claims the average cellist), and the suites were numbered based on chronological time, when they were written by Bach.

Ma’s vision is to celebrate humanity and to bring people conjointly through The Bach Project. Ma announced that this was a celebration of coming together. As we struggle to make meaning in our lives we can look to Bach. Bach’s writing is about human nature and the infinite variety of life; this music can unite us while helping to understand each other. 

August 13, 2019

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 1, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

“The Merry Wives of Windsor may not be one of the best known of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is fun to watch some of Shakespeare’s women act as the primary architects of the story that unfolds. In Shakespeare & Company’s new production, the merriment is made greater by staging the show in The Roman Garden Theatre where the intimacy and energy is enhanced by the entrances, exits, and self-reflexive nature of the performers coming through the audience to take their place on “stage.” Director Kevin G. Coleman’s fast-paced production is loaded with laughs and actors’ asides to the audience, and a first-rate multigenerational, color-blind, gender-blind cast keeps the audience fully engaged.

There are too many actors/characters to individually acknowledge, but it is a pleasure to watch both Mistress Ford (Jennie M. Jadow) and Mistress Page (MaConnia Chesser) work together. The two have an excellent connection with each other and the text, and leave no doubt as to why their husbands (Martin Jason Asprey and Steven Barkhimer, respectively) will always be outwitted by their wives. Mistress Quickly (Cloteal L. Horne) is an engaging gossip and messenger for Falstaff (Nigel Gore). 

Kiki Smith’s imaginative costumes place the production in Elizabethan times, but sound cues and music pepper the transition points and give the production a contemporary flavor. At moments, the production’s stage manager finds herself in the middle of a scene and creatively blends in—bringing a wink and nod to experiencing Shakespeare in today’s world and adding to the comedic spectacle.

If there is a weakness to the production it may be that Shakespeare’s script is hard to cut for a modern-day audience. Act I establishes the characters and sets up the complicated story, but everything gets wrapped up in Act II rather abruptly. The production runs 2½ hours with intermission, and while the actors work valiantly to keep the energy high and the characters fresh, the story seems weaker and less satisfying than most of the Bard’s more well-known work. Still, if one appreciates the fine work of this company and are lucky enough to attend on a magical Berkshire day with good weather, you will not be disappointed. 

August 12, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ghosts

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
For those expecting a spooky, window-rattling, bump in the night type thriller, you best re-assess your expectations. Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was penned in 1881, at a time when, as translator Paul Walsh states: “ the 1880s in Norway, they were on the brink of modernity.” In Walsh’s new translation, collaboratively developed with WTF Artistic Director Aileen Lambert states in the program, “I aim to translate the language for the actors first a way that is contemporary without being modernized.”

Ibsen’s drama (which verges close, but not too close, on melodrama), is set on the estate of Mrs. Helene Alving, near a fjord in Western Norway. The inciting action is the arrival of Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, an artist, who has come from his Bohemian life in Paris when the unveiling of an orphanage dedicated to his late father. Pastor Manders is also in attendance, to (mostly) lecture to Mrs. Alving on the morality of 19th century Norway. Rounding out the story are Jakob Engstrand, a rather shady character, and his daughter Regina, the Alving’s housemaid. Many plot twists and revelations ensue including the titular ghosts, which Mrs. Alving says are “opinions, beliefs, and lies are specters we see again as ghosts.”

Indeed the solemn, dread-filled world of “Ghosts” is effectively underscored by David Coulter’s onstage eerie zither music. The wisps of steam rising from the fjord are subtly created by scenic designer Dane Laffrey. The slanted roof covered with scrub pine and the restrictive, Victorian era suits and dresses are also the creation of Laffrey.

The expert performances by the small cast are what give “Ghosts” its nuances and humanity. The biggest draw to this play is, undoubtedly, the appearance of Oscar-nominated actress Uma Thurman. Thurman’s performance as Mrs. Alving is at once witty and intense. Hers is a difficult role that requires a balance of her internal rage and compassion. The actress’ stills present the subtlest stage performances that this writer has seen. On par with Thurman is Tom Pecinka as Oswald. His transformation from Devil-may-care artist to suffering son is truly a grand piece of acting. While Catherine Combs seems a little bit young in the role of Regina, she holds her own. Bernard White as the hypocritical Pastor Manders manages to convey sincerity without making him a caricature. Thom Sesma’s opportunistic Jakob Engstrand is both comical and reproachable.

Think of “Ghosts” as a stage-bound version of an Ingmar Bergman film, deeply psychological and verbose, with a bit of the storyline of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” along with the sardonic social commentary of contemporary news programs. The result is the brilliance of the father of dramatic modernism, Henrik Ibsen.

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, If I Forget

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through September 7, 2019 (extended)
by Shera Cohen

“If I Forget” what? Or who? There are many answers. Forget family values and relationships, forget that people change, forget that with pain and work there still may be no answers. Each of these thoughts loom forward in Steven Levenson’s play, “If I Forget.” The more important question is; what if I forget the Holocaust? Character Michael (J. Anthony Crane), a non-practicing Jewish professor, continues to over-answer the question throughout the play. To the confusion and/or disapproval of his family members, Michael pontificates that the entire Jewish race cannot be defined by this one horrific episode. Jewish history existed prior to the Holocaust, after, and probably for centuries to come.

While this might seem a complex, sometimes difficult topic for Barrington Stage (BSC) audience to stick with for two and a half hours, it is the playwright’s language, oftentimes couched in humor, and director Jennifer Chambers’ juxtaposition of characters and their spaces which make every minute fly by.

The actors portray seven members of the Fischer family in 2000. Another, unseen, character is equally important as those onstage. Nearly every possible duo of family dynamic is tackled: brother and sister, daughter and father, nephew and uncle, husband and wife, sister and sister, brothers-in-law, mother and her daughter. Each is powerful and poignant.

Primarily an ensemble cast, J. Anthony Crane as the brother/son/husband Michael is in the forefront. His role as erstwhile philosopher who drives his sisters and wife crazy is presented with a not-so-hidden fear of failure of himself and for his family. In Act I, Crane creates Michael as off-putting, feigning confidence. His character’s change at the start of Act II is a metamorphosis. 

Actors Laura Jordan (Michael’s older sister Holly) and Lena Kaminsky (younger sister Sharon) portray real and human with a capital “R” and “H,” respectively. These grown up siblings shout, back off, shout again, hug, and yell “F_ _ _ you!” They step on each other’s lines. Walk into any home; no one speaks to each other in complete, accurate sentence. Neither do the Fischers.

The audience sees Kathleen Wise (Michael’s wife) as a mother, depicting hopeful and scared simultaneously. Mitch Greenberg (Holly’s husband Howard) is given the job to just sit and throw out one-liners until the moment in Act II that calls for Greenberg to present Howard as na├»ve and rather pathetic. Robert Zukerman (Michael’s father) literally and figuratively has few lines. As Michael’s nephew Joey, is Isaac Josephthal makes his BSC debut.

Scenic Designer John McDermott has conceived the most detailed, elaborate (not gauche), exquisite set on the St. Germain Stage in BSC’s history. On one level appear five rooms in a house with door frames and furniture establishing definition. 

Some advice; when ads state “Sold Out,” heed the warning. Every seat was taken at this performance. In fact, “If I Forget” has been extended even before opening night.

PREVIEW: Bazaar Productions, Particularly in the Heartland

Bazaar Productions, The Foundry, West Stockbridge, MA
August 8 – August 18, 2019

“Particularly in the Heartland” spotlights a trio of siblings living on a Kansas farm. The children are orphaned after their parents’ disappearance by a tornado—or was it an alien invasion? Or possibly the Rapture? The Springer youth are left to raise themselves. They are soon joined by three outsiders: Dorothy, a New Yorker fallen from an airplane; Tracey Jo, a pregnant teen claiming to be an alien; and the ghost of 1968 presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. Out of the chaos emerges a new kind of American family.

Bazaar’s work is exactly as the title means; it is odd, strange, unusual, funny or sad. Young actors and crew who are twentysomethings do all of the work backstage, onstage, and in administration. The play is directed by one of Bazaar’s founders Sara Kazoff.

While Bazaar Productions is approximately 10 years old, this is there first summer season at their new home in West Stockbridge, MA

August 9, 2019

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, Fully Committed

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT, at Wadsworth Atheneum
through September 1, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

For anyone who appreciates an actor with the talent, energy, and total commitment necessary to capture an audience for 80 minutes of non-stop entertainment—Jamison Stern is golden. In “Fully Committed,” a clever, well-written comedy penned by Becky Mode, Stern performs 33 characters, portraying each one so clearly, the audience never doubts what they look like. In fact, those watching Stern, left wondering if he was portraying a number of people we knew.

Undoubtedly, many of the audience members recognized and appreciated Stern’s comedic ability from last year’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride” at TheaterWorks, or perhaps from his success as Zaza in “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Goodspeed. Audience expectations were high, and from the final ovation, all expectations were satisfied.

Director Bill Fennelly keeps the pace fast and Brian Prather’s ingenious set design shows us the bowels of a New York City restaurant where “Sam,” an aspiring actor, makes ends meet by taking reservations and fielding phone calls for the upscale restaurant where the chef’s creations have built a clamor for reservations three months out. The description of the cuisine is hilarious, as are the characters who make up the staff—all portrayed by Stern, who juggles phone calls and the in-house communication system. 

Though “Fully Committed” is a comedic tour-de-force for an actor as skilled as Stern, the script itself is a work of comedic art. This show has warmth, heart, and the type of ending that makes an audience cheer when our hero takes matters into his own hands. Human communication, the pomposity of the rich, and the insecurity of the powerful become showcased so that for anyone who has every felt belittled by someone else (and who hasn’t had that experience?) finds self-worth.  

TheaterWorks originally staged this play in 2002 with another actor, at a time when the show was a regional theater hit across the country. This production has been updated for relevance and the updates hit home. As the last production staged at the Wadsworth before TheaterWorks returns to its renovated Pearl Street home, the intimacy and poignancy of “Fully Committed” is an appropriate way to mark the passage of time. 

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Beethoven, Yo-Yo Ma

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 6, 2019
by Karoun Charkoudian
The lawn filled up early on a mid-summer Tuesday evening at Seiji Ozawa Hall. The audience anticipated  Yo-Yo Ma in an all-Beethoven piano trio program. Guest artists included Ma, world re-known pianist Emanuel Ax, and a violinist with tremendous accolades, Leonidas Kavakos. A hush fell over the lawn when the three performers walked on stage. Ma, Ax, and Kavakos were surrounded by a full house, audience on all four sides including a balcony, the lawn completing the fourth side.

An audience member might assume that Yo-Yo Ma, the man who draws the crowds, would be the featured player on this evening. Perhaps in a show of humbleness, the selections instead featured the virtuosic playing of Ax and Kavakos, with Ma playing the support role, as cellists often do.

The first piano trio, Opus 1, was composed early in Beethoven’s career, and in fact, Haydn (his teacher), encouraged him not to publish the work because it was so intense. Opus 70 (second on the program) was created much later in Beethoven’s career and there was definitely a more settled feel to it.

All three of Beethoven’s piano trios performed that night contained four movements, which gave them a larger, symphonic-like feel. Annoyingly and surprisingly, the audience often didn’t understand the difference between the ending of one of the movements, and the ending of the piece itself.

Ax, Kavakos, and Ma not only played with perfection and life, honoring Beethoven completely, but there was an air of comfort in playing together (in fact, the three of them had recorded Brahms piano trios together in late 2017 for Sony Classical).

As the evening wore on, it was clear that in addition to perfection, the musicians were living and breathing Beethoven’s work. When the cello part did shine (very rarely) it was always a surprising deep, rich, sound, one of decades of work, channeling the very essence of Beethoven. Besides those few moments of cello glory, the audience may have felt that Seiji Ozawa hall was actually built for a piano, as the piano, above all, resounded around the lawn in crisp, clear acoustic perfection.

Tellingly, a standing ovation followed every piece, and even though some of the audience left at intermission to avoid the traffic, they walked to their cars relaxed and satisfied.

August 5, 2019

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, George Bowerman

The Academy, Worthington, MA
July 14 - August 18, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

George Bowerman
Three years after his triumphant debut at this family-based music festival as a “Young Artist to Watch,” Springfield-born pianist George Bowerman made a stunning return visit as a “Young Artist to Watch, Version 2.0,” as fellow pianist Rorianne Schrade, a daughter of Sevenars founders Robert and Rolande Schrade, introduced him on August 4. His adventurous program solidified Bowerman’s continuing growth into a mature professional artist.

It opened with a seldom played work by a rarely heard composer. Bowerman helpfully prefaced each piece with an articulate spoken introduction, and his dramatic performance of the Fantasy in F-sharp minor by Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel depicted exactly the musical journey that he had prepared the appreciative full house to listen for.  

Next came a brilliant account of Cesar Franck’s demanding Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, whose three sections are played without pause. From the solemn Prelude, through the plaintive Chorale and the exuberant Fugue, Bowerman varied the weight of his tone to build a mounting tension that was only resolved in the thunderous final chords.

Intermission was followed by the last of Brahms’ four Ballades, written at age 21, when he had just met his lifelong soulmate Clara Schumann. Bowerman related the tempo marking “with the most intimate feeling” in the middle section to the young composer’s affection for Clara, making the “adagio” pace at which he took the other sections, which Brahms had marked “andante con moto,” powerfully convincing.

Bowerman described the pleasure of working with Berkshire-based composer Stephen Dankner to prepare for today’s world premiere of his Four Preludes. Influences as diverse as Gershwin, Bartok, and Messiaen could be heard in these slightly jazzy, mildly dissonant, and altogether delightful pieces. Bowerman was in total command of their technical challenges and the emotional depths of the lengthy finale. The composer signaled his pleasure in return from the audience.

The formal program closed with a free-wheeling rendition of Chopin’s mercurial Polonaise-Fantaisie. A standing ovation was rewarded with an affectionate version of Chopin’s fleeting seventh prelude, Op. 28.

At age 29, Bowerman seems to have it all: dazzling keyboard technique; profound interpretive skill; charismatic and communicative stage presence. His devoted Sevenars following will not want to wait three more years for “Young Artist to Watch: Version 3.0.”

REVIEW: Cranwell Resort, Capitol Steps

Capitol Steps, Lenox, MA
through Labor Day Weekend, 2019
by Shera Cohen

If you have already seen Capitol Steps either in Lenox, or Washington, DC, or elsewhere across the country, there might be some hesitation – to attend or not to attend yet again. In the Spotlight has previewed and/or reviewed CS for at least 12 years.

Set reluctance aside, as each year’s, and oftentimes each month’s, CS performance is different. Why? Because the news changes daily, especially the news that seems the most ridiculous. No topic or personality is left unscathed by wit and jabs, all set to familiar music by the CS quintet; two women and three men.

Accompanied by an unnamed pianist, song styles range from Broadway one minute, 50’s music the next, Bee Gees’, and romantic serenades. The creative lyricists must have had fun rewriting “Stayin’ Alive” as sung by the aging Supreme Court Justices. The Judge Ginsberg actress completed the song by doing push-ups.

The evening was not all Trump-bashing, although there was certainly enough to go around. The four special ladies in Trump’s world also appeared: Kelly Anne, Sarah Saunders, Ivanka, and Melania. Each did her best to imitate and sound like her namesake, but that was hardly important. Wearing ill-fitting wigs and crass suits, it was obvious that no one onstage is to be taken seriously.

Other topical guests dropped in and out; i.e. Putin, Meuller, Bernie, Ben Carson and Queen Elizabeth. Topics were not solely about the comings and going on Capitol Hill, but included current hot button topics like health care, Native Americans, and TSA workers.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to credit any performer by name, because multiple troupe members are listed in the one program book that is utilized for every show in every location. But a comment on the Barak Obama actor is necessary. Obama always makes his way into a few CS skits. Past Obamas have been okay, but this year’s performer bears an uncanny resemblance, as well as the voice, and mannerisms of our past commander-in-chief.

August 4, 2019

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, A.I.M. By Kyle Abraham

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 4, 2019
by Josephine Sarnelli

Formerly known as Abraham In Motion, A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham offers a unique blend of attributes from contemporary, classical, hip-hop and club dancing. Abraham’s choreography seems very personal as it explores themes of gender differences, sensuality and isolation. His troupe of five female and three male dancers is technically proficient and incredibly athletic.

Photo by Hayim Heron
The first piece, entitled “state,” was choreographed by Andrea Miller in conjunction with the A.I.M. dancers. It is the only dance of the program not choreographed by Abraham. Three female dancers appear to be on a journey, entering and exiting with the same movements. The lighting and shadow projections sometimes give the illusion of more performers on stage and is very effective in accentuating the lines of the dancers.

Abraham choreographed his solo, "INDY," to clearly have a conversation with the audience. He reveals so much of himself through his personal history that at one point he removes his dance costume. As he stands in only his dance trunks, he acknowledges his vulnerability to the audience. It is then that the soundtrack announces his name at his college graduation. He responds by periodically moving when there is sound and then seizing up as if the past is bottled up within him.

The most poignant piece was “The Quiet Dance” choreographed to Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.” Four dancers group together, but never interact with the soloist; the isolation is palpable, although she is going through the same motions as the others. During the Pre-Talk with Brian Schaeffer, a scholar in residence, it was explained that this work was Abraham’s interpretation of a medical condition that isolated his father from effectively communicating with the outside world.

“Show Pony,” danced by Tamisha Guy, is a stimulating convergence of hip-hop and lyrical. It highlights what Abraham does best: he creates movement for a dancer. Conversely, in none of his choreographies do his dancers interact or react to one another.
Unfortunately, it becomes apparent from the very start of the program that one of the influences that social club dancing has had on Abraham is a taste for very loud music. Hence, the soundtrack for the entire program was painful to audience members, including this reviewer, who returned after intermission wearing earplugs, as did many others. The deafening score for this two-hour performance was a serious distraction.

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, “Working”

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through august 24, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
“Working” is one of those musicals that most people, even those involved in theatre, have never heard of, or at the very least, have never seen. That’s surprising because its history shows off a who’s who in Broadway entertainment. The musical is based on interviews by author Studs Terkel in 1977 (required college reading), book by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked” and just about every Disney musical), and songs by six noted writers including Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”).

Despite its large cast primarily of young performers, “Working” is a small musical about people who work to earn a living, to follow their dreams, to be an important part of community. In other words, the play is universal.

All, or nearly all, of the actors get his/her opportunity to sing solo. To a fault, director James Barry, has selected a dynamite team with pipes to match their acting skills. Essentially an easy flowing series of vignettes, some stories are sheer fun, others poignant; some stories told solely in music, others with dialog introductions followed by song.

In song, dance, monologues, one-on-one conversations, and group numbers the cast of ten are the epitome of sheer joy, energy, and camaraderie. Each actor portrays many roles, and in this case occupations: stone mason, UPS driver, assembly line worker, corporate executive, editor, salesman, parking lot attendant, and “just a housewife.” While some language in the script is updated, the story of “Working” basically does not change onstage or off.
Two emotional songs are standouts. “If I Could Have Been,” sung by the full company, speaks to the universal wish to try and perhaps succeed if his/her life course had been different. “Fathers and Sons” depicts the desires of fathers for their sons as they venture out into the world. The same can be said broadly as parents’ dreams for their children.

The band of four led by Jeff Link provides subtle background, never upstaging the actors. Chorographer Ashley DeLane Burger moves the cast naturally, as real people rather than big production numbers. Set designer Nicholas Hussong creates as many scenes as there are songs (a lot!), primarily with black lines to show spatial demarcations, constantly changing.

It is wonderful to be part of a full house at the Unicorn Theatre for this somewhat obscure, yet perfect, little musical.

August 3, 2019

Review: 2 Summer Theatres Tackle Tough Topics

The 2 plays reviewed below are serious and scary presentations of contemporary life that may or may not affect their audiences. At the very least, they will cause thought and conversation on what, hopefully, will be a deep level.

Review: Chester Theatre Company, On the Exhale
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 4, 2019

Photo by Andrew Greto
It’s not all fun, fluff, and fantasy on the theatre stages this Berkshire summer of 2019.
Chester Theatre Company’s “On the Exhale” essentially depicts a replica of the Sandy Hook, horrific story from one woman’s point of view; from a mother of a victim. While not a news story or didactic lesson, Woman (she has no name because she could be any woman) takes her audience on a slow walk through the points in her life that lead her to the most important role in her life as a mother.

Actress Tara Franklin possesses Woman in this taught, emotional, intelligent play by Martin Zimmerman. She becomes the embodiment of her role, sometimes with a keen look or fake smile, addressing her audience as “you” rather than “I.” Woman hopes to separate as much as she can from the death of her son by telling her story, implying that this, too, could happen to you and your precious child.
Two suggestions: shorten the script with snippets here and there and add music and/or sounds; i.e. school bell ringing, soft murmuring conversations, gunshots.

The story and a good deal of the language are predictable. However, Franklin’s tour de force performance gives Chester Theatre something and someone to be very proud of.

Review: Shakespeare & Company, The Children
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Nile Scott Studios
Shakespeare & Company’s “The Children” should be taken just as seriously as “On the Exhale.” The play’s off-stage setting is a nuclear plant. Two of the three adults live nearby, another visits. They speak a lot about children, one in particular, but the fact that the audience does not actually see any child onstage is foreshadowing that the world of this trio (not to mention all of those inhabiting the planet) is far from perfect.
Diane Prusha (Hazel) and Jonathan Epstein (Robin) portray a middle-aged married couple, both past employees at a nuclear plant in England whose lives have been grossly affected by the atmospheric problems of the day and the future. Robin pretends to himself that all is not as bad as seen. Hazel is more of a realist. Enter Ariel Bock (Robin’s lover Rose). More importantly, Rose’s purpose is what leads the story on a path of destruction; or path to thwart destruction? The audience can answer that question.

Each actor is a longtime professional at Shakespeare & Co. who have worked together for many years. Prusha, usually a soft-spoken actress depicting women in timid roles, gives Hazel power, sincerity, and determination. Epstein’s character adds some much-needed humorous relief as bravado in a situation that will certainly fail. A suggestion would be to brush up on his English accent. Bock, who has been working in administrative capacity for some time, has been released from her day job to become the sounding board for the other characters and the spokesperson for the unseen and perhaps unborn children.