Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 30, 2019

Review: Berkshire Theatre Group, What The Jews Believe

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 20, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

When pre-show music includes both country and klezmer music, we start to think that this new play is probably something a little quirky and maybe even, funny. Even the set-up is humorous. A young boy in rural Texas is studying for his Bar Mitzvah with the aid of a correspondence course and old records recorded by his grandfather, complete with Yiddish accent. But very quickly, a number of surprises begin to reveal the heart of the play’s message that revolves around faith, love, and the desire to want to understand our place in the world.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
Playwright and director Mark Harelik has crafted a touching new play with a refreshing approach to religion and what it means to find faith. The situations he presents theatergoers with are real, and his dialog is honest. The first-rate cast does an impressive job of creating a collective, beating heart that is at the center of this drama which, despite the early chuckles it provides, deals with some very heavy problems, ideas, and situations, including the fundamental problem of what religion does to us, as well as for us. A bombshell drops at the end of Act I that is so unexpected, the audience can’t wait for Act II.

The story is based on Harelik’s own experience growing up in the only Jewish family in a small town in Texas. The cast features Benim Foster as the father urging his son toward his Bar Mitzvah, Emily Donahoe as the mother facing a terminal illness, Cynthia Mace as Aunt Sarah, who brings her own faith to the mix while attempting to “help out,” Robert Zukerman as Rabbi Bindler, and young Nathan, played by an exuberant Logan Weibrecht who blends in well with the more seasoned professionals in this cast. What is so touching about the family these actors embody is that they collectively create a bond of love that is palpable.

“What The Jews Believe” is a slightly misleading title in that what this play gives is the opportunity to think about what everyone believes, no matter what our religion or lack or religious affiliation. It goes well beyond the cultural snapshots that are the basis for many contemporary stories, and brings us back to some of the central questions that form the basis for humanity. This is a beautiful play, well-told, brilliantly acted, and deeply moving.

September 9, 2019

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Bright Star

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through September 22, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Photo by Mike Druzolowski
In his “Director’s Notes” for the OHP production, John Pike calls “Bright Star” a “compassionate story of loss, redemption, and forgiveness.” After a four-month 2016 Broadway run that earned five Tony nominations (all won by the blockbuster “Hamilton”), a national tour, and several regional productions, Pike’s appealing cast of 22 singing actors brings this first non-professional presentation in Connecticut to poignant and entertaining life.

With music, book, and story by comedian and banjo player Steve Martin, and music, lyrics, and story by folk rock singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, the story was inspired by a turn-of-the-twentieth-century newspaper article headlined “The Iron Mountain Baby” about a lost child. It was reset for the stage to North Carolina during the 1920s and post-World War II 1940’s, which, in Pike’s words, “would be advantageous to the musical’s bluegrass stylings.”

To the central role of Alice Murphy, the formidable editor of the Asheville Southern Journal,
Nicole Wadleigh brings much of the same brightness and warmth with which Carmen Cusack created the role on Broadway. As her lifelong love interest, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, when the story flashes back from 1945 to 1923, Andrew Rosenstein exudes youthful ardor and a brilliant singing voice. To Billy Cane, an aspiring writer just returned from World War II, Stephen Koehler brings sensitivity and exuberance. As his childhood friend and, later, fiancĂ©e, bookstore manager Margo Crawford, Jackie DeMaio is fervent and affecting. Rodney K and Lindsay Ryan are hilariously over the top as Alice’s assistants Daryl and Lucy.

Musical highlights include: Koehler’s exhilarating “Bright Star,” celebrating Billy’s literary ambitions; Wadleigh’s hopeful “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” as Alice leaves her rural home for college; and Rosenstein’s shattering “Heartbreaker,” after Jimmy Ray receives tragic news from his father. Kim Aliczi’s six-piece orchestra is a true bluegrass band, featuring Ann-Marie Messbauer on fiddle, Tim Maynard on banjo, and Ron Calabrese on guitar and mandolin. Even their “Entr’acte” is stunning.

Clever set design by Jeff Clayton allows for seamless transitions by the actors between scenes. Inventive choreography by Hannah Gundersheim, resourceful costume design by Moonyean Field, and Pike’s skillful staging of the many ensemble numbers further enhance this must-see production.

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The Tuna Goddess

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 13, 2019
by Shera Cohen

After dispensing with the quirky and nonsensical title of Majestic Theater’s season opener, “The Tuna Goddess” is one of the most spirited plays in this theatre company’s 23-year-run. For those audience-goers who enjoyed “Outside Mullingar” last season, “Tuna” will be quite reminiscent; not so much in plot but character development of its two leads.

Set in the early years of the turn of the century – this century, the 21st – in a small Cape Cod town, fishing tuna is the trade. The text tosses in some nautical jargon, assuming that everyone watching the happenings know what all of this stuff is. We don’t. We don’t care. It is the interaction of the characters that is paramount; each knowing the other in their tiny world.

The word (is it a word?) “dramady” has become popular when writing reviews. Is seems that gone are the early days of Neil Simon and Woody Allen; replaced by a dramatic story with humor and humanity mixed in to create the closest to real life as is possible. Playwright Jade Schuyler, a relative newbie as a writer, paints her picture of present day, the past, and sometimes simultaneously. The best example is Lexi Langs’ Alexandra (a high-power business exec) standing across the stage with Larkin Fox’s Young Alex (age 8 or so, playing fisher-girl at the dock).

The crux of the tale is the question: will high school friends Alexandra and Pete (portrayed with intense struggles by Erick Kastel) ultimately hook up in spite of many roadblocks; the biggest being their own thoughts and passions.

The play is quite long. Not that verbal banter and visual movement for each character isn’t well written, a few sections could have been completely deleted. Better yet, snips here and there in many scenes could smooth out the play, emphasize the reality of day-to-day conversation, and avoid repetition.

For many years, writers for In the Spotlight (and its predecessor Bravo Newspaper) have sung the praises of Greg Trochlil, Set Designer. As a full-stage kitchen turns in a circle to become a boat deck, the audience is in awe of Trochlil’s talent. Kudos to the quick moving well-choreographed set movers as well.

When a production of an excellent play is to be critiqued, sometimes there is little to write. So, here’s some minutia. Cate Damon is the only actor to maintain a Cape Cod/Maine accent throughout. Actor Tom Dahl’s lines call for belching, blaring laughter, and too many “F” words to count. Yes, these are the words of the play, but Dahl goes over-board. Finally, and most importantly, one very disturbing factor, which surely Majestic staff can “fix,” was clear-as-a-bell talking by two or three stagecrew members behind the curtain, stage right, disturbing an extremely emotional scene by the lead male. This interruption is a theatre “no-no.”

Note: Before bringing young kids to see “Tuna,” realize that the language is often PG or R rated.