Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 30, 2019

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, Forever Plaid

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 8, 2019
by Barbara Stroup

A slow procession of four male singers makes its way to a stage bathed in blue, while singing church-like music that ends with the word “Shaboom.” Caught between two worlds after the car crash that killed them, the four members of the 50’s boy band “Forever Plaid” must perform their show in order to progress to the hereafter. And so begins this fantastic review of the best ballads of the era, sung flawlessly by Tomm Knightlee (“Smudge”) the bass-baritone, Bryan Austermann (“Jinx”) a high tenor, Brian Michael Henry (“Sparky”) tenor, and Chris Coffey (“Francis”) tenor. Their vocal ranges exceed these designations, and they contribute equally to a fabulously blended sound. The ballads of choice have more complex chord progressions than the standard do-wop chart, so the audience never tires of listening to the lineup of love songs that fill this two-hour production.

Nor can the audience tire of watching, because Stacy Ashley’s choreography fills the stage with movement. Using all of the space, the singers croon close to and distant from each other, and never lose the pitch. They are always graceful and sometimes even acrobatic in reviving the arm swings and leg movements that have come to characterize the boy groups of the era. The choreography suits the words, sometimes whimsical, and often even humorous as the audience recalls watching groups like “The Lettermen” and “The Four Lads.”

Act I includes a  list of hits that includes a bow to both Perry Como and Harry Belafonte. A high point for this audience member was their rendition of “No Not Much,” and Bryan Austermann’s “Cry” deserves special mention. Act II does not allow the attention to wander as it opens with every piano student’s duet, “Heart and Soul” (with audience participation). The music program morphs easily into a hysterical “re-broadcast” of Ed Sullivan’s greatest guests, a choreographic peak of entrances, exits and costume changes.

Director Ben Ashley states that he, “fell in love with this show” decades ago, and his devotion shows. He allows the music to be the focus  and does not muddy the production with staging quirks or gimmicks. Majestic audiences who revere him as Buddy Holly, now have a chance to appreciate his directorial skill and hope to see more from him. The indomitable and multi-talented Mitch Chakur and his group continue to provide awesome instrumental support. With this production of “Forever Plaid, the Majestic Theater continues to fill the house by offering audiences worthwhile theatre-going experiences.

October 29, 2019

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, American Son

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 23, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Having experienced the world premiere of “American Son” at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield three years ago, seeing the play again was a must. This powerful, dramatic, and timely story kicks off TheaterWorks’ 34th year.

While “kick” is used metaphorically, the word serves as a perfect description of the crux of the play. “American Son” is a kick in the gut to audience members no matter what side you are on, or color. Each of the four characters has his/her own perspective on situations. In the case of “American Son,” the situation is life or death.

Racial tension at its height, racial profiling, interracial marriage, the race card, and black lives matter; it’s all there in your face, especially if your face is black. It would have been impossible for writer Christopher Demos-Brown to pen “American Son” 20 years ago, even 10 years ago to share the tension and meaning of its message. At the very least, patrons likely would have felt that the plot was unfamiliar; yet in the 21st century the story is, as the phrase goes, “ripped from the headlines,” and uncomfortable.

The central characters are an estranged couple; wife is black, husband is white. The set is a police station waiting room. The pair start off as any worried parents would, waiting for their missing teenage son. with questions and angst. Layer upon layer the plot adds questions, angst, remorse, speculation, and psychological and physical combat.

Ami Brabson (wife/mother) paces every crevice of the room. She enunciates her words and speaks “white,” having assimilated into the world that her PhD requires. She speaks fast, as if rushing will make her crisis over sooner than later. Brabson displays internal torture, oozing out of every pore in her body and every syllable from her lips.

J. Anthony Crane (husband/father) portrays a dad who has raised his son in the practical ways of life. Without ever seeing the main character, the son Jamael, the audience knows who this young man is, especially through his relationship with his father. Brabson and Crane make for a purposefully uneven match in a marriage which had problems even before it began.

Supporting actors John Ford-Dunker (young police officer) and Michael Genet (senior police officer), flesh out the story primarily through their often-used and hesitant politically correct dialogue.
“American Son” is a tough play to watch, perhaps more difficult for black audience members. It speaks to any parent who cares for and fears for his/her child. Not being in either of these categories, “American Son” cannot help but affect everyone.

Kudos to TheaterWorks on its renovations. TW has turned their once dreary and somewhat confusingly navigational venue into a spiffy venue. Finally, the theatre looks worthy of the quality of TW’s productions.

October 23, 2019

REVIEW: Silverthorne Theater, The Diary of Anne Frank

Hawks & Reed Arts Center, Greenfield, MA
through October 26, 2019
by Shera Cohen

It might seem odd to think of the drama, “The Diary of Anne Frank” as joyful, uplifting, and beautiful. The antithesis immediately comes to mind; i.e. sad, horror, and ugliness in a world that permitted (and oftentimes still permits) humanity to become inhumane.

The play depicts one extended family in the center of WWII, literally in the middle of the war’s timeline in 1944 in The Netherlands, at the midpoint of Europe’s west coast. The Franks represent a small group of familiar Jews, multiplied thousands of times to equal the millions of Jews and others deemed unsuitable to Nazi Germany as members of the human race. However, “Anne Frank” is far more than a prototype of thousands of personal stories that have and could have been written. Anne Frank’s account is true, as are the people who live with her in a small attic hide away. The real Anne is the star of her own play, as so much of the script is attained from her diary; profound and serious at times, light and juvenile at other moments.

The producers and/or director have picked an exemplary troupe of 10 actors, eight of who are crowded into four rooms on a proscenium stage, as if sliced in half for the audience’s view. John Iverson’s set components are as important as any one of the actors. Dark and dreary, cramped and claustrophobic, Iverson has designed a replica of the actual site in 1944.

Samantha (Sammi) Choquette shines, even in the dramatic and bleak moments. At the same time, she portrays a typical young teenager who longs for fun and boys. Choquette creates a balance of coquettish schoolgirl with a young woman who must grow up too fast due to her circumstances. Choquette is pure joy to watch.

The leader of the family, in all ways secular and religious, is Otto Frank. Frank Aronson gives Otto a soft and tempered exterior. At the same time, the audience can envision the wheels ever spinning in Otto’s head, as the burden of every moment of every day falls on him. Seemingly, without trying, Aronson represents a wise and extremely caring father, husband, and friend.

Director Keith Langsdale moves the many characters around the multi-room set. In spite of the lack of doors from one room to another, it is always clear where his characters are going and why.

Plays performed at Silverthorne Theater are worth seeking out.

October 17, 2019

Review: The Bushnell, The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 20, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Irreverent, hilarious, and sophomoric, “The Book of Mormon” has become a cult classic. With book, music, and lyrics written by Matt Stone, Robert Lopez, and Trey Parker, the show won the 2011 Tony for Best Musical on Broadway and since 2012, has spawned touring companies all over the world. The company presently performing at the Bushnell is an energetic, fully committed group of 34 actors who obviously revel in presenting this over-the-top show with tunes you might be appalled to learn, linger in your head for days.

There is not a weak performer on stage, but magic happens between Liam Tobin (Elder Price) and Jordan Mathew Brown (Elder Cunningham), two devout Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to convert the natives to what they passionately believe is the true religion. These two charismatic actors work brilliantly together. Once in Africa, they find poverty, a sadistic war lord, and a group of jaded villagers who have been the target of do-gooders for years, with no appreciable improvement in their lives. The Mormons are ill prepared for the horror of life in Uganda, and thus, the set up for whether redemption may or may not take place that fuels the through-line of the story. Elder Cunningham, an inveterate liar, becomes an unexpected hero when he converts Nebulungi (a stunning Alyah Chanelle Scott) to Mormonism, having found a way of expressing the idea of the Church of Latter Day Saints without ever reading or understanding many of the core beliefs.

Audiences should realize that this type of show—especially with authors who are known for their irreverent and non-politically correct animated television show, “South Park,” will contain possibly offensive language and situations. Indeed, at least two audience members left during Act I, but the comedy comes from satirizing religion and youthful passion for doing what you’ve learned is the “right thing.”

What makes the show a real winner is the music. When Tobin sings “I Believe,” he is so convincing that the audience can’t help but better understand a young man’s zeal for making a difference in the world. When Brown sings “I Am Here For You,” his compassion for his new friend shines through. Big production numbers are plentiful but two standouts are “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (with guest appearances by Lucifer, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Darth Vader), and “I Am Africa” (Mormon and Villager ensembles) in which true compassion for humanity triumphs over cultural materialism and religious fervor.

The production was appropriately summed up by one of the audience members who said, “It’s just so good to feel free to laugh this much.” That’s a tribute to a great show that understands its mission.

October 15, 2019

PREVIEW: Classical Music World Premieres, Tres Classique

Kimball Towers, Springfield, MA
October 16, 2019

There will be a world premiering of the musical works of composer Timothy Ballan, on October 16 from 5:30-6:30pm at Kimball Towers located at 140 Chestnut Street in Springfield. These solo and chamber works were each written within the past year, most written specifically for performance by the Très Classique ensemble.

Of his compositions, Ballan says that “Each of the pieces is evocative of traditional Americana, whether in the landscapes and times they bring to mind or the folksong-like melodies around which they center."

The pieces on the program are as follows:

1. Vocalise (for solo wordless voice)
2. Glances Through an Arboretum (for flute and piano)
3. American Folk Song (work for solo piano)
4. The River (for flute and piano)
5. The Hidden Thought (art song for piano and voice)
6. Five Songs for the Countryside (five-movement work for solo piano)

Timothy Ballan is a composer and writer who has been teaching piano in Western MA since the age of 17, and currently lives in Agawam. He holds a Certificate of Piano Pedagogy from Valley City State University, and national certification in piano pedagogy from the Music Teachers National Association.

In his compositions, Timothy is mostly influenced by Western and non-Western folk music, melodic cinematic music, and minimalism. The scale of his nearly 100 works ranges from solo to symphonic.

Très Classique is supported by grants and donations, most particularly the Springfield Cultural Council, to bring live classical music to underserved neighborhoods.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

All the ingredients for chamber music heaven came together in this concert: arguably the finest string quartet now before the public; three cornerstones of the string quartet repertoire over three centuries; and ideal acoustics in a storied venue.

Formed in 1976 and named after American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, three of the quartet’s founders are still members: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate first and second chairs, and violist Lawrence Dutton. In 2013 founding cellist David Finckel was succeeded by Paul Watkins, to whom the program notes attribute “a profound effect” on the ensemble, infusing it “with a warm, rich tone and a palpable joy in the collaborative process.”

The concert opened with first violinist Setzer leading a relaxed performance of Mozart’s late (1789) Quartet in D Major, K. 575. An arrestingly gentle opening “Allegretto” set the stage for a lyrical “Andante,” a lively “Menuetto” and trio, and a serene “Allegretto” finale. The Emersons’ trademark technical precision was enhanced by a sweet and singing sound.

Moving ahead to a century later (1878), the program’s first half ended with a glowing account of Dvorak’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51 with Drucker as first violinist. A sunny opening “Allegro ma non troppo” precedes a melancholy “Dumka,” or Slavic lament, a graceful “Romanza,” and a rousing “Allegro assai” finale, partly in the rhythm of a fast Czech dance called the skocna. The players captured the full range of the quartet’s shifting moods with unerring accuracy.

Intermission was followed by a gripping rendition, with Setzer back in the first violin chair, of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5, in B-flat Major, Op. 92. Though written in 1951, it was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953. Selzer asked the audience to imagine the quartet’s effect on its first listeners, after a period when Shostakovich and other Soviet artists were routinely persecuted for their work. The Emersons played the three continuous movements – an earthy “Allegro,” a haunting “Andante,” and a stark “Moderato” – with eerie intensity.

The first season in the second century of this iconic chamber music series founded in 1918 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge could not have ended on a higher note.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue

Hartford Symphony, The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 11-13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To launch the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and her own 9th season as its Music Director, Carolyn Kuan selected an all-American program which fittingly began with the traditional season-opening singalong national anthem, backed by a projection of the American flag behind the stage of the Belding Theater at the Bushnell.

The concert proper kicked off in high gear with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide Overture.” In an elegant, refined account, Kuan’s careful balancing of orchestral sections at a barely restrained tempo revealed more inner detail than often emerges in a live performance of this exuberant score, but with no loss of the requisite excitement.

Kevin Cole
Long recognized as one of the world’s leading Gershwin pianists, Kevin Cole next played  an energetic rendition of that composer’s virtuosic “I Got Rhythm” Variations, followed by an even more bracing presentation of his jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue.” Kuan and the musicians supported him with panache in both works, particularly principal clarinetist Curt Blood’s sinuous take on the opening clarinet solo in “Rhapsody.” Standing ovations brought Cole back on stage for two solo encores: his own dazzling embellishments on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and, one more time, “I Got Rhythm.”

In a brief interview by Kuan between pieces, Cole told her that he had probably played “Rhapsody” over a thousand times by now. Even more remarkably, he has been deaf in one ear since 2018.

The concert closed after intermission with a vibrant account of what many critics consider “the great American symphony,” Aaron Copland’s third. Written in 1944-1946, it incorporates the composer’s famous 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man” in its last movement. Committed playing by all HSO sections under Kuan’s dynamic leadership, from a spacious opening “Molto moderato,” through a forceful “Allegro molto,” a brooding “Andantino quasi allegretto,” and a stirring final “Molto deliberato – Allegro risoluto,” made a strong case for the piece.

The American theme of this program was also appropriate to follow the third annual naturalization ceremony in which this year ten Connecticut residents became new citizens of the United States on the Belding stage just before the Saturday concert.

October 8, 2019

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, Nunsense

Apologies to Playhouse on Park are in order. Due to technical difficulties, this review is posting much later than expected. Luckily, there is still time for readers to see this production!

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 13, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Dan Goggin’s silly, infectiously funny musical comedy “Nunsense” has found a welcoming home at Playhouse on Park. Goggin’s show first premiered in 1986, winning the Outer Critic’s Award, was filmed for TV’s A&E Network featuring actress Rue McClanahan, and has spawned four sequels. But it’s always good to go back to the beginning.

The cast of Nunsense
The Little Sisters of Hoboken, NJ are having a fundraiser to pay for the burials of four of their sisters, who are among the 52 of their fellow sisters who’ve perished from tainted vichyssoise. Heading the Order is the imposing Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) who is ably assisted by Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter). In addition, there’s the nuns’ chauffer and physical education teacher Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), ever-forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), and blithe Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland). Despite some obstacles along the way, these habited ladies reach their goal.

First of all, the multi-talents of these five performers must be praised. Since “Nunsense” is a pastiche of musical numbers and comedy routines, its structure is a bit loose. While most of the numbers are tuneful, they are mostly unmemorable. The comedy also runs the gamut of outrageously hilarious to utterly lifeless. Examples of the former include the conclusion Act I when Reverend Mother inhales a bottle of “Rush” found in a student’s gym locker, which causes her to slur her speech, literally fall and not get up. The other is Sister Robert Anne’s shtick that includes stand-up jokes and imitations of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Miss Gulch (riding in on a bicycle and a witch’s hat), Cher, Judy Garland, and even Katherine Hepburn. The low points include Sister Amnesia’s sadly unfunny puppet routine with her lips moving to boot. Perhaps it would have worked better with only the puppet visible to the audience.

Musically, these five women can truly sing and dance angelically: Sister Mary Leo’s graceful ballet moves, the four Motherless Nuns snappy tap dancing (in colorful blue, green, black, and purple tap shoes from Costume Designer Lisa Ann Steier), and Sister Amnesia’s lovely soprano. Three numbers stand-out: Sister Hubert and Rev. Mother’s duet “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” Sister Robert Anne’s show stopper “I Just Want To Be A Star,” and especially Sister Hubert’s grand finale, the Gospel-inspired, high-spirited “Holier Than Thou.” Congratulations to Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller and Musical Director Melanie Guerin for bringing this wonderfully, feel-good show to local audiences.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 6, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Chamber music concerts most often feature duos, trios, or quartets. This one presented an unusual program of one string sextet and two string octets, including the acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and a brand new piece commissioned for the current ensemble.

Founded in 1958 by conductor Sir Neville Marriner and now led by Music Director (and violinist) Joshua Bell, the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra formed its chamber ensemble in 1967, according to their program notes, “to perform the larger scale chamber music repertoire with players who customarily worked together.” The performers at South Mountain are all principal players of the orchestra.

Only two days after giving its world premiere in Columbus, Georgia, the ensemble opened the concert with British composer Sally Beamish’s 18-minute Partita for String Octet. She writes that since a partita is “traditionally a suite for a solo instrument,” she treats the eight musicians as both “a single entity” and “an ensemble of soloists.” Incorporating subtle quotes from Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn respectively, its three short movements sparkled with grace and stylistic variety in this nimble performance.

The program’s first half ended with a heartfelt account of the second string sextet by Brahms. Completed in 1865, the piece recalls the composer’s deep infatuation of several years earlier with the young soprano Agathe von Siebold. From a glowing opening “Allegro non troppo” through a delicate “Scherzo” and tender “Poco adagio” to a life-embracing “Poco allegro” finale, the ensemble was deeply engaged.

Intermission was followed by a stunning rendition of Mendelssohn’s octet, which quotes the same Handel theme as Beamish does. Dating from 1825, when the composer was only sixteen, its most famous movement is the fleet “Scherzo,” which these musicians played exactly as Mendelssohn specifies: “Allegro leggierissimo” (as fast and light as possible). They were equally commanding in the brisk opening “Allegro,” the radiant “Andante,” and the exuberant closing “Presto.” 

The scenic Berkshire setting in the wooded hills of Pittsfield and the warm acoustics of the 101-year-old concert hall has attracted discerning audiences since 1918 to this celebrated early fall chamber music series established by legendary music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

October 7, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Opening Night

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 5, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as its music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in the program book, that he selected three pieces only because he “really wanted to play each one for an opening night.”

After a lively sing-along season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concert proper began with the Overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous operetta “Die Fledermaus,” named after a character who attends a costume party dressed as a bat. Orchestra and conductor played this appropriately festive opener with a uniquely Viennese effervescence that he likely absorbed from his frequent work in the Austrian capitol with the Vienna State Opera.

John Novacek
Making his second appearance with the SSO since 2016, American pianist John Novacek then gave a thrilling account of Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed first piano concerto. Written when the Russian composer was only 18 for his 1891 graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the piece was soon overshadowed by his hugely popular second and third concertos. But Novacek’s powerful advocacy made a strong case for it, from the dramatic opening and emotional turmoil of the first movement, to the lyrical beauty of the second, and the “virtuosic-ally” impetuous finale. Rhodes and the SSO supported him with equal intensity and conviction.

Novacek rewarded the audience’s standing ovation with a delightful but knuckle-busting encore, his own “Intoxication” rag, which packed more notes into two minutes than even Rachmaninoff at his most demanding.

The program closed after intermission with what Rhodes called “an insanely beautiful work,” Czech composer Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Written in 1889, its four movements progress from a turbulent “Allegro con brio” through a quietly adventurous “Adagio” and a melancholy “Allegretto grazioso” to a jubilant closing “Allegro ma non troppo.” Under the maestro’s kinetic baton, the musicians delivered an exhilarating rendition of the colorful 36-minute score.

For this concert, the ever-innovating Rhodes swapped the locations on stage of the cellos and second violins, which were now at stage right, across from the first violins, and moved the bass section to the center rear, launching the new season with a rebalanced SSO sound.

October 3, 2019

REVIEW: The Goodspeed, Billy Elliot

The Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through November 24, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy Elliot, Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The home of the American Musical is currently staging a show set in 1980’s North Country England, which just goes to prove that some dreams and struggles truly are universal.

In this case, 11-year-old Billy is growing up in a rough and tumble coal-mining town, living with his widowed father, angry older brother and unfocused grandmother. The miners are going on strike, his best friend is slightly quirky, and Billy has no interest in the boxing lessons he’s supposed to take. But when he stumbles into a “girls” ballet class the young “bairn” discovers that when he dances he feels “Electricity” and is given a chance to change his future.

Adapted from the 2000 movie, by original screenwriter Lee Hall (also lyrics), with music by Sir Elton John, the story transforms the Goodspeed into a Union hall with an ever-changing mine shaft set designed by Walt Spangler, utilizing the performers to move parts around and, at times hold pieces up. The staging is quite inventive. The choreography by Marc Kimelman, too, is exciting and original and diverse. The ensemble dance numbers are especially effective, like “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”, when it seems every person in the theatre is in motion. The entire show has a crackling energy that feels apparent even in the calmer moments, highlighting the theme of conflicts, large and small, that fill the story.

Sean Hayden as “Dad” navigates through grief, anger, confusion and acceptance, making him very sympathetic yet at times quite funny. Michelle Aravena, as the dance teacher accomplishes the feat of being a rather sullen, downtrodden showstopper as she exhorts her pupils to “Shine”. Every member of the ensemble cast is first rate and given nice moments to highlight them.

And then there’s Billy himself, played at this performance by Liam Vincent Hutt. In addition to ballet, he has to “angry tap,” join in a kick-line and give a little of the old razzle-dazzle. But he also has to act and sing and he does very well indeed on all counts. His Billy is not wise beyond his years, he is young and flawed and confused and Hutt conveys all this in a very natural way, without resorting to “cute kid” tactics. His duets with best friend, teacher and mother all serve to showcase a very natural, giving performer.

There is a flaw in the book: Grandma, played by Barbara Marineau, quickly becomes an audience favorite and has an important, defining relationship with Billy, but after her delightful “Grandma’s Song”, she practically disappears until the final scene. Her absence is a bit distracting.

There is some salty, albeit British profanity, and talk of British class warfare, but the themes of solidarity, friendship, family and acceptance will resonate with theatergoers young and old. As befits a show about an 11-year-old boy, Billy Elliot bursts with boundless energy and an eagerness to please that is irresistible.

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Quixote Nuevo

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through October 13, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
If one word describes Hartford Stage’s opening play of its 2019/20 season it is “colorful.” Exuberant costumes, lighting, wigs, set pieces, music, and language modernize the classic saga of “Don Quixote” ahead five centuries and beyond. Playwright Octavio Solis has fashioned nearly every important character of the original Cervantes’ novel and “Man of La Mancha” musical into accessible figures for today’s audiences.

For those who know the story, all is not light and bright in this revised version of the Spanish Inquisition. This new Quixote maintains the pained sole of an aged man on his last journey. Jose’s (Don Quixote) quest is to find his Dolcinae, yet his family’s plan is to force Jose into an assisted living facility. The updated antics of the play create obvious images from the novel and musical; i.e. a bicycle substitutes for Jose’s trusty steed, a gigantic Good Year blimp for monstrous windmills. The play is awash with fun, gymnastics, and froth, yet, not so subtle politics continuously pepper the dialogue into the 21st century.

Emilio Delgado, immediately recognized as a “Sesame Street” regular, portrays Jose/Quixote with all mannerisms, down to the minutia of detail, of both of his characters as naïve in his expectations of righteousness, bewildered as to how he can help those around him, warry of single-handedly trying to unwrite the wrongs. The audience quickly feels sad that this man must travail in his pursuit of his dream. It is near impossible to picture another actor in this demanding role, in which he takes center stage in every scene.

Nine actors portray three or four characters each. With precise direction from KJ Sanchez, there is never confusion of who’s who. If Hartford Stage had prior concerns if its patrons would grasp much of the Spanish dialogue, no worries. Save for a few snippets from scenes, all is clear from watching the interaction on stage. Some in the audience referred to the dialogue at “Spanglish.” In any case, nothing important is missed. Interesting to note is that every actor, all of whom make their Hartford Stage debut in “Quixote Nuevo,” are of Spanish descent.

Juan Manuel Amador shines as Sancho Panza. While comedy seems his forte, the poignancy required in the last scenes rings true to his character. By the way, Sancho makes good use of an old ice cream cart as his donkey.  

Hartford Stage starts its season under new management. The new team have a lot to be proud of.

Review: The Bushnell, SpongeBob Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 6, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

It may be obvious that if there is a toddler in your life, “SpongeBob The Musical” is not to be missed. Could there be any way better to introduce a child to theatre than attending a full-blown, colorful fantasy of life in the undersea location of Bikini Bottom? There is a reason why this show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2018 (it won only one, for Best Scenic Design). “SpongeBob” has a lot to amuse adults too, especially with music and lyrics from luminaries like Cindi Lauper, John Legend, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and many, many more. But along with the visual spectacle of amazing costumes, wigs, projections, and special effects, the sheer auditory volume of this production is so jarring that you wonder whether children’s’ ears (as well as adult ears) are being harmed by this technological tsunami.

Making the transition from an animated television show to a staged production requires a definite suspension of disbelief. The story of a fast-food worker who becomes a hero when a volcano threatens his community makes a statement about climate change and racism as much as it plays with the idea that every-day items (like sponges, for example) can come to life. Skateboards are a part of the show’s innovative and very clever choreography by Christopher Gattelli.

The 25 members of the touring company at the Bushnell bring energy and sass to this musical, and present the audience with a sheer joy that is contagious. There are some standout performers. Lorenzo Pugliese as SpongeBob is a charming hero, and Cody Cooley as Squidward Q. Tentacles steals the show with his energy and characterization. He also gets to perform in one of the most creative costumes in a show that prides itself on a lot of creative costumes. Meami Maszewski plays a number of characters, but when she sings in the role of Pearl Krabs she demonstrates that she has the type of voice that makes you want to shout, “more, please, more.”
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

“SpongeBob The Musical” is the type of show that is “theatre” as much as Cirque du soleil is circus. If there is a youngster in your home who grew up with the television show “SpongeBob SquarePants,” it will probably be remembered as a cult classic. But for everyone else, it provides a measure of how theatre can be a technological extravaganza while the actual story just gets lost at sea.