Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 25, 2019

REVIEW: St. Michael’s Players, Oliver!

St. Michael’s Players, East Longmeadow, MA
through November 24, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Attending the performance of Lionel Bart’s treasured musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist” is truly a community event.

Directed with professional panache by Frank Jackson along with Assistant Director/Producer Rose Stella, this familiar story and staple of the musical theater is brought to vivid life by an extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.

The oft-told tale of Oliver Twist (terrifically sung and acted by Gavin Grout) takes the audience through the young boy’s episodic childhood starting as an orphanage inmate (beige prison-like uniforms and grey-brick walls were reminiscent of a workhouse prison).

Ultimately rescued by the Artful Dodger (scrappy Emma Linehan), Oliver is tutored in the art of pick pocketing by the sly Fagin (wonderfully played by Peter Hicks) and eventually finds a loving home with the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (John Laviolette).

St. Michael’s Players gives such fresh life in their interpretation of “Oliver!” that it felt like it was a brand-new show, despite its over 50 -year existence. The well-played and sung roles are to be commended. The jaunty, on the beat entrance of the young orphans singing their hearts and empty stomachs out for “Food” starts the show with a bang.

Peter Scully’s deeply resonant bass and Sue McNary’s lilting soprano make a comic duo. Melissa Butcher’s sensitive portrayal of the tragic Nancy powerfully belts out “As Long as He Needs Me,” “It’s A Fine Life,” and rousing “Oom Pah- Pah” – the latter with beer hall denizens that were true showstoppers.

Peter Hicks’ Fagin earns a well-deserved ovation for his eleventh-hour soliloquy “Reviewing the Situation.” AJ Berube’s intense Bill Sikes adds just the right menacing tone and the most authentic cockney accent in the cast.

The more than 50 cast members fill the stage for “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?” aided by the simple, yet clever choreography of Courtney Normand and the steady underscoring of the seven-piece orchestra led by Frank Jackson. Karen Bonci’s colorful and authentic Victorian costumes might benefit dirtied-up to create gritty atmosphere. Sue Maciorowski and Jackson’s set designs are the perfect backdrop with bits of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral peeking out.

Despite the obvious warmth and sentimental love infused into the musical, themes of child exploitation and human trafficking are just as disturbing now to contemporary audiences as they were for readers in Dickens’ time.

The theatre posts a sign that a portion of “Oliver!” proceeds will go to Christian’s House for Battered Women. St. Michael’s truly walks the walk.

November 18, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Brahms and Haydn

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 15-17, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

While familiar works by Brahms and Haydn were played in the second Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and Carolyn Kuan’s 9th season as their Music Director, the centerpiece of the program was actually a new work by Christopher Theofanidis. The Maestra’s canny sense of programming connected the three pieces in unexpected but enlightening ways.

The concert opened with a vibrant account of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn.” Research after its 1873 premiere suggests that the theme that opens and closes the work was not even written by Haydn, but it has retained its title as one of Brahms’s most popular works. Kuan and the orchestra drew strong contrasts among the varied moods and tempos of the eight variations, culminating in a jubilant triangle-tinged closing outburst of color.
Percussion Collective

That triangle was not among the huge array of percussion instruments showcased in a brilliant performance of Yale music professor Theofanidis’s compulsively listenable “Drum Circles.” Co-commissioned by the HSO, the 2019 piece features a solo percussion quartet and three percussionists from the orchestra. Four members of the Percussion Collective – Svet Stoyanov, Doug Perry, Ayano Kataoka, and Victor Caccese – played a range of instruments focused around bells, marimbas, and drums.  

Five short movements with thought-provoking titles like “Sparks and Chants” and “How Can You Smile When You’re Deep in Thought?” evoked a glittering range of sounds from the agile soloists, who were in almost constant motion from one instrument to another throughout the 25-minute piece. An arrangement by composer Garth Neustadter of a tango by Astor Piazzolla was an imaginative and crowd-pleasing encore.

The concert closed after intermission with a joyous rendition of Haydn’s next-to-last symphony, No. 103. Dating from 1794, its opening drum roll (the source of its nickname), dramatically played by HSO principal timpanist Eugene Bozzi, made it sound much newer to an audience with “Drum Circles” still ringing in its ears. While missing the Haydn theme used by Brahms, the variations on two folksongs in its “Andante” second movement echoed the form and feeling of the Brahms opener. An expressive opening “Allegro” movement, a lilting “Menuetto,” and a jubilant finale closed a smartly integrated program on a high note.

November 14, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Hello, Dolly!

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

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Eager theatergoers braved frigid temperatures to be wowed by the warmth of Jerry Herman’s joyous score and Michael Stewart’s farcically fun story, that is Hello, Dolly. By evening’s end, the orchestra swayed the audience out of the house, re-iterating the score to the accompaniment of impromptu singing and humming. Even the trumpeter who rattled out the title tune in front of the theater made viewers forget the cold night air and take in the joie de vivre that is the essence of this perennial favorite.

This reviewer was fortunate to have enjoyed the recent Broadway revival featuring Bette Midler and the Boston show with Betty Buckley. This marathon tour stars multiple Tony nominee Carolee Carmello, who ably fills their shoes. Carmello’s Dolly is funny, ebullient, and a songstress without equal. Her Dolly smiles and connives her way into the hearts of both the audience and especially the crusty, half-a-millionaire Horace VanDerGelder (John Bolton), who is a perfect match for Carmello. Other cast members of note include Analisa Leaming as Irene Malloy, whose thrilling soprano matches her natural beauty and her comic flair. Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker is a phenomenal performer: he sings, dances, and clowns around with astronautic zeal. Burns and Daniel Beeman’s Cornelius Hackl work in comedic tandem doing double and sometimes triple takes to the audiences’ delight.

Hello, Dolly! Is the kind of show in which one recalls memorable moments, due to its episodic dramatic structure.  There is the joyous “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” number at the Yonkers’ Train Station, with the ensemble seeming to float across the stage, twirling their parasols and tipping their bowler hats costumed by Santo Loquasto, looking like violet, yellow, aqua, pink, and blue dyed Easter eggs. The grandiose and off-kilter courtroom, also designed by Loquasto features Cornelius and Irene’s tender 11th hour ballad “It Only Takes a Moment.” Also of note is the cotton candy pink Molloy’s Millinery where Cornelius and Barnaby frantically outwit Vandergelder with the help of Irene, Minnie, and Dolly. Finally, there is, of course, the dazzling title number featuring raven-gowned and diamond-studded Dolly and the prancing and leaping wait staff at the Harmonia Gardens, whose whirling dervish-like spectacular dancing earned a minute-long audience ovation.

This staging of one of musical theater’s most beloved shows is indeed a memorable one. Though ably supported by the incredibly talented cadre of singers, dancers, and comedians, it belongs to the titular star. Carolee Carmello is that rare performer who can touch our hearts when singing the rousing anthem “Before The Parade Passes By” and tickle our funny bone when clownishly devouring a turkey leg and slurping and gargling gravy while popping down a dozen dumplings at the elegant Harmonia Gardens. This extended scene is priceless, as is the entire production.

November 11, 2019

REVIEW: Opera House Players, Matilda

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
through November 24, 2019
by Tim O’Brien

One of the pleasures of reviewing is the occasional ability to contrast professional productions with those of community theater groups. I was fortunate to review a touring production of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda – The Musical” at Hartford’s Bushnell in 2016. And thus, it was not far from my mind for the Opera House Players’ opening night.

In a word, my 6th-grade daughter and I were delighted to see how well a non-professional presentation of this charming script could be executed by a cast of gifted amateurs.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, budding 5-year-old genius Matilda must find a way to rise above her own family of dullards and a school ruled by a monstrous headmistress while coming to terms with her own prodigious intellectual gifts.

The troupe of students hit the opener “Miracle” with great energy, and we settled back happily, knowing this would be a treat. And we weren’t disappointed: across the board, director Becca Coolong, musical director Devon Bakum, and choreographer Krista Leigh Brueno have molded their mostly young actors into a solid, versatile unit. The staging for “Matilda’s” signature “Quiet” is particularly impressive.

Standout performances: young Camille Dziura nails the title role with a perfect blend of winsome and naughty and handles the heavy load of lines and lyrics like a pro. Erin Dugan (Miss Honey) is earnestly sweet and shows the best voice of the cast. Trish Barry (Miss Trunchbull) – while a physically smaller person – nonetheless rules the school with an iron fist.

The few flaws are technical and easily forgiven on an opening night. Set changes could have been crisper overall. The talented band’s volume was frequently too loud for the performers’ lyrics to come through clearly, and Mark Proulx (Mr. Wormwood’s) body mic often scratched intrusively against his face.

“Matilda” is an engaging, enduring story of identity and finding oneself, and the Opera House Players have done Roald Dahl proud.

November 8, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Passionate Performances

Springfield Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
November 2, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

In his “Reflections” on the second concert of the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes cites no other unifying theme for the three pieces on the program than perhaps the best one of all – the “passion” of the performers to play them.

Continuing the orchestra’s ongoing series of works by American women composers, the evening began with Missy Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” a 2016 piece which the young New York-based composer calls “music in the shape of a solar system.” Featuring harmonicas played by brass section members to make the ensemble sound, in Mazzoli’s words, like “a makeshift hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space,” the SSO and Rhodes made it nine minutes of shimmering, playful adventure.

Viktor Valkov
In a smashing SSO debut, rising Bulgarian-born pianist Viktor Valkov next gave a brilliant account of what Rhodes calls Tchaikovsky’s “unduly neglected” but “absolutely amazing” second piano concerto in its own first SSO performance. Conceived on a grand scale, the 47-minute 1880 piece opens with a commanding fanfare, and the vigorous “Allegro” first movement includes a huge (six-minute) solo piano cadenza. In the luminous “Andante,” concertmaster Masako Yanagita and principal cellist Emily Taubl eloquently soloed with Valkov as a piano trio. He played throughout, including the short and fleet finale, with dazzling technique and interpretive depth, forcefully backed by orchestra and conductor.  

The program closed after intermission with Brahms’s magisterial fourth and last symphony. Rhodes calls this 1885 masterpiece “perhaps the most perfect of works by the man who has no single measure which is not perfect.” From an autumnal opening “Allegro” through a quietly reflective “Andante” and a surprisingly exuberant scherzo to a somber closing series of variations over a ground bass theme, the maestro and his musicians presented a powerfully convincing rendition.

One reason why Rhodes is so beloved in Springfield was on particular display tonight. His engaging and informative spoken introduction to the Mazzoli piece, including brief snippets played by selected orchestra members, and his clear explanation of the ensemble’s new seating arrangement, kept the capacity audience at rapt attention all evening long.

November 4, 2019

Review: Playhouse on Park, A Shayna Maidel

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through November 17, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Meredith Longo
“A pretty [little] girl. A pretty one”:  this is a Shayna Maidel. Wikipedia’s succinct definition states that it is most often used by bubies for their own granddaughters. In the case of this play, two shayna maidels, in essence strangers -- one in America and one in Poland -- create a warmth, camaraderie, and family in post-WWII New York City.

Sisters, worlds apart, literally and figuratively, Americanized Rose and immigrant Lusia meet as adults in 1946. As Rose has made a conscious commitment to assimilate, Lusia has taken her first hesitant steps as an immigrant into the United States. Circumstances of the War have shaped these young women with completely different temperaments, goals, and comportment. Lusia and Mama remained in the old country. Rose and Papa crossed the ocean. The audience watches and cares about the growing connection between Rose and Lusia. Yet, an underlying plot, focusing on Papa, is unexpected and disturbing.

Laura Sudduth (Rose) portrays a sprite Shayna maidel, eager to become a part of her family’s story. Sudduth throws her dialog and whole body into her character. She is the one to watch in every scene, even when Rose is in the background. Sudduth’s Rose playfully and nervously dashes around the apartment setting.

Katharina Schmidt (Lusia) takes on a more demanding role. Schmidt’s Lusia cowers, standing in one corner of the room. Schmidt shines in her hesitant yet impatience to speak English. Never missing a stumbled word, it is the actor’s tremendous skill to keep an accent going. The audience also sees glimpses of Lusia’s playful side in memories of her husband. Both Rose and Lusia are three-dimensional characters, each a Shayna maidel.

Four additional actors fill out the roles, each character. In a pivotal role is Mitch Greenberg as Papa. He has few lines, but those that he does have are vital, yet tossed out capriciously. A director’s or actor’s choice isn’t important for this review. A recommendation would be to punch up the dialog in these moments of discovery.

“A Shayna Maidel” is a beautiful story by Barbara Lebow written with love, about love. However, the key flaw in the script and the production is the length. Shakespeare’s classics are chopped all the time. Ms. Lebow’s play or Dawn Loveland Navarro’s direction cries out for scissors for entire scenes or portions of scenes; i.e. Papa’s birth in Act I, the sisters’ picnic song, Lusia’s friend’s Hannah chatting with Mama, and more. There is still time in the run of the play to cross out pages. “A Shayna Maidel” is a beautiful story that could easily be a beautiful SHORTER story.

Review: Hartford Stage, Cry It Out

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 17, 2019
by Tim O’Brien

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
New moms Jessie and Lina meet just happen to meet in the supermarket and are thrilled to  discover they live in abutting sides of a Long Island duplex perched on the edge of a tony village. They bond during hurried backyard coffee-klatches while keeping ears cocked for their baby monitors.

Playwright Molly Metzler Smith’s work is as much about class and privilege in America as parenthood itself. Healthcare worker Lina and her unseen partner John are decidedly lower-class, hanging on in the duplex largely due to the fiscal largesse of John’s meddling and possibly alcoholic mother (dubbed “The Beast”). Middle-class attorney Jessie and husband Nate are comfortable; his monied parents urge them to buy a Montauk cottage while she wrestles with telling her mate she doesn’t want to return to work.

Enter Mitchell, upscale neighbor from the wealthier side of town. His jewelry-designer wife Adrienne seems to be having difficulty connecting with their own new bundle of joy.

The performances are strong across the small cast, Evelyn Spahr’s Lina is brash, plain-spoken and gets most of the early punch lines. Rachel Spencer Hewitt’s Jessie is sweetly filled with self-reproach. Erin Gahn plays Mitchell with good-natured earnestness and a dose of Steve Carell. But it is Caroline Kinsolving who stands out as Adrienne. While logging the least actual stage time, her turns are the most dramatic and thought-provoking.

It is sometimes a struggle watching Rachel Alderman’s direction; she moves her actors around the simple (and well-executed by designer Kristen Robinson; it actually rains!) round stage with blocking that at times seems clearly forced, plus postures that are overwrought. A bit more restraint might go a long way. However, this is the first week of the run, and there is lots of time to think about any changes, or not.

Smith’s script, while nothing we haven’t seen or heard before in endless TV sitcoms about smelly diapers and lack of sleep, produces plenty of laughs from a house that had likely been-there done-that.

“Cry It Out” is ripe with comedy with some unexpected sharp twists, and it certainly pleased this opening night audience.