Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 13, 2021

REVIEW: Close Encounters with Music , “The Roaring Twenties”

Close Encounters with Music, Great Barrington, MA 
December 12, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Since the second live concert by Close Encounters with Music at the Mahaiwe was subtitled “Berlin, Paris, New York,” an ingratiating account of the 1924 Gershwin classic “Fascinating Rhythm” by tenor William Ferguson and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute was an apt and delightful opener. CEWM Artistic Director and cellist Yehuda Hanani then introduced the program with his trademark humor and erudition, gleefully quoting Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to characterize the vocal and instrumental music of the 1920's.

Pianist Renana Gutman next brought dazzling dexterity to the almost shockingly modern-sounding 1927 “Five Jazz Etudes” by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who perished in a Nazi prison camp in 1942. American Samuel Barber’s 1927 cello sonata followed, a “sunny piece,” in Hanani’s words, “without an ounce of cynicism,” written when the composer was just seventeen. Hanani and Jokubaviciute were expressive in the opening “Allegro ma non troppo,” tender and mercurial in the central “Adagio,” and visceral in the “Allegro appassionato” finale.

For the second half of the concert, Ferguson and Jokubaviciute were joined by mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson in a wide-ranging selection of more and less familiar songs by composers active in all three cities during the 1920s. While projected translations of the French and German lyrics would have been helpful, both singers enunciated their texts so clearly and acted them so skillfully that their meaning always came through in the Mahaiwe’s plush acoustic.

Highlights included: Johnson’s incisive “Supply and Demand” by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, her sensuous “Speak Low” by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, and her dramatic “La Vie en Rose” by Marguerite Monnot and Edith Piaf. Ferguson’s varied trio of chansons by Francis Poulenc, his powerful “Bilbao” by Weill and Brecht, and his lively rendering of Dave Frishberg’s hilarious “Another Song about Paris” were a fitting tribute to the recently deceased jazz master; and Jokubaviciute’s exquisitely sensitive and versatile pianism throughout the program.

Next up for CEWM is a “Folk and Baroque” program, featuring guitarist Eliot Fisk, contralto Emily Marvosh, and Hanani, at St. James Place in Great Barrington on February 26, 2022.

All Mahaiwe events require proof of vaccination and a photo ID for entrance and masking inside the theater. 

December 7, 2021

REVIEW: It's a Wonderful White Christmas at Pemberly! Or...3 in 1 Winter Weekend

It's a Wonderful Life, Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through December 26, 2021

Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA
www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
through December 23, 2021

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through December 19, 2021

by Lisa M. Covi

The end of the year brings some a yearning for familiar traditions and home. Three theatrical experiences offer satisfaction and delight with a heaping dollop of holiday joy.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson  

As a self-professed “It's a Wonderful Life” fanatic, I was both satisfied and surprised by Joe Landry's adaptation into a Radio Play at Hartford Stage. The production delivered treasured humorous moments and extended the sentimentality of this morality tale. As a radio play, the cast included new characters; the actors who read multiple roles on the stage that evokes a 1940's Hartford studio. This storytelling device provides delightful juxtapositions: Freddie Filmore as the announcer performs several scenes between the scheming Henry Potter and bumbling Uncle Billy channeling each character with change of hat. Jennifer Bereilles alternates between the flirtatious Violet Bick and earthy Ernie the cab driver among other roles. The audience was captivated by the interactions between the radio actors who were also able evoke pathos from the story. For someone unfamiliar with the film, the pace of the story may be initially hard to follow. It may be an inadequate substitution for bringing your kids to “A Christmas Carol.” However, Act II adds a dramatic element of direct action as the depiction of George's wish come true sweeps away the radio elements adding costuming, blocking and lighting as they assume the trappings of a traditional play. The choice to add endearing Spanish phrases by Geraldo Rodriguez to George Bailey's dialog and the casting of Shirine Babb as a darker skinned actor playing both Mary and Joseph (the angel's supervisor) creates some multicultural inclusion to the depiction of small town life. The audience also appreciated the local color provided by the performance of radio commercials for now defunct G. Fox department store, and reference to local resident Mark Twain.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The Berkshire Theater Group's production of “White Christmas “at the Colonial Theater also 
has as point of departure, a classic film set after World War II. However, this production sticks more closely to the original musical theater format. Veterans Wallace and Davis find themselves at a Vermont Inn at Christmas and decide to put on a show with the Haynes sisters to save the faltering business and honor their Commanding Officer, the owner, Henry Waverly. Cast and crew delivered an energetic experience that set toes tapping, audience joining in and holiday joy spilling out after the curtain call. The dazzling musical numbers, costumes and props channeled many of the film's choices and transported us to studio productions that showcased and celebrated theatrical show business. Although Michael Wartella and Michael Starr gave strong individual performances as Wallace and Davis, the plot lacks some momentum in Act I. Fans of the number “Sisters” will be delighted that Judy and Betty Haynes are played by real-life sisters Alanna and Claire Saunders. The final number of Act I turns around the pace with “Blue Skies.” This show-stopper has the costumes and choreography of a Fosse/Verdon piece and the synchronized tap dancing support the strong melody but spare lyrics of Irving Berlin. Allison Briner Dardenne's vocals as Martha Watson add to the upswing of energy in Act II especially with the sisters in “Falling out of Love Can be Fun.” Among the stellar ensemble, Aliah James, Kelly Sheehan who have speaking parts and newcomer Joel Douglas gave impressive contributions. This production delivers a classic show with the caliber of performance that meets the higher bar for Broadway musical theater recent years have raised.

Photo by Meredith Longo 

The most traditionally dramatic of the three productions is the 2016 play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly” now at Playhouse on Park. Two years after the events in Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice” finds Miss Mary Bennet, and married sisters Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia spending the 1815 holiday at the Darcy's estate. There are resemblances and differences to film and television productions in the actors portrayals. More importantly, the cast succeeds in immersing us in both Austen's world where women chafe against social restrictions and captivate with the familial relations among almost every character. The story is familiar, a comic romance among Mary, played by Sydney Torres who has since come of age and Arthur de Bough played by Ted Gibson, a relative of Darcy's newly returned from Oxford. In modern style, this young couple are the nerdiest in their set, preferring books and the life of the mind to preoccupation with emotion and status of their times. Elizabeth Darcy (Dakota Mackey-McGee) has erected a Christmas tree, a rare German tradition in Georgian England, Jane Bingley (Kristin Fulton) is expecting her first child and Lydia Wickham (Laura Axelrod) creates havoc and worry arriving sans husband. Another modern touch is the changing relationship between old friends Darcy (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen) and Bingley (Karim Nematt) who have adapted to a less conventional Bennet marriage and learned from past mistakes. The talk-back after the Sunday matinee confirmed the cast and director's great enthusiasm for the material and their exuberance of returning to live theater after the pandemic hiatus. The blocking of the production for audience seated on three sides of the stage provide opportunities for various actors to showcase their movement and self-expression in careful English dialect. Set design, costumes and hair make for a faithful period depiction. You need not be a Jane Austen fan to enjoy the production; it may also be a humorous salve to many of us facing familial drama of our own during the December holidays.

All three productions are enjoyable and well worth the time and money for live theater. I would recommend them as traditional introductions to different genres for younger people, some of whom were in attendance. In fact, these classic stories performed with such care and feeling would be appropriate for multiple viewings.

December 6, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky & Grieg

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
December 3-5, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

For their third “Masterworks” weekend of the season, HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan surrounded a holiday stalwart by Tchaikovsky with two popular favorites by Grieg to celebrate the orchestra’s recent return to live performance in a festive atmosphere. Like last month, she paused after the opening piece to welcome late arrivers and thank the audience (all masked, like most of the musicians, including Kuan) for their presence to enthusiastic applause.

That opening piece was the familiar first suite from Grieg’s 1876 incidental music to Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt,” imaginatively preceded by two selections from the less familiar second suite. A dramatic “Abduction of the Bride & Ingrid’s Lament” was followed by a turbulent “Peer Gynt’s Homeward Journey,” a limpid “Morning,” a poignant “Ase’s Death,” a delicate “Anitra’s Dance,” and a blazing “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” 
 
The last four numbers of Act I offered a bracingly different perspective on Tchaikovsky’s 1892 “Nutcracker” ballet than the better-known suite drawn mainly from Act II. A sparkling “Clara and the Nutcracker” led into a hair-raising “Battle” scene between the Mouse King and his troops of mice and the Nutcracker and his army of gingerbread men, a colorful “Journey through the Snow” by Clara and the victorious Nutcracker (now transformed into a handsome Prince), and an exuberant “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” The HSO played with glowing conviction, but the percussionists had a field day with their huge array of instruments, visibly swaying to the music’s pulsing rhythms. 

Gabriela Martinez
The concert closed with a stunning account of Grieg’s famous 1868 piano concerto by rising young Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Martinez. She brought commanding technical finesse and interpretive depth to a forceful opening “Allegro molto moderato,” a melting central “Adagio,” and an alternately energetic and radiant finale. Orchestra and conductor were fully committed partners. 

An overhead camera helpfully projected an enlarged soloist’s-eye view of the keyboard onto a screen above the stage so that everyone in the Belding Theater could see the grace, dexterity, and power with which Martinez’s flexible hands manipulated the keys. 

The HSO’s next “Masterworks” program, “From the New World,” will feature guest conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson and pianist Michelle Cann on January 14-16, 2022.

November 26, 2021

PREVIEW: MOSSO to Present a Holiday Brass Concert

St. Andrew's Church, Longmeadow, MA
www.SpringfieldSymphonyMusicians.com
December 14, 2021
 
The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO) will present a family-friendly performance, MOSSO and Friends Holiday Brass Concert, on Tuesday, December 14, at 7PM, at St. Andrew’s Church on 335 Longmeadow Street, Longmeadow, MA. 
 
The program will include the Carol of the Bells, traditional holiday songs from Russia and France, holiday music from Hollywood to Springfield, the Hanukkah Suite, and jazz interpretations of traditional holiday songs. 
 
The MOSSO and Friends Holiday Brass Concert features the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Trombonist Brian Diehl, French hornist Robert Hoyle, and Principal Tubist Stephen Perry.
 
Tickets for the concert, all general admission, are $20/adults and $10/children. Tickets must be purchased in advance. No door sales will be available. Only a limited number of tickets will be sold to permit social distancing. All ticket holders will be required to wear masks, and all ticket holders over the age of 12 must show proof of vaccination.

Tickets are sold through SpringfieldSymphonyMusicians.com

November 17, 2021

REVIEW: The Bushnell, The Band’s Visit

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through November 21, 2021
by Jarice Hanson

The Israeli film, “The Band’s Visit,” was one of the most highly acclaimed films of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The story, called “[a] small-scale musical with a big heart” was adapted for the stage and debuted Off Broadway in 2016 and moved to Broadway in 2018, where it won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Now, after a number of Covid-related delays, the touring company is back on the road, charming audiences with this simple story of hope, longing, and the power of music.

The story is simple. An Egyptian classical band is booked at the Arab Cultural Center in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva, but by mistake, they travel to a town in the desert with a similar name, called Bet Hatikva.Their poor translation skills and the travelers’ innocence results in the members of the band stuck overnight in a town where nothing ever happens, and the boredom and ennui have sent human relationships into a downward spiral. Thanks to Dina, the proprietress of the local café, the seven members of the band are split up, and sent to stay with different local residents. By morning, music touches the lives of everyone, and everyone changes.

Both the film and the play are achingly real, in the sense that we learn and empathize with those who feel free to open up to strangers, rather than to their neighbors and loved ones; and there is an undercurrent of Arab/Israeli issues that focuses on what we have in common, rather than what drives us apart. Music and lyrics are by the wonderful David Yazbek, the musical genius behind soulful comedies like “The Full Monty,” “Tootsie”, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” The multiple award-winning Director is David Cromer, who also won the 2018 Tony for Best Director, who has the confidence and trust in the material to allow this play to slowly build to its inevitable conclusion, which allowed the opening night audience to leap to their feet with a standing ovation.

The singers and musicians all are top-notch, and of the 15 musical numbers, most are solos from the international cast of actors. Janet Dacal, playing Dina, is the catalyst who makes the decisions and sets the action in motion. Sasson Gabay, as Tewfiq, the Band’s maestro, is the noted Israeli actor who originated the role in the film. His quiet dignity and somber physicality epitomizes sadness; but his gentle, dignified portrayal makes it clear why Dina wonders if he could be her “Omar Sharif.” The members of the Band themselves are wildly talented musicians who also have acting chops and clearly defined characters.   

“The Band’s Visit” is what we need after the prolonged pandemic has beaten so many of us down. It is simple, honest, and transformative. On opening night, the sound quality in the auditorium at the Bushnell (often problematic) made it difficult to understand every word spoken by the heavily accented actors, but the message was clear, and “The Band’s Visit” is an encouraging reminder that simplicity can be a good thing, and finding a way to communicate with others, lifts our hearts.    

It should be noted that on Saturday and Sunday, there will be both matinee and evening performances.

November 15, 2021

REVIEW: Valley Light Opera, The Pirates of Penzance

Valley Light Opera, Northampton, MA
through November 14, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

"Penzance" Bobbies in Rehearsal
Returning to live performance after a two-year Covid hiatus with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” must have been an easy call for Valley Light Opera: G&S are a house specialty here (all 14 of the duo’s comic operas – and even more of their music - are in VLO’s repertoire); this is their 7th production of “Pirates” since 1979; and “Pirates” audiences always leave the theater feeling happy. The November 14th performance was a full house.

Subtitled “The Slave of Duty,” this 1879 creation tells the convoluted story of how 21-year-old Frederic escapes his apprenticeship to a band of soft-hearted pirates and surmounts a “most ingenious paradox” involving the date of his birthday to find true love with Mabel, daughter of a major-general who wants to bring the pirates to justice. As Ruth, the pirates’ “maid-of-all-work” responsible for Frederic’s apprenticeship, Kathy Blaisdell was a hoot. Travis Benoit and Rory Mason as the lovers brought sumptuous singing voices and stylized acting skills to their roles.

The most impressive vocalist was Thom Griffin, whose brilliantly pompous Major-General Stanley negotiated the challenging patter of his big number, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” with flawless diction and dotty good cheer. Matt Roehrig was a close second, investing the pirate king with equal measures of swagger and compassion. But the strongest vocal highlight may have been the incongruously touching “Hail poetry” chorus, sung thrillingly by the entire 34-member ensemble near the end of Act I.

The comic high point was the hilarious Act II “Tarantara” chorus by the hapless troop of English “Bobbies” organized (but reluctant) to capture the pirates, enhanced by the clever choreography of Graham Christian. Reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, the men in full garb topped off their shenanigans from tapping toes to tall metal hats hilariously. Vibrant musical direction by Aldo Fabrizi drew spirited playing from the orchestra in the pit and kept them in clear balance with the company on stage in the warm acoustics of Northampton’s Academy of Music.

Straightforward stage direction by Steve Morgan, simple but imaginative set design by Chris Riddle, and appropriate period costume design by Laura Green further distinguished this crowd-pleasing triumph for VLO, whose next offering will be Mozart’s “Requiem” in April, 2022.

November 9, 2021

Review: Majestic Theater, Don't Dress for Dinner

The Majestic Theater, West Springfield MA
through December 5, 2021
by Tim O’Brien

Marrieds Bernard and Jaqueline, apparently both American expats, live a comfortable early 1960's life in rural France. They’re both conducting successful extramarital affairs, but tonight, things are going to become comically confusing, and fast. That’s because Jaqueline is about to leave for the weekend to visit her presumably ailing mother, while Bernard’s best pal (and best man) Robert is coming to visit for the weekend. But so is Bernard’s girlfriend Suzanne, as well as the Cordon Bleu chef Bernard has secretly hired: Suzette. It might’ve even all worked out, except at the 11th hour, Jaqueline decides to stay home, because her lover is none other than…Robert.

This classic farce is a fast-growing house of cards, with schemes, misunderstandings, mistaken identities, preposterous cover stories and straight-up lies frantically piling upon one another. Naturally, the fun lies in watching how the cast navigates these romantically-roiled waters.

Jack Grigoli’s Bernard vacillates skillfully between confident Lothario and terrified cad. While in the wrong as a husband,  he’s the kind of philanderer you almost find yourself rooting for. Bethany Fitzgerald’s similarly likable Jaqueline smells a rat from the opening moments, and while she’s also on thin moral ice, seeing her work both sides of the outrage street is a hoot. Scott Renzoni is a delight, playing Robert with a young Bob Newhart vibe, and unerringly reciting several tongue-twisting speeches as he desperately tries to keep the many ruses alive.

“Girlfriend Suzy” (Alexandra O’Halloran) fills the ingenue role nicely as a bewildered Paris sophisticate suddenly forced to cook dinner for strangers. “Chef Suzy” (Elizabeth Pietrangelo) earns plenty of laughs as the one who’s really got nothing to lose; she regularly extorts Bernard and Robert for her ongoing cooperation. Finally there’s the cook’s husband George (Shaun O’Keefe) played well as a hot-tempered Scot who inadvertently helps untangle some of the web of deceits.

Stephen Petit’s direction is crisp and the pace is rapid-fire throughout. The script itself seems to falter a bit in the very late going, but it’s no fault of anyone other than the original writer or adaptor. Overall, it’s a good romp and a perfect way to enjoy the ongoing return of live theater.

November 8, 2021

Review: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein & Copland

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
November 5-7, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Music Director Carolyn Kuan’s first “Masterworks” appearances on the HSO podium this season found the energized Maestra and her musicians in a festive mood. No sooner did she bound onto the Belding stage to tumultuous applause than the orchestra burst into “Buckaroo Holiday,” the first of the four dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s 1942 ballet “Rodeo” that opened this program of music by four American composers. 

After pausing to welcome late arrivers through her mask (most HSO members and the entire audience were masked), she led accounts of the gentle “Corral Nocturne,” the courtly “Saturday Night Waltz,” and the exhilarating “Hoe-Down” that matched the jubilant opener in the musicians’ palpable joy at playing live music for receptive listeners. 

Leonid Signal
Kuan helpfully introduced two recent pieces by living composers, starting with the last two movements of Wynton Marsalis’s 2015 violin concerto, with HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal as soloist. Known mainly as a jazz musician, Marsalis is also a classically trained trumpeter and composer who studied at Tanglewood and Juilliard. The eclectic musical traditions of his native New Orleans pervade the sensuous languor of the concerto’s slow “Blues” movement and the rollicking ebullience of its “Hootenanny” finale, complete with hand clapping and foot stomping musicians and a march played by a standing brass line, including a Sousaphone tuba.

Sigal’s lively encore, Marsalis’ “Bye-Bye Breakdown,” for solo violin invites (and received) enthusiastic audience foot stomping.   

Next came a dramatic rendition of nine “symphonic dances” which Leonard Bernstein arranged into a concert suite from his 1957 musical “West Side Story.” The large percussion section played its huge array of instruments with special fervor, from rattling guiros and clattering woodblocks to thundering congas, punctuated by shouts from players and audience alike in “Mambo.” The visceral commitment of the whole ensemble throughout deepened the poignancy of the quiet finale, as Tony dies in Maria’s arms.

In explaining why she ended the program with Laura Karpman’s 2019 overture “All American,” Kuan cited Karpman’s intention to honor forgotten women composers in quoting patriotic songs by three of them as a hopeful note to close on, with hard-working HSO percussionists making ironically beautiful music with kitchen tools like pots, pans, and silverware.

October 28, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, "Ah, Wilderness!"

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 7, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Ready for a light touch contrasting the woes of the present, some crisp fall days in CT, where everyone in town knew everyone else, and doors were open because keys weren't necessary? Such is the backdrop of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" written in 1933 and set in 1906.

While the story is thin, no mystery, or psychological ponderings, the play is the antithesis of all of playwright Eugene O'Neill's other works. This was the man who wrote "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten?" Better check the playbill. The characters were not written by O'Henry or William Saroyan? O'Neill was the man who fashioned the loveable characters of "Ah, Wilderness!"? 

The audience is immediately taken into the open-air scaffolding of a large house of the era. Essentially, the wooden steps, beams, hallway, and doors build an entire two-story home of the Miller family. Jim Noone is a master set designer. Who needs solid wall entrances, framed pictures, and upholstered furniture when unnecessary? The crux of the story is the human interaction in speech and stance. Every character is likable, even the Scrooge-like man onstage for a short time.

The play is essentially an ensemble piece. Michael Boatman as the mildly buffoon Dad pretends that he rules the roost. Antoinette LaVecchia's Mother goes along for the ride. Jaevan Williams Son enthralled in gloriously forever love at age 16 with a girl from school. But, is the love reciprocated? It doesn't really matter; love is fleeting. O'Neill gives each character lots of humor for the audience to smile at; not laugh-out-loud or slapstick, but reminiscent of the sweetness that life can be. With one exemption, Joseph Adams, a salesman who always seems to stop by at dinnertime, spouts a litany of one-liners.

Bravo to Hartford Stage for the more and more frequently seen and appreciated color-blind casting.

Hartford Stage and Executive Director Melia Bensussen prove their worth, opening the season with this delightful play as contrast to the weighed load of 2019 - 21 (longer?) from the outside world. Important to know, as with all local performing arts venues: hand sanitizer and masks for all.

October 24, 2021

Review: Theaterworks, Someone Else’s House (Virtual Performance)

Theaterworks, Hartford CT and Virtually
through October 31, 2021
by R.E. Smith

“Someone Else’s House” replaces the glow of a campfire with that of a computer screen for
this seasonally appropriate, hybrid virtual/live performance ghost story. These types of performances are hard to delineate. Yes, it is a one-man performance, supported by a live production crew, but certain important elements are achieved by video magic, making it very much more like a film.

Jared Mezzocchi, solo actor and the playwright, recounts what he tells us is the true tale of the brief time his family lived in a supposedly haunted house in New Hampshire. Mezzocchi has an amiable presence and laid-back demeanor, which puts the audience immediately at ease, and most importantly, willing to trust his narrative. He’s clearly comfortable with the peculiar foibles of interacting with people who are not really in the room.

The interactive parts are important. As anyone who has attended a Zoom meeting from home knows, the attention can wander when you’re distracted by things like kids and cats. Using a “conjuring packet” containing documents related to the previous occupants, the audience gets to help sketch in some background details. Its disappointing though that the clues really don’t contribute much to the finish of the story. One of the papers is not used directly at all, leaving the participants to wonder when it will be called into action.

Director Margot Bordelon and Mezzocchi work deliberately to keep the proceedings grounded, though sharp-eyed observers will notice little details that hint at something going on beneath the scholarly surface of the script. Though it is his family’s story, Mezzocchi approaches it more as a disinterested observer, making some turns of character later in the show more jarring. They build up such a trust in the exposition that the turning point and denouement seems sudden and rushed.

“Someone Else’s House” is ultimately a shaggy-dog story, a slow build to the trick ending that one knows must come from a scary story, told under the sheets with upturned flashlights. But that’s what makes it both familiar and entertaining, especially in the heart of “spooky season.”

Note: The show can be “attended” in 2 ways, via Zoom viewing from home or by a hosted watch party at the Theaterworks venue. Check website for availability types and dates.

October 17, 2021

Review: WAM Theatre, Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story

Elayne Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA
through October 24, 2021 (streaming digitally November 1-7)
by Jarice Hanson
 
Photo by David Dashiell
WAM Theatre’s new production of “Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story” is an important contribution to the burgeoning field of cultural stories that broaden our understanding of traditions of oppressed peoples and the perspectives of people who have systematically been undermined. The story weaves together themes of popular culture, self-awareness, critical self-analysis, personal expectations amid cultural stereotypes, and female relationships. Though the story addresses serious topics and issues, they are framed as a comedy. The balancing act is difficult, but successful.
 
Set in Canada on the traditional Syilx Territory, the spoken language that introduces the play and functions as a touchpoint throughout the two hour, two act play, is Nsylixcin. For an audience member who has little knowledge of northern tribal nations, the language is complex, beautiful, and redolent of historical richness. It draws the ear into listening closely, and that is part of the story’s mission—to honor indigenous people and reclaim identity. The three actresses and the production‘s creative team are all people who identify as persons of color, and many are members of Indigenous Nations.
 
Author Kim Senklip Harvey is a gifted playwright whose growing body of work focuses on Indigenous theater and storytelling. She is most definitely a playwright and author to watch, and in addition to her plays, she is the author of a book titled: “Love Stories from a Salish Plateau Dirtbag” (soon to be published), and she is working on an adaptation of the award-winning “Kamloopa” for television.
 
Director Estefanía Fadul has mined the joy in the script. As she states in her program notes: “This play invites us on a madcap adventure as three women work out the messiness of identity and what it means to belong, subverting all expectations and crafting their own path.” The three actresses, each of whom plays multiple parts, are Sarah B. Denison, Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed, and Ria Nez. They play their characters with crisp differentiation. Carolyn Eng’s sound design is subtle, but oh, so effective, aided in part by original drumming by Ty Defoe.
 
WAM Theater is committed to building relationship with “Indigenous Tribes, Nations, and Peoples on whose land we live and work.” As part of the mission of WAM, which stands for “Where Arts & Activism Meet,” this show, and others, starts with the acknowledgement that “It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we are working, performing, and gathering on the Ancestral Homelands of the Mohican people, who are the Indigenous peoples of this land."

REVIEW: Shakespeare and Company, The Chairs

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA
through October 31, 2021
by Jarice Hanson
 
Photo by Daniel Rader
In his program Director’s Note, James Warwick compares Ionesco’s “absurd tragic farce” to life in general, since Covid. How right he is! 
 
Upon entering the lobby of the Tina Packer Playhouse, patrons are greeted with lively circus music which then carries them into the playhouse and provides the perfect immersion into the world of the “Old Man” played by Malcolm Ingram, and the “Old Woman” played by Barbara Sims. The two have been living as the custodians of a lighthouse for many years, and have developed a pattern of amusing each other with imaginary guests and conversations they make up in their heads.
 
Ingram and Sims work together like a well-oiled machine and the circus metaphor is liberally used throughout the 65 minute play. When the couple start bringing out chairs for imaginary guests, the choreography is like watching clowns in a circus disappear behind a set, only to emerge from another door with either a wheelbarrow or a baby carriage to establish a stage fully set for their “future” guests. When Ingram sings “Forty-seven Ginger Headed Sailors” while accompanying himself on a ukulele, Sims dances along—making the duet all the funnier with her physical interpretation of the music. They create a dynamic duo, complementing each other’s style and tone, and making it impossible not to be charmed by their high energy comical interaction.   
 
Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s wonderful costumes and John Musall’s elaborate multi-doored set continue the circus theme established by Amy Altadonna’s exceptional music choices, and James Warwick’s direction creates a seamless production of entertainment that emphasizes comedy rather than tragedy. The situation of the two old people alone, isolated from others and feeling cut off from the rest of the world, has now become a familiar feeling for many, but their spirit and silliness give us hope. 
 
How wonderful it is to find joy in an art form that has traditionally been called “absurd,” and how appropriate it is for Shakespeare and Company to revisit a classic of absurdist theater and find the humanity and joy in the work. As Warwick concludes in his Director’s Note, “Please join us, not in despair, but in the liberation of tears of laughter.”
 
Watching these fine actors and seeing the benefit of meticulously staged production craft, the audience is left with a feeling of buoyancy and hope, proving that even in absurd times, theater can help us connect to a broader world of art and human connection. 

October 12, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
October 10, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Gilbert Kalish
When the previously scheduled Juilliard String Quartet cancelled due to illness, these friends of South Mountain came to the rescue on short notice with an inspired cross-generational ensemble pairing 86-year-old American master pianist Gilbert Kalish with four string players five and six decades younger in an imaginative program of four varied works from three centuries. 

It opened with a sprightly account of Mozart’s 1786 Trio in B-flat Major, K. 502, by Kalish, American violinist Stella Chen, and Chinese-born cellist Sihao He. Though reflecting the emphasis of its time on the piano as major partner, Kalish gave Chen and He plenty of room to shine in a lively opening “Allegro,” a graceful slow “Larghetto,” and a charming “Allegretto” finale. 

This was followed by Bohuslav Martinu’s Duo No. 1 (“Three Madrigals”), written in 1947 while the Czech-born composer was living in New York. Modeled on Renaissance-era madrigals (unaccompanied songs for multiple voices with elaborate harmonies), the piece was lovingly performed by Chen and Taiwan-born violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu. They were buoyant in the energetic first movement, enchanting in the mysterious second, and intense in the folk-flavored third. 

Next came Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen’s 1897 arrangement for violin and viola of the Passacaglia (variations on a repeating rhythm) from Handel’s 1717 seventh suite for solo harpsichord. Korean-born violinist Kristin Lee and Wu met the work’s technical challenges with stunning virtuosity and an infectious sense of fun. 

The concert ended with a dramatic rendition of Brahms’s 1864 piano quintet, featuring a turbulent opening “Allegro non troppo,” a warm and flowing “Andante, un poco Adagio,” a ferocious “Scherzo: Allegro” (with a tender central trio), and a shattering “Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo” finale. Of special note were the seemingly ageless Kalish’s muscular yet mellow pianism and He’s dark, resonant cello, though the whole ensemble was polished and committed throughout. 

Introducing this final concert of South Mountain’s 2021 season from the stage, Executive Director Lou R. Steiger thanked the audience for their support through this difficult year and invited them back for a hopefully “more hospitable” post-Covid 2022 season beginning next September.

October 6, 2021

Review: Berkshire Theater Group, Shirley Valentine

Berkshire Theater Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 24, 2021
by Lisa M. Covi

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell
Corinna May showcases an ability to both captivate an audience and illustrate a transformation as Shirley Valentine, the solo-actor in "Shirley Valentine." This is the first time May has tackled a one-woman show.

The playwright Willy Russell takes the audience from a claustrophobic flirtation with madness to self-actualizing exhilaration. The titular middle aged housewife's empty nest and precarious marriage spur her sudden break to discover new and positive ways to express herself in the world; a world that she knew existed for other people.

Berkshire Theater Group's Unicorn Theater is a perfect setting for this one-woman show. The theater's intimate size makes the convention of breaking the fourth wall seem natural and seamless. The scenic backdrop of a row of roof lines in her Liverpool neighborhood in Act I contrasts beautifully the azure coastline of the Greek Isles in Act II.

Although the heroine's journey is relatable and timeless, the play's text at times seems dated in a way that limits its impact because of the choices for setting and exposition. One example, particularly for American audiences, is the consistent and authentic Liverpool accent May adeptly executes. The British terms and pronunciation are not as confusing as figuring out that Shirley Valentine's “Wall” was not the name of her husband (Joe) but the term of address she uses for the unresponsive kitchen wall with whom she converses.

The narrative includes many other unseen characters in Shirley's life. The director might have included vocal cues into Shirley's impersonations, but instead relies upon verbal and emotional characterizations in her dialog. Nonetheless, the plot and personality of May's acting skills give the play emotion and humor.

The plot suggests that her home, like her marriage, is in need of renovation. However, a little transformation on the part of May's role comes about slowly, as intended. The initial tension in landing Valentine's humor eases as the character gains confidence.

One wonders if the rut Shirley finds herself facing in the mid-1980's is out of step with today's audience. For instance, Shirley struggles with the definition of myriad of feminist and self-deprecating descriptions; i.e. Shirley uses the term “silly bitch” to refer to herself and others, and a humorous discussion involving the mispronunciation of an anatomical term involved with her sexual re-awakening. 

Shirley Valentine personifies the delayed coming of age of women in a particular societal role. Certainly there are still women today who are directed or make life choices that result in a feminine mystique-type consciousness-raising. Nevertheless, as a play, Shirley Valentine showcases a kind of character development and journey that is both a cautionary tale and inspiring call for action. Willy Russell's story is a literary ancestor of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." Corrina May's Shirley Valentine brings fresh aplomb to this cheeky British woman.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven 7

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 1-3, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

After a twenty-month Covid-induced hiatus, the HSO’s first weekend of three live “Masterworks” series performances at the Belding Theater surrounded a 2019 novelty with two favorite pillars of the standard classical repertoire and introduced a promising guest conductor and a multi-talented composer/soloist to Hartford audiences.

Joseph Young
Following a rousing all-hands-on-deck season-launching national anthem, no better welcome-back opener could be imagined than Rossini’s iconic 1829 “William Tell” Overture, whose themes are familiar to generations of “Lone Ranger” and Looney Tunes cartoons viewers. Joseph Young, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony and Artistic Director of Ensembles at the Peabody Conservatory, led a dynamic account, from a radiantly quiet beginning played by five cellos, through a turbulent brass-dominated mid-section, to a triumphal closing march. 

This joyful mood continued with Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad’s “E Gol! (“Goal!”) for Orchestra, Vocalist, and Audience Members,” featuring Assad herself as vocalist. Its six short movements depict Brazilian female soccer star Marta Vieira da Silva preparing for a big match. Following instructions projected above the stage and coached by Assad, the audience gamely scatted, slapped their legs, and otherwise joined the musicians in sounding out the colorful score. Highlights included a spooky “Nightmare,” a serene “Meditation,” and an energizing percussion-driven “Samba Party.” Assad’s vocal improvisations were often jazz- inspired and always fun.    
 
The concert ended with a vibrant rendition of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It can be hard for a conductor to bring new insights to such a familiar masterpiece, but Young did just that with the HSO. Their measured approach to the first movement’s “Poco sostenuto” opening gave its “Vivace” main theme a rare and exhilarating grandeur; their stately tempo in the “Allegretto” made it sound dreamier than usual; they revealed a playful, almost Mendelssohnian grace in the “Presto” scherzo; and their visceral power in the “Allegro con brio” finale brought the piece to a thrilling climax.   
 
Their next weekend “Masterworks” program, “Bernstein & Copland,” will feature HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan and HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal on November 5-7, 2021.  

The HSO requires proof of vaccination and a valid ID for entry into the Bushnell and masking at all times in the hall. 

October 5, 2021

Review: Barrington Stage , A Crossing: A Dance Musical

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through October 16, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Remember all those times when you choose to skip a play because was new? If it hasn't yet gotten the thumbs up from the critics and scuttle butt from past audiences, you've never heard of it or the names of anyone in the cast, how good can it be?

Photo by Daniel Rader
I urge you to take a risk on "A Crossing: A Dance Musical.” Opening night always brings
excited audiences full of anticipation. The icing on the cake was the play making its world premiere. For the good and for the bad, the timing of the presentation could not have been more opportune; this is a journey of a dozen ragtag men, women, and children, each trying desperately to make their exodus from Mexico to the United States.

With no spoken words, this "dance musical" could have easily been called "musical" or "opera". In any case, the lyrics of mixed English and Spanish played throughout. Each artist from the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company sang with beauty and meaning, primarily to the music of guitar and drums in the background. Although, most of the songs did sound alike. The quintet of master musicians was tucked away in the mountainous terrain setting.

While not a human character, per se, the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt spoke volumes. Giant moveable cardboard cutouts of several uneven precipices with a clock-like black 'n white circle in the rear gave the audience clarity of the characters' hardships and endurance. 

Director Joshua Bergasse's work was difficult, especially in one particularly lengthy scene. Bergasse, along with choreographer Alberto Lopez made the unreal, real. All onstage and backstage pulled off the actual "Crossing" of the river from Mexico to the US exquisitely. Twelve-foot-long colored ribbons were held at each end, swishing and rippling constantly. Without a word, spoken or sung, this excerpt made "A Crossing" worth the trip. A rope of garments created a make-shift unsteady line in order for the characters to make their journey to America. 

One character stood out as "a wow moment" or "TMI". Neither or either is correct. This occurred at what seemed a strange place in the story for an intermission because BSC's Executive Director specifically stated, "No intermission". I am guessing that a historically dressed ancient god named Quetzalcoati decided to put on a majestic one-man dance. An entire evening of Quetzalcoatis could have been a rockin' show. That was hardly what "A Crossing" was about.

October 1, 2021

Preview: Playhouse on Park, Two Jews Walk Into A War

Playhouse on Park. Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through October 10, 2021

Rehearsal photo by Nina Elgo
"Two Jews Walk Into A War" is the first production of Playhouse on Park’s 13th Main Stage Season. This production is directed by David Hammond. The cast includes Mitch Greenberg (Ishaq) and Bob Ari (Zeblyan).  The show is produced in partnership with The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. 
  
Ishaq and Zeblyan are the last remaining Jews in Afghanistan. They share the only remaining synagogue that has not been destroyed by the Taliban. They share a mission to repopulate the Jewish community in Kabul. But they also hate each other. Can this Middle Eastern odd couple commit to one incredible act of faith to keep the diaspora alive without killing one other? A modern vaudeville full of schtick, sorrow, and survival. 

Tickets are now on sale and range from $40-$50. Student and Senior discounts are available. Student Rush is $10 (cash only), available 15 minutes prior to curtain. 2pm matinees are on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Evening performances are at 7:30pm on Wednesday and Thursday, and at 8pm on Friday and Saturday.

COVID-19 Policy: All patrons must be fully vaccinated. Vaccination card, government issued ID, and masks are required for all patrons. For Playhouse on Park’s full COVID-19 Policy, please visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.

September 21, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 19, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Less than a month after they announced their retirement from public performance in 2023, the Emerson String Quartet  – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins – made their35 th appearance at this venerable chamber music series. A memorable concert and rapturous audience response suggested that they’ll end their 47-year career in top form. 

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s first published string quartet, dating from 1829, when the precocious composer was a youthful but mature twenty years old. The Emerson’s tender but bracing account built from a lively “Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante” first movement, a gracious “Canzonetta: Allegretto” (including a delicately fleet mid-section), and a passionate “Andante espressivo,” to a fast and furious “Molto allegro e vivace” finale.
 
Next, in sharp contrast, came Bartok’s 1927 third string quartet. Reflecting both the influence of Hungarian folk music and the composer’s interest in avant-garde musical techniques, it still sounded strikingly modern in the Emerson’s tightly coiled performance. Their legendary seamless ensemble intact throughout, they brought laser clarity to the thorny first section, controlled energy to the manic second, haunting sensitivity to the eerie third, and intense focus to the frenzied closing “Coda.” 

The concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s popular 1871 first string quartet. From a gentle “Moderato e semplice” opening movement, a heartfelt “Andante cantabile” (famously arranged later by the composer for string orchestra – Drucker’s first violin solos were meltingly beautiful), and a mercurial “Scherzo,” to an exuberant folk-dance-flavored “Finale,” the Emersons played every note with exhilarating warmth. 

That quality was even clearer in the deep affection they brought to their encore (a rare occurrence at South Mountain), George Walker’s lovely 1946 “Lyric for Strings.” Setzer movingly recalled the Quartet’s happy working relationship with the noted African-American composer during the last twenty years of his life (Walker died in 2018 at age 96).
 
South Mountain requires proof of Covid vaccination and masking inside the hall. Chamber music lovers can still catch three more Sunday afternoon concerts here by world-class musicians (including former Emerson cellist David Finckel) through October 10.

September 17, 2021

Review: Majestic Theater, The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On

Majestic Theater,West Springfield, MA
through October 17, 2021
by Konrad Rogowski

By starting off their season with “The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On,” the Majestic is giving their audiences what we all need after 15+ months of social distancing; a lively, fun show as the four Wonderettes reunite for an evening of popular songs from the 60’s and 70’s that folks can identify with and hum along to.

Like its predecessor "The Marvelous Wonderettes" which was performed last season “ The Marvelous Wonderettes,” current show, "Dream On" chronicles the loves, losses and rivalries of Cindi Lou (Kaytlyn Vandeloecht), Betty Jean (Tina Sparkle), Missy (Kait Rankins) and Suzy (Mollie Posnik) as all four actresses reprise their roles in a real-life reunion. 

Act I takes the audience through the 60’s on the date of the quartet's 10th year reunion, and Act II leaps ahead to their 20th. Peppered with upbeat songs and strong vocals, each Wonderette is given the opportunity to shine with solos like “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “I Will Survive,” and a rousing show finish with “We Are Family.”

Greg Trochlil’s set design for Rockville High, with its classic yellow brick gym walls, basketball hoops and PA system speakers sets the scene. The musical accompaniment by Mitch Chakoura’s band is solid. If there is any oddity in the show, it is that, unlike the Wonderettes, the band is not costumed like a high school reunion band, nor does their appearance change as we move from decade to decade. The visual is distracting since they are part of the entire reunion/time has passed concept.

All in all, this installment of the Wonderettes’ adventures is definitely worth a trip back to Rockville High.

Note: Attendees must show both their proof of Covid vaccination, and a personal ID. Masks must also be worn during the performance. 

September 13, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Calidore String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 12, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

A nearly full house warmly greeted the first live concert in this venerable series since October 2019 as the Calidore String Quartet – violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi – took the stage at this storied venue. Formed in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and named after the “golden state” of their origin (“dore” is French for “golden”), the ensemble has since earned rave reviews across the globe. 

The concert began with Mendelssohn’s second string quartet, written by the 18-year-old composer in 1827, partly in homage to the recently deceased Beethoven and his pathbreaking late quartets. The Calidore’s moving interpretation featured a grave opening “Adagio – Allegro vivace,” a passionate “Adagio non lento,” an elfin (and quintessentially “Mendelssohnian”) “Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto – Allegro di molto,” and a turbulent closing “Presto – Adagio non lento.” 

Next came a shattering account of Shostakovich’s powerful 1960 eighth string quartet, dedicated to the “memory of victims of fascism and war” while he was also writing a World War II film score in Dresden, Germany. Its five short movements (three of them marked “Largo,” or “Slow”) are played without pause and incorporate quotes from earlier Shostakovich works as well as the Russian revolutionary song “Languishing in Prison.” The dark colors of Berry’s viola and Choi’s cello were notably cogent and effective throughout.

A breif intermission was followed by a brilliant rendition of Beethoven’s mercurial 1825 fifteenth quartet, which helped inspire Mendelssohn’s second quartet in the same key - A minor. Its five expansive movements are built around the astonishing central and longest one, which Beethoven titled “Holy song of thanksgiving to the divinity by a convalescent.” The Calidore’s wrenching intensity here was overwhelming, but they were just as compelling in the surrounding four movements, from a bracing “Assai sostenuto- Allegro,” a gentle “Allegro ma non tanto,” and a stirring “Alla Marcia, assai vivace,” to a vigorous “Allegro appassionato” finale.
 
South Mountain requires proof of Covid vaccination and masking inside the concert hall. This essential 2021 Sunday afternoon concert series of chamber music performed by world-class musicians runs through October 10, 2021.

August 23, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, Falstaff

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through August 27, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After opening their sixth season with Tom Cipullo’s somber “Glory Denied” last month, BOF closes it with something completely different, 80-year-old Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera and only successful comedy, “Falstaff.” Based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” Arrigo Boito’s libretto develops its literally larger-than-life title character more fully than any of those plays.

Sebastian Catana
A vain, boastful, and overweight knight, Sir John Falstaff begins the opera drinking at the Garter Inn with other lowlifes, but after his attempted seductions of two prosperous wives are humiliatingly foiled, he begins to change his ways. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana is a hoot as the ne’er-do-well hero, moving with buffoonish grace and enunciating the Italian text with clarion gusto as he wins the audience’s sympathy long before he leads the opera’s exuberant final number, an astonishing “Fugue” on the words “We’re all fools!”

The entire cast seems inspired by Catana to the same level of commitment and excellence. Soprano Tamara Wilson and mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans are feisty and engaging as “merry” wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Mezzo Alissa Anderson portrays the ringleader of their avenging schemes, Mistress Quickly, with comic glee.

Baritone Thomas Glass is poignant as Alice’s almost-cuckolded husband, soprano Jasmine Habersham exudes winsome charm as the Fords’ daughter Nannetta, and tenor Jonas Hacker is ardently persistent as her suitor Fenton. Tenor Max Jacob Zander’s Bardolfo and bass Jeremy Harr’s Pistola, Falstaff’s robbing henchmen, and tenor Lucas Levy’s Dr. Caius, their aggrieved victim, are laugh riots all.   

BOF Artistic Director and Co-Founder Brian Garman leads a vigorous account of Verdi’s brilliant score by an animated BOF orchestra in the Mahaiwe’s clear acoustic. Lively direction by Joshua Major, spare but elegant scenic design by Stephen Dobay and lighting design by Alex Jainchill, and imaginative costume design by Charles Caine, along with projections of Cori Ellison’s often hilarious English translation, keeps a tight focus on the characters and their antics.

This jubilant and life-affirming production is a happy ending for BOF’s sixth season and shouldn’t be missed by discerning opera lovers.

August 20, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Nina Simone: Four Women

Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
through September 5, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
 
This play by Christina Ham imagines a conversation between singer-activist Nina Simone and the four Black women she depicts in one of her best-known songs, “Four Women,” right after a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four Black girls, aged 11 to 14 years old. The text interweaves performances by one or more ensemble members of 12 songs from Simone’s eclectic repertoire.
 
Felicia Curry
BTG’s powerful production is led by a fiercely committed Felicia Curry as Nina. When her sultry opening rendition (in elegant concert attire) of Simone’s first hit, the Gershwins’ “I Loves You Porgy,” is interrupted by a loud explosion, the set goes dark and shifts to the ruined church, with Nina writing feverishly at a piano. Three other women separately join her there: housekeeper Aunt Sarah (a blazing Darlesia Cearcy); light-skinned Civil Rights activist Sephronia (a fervent Sasha Hutchings); and prostitute Sweet Thing (a spirited Najah Hetsberger).
 
Through initial misunderstanding of each other’s different life experiences, Simone’s white-hot focus on the power of music to change the world eventually leads them to a measure of common purpose and hope for healing. Director Gerry McIntyre sensitively integrated the musical selections into this conversational journey, from a stirring traditional “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” to Curry’s shattering version of Simone’s anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” and a poignant climactic “Four Women” of almost unbearable intensity by the full company.
 
Vibrant musical direction by Dante Harrell ranged from delicate snippets of Chopin and Bach, recalling Nina’s training as a classical pianist, to the pounding blues of her “Old Jim Crow” and uplifting exuberance of her “Young, Gifted and Black.” Evocative scenic design by Randall Parsons and choreography by McIntyre, colorful costume design by Sarafina Bush, and haunting lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson and sound design by Kaique DeSouza ensured that everything was seen and heard to optimal effect on the intimate Unicorn stage.
 
This is must-see theater to understand the “High Priestess of Soul’s” singular role in advancing the status of African-American women artists.

BTG is requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for this production and masks for all patrons regardless of age.

August 10, 2021

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra , Mazzoli/Tchaikovsky

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 8, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Yo-Yo Ma & Karina Canellakis
On March 13, 2021 Yo-Yo Ma gave an imapromptu solo concert at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield after receiving his second Covid vaccine shot there. So it was no surprise that the world’s favorite cellist got a hero’s welcome when he appeared Sunday afternoon before a much larger audience with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, making her BSO debut. 

The concert opened with Missy Mazzoli’s imaginative 2014/2016 “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” which the composer describes as “music in the shape of a solar system.” Harmonicas played intermittently by woodwind and brass section members add the earthy tone of the medieval hurdy-gurdy to the 12-minute piece’s overall ethereal sound. Canellakis led the BSO in a radiant account, with subtly shifting colors and a magical electronically-enhanced close.
 
One of Tanglewood’s most regular and beloved guest artists since 1983, Ma was next featured in Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra. Besides “The Nutcracker,” playful and light-hearted are not words usually associated with Tchaikovsky, but they perfectly describe this 20-minute 1876 commission for cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen. Ma captured the elegance of the theme written in the style of Tchaikovsky’s idol Mozart and the virtuosity of the Fitzhagen-amplified variations with unerring poise and finesse.
 
After hailing “Tanglewood’s own” Canellakis (she was a 2014 TMC conducting fellow), Ma dedicated “to all those we’ve lost” an encore which he called music “of our time and for all time” – one of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s 1973 “Lamentations” for solo cello – and which he rendered with his trademark warmth and soulfulness. 

Canellakis and the orchestra concluded the program with a blazing performance of Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous fourth symphony. From a forceful opening brass fanfare evoking fate, through a mercurial first movement, a flowing “Andantino in modo di canzona,” a high-spirited pizzicato “Scherzo,” to a thrilling “Allegro con fuoco” finale, her flexible tempos and dynamics, along with playing of deep conviction by the BSO, never let the tension slacken. 

The audience’s enthusiasm for the work of two American women who are rising stars (Mazzoli and Canellakis are both forty-ish) suggested that the future of classical music is in good hands.

Review: Shakespeare & Company, “Art”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 22, 2021
by Stuart W. Gamble

Yasmina Reza’s play “Art” won the Tony Award back in the late 90’s and featured Alan Alda as one third of an articulate, well-educated group of middle-aged men who comprise the cast of this thought-provoking dramedy, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. Now more than 20 years later, this at times savagely funny play, is a welcome revival performed at one of the Berkshire’s finest theatrical venues.

Director Christopher V. Edwards has staged the show simply, in the open-air Roman Garden Theatre at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. Patrick Brennan’s black wicker sitting room chairs with white cushions and a wood paneled bar suggest an upper-middle class apartment that could be any urban setting (in Reza’s original, it was Paris.)

Photo by Nile Scott Studios
Into this minimalist, chic apartment, appears a plain white canvas, purchased by dermatologist and art connoisseur Serge (Michal F. Toomey). His closest friend Marc (“ranney”) is appalled that Serge would spend an exorbitant amount of money on what Marc calls “a white piece of shit”. The third member of this close-knit group, Yvan (Lawrence L. James) is the ultimate diplomat, alternating between praise and condemnation of this controversial piece of art. Their informal gatherings also give support to each man and his particular love life. Serge is bitterly divorced, Marc’s girlfriend is despised by Serge, and Yvan’s fiancée is described by Marc as a “gorgon.”

All three men give standout performances. Toomey’s controlled rage and “ranney”’s cut to the bone criticism finally erupt into fisticuffs that smacks more than a bit of Abbott and Costello, adding to the absurdity of their shouting match. Lawrence L. James, however, delivers the finest (and funniest) performance of all three. James’ tour de force re-creation of a three-way telephone conversation between himself, his fiancée, and his Jamaica-accented mother earned laughs and applause from the audience.

Why did Reza make all her characters in “Art” men and why three men who all seem so diametrically opposed to each other? I believe that Reza, like the characters in her play, is exploring male relationships and how men relate to one another: they fight, they compete, they belittle each other, but often they fail to be honest and just with each other. A catharsis is achieved, and they try to reconstruct the rubble of their broken relationships.

Stella Giulietta Schwartz’ linen jackets and pants, pastel-hued oxford shirts, a vibrantly colorful matching shirt and short combo worn by James, and various Panama hats, offered (I’m sure) ease of movement and comfort for the actors performing in the outdoor heat.

Performed for 90-minutes and intermission-free, this“Art” is a funny and thought-provoking production, which shows how sometimes we have to destroy what we love and rebuild it again, in order to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that object of our affection (family, friends, art, etc.). Like the blank canvas that is a catalyst to the play’s action, we must add color, form, and nuance to our lives through experience, love, humor, and acceptance.