Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 29, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, “Eleanor”

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 7, 2021
by Shera Cohen

It’s no wonder that Barrington Stage Company has named one of its theatres after recurrent
playwright Mark St. Germain. Each summer for at least the past decade, BSC and the writer have partnered in giving birth to a new play. Many of these stories are biographies; most are snippets of the lives of famous men and women in history books.

A sweeping panorama of the life of one of the most inspirational, intelligent, and influential women in America describes St. Germain’s premiere play “Eleanor [Roosevelt]”.

It is never a surprise when a theatre designers take an essentially bare set and mold it into numerous indoor and outdoor scenes, in a process invisible to the audience, but with significant impact just the same. Include one of the exceptional actors of our day and a tight well-versed script, and “Eleanor” has become St. Germain’s most exceptional biographic play to date. That’s not just me spouting accolades at BSC. I know of what I speak, as I have seen ten St. Germain bios.

Harriet Harris
photo by David Dashiell
Remember “Frasier,” a successful comedy of several years ago? Well, Dr. Frasier Crane hired Beebe, an agent whose flattering descriptions would be obnoxious, aggressive, egotistical, and loud. Actor Harriet Harris’ nasal shouting at lightning speed seemed to be her trademark. I hated Harriet. One benchmark of a good or superior actor is to forget all prior roles, only to see the character in front of the audience. Not to be factious, but it was only because Harris “looked” like Beebe, that I “recognized” her.

Harris portrays Mrs. Roosevelt as wise and cunning, ready to roll up her sleeves to do whatever it takes to support her belief in human rights, as well as rights for herself. Harris balances a woman with a large physical presence, with a naivete that seemingly belies her strength. Not that Harris creates a perfect First Lady, but rather a female mirroring her husband's ideals and intellect, which the U.S. of the 40's needed.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Harris recreated Eleanor’s life from teenager to widowhood. What a feat to memorize an entire one-woman play, while at the same time act in another play at another theatre in the evenings. Director Henry Stram has a keen eye for posturing and moving Harris along with the script. Bah humbug, I say to those audience members who demean single-character theatre. 

Ms. Harris received an instant Standing O, and my guess is that Mrs. Roosevelt did as well in her day.

July 28, 2021

PREVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, "Falstaff"

Berkshire Opera Festival, Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
through August 23, 2021

Newcomers to Berkshire Opera Festival include Joanne Evans and Max Jacob Zander, who will perform in the mainstage production of "Falstaff" this August. They shared a few thoughts with ITS about the opera and the roles of these talented artists. 

Joanne, have you ever performed in Falstaff or other Verdi operas before? 
I've never performed in a Verdi opera , but I've seen Falstaff countless times. It is my favorite Verdi opera by a country mile.

What do you find most challenging about your role as Mrs. Meg Page? What do you look forward to most about your role?
Despite what was said about Verdi before he composed Falstaff, he was a brilliant comic writer. The comedy in the music comes from these fast and wordy passages, as well as certain opposing times signatures piled on top of each other. These are absolutely the most challenging moments of the role, but also the most exhilarating. What I like most about Meg is her biting humor. 

What gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career? Who are your opera heroes?
Honestly, the Spice Girls were my first musical heroes, but when I eventually came around to opera, the person who really set the bar for me was Maria Callas. My heroes now are Mirella Freni, Beverly Sills, Anita Rachvelishvili and Erin Morley. I am a huge Tamara Wilson fan and have watched her YouTube channel for years, so working with her in Falstaff will be a real "pinch-me" moment.

Joanne, do you play any instruments?
I get by as a pianist. I studied jazz piano for a time, and occasionally venture into writing my own songs.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
Only for my audition. I live in nearby Catskill and the drive was absolutely stunning!

Max, have you ever performed in Falstaff or in other Verdi operas before?
The first role I sang professionally was Borsa in Rigoletto back in 2014This production will mark the fifth time I’ve done Falstaff. My first production was at Indiana University in 2013 and I sang Bardolfo. I went on to sing Dr. Caius with Opera Saratoga in 2017 and, later that year, made my debut in the UK singing Bardolfo to Sir Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. During the pandemic, I recorded Dr. Caius for the Social Distance Opera project, and I am beyond thrilled to be returning to Bardolfo for my debut with Berkshire Opera Festival this summer! 

What do you find most challenging about your role as Bardolfo, what do you look forward to most about your role?
I know the obvious answer is definitely the fugue, but I’ve done this show enough times to not freak out about it anymore. If I had to choose a most challenging part, it’s probably rattling off Bardolfo’s machine-gun-of-a-line in Act 2, Scene 1.

As far as what I most look forward to from Bardolfo, I would say he is super likable and such a joy to play.  ut more than anything, I am looking forward to making music with and for people again. This production’s opening night will mark my first performance in 17 months, and I cannot wait to be back at it, telling stories and making music for people again.

Max, what gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career?  Who are your opera heroes?
My initial exposure to opera really came when I was a sophomore in high school. I went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Opera to see Le Nozze di Figaro. It was hilarious and I loved it. After the performance, someone told me that opera singers don’t use microphones and it blew my mind wide open! Later that year, someone donated tickets to my high school to take ten students to go see the Richard Tucker Gala. The two pieces that really stuck with me that day were the Pearl Fishers Duet and the Te Deum from Tosca. It felt so powerful and I had no idea opera could be THAT!

As far as my opera heroes, I may have to go with Charles Anthony. If that’s an unfamiliar name, you might be surprised to know that he sang almost 3,000 performances with the Metropolitan Opera. Anthony sang almost exclusively comprimario/character roles at the Met, and I think that he is one of the greatest examples of someone in that repertoire who sang beautifully, treating the music and text with the integrity it deserves.

Do you play any instruments?
I mainly play piano and guitar, but I also have a working knowledge of the string, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Before getting into opera, I wanted to conduct and compose. I conducted my first orchestra when I was 16 years old and spent a lot of time learning how the various instruments work.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
I have, but it’s been a VERY long time. I’m super excited to be coming back!

REVIEW: Festival of Contemporary Music, Fromm Concert

Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA 
July 25-26, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Looking for some summer fun? Try a Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concert. While that might not be everyone’s first instinct, there was no cooler place to be on a warm recent Berkshire afternoon than the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

Named for longtime new music patron Paul Fromm, this year’s annual Fromm Concert showcased a wild variety of music by six living composers from five countries, played and led mostly by talented student musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center. It opened with Danish composer Per Norgard’s brief 1988 tribute “Hut Ab!” [“Hat Off!”] (which “must not exceed one minute,” he cautioned) to a Danish new music festival director, exuberantly played by TMC clarinetists Jakob Lenhardt and Sangwon Lee.

A five-piece ensemble next presented African-American composer Jeffrey Mumford’s shimmering 2008 suite of eight short (one-to three-minute) movements, “a garden of flourishing paths,” honoring his teacher Elliot Carter and reflecting the West Garden Court of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, with sensitive leadership by TMC conducting fellow Adam Hickox. This was followed by Englishman (and Festival Director) Thomas Ades’s multi-layered 1994 “The Origin of the Harp,” impeccably rendered by nine players under the sure hand of TMC conducting faculty head Stefan Asbury.

The last three pieces on the program featured two pianos. Five selections from Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Jatekok” (“Games”), written since 1973, were brilliantly played by TMC pianist Mathilde Handelsman and New England Conservatory faculty member Stephen Drury (joined hauntingly in one piece by TMC offstage hornist Xin He). Handelsman and TMC pianist Barry Tan performed Scottish composer Judith Weir’s rhapsodic 1990 “Ardnamurchan Point” with color and flair.
Andrew Norman

American Andrew Norman’s riotous 2015 “Frank’s House” (evoking the angular designs of architect Frank Gehry) brought the house down, so to speak, as TMC percussionists Ben Cornavaca and David Riccobono nimbly tore into a daunting array of instruments while pianists Drury and Yukiko Takagi playfully mixed quotes from Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” with suggestions of Bartok and Messiaen. Rarely have musicians had so much visible fun on stage.

Three of the composers (Mumford, Ades, and Norman) were present and happily acknowledged the audience’s joyful applause.

July 26, 2021

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Jiayan Sun

Sevenars Music Festival, The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 11 - August 15, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled their 2020 season, this beloved family-based music festival has resumed its full schedule in 2021 of six live Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortably rustic Academy at Worthington in the heart of the Berkshires. They are recommending that patrons maintain a three-foot distance between parties and that unvaccinated patrons wear masks in the hall.

Jiayan Sun
On July 25 rising Chinese-born pianist Jiayan Sun played Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. Now a music faculty member at Smith College, Sun said in a pre-concert Zoom interview that he enjoys playing them together not only because they comprise Beethoven’s “final statements in the genre” but because the “intimate experience” of performing them while he was a Juilliard student on a fortepiano made for the composer had given Sun “a deeper understanding” of “Beethoven’s sound world” at this late stage of his life. 

The sonatas Opus 109 and 110 have similar structures, with two short movements leading into a longer climactic finale. Sun’s approach to each was flexible in the volatile opening movements, turbulent in the fleet “Prestissimo” and “Allegro molto” second movements and striving for maximum contrast within both groundbreaking finales (a theme and variations in Opus 109, and two versions of an “Arioso” and “Fugue” in Opus 110). Omitting an intermission, Sun tackled the dramatic first movement of Opus 111 with a vengeance, then the extended, visionary “Arietta” finale with energy and nuance.

Most striking about the pianist’s take on this trilogy is that it’s a young man’s view (Sun is 31) of Beethoven’s late work, emphasizing its boldness and innovation. His technical control was flawless, and his emotional grasp of the music compelling. It will be interesting to hear how his interpretation may evolve ten or twenty years from now, perhaps into more reflective, even spiritual terrain.  

No Sevenars concert would be complete without the assortment of homemade refreshments normally served at intermission but here offered as a festive post-show opportunity for enthusiastic concertgoers to thank their gracious host, pianist Rorianne Schrade of the founding Sevenars family, and to complement their charismatic soloist.

REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theatre "Mr. Fullerton"

Great Barrington Public Theatre, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington
through August 1, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Ever heard of Morton Fullerton? Neither did I. Is a play titled "Mr. Fullerton" enough to base a long two-act play on? Initially, I would have replied, "no". But the play's posters of a woman wearing Gilded Age garb, and mere mention of the name Edith Wharton were draws for me to see the premier of a play by area playwright Anne Undeland at the new Great Barrington Public Theatre.
One can learn about Edith at visits to the Mount, nearby in Lenox. which I highly suggest. At the very least, most are aware of Wharton's prolific and exemplary writing of novels and short stories. Realizing that at a certain age and pushed by her mother, it was mandatory that she marry, Teddy Wharton's money, charm, and good looks would be sufficient for the loveless match. It's no wonder that Edith had so much time to spew out novel after novel.
Yet, in mid-life she met the handsome, charming, and experienced lothario Fullerton. For a time, Edith put her writing career on hold; penning love letters and journals instead. The play has no buildup of  plot and dénouement but draws a segment of Edith's life that many readers have been curious about, but few knew. Undeland has filled in the blanks of Edith's love life, penning her play so purposefully that audience members would have no question between truth and fiction. 
Dana Harrison (Edith) and Marcus Kearns (Fullerton) create a flirtation and affair with fun and gusto. Harrison gives a quality performance that shows her school-girl giddiness growing into deep love, ultimately into betrayal. For a woman who was so bright and educated, Harrison’s Edith in this play is first a woman seeking love. On the other hand, our man with a past and the proverbial little black book, Kearns is not up to the standards of Harrison, partly because he has far less stage-time. 
Glenn Barret as the ever-present author and Wharton confidant Henry James adds comic relief. Yet, I would have liked to have seen the man who wrote great novels like "The American" with distinction, not as  comic relief. However, maybe that was James' personality and Barret did a tip-top job. My guess is that the playwright well-researched her characters, presenting the man who she assumed to be James.
In a four-character play, it is difficult to name one actor as “the star.” That said, Myka Plunkett, as Wharton’s maid Posy, stole the show. While never upstaging other actors, Plunkett sunk her smile, demeanor, and even calisthenics into the sprite Posy. Yet, Plunkett’s Posy is not all fun and frolic; the actress tells the audience a bit about the character’s unpleasant past. Posy became an extremely important character, segueing from background maid to Wharton’s dear friend.
Moliere-like quick comings and goings from one room to another on a small stage purposely styled the play as shorter than it actually was. Not a single word or action was overspent, unnatural, or unnecessary; all signs of an excellent playwright, director, crew, and cast.

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “King Lear”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 28, 2021 
by Shera Cohen
The presentation of “King Lear,” one of The Bard’s well-known tragedies, was a wise decision on the part of Shakespeare & Company to launch its post-pandemic (hopefully) summer season. The play combines two dramas, although not equally; one on a global scale and the other at the home front.
Christopher Lloyd
For the most part, unless labeled as a comedy, war is often the backdrop of most Shakespearean plays. Lear is king of one of the factions in conflict. Yet, the real chaos is between the King and his three daughters, and the daughters against each other. Paramount to Lear’s wars is the one within his own mind. Twenty-first century observers might call Lear’s disease Alzheimer’s or at the very least senility.

Allyn Burrows, executive director at Shakespeare, Nicole Ricciardi, director of “King Lear,” along
with cast and crew, took on a challenge bigger than they could handle. Their ace card was hiring actor Christopher Lloyd for the lead role. Those who remember Lloyd from TV’s “Taxi” and/or Doc in the “The Back to the Future” series, immediately think of his physical humor and booming comedic voice. Neither quality was needed to create Lear. This is not meant to judge Lloyd, but to say that the actor was out of his element in this intense lead role.
The New Spruce Theatre, built on the grounds to accommodate Covid-19 rules, has pluses and minuses. The design for the actors and audience is superior to most outdoor theatres, somewhat reminiscent of the Globe in London. The minuses were sound problems. Just as in the 1500’s, the voice was the sole means of communication between actors and patrons, many of the newer company members couldn’t fully succeed without microphones.

Ricciardi’s direction sometimes left characters wandering off aimlessly. Unplanned and misplaced  comedic bits included times when a wheel barrel carried a dying or dead character onto the stage; sadly evocative of “Spamalot”.
Ted Hewlett was the violence designer for this production and the fight sequence toward the end of the play was the brilliant segment that “King Lear” needed. Hewlett and two character adversaries put on a realistic show that lasted at least five minutes, putting the audience in awe of the skills of all three.

July 23, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, “Glory Denied”

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through July 24, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After the Covid-19 pandemic limited their 2020 season to two virtual events, BOF’s sixth season is its biggest yet, presenting two fully staged operas and a free concert of music inspired by Shakespeare. If their opening production of Tom Cipullo’s 2007 “Glory Denied” is any indication, 2021 could also be BOF’s most exciting season to date.

With a libretto adapted by the composer from Tom Philpott’s 2001 oral history of the same title, the opera is based on the true story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war. Captured in South Vietnam by Vietcong forces in March 1964, he was released nine years later in March 1973. Raising their four young children and assuming Jim is dead, his wife Alyce was by then living with another man.

Tenor John Riesen
The opera’s four characters - younger and older versions of Jim and Alyce – are portrayed at BOF by a uniformly outstanding cast of four experienced singers, who also assume a few smaller roles (Vietnamese guard, Pentagon spokesman, etc.). Baritone Daniel Belcher’s older Jim was bitter, tenacious, and irascible. Tenor John Riesen brought youthful energy and vulnerability to younger Jim. Soprano Caroline Worra captured the anguish and determination of older Alyce with unerring authenticity. And soprano Maria Valdes found both the girlish naivete and the growing desperation in younger Alyce. 

BOF Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor Geoffrey Larson led a fiery performance of Cipullo’s vibrant and communicative score. The warm, intimate acoustics of the 300-seat McConnell Theater in the Daniel Arts Center of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington insured that every note played by the crack nine-member ensemble from the BOF orchestra was clearly heard.

Staging by director Sarah Meyers and scenic designer Cameron Anderson placed the characters on separate but adjacent platforms, which allowed for the minimal interaction in the libretto through memory and reality but emphasized their fundamental isolation from each other. Colorful costume design by Charles Caine, sensitive lighting by Tlalok Lopez-Watermann, and omitting an intermission intensified the 80-minute score’s visceral impact.

This searing production demands to be seen and confirms BOF’s stature as a leading presenter of world-class professional opera.

July 20, 2021

PREVIEW: Chester Theatre at Hancock Shaker Village, The Niceties

Chester Theatre at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA
July 14 – 25, 2021
By Shera Cohen

To be clear, this piece on "The Niceties" is not a review, but a quasi-preview. A preview is the last or one of the last performances of rehearsal prior to the play's official opening. Chester's temporary Covid-dictated home at Hancock Shaker Village is an ideal venue for performances -- previews and full-fledged plays. The large white tent is magnificent with more seats than in the actual playhouse in Chester. With an elevated stage, sight lines give the audience full view.

In the case of "The Niceties," it seems that very few suggestions could possibly be made to improve the production. Oftentimes, audience members attend two-character plays and immediately scratch them off of their "to see" list. That is a shame.

The full crew is on-board for a preview, doing their jobs as precisely as if "The Niceties" was a bona fide production. Being titled "preview" takes nothing away from the professionalism called for by all onstage and backstage. 

"The Niceties," the play's title, refers to the polite mores between humans; in this case an older female professor and her female student. Politeness escalates for the teacher (Caucasian) and her pupil (Black). The setting is today. This is a long and difficult piece of theatre for the duo, each of whom are excellent actors. There is lots of potential for this play.

However, a huge deluge accompanied by thunder and lightning, prematurely ended the play by 20-minutes. Chester had planned, and perhaps even rehearsed its rain plan, beginning with a crew-person's voice over the actors telling the audience of an impending large storm. Like school children we followed directions orderly. All were offered numerous alternatives to return, receive a refund, consider their ticket price a donation. No one left disappointed. 

2021 is a year of flexible rules; Covid in particular. The theatre-going audiences seem to take it all in stride. The masks mute some of the laughter, but that is to be expected. Chester Theatre, along with Hampshire Shaker Village, certainly had their act together. No chances were taken, and everyone was safe.

The rainstorm was particularly annoying because Chester's plays are only produced for one week. Lost performances are upsetting for all.

July 19, 2021

On the Road: "What's In Your Wallet?", Crane Museum of Papermaking

"What's In Your Wallet?"
Crane Museum of Papermaking, Dalton, MA 
by Shera Cohen

Nearly every person carries a Crane product daily. Hmm, "What's in your wallet?" Maybe a dollar bill? Or a $5.00. A $10. Even a nice crisp $20 from the bank. All, yes ALL, paper currency manufactured in the United States emanates from Crane in Dalton. Many years ago, the Federal government issued a bid competition to seek out the company that would manufacture the paper used for US currency.  After a few years of try-outs from other corporations, Crane was selected, receiving a monopoly on the manufacturing of this unique paper.

I had never heard of Dalton, MA, yet it is one of the towns that contribute to the splendid tapestry of places that makes up the Berkshires. Approximately 17 minutes from Stockbridge, Crane Museum of Papermaking is the landmark tourist attraction in this small hamlet. Not only a draw for visitors, it is a working mill, still with active employees, which started in 1844. Entrepreneurs Zenas Marshall and James Brewer Crane purchased the mill in 1844, following the retirement of the pioneer papermaker Zenas Crane.

The mission of the Crane Museum of Papermaking is to collect, care for, and exhibit the history of Crane Currency in order to create an entertaining and educational experience of Crane Currency’s unique story, as well as the art and science of papermaking with a special focus on currency paper and anti-counterfeiting technologies.

The Museum opened in 1930 after an extensive renovation, making it one of the oldest corporate museums in the country.  The grounds were designed by the F.L and J.C Olmsted firm. Exhibits in the Museum trace the 250-year history of Crane papermaking from The Liberty Paper Mill in Milton, MA., which operated from 1770 to 1793, to the present. 

The Liberty Mill was indeed a cradle of the American Revolution, serving such revolutionary luminaries as Paul Revere, Henry Knox, John Hancock and a host of others responsible for today’s freedom.

Crane has continuously supplied banknote paper for U.S. currency. Anti-counterfeiting technologies have been developed, updated and implemented by Crane since 1844. The Museum was expanded in 2001 as part of the company’s bicentennial celebration, and again in 2014 to accommodate corporate archives and create an area for hands-on papermaking and paper arts. The museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

July 13, 2021

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Simon/Sibelius/Dvorak

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 11, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The breathtaking sight of the full BSO unmasked and un-distanced, in their traditional summer white attire, drew a collective roar from an appreciative, near-capacity crowd as their Music Director Andris Nelsons strode onto the stage of the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood Sunday afternoon to lead their second concert (the first was the previous night) before a live audience in sixteen months. 

It opened with rising African-American composer Carlos Simon’s 2020 “Fate Now Conquers,” quoting from an entry in Beethoven’s diary and reflecting the insistent rhythms of the Allegretto movement in Beethoven’s seventh symphony. The visceral account by Nelsons and his musicians brought this energetic five-minute score to vivid and colorful life. The composer took a well-earned bow to enthusiastic applause.

Baiba Skride
Latvian-born (like Nelsons) violinist Baiba Skride was next featured in a powerfully probing rendition of the 1904 violin concerto by Jean Sibelius. Flexible tempos heightened the intensity of the “Allegro moderato” first movement, from the delicate beauty of her opening phrase to the blazing drama of her cadenza. The ravishing “Adagio di molto” was even dreamier than usual, while Skride played the “Allegro, ma non tanto” finale with rollicking high spirits. Orchestra and conductor accompanied the incandescent soloist with polish and flair.      

The concert closed with a radiant performance of Antonin Dvorak’s 1880 sixth symphony. From a bucolic opening “Allegro ma non tanto,” an expansive “Adagio,” an effervescent “Scherzo” in the driving rhythm of the Czech “Furiant” dance, to a jubilant “Allegro con spirito” finale, Nelsons was at his inspired best, raising this seldom heard masterpiece to its rightful place among Dvorak’s finest creations. In an “only-at-Tanglewood” moment that the composer himself might have appreciated, a chorus of voluble birds added their own local color to the “Adagio.”  

In compliance with current CDC Covid-19 guidelines, masks are not required at Tanglewood for fully vaccinated patrons but are encouraged for others. All concerts this summer are approximately 90 minutes long, without intermission, and seating capacity is limited to 50 percent. Many concerts are also livestreamed virtually and available on demand at modest cost through the BSO’s web site. 

June 29, 2021

Review: Goodspeed Opera House, Ambassador of Love, Celebrating Pearl Bailey

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT 
through July 18
by Stuart W. Gamble

Last August in the middle of the Covid-19 Pandemic, this author attended (fully masked) the
first Equity-approved professional production of Godspell with the Berkshire Theater Group in Pittsfield, MA. The message of that musical favorite was one of Hope for all of us, as we faced the unknown. This past week, the author attended (maskless) Ambassador of Love, a new production of the life of Pearl Bailey. Like the legendary Pearly Mae herself, the show’s message is that of love and humor, and the joy of live performance.

This summer opener offers first-class production values. Star Rashida Scott appeared on Broadway in Company, Ain’t too Proud, and Sister Act. Musical Director Michael O. Mitchell’s credits include Motown the Musical, The Color Purple, and Memphis. The show’s Director T. Oliver Reid has won more than 20 Tony Awards for Hadestown, Once on This Island, and Sunset Boulevard. With such a pedigreed production, it was a bit disappointing that the show ran for only approximately one hour.

But in that time, there is a lot to behold and embrace. Simply staged, the performance space consists of only a keyboard while the rest of the space is reserved for Ms. Scott’s magnificent singing and dancing. Scott sings an incredible 22 songs during the show, composed by some of the fines, including Fats Waller (“There’s a Man in My Life”), W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues”), Harold Arlen (“Don’t Like Goodbyes”), and George Gershwin (“That Certain Feeling”). A particular highlight was a soulful version of “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly!” composed by the recently deceased Jerry Herman.

Not only is “Ambassador of Love” (a nod to Bailey’s Presidential appointment as special ambassador to the U.N.) a treat for the ear, but it is also a bauble for the eyes. Scott’s simple, yet striking, white and peach jumpsuit is complimented by the sparkling diamond necklace, ring, and bracelet that adorn her. Her warmth, vivacity, humor, and direct interaction with the audience indeed conjures up the spirit of Ms. Bailey. Since June is Black Music month, it is quite fitting that Pearl Bailey’s contributions to mid-20th Century music be given their due.

Dramatically, the show is a bit weak. Ms. Scott does not “play” Pearl Bailey but narrates her story in the third person. She tells us about Bailey’s accomplishments: four Broadway shows (including the first all-black production of “Hello, Dolly!”), a special Tony Award for “Dolly”, the New York Bronze Medal Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also notes Ms. Bailey’s friendships with Perle Mesta and Joan Crawford. But despite all this triumph, the ugly face of racism was ever-present, including an incident in which Ms. Bailey was “jumped” simply for being black. With more dramatic build-up and structure, “Ambassador of Love” will surely become a Broadway-bound hit.

June 28, 2021

REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theatre, “Dad”

Great Barrington Public Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
through July 3, 2021
by Shera Cohen
Essentially, there is one common denominator among the plays of Mark St. Germain; small bits of history that perhaps could be found on page 6, below the fold of any newspaper. Having seen 9 of this playwright’s published plays, there is, however, one exception. “Dad,” a semi-biographical story of the writer’s father and himself, would never make the news except for a bold-faced headline in the author’s own life. Another way to say this is that St. Germain obviously delved into his background, his father, and those of his siblings to a degree sadness and wont. 
The cover design of the program book connotes a comic reminiscence of someone’s/anyone’s father. Having now seen the play it becomes clear that the black scribbling is not that of a child but is befuddlement of how any of us try to figure out our parents’ place in their own world and with their children.
To testify to the saying that “the show must go on,” a necessary last-minute change of one of
the actors in no way impeded the production in spite of the fact that the character was the lead, Dad. Jim Frangione takes on double duty as the director. The cast includes David Smilow who expresses his character well as an oblivious average Joe whose costume consists of a shlub, old sweatshirt helps define his personality. Peggy Pharr Wilson’s role as Lynn, the sister, has little to do. Perhaps the real sister who she is based on was as ambivalent as Wilson portrays her. Mark H. Dold, a major-league player in the Berkshire theatres, plays high-strung, tense, taught, and nervous to aplomb. Dold’s performances are worth seeing no matter what the play.
Seeing the first performance of a new play is a privilege. However, there are some negatives, the biggest being the length. Yes, a play can be compact and say/show everything an audience needs. Instead, “Dad” gives a preview of characters and storyline that needs fleshing out; sibling vs. sibling, Dad vs. recollections of his own past, how Dad became a father who obviously didn’t want that role. In a “This Is Us” timeline of back and forth, the set added to the confusion such as a 1950’s ice box on the same stage as a laptop computer. The play was too stripped down. Sometimes simple and short befit the story. Other times, more is helpful to appreciate the story.
St. Germain has a wonderful base of a dramatic look at a family. He has not finished yet.

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, The Importance of Being Earnest

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through July 10, 2021
by Shera Cohen


It is the turn of the last century, England. BTG Unicorn Theatre audience meets two spiffy dressed bachelors from upper-crust families, each named “Earnest”—actually pretending to be Earnest. The glib repartee of Oscar Wilde’s characters play silly pretense with verbal gags, malaprops, and double entendres aplenty. This is a very funny play underneath the physical trappings of what initially one could take as drama. Of course, “earnest” can mean making efforts to be truthful. This is hardly the case for the gentlemen dandies Earnest. 


The story is essentially a battle of wits, or witless. The pair call on two young ladies in their attempts to woo and game-play all in the name of love. For some ridiculous reason, the fair damsels insist on marrying a man whose name is Earnest.  


Each of the parties in the quartet recite his or her goal of a future of prominence. How to do this? Find the perfect mate, especially the monied mate. The characters are superficial boobs and dim-witted dandies, in other words, perfect matches. The constant humor is that each of the lovers are clueless about themselves and their intendeds. However, there is a thin line in acting which the foursome couldn’t reach. Go for the subtle laughs and winks with each other and the audience and you have a successful farce. This “Earnest” used broad strokes which makes the guys and gals without much personality, albeit still extremely humorous. 


Saving the best for last; the first is the exquisite minutia of costume design, all indicative of the era; sometimes bordering on gauche, yet haut couture gauche just the same. 


Actor Harriet Harris is becoming an expected thespian in the Berkshires. Remember Beebe from “Fraser”? That’s her. It only takes two seconds of her loud nasal voice for any audience member to appreciate the skills, enunciation, and power of her vocal range. Harris is a brilliant personification of sophisticated humor. Her eyes dark back and forth while adding subtle winks to the audience. Playing Lady Brackdell, she has deemed herself the sole person to vet potential couples. She needs more stage time, some schtick, as if to say, “Ignore these dull young people. Look at me!”


A few suggestions are in order. “Earnest” need not be three acts; cut and/or trim throughout.  It doesn’t take two intermissions to move a couple of couches on a set. Act I repartee between the bachelors is repetitious. But are Wilde’s words so sacred that some can’t be intelligently chopped out? It’s done to Shakespeare’s works all the time, and we don’t hear him complain about it.

June 24, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Chester Bailey

Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 3, 2021
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by David Dashiell

It is 1945 and Chester Bailey is a 23 year old victim of a violent act of brutality.  Though not expected to survive more than a day, he eventually finds himself living in the Walt Whitman Hospital, state mental facility on Long Island. The problems of the residents are so severe there is no doubt that the best anyone can hope for is a gentle transition from the hospital to the cemetery that abuts the hospital. Dr. Philip Cotton is the doctor assigned to help Chester understand that he has experienced a devastating trauma as brutal as the war that is being waged beyond the hospital walls. What confounds the staff is that Chester seems to be unaware of his injuries. He remains optimistic, despite a prognosis that would crush (and does destroy) people who cannot muster the attitude of survival that he embodies.
This beautifully crafted story by Emmy-Award Winning author Joseph Dougherty unfolds with parallel stories of Chester, played by Ephraim Birney, and Dr. Cotton, played by his real-life father, the award-winning Broadway, film, and television star, Reed Birney. Both men inhabit their characters fully and create unforgettable characters who deal with issues of illusion and delusion, reality, desire, and hope. 

Reed Birney projects empathy and intellectual gravitas in every role he plays, and young Ephraim Birney is a talent to watch. The physicality and emotional depth he gives to Chester Bailey imbues a tragic story with an unexpected kindness and optimism that allows the audience to leave the theater feeling transformed and challenged to confront their own delusions and beliefs.
Director Ron Lagomarsino masterfully moves these two characters through time on a set designed by Beuwulf Boritt that suggests an eternal dance between reality and pseudo-reality. Sound Designer Brendan Aanes and Lighting Designer Peter Koczorowski equally work their magic to suggest the contrasts between institutions that bring to mind both hospitals and the confinement of the problems of the real world in the microcosm of both Pennsylvania Station and the wartime Brooklyn Naval Yard. 
In this theatrical masterpiece, Barrington Stage reminds us that live theater is transformative and uplifting. The brilliant casting of father and son in this powerful story about compassion and mercy reaffirms the human spirit to triumph over what we cannot control, and in so doing, provides a parable for post-pandemic hope and survival. This is an unforgettable story, brought to the stage by brilliant actors and magicians of the theater. 

June 18, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through July 3, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
Green, Umphress, Tischler, Blackwell & Coleman

Subtitled “The Songs of George Gershwin,” this exuberant revue showcases a wide-ranging selection of that master songwriter’s work performed by a multi-talented and well-balanced cast of Broadway and regional theater (including BSC) veterans, resourcefully directed by BSC founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd, and accompanied by a powerhouse five-piece band under the seasoned and energetic musical direction of Darren R. Cohen.

Presented under an outdoor tent at BSC’s crosstown Production Center (with audience members required to mask and separate parties seated distantly from each other), the concert opens with a lively overture based on themes from “Rhapsody in Blue,” followed by the entire company in a rousing “Love Is Sweeping the Country.” Tasteful choreography by Jeffrey L. Page keeps the cast in motion, and David Lander’s imaginative lighting shows off costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti’s colorful outfits for the singers to brilliant effect.

Musical highlights include: Alysha Umphress displaying her comic chops and vocal versatility in “Little Jazz Bird;” Allison Blackwell’s operatically intense “Summertime;” and Alan Green’s unexpected and dramatic account of Serena’s aria, “My Man’s Gone Now,” from “Porgy and Bess.” Jacob Tischler demonstrates his flexible tenor and a fine flair for physical comedy in “Somebody Loves Me” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Britney Coleman’s clear, bell-like soprano brings elegance to “S Wonderful” and poignancy to “But Not for Me.” Bassist Mitch Zimmer does a hilarious comic turn with the three women of the cast on “Slap That Bass.”

George’s brother Ira Gershwin’s distinctive lyrics amplify the program’s success, and the cast were sensitive to their every nuance, from Green’s contagious languor in “I’m bidin my time/cause that’s the kind of guy I’m,” to the deadpan humor of Tischler and Umphress singing “You like potato and I like potahto/you like tomato and I like tomahto” in “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,”  to Blackwell’s refreshingly sensuous “The world will pardon my mush/cause I’ve got a crush, my baby, on you.”  

With Covid-safe guidelines in place, who could ask for a lovelier return to live theater than this gem of a production?

June 11, 2021

Collaborations in the Berkshires: Where Genres & Geography Mix

by Shera Cohen

Summer marriages are now aplenty, especially in this post-Covid 19 year. No, these are not the weddings with tiered cakes and champagne, white garters and terrible toasts, chocolate strawberries and baskets of monied envelopes.

Ventford Hall,
photo by Berkshire Light Photography
I use the words “marriages” and/or “weddings” to indicate, for the purpose of this article, true meaningful collaborations that become long or short-term connections. Summer, 2021 is no longer a time for art venues and individuals to continue the “me, me, me” isolationist mantra of survival of the fittest. Making things worse is the competition for: audiences, media space, big name stars, venues, and calendar dates. It seems that the paramount need for arts is the search for dollars. No surprise: there is not enough to go around, or even attempt to fulfill the obligations intended by donors, and anticipated by venues, in pre-pandemic 2019.

Who better to use as an example than myself? While not representing any particular class or color, economic or geographic distinction between me and the thousands of strangers who I see in the Berkshires, my guess that our common denominator is love of culture and arts. In the case of the Berkshires, these enriching experiences within a 45-mile radius of each other, not to mention encompassed by and set among the great natural landscape, are the epitome of the planet’s creation.

Some coupling was created during the height of the Pandemic and its continuation seems natural. The “ah-ha” moment. Why didn’t they think of that before? Like genres came together: music with music, theatre with theatre. Not a novel idea. Dance brought visual art, poetry, and youth theatre together where everyone is invited to participate. Hand-in-hand, the leaders of performing art venues in particular, put their heads together, rolled up their sleeves, and stood firm, facing the ravage and aftermath of Covid 19. It wasn’t just the art agencies that worked together physically and monetarily, but their boards and audiences did as well. The sounds of music, stomps of dancing feet, and hammering of sculpture were silent for over one year. The media responded; and patrons, many of whom never considered the opportunity to make meaningful donations, did so.

Having vacationed and written about the Berkshires for the past 25 years, I realized that in addition to like genres, location was a primary link. In the early years of my vacations my goal was to attend at least three activities each day.

What took me so long to realize was that within the matter of approximately 10 minutes, driving on only one street, we could hit the highlights of:

Stockbridge; i.e. Red Lion Inn’s lunch on the porch rocking chairs
to Berkshire Botanical Gardens at full bloom
to Chesterwood’s home and sculpture of Daniel Chester French
to the home of America’s paramount painter Normal Rockwell Museum

The return trip, off the same central road, took us to the Shrine of Divine Mercy, and Stockbridge Cemetery. This totals seven “must see” activities, all positioned in the heart of Stockbridge. Promotion of location, distance, and rest stops in this one small town could help all of these neighbors and visitors. 

photo courtesy Stockbridge Chamber 
The experience of being open-minded to examining and appreciating an art form, other than your personal favorite, is important. Who knows, there have been surprises for me and surely many others. The Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start: The same could be said about any town in the Berkshires. Let’s all get together in this natural collaboration.


Collaborations in the Berkshires: There's More Art than What You See on the Surface

by Shera Cohen

This is the second part of a series on Summer in the Berkshires 2021. The first part can be read here: "Where Genres & Geography Mix"

Many of these venues double and triple as showcases for experiences historic, cultural, and artistic. This is all about collaboration. Examples are abundant; here are just some.

Arrowhead’s vista of mountain ranges is, not so coincidentally, the shape and likeness of a whale. In addition, Herman Melville’s home doubles as the site of Berkshire Historical Society.

Berkshire Museum is the site of underwater mysteries in the Berkshire Aquarium, in a room solely devoted to sea life. Adjacent to the aquarium, the Little Cinema’s summer-long series of current independent films provides movies and documentaries that are difficult to find elsewhere.

Chesterwood has been permanently designated as one of the well-respected sites in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and several years ago partnered with Sculpture Now. What better location for modern sculpture to stand side-by-side with the Lincoln Memorial. This year, the Art School of the Berkshires joined the party.

photo by Rebekah Vesey Studio

Personal kudos to Hancock Shaker Village and Chester Theatre. Out of the lonely Pandemic came a marriage of equals; each a different genre which, at first, seem atypical. The small, old town hall building converted into a theatre in Chester simply could not accommodate the important spacing restrictions required for this summer. I don’t know who proposed to whom but it was decided to erect a tent with staging and seating on the grounds of the Village for Chester’s unique, primarily new plays. Audiences can not only patronize the theatre, but the village as well. Don’t be surprised to see sheep and cows en route to the box office. A shout out to these unique partners in what will hopefully be a successful summer.

Jacob’s Pillow has faced the worst set-back of any venue in 2020. Its second theatre was ruined in a conflagration that seemed irreparable. Yet, bravo to the management, staff, dancers, and audience which worked to temporarily rebuild, literally from the ashes. At the same time, the Pillow collaborated with film makers, visual artists, and lecturers. Dance continues this summer!
Mass MoCa is not just your usual art museum. Its collaborations date back over a century, as this museum grew from the literal bricks and mortar of what had been factories in the northern Berkshires.

The Mount was the home of author Edith Wharton. I am guessing that she would be delighted and overwhelmed that her estate is now abundant with concerts, dance, gardens representing those of Europe, lectures by today’s famous authors, not to mention writing classes, and even yoga groups. She would take special pride in becoming the home of Sculpture Now. For several years (omitting last year’s Covid pandemic), world-renowned sculptors collaborated with the Mount to create an exhibit worthy of awe. The pieces are all for outdoor display. To me, Sculpture Now is a charming window-watching show of art on an enormous scale.
Shakespeare & Company has spawned numerous indoor and outdoor theatres, collaborating with nature. Who needs the forests of many Shakespeare tales, when the trees surround the stages? By the way, Shakes rents its site in the off months to the smaller but amazing WAM Theatre. Don’t forget the Farmers’ Market, perhaps not unlike those of the 1500’s. Other Shakes co-partners are this summer’s drive-in movies as well as the Berkshire International Film Festival.
Tanglewood’s pristine campus doubles, triples, and quadruples as the homes of Boston Symphony Orchestra, BUTI Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI), Tanglewood Learning Institute, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Boston Symphony Chamber Music, and forgive me as I unknowingly have forgotten other notable music groups. PS: yoga on the lawn adds to the personal peace of Tanglewood.
Turn Park’s
photo courtesy Turn
 creators, a family from Russia, have created a unique outdoor setting for
sculptures by artists throughout the world. Oftentimes, Turn Park works with music and theatre groups for its outdoor programs.


Collaborations in the Berkshires: Shera's Berkshire Tidbits

by Shera Cohen


As much as theatre is my first love in the arts, I believe that the touch of the leaves of the Lamb’s Ear plant is mesmerizing. Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “ears” grow throughout its many acres.
I doubt if most know the story of Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, the Black servant of the
Sedgwick family. She was buried in the midst of the circular family plot of the entire clan. She was certainly among her peers at the Stockbridge Cemetery. The year was 1829.

Unicorn Theatre, BTG
Berkshire Theatre Group has morphed over the decades to become better, bigger, and
brilliant. Starting with one white building just off the main road in Stockbridge, grew to an additional barn-like theatre called the Unicorn. Plays are performed simultaneously, so any patron has his/her choice. As if there wasn’t enough for staff, crew, and actors to accomplish, but the powers that be decided to collaborate with the Colonial in downtown Pittsfield. As I understand it, once a flourishing theatre venue was eventually abandoned to become an auto-repair store. Decades later, along came Berkshire Theatre, added the word “Group” to its marquee and an art lovers’ dream came to be. Once was one, are now three.

Ventfort Hall Mansion, other than the lush hotels in the Berkshires, Ventfort offers a delightful step into old London at its weekly tea parties, complete with scones and cucumber sandwiches.

Photo courtesy
Great Barrington Theatre is the newest art venue among the many. In fact, I received their press release a few days ago. Just when you think there might even be too much to do, there’s one more place to put on your calendar. Many of the “regular Equity actors” who frequent the Berkshires will be there, so here’s another chance to see fine performances. I look forward to going.

One can just walk in to Sculptor Andrew DeVries’ studio in downtown Lenox. but call first for
his hours. DeVries’ works seem to sprout up like dandelions throughout Stockbridge and other towns. All you need to do is turn your head left or right to see his exquisite, accessible, yet unusual pieces. As for Mr. DeVries, in many ways he is not unlike his work; extremely talented, overly friendly, with a contagious laugh to be heard throughout the Berkshires.


Theatre: Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, Williamstown Theatre, Chester  Theatre, Great Barrington Theatre

Comedy: Mahaiwe, Berkshire Theatre Group, Whitney Center

Famous Homes: Ashley House, Mission House, Bidwell, Crane Museum, Susan B. Anthony, Arrowhead, Naumkeag, Chesterwood, The Mount, Ventfort Hall, Norman Rockwell

Sculpture: The marriage of The Mount and Sculpture Now has stood the test of several years,   Chesterwood, Turn Park, Norman Rockwell Museum

Dance: Jacob’s Pillow, Mahaiwe

Music: Tanglewood, Mahaiwe, Guthrie Center, Closes Encounters with Music, Aston Magna, Berkshire Opera

Museums: Clark Institute, Williams College, Mass MoCa, Berkshire Museum


Collaborations in the Berkshires: Make Your Summer Journey Easier, Visit Berkshire Arts Town by Town
















May 24, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through June 13, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The seventh and final episode of the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute concerts by HSO ensembles is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s website through June 13, 2021. Filmed at four different Hartford area venues and entitled “Spotlight: Mixtape,” it featured 26 HSO musicians performing in six separate groups and playing music by seven diverse composers for a variety of instruments.

The HSO Brass Quintet (trumpeters Scott McIntosh and John Charles Thomas, hornists Barbara Hill and Brian Diehl, and Adam Crowe on tuba) opened on a celebratory note with Gwyneth Walker’s rousing 1987 “Raise the Roof!,” complete with hand and foot tapping in the rhythm of carpenters rebuilding a Vermont concert hall. The HSO String Quartet (violinists Lisa Rautenberg and Martha Kayser, violist Nicholas Borghoff, and cellist Jeffrey Krieger) followed with a stately account of Georg Philipp Telemann’s elegant 1761 “Don Quixote Overture.”

HSO percussionists Robert McEwan, David West, Douglas Perry, and Evan Glickman and timpanist Eugene Bozzi next gave a knockout performance of Christopher Rouse’s 1976 Voodoo-inspired “Ogoun Badagris,” based on Haitian drumming patterns, and ending with all players shouting “Reler” (“Amen”). HSO violinist Lu Sun Friedman’s poignant account of Edith Piaf’s difficult life made the loving rendition by the Mosaic Trio (Friedman, violist Patricia Daly Vance, and cellist Peter Zay) of her “La Vie en Rose” the program’s emotional heart.

Carolyn Kuan

The A Piacere (“At Your Pleasure”) Quartet (violinists Jaroslaw Lis and Deborah Tyler, violist Michael Wheeler, and cellist Jia Cao) then tore into Astor Piazzolla’s 1988 “Four for Tango,” written for the Kronos Quartet, with passion, panache, and birdlike sound effects. The HSO Wind Quintet (flutist Dominique Kim, oboist Cheryl Bishkoff, clarinetist Eddie Sundra, bassoonist Pinghua Ren, and hornist Barbara Hill) played Jeff Scott’s 2014 “Startin Sumthin,” a “modern wind quintet take on swing music,” in Kim’s words, with joyous flights of jazzy humor.

HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan closed the concert leading a slightly reduced orchestra on the Bushnell’s Belding stage in an exuberant Brahms “Hungarian Dance #5,” presaging the HSO’s welcome return to Covid-safe live performance when their Talcott Mountain Music Festival opens in Simsbury on July 2.