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
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.