Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 22, 2022

Review: The Bushnell, "Come From Away"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through December 24, 2022
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Many theatergoers have never heard of the musical "Come From Away," even fewer know the plot, and less recognize the names of Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book, music & lyrics). Until a couple of years ago, I was in this large group. At the very least, I should have known that this piece of theatre had deservedly won numerous awards.

To correct my error by taking the time for a drive to Hartford and back, to spend nearly-two hours to watch this musical, took a lot of coaxing. At the time, I said, "Okay, since none of our writers have the time to review, the burden falls on me".

This long preface to an actual review is to say, that I was wrong...very wrong. "Come From Away" shoots to close to the top of my list of favorite musicals; and I have seen well over 100. This is an amazing, fictionalized true story and production of the most spirited, heart-felt, melodic, passionate, boisterous, and endearing pieces of theatre. Whew, I think I have run out of adjectives. 

It was September 11, 2001. All of us knew exactly where we were. Yet nearly 7,000 of passengers on dozens of airplanes throughout the world didn't know what happened on this horrific date, let alone where they were. A small town in Newfoundland, Gander, instantly became the unexpected way-station for these thousands of people heading to their respective homes. For several days, the population of Gander doubled in size. Where to put all so many bewildered and scared people? Where would they sleep? How long would they be here?

The folk of Gander literally rolled up their sleeves, instantly coming to the rescue. The cast of 12, each taking double or triple roles, is the epitome of ensemble acting. All voices were to perfection in nearly every music genre. The richness of humanity and kindness at its best is the core of "Come From Away".

Unique is the choreography, especially when the cast is simply seated in wooden chairs replicating airplane seats. This is no spoiler; the finale shouts out a regional hoot'nany with the entire band on stage along with the dancing actors, reveling in the miracle of Gander.

"Come From Away" ends its run in Hartford on December 24th; just in time for Christmas. Joy, hope, and camaraderie describe this piece of humanity, made more poignant because it depicts an honest point in human history.

December 13, 2022

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, “Christmas in Connecticut”

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through December 30, 2022
by R.E. Smith

As light and fluffy as an early December snow, “A Connecticut Christmas” floats down to the Goodspeed to dress things up for the holiday season. Although based on the 1945 Barbara Stanwyck film of the same name, only the broadest strokes of the original remain. Independent, forward thinking woman journalist, Liz Sanborn, moonlights as the writer of a very successful “perfect housewife” magazine column, despite not having a domestic bone in her body. When asked to host an American war hero for Christmas at her “perfect” Connecticut farm, she must enlist her friends to help her fake her way through the festivities.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Where the playwrights succeed in their rewrite is in filling in Liz’s backstory, which was missing from the movie. They set up solid connections between characters and an understandable explanation as to how and why Liz and her editor Dudley concoct the original scheme. There are some clever movie call-backs as well, from names to whole passages of dialogue. But the introduction of new characters makes for one romantic relationship too many and the attractions are based more on the needs of the plot then through any organic attraction.

The score’s style is well influenced by the big band sound of the time period, with “A Capital Idea”, “The Most Famous Jefferson” and “Something’s Fishy” really hitting the big Broadway notes. While converting the presentation into a musical makes sense in crafting a holiday confection, many of the songs are quite specific to the show. One hopes for more universal tunes that could become standards as “White Christmas” did, but there are details that keep most locked to the story. “May You Inherit” which closes out the show, does succeed in that regard by delivering a broader sentiment.

It is the performances that make up for any weaknesses, though, as the leads are all top-notch. Audrey Cardwell, as Liz, is on stage almost the entire show and she has a commanding confidence backed by a lovely, strong voice. It is clear to see why she was recently the understudy for Marian in the Broadway revival of “The Music Man”. James Judy and Tina Stafford are crowd pleasers, making the most of their comedic moments as Liz’s Hungarian culinary secret weapon and a flustered housekeeper. Their delightful duet “Blame It on the Old Magoo”, was disappointingly short, and begs to be expanded into a full number. Matt Bogart as Victor Beecham, Dudley’s socialist farmer brother, and Josh Breckenridge as our soldier hero each get their moment in the spotlight, and they make great use of their commanding voices and presence. Breckenridge especially gets the opportunity to show real range, playing both comedy and light drama, endearing himself to the audience with playful charism.

“A Connecticut Christmas” is packed with a little bit of everything, from slapstick to romance, tap-dancing to social commentary. Like a holiday fruitcake, it may not be a perfect dessert, but it is sweet, a little nutty and comfortable, with some bright pops of color. Any fan of the Goodspeed with find it worth sampling.

December 12, 2022

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, Miro String Quartet

Smith College, Northampton, MA 
December 11, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Miro Quartet
Founded in 1995, based in Austin, Texas, and named after groundbreaking Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miro, this probing and polished ensemble brought musical comfort with a varied selection of quartets from three centuries to an enthusiastic audience which braved a snowstorm to see them in the warm acoustics of this 600-seat venue.   

Opening with the light-hearted fiftieth (in B-flat Major, Op. 64/3) of Franz Joseph Haydn’s sixty-eight string quartets set a welcoming tone of high spirits for the afternoon. In the Miro’s virtuosic account of this 1790 score, the “Vivace assai” first movement was fleet and forceful, the “Adagio,” tender and flowing, the “Menuet and Trio: Allegretto,” playful and boisterous, and the “Finale: Allegro con spirito,” a headlong romp. 

First violinist Daniel Ching then introduced “Home,” a single-movement quartet written in 2019 for the Miro’s 25th anniversary by American composer Kevin Puts, whose latest opera, “The Hours,” just debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Reflecting the worldwide refugee crises of recent years, the 15-minute piece questions the very meaning of “home” in today’s world. 

From a peaceful start, which depicts, in the composer’s words, “an idealized version of home,” through a harrowing middle section to a conclusion of hard-won but unsettled consonance, the Miro played this powerful and touchingly accessible music with almost unbearable intensity. Cellist Joshua Grindele and violist John Largess provided notably solid rhythmic support. 

Closing their program with the dramatic thirteenth (in G Major, Op. 106) of Antonin Dvorak’s fourteen string quartets guaranteed that the Miro would send their listeners home in an upbeat mood. Their full-blooded rendition of this 1895 masterpiece featured a vibrant “Allegro moderato," a somber “Adagio ma non troppo,” an urgent “Molto vivace,” and an exhilarating “Finale: Andante sostenuto – Allegro con fuoco.” 

After tumultuous applause, second violinist William Fedkenheuer introduced the Miro’s heartwarming seasonal encore, an arrangement by their composer friend Joe Love of Franz Gruber’s classic carol, “Silent Night” (also the title of Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 opera about the 1914 World War I Christmas truce).

Next up in their 2022-2023 season, Valley Classical Concerts will present pianist Orion Weiss, violinist William Hagen, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis at the Bombyx Center in Northampton on January 15, 2023. 

December 6, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Breaking Beethoven"

Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
December 2-4, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

BRKFST Dance Company
Leave it to canny programmer and HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan not only to put
Beethoven and breakdancing on the same concert but together in that composer’s arduous “Grosse Fuge,” with which she and the orchestra’s strings daringly opened the third program of their 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series. It was an inspired choice, as the athletic group and individual movements of the eight-member Minnesota-based BRKFST Dance Company, founded in 2014, made the daunting 16-minute score, even in this lucid performance, easier for the audience to follow. 

The next piece on the program, Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR)’s 2010 “Dancers, Dreamers, and Presidents,” was a more natural fit for the dancers. Inspired by a brief 2007 dance between presidential candidate Barack Obama and Ellen DeGeneres on her TV show, this eclectic 21-minute tone poem drew on the Haitian-American composer’s background in rock, hip-hop, and jazz. The white-hot ensemble, enlarged by a drum kit and synthesizer, and amplified with audacious BRKFST choreography, joyously realized DBR’s vision of “instruments…combining, layering, and ‘dancing’ with one another.”     

HSO Artist in Residence Quinn Mason, a 26-year-old African-American composer and conductor based in Dallas, Texas, then introduced his 2020 piece “Immerse,” which he called “a study in texture” influenced by Messiaen. The committed rendition by Kuan and the orchestra of this meditation, which also reflects the sound world of Copland, offered a quiet contrast in instrumental timbres to DBR’s blazing colors. 
The program closed with a vigorous account of Beethoven’s rarely heard 1802 second symphony, whose sunny disposition belied the anguish he was feeling at the time from a rejected marriage proposal and the onset of his deafness. The opening “Adagio Molto-Allegro con brio” was brisk and bracing, the “Larghetto,” graceful and flowing, the “Scherzo: Allegro,” playful and boisterous, and the “Allegro Molto” finale, an exuberant race to the finish line. 

Speaking early in the concert, Kuan explained pairing Beethoven with breakdancing as a way of reaching out to everyone in the HSO’s potential audience and thanked her listeners for supporting this programming strategy. The diverse make-up of the enthusiastic overflow crowd suggested that she and the HSO are helping to build a healthy future for classical music in America.

December 5, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, “It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through December 23, 2022
by R.E. Smith

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” evokes a time gone by in many ways. It is a story originally written and set in the 1940’s, and is now staged as a radio show being performed in the 40’s. On a Christmas Eve when “everyman” George Bailey has hit his lowest point, he’s given the chance to examine his life and discover the impact he’s made on the big world in many important, small ways. It is a tale now just as famous and synonymous with the holiday season as Dickens' own “A Christmas Carol.” Like that seminal work, because its theme is so universal and familiar that it easily stands up to repeated viewings and interpretations, of which this adaptation is an entertaining example. 
This variation takes place on the spartan but evocative set of a forties Hartford radio sound stage, complete with microphones, “On-air” and “Applause” signs, and a sound effects technician. Five actors portray over a dozen different characters, the twist being that while we don’t need to imagine the people on stage, we are witness to a lot more behind the scenes action than the regular “listeners at home.” 

The actors are a joy to watch as they quickly switch between multiple characters, sometimes one sentence immediately after another. Nicole Shahoub and Jennifer Bareilles especially seem to be having a great time. Evan Zes hits every right note of his comedic characters. For “radio players” their facial expressions are priceless. Liam Bellman-Sharpe pulls double duty as the actual musical director and the fictional, but still genuine, Foley (sound effects) artist. His role is that of the fascinating, technical “easter egg” of the show, allowing the audience to learn all the sound effects secrets. Price Waldman’s rich baritone and command of dialects makes his chameleon-like swift transitions seem effortless. With his commanding presence, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. wisely chooses not to mimic original George Baily actor Jimmy Stewart, but instead makes the character his own, as he takes our hero from optimistic youth, to disillusioned older businessman, underlying how much the character truly values his family and friends.

There is one point in the script that breaks from the radio show format, and it is almost disappointing. Having gotten the audience fully invested in the “behind the scenes” approach, one misses the “what will happen next” excitement. Not to mention that this part of the narrative moves so quickly that it almost requires having seen the movie to fully understand and appreciate these weightier scenes.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, as evidenced by the fact that certain period “commercials” elicited some of the biggest audience reactions of the night. It’s doubtful that most members of the audience lived through or personally remember this play’s time period, but that in no way detracts from being able to enjoy the story’s affirming theme, the cast’s exuberant performances or the contagious holiday energy that the entire production embodies. “It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is a worthy addition to one’s holiday traditions. 

November 21, 2022

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, Gilles Vonsattel

Evergreen Crossings Retirement Community, South Windsor, CT 
November 20, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Gilles Vonsattel
In engaging introductory remarks Swiss-born pianist and University of MA at Amherst music
professor Gilles Vonsattel called his first appearance here since 2016 “an intense program” of music honoring “the legacy of Bach.”

Encouraging his audience to listen to the seven fugues and one canon he performed from Bach’s eighteen-movement “Art of the Fugue” as “elaborate conversations” among different voices, Vonsattel made these notoriously austere pieces more easily accessible. The clarity and precision of his playing heightened their resonance, from the fleet “Contrapunctus IX” (a double fugue) to the multi-layered “Canon All Ottava.”   

Next came four selections from Shostakovich’s 1951 cycle of twenty-four preludes and fugues, inspired by Bach’s similarly structured “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Starting with the last in the series, which quotes “Art of the Fugue,” Vonsattel deepened his keyboard sound to capture its full emotional depth and dramatic power. He lightened his touch for the brighter fifth, sixth, and seventh of its predecessors, each also veering into characteristically darker moments. 

This was followed with a virtuosic account of the 1841 “Variations Serieuses” by Mendelssohn, who led a nineteenth-century revival of interest in Bach’s music. Vonsattel sharply delineated each of the 17 variations on the opening theme while also shaping them into a unified whole. 

After the first two preludes and fugues from Book I of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” – the first, in C Major, light and flowing; the second, in C Minor, brisk and urgent – Vonsattel moved without pause into Beethoven’s thirty-second and last (1822) piano sonata, also in the key of C Minor, which Vonsattel had illustrated with the famous opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and identified with a mood of turbulence in the composer’s music.

He played the stormy opening “Maestoso” movement with all the “vigor and passion” Beethoven calls for and the sublime closing “Arietta,” a simple, songlike theme and five wide-ranging variations, with rapturous concentration. This sonata’s pathbreaking two-movement format and forward-looking vision mirror the similar impact of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” 

SWCA, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for over 39 years. The theatre of this suburban CT venue offers warm acoustics and plush seating. They’ll next present Ukrainian-American pianist Liana Paniyeva, who made a sensational Sevenars debut last summer, on January 29, 2023. 

PREVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
December 16, 17, 18, 2023

Photo by Olivia Winslow
Shakespeare & Company returns to the lively world of Jane Austen-inspired theater with a costumed, staged reading, with complete set, of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," written by local playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, and directed by Ariel Bock.

There will be four performances of this imagined sequel to Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice," which focuses largely on middle-sister Mary Bennet. As the family gathers for Christmas at Pemberley – the home of Darcy and Elizabeth – the ever-dependable Mary is growing tired of her role as a dutiful middle sister, in contrast to her siblings’ romantic escapades. At the same time, an unexpected guest sparks her hopes for an intellectual match, independence, and possibly even love.

“In a year in which so many of us are heading back to live theater, I am thrilled to be directing this costumed reading of 'Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley,'” said Bock. “It’s a playful love story that celebrates the holiday spirit of warmth and family, but in addition to the themes of a classic Austen romance, is also a very contemporary story of a woman determined to find self-worth outside the confines of her society.”

The play is dedicated in memory of Shakespeare & Company's well-known actor, teacher and weapons-master Bob Lohbauer, who passed away this year, and to his wife Govan Lohbauer, who is the costume director.

November 11, 2022

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, "Fences"

Playhouse on Part, West Hartford, CT
through November 20, 2022
by Gene Alan

Photo by Meredith Longo
August Wilson's play "Fences," the sixth in Wilson’s 10-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” is deeply rooted in Connecticut. It was introduced at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford in 1983 and had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 1985. The play went on to Broadway in 1987, starring James Earl Jones, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. Denzel Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival, as well as directing and starring in the 
2016 film adaptation.

Set in 1957 Pittsburgh, in the backyard of former Negro Baseball League star Troy Maxon (the brilliant Jamil A.C. Mangan) and deals with the literal and symbolic “fences” that he creates in his life. Here we meet the principal characters in Troy’s life: his best friend Bono (Eric Carter), a prison-mate, now both working as garbage collectors; Rose, Troy’s loving and devoted wife (Yvette Monique Clark); Lyons, his son from a previous marriage (Jerry Hamilton) Troy’s brother (Daniel Danielson), suffers from brain damage caused in WWII and thinks he’s the archangel of the same name. Finally, we meet and Rose’s son Cory (Khalfani Louis), a high school student and promising football player.

Many themes are explored in this snapshot of Troy’s life and the emotional scenes that enfold in this 2 ½ hour play – racial barriers, discrimination, infidelity, responsibility to family, great love and loss, friendship, betrayal, hubris and the destruction of hopes and dreams in an effort to set things right.

Director Kenney M. Green has done a wonderful job telling this story with a very competent group of actors. Mangan carries the weight of the entire play and does so with great power and touching moments of insight, in what is truly a bravura performance. Carter’s subtle and nuanced portrayal of Bono brings a genuine believability to the character and his relationships. Danielson, as Gabriel, makes bold choices in both voice and body movement that were so well executed and consistent that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was so joyous and so heartbreaking to watch.

At this performance, a pre-show announcement was made that the original actor playing Lyons had taken ill. A replacement was found and arrived at the theater just an hour or so before. Hats off to Jerry Hamilton who went on with script in hand and did a good job playing the role and allowing the show to go on as scheduled. Well done, Jerry!

Also, a shout out to the young, local actress Gibson Quinn who played Raynell. In a scene in Act II, a gin bottle left behind on the porch was accidentally kicked over. As the “gin” started to pour down the steps, Gibson calmly acknowledged what had happened and smoothly kept the dialogue going, not skipping skip a beat.

All of the technical elements in this production are very well executed, which is the norm at Playhouse on Park. Baron E. Pugh’s set is simple and effective. Multi-talented theater artist Johann Fitzpatrick’s lighting design is clean and subtle and utilized beautifully to show the passing of time. Valinda McGregor’s costume design is accurate and purposeful and adds a lovely authenticity to the characters.

This is a stirring production of "Fences". 

November 10, 2022

REVIEW: The Bushnell, “Aladdin”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
Through November 13, 2022
by Michael J. Moran

After a 15-minute delay due to technical problems, a hyperkinetic Marcus M. Martin as the Genie literally burst onto scenic designer Bob Crowley’s colorful stage set for “Aladdin” to welcome an enthusiastic opening-night full house with a lively “Arabian Nights,” and for the next two and a half hours the high energy level of this riotously engaging production rarely flagged. 

Set in the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah, the story follows the classic folktale of a poor young man given three wishes by a genie in a lamp, which he uses to court a princess and to defeat her father’s wicked servant, Jafar. Based on the 1992 Disney animated film of the same name, the long-running (since 2014) Broadway hit features tuneful music by Alan Menken and witty lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and book writer Chad Beguelin. This is its second U.S. tour. 

While Martin steals every scene he appears in, going especially all-out in his big Act I number, “Friend Like Me,” the leading couple are appealingly played and winningly sung by Adi Roy as an endearingly honest Aladdin, who hopes to please his dead mother (“Proud of Your Boy”) and Senzel Ahmady as a beguiling Princess Jasmine, who yearns to experience the world and marry for love (“These Palace Walls”). Anand Nagraj is a fearsome Jafar, and Aaron Choi, amusingly over the top as his aptly named henchman, Iago. Jake Letts’ Babkak, Ben Chavez’s Omar, and Colt Prattes’ Kassim are all entertaining as Aladdin’s energetic sidekicks.   
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps his large ensemble in almost constant motion, with occasional quiet interludes quickly succeeded by show-stopping dance numbers, which include many styles, from tango to cha-cha to tap. They’re enhanced by Gregg Barnes’ dazzling costume design and vibrant musical direction from arranger Michael Kosarin, conductor James Dodgson, and his powerful nine-member band. 

Kudos to special effects designer Jeremy Chernick and illusion designers Jim Steinmeyer and Rob Lake for vividly animating the Cave of Wonders where Aladdin finds the lamp in Act I and mounting a mid-air magic carpet ride for Aladdin’s and Jasmine’s lovely Act II duet, “A Whole New World,” on the Mortensen Theater’s deep stage.

Broadway fans of all ages should catch this joyous romp of a show before it vanishes (spoiler alert) like Jafar.

November 8, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Debussy & Ravel"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
November 4-6, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

In the second weekend of its 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, the HSO and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan explored various forms of rejuvenation through music, from the transformative power of water in Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” to the translation of moonlight into Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and of dreams into his “Nocturnes,” and the career-extending gift of Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” to a pianist who lost his right arm to war. 

Debussy drew inspiration for “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”), which opened the program, from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name three times, twice in settings for voice and piano, and as a movement of his 1890 “Suite Bergamasque” for solo piano. That version, orchestrated by French musician Lucien Cailliet in 1905, was luminously performed by the HSO and Kuan.    

Next came a welcome reprise of Philadelphia-born Mason Bates’ 2007 showpiece “Liquid Interface,” which Kuan first introduced to HSO audiences in April 2017. She helpfully explained its four movements, with musical illustrations from orchestra members, before recorded sounds of glaciers breaking apart opened the turbulent first movement, “Glaciers Calving.” This was followed by a gentle “Scherzo Liquido,” a dramatic “Crescent City,” contrasting the joy of New Orleans jazz with the destructive flooding of Hurricane Katrina, and a peaceful closing “On Lake Wannsee” in Berlin. The ensemble gave a colorful account of this crowd-pleasing score. 

Alessio Bax
In justifying her decision to present only the first two (“Clouds” and “Festivals”) of Debussy’s three Nocturnes, Kuan cited the composer’s dissatisfaction with the sound of the wordless women’s chorus in the first performance he heard of “Sirens.” She and the HSO rendered the haunting mystery of “Clouds” with delicate nuance and the sensual exuberance of “Festivals” with controlled abandon. 

The concert ended with a riveting performance by Italian-born New York-based pianist Alessio Bax of the concerto Ravel composed in 1930 for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after a World War I injury. Bax handily met its daunting technical challenges, from a stirring early cadenza to a jazzy middle section and an exhilarating finale; his left-handed dexterity across the keyboard looked especially vivid on the Belding’s overhead camera. Bax’s two-handed encore of a Brahms Hungarian dance transcription was even more rejuvenating.   

October 24, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, "The Mousetrap"

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 6, 2022
by Shera Cohen

Photo Courtesy Hartford Stage
First, not to worry when reading this review; there are no spoilers.

Second, it amazes me that I have never seen "The Mousetrap". After all, it is the longest-running play ever produced. 

Third, I suggest that all theatre lovers add this whodunit mystery to their "to do list". It was about time that I saw "The Mousetrap" at least once. Called a murder mystery with comedy, Agatha Christie set her winningest boilerplate plot and style to become the third most prominent writer in history, after the authors of The Bible, and William Shakespeare.

Upon taking the first steps into Hartford Stage's theatre, the audience becomes a guest at the Monkswell Manor, circa late-1940's England. More guests are to follow. The setting of the manor is created with such detail from ceiling to floor, outdoors and inside, that not an inch of space is wasted, yet never crowded, making interplay between characters natural. The many doors and stairs, dark interior and white snow offer the cast of eight their mundane comings and goings, and more importantly, the ever-present mysterious lurking around corners and framed shadows. While theatre critics usually start writing with emphasis on the actors' talents, it is Scenic Designer Riw Rakkulchon who deserves the initial kudos.

"The Mousetrap" cast of eight is, for the most part, an ensemble of well-skilled actors, each with proper English accents. The latter quality bothers me when all is not right. However, the role or Mr. Paravicini depicts him as European, probably Italian. Brendan As comic relief, Brendan Dalton creates a buffoon-like quirky suspect. The  author obviously knew some laughs were needed. Perhaps the character of Mollie, well-played by Sam Morales, is the "star" because she has the most lines and is the core of the manor and the plot.

Of course, Christie gives her audience a look at who killed who in the past, and who killed who on that particular day in the manor. The audience serves as eavesdroppers and wannabe sleuths. Clues abound, coupled with actors' exposure to the clandestine hints of murder. I found myself guessing the culprit, then another. I am sure that others did the same.

Director Jackson Gay moves her characters logically as the plot progresses. However, whether Christie wrote the play with guidelines to directors, I don't know. The long two-acts plus intermission, divide into three segments: introduction of characters to each other, murder, and denouement whodunit and why. This evening's  performance, only the third of the play's run, is slowed down quite a bit particularly marking the end of each segment. The pregnant pauses are too long, other points stretch out, all but one character speaks slowly. I'm guessing that the lags will be picked up as the play continues.

Ending with another behind-the-scenes praise-worthy job goes to the Sound Design of Broken Chord. "Three Blind Mice" is still in my brain, repetitively hauntingly. 

Review: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Sensational Beginnings"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
by Rebecca Phelps
The evening of October 22, 2022 was a banner accomplishment for the Springfield Symphony, our treasured and long-lived local orchestra; the largest professional orchestra in the state outside of Boston. Although there were far too many empty seats in the house, the audience was lively, responsive, and ready to cheer on the musicians for their long-awaited opening night back in Symphony Hall after a two-year hiatus.
This year's theme is a celebration of "Fearless Women in music" and Saturday's performance featured an outstanding guest conductor, Joann Falletta. Falletta's extensive biography shows her to be imminently qualified as a "fearless woman" having been awarded several Grammys, holding graduate and Ph.D. level degrees from Julliard, and as a nationally and internationally recognized conductor. Her rapport with the orchestra was evident from their responsive playing to her concise and communicative gestures.
The opening number was a lesser known but absolutely charming piece by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967): Dances of Galanta. It featured the woodwinds in particular, each of whom had solo passages interspersed by very rhythmic full orchestral responses. The dance-like figures recall the gypsy-style Hungarian folk music which Kodaly grew up hearing and is famous for incorporating into his music.
Joshua Roman
The much beloved Elgar Cello Concerto was next on the program, played by the young up-and-coming cellist from Oklahoma, Joshua Roman. The Elgar is a highly romantic and lush piece and Roman played with delicacy and nuance. He is an eclectic musician known for his genre bending repertoire and collaborations with other art forms which give him a special awareness of the communication between the orchestra, the conductor, and soloist.  
After intermission, the final piece on the program was Czech composer Dvorak's great Symphony #7. Here the SSO caught fire with this full-scale, dramatic and challenging symphony. It was such a delight to hear them back in full force, taking the stage as the accomplished, polished, and professional musicians that they are.  We have missed this amazing jewel of a symphony orchestra, one which puts Springfield on the map of any music lover's GPS. 

October 19, 2022

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, "Fun Home"

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 6, 2022
by Rebecca Phelps
Photo by Mike Marques
Who knew that such a fraught story: a gay, closeted 60 something-ish Dad who commits suicide, and his relationship with his gay daughter who is struggling with her own identity, could be so much FUN!? Really! 

Under the experienced direction of Rob Ruggiero, music director Jeff Cox, and the rest of the production crew, TheaterWorks pulls off this unimaginable feat with a beautifully rendered production of "Fun Home". Every element of the show fits together perfectly in the intimate, black box-like venue. One is drawn into the home and the family with a carefully appointed, spare set, with minimal but important elements including a real coffin (in addition to being an English teacher Dad is also a funeral director - hence "Fun [funeral] Home"). 

The production creates the feel of its graphic novel origins (Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic) by using projections of handwriting and sketches from Alison Bechdel's own notebooks. The gorgeous musical score, written by highly acclaimed Jeanine Tesori, is superbly performed by every actor in the show as well as the first-rate pit band which is hidden behind a backdrop. 

A relatively short show it is 95-minutes played straight through without intermission and kept buoyant and engaging by the steady dose of humor laced throughout. The moment youngest Alison, played by Skylar Lynn Matthews, walks on the stage by herself to open the show, with all her confidence and command of the stage, you know you are in for something unusual and wonderful. The show culminates in a glorious trio sung by the three Alisons, sending us off with a message of self-acceptance and the freedom to fly.  

October 11, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "American Adventures"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
October 7-9, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Valerie Coleman
For the first weekend of its 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, the HSO and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan treated audiences to an engaging mix of new and familiar works by four varied American composers, each depicting in some way the adventurous American spirit. They moved without pause from a lively rendition of the traditional season-opening national anthem into the newest piece on the official program, Valerie Coleman’s 2020 “Seven O’Clock Shout.” 

Written, in the composer’s words, to celebrate the “heartwarming ritual of evening serenades” which thanked frontline workers during Covid lockdowns, this exuberant 5-minute “anthem that embodies the struggles and triumph of humanity” drew playing of joyful conviction from the musicians, including enthusiastic vocal shouts in a nod to the “African call and response style” of Coleman’s heritage. 

This was followed by, astonishingly, the HSO’s first-ever performance of Ferde Grofe’s popular five-movement 1931 “Grand Canyon Suite.” Kuan led a colorful account of this cinematic score, with jazzy inflections that honored its original version for Paul Whiteman’s dance band: the first movement, “Sunrise,” built from a hushed opening to a grand climax; “The Painted Desert” was haunting and mysterious; “On the Trail” veered from an easygoing trot to the riotous bray of a burro; “Sunset” was calm and radiant; and “Cloudburst” brought the suite to a dramatic close.   

Next came the eight-section suite from Aaron Copland’s 1944 “Appalachian Spring.” Composed for Martha Graham’s dance company, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet portrays, according to the score, “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early…19th century.” The HSO was spirited in the faster sections and luminous in the slower ones, including the “calm and flowing” scene that features five variations on the classic Shaker melody, “Simple Gifts.”   

Bringing the program to an exuberant close, complete with saxophones, tom-toms, and taxi horns, was a brilliant performance of George Gershwin’s 1928 paean to the city of light, “An American in Paris.” You don’t need to know every stop on the adventurous, though occasionally homesick, tourist’s itinerary to get caught up in the sweep of this vivid travelogue, which kept the HSO brass and percussionists especially happy and audiences humming all the way home.

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, "42nd Street"

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
October 9 - November 6, 2022
by Shera Cohen

Blake Stadnik and Carina-Kay Louchiey
Directly underneath the program book's title of "42nd Street" is the phrase "The Tap Dance Spectacular". That it is! 

Immediately following the downbeat of the short orchestral overture, the curtain rises slowly for the audience to see the legs of the dance troupe. Up comes the full curtain to showcase the core of the show -- the 20 or so young men and women tappers in pastel costumes, 40's hairstyles, and shiny shoes. They and their choreographer Randy Skinner, who also takes on the behemoth job as director, are the stars of the show.

"42nd Street" is perhaps the epitome of the musicals that is so delightful, yet not often produced, at least at regional and/or community theatres. In the case of Goodspeed, the last romp was 10-years ago. Why? The cast is huge and nearly all must be precise tap dancers, have excellent vocal ability, and smile at the same time.

The expected big chorus/dance number, with all on-stage ends Act I. The dancers wear a costume of dimes, nickels, etc. The script's era is the Great Depression. What better way to tie the reality of the day to the comedic farce of "We're in the Money"?

The story is the typical wannabe Broadway star. Newbie Peggy Sawyer portrayed by Carina-Kay Louchiey gets off the train at 42nd Street, New York, New York, USA. The rest of the script follows Peggy's ups and downs, dreams and insecurities, and a whole bunch of new friends routing for her. 

Louchiey is a lovely actor who can do her stuff, given her large amount of on-stage time to prove it. But she doesn't knock your proverbial socks off. On the other hand, her somewhat nemesis Dorothy Block depicted by Kate Baldwin chews up the scenery and upstages everyone onstage with a fun manner that never steps on anyone's toes. Baldwin is a stalwart at several Berkshire theatres. She is always the consummate professional.

There are too many memorable songs, so trust me that each is spectacular: "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," of course the title song, "42nd Street". But all is not on high-speed. "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" are two of other sweeter tunes.

Aside from the block-buster choreography, the true stars of the musical are never seen by the audience at the packed house at Goodspeed. Music Director Adam Souza and eight other musicians hold the entire show together with such ease. I lost count of the number of full-cast costume changes designed by Kara Harmon. However, one change took 17-seconds. Scenic Designer Michael Carnahan thought of everything to create dozens of seamless set changes along with moving projection backdrops by Shawn Duan. Exquisite!

October 3, 2022

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Festival, "Edward Albee’s “Seascape”

Berkshire Theatre Festival – Unicorn Stage, Stockbridge, MA
through October 23, 2022
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
What happens when you put a married couple in their not-quite-later-life years on a beach, only to find that the most engaging interactions they have are not with each other, but rather, with a couple of lizards? In the fertile mind of Edward Albee, the answer is not only self-examination, but a treatise on life itself.

For those who are new to Albee, “Seascape” is a lot to absorb, but if you know the author’s body of work, this play, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, reflects some of his most common themes, like two couples whose generations are marked by social and cultural values, and the irony of humanity as a self-reflexive activity.

In the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of “Seascape” David Adkins and Corinna May play the married couple, Charlie and Nancy, who know how to goad each other into an argument. Act I is entirely a window into their lives and despite their repartee, we see the characters as the couple they have become, rather than the individuals who were initially drawn together. 

Then, just before intermission, Tim Jones and Kate Goble, as two lizards, Leslie and Sarah appear, and the proverbial plot thickens. Act II features some of Albee’s most insightful dialog and this foursome masterfully mine the humor and raise the question of which couple represents “the beast.” All four actors play their roles beautifully, but Jones’ physicality is mind-boggling as he crawls from level to level with lizard-esque ease.

Director Eric Hill and the production team that includes Movement Director Isadora Wolfe, Scenic Designer Randall Parsons, Costume Designer Elivia Bovenzi Blitz (who should get a special shout-out for the magnificent lizard costumes), Lighting Designer Matthew E. Adelson, and Composer/Sound Designer Scott Killian (who provided seat-rattling sound effects that bring the audience into the tension of the moment) all contribute to the suggestion of reality in an unrealistic and absurd situation.    

The press announcement quotes The New Yorker; “Of all Mr. Albee’s plays, 'Seascape' is the most exquisitely written'.”  That statement may be true, but it takes an audience with a little Albee-savvy and a willingness to explore humanity from an inter-species perspective to give oneself to this type of theatrical experience. But in a world in which space aliens and super-heroes dominate popular culture, “Seascape” fits the zeitgeist.  

A special sensory-friendly performance will take place on October 13.

Preview: Barrington Stage , “Mr. Finn's Cabaret”

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
Sept. 30 through Oct. 8, 2022

Mr. Finn's Cabaret features a variety of music genres in a fun, casual mix of primarily local

Billy Keane and the Waking Dream with Billy Keane and Friends
Friday, October 7, 7 p.m.
No stranger to Barrington Stage, Billy Keane is a well known band member of Whiskey Treaty Roadshow. Ranging from psychedelic indie rock, to acoustic singer/songwriter folk, Billy Keane and The Waking Dream create unique musical experiences, wide ranging and dynamic, blurring the line between prearranged and improvised.

Gospel Night
Saturday, October 8, 7 p.m.
What: Back by popular demand! After being a big hit at this year's Celebration of Black Voices Festival, Music Director Gary Mitchell, Jr. has assembled the singers once again, but this time to shake the rafters of Mr. Finn's with their soaring voices!

Preview: Paradise City Arts Festival, “Talking to the Creators”

Fair Grounds, Northampton, MA
October 8, 9, 10, 2022

Twenty-five years ago, two artists had a vision – to create a world-class arts festival at the
historic, but admittedly rustic, fairgrounds in Northampton. “When we first walked the Northampton Fairgrounds in 1994, puzzling over the pieces that would come to be known as the Paradise City Arts Festival, we took a giant leap of faith,” say Founding Directors Linda and Geoffrey Post. “We pictured the Arena, a cavernous horse barn, transformed into a venue to showcase museum quality master craft and fine art. We worried whether we could draw serious art and craft lovers from across the country to the small New England town of Northampton.”

Currently, the Festival fills three newly erected buildings, an outdoor Sculpture Promenade, and a 12,000sq-ft Festival Dining Tent. The latter features on-going live music by local talent. The 1940's big band and jazz music of the O'Tones is just one of many groups performing over the course of three days. 

Visitors travel from all 50 states to experience an environment that features a collection of the nation’s finest craft makers and independent artists. In 1998, the Posts took their show on the road. They now hold a Paradise City Arts Festival in Boston’s western suburbs twice a year. 

Geoffrey & Linda Post
Both Geoffrey and Linda Post are practicing artists. “Making a living as a practicing artist is no easy thing,” Geoff explains, “being creative in your studio, coming up with a body of work that excites you, hoping that customers will respond, then packing it all up and bringing it to a show. But you’re still not done. You need to put on your marketing hat and connect with your customers and display your work in a way that people will respond to.” Their lives as artists lay the foundation for the guiding principles of Paradise City: respect artists in all ways possible, make shows easy, fun and profitable, and help artists reach an ever-growing audience at these shows and beyond.

“Our passion for art, sculpture and craft collecting has exposed us to a world of interesting ideas, fascinating and talented people and extraordinary experiences,” Geoff and Linda say. “Our travels have taken us to galleries in big cities and out-of-the-way places, art museums, alternative spaces, sculpture parks and artists’ studios. The one-of-a-kind world of Paradise City grows daily, filled with a community of like-minded individuals.

September 22, 2022

PREVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, "Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
September 26 - October 30, 2022

"Golden Leaf" Cast and Crew
With a script that’s been revisited and deepened by the playwright 30 years after it was first published, Shakespeare & Company presents Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues by Charles Smith. Directed by Raz Golden, the play takes place over the course of one afternoon in the early 1990's, post-LA Riots, and explores the unusual connection between a Black teenager and an aging Jewish vaudevillian through comedy and music.

It was originally written in 1992, developed by the American Blues Theatre Company of Chicago, and the HBO New Writers Workshop. However, Smith has reworked the script just this year, and Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues will be presented in its current form for the first time at Shakespeare & Company.

A Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Ohio University, Smith said he began to treat himself like his own pupil. “I’ve worked with a number of young writers, so I gave myself the notes I would give to a young writer. The result is something I’m delighted with – and what I consider a new play.”

Golden agreed, calling the production “more of an ensemble piece.”
“There is more reflection on the psyche, and more examination of how the political world can affect how we connect with others,” he said. “In the background is the political reality of that time, but purposefully foregrounded are the smaller scale experiences of four people.”

Among the cast is Kevin G. Coleman, a founding member of Shakespeare & Company and its Director of Education. He works in the Performance and Training departments as an actor, teacher, and director, 

In 2016, he was Runner-up for the Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education. Along with Patrick Toole, Coleman recently produced the film Speak What We Feel, documenting the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

September 14, 2022

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, "Calidore String Quartet"

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 11, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Changeable Berkshire weather couldn’t dampen the spirits of the enthusiastic audience that welcomed the Calidore String Quartet – violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi – to their triumphant fourth appearance at this storied venue. Formed in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and named after the “golden state” of their roots (“dore” is French for “golden”), the ensemble has since won worldwide acclaim. 

Their program began with Mozart’s 17th quartet, in B-flat Major, K. 458. Written in 1784 as the fourth of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, it was nicknamed “The Hunt” because its fanfare-like start reminded early listeners of a hunting call. The Calidore’s lively account featured an energetic opening “Allegro vivace assai,” a stately “Menuetto: Moderato,” a ravishing “Adagio,” and a thrilling “Allegro assai” finale. 

In a spoken introduction to Bartok’s 1909 first string quartet, Meehan described it as the
composer “finding his voice,” from the early influence of Richard Strauss to his mature mix of modernism with the folk music of his native Hungary. The foursome played this technically demanding score with awesome intensity, capturing the mournful angst of the opening “Lento” movement (which Bartok called a “funeral dirge” for his unrequited love of Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer), the more playful mood of the following “Allegretto,” and the fast and furious humor of the folk-flavored closing “Allegro vivace.” 

These high spirits continued in the program’s closing work, the 1876 third string quartet by Brahms, who cheerfully called it a “useless trifle,” especially when compared to his contemporaneous first symphony. In the same B-flat Major key as Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet, its opening “Vivace” movement also begins with a hunting call, which the Calidores played with exuberant gusto. This was followed by a somber “Andante,” a tender “Agitato (Allegretto non troppo),” with a lovely solo turn by violist Berry, and a kaleidoscopic final “Poco Allegretto con Variazione,” in which Brahms recalls themes from earlier movements with typically resourceful bravado.

South Mountain requires masking inside the concert hall. The venerable 2022 Sunday afternoon concert series of chamber music performed by world-class musicians runs through October 9, with upcoming performances by the Emerson and St. Lawrence String Quartets.

September 12, 2022

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, "Mamma Mia!"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through Oct. 16, 2022 (run extended, call to check)
by Shera Cohen

I doubt if there is anyone who could leave the 
production of "Mamma Mia!" at The Majestic Theater without singing or humming one of the many songs aloud, or at least has an ear- worm stuck in their head. "Dancing Queen," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme", and the musical's title "Mamma Mia!" instantly come to mind. All of the music are ABBA hits wrapped around a sweet, mundane story line. Some songs fit the plot quite well, others do not. But who cares? 

For those who have not seen MM on a stage or at the movies: Set on a Greek island, 20-year-old Sophie is about to marry cute guy Sky. Sophie wants her dad to walk her down the aisle, but she doesn't know which of mom's 3 past boyfriends was the sperm donor. All are nice guys who want to step up. Mom has loyal but somewhat whacko lady friends for additional comic relief. All works out, although not quite as expected.

The "serious" relationship, which calls for serious acting is that of Donna, our heroine (Cate Damon) and Sam, the assumed father (Ben Ashley). Each has acted numerous times on The Majestic's stage and each are proven entities in their vocal ability, acting skills, and nuances, which are so important in making a character a real human. The full cast numbers 20. They know who they are, and the space for all those names to credit goes beyond this review. I'll just say, that except for two actors who didn't sing in unison, I find no flaws.

The Majestic and its founder Danny Eaton celebrate the theatre's 25th Anniversary with a literal bang as resident music director Mitch Chakour conducts his five-piece band (only 5?) to perform the prelude compilation of hits. Eaton's director's note states his hope to make this take on MM somehow unique to all of the thousands of MMs throughout the world. That's a tough challenge. Eaton especially credits the backstage crew in making this Greek island a place of freedom, joy, and separation from any mainland worries.

There are also too many names on the list of people who shine backstage: designers of lights, sound, set, costumes, and all those who the audience never sees. The Majestic's program book, as opposed to all other programs that I have seen in local and regional theatre, gives headshots and written bio credit to all these talented individuals. If adding the cast and crew together, the bottom line is that the Majestic's season opener is BIG.

I have never seen a full house at a Sunday matinee. I have also never seen such an enthusiastic audience. Not to worry, masks are required. A helpful side benefit, at least for me, is to muffle the audience members who insist on singing along. Sure, I'd like to join them, but don't. However, the end of MM is a surprise to newbies, when singing is definitely encouraged.

Special kudos to Russell Garrett who did double duty as one of the potential dads, but more importantly as choreographer. Two show-stopping numbers with all onstage, coupled with the musical's ancillary finale, prompt audience members to bounce up to give a deserved standing ovation.

August 30, 2022

On the Road: Thoughts from the Tanglewood Lawn

Celebration of Stephen Sondheim Music
August 18, 2022
by Erica Schutz

Upon arrival to Tanglewood's grounds, the parking attendants were warm and kind with big smiles. Getting out of my car, we observed many people serving a kind of tailgate picnic. Others were walking in quite early, as I was. It's rare to experience an all-Stephen Sondheim concert.

Walking straight to the tix booth for directions I observed the press porch. The young attendants pointed the way and made me, what I would call a “hall pass” to bring until I got the real thing. The porch was actually an old grey house surrounded by lovely little hills of grass. Also, the Pepperidge Farm cookies were welcome goodies.

I noticed a father and small son playing frisbee in a large section of the lawns that was unoccupied. They were in matching shirts and having a great time. This is not unusual, as generations mix in joyful activities, pre-concert.

Many parties had set up their lawn seating areas further away from the larger group at the front. Some had basic picnic blanket arrangements, others dined elegantly, defining their areas as if the lawn created small living rooms complete with coffee table, throw pillows, flowers, and candelabra. Everyone appeared well prepared to be comfortable in their own ways.

I chose a central spot on the green closer to the shed and set up my own space. The people around welcomed me and offered to share snacks and wine. I declined but was glad to feel part of the group. I've heard that Tanglewood audience members are a pleasant and generous group. It's true.

I settled in to enjoy my picnic that I had brought and review the lengthy playbill. I was about an hour early, but it seemed as if little time had passed before the bell rang to announce the concert was about to begin. The weather cooperated, and the camaraderie of concert goers was evident. The lights dimmed and the digital screens stopped looping the commercial ads. The live feed of the stage filled the screen, and the applause began for the entering musicians. Even though we couldn’t see the actual stage, the lawn audience, which included me, behaves as if we were in the shed.

Photo courtesy of BSO.ORG/TANGLEWOOD

The music began. It became clear that most people around me were huge fans of Sondheim. Many heads bobbed along to the rhythm and a few danced in their seats. Partway through the first section of the program, an older gent next to me commented to his group that he didn’t know any of the music that he just heard. However, when intermission came, he began humming and singing "A Weekend in the Country" over and over. Apparently, he had been caught by a Sondheim earworm for sure! This lasted through intermission. 

Children of all ages were snuggled on laps, had seats of their own, and I noticed a few had little camp beds set up in wagons, or strollers. There were a few small playpens, too. To my surprise, I never heard crying or fussing the entire night.

The concert was amazing, as to be expected. The audience on the lawn stayed to applaud until the last moment. I was right there with them. We made for the gates together, but there was room for all and only a short wait to cross the street to reach the parking lots.   The environs had a different feeling that night. It could be I was just paying more attention. It was a joyous energy. I found myself singing as I drove, thinking about all the friendly people I had met and the experience we shared together listening to Sondheim.