Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.