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.