Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 31, 2023

Review: The Bushnell, "Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 4, 2023
by Terence LaCasse

Photo by Emilio Madrid
If given choice to spend your last dollar on food or buy a ticket to "Ain’t Too Proud- The Life and Times of the Temptations," spend it on the ticket and feast upon this wonderful production.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. “Another jukebox musical?” I’m right there with you. If I see another plaid jacket or taffeta dress, I might scream. Yet, "Ain’t Too Proud" is a musical tour de force with sleek designs and an emotionally complex amalgam of storylines that shouldn’t be missed.

The musical follows the rise and fall of one of the most successful vocal groups in America, The Temptations. The story is told through the eyes of the group’s founder, Otis Williams, played with fatherly grace, passion, and humility by Michael Andreaus. Harrell Holmes Jr. delivers a soft spoken and effortlessly comedic Melvin “Blue” Franklin that is gilded by the rich tambour of his bass notes. Jalen Harris’ Eddie Kendricks is fun-loving yet combative, and his high notes ring beautifully. Clayton Cornelious portrays Paul Williams as a masterclass in subtlety and love that you can’t help but follow even when he’s standing still. To round out the Temptations is Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin; not only a zenith of showmanship and vocal acuity but a conflicted soul whose past haunts through even the best of times.

The mood of "Ain’t Too Proud" is reminiscent of a documentary and rock concert rolled into one. The sleek scenery uses line and texture to convey place and time with perfectly executed projections that allot for seamless transitions. A special shout-out to the costumes and props teams whose attention to detail supply subtle nuance within every scene that grounds the audience to every era of The Temptations' long career.

is nothing short of electrifying. There are too many brilliant performances to list. The talent, charisma, and stamina of this troupe is second to none. The 2.5 hour marathon of music, dance, and heart-wrenching stories steeped in love, race, family, addiction, aging, and heartache is remarkable. Audience members danced and sang along to the iconic songs. 

Recommendation: give in to temptation as the show only has a one-week run.

May 30, 2023

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Co, "The Happiest Man on Earth"

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA 
through June 17, 2023
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by Daniel Rader
The title of this one-man play is both appropriate and ironic. This is a true story, based on the memoir of Eddie Jaku, a Holocaust survivor who considered himself first a German, and second, a Jew. As a young man, Eddie was sent away to school with a new identity, but upon returning home, he was seized by Nazis and sent first to Buchenwald, and later to Auschwitz. Through his eyes, we see the horrors of Hitler’s extermination plan as well as the compassion that only a person like Eddie could find, in the hell he endured for so many years.
The wonderful Kenneth Tigar, a veteran of stage, screen, and television, brings Eddie to his audience by portraying his humility, dignity, and intelligence. Tigar’s voice is like velvet, but the power he projects vocally and physically in this 80-minute tour de force is breathtaking. When he delivers the line; “Without friendship we are lost,” he communicates myriad layers of what this means to his audience, whom he calls “my new friends.” His manner is so unassuming, he skillfully draws us in to a story that illuminates humanity set against the most inhumane behavior.
The original memoir has been adapted for the stage in this World Premier by Mark St. Germain who mines Jaku’s memoire for the universal truths that make this a hopeful play, rather than dwelling on sorrow and shock. Director Ron Lagomarsino brilliantly uses the few set pieces that change function according to the time and place of the action and capitalizes on Tigar’s extraordinary energy to suggest places that are best left to the imagination.  
The real Eddie, born in Germany in 1920, left Europe after the war for Australia, where he lived until he passed peacefully in 2021 at the age of 101. As our fictional Eddie says, he wrote his memoire to honor those who couldn’t tell their own stories. He reminds us that no matter how bad things may get, “happiness is in your hands”.
This is a deeply moving, beautiful story, told by a writer, director, and actor who understand the power of theatre to reach their audience and give them hope. The outburst of applause and an immediate standing ovation showed that these creative professionals know how to touch the compassionate bond in each of us. This production is a gift to audiences, and serves as a reminder  that no matter what each day brings, life is precious—as long as we take the time to see the things in life that really matter. 

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Mendelssohn Taking Flight"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
May 12-14, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

The title of this eighth program in the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series could refer to either of two composers named Mendelssohn whose music it includes. But all four composers on the program, brilliantly led by Brazilian-born guest conductor Alexandra Arrieche, are “taking flight” in different ways. 

Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Elegia Andina” (“Andean Elegy”), which opened the concert, was her first orchestral work. Written in 2000, it reflects the California native’s multicultural heritage by evoking traditional Peruvian music through imaginative use of flutes, clarinets, woodblocks, and tympani. From a raucous opening that depicts the Andes mountains to a quiet close which suggests ancestral longing, Arrieche and the HSO gave it a vivid and colorful spin. 

Next, taking flight perhaps more literally, came Ottorino Respighi’s 1927 suite “The Birds,” his delightful arrangements in 20th-century harmonic and instrumental language of five keyboard or lute pieces by earlier composers. A stately opening “Prelude” (based on Pasquini) was followed by an endearing “Dove” (Gallot), an uproariously clucking “Hen” (Rameau), a ravishing “Nightingale” (unknown English composer), and a comically insistent “Cuckoo” (Pasquini). Woodwinds, brass, harp, and celeste were star players in this charming performance.     

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s efforts to take flight into a musical career were constrained by her father and the conventions of 19th- century German society. But she wrote and performed over 400 songs and piano pieces for private concerts. Her only composition for orchestra, the 1830 “Overture in C Major,” was unpublished in her lifetime and not performed until the 1990s. Arrieche and the HSO brought visceral excitement to this tuneful and tightly structured piece.   

Fanny’s younger brother Felix’s musical career, however, took flight from an early age. One of his last compositions, the 1845 “Violin Concerto in E Minor” quickly became a repertory staple.  Rising African-American violinist Ade Williams was a captivating soloist, who deftly balanced sweet and lyrical with rich and forceful violin tone. Her opening “Allegro molto appassionata” was alternately yearning and energetic, her “Andante,” tender and glowing, and her closing “Allegro…vivace,” light and playful. Arrieche led a sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. 

Williams’ solo encore – a radiant account of the beloved “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s 1893 opera “Thais” – showcased the lush, mellow side of her artistry to awe-inspiring effect.  

May 23, 2023

REVIEW: Close Encounters with Music, "Escher String Quartet"

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA 
May 21, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

The Escher String Quartet
Introducing this concert of three diverse pieces with his trademark humor and erudition, CEWM Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani noted the common links of the composers to the "folklore of their native lands" and their shared "interest in music for children."   

The Escher String Quartet (violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Brendan Speltz; violist Pierre LaPointe; cellist Brook Speltz), founded in 2005 and based in New York, played the first two works on the program. It opened with a sumptuous account of Maurice Ravel's 1903 Quartet, whose forward-looking harmonies drew mixed reactions from his French contemporaries: alarm (Gabriel Faure) and enthusiasm (Claude Debussy). The Eschers delivered a lush "Allegro moderato - tres doux," a brisk "Assez vif - tres rhythme," a pensive "Tres lent," and a rousing "Vif et agite."
In sharp contrast, Ruth Crawford Seeger's "1931 Quartet" offered clashing dissonance in four short, densely concentrated movements. But Hanani also urged the audience to listen for the “childlike wonder and adventure” in the music.  The poignant "Andante" became so popular that Seeger (a prominent scholar of American folk music and stepmother of folksinger Pete Seeger) later arranged it for string orchestra. The Eschers' powerful reading of this groundbreaking modernist work was virtuosic and intensely focused. 

For Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1890 string sextet, "Souvenir of Florence," they were joined by cellist Hanani and nationally acclaimed violist Daniel Panner in a vibrant performance. While reflecting the composer's fond memories of visiting that city in Italy, the last two movements are nevertheless distinctively Russian in flavor. The group fashioned a brilliant "Allegro con spirito," a flowing "Adagio cantabile e con moto" (which sounded, in Hanani's words, almost "like an Italian opera aria"), a vigorous "Allegretto moderato," and a headlong "Allegro con brio e vivace." 

Named after the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, the quartet members not only demonstrated his "method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole" blended sound, but they vividly showcased a vast range of string ensemble writing over a forty-year period in their imaginative program. 
The CEWM season will conclude at Mahaiwe on Sunday, June 11, 2023 at 4:00 pm.

May 19, 2023

PREVIEW: Paradise City Arts Festivals, 4 Pioneer Valley Artists Join in 2023

Three County Fairgrounds, Northampton, MA
May 27, 28, 29, 2023

Artists duo Jude Pokorny and Bruce Peeso call their studio Backroads Gallery, Monson, MA 

There are times when we walk the land, observing the light, the weather conditions, the colors before us, waiting for that precise moment that must be captured. We find a similarity in those moments, no matter where our wanderings have taken us, that imparts a peaceful feeling. It is that peacefulness enhanced by the sun’s rays, or dramatic weather conditions that is the focus of our work.

Our intent is not to be photographic, but rather to convey a sense of being there. Bruce’s paintings capture the vastness of the countryside and impart a timeless quality. Jude’s paintings evoke a special moment in time where a painting and narrative come together and speak to the viewer. 
Planted Pigments has its base in Adams, MA
Planted Pigments
Dyeing with plants is equal parts art, science & magic. Artist Mallorey Caron employs processes and techniques which pull from a fascination with flower "potions" as a child. Each garment, scarf or printed notecard sees many stages before the finishing touches are painted or sewn in place. 
Techniques include: growing & foraging dye plants and other materials, ancient natural dye extraction, print design, gilding, and hand carving. Every piece designed by Mallorey is handmade in her home studio using eco-friendly, recycled & sustainable materials. 

Greta Redzko, Oil, India Ink, Paint is from Cummington, MA

Greta was born and raised near Southampton. While in high school, her course selections included three art classes each day. Mrs. Harper, her high school art teacher, wrote in her yearbook, "May her ambition in life catch up to her excellent artwork." Greta remembers her grade school teacher, and thanks her for helping find her voice through art.  
Jump ahead years later to 2011, Greta delved into art as her life career. She finds the colors that surround her subjects with unique traits that surprise her clients and admirers. She prefers to paint with oils on canvas or canvas board.

May 15, 2023

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Beauty Amid Chaos"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA 
May 13, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Matt Haimovitz
The title of the fifth and final classical concert of the SSO’s 2022-2023 season likely refers to the two pieces by Ukrainian composers on the program, as their homeland is being devastated by war. But in a broader sense it can apply to the other two pieces as well.   

Music Director of several Ukrainian and other foreign orchestras, guest conductor Theodore Kuchar, a New York native of Ukrainian descent, opened the concert with Antonin Dvorak’s 1891 “Carnival Overture.” The composer described it as a celebration of life observed by a “lonely, contemplative wanderer.” Kuchar and the SSO gave full vent to its bright, Czech-flavored spirit and the melancholy mood of a brief central interlude. 

This was followed by a joyous account of the lively “Ukrainian Dance” from Soviet-Ukrainian composer Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky’s 1956 ballet “The Jay’s Wing.” 

Israeli-American cellist Matt Haimovitz next soloed in Ukrainian expatriate Thomas de Hartmann’s rarely heard 1935 cello concerto. Kuchar has led a recent revival of interest in de Hartmann’s music, in which Haimovitz has participated. Their familiarity with this score drew an incandescent reading from conductor, orchestra, and soloist. From a dramatic opening “Andante con brio,” and a dark, Klezmer-influenced “Solemne,” to a rhythmically complex, richly intoned “Allegro ma non troppo” finale, the whole concerto revels in the composer’s gift for colorful orchestration and his love of Eastern European dance idioms. 

Although Jean Sibelius’ 1902 second symphony is often heard as an expression of Finnish resistance to Russian occupation at the time, Sibelius himself described it as “a confession of the soul.” The stirring performance closed the concert, capturing both the personal and political dimensions of the work, with a serene opening “Allegretto,” a stormy Andante, ma rubato,” an exuberant “Vivacissimo,” and a jubilantly triumphant “Allegro moderato” finale. Kuchar’s full-body conducting style (which included crouching, leaping, and audible vocalizations) elicited playing of deep conviction from all sections of the orchestra. 

Rousing applause after SSO President Paul Lambert’s pre-concert announcements of a recent two-year contract agreement between management and musicians and of an upcoming free concert on June 19, 2023 suggested a well-deserved bright future for this distinguished ensemble.   

Review: Goodspeed Opera House, "Gypsy"

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
May 10 - July 25, 2023
by Suzanne Wells

"Gypsy" is an emotional rollercoaster of song and dance.  Directed by Jenn Thompson and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, with music direction by Adam Souza, "Gypsy" will make you laugh, fall in love, it will break your heart, and might even scare you.

Set in 1920s–1930s, the audience is transported from the Vaudeville era to the glamour of Burlesque. The scenic backdrop starts off with a series of advertisements that light up like Broadway billboards, establishing the location for each segment as they follow Mamma Rose’s dreams of finagling her daughters, June and Louise, along the road to stardom.

Emily Jewel Hoder plays "Baby June" who grows up to become the adult "Dainty June," played by Laura Sky Herman. Cameron Blake Miller takes on the role of "Baby Louise" and Talia Suskauer portrays the older version.

Every stage manager’s worst fear, Mamma Rose, the lead Judy McLane, is the most opportunistic, overly aggressive stage mother, ever.  Mamma Rose uses her brains, her wiles, and her commanding voice to manage everyone around her, from her two daughters and her fiancée, to the producers and stagehands. McLane’s execution of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are inspiring, and her energetic performance keeps the audience entranced.

Talia Suskauer has a particularly outstanding achievement as Louise. With a little smoke and one large mirror, Louise comes of age, singing, dancing, and even showing a little skin. However, Suskauer's most prominent characteristic is her expressive face, conveying Louise’s doubts, fears, and loneliness without speaking a word – that’s talent.

One of many highlights, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” had the audience rolling with laughter. Performed by Valerie Wright, Romelda Teron Benjamin, and Victoria Huston-Elem, the scene is a humorous, fun-filled introduction to the world of Burlesque.

Philip Hernandez as Herbie, Edward Juvier and Geoffrey Wade as various characters throughout the production, all utilize their comedic and dramatic talents to emphasize Mamma Rose’s tunnel vision in her search for fame. And a special mention for Cha Cha who plays Chowsie, because who doesn’t love a show with a dog!

Because of the setting and subject matter, "Gypsy" is intended for mature audiences.

May 10, 2023

Review: The Bushnell, "Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, The Musical"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
May 21 – May 14, 2023
by Jarice Hanson

When Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette’s album, “Jagged Little Pill,” hit the charts  in 1995, it became a world-wide hit and ushered in a new style of music called “alternative rock.” Fast forward 25 years, and the Broadway musical penned by Diablo Cody won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Cody has created a story behind the music that sets the piece as a domestic drama, full of topics such as opioid addiction, Me Too, gay rights, gender performativity, and other social challenges that continue to perplex in contemporary times.

“Jagged Little Pill" may be one of the most polished touring performances ever to grace the stage of The Bushnell. One reason for the success of the company is its attention to casting exceptional singers—not only are two of the leads seasoned Broadway veterans, but the younger performers all have the vocal dynamics that honor the original music while infusing the production with high-octane energy and passion.

Heidi Blickenstaff plays the lead, the mother of an upscale family of four, comprised of her loving, but workaholic husband played by Chris Hoch; their biological son, played by Dillon Klena; adopted daughter, Lauren Chanel, confronts her bisexuality and fitting into the white family as a person of color. Blickenstaff played the lead on Broadway when the show reopened after pandemic restrictions were lifted, and she and Hoch have wonderful chemistry together.

There is not a weak singer in the group, and there are some amazing and unusual voices. As Jo, the daughter’s best friend/lover, Jade McLeod was an immediate crowd pleaser with her rich, low voice lending a sense of gravity to the problems of high school angst and parental annoyance.  Hoch’s vocal range is dynamic—and in a tapestry of voices in a hall that sometimes blurs the words of the singers, his diction and stage presence turned what might be expected to be the role of an absent husband/father into a hero. 

Cody’s words are often clever and witty, and director Diane Paulus creates stage pictures that give the script’s words deeper meaning. Creative set pieces designed by Riccardo Hernandez give just enough suggestion of place to guide the eye toward the action with no distraction. The onstage band conducted by Matt Doebler placed high above the actors on the stage are occasionally visible to remind us that the music drives this show, and this arrangement works perfectly to remind us that this show is first about the music, and second, about us.

It’s easy to say what “Jagged Little Pill” is not. It is not a typical jukebox musical, nor is it designed to teach a moral lesson. It is a “slice of life” look at contemporary problems, many of which will resonate with audiences, in the same vein of shows like “Next to Normal.”   

For audiences who know the music or are particularly attuned to the controversial topics of the show, this production is sure to please. But because the show attempts to cover so many difficult topics, it could be said that it never goes into depth enough to suggest anything but a superficial resolution to the problems of the family, or the cultural problems of the day.

May 6, 2023

Preview: Playhouse on Park, "Dandelion"

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
May 21 - June 15, 2023
by Shera Cohen

Instead of our usual reviews and previews, here is another angle, a personal story about my entree into theatre.

Playhouse on Park presents a world-premiere of "Dandelion". Unfortunately, none of In the Spotlight's reviewers could attend the show, one reason being that none of us have young children. The ideal critique would be an adult writer attending with a child. We have printed and/or posted reviews like this in the past. Getting the two perspectives is one of my joys of theatre.

My personal story about my entrance into theatre began as a child. One assignment from our fifth grade teacher was to produce an original play. As I think back about Alan Taylor, then in his first year of teaching straight out of college, I am still in awe of this man whose work with children, including me, was so creative. I have never had a teacher like Mr. Taylor since, including college and grad school.

Looking back decades later, I can appreciate that the task for his class of 10-year-olds was mammoth. What was he thinking?! "Produce a play" had many important components to the job. The "to do list" included: write the play with dialogue for each character, make the cast of hand-made string puppets, design and build a stage with a shoe box backdrop, select actors and crew. In most cases each of us wrote, designed, starred, and produced our own plays which were then performed one by one to the rest of the class.

My play was a mini-biography of Helen Keller. Her life and accomplishments were and still are beyond my comprehension. I knew that, at the very least, she deserved a play written about her by an elementary school kid. To this day, I have my Helen Keller puppet in a storage room in an old Forbes & Wallace paper bag. 

I honestly say that my play was quite good. I could never create objects that in any way looked like humans now, but the fifth grader me could do it. String-puppets are a whole lot tougher than hand puppets or dolls. Mr. Taylor challenged each of us in his class, all the time knowing that we could do this project, feel wonderful about our newly acquired skills, and hopefully learn to love theatre.
I doubt if I could take all on-stage and backstage work myself like I did as a child. Besides, I shouldn't Theatre is a collaborative creation. Mr. Taylor threw me in the deep end of the pool and said, "make a play". I did and continued in theatre ever since.

I'm sure that your child or any child would enjoy "Dandelion". Although I haven't seen it, I have done my homework. This experience at POP might be the catalyst into theatre as a hands-on person or a member of the audience.

May 4, 2023

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Lysander Piano Trio"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT 
April 30, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

This 40-year-old concert series ended its 2022-2023 season with an imaginative program of
mostly unfamiliar music by the New York-based Lysander Piano Trio. Formed in 2010 at the Juilliard School and named after Shakespeare’s young lover in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” its members are: Israel natives Itamar Zorman, violin, and Michael Katz, cello; and Belarus-born pianist Liza Stepanova. 

They opened with a colorful account of Spanish cellist and composer Gaspar Cassado’s 1926 Piano Trio in C Major. Its three movements reflect the vibrant dance tempos of his homeland, and this threesome gave it their all, from a driving “Allegro risoluto” to a sensuous “Tempo moderato e pesante” and a splashy “Rondo” finale. 

Next came a virtuosic reading of Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s 2009 “Two Nguni Dances,” which often evoke the folk traditions of his native South Africa. The complex rhythms of the first dance, “Inyanga,” sometimes required all three instrumentalists to play in different meters simultaneously. But the clarity of their technique made it easy to follow and gave the second dance, “Intsomi,” a marimba-like resonance.    

This was followed by the rarely heard “Piano Trio after The Barber of Seville,” an 1875 transcription by French organist and composer Renaud de Vilbac of themes from Giacchino Rossini’s 1816 comic opera. The Lysanders played this delightful pot-pourri of beloved arias with sparkling energy and wit. 

The only standard repertory piece on the program was its closer, a blazing rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1839 Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, praised at its premiere by no less a fan than composer Robert Schumann as “the master-trio of our time.” Through a fiery “Molto allegro agitato,” a glowing “Andante con moto tranquillo,” a “Scherzo” every bit as “light and brisk” as its tempo marking, and a white-hot “Allegro assai appassionato,” these young artists maintained a remarkably seamless blend and sensitive balance among the contrasting sonorities of their instruments. 

This triumphant season finale was further enhanced by informative and entertaining spoken introductions to the music from all three musicians, the burnished warmth of the theater’s acoustic in this northern Connecticut venue, and the wide international scope of the performers and composers.