Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 30, 2023

REVIEW: The Bushnell, “To Kill a Mockingbird”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through July 7, 2023
by Beverly Dane

The drama "To Kill a Mockingbird" is an honest and heartfelt story to cap-off the Bushnell's 2022/23 season. Unusual for this venue is inclusion of a Broadway play, rather than a musical. However, "Mockingbird" is well-worth the change in format.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Richard Thomas, in the lead role as Atticus Finch, was welcomed with entrance applause. His stoic figure ignited an electricity in the crowd. The audience could appreciate the embodiment of the Atticus Finch that we’ve all read about. Thomas didn’t disappoint. His paternal, loving, collected, and unassuming portrayal was one of a kind. His "Mockingbird" monologue in particular drew forth a kind of murmur from the audience. It embodied introspection and culminated in applause. 

The heaviest lifting in the play is done by Melanie Moore. She portrays Atticus' young daughter Scout in a way that balances the character’s arc from stoicism to cynicism while maintaining a youthfulness that radiates whenever the moment requires. This role is difficult as Scout's narration is at many times that of a little girl who knows everything but shouldn’t have to. 

Excellent performances abound from other cast members. Justin Mark (Jem Finch) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris) provide a delicate mix of gumption, bravery, and playful boyishness that any kid who drank water from a hose would recognize. They intricately provide a foil to Moore’s maturity level along with some beautifully timed one-liners.

Stalwart Jacquelyn Williams’ Calpurnia is the most intelligent character on the stage; nearly every line delivered was met with audible reactions from the crowd. Arianna Stucki’s Mayella Ewell was haunting and terrifying. Yaegel Welch’s Tom Robinson was passionate yet subdued. While somewhat entertaining, Joey Collins’ portrayal of the bigoted Bob Ewell seemed reminiscent of a cartoonish villain. At certain points, dialogue was heavily reliant upon straightforward narration, and audience members became restless. 

The challenges seem to come down to the curious choices made in direction and design. The biggest flaw comes from a clunky set design that often detracts from the action, perhaps intentionally? Some scenes can’t quite finish because an actor must move a staircase underneath a platform, for example. It’s difficult to tell if the set was designed in a way to cover the abundance of narration or, in reverse, if the narration was contrived to cover the overly complex and even unnecessary scenic changes.

Scout, Jem, and Dil are superb as the narrators. This is a beautiful concept overall. Yet, movements during the court scenes felt arbitrary, and at times, in the way. With so much talent on the stage let’s just allow actors to do their jobs with honesty and grace and get the furniture, so to speak, out of the way.

Finally: A nod to the unsung heroes at season's end is important. Greeted by a very friendly box office staff, a wonderful woman helped at the concession stand, the security guard wished sincere pleasantries that it made this reviewer, and likely most audience members, feel comfortable. The front of house team of volunteers and employees do amazing work which augments the pleasure of the theatre experience.

REVIEW: Chester Theatre, "The Making of a Great Moment"

Town Hall Theatre, Chester, MA
through July 2, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

The Chester Theatre Company opens its 34th season with Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s spectacularly zany play, "The Making of a Great Moment". This homage to the theatre, complete with a play within a play, humorously explores the sacrifices artists make for their craft and questions whether those sacrifices are worth it or not.

While there have been many great plays about the theatre, what sets this one apart is that it
takes place on bicycles in New Hampshire while camping. (And yes, the actors do “ride” bicycles on stage.) As incongruous as these elements seem, they provide ample opportunity for action, humor, introspection, and a vehicle (pun intended) to show the passage of time and place. On a deeper level, these elements also symbolize the arduous and lonely journey an artist makes to deliver a meaningful and worthwhile performance to every audience.

"The Making of a Great Moment" follows the on and offstage journey of two actors, Terry Dean and Mona Barnes, played respectively by Equity actors Bill Bowers (the great American mime) and Esther Williamson, as they tour their two-person, four-hour show, entitled “Greatest Moments in Human Achievement”. But when they are not hilariously portraying underrated moments in history and the people who achieved them, Terry and Mona contemplate under the night sky the validity of their profession, the meaning of success, and the self-doubt that inevitably arises.

This play and “Greatest Moments” both utilize all of the best characteristics of comedy, including verbal, physical, and prop. Bowers and Williamson (and indeed, Terry and Mona) play off each other almost flawlessly so that one can’t recognize the difference between the characters’ ad lib and the actors’. Stagehands who provide several functions onstage (including as backup dancers) only add to the belly laughs and deserve a round of applause of their own. While "The Making of a Great Moment" is a comedy through and through, this production also serves to remind us that we have the power to ad lib any situation and turn it into a life-changing moment.

James Barry, the Co-Producing Artistic Director, could not have chosen a more poignant play to make his directorial debut at Chester Theatre. His production holds both esteemed reverence for the artists who devote their lives to the craft and sincere gratitude for the audiences who allow them to experience these great moments together. And together we shall.

June 25, 2023

Review: Great Barrington Public Theater, "The Stones"

Great Barrington Public Theater, Great Barrington, MA
through July 2, 2023
by Suzanne Wells

"The Stones," written by Kit Brookman, premiered at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is making its American debut at Great Barrington Public Theater, under the direction of Michelle Joyner.

Photo by Kat Humes
For those who enjoy a challenging puzzle, a mystery, or an escape room, this play is the fulfillment of all. "The Stones" is a romance wrapped in a ghost story, enveloped in the subconscious. Set in England, Nick, played by Ryan Winkles, is a London teacher in a tedious job and an ambivalent relationship. After having an epiphany, he gives up his secure income, boyfriend, and apartment, for a new life and the possibility of a secret love, ultimately leading him to a surreal experience.

The stage, designed by Dai Ban, is dark, with fallen monolithic stones set in the center of a stone circle. Nick describes his experiences and recollections in vivid detail with the stones representing various locations, from
a London apartment to a cottage on a manor estate near a little village and a dried-up lake. The sound and music by Alexander Sovronsky and Wendy Welch, along with her periodic appearance as the gray ghost, increasingly add to the eerie sensation that something is not quite right.

The talented Ryan Winkles’ performance is delightfully disturbing. Haunted by his past and unsure of his present, Winkles’ monologue is droll and darkly humorous. He presents as various characters providing distinct personalities and making each easy to visualize. Winkles’ portrayal will draw the audience in and guide it through a myriad of emotions, including frustration, guilt, hope, longing, joy, chaos, confusion, and fear, to name a few.

As with any good ghost story, "The Stones" leaves one with the unsettled feeling of wondering what is real and what isn’t. The audience will have much to discuss following a viewing of this production – preferably next to a fire while roasting marshmallows.

For its third season, Great Barrington Public Theater will present two more original plays: "Off Peak," and "Just Another Day". Led by Deann Simmons Halper, Executive Director; Tristan Wilson, Managing Director; Jim Frangione as Artistic Director; and Judy Braha as Associate Artistic Director, Great Barrington Public Theater fulfils its mission of providing “new stories from local voices.

Preview: Chesterwood, "Arts Alive"

Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA
through fall, 2023

When thinking about Chesterwood, the first image that comes to mind is that of Abraham Lincoln seated in his chair sculpted for all to see upon visiting DC. Few, however, realize that the artist of this monument was Daniel Chester French whose home is in Stockbridge, MA.

House, studio, and grounds tours are given nearly daily. The past decade the beautiful stretch of land and woodsy paths are strewn with sculpture of all sizes and colors, each designed by a different contemporary artist.

This year, a series of numerous performing and literary arts takes place at Chesterwood. The series started during the Covid years, but 2023 marks a full calendar. Check the website for specific dates and artists.

Music includes the group Close Encounters with Music, Amity Brass Quintet, and HEARD World Jazz Ensemble. Dance takes the stage with Berkshire Pulse Choreographers, Garet & Company, and Ian Spencer Bell Dance. For those who wish to hear the art of the written word, three poetry readings will be held over the course of the summer. Finishing the line-up will be the theatre troupe Tableau Vivants.

June 22, 2023

Preview: Barrington Stage, "Mr. Finn's Cabaret"

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
June 4 - September 3, 2023

Barrington Stage Company announces the 2023 Summer Series of "Mr. Finn’s Cabaret" on the lower level of the Blatt Performing Arts Center offers the exciting lineup. The series include BSC’s Musical Theatre Conservatory Company (June 26), Tony Award-winner Donna McKechnie (July 9-10), Todd Almond (July 16), Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (August 31-September 1) and BSC Associate Artist and Broadway favorite Alan H. Green (September 2-3).

Named after the Tony Award-winning composer William Finn (Falsettos; The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) in 2012, Mr. Finn’s Cabaret features an intimate 90-seat cabaret space.

Monday, June 26 at 8:00 p.m. 
Musical Theatre Conservatory Cabaret 
Meet the talented 2023 Musical Theatre Conservatory Company. Catch them here at BSC so you can say "you knew them when!" $15.

Sunday, July 9 & Monday, July 10 at 8:00 p.m. 
Donna McKechnie - Take Me to the World: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim
Tony Award-winner Donna McKechnie celebrates one of Broadway’s greatest composers by performing songs from his shows and film scores. $60.

Sunday, July 16 at 8:00 p.m.
Todd Almond - Todd Almond Loves You
The celebrated singer-songwriter (Broadway’s The Girl from the North Country) makes his Mr. Finn’s debut with a funny and intimate evening of his songs, stories and his trademark unexpected covers. $40.

Thursday, August 31 & Friday, September 1 at 8:00 p.m.
An Evening with Jason Robert Brown
For this unique performance, Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Mr. Saturday Night, Parade, 13, The Last Five Years) will incorporate an eclectic mix of material, featuring music from his shows and solo albums throughout his acclaimed career. $60.

Saturday, September 2 & Sunday, September 3 at 8:00 p.m.
Alan H. Green - Finally
Beloved BSC Associate Artist (Who Could Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin) and Broadway favorite Alan H. Green (Sister Act, School of Rock), presents his first-ever solo cabaret to close out the 2023 Cabaret Season. $55.

Two additional cabarets will be announced shortly for August 13-14 and August 21.

June 21, 2023

Preview: Shakespeare & Company, "Dear Jack, Dear Louise"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through July 30, 2023

Theatre folk are quite familiar with the name of the prolific, Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. Those who know their theatre, but aren't necessarily onstage or backstage have likely been audience members at several of Ludwig's plays. Many of his works have become a standard part of the American repertoire. His 32 plays and musicals have been performed in more than 30 countries in more than 20 languages and are produced throughout the U.S. every night of the year.

In fact, I have been introduced to many of Ludwig's plays, most of which are comedies, here in the Berkshires; i.e. Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Moon Over Buffalo, The Game's Afoot, and Love Letters. If you want laugh-out-loud entertainment I can't think of anything better than Baskerville. Buffalo and Afoot not nearly as boisterous are fun.. "Love Letters" intermingles comedy with drama, as Ludwig seems to have taken his characters on a more profound journey. 

Yet, I have never seen "Dear Jack, Dear Louise." The plot is emotional and dramatic -- far more

than any of his works listed above, as well as the 25 plays that I didn't list. The semi-biographical story is a recollection of Ludwig's parents.

"Dear Jack, Dear Louise" is the story of two strangers introduced through letters, kept apart by war, and drawn together through shared stories of their lives, hopes, and fears. The play is a touching look at life in 1942 complete with nods to music, theatre, and literature. "Dear Jack, Dear Louise" was inspired by the World War II courtship of Ludwig’s parents.

Shakespeare & Company's regular long-time actor/director and Producing Associate, Ariel Bock directs "Dear Jack, Dear Louise".

Preview: Shakespeare & Company, "The Contention"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through July 15, 2023

Through considered to be the inspiration for "Game of Thrones," this Shakespearean tale of "Henry VI, Part II" is commonly regarded as the strongest of the "Henry VI" trilogy, telling the story of the contention and power struggles between the two ancient families of Lancaster and York who wrestled for the fate of England.

Now, four centuries on and in tandem with the current King Charles III’s coronation, Shakespeare & Company presents "The Contention" – an exploration of themes that remain timeless: strategic marriages, political treachery, religious unrest, and a measure of comic sport. However, many Shakespeare aficionados are unfamiliar with this play.

"The Contention" is directed by the Company's Artistic Founder, Tina Packer. Born in England, Packer was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, performed in regional theatre, was an Associate Artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and played in television series for the BBC. She has directed all of Shakespeare’s plays (some of them several times), acted in eight and taught the whole canon at more than 30 colleges.  At Columbia University, she taught in the MBA program for four years, resulting in the publication of "Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management". Packer's scholastic writing includes "Tales from Shakespeare," a children’s book, recipient of the Parent’s Gold Medal Award. Her book "Women of Will" was published by Knopf, which has been performed in the U.S., Mexico, England, China and she has performed "Women of Will" with Nigel Gore in New York, Mexico, England, and China.

David Bertoldi
David Bertoldi, a relative newcomer to Shakespeare & Company who has appeared in some secondary roles, takes the lead as Henry VI. Those featured in the cast of "The Contention" include some of "the regulars" at Shakespeare; i.e. Allyn Burrows, Jonathan Epstein, and Nigel Gore. Some newcomers to the troupe are Lawrence James, Kenneth Ransom, and Jacob Ming-Trent.

How can theatre troupes like Shakespeare & Company mount the Bard's plays with their casts of thousands? Well, not quite, but every story does have a long list of characters. The answer: most of the actors appear in two or three roles. With a change of garb, use of set, or vocal affectation, these are without a doubt among the best actors in MA and probably New England.

June 19, 2023

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, "Cabaret"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
Through July 8, 2023
By Jarice Hanson
Photo by Daniel Rader
Barrington Stage Company’s production of "Cabaret" is sexy, sultry, wonderful, and disturbing. In his first show directed for BSC since becoming Artistic Director this year, Alan Paul has mined this script to find the buttons that remind us that the world in which we live is still as vulnerable as Berlin in the 1920's. Dictators will stop at nothing to get their way, and the lives of innocent people are sacrificed in the desire to dominate. With the rise of anti-Semitism today, "Cabaret" is a warning to us all. In the words of Cliff Bradshaw, the thinly veiled narrator of the story, “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be.”
The book by Joe Masteroff weaves a number of stories together, set against the backdrop of the Kit-Kat Klub in pre-WWII Berlin, where morals are loose, and gender doesn’t matter. In staging this version, Paul has cast a wonderfully talented set of female, male, and non-binary singer/dancers—most of whom perform in drag. These hard-working performers turn the entire theatre into the Kit-Kat Klub with explosive energy. Lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg dazzles. Costumes by Rodrigo Munoz are sexy and suggestive. Wilson Chin’s set design is big, bold, and delightful.  
The legendary Kander and Ebb score is magnificently realized by nine musicians, prominently featured upstage, center, conducted by Angela Steiner, and the brilliant choreographed by Katie Spelman.  
There is not a weak performer in this ensemble, but specific shout-outs must be made to an effervescent Sally Bowles, played by Krista Rodriguez who is well-matched with the handsome Cliff Bradshaw, played by Dan Amboyer. Both have rich voices and kinetic energy. Sparks fly when these two performers share the stage.
Freulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are played by Candy Buckley and Richard Kline, respectively.  Both performers bring such honesty and sincerity to the stage that they add a unique, sweet dimension to this production. When they sing together and react to the incipient threat menacing the community, you can almost feel a metaphorical embrace from the audience. Alysha Umphress is delightful as Freulein Kost; when she sings, she imbues her songs with foreboding.
Of course, the Kit-Kat Klub’s MC is an extraordinary character and much of the story is told through their songs, gestures, and movement. Nik Alexander is delightfully creepy one moment, sensual and inviting in the next, and ultimately the symbol of decadence juxtaposed with humanity. The MC is a difficult role and Alexander is a master of orchestrating the action in this high-energy production.
Certainly, there are many opportunities to see "Cabaret" played as a celebration of life and a foreboding of authoritarianism. Alan Paul’s interpretation of this story has a bigger impact and stays with you far longer than the light-hearted approaches that make up typical summer fare. He’s created a production that entertains but reminds us that we all have to make decisions about who to follow, and to think about the consequences of action, and inaction. As Freulein Schneider sings, so resolutely; “What would you do?”

June 12, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Tchaikovsky & Pride"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
June 9-11, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Carolyn Kuan
The HSO and Music Director Carolyn Kuan closed their 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series on a festive note, celebrating Pride Month with a program of a classic popular symphony and two world premieres, both commissioned by the orchestra. 

It began with a white-hot reading of the sixth symphony, the last completed work by Tchaikovsky, who, as Kuan noted in opening remarks, “struggled with his sexuality,” and died mysteriously a week after conducting its premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia, in October 1893. From a vivid “Adagio-Allegro non troppo,” a glowing “Allegro con grazia,” and a brilliant “Allegro molto vivace,” to a devastating “Adagio lamentoso” finale, Kuan drew playing of deep conviction from her musicians, which fully reflected the Russian translation of the symphony’s nickname, “Pathetique,” as “passionate.”      

Next came an exciting account of HSO inaugural artist-in-residence Quinn Mason’s short rhapsody, “She Dreams of Flying,” dedicated to Kuan, whom he calls “one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.” It featured an offstage trumpet, played evocatively by HSO assistant principal trumpet John Charles Thomas, who was gradually joined by his colleagues across the ensemble in this “tribute to persistence and inspiration.” Their warm advocacy for the piece suggested the pride they took in collaborating with their creative partner. 

The concert ended with a heartfelt rendition of “Stonewall 69,” a suite from English composer Iain Bell’s 2019 opera “Stonewall,” which was commissioned by New York City Opera and premiered there under Kuan. The colorful first movement, “Downtown, tonight,” introduced several characters in the opera; the dramatic second, “No…just NO!,” depicted resistance to a June 1969 police raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn that launched a national gay rights movement; and the peaceful finale, “The Light of Day,” portrayed, in Bell’s words, “a sense of hope and emboldened responsibility to effect change.” The music’s visceral impact was amplified by visual artist Yuki Izumihara’s historical and abstract images simultaneously projected over the Belding Stage.      

With engaging live introductions to both world premieres by their composers, this program was a personal triumph for Kuan, who not only welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community to the hall but also emphasized the uniquely healing power of music to bring people together.  

REVIEW: Silverthorne Theater, "The Cake"

Silverthorne Theater, Emily Dickinson Hall, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA
from June 9 - 17, 2023
by Shera Cohen

Perhaps the key word to describe this play is "change". Times change, people change, lessons change. Who changes, why change?

Is "The Cake" a comedy or tragedy? The audience learns something, sometimes a little bit profound, sometimes not. Enough to rethink the play's theme? Probably not. With its laundry list of contemporary themes and language, this might be a short-lived play. However, at its best, it could become a piece of literature which replicates the mores of 2023.

Character Jen, portrayed by Claudia Maurino, asks her mother's dear friend Della, owner of a bakery, to make her a cake for her wedding. Silverthorne found a major coup by casting Elizabeth Aspenlieder, whose name has been associated with Shakespeare & Company for decades, to portray the lead character Della. Della is humorous, doubtful, loving, and a bible-quoter. Della is dumbstruck when Jen informs her that she is marrying Macy

Yes, Macy is a girl, a black girl. Macy, played by Tahmie Der, is bold, forthright, and savvy to the new era, taking on the responsibility of instructing the others to realize that the world is changing, starting right there in Della's little bake shop.

Sam Samuels, essentially, the only male actor in the cast, makes wise use of his two scenes. He is Della's husband. He is plumber. That might say enough about Tim. But, no. Samuel's presents Tim's changes simultaneously as tender and funny.

The play's venue at Emily Dickinson Hall, Hampshire College, may be stocked with lights, stage levels, backstage needs, lots of parking, etc. Yet, this location was a poor choice to mount a play. The stage is spread across the entire floor with bedrooms as bookends to Della's shop. Bakery scenes were solid with audible vocals. Yet perhaps one-third of the scenes took place in the bedrooms. The sight lines were non-existent. I could not see any actor. Add to that, neither younger actor was audible, except to audience members seated in two rows alongside the bedroom set. I see no credit for set designer, which usually means that the director, Gina Kaufmann, took on double duty.

"The Cake" has so much potential, and some of it was present onstage at Hampshire College. There is still time for Silverthorne to reconfigure its set at the very least.

Note: Partial nudity should have been warned in Silverthorne's publicity.