Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 31, 2023

Shakespeare for the Terrified 101

By Shera Cohen

Reprint of an article written 10 years ago in the summer of 2013. The content is still applicable.

I would like to take credit for the title of this article, but alas, I cannot. It is the name of one of the courses offered at the Globe Theatre in London. In an interview with the Globe’s Vice President of Education, we discussed many of the opportunities offered to youth to study and perform Shakespeare’s plays. What about the huge number of adults who say phrases like, “I don’t understand Shakespeare,” “The language is confusing,” and the often heard lament “I hated it in high school”?

The answer to satisfy the fears of these theatre goers was the Globe’s course, “Shakespeare for the Terrified.” Such a class should be given across the pond to help, in a non-didactic and fun way for adults who don’t want to miss out on these classics; i.e. “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and far more from this prolific writer considered the best playwright in history.

The best way to be ride of Shakespeare anxiety is by watching the comedies. They are far more understandable. Realize that you will not “get” every word; just get the essence. Trust me; unless you have a PhD in Literature, no one understands line for line. You can easily figure it out. The comedies’ plots are essentially the same, with common elements: disguises, twins, wooing, mistaken identities, physical action, spritely tunes, a happy ending (usually a wedding), and laughs. Laughter is the universal language. Don’t be terrified to laugh.

Playgoers of the early 17th century never fully understood these plays, particularly because The Bard coined many words – approximately 1700. The groundlings heard words for the first time at the Globe; i.e. madcap, skim milk, eyeball, zany, gloomy, unreal, advertising, blanket, elbow, gossip, bedroom, luggage, and cold-blooded. It’s hard to think that none of these were in our lexicon until Shakespeare penned them.

Have you been coaxed or even forced to attend a production of a Shakespeare comedy, drama, or history play? There’s nothing the matter with reading an online synopsis prior to going. Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare’s write nearly word for word translation. Important to know is that plays are not meant to be read, but to be seen on a stage. Do the play justice – see it. Maybe you saw one of the many “Romeo and Juliet” movie versions, or four-hour “Hamlet,” or Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branaugh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”? That’s a good start. But, they were not as Shakespeare planned; his plays are onstage productions. See the “originals” as much as you can.

That said, what about troupes that update these classics? Setting the 1500s in the 21st century, background hip-hop music, “Star Trek” costumes, and major editing? I have seen all, and more. I had thought that I was a purist – the play MUST be kept as written and as close to how it must have looked five centuries ago. Then, I experienced a modern look at “The Winter’s Tale.” What do you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the novice, the familiar settings and accoutrements might make the language and action easier to comprehend.

Start local (you don’t have to travel to London) with a comedy. are no longer terrified. In fact, you might want to attend a second comedy or even a drama.

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, "Summer Stock"

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through August 27, 2023
by Suzanne Wells

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
"Summer Stock" is wholesome entertainment with a variety of music, dancing, and a modern twist. If seeking a re-creation of the 1950’s movie, audiences will be slightly disappointed as there is no tractor in this production. However, even though the motivation has changed, the plot - saving the farm, producing the show, and falling in love - all remain an integral part of this story.

Writer Cheri Steinkellner adapted the movie into this stage production, subtly incorporating the challenges of equality for race, gender, and sexual orientation into the storyline, without diminishing the hopeful, feel-good characteristics of the musical. In addition, Steinkellner increased the score from nine to 20 songs including a variety of hits like “The Best Things in Life are Free” and “It Had to Be You.”

Set in the Connecticut River Valley, the scenery, designed by Wilson Chin, is comprised of the Wingate drawing room, the farmhouse, and the barn/stage, providing perspectives from onstage and backstage, for the latter. Collaborating with lighting designer Jeff Croiter, the timeline transitions from sunrise to sunset, and from one beautiful starry night to one vividly pink morning. Costume designer, Tina McCartney’s dons her cast in flannel pajamas, overalls, dancewear, and military uniforms which further enhances the creation of a mid-20th century farm turned theatre.

Danielle Wade as Jane Falbury, has a beautiful voice and is a graceful, acrobatic dancer. However, she was occasionally overpowered by the live orchestra, and overshadowed by Arianna Rosario who played her sister, Gloria Falbury, in almost every scene they shared. Wade’s performance of “Get Happy,” while a lovely tribute to Judy Garland’s movie performance, was slightly lacking in the earthy sensuality that makes that particular gospel song remarkable. 

Corbin Bleu as Joe Ross is a marvelous dancer – strong, powerful, and flexible. He is a joy to watch. His solo performance pays homage to Gene Kelly, mixing everyday items into the routine including a clothing rack, and of course, the newspaper that ultimately leads to the answer to all their problems. 

Gilbert L. Bailey II as Phil Filmore and Will Roland as Orville Wingate II are hilarious as they establish a blossoming friendship and possible romance. However, Veanne Cox as Margaret Wingate and J. Anthony Crane as Montgomery Leach, ramp the comedy up several notches with their rendition of “Red Hot Mamma” to initiate their overly dramatic, over the top romance. 

July 29, 2023

Preview: BSO, "2023 Festival of Contemporary Music"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 29, 30, 31

Photo by Hilary Scott
The Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) is one of the world's premier showcases for works
from the current musical landscape and landmark pieces from the new music vanguard of the 21st century. FCM affords Tanglewood Music Center Fellows the opportunity to explore unfamiliar repertoire and experience the value of direct collaboration with living composers. The Festival takes place annually. 

Competitions and workshops take place in the Linde Center for Music & Learning. Musical genres are broad. In addition to concerts at Linde, both the Koussevitzky Shed and Ozawa Hall will host the music of composers who are young, and on their way up the proverbial scale in the field of classical music. FCM is jam-packed with music. Concert times are in the morning, afternoon and evening with Tanglewood Music Center's musicians and chamber orchestra performing. 

July 25, 2023

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, "MOSSO Horn Trio"

The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 23, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Compared with piano trios (for violin, cello, and piano), horn trios (for French horn, violin, and piano) are far less common in the classical music repertoire. So the third concert in Sevenars’ 2023 season was a rare treat for horn lovers, with no fewer than four horn trios on the program. 

The performers were: Beth Welty, assistant principal second violinist of the Springfield
Symphony Orchestra; Sarah Sutherland, a horn player in the SSO; and Boston-based pianist Elizabeth Skavish. Welty and Sutherland are also members of the nonprofit MOSSO (Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra), which collaborates with other area musicians. 

The program opened with an elegant reading of French composer-hornist Frederic Duvernoy’s 1820 first horn trio, with a graceful “Adagio-Cantabile” and a lively “Allegretto.” A buoyant account followed of Norwegian composer-percussionist Trygve Madsen’s light-hearted 2004 trio, with a sprightly “Allegro moderato,” a soft, jazzy “Andante con moto,” and a sparkling “Allegretto.” 

Next up was the world premiere of MOSSO’s first commission, a colorful “Triptych” by Los Angeles-based film composer-arranger (and Welty’s nephew) Max Mueller. The trio’s obvious relish of the piece’s melodic charm and catchy rhythms was contagious, making Welty’s promise of more Mueller music on an SSO program next April an enticing one for the delighted audience. 

After an intermission with trademark Sevenars free homemade refreshments came a powerful rendition of what Welty called the “granddaddy” of the horn trio genre, and by far its best-known example, the 1865 horn trio by Johannes Brahms. Welty’s warm, lyrical violin, Sutherland’s lush, clarion horn, and Skavish’s versatile pianism were on full display in all four movements. 

The opening “Andante” was almost reverential, suggesting Brahms’ childhood affection for the natural horn; the “Scherzo (Allegro)” was challengingly virtuosic; the “Adagio mesto” was heartfelt, perhaps reflecting Brahms’ grief at his mother’s recent death; and the closing “Allegro con brio” was an exuberant romp.   
Spoken introductions offered helpful background on the music and a sense of the musicians’ distinctive personalities, including Sutherland’s enlightening comments about the work involved in maintaining a valve horn (the natural horn's modern successor), even while performing. 

Remaining Sevenars concerts, including the return of Ukrainian-born pianist Liana Paniyeva on July 30, continue on Sundays at 4 pm through August 20.

July 24, 2023

PREVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
August 1, 2023 - September 10, 2023

The Cast of "Midsummer"
Casting has been announced for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare & Company, directed by Artistic Director Allyn Burrows and to be staged outdoors at the New Spruce Theatre.

Athenians mix it up with the forest fairies in this raucous romp that features magical meddling, romantic tangles, and a play within a play for good measure. One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" has been described by scholars as carnivalesque: pushing the plot forward through humor and chaos.

S&Co's Artistic Director Allyn Burrows also takes on the role of "Midsummer's" director. Burrows has been associated in significant management, acting, and backstage work for decades. Burrows has acted throughout the US, won gthe IRNE Award, acted Off-Broadway, on television and in movies.

Associate Director Nicole Ricciardi rounds out the directing team, and the cast of 12 includes actors making their Shakespeare & Company debut, as well as long-held veterans of the Company.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder is a familiar name at Shakespeare & Company, having appeared in more than 40 productions -- Shakespearean and dramatic and comedic straight plays. In addition to her award-winning acting skills, she also directs, and excels at voiceover work. 

Sheila Bandyopadhyay is a multi-hyphenate theater artist who, after 18 years in NY, is delighted to be marking her first year as Shakespeare & Company’s Director of the Center of Actor Training. Besides her talents onstage, she is also a director.

Nigel Gore is one of S&Co's "regulars", having appeared in countless plays; both Shakespearean and otherwise. He has received the Elliot Norton Award, Outstanding Actor at Public Theatre Boston, has performed Off-Broadway, and on the USA and World Tour of "Women of Will". 

Michael F. Toomey is a neurodivergent performer and theater creator. He is the Artistic Director of The Humanist Project based in Brooklyn and founding member of Split Knuckle Theatre, which devises new works that have toured from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. His S& Co. roles are nearly countless.

Preview: Prima Music Foundation, "Ukrainian Rhapsody"

Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA
August 3, 2023 at 4PM

Prima Music Foundation presents 
tenor Alexander Dedik and the piano duo Anna and Dmitri Shelest in a program titled "Ukrainian Rhapsody" to include works by composers from the Gilded Age including works by Gerswhin, Barber, Spross, Respigi, Friml, Lysenko, and Skoryk.
Praised for their “stirring performances of rare repertory,” Shelest Piano Duo is a husband-and-wife team who take their roots to the music school in Ukraine. Their inventive programs have brought them to a broad array of venues from concert stages to state functions, and, in words of Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, “realized diplomacy through music.”
Born in Ukraine, Anna Shelest graduated from The Juilliard School with a master’s degree. Dmitri Shelest enrolled into the Kharkiv Special Music School, succeeding at his first contest when he was 11 years old. He received a full scholarship to Northern Kentucky University as a bachelor’s degree candidate in piano performance. 
After becoming a prize-winner at both Tchaikovsky’s and Glinka’s International Competitions, Alexander Dedik was invited to be a leading dramatic tenor at the internationally famous opera house Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He has performed concerts in over 20 countries throughout Europe, Israel, China, Peru and Scandinavia. 
Reservations are strongly recommended as seating is limited. Walk-ins are accommodated as space allows. 

July 23, 2023

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, "Blues for an Alabama Sky"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA.
through August 5, 2023
by Jarice Hanson

It’s 1930 and the Harlem Renaissance is giving way to the Great Depression. Singer Angel Allen (Tsilala Brock) has just been fired by her boss, a mob figure with whom she’s been having an affair.   She lives with Guy (Brandon Alvion) a gay costumer who dreams of outfitting Josephine Baker for her Paris cabaret act and talks of going to parties with Langston Hughes. Their neighbor, the sweet social worker Delia (Jasminn Johnson) is trying to convince her pastor, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, to support the establishment of a Harlem clinic where birth control can be dispensed along with other measures to improve the lives of the residents. She is aided by Dr. Sam Thompson (Ryan George) a doctor in the neighborhood, who has all of the right intentions—including the intention to fall in love with Delia. Into this family of friends comes Leland Cuningham (Deleon Dallas), a visitor to Harlem from Alabama, where his culture clashes with the emerging world of Harlem in its golden years.

Photo by Daniel Rader
In Pearl Cleage’s 1995 “slice of life” story, the audience sees how friendship, culture, and time in history play together to paint a picture of Harlem, where “for one brief moment” everything seemed possible. The tension, however, is that we know what’s ahead for these characters, Black culture, social mobility, and social values that hover over the decades to follow. Cleage creates dramatic tension to show how much, and even more, how little has changed in America in close to 100 years. The themes in this play are surprisingly contemporary, and more than just a little bittersweet.

This play had a critically acclaimed revival in New York in 2020, followed by an equally popular revival in London in 2022, and it seems to have been produced widely throughout the U.S. In Barrington Stage's production, Director Candis C. Jones uses staging techniques that would have been appropriate in 1930 theatre with actors speaking their lines out to the audience, a device that uses acoustic space efficiently, but adds a sense of artificiality to the flow. In today’s contemporary theatre, this device seems outdated, and it leaves the audience wondering whether the intimacy of the text would work better in a smaller theatre, or whether we’ve become so accustomed to microphones that the audience expects stronger vocal volume.

As always, Barrington production values are impeccable. Scenic Designer Sydney Lynne has created a beautiful, ornate set with visual references to the 1930's. Adam Honore’s lighting design is seamless, and Danielle Preston’s costumes are stunning. Fabian Obispo’s sound design is interesting, though pre-show music seemed far more contemporary than expected in a period piece. 

Like early 20th-century theatre, Act I takes its time to set up the characters and introduce the culture and establish relationships, but it leaves the audience wondering where the action will go. Then, Act explodes with a number of highly emotional, beautifully acted elements and stage pictures that leave no doubt as to the fate of these friends and Black culture.

The message of this play is sad and poignant, and perhaps, an accurate account of history that we hope will never be erased or whitewashed

July 19, 2023

REVIEW: BSO: "Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
July 10 & 17, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Every summer over a hundred young musicians at the start of their careers, from across the country and beyond, converge for eight weeks at Tanglewood, where, tutored by Boston Symphony Orchestra members and visiting artists, they quickly sound like they’ve been playing together for years. The first two concerts by the 2023 TMCO richly confirmed the success of this training model.     

Conducting duties were shared at both concerts by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons and TMC conducting fellows Armand Birk, from Canada, and Agata Zajac, from Poland. Nelsons opened the first program with a perky account of Maurice Ravel’s 1918 orchestration of his 1905 piano piece “Alborada del Gracioso” (“Morning Song of the Jester”). He closed it with a dramatic reading of Claude Debussy’s 1905 three symphonic sketches “La Mer” (“The Sea”). 

Photo by Hilary Scott
Completing the program’s first half, Zajac led a taut, incisive performance of Igor Stravinsky’s rarely heard 1936 ballet “in three deals” “Jeu de Cartes” (“Game of Cards”) with graceful precision. To open its second half, Birks brought a softer, more sensuous touch to the colorful five-movement suite from Ravel’s 1911 ballet “Mother Goose.” The student musicians fully earned Nelsons’ opening words of high praise for their professional skill.     

Zajac began the second concert with a fiery account of her countrywoman Grazyna
Bacewicz’s defiant 1943 “Overture, for orchestra,” whose quotation of the four notes that open Beethoven’s fifth symphony seemed to cry out for an end to the war then ravaging her homeland. Birks next led an alternately tender and boisterous rendition of the kaleidoscopic orchestral suite from Zoltan Kodaly’s folk-based 1926 opera “Hary Janos.” Boston-based former TMC fellow Nicholas Tolle played an evocative cimbalom, a Hungarian version of a hammered dulcimer. 

Nelsons closed the program with a magical reading of Gustav Mahler’s 1901 fourth, and gentlest, symphony. The first movement, marked “unhurried,” with jaunty opening sleigh bells, was fluid and flexible; the second, marked “easygoing,” showcased virtuosic “country” fiddle playing by concertmaster Dominik Kossakowski; the third, marked “serene,” was ravishingly long-breathed, with a thunderous climax; and the finale, marked “comfortable,” featured the angelic soprano of TMC vocal fellow Eva Rae Martinez, exuding youthful ardor in the childlike German folk poem “Life in Heaven.” 

Upcoming TMCO concerts in Ozawa Hall at 8pm will pair TMC conducting fellows with BSO guest conductor Xian Zhang (July 23) and TMC Conducting Program Head Stefan Asbury (July 31).   

July 17, 2023

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, "Clyde’s"

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford, CT
through July 30, 2023
by Jarice Hanson  
Two time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lynn Nottage’s most recent Broadway hit, Clyde’s is a masterful comedy that makes you feel good and gives you a lot to think about. The production currently running at TheaterWorks Hartford features an exceptionally adept ensemble cast that transcend what could be stereotypical characters, to form a tight knit family of sympathetic, fully-realized individuals who touch the audiences’ collective heart.
The beautifully rendered, realistic set designed by Collette Pollard makes you feel that you’re in the kitchen of a greasy spoon diner, somewhere along a highway where truckers are the primary customers. Country music plays in the background as the characters are introduced;  Clyde (Latonia Phipps) is the authoritarian proprietor who, at one point, is referred to, as “a licensed dominatrix."  Montrellous (Michael Chenevert) is the senior member of the kitchen staff who continually thinks about how new, more delicious sandwiches could be the ticket out of Clyde’s and on to better things. Letitia (Ayanna Bria Bakari) is a single mother of a disabled daughter who needs the job desperately, and Rafael (Samuel Maria Gomez) is the “sous chef” who mans the griddle. Into this eclectic group comes Jason (David T. Patterson), with a face and body full of tattoos proclaiming his penchant for white supremacy. The only thing all of the characters have in common is that every one (including Clyde) is a former prison inmate.
Nottage is a national treasure when it comes to capturing American culture by shining a spotlight on our commonalities rather than our differences.  Her work allows us to contextualize situations and empathize with the characters, all of whom have a backstory that would excite a novice social worker. Director Mikael Burke skillfully weaves each character’s life story into a colorful, bold tapestry that is intensely optimistic and self-affirming. The actors almost dance in the busy kitchen choreography that juxtaposes the mundane world of sandwich making with growing pride in themselves and what they do. Each one of them is honest, to a degree, and the honesty they discover about themselves in this 90 minute one act is an optimistic prism that drives the action of the show forward. 
Photo by Mike Marques
There have been other, equally compelling stories on stage and television recently that set the action in a professional, high-stakes kitchen. Theresa Rebeck’s comedy Seared, and the hit Hulu Series The Bear both come to mind—but Nottage’s play has an added element of whimsy and fantasy about these characters that the other productions lack.  This is not a spoiler, but it is a delicious detail that provides a hint of the unique take on the workplace comedy that is Clyde’s. As the marquee reminds us, “the devil’s in the details.”

This fast, funny comedy will have you smiling throughout the play, and there are wonderful surprises and events that will have you laughing out loud. This is a not-to-be-missed production.

July 14, 2023

Preview: Shakespeare & Company, "Fences"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
from July 22 - August 27

A moving study of emotional depth and the human condition, August Wilson’s Fences follows the story of Troy Maxson – a working-class Black man struggling to provide for his family. His past includes the low of a prison sentence and the high of a promising career with the Negro Baseball League, but it’s Troy’s unrealized dream to play for Major League Baseball that fills his days with resentment and regret.

August Wilson’s Fences, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play in 1987, is set in the 1950's and is part of the playwright’s acclaimed American Century Cycle.

The production will take place in the Tina Packer Playhouse on the Shakespeare & Company
campus; indoor venue and air conditioned. 

Christopher V. Edwards, Artistic Director of Actors' Shakespeare Project (ASP) in Boston, directs the play. Recent credits to Edwards' name include plays at the Cincinatti Shakespeare Company and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in NY. Edwards has performed in London’s West End, Off-Broadway, in regional theatres and internationally.

August Wilson has written over a dozen well-known and award-winning plays which explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century. Wilson, who died in 2005, was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a 1995 inductee into the American Academy of Arts. Broadway has  renamed the theater located at 245 West 52nd Street – The August Wilson Theatre.

July 10, 2023

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, "Opening Family Concert"

The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 9, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Stormy Berkshire weather couldn’t dampen the high spirits of the hardy New Englanders who
lent a festive air to the opening concert of this beloved summer festival’s 55th season. The program featured members of the founding Schrade-James family and showcased their eclectic musical tastes in the intimate acoustics of the Academy in Worthington, MA

Host and pianist Rorianne Schrade (after whose parents and their five children, all having first names that start with R, the festival is named) began by playing her own transcriptions for solo piano of two pieces by American master Ned Rorem, who died last year at age 99. His 1955 chorus “Sing My Soul” was elegantly serene, while the “Overture” from his 1949 two-piano “Dance Suite” was playfully invigorating.  
Rorianne’s nephew, cellist Christopher James, was then accompanied by his father, pianist David James, in an uncredited transcription of French composer Edouard Lalo’s 1877 “Cello Concerto in D minor.” Christopher’s lyrical cello was offset by David’s heroic heft in the orchestral role. Both deftly navigated the imaginatively tricky rhythms of all three movements. 

Christopher’s sister, pianist Lynelle James, next joined Rorianne in a jubilant reading of French composer Darius Milhaud’s 1937 two-piano suite “Scaramouche,” with an energetic “Vif,” a dreamy “Modere,” and a rollicking “Brasileira.”
Lynelle then played US premieres of two pieces from Danish-German composer Soren Sieg’s album “Amazing Africa,” each with the earworm quality of a pop hit: a tranquil “Kinyongo;” and a livelier “Circus Queen.” David’s masterful accounts of two preludes (#’s 5 and 12) from Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1910 Opus 32 set seemed to float on air.  
For French composer Claude Debussy’s technically demanding 1915 “Sonata for Cello and Piano,” Christopher shaded his tone between mellow and gritty, with pizzicato flurries in the second of its three short movements; Lynelle was a nimble partner. The concert closed with Rorianne’s transcription for two pianos of “Alla Marcia” from Finnish master Jean Sibelius’s 1893 “Karelia Suite,” played to a turn by herself and Lynelle.
Spoken introductions offered helpful background information on the music, often including family-related anecdotes, like David’s recollection of the late patriarch Robert Schrade’s legendary pianism. 

Remaining Sevenars concerts, the next two presenting Springfield Symphony Orchestra musicians, are scheduled for Sundays July 16-August 20 at 4 pm.

REVIEW: Boston Pops Orchestra, " Ragtime: The Symphonic Concert"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
July 8, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Commissioned by the Boston Pops and created by its three authors – librettist Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty – shortly before McNally’s death in 2020, this concert version of "Ragtime" marks the 25th anniversary of the musical’s Broadway opening and presents it on the epic scale that its timeless story deserves. 

Dedicated to McNally, the production was directed by Broadway actor/singer Jason Danieley, who explained in a program note that McNally rewrote scenes into brief narrations by characters, while Ahrens and Flaherty “smartly reduced” their score, “allowing us to jump seamlessly from song to song.” 

The sumptuous, sung-through rendition by a 36-member cast (skillfully deployed across the front of the Koussevitsky Music Shed stage) and an 81-piece orchestra underlined the musical distinction of this tuneful show, including a strong choral dimension, and dramatically amplified its visceral impact. 

"Ragtime" chronicled the overlapping lives of a well-to-do family in 1902 New Rochelle (Mother, Father, their young son, and her Younger Brother), an Eastern European Jewish immigrant (Tateh and his young daughter), and a ragtime pianist from Harlem and his fiancée (Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah), with cameos from real-life figures like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington. 

No higher praise can go to the three protean standouts – Elizabeth Stanley’s Mother, Alton Fitzgerald White’s Coalhouse, and Nikki Renee Daniels’ Sarah – than to say that all evoked the definitive role accounts by their Broadway originators – the late Marin Mazzie’s Mother, Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Coalhouse, and Audra McDonald’s Tony Award-winning Sarah.
Other notable performances were John Cariani’s touching Tateh, Klea Blackhurst’s fiery Emma Goldman, and A.J.Shively’s mercurial Mother’s Younger Brother. Julia Little as Tateh’s daughter and Quinn Murphy as Mother’s son were charmingly precocious children.
Musical highlights included: Sarah’s poignant “Your Daddy’s Son;” her exhilarating duet with Coalhouse, “Wheels of a Dream;” a hilarious baseball satire “What a Game;” Mother’s thrilling “Back to Before;” and Coalhouse’s stirring “Make Them Hear You.” 

With vivid projections of period historical scenes above the stage by designer Wendall Harrington, the production was also a personal triumph for Danieley, as Mazzie’s husband of 21 years, who called it “one of the most important and meaningful projects I’ve undertaken.” 

The large, enthusiastic audience rewarded him, Ahrens, and Flaherty with a well-earned standing ovation.

July 9, 2023

PREVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, "Breaking the Mold"

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
July 22, 2023 at 2:00pm

It's true that not everyone loves opera. It's true that not everyone even likes opera. I don't
possess the inclination or the power to change people's minds, but maybe I can nudge those who already appreciate classical music and/or theatre to give opera an honest try. 

One of my missions in the arts over the course of several decades, has been to encourage listening and watching opera on PBS, videos, and live on stages.

The best way to begin "the study of opera" is through local opera companies. Attending the Met in NYC is the epitome of opera presentation in this country. However, the Met offers a jump into the deep end. Start off small, listening to exemplary skills of local talent. In the case of the Pioneer Valley, this means Berkshire Opera Festival.

In the Spotlight (ITS) recently had the opportunity to interview Tyson Traynor (TT), Marketing and Communications Manager of Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) about this season of music.

ITS: The first program in the 2023 season will showcase arias from numerous operas rather than a full-length opera. Is this one of the best ways to indoctrinate newcomers to opera?

TT: Absolutely. This concert is actually perfect for new listeners. We have titled the concert "Breaking the Mold: Baroque, Bel Canto, and Beyond". BOF will feature a smattering of arias and ensemble music by well-renowned composers like Puccini and Verdi, as well as Handel and Mozart and more.

ITS: Will the music be accessible to those who aren't familiar with opera? 

TT: It is BOF's mission to explore the entire operatic repertoire, and this concert epitomizes that. There are centuries separating the oldest and most recent arias which will be heard. 

Berkshire Opera Festival welcomes Megan Moore back following her resounding success in last season's role as Donna Elvira in Berkshire Opera Festival's production of "Don Giovanni" last season. 
ITS: Tell the readers about BOF's highlight of the summer, "La Boheme".

TT: We are excited that "La Boheme," probably the most well-known opera of all time, will be fully staged performances.

ITS: Who are the members of the orchestra? Are the singers from the Berkshires?

TT: We try to make sure that our orchestra and chorus are filled with as many local/regional artists as possible. For our fully staged production of "La Bohème" this season Benoit/Alcindoro will be played by bass-baritone James Demler who is local. 

However, other principal cast members come from all over the country, and that's because BOF gets the best artists as well as the best audiences.

ITS: What would you say the future holds for BOF?

TT: The mission of Berkshire Opera Festival is to explore the entire operatic repertoire. BOF is proud to continue to present a world-class slate of artists to perform this powerful music.

Review: Chester Theater, "Guards at the Taj"

Town Hall Theater, Chester, MA
through July 16, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Guards at the Taj is the exploration of a horrific and bloody legend surrounding the completion of the Taj Mahal in 1648 India that raises the philosophical and ethical complexities about what beauty is and what human price is paid trying to achieve it. The play is much more than that. It is a compelling story of what director Reena Dutt describes as “brotherhood, loyalty, honor, and dreams that unravel on stage.” It is also must-see theatre.

Photo by Andrew Greta
Written by Rajiv Joseph with a mixture of contemporary speech and traditional Indian
language, Guards was the 2016 Lortel Winner for Best Play and won the Obie Award for Best New American play in the same year. The playwright perfectly paces moments of laugh-out-loud humor against quiet moments of despair and explosions of anger.

Equity actors Abuzar Farrukh (Babur) and Ruchir Khazanchi (Humayun) portray low-level imperial guards, who are tasked with the impossible duty of guarding the Taj Mahal without looking at it. Babur, like an overactive, annoying little brother, is full of big dreams and wild inventions. His energy is so contagious that even Humayan, the serious, rigid, curmudgeon-like best friend, can’t resist trading jokes and gossip for long. Despite their jovial camaraderie, the dark heart of the play slowly unfolds, and their friendship is cruelly tested.

Farrukh’s depth and breadth of emotion is stellar. From his bawdy antics with a twinkle of innocent wonder to his tortured writhing onstage, he is never more committed to his role than in Babur’s guilt-ridden anguish over the atrocities he was forced to commit.

It is also in this scene—when Humayan tenderly washes Babur’s bloody face, humming an achingly eerie song—where Khazanchi’s finest moment is captured, and the audience witnesses the true meaning of brotherhood.

With the re-configuration of a sandstone wall, designed by Travis George, the guard post and prison are wholly atmospheric. Naveen Bhatia’s sound design is heard in the call of jungle birds and the haunting cries of torture between scenes, and James McNamara’s subtle use of pale, shifting light mimics the approaching dawn just as beautifully as the smoky haze of fire casts the prison in the color of blood.

Uniting all the elements of must-see theatre, the director makes the story of an ancient, distant people relevant to our modern society by expressing a range of human experience and emotion through ordinary men. 

Review: Great Barrington Public Theater, "Off Peak"

Great Barrington Public Theater, Great Barrington, MA
through July 23, 2023
By Suzanne Wells

"Off Peak" is unexpectedly therapeutic. Written by Brenda Withers and directed by James Warwick, the play makes its New England debut at Great Barrington Public Theater.

"Off Peak" provides a snapshot into the lives of two lovers who, after 17 years apart, find themselves together on a train headed to Poughkeepsie. Sarita, played by Peggy Pharr Wilson, a former performance musician turned high school, Italian teacher; and Martin, played by Kevin O’Rourke, a supposedly reformed corporate drone, recall various details of their relationship while trapped on a broken-down train. With time on their hands, and the knowledge and experience that comes with age, the couple work through their issues and regrets with each other and with themselves.

Costume Designer, George Veale, create two middle-aged, middle-class people with a slight bohemian past in flowing coats and scarves and shiny, sensible leather shoes. It is easy to imagine Sarita singing on a stage or teaching in a classroom. Just as easy to picture Martin sitting at a desk listening to inspirational videos.
Photo by Kat Humes

The stage is set with an open-ended commuter train car, designed by Sasha Schwartz. The car is equipped with emergency stickers, old leather seats, and grimy doors and windows. Collaborating with Lara Dubin, Lighting Designer; and Jacob Fisch, Sound Designer; the yellow flashing lights in the windows and the sounds of passing trains make for a very realistic scene. The only thing missing is the smell of body odor for which I am grateful.

Both Wilson’s and O’Rourke’s performances effuse emotion. Wilson’s conflicted feelings of surprise and nervousness at seeing her former love evolve into a passionate ire over Martin’s almost insulting view of their past relationship. O’Rourke’s uneasy attempt to make “enlightened” amends for his own perceived faults takes a dramatic turn to a resigned acknowledgement that he may still be in the dark. 

Will these two lovers ever make it to their destination?    

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, "Dutch National Ballet"

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 9, 2023
by Josephine Sarnelli

The debut of Dutch National Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow offers a varied program that demonstrates the breadth of this 62-year-old company, from traditional classical to contemporary ballet.  The wide range of techniques and physical demands in these choreographies could only be executed by outstanding dancers. The entire performance was flawless.  

Photo by Christopher Duggan
Three of the six dances were choreographed by Hans van Manen, the company’s resident choreographer.  The opening “Variations for Two Couples” highlights the simple beauty of form.  The sleek lines of the poses that each couple dances into are magnified by their basic costuming in leotards.  Although balletic, this is definitely not traditional ballet.  Some of the partnering is done in ballroom frame.  The four musical choices add a haunting allure to this award-winning piece.

“Solo,” a second of Manen’s creations, has an exhilarating quality as three male dancers individually explode onto the stage to perform solos.  There is a comic element blended with frenetic energy, athleticism and grace. 

The finale, Manen’s “5 Tango’s” to the music of Astor Piazzolla, begins with seven couples in appropriate costuming … women in black/red short dresses with men in black shirts and trousers.  That is where the likeness to traditional tango ends.  There is no foot play, leg wraps or molinettes as are found in traditional tango.  The second movement has one woman on center stage kneeling and surrounded by six male dancers with whom she individually dances. Perhaps this is a sly reference to the disputed theory that tango developed in the brothels of Argentina.  The fourth movement starts with two men dancing with each other, and later joined by two female dancers. This could be an acknowledgement of how men in Buenos Aires learned and practiced with one another before graduating to dance with women.  This tradition extended from the 1870’s until as recently as the 1950’s.  The high point of “5 Tango’s” occurs in the third movement in which Young Gyu Choi performs a breathtaking solo.   

Wubkje Kuindersma’s 2018 choreography “Two and Only” exposes the raw emotion of love that lingers long after a relationship has ended.  The two men partnering in this dance represent these universal feelings that afflict all relationships. 

“The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” by William Forsythe is a parody of classical ballet … right down to the chartreuse disc-like tutus.  The speed and complexity of the movements offer both homage and rebuke of the classical dance form.

The 1949 “Grande Pas Classique” of Victor Gsovsky is revered as one of the most difficult pas de deux.  Its execution by Elisabeth Tonev and Victor Caixeta is noteworthy.  The overhead lifts appear effortless, as do the graceful fish lifts. The performance earned rousing applause both during the movements and at its conclusion.

Dutch National Ballet truly has something to offer to everyone! 

July 5, 2023

Review: Berkshire Theatre Group, "Million Dollar Quartet"

Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA
through July 16, 2023
by Suzanne Wells
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

"Million Dollar Quartet" is an outstanding theatrical and musical production providing a little comedy, a little drama, and lots of hand-clapping, toe-tapping, finger-snapping music.

Directed and choreographed by Greg Santos, "Million Dollar Quartet" is the story of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and one night of music magic. The brick curtain rises to display the inside of a recording studio complete with instruments, microphones and a sound booth.

The first half showcases Phillips, played by Zach Cossman, as a practical businessman and savvy talent scout who narrates his discovery of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley while each performs a Sun Records’ hit, ultimately turning a recording session into a late-night jam session.

The second half of the play takes a dramatic turn. Having sold Elvis’ contract to save Sun Records, Sam Phillips plans to secure its future only to be confronted with the possibility of having to start all over again. Zach Cossman shines during his dramatic monologue soliciting sympathy from the audience as he conveys his disappointment, frustration, and anger. 
Alessandro Gian Viviano’s portrayal of Elvis is the perfect combination of humility, gratefulness, and regret over leaving Sun Records. When the music plays, he becomes the flirtatious, fun-loving, hip gyrating singer that made women all over the world swoon.

Bill Scott Sheets, dressed in black with a deep baritone voice, depicts Johnny Cash as the somber southern gentleman and role model, torn between guilt and desire.

Billy Rude portrays Jerry Lee Lewis “from Ferriday, Louisiana,” with his sarcastic wit, phenomenal piano playing, and performance-yoga, had all eyes returning to him scene after scene.

Colin Summers, as Carl Perkins, provides the sass. His incredible guitar playing and kicks brings Perkins back from the dead. In addition, Colin Summers, as the musical director, crosses every ‘t’ and dotts every ‘i’ in the timing of this ensemble  flowing seamlessly from light jazz background music to major production numbers, fading out during narratives only to coming back swinging, or “shakin’.”

Ultimately the Christmas Spirit prevails, and goodwill wins out. When the story is complete and the audience is on their feet, out comes the cast, dressed to the nines in sequins, to perform a concert of Legends.

Million Dollar Quartet will run at the Colonial Theater thru July 16, 2023.

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, "Mark Morris Dance Group: The Look of Love"

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 3, 2023
by Josephine Sarnelli

Photo by Christopher Duggan
The return of Mark Morris Dance Group performing “The Look of Love” offered another opportunity to experience the Ted Shawn Theatre’s orchestra pit that debuted last August. Broadway star Marcy Harriell, accompanied by a live band, celebrated the music of Burt Bacharach. Audience members could easily have been satisfied with just a concert by the ensemble and vocalist, but the choreography of Mark Morris brought so much more to Bacharach’s music.

The hour-long program explored 14 of his popular songs from the 1960’s in an all-encompassing study of relationships. It subtly introduced the subject with a non-vocal rendition of “Alfie,” perhaps so the audience can subconsciously address the lyrics in their own minds: “What’s all about. Alfie? … Are we meant to take more than we give? … Without true love we just exist ...”  

The simplicity of the staging, a few brightly colored folding chairs and pillows moved around by the dancers, kept the audience focused on what is truly important. Even the costuming was basic, with gender neutral designs and colors offering a 1960’s vibe.  

The order of the songs played a strong part in the development of Morris’ theme. The innocence of “What the World Needs Now” had couples rotating through partners, as in round-dancing with some modest lifts. Conflict was introduced in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” As the complexity of the relationships developed through the performance, so did the choreography. 

The dancers splashing through “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” had a Gene Kelly quality, reminiscent of “Dancing in the Rain.” Hypnotic formations were created in “Walk on By” as relationships broke down and dancers never connect. As the intensity of the program progressed, the entire troupe effortlessly performed multiple tour en l’airs and lifts by both male and female dancers grew more complicated. Execution to such complex choreography was challenging to recorded music, but clearly demonstrated the skill of these performers dancing to live music.

The lighting in “The Blob” created eerie effects. This unique song also had a place in the theme of relationships, as the entire core meta morphed into one organism. The finale of “I Say a Little Prayer” had the dancers connecting more intimately with one another, as the lyrics echoed that devotion is an element of true love.       

With an evening filled with pleasant surprises, the standing ovation brought the cast, Marcy Harriell, and Mark Morris onto the stage. The Mark Morris Dance Company was a thrilling start to the 91st season of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The Pillow invited us future audiences to return as often as possible.