Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 24, 2023

REVIEW: Shakespeare and Company, "Lunar Eclipse"

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA.
through October 22, 2023
by Beverly Dane
Photo by Maggie Hall
In this 90-minute one-act play, two actors with enormous depth and honesty talk of the
relationship of George and Em, a long-married couple, somewhere in the mid-west on a summer night. A lunar eclipse is happening that night, and as the moon goes through various stages, so do the characters as they reflect on their losses, their hopes, and their lives together.
This is a world premiere of Donald Margulies’ most recent play, and Reed Birney as George, affects a perfect mid-western accent. His wife, Em, played by Karen Allen, is equally up to the challenge of keeping the dialogue crisp as the two reflect on their lives together and their two adopted children. The daughter is successful but lives far away.  The son, recently deceased by his own actions. The play goes back and forth from focusing on family to focusing on American culture from the eyes of these hard-working farmers. Themes of optimism and despair reflect contemporary America, but in Margulies’ clever dialog, the story evolves toward a wonderfully executed emotional state. 
Director James Warwick has staged the piece simply, to underscore the simplicity of their lives, and a voice-over tells us that the moon, like the characters, are entering a different phase of the eclipse. In a coda, we see these actors at another stage of their life, and suddenly, the shocks, the disappointments, and the joys, all become clearer.
Loss and mortality are themes that are presented in simple language, but the words are beautiful, as is the lighting by James McNamara. The simplicity of the costumes by Christina Beam help give us a sense of the economic status of these characters, and they become surrogates for ourselves as we share their disappointments and their grief.   George still can’t grieve for his son, though he’s surrounded by the graves of the dogs he loved throughout his life. Em never really got used to the farm life, having come from the city, but somehow, the juxtaposition of the themes and the actors’ honesty touches the audience deeply, and profoundly.
This is a beautiful story, convincingly executed by two phenomenal actors and a team of creative people who understand how deeply stories like these reach out and make us feel compassion. It may be one of Shakespeare and Company’s finest works this summer.

September 17, 2023

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, “Bright Star”

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 15, 2023
by R.E Smith
Casual observers wouldn’t think that the most wild and crazy comedian of the 1980’s and a
successful pop-chart act from that same time would come together and craft a sincerely old-fashion, nostalgic and affirming musical like “Bright Star”. But that’s what Steve Martin (music, book, story) and Edie Brickell (music lyrics, story) have done. Look deeper into their resumes though and one sees that he is an accomplished, award-winning banjo player and she has always worked in the folk genre.

So, with their common love of bluegrass music as the foundation, at its heart, “Bright Star” is a folk tale, brimming with good vs evil and Appalachian archetypes. It is also simultaneously a throwback to 1940’s musicals and movies, complete with an ahead of her time protagonist, snappy dialogue, an optimistic young soldier, and spunky comedic support.
There are two main protagonists with separate stories, and some fun comes from puzzling out how the disparate narratives will connect. Chelsie Nectow, as Alice Murphy plays the same character at two different ages, jumping back and forth in time. Sometimes steely modern magazine editor, other times clever, rebellious teenager, Nectow excels at both portrayals. Her powerful voice is especially well suited to the more traditional Broadway sounding “Way Back in the Day” and “At Long Last”. Michael Devito nicely embodies the big-dreaming Billy Cane, bright eyed and ready to take on the world. As often befits such an optimistic young man, he has a supportive admirers in good hometown girl, Margo (the delightful Emery Henderson) and worldly big-city gal Lucy (audience favorite Megan Mistretta).
The band, under the lively guidance of music director Elisabeth Weber, is vital to the proceedings, not quite fully visible on stage, but enough to reinforce the idea that the music is as much a character as any other performer on stage. Set designer Josiah Durham has crafted a versatile, intimate space that makes the audience feel comfortable and welcome upon entering the theater.
There is a surprising undercurrent of melancholy running through the proceedings that makes itself apparent from the first two songs, “If You Knew My Story” and “She’s Gone”. But those make the optimistic tone of the title tune that much more welcome. The book is not without some flaws, including a somewhat rushed conclusion, but by that time the audience is too heavily invested in the characters to pay much mind.
“Bright Star” had a fairly short run on Broadway, probably because it was too heartfelt and original for the big city crowd who is always searching for the next spectacle of a falling chandelier or a familiar story adapted from a Gen-X rom-com. But Producing Director Danny Eaton knows, especially these days, that his audience wants to be reassured (while their toes are tapping) that “The Sun is Going to Shine Again”.

September 12, 2023

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, "Emerson String Quartet"

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 10, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Despite the threat of severe thunderstorms (which stayed away), a sold-out house greeted this beloved ensemble – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins - at their 35th and final appearance here before they retire next month after a distinguished 47-year career. All are founding members except Watkins, who succeeded founding cellist David Finckel in 2013. 

The program opened with Mozart’s 10th quartet, in D minor, K. 421. The Emersons’ gentle take on this work of early maturity, dating from 1783, featured a genial “Allegro moderato,” a warm “Andante,” an urgent “Menuetto,” a playful “Allegretto,” and a captivating “Allegro ma non troppo-Piu allegro” finale, with four sharply characterized variations on a dancelike theme. 

Emotions were more heated in Mendelssohn’s 2nd quartet, in A minor, Op. 13. Written in 1827, it reflects the influence of Beethoven’s recent late quartets on the 18-year-old composer. The Emersons offered a turbulent “Adagio-Allegro vivace,” an intense “Adagio non lento,” a fleet “Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto-Allegro di molto,” with a light-as-a-feather mid-section, and a dramatic “Presto” finale, with a quietly moving “Adagio non lento” close. 

Next came the last of many commissions by the Emersons of new pieces from contemporary composers, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2023 quartet “Drink the Wild Ayre.” The title mixes a quote by their namesake, philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Drink the wild air’s salubrity”) with the lyrical nature of a musical “ayre.” The quartet’s committed performance of the Princeton, NJ native’s colorful one-movement work exuded all the carefree, outdoorsy exuberance she could have wanted. 

A masterful account of Ravel’s popular 1903 quartet in F Major closed the program, including a mellow “Allegro moderato-tres doux,” an alternately high-spirited and mysterious “Assez vif-tres rhythme,” a radiant “Tres lent,” and a buoyant closing “Vif et agite.” The Emersons’ technical precision and interpretive depth remained as flawless as ever all afternoon.   

Introducing their heartfelt encore – a string quartet transcription of Bach’s last chorale – Drucker expressed the group’s hope that it would “transport us to a special place.” In return, the enthusiastic audience seemed to echo Snider’s wish: “Here’s to the singular magic of these artistic giants, and the new adventures that await them.” 

This century-old Sunday afternoon concert series of chamber music performed by world-class musicians continues through October 15, with upcoming performances by the Juilliard and Dover String Quartets.