Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 11, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Beethoven 5+5"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
December 8-10, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth “Masterworks” weekend of their 80th anniversary season, guest conductor Gerard Schwarz led the HSO in two classic Beethoven fifths from 1808/09– his last concerto for piano and orchestra, nicknamed the “Emperor;” and perhaps the most famous symphony ever written.

HSO opened its program with the 2022 “Four Hymns Without Words” for trumpet and orchestra by African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork. He notes that “each begins with melody and harmony that sound like a hymn tune” and calls his music “tonal, lyrical, and very rhythmic.” The clarion tone of soloist John Charles Thomas, HSO assistant principal trumpet, and lively support from his colleagues and Schwarz revealed many colors in this stirring 10-minute suite.

Orion Weiss
Hailstork’s conservative modernism actually highlighted Beethoven’s radicalism two centuries earlier. At 40-minutes, his “Emperor” concerto was the longest written to date, and it started the now standard composer practice of writing all the notes formerly improvised in solo passages. Nationally acclaimed Ohio-born pianist Orion Weiss was a powerful and eloquent soloist, easily meeting Beethoven’s every technical challenge and the shifting emotional demands of a majestic opening “Allegro” movement, a sublime “Adagio un poco mosso,” and a rollicking “Rondo: Allegro” finale. Schwarz and the HSO were robust partners.

In complete contrast, Weiss responded to a rousing ovation with a ravishing encore of the hushed “Nocturne” from Grieg’s “Lyric Suite” that held the audience’s rapt attention for nearly five minutes.

The concert closed with an electrifying account of Beethoven’s fifth symphony that made this musical warhorse sound new again. From the familiar opening four-note motif of a tempestuous “Allegro con brio,” a flowing “Andante con moto,” and a stormy “Allegro” transition to a triumphant grandest of all grand “Allegro” finales, Schwarz had the HSO playing with white-hot intensity. Now Music Director of the Palm Beach Symphony, with previous experience leading the Seattle Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, his professional skill and engaging stage presence were much appreciated in Hartford.

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (February 9-11), “Enduring Love Stories,” will feature Music Director Carolyn Kuan and guest husband-and-wife duo Rupert Boyd on guitar and Laura Metcalf on cello in a world premiere titled "Girl Meets Boyd" by Clarice Assad, with music by Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Offenbach.

December 9, 2023

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, "Christmas on the Rocks"

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through December 23, 2023
by Jarice Hanson
Jen Cody as "Karen"
From the moment you enter the theater and see the set flanked by two video screens running scenes from favorite childhood classic television shows and hear pre-show Christmas carols at bar-level volume, you know this show will be something a little different. The references to childhood icons and contemporary music trigger memories of Christmases past—the good—the bad—and the weird. For 95-minutes the audience becomes a family of strangers who are united by the collective popular culture that surrounds the Holiday Season.
“Christmas on the Rocks” was originally conceived of and directed by Rob Ruggiero in 2013, and Ruggiero has continued to direct all 11 iterations of the show since then. The concept is simple, but beautifully set up: the set is a seedy bar on Christmas Eve, with various characters from old TV programs popping in for a scene with the bartender. This year, the bartender, “Larry,” is played by the wonderful Richard Kline, known to many in the audience from the old television show, “Three’s Company” where he also played a character named “Larry." And the audience loves him.
Two actors, Harry Bouvy and Jen Cody have returned this year to alternate in the 8 scenes written by 7 different playwrights: John Cariani, Judy Gold, Jenn Harris, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Edwin Sanchez, and Matthew Wilkas. One of this year’s new offerings, “A Smidge of Midge” by Edwin Sanchez and Jacques Lamarre, capitalizes on this year’s big hit, “Barbie,” but the show wraps up with an old favorite, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Lamarre that is funny, poignant, and just the right note on which to tie the bow on this Holiday gift to the audience. 
It's clear that this show has become a favorite for many families (those with older children because of the adult situations and language) and groups of friends, because some people in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud or mutter something like “I love this one” when they saw Bouvy or Cody enter as characters they loved. Familiarity, whether it is with the actors, the characters, or the situations, fits the intimate space of TheaterWorks Hartford and makes this a Holiday celebration even the most holiday-weary audience member can enjoy. 
Kline, Cody, and Bouvy obviously love working together and their chemistry on stage is palpable. They seem to be having a wonderful time, and the audience apparently agrees. “Christmas on the Rocks” is a marker of our culture—especially for those of us who grew up with television as a part of our holiday, and a celebration of our collective past. It’s nice to see characters we recognize, even though they’ve grown up and have grown-up problems.  And yes, as the program professes, it is a little bit naughty.

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, “Dreamgirls”

Goodspeed Opera House, Haddem, CT
through December 30, 2023
by R. Smith

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
“Dreamgirls” is a veiled variation on the turbulent story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Berry Gordy and Motown Records. Perceived as a more “recent” show (it premiered in 1981) it is probably one that newer theatergoers have heard of but never seen. Even the Hollywood adaptation came out 17 years ago. Although having a large cast, and being ostensibly about group dynamics and family, it is individual elements that stand out in Goodspeed’s latest revival. 

When the ensemble works, it is in the group musical numbers that lovingly recreate the Motown sound, especially in the first part of the first act which is a rapid-fire musical journey through the mid/late 1960s. The title song, for instance, is spot-on “girl group.” There’s also some doo-wop, smooth R&B and even a little disco.

Then there’s the star making “(And I am Telling You) I’m Not Going” which belongs to the character of Effie. Even though the character is not immediately sympathetic, by the time this showstopper comes along, she’s earned the right to her pain. Director Lili-Anne Brown’s notes indicate that the first priority was to cast actors who happen to also sing and dance well and this Trejah Bostic, as Effie, certainly does. The powerhouse number succeeds because it is driven by emotion as much as vocal prowess and Bostic delivers both.

Mykal Kilgore’s character Jimmy (a James Brown surrogate) has just as many trials and tribulations as the title characters, and may actually have made for a pretty solid show just on his own. Jimmy is a lot of “id” and that requires comedy, pathos, manic energy and sheer personality to make the audience love him as they do. Kilgore’s facial expressions, line delivery and other-worldly singing voice exudes the force and depth of his talent. The energy level of the show is elevated each time he is on stage.

Much credit must be given to the performers and director for overcoming some inherent weakness in the book, which doesn’t give the characters much depth but rather relies on archetype. Ta-Tynisa Wilson, as Deena, especially, does all she can to give a very passive character some life, with her body language and presence. Never given her own true solo moment, Wilson still makes you take notice when she gets to step up and sing.

The show is full of visual excitement as well, evidenced by Samantha C. Jones costume design that spans almost 2 decades. Even the proscenium of the stage is bedecked in a shimmering fringe.

It is fitting that Goodpseed, with its mission of preserving and reviving American musicals, has staged this production and thoughtfully engaged an artistic team that brings a unique and appropriate authenticity to the production. While not an all-out, non-stop blockbuster, “Dreamgirls” has amazing moments of musical theatre greatness that should be seen by any devotee of the genre.