Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 29, 2024

Review: Playhouse on Park, “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B”

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT 
January 24 – February 18, 2024
by Shera Cohen

Needless to say, the title prepares the audience; this play will have two important elements – comedy and espionage. Written by Kate Hamill, whose genre is primarily revisits of classic novels, “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B” brings these sleuths into the 21st century.

The erstwhile duo solves three mini-mysteries before the ultimate cat and mouse game to apprehend Holmes’ arch enemy Moriarty. The unlikely duo does the best they can, even though they are girls. Hamill often pokes fun at male egos.

Hamill spins and twists, all the while tossing in puns, TV theme music, and malaprops.
The cast of four work well together; the two women as well as two other actors in multiple roles, totaling an approximate 12 characters populating the stage, but never all at once. 

Holmes and Watson, acted by Kirsten Peacock and Kelly Letourneau, respectively, create completely opposite characters in stance, voice, and appearance. Each are obviously fine actors, having their fingers on what makes audiences laugh.

Director Kelly O’Donnell moves her characters at a clip in what is a long play that easily could have been boring. However, the Holmes and Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels boasted humorous repartee with a twinkle in their eyes. O’Donnell and the actresses definitely bring out the fun, but one dimensionally. I don’t know if in the script and/or the director’s vision, but the two lead characters don’t like each other for most of the play.

Nick Nudler, as every male, introduces the play directly to the audience as a macabre soothsayer. Breaking the fourth wall immediately brings us onto the stage. This schtick repeats a few times, adding an unexpected comic touch. It is a pleasure when Nudler enters, literally opening the door to add more humor to what is already onstage.

In four separate roles is Megan McDermott. Her primary skill is physical humor, which along with her effective English accent, make her quite a hoot. Never upstaging, McDermott is given her moments to shine, and she grabs them.

Playhouse on Park (POP, to me) has 14 years under its belt. It’s a small theatre, employs talented actors, and the presenters and crew hold nothing back in creating the best that theatre can be.

January 16, 2024

Commentary: SSO, "MLK, Jr. Celebration"

Springfield Symphany Hall, Springfield, MA
January 14, 2024
by Julia Hoffman

We appreciate when art lovers read "In the Spotlight." On occasion, individuals write to us directly. Because this patron's praise of SSO's January concert was so exuberant and honest, "In the Spotlight" presents it along with that of our music reviewer Lisa Covi, here.

On January 13, 2024, The City of Firsts, Springfield, MA, experienced a Night of Firsts with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Damien Sneed, guest conductor for this evening, presented the world premiere “A Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. A beautiful arrangement commissioned by Springfield Symphony and composed by Sneed featured three Duke Ellington songs. Sneed is multi-talented as a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer, and arts educator whose work spans multiple genres. Growing up with Gospel music in Augusta, GA, he refused to be defined by one genre alone and successfully branched out to Classical and Jazz. Springfield reaped the benefit of his leap outside the lines.  

In the Symphony pre-talk, [I urge symphony audiences to attend these free, short lectures] we were introduced to our featured artists; two young men of immense talent. Jason Flowers II from St Paul, MN studied Master of Music in Piano Performance at Manhattan School of Music and Master of Education at Columbia University. He is now a music teacher employed by NYC Department of Education. Teaching science and math in the Bronx, as well as music, is awe-inspiring enough, but his talent at the keyboard is undoubtably where his future lies. Flowers' featured piece, "Yamekra," written by the great jazz pianist James P. Johnson in 1927, pays homage to the Negro settlement on the outskirts of Savannah.

The second featured artist of the night, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson, The SSO program booklet states, he studied in his hometown of London at the Royal College of Music and now studies for his Master of Music in Clarinet at the Juilliard School, NYC. His piece was a jazz suite for clarinet composed in 1993 by David Baker. Three Ethnic Dances featured as many varied styles; jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso.

Women were not left off the program. In this case, African-American female composers were highlighted. Presented were Florence Price's "Colonial Dance and Concert Overture No.1" based on the spiritual “Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” Additionally, Margaret Bond’s Montgomery's "Variations" was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To hear a 74-piece symphony play jazz with such talented featured artists will long be remembered. Congratulations to SSO for inspired programming, for giving showcase to voices less heard, and for providing another level of talent that we’ve not heard before from our beloved Symphony. This was a very special evening. As Damien Sneed said when introducing the two young talents, "Jason Flowers II and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson are going to be famous, and very soon. But you heard it here First." 

January 15, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Martin Luther King, Jr. Program"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
January 13, 2024
by Lisa Covi

It was a cold dark night on January 13 in Springfield's Court Square when Symphony Hall welcomed a large crowd into its warm musical celebration. Guest conductor Damien Sneed and soloists Jason Flowers and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played as one with the orchestra to fill our ears and hearts with the pastoral harmonies and dissonances evoking scenes of the American South.

The occasion afforded the opportunity to showcase the talents of current and past Black artists who demonstrated to the diverse audience the contributions, richness, and skill of our African-American orchestral heritage.

The program, dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., featured works by African-American composers. Two symphonic works by Florence Price, originally performed in the 1920’s, opened each half of the program. Her “Colonial Dance” and the “Concert Overture No.1” alternated plaintive melodies with broad pastoral harmonies. Price was the first African American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price's gift for arousing drama and emotion also led to her success in silent films accompaniments.

Florence Price
Los Angeles Sentinel
Price’s student and friend Margaret Bonds provided the second orchestral work of the evening, “The Montgomery Variations in 6 parts,” also produced a movie-soundtrack quality. The lyricism of each part depicted percussive undertones of suspense, hopeful voices of the horns, and the regal dignity of nonviolent response. This work captured Montgomery, Alabama's response to the mid-1950 bus boycott and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. 

Jason Flowers, an exciting young pianist, performed a remarkable interpretation of James R. Johnson's “Yamekraw,” a musical poem portraying the Savannah Harlem Renaissance artistic community. Inspired by Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” critics have assessed this piece as capturing a more authentic sound than Gershwin's work. Sneed impressively coordinated the solo passages with the orchestral syncopation, vividly illustrating the productive creative community.

During intermission, the young man from Amherst Regional High School who won the Senator Edward W. Brooke Young Oratorical Competition spoke eloquently on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” 

A British musician, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played a lively jazz clarinet solo in “Three Ethnic Dances” by David Baker. His ebullient sound soared between and above the orchestra's, manifesting the jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso. 

Duke Ellington performed in Springfield several times. His spirit returned to Symphony Hall when guest conductor, Damien Sneed, composed and conducted the world premiere of his “Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. This performance capped the evening with the full measure of joyful expression to send the audience out to bravely face the challenges of 2024.

January 12, 2024

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through February 4, 2024
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Katie Rankin
Oscar Wilde subtitled his best-known play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” as “a trivial
comedy for serious people”. Those words were certainly a pro pos in 1890’s England. It is likely that none, but the upper crust of London attended theatre. If those patrons of 120+ years-ago could laugh at themselves and their ilk, then Wilde’s work was a success.

Apparently, “Earnest’s” climb to the near-top of the “old chestnut” history of plays is the reason that thousands of productions are performed by hundreds of theatre troupes each year.

The Majestic’s 2023/24 season, as well as several in recent years, focuses a good deal on new plays and/or contemporary writers. Bravo! If no one had given Shakespeare, Moliere, and Wilde, et al, opportunities and stages, where would the importance of theatre be now?

Quickly into Act I, of the three-act play, “Earnest’s” plot is clear. In the stylized format of many theatre pieces, included are mistaken identities, foundlings finding families, servants far more knowing than their employers, and instant coupling (usually 3 = 6 people).

With Rand Foerster, the director at the helm, and a cast of primarily Equity actors, “Earnest” successfully brings out the humor of the turn of the last century and interprets it to modern-day Majestic patrons.

Rylan Morsbach and Peter Evangelista (characters Jack and Algernon, respectively) are at the crux of the shenanigans. Both, at one time or another, are named Earnest, making for funny confusion. Morsbach, as the serious Earnest, often performs at Berkshire Theatre Group, will undoubtedly go far in his career. Evangelista portrays the more frivolous Earnest. This is essentially a “buddy play”.

Caelie Scott Flanagan and Alexandra O’Halloran (Cecily and Gwendolyn) portray the fianc├ęs. True love at first sight accentuates the farce. Flanagan matches Cecily with frivolity and naivete. O’Halloran is far more severe in language and stance; equal to serious Earnest.

The final of the three duos are Miss Prism (Krista Lucas) and Reverend Chasuble (Peter Hicks) in supporting roles. Yet, it is this match that steals the stage. Lucas, especially, depicts Miss Prism as dour but with hidden sparks of passion and humor.

In a key role moving the play forward is Lisa Abend (Lady Bracknell). Representing the top of London’s caste system, Bracknell’s all-business sets every important of the play into place.

No role is too small. Tom Dahl, as the butler, takes every advantage to deliver vocal and physical humor. He is a natural.

“Earnest” is costumed and coiffed well, from polished spats to feather hats.

The show date was only the third, yet every audience member deserves the best that the company and venue can offer each night. Yes, the 3-act play moved quickly, but oftentimes with lines thrown away as asides; the audience waits for punchlines. Many moments were neglected when opportunities for laughs could have easily occurred simply by a pause. Perhaps as the play’s run continues, the director, cast, or audience will notice that “Earnest” has more potential in an otherwise excellent production.

January 6, 2024

REVIEW: Berkshire Bach Society, "Bach at New Year’s"

Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
December 30, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

This annual concert presented every New Year’s weekend in three Berkshire-area venues by
professional musicians from the region and beyond can always be counted on to send the old year out and welcome the new year in on a high note.

This year’s program, led by Eugene Drucker, Music Director of the seasoned sixteen-member Berkshire Bach Ensemble (and a founding violinist of the recently retired Emerson String Quartet), opened with a sprightly reading of Corelli’s so-called “Christmas” Concerto, inscribed “for the night of Christmas,” likely in 1690. The unusual closing pastorale was especially tender.
Kenneth Weiss then soloed in a lively account of Bach’s 1734 first concerto for harpsichord and orchestra, with a notably solemn central “Adagio” movement. Drucker (otherwise leading from the concertmaster’s chair) was next an expressive soloist in the same master’s 1730 violin concerto in A minor, where again the slow movement, this time marked “Andante,” made the deepest emotional impression.

Intermission featured an entertaining rarity, the five-movement 1728 “Gulliver Suite” for two violins by Bach’s friend Telemann, depicting episodes from Jonathan Swift’s then recent (1726) novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” Violists Ronald Gorevic and Liuh-Wen Ting played a transcription for two violas with humor and verve, including a stately “Lilliputian Chaconne” and a brisk “Brobdingnagian Gigue.”

Telemann’s concerto for two oboes and bassoon, “Concerto alla francese,” next showcased oboists Margaret Owens and Jessica Warren and bassoonist Stephen Walt as elegant soloists. Flutist Judith Mendenhall and violinist Michael Roth then soloed virtuosically in Handel’s 1734 Concerto Grosso, Op. 3/3, which offers, in Drucker’s words, “fugal writing that almost rivals Bach’s command of counterpoint.”

Next up was Biber’s wild-sounding, war-inspired 1673 suite “Battalia a 10,” whose “March” asks the double bass player to imitate the sound of a snare drum by placing a sheet of paper between the strings and the fingerboard, a move skillfully executed by Rick Ostrovsky. The concert closed with an exuberant performance of Bach’s second “Brandenburg” Concerto, which highlighted the clarion trumpet sound of Maximilian Morel.

This two-hour plus festival of Baroque music was further enhanced by the Academy’s warm yet clear acoustics. 

The Berkshire Bach Society next presents organist Renee Anne Louprette on February 10, 2024 at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Housatonic, MA.