Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 27, 2024

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Liana Paniyeva"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT
February 25, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Liana Paniyeva
After a prior appearance here and two at Sevenars in Worthington, MA, all within the past two years, Ukrainian-born, Boston-based pianist Liana Paniyeva is now a beloved local visitor, as evidenced by the rapturous welcome of a capacity audience at her return engagement in South Windsor.  

Her technically challenging and emotionally demanding program opened with a powerful rendition of Cesar Franck’s rarely heard 1884 “Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue.” Paniyeva’s tense, foreboding Prelude, solemn, probing “Chorale,” and fiercely dramatic “Fugue” captured both the piece’s mystical fervor and its virtuosic thrills.  

This was followed by stirring accounts of Johannes Brahms’ two 1879 Rhapsodies, Op. 79. Paniyeva took a bold approach to the turbulent opening notes of the first rhapsody, in B minor, easing into the lyrical repose of the middle section. She invested the calmer second rhapsody, in G minor, with dark and brooding undertones.

Next came Boris Lyatoshynsky’s much less familiar five Preludes, Op. 44, written in his native Ukraine during World War II. Reflecting influences from later Scriabin to Ukrainian folk music, it was easy to hear echoes of her roots in eastern Ukraine and its current war with Russia in Paniyeva’s poignant readings of the tragic first prelude, the radiant second, the restless third, the melancholy fourth, and the hopeful fifth.   

The program closed with an electrifying version of Frederic Chopin’s 1844 Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, one of the Polish master’s most difficult yet rewarding scores. Paniyeva heightened the sharp contrasts among its four movements, with a mercurial “Allegro maestoso” leading into a fleet, headlong “Scherzo,” a ravishing “Largo,” in which time almost stood still, and an alternately tumultuous and triumphant “Presto non tanto” finale.

Paniyeva combines a modest stage presence with playing of absolute clarity, technical security, and interpretive maturity, which has made her a prizewinner in many international competitions and augurs a long career of musical substance and distinction.  

All concerts in this 42-year-old series take place on Sundays at 2:00 pm, and open seating in its acoustically first-rate auditorium begins a half-hour earlier. SWCA will next present cellist Michael Katz and pianist Spencer Myer on March 24, 2024.

February 19, 2024

Review: Majestic Theater, "The Ladyslipper"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
February 18 - March 24, 2024 
by Lisa Covi

"The Ladyslipper" is a bar in a rural town in the Northeastern US where the owner has died and prospects for reopening are uncertain. The closeup venue and professional production values of this play draw the audience immediately into a warm familiarity. Daniel Rist's lighting and Dawn McKay's costume design blend to provide an evocative and workable space for the intimate action.

Mark Dean as Jebb and Jay Sefton's Hank feel authentic and recognizable as the cook and bartender, respectively, who know about all the goings-on except where their own lives are going. Enter the ladies. Like the glorious petals of the bar's mascot, they infuse life and romance into the play. Lana, played by Madeleine Maggio, is the British heiress apparent, having received this establishment from Rosie, her recently deceased birth mother. Chelsea Nectow's Trisha, the lawyer handling the transaction is the daughter of Rosie's best friend Estelle (played by Cate Damon). Despite the admiration of Jebb and Hank, Trisha is imminently to be wed to Jimmy Collins (Jay Torres), her childhood sweetheart. The actors inhabit these characters so completely that we immediately perceive the control Jimmy tries to exert on Trisha, the exotic air that Lana imports from her life in Spain, and the tenderness between mother Estelle and daughter Trisha.

This play by Danny Eaton, the long-time producing director of Majestic Theater, was first produced as a live reading in 2020.

Photo by Kait Rankins
The responsive audience was clearly entertained with the laughter during the comical dialog between Jebb and Hank and audible gasps during the surprises post-intermission. However, the play does not yet feel fully edited because the plot is bogged down with exposition in the first six scenes. For example, the plethora of detail about each character could be better balanced by some struggle or foreshadowing to enhance the comedy or drama. 

Without revealing the major plot twist, the compelling action happens primarily late in the play. When it does occur, the production hits a sweet spot of acting in a well-designed space with delicate moments between different subsets of players.

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, "10x10 New Play Festival"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through March 10, 2024
By Jarice Hanson

Kicking off Barrington Stage Co.’s 30th year, the 13th annual “10 X 10 New Play Festival” is
ceremonially the start of the theatre season in the Berkshires. The “10 X 10” is often bold, edgy, and frequently, very funny. It  allows audiences to see some stalwart Barrington actors switch characters seamlessly as they leap into 10 different 10-minute plays.  
The opening number is always a highlight of this festival and this year’s “Winter Nights,” sung to the tune of “Summer Nights” from “Grease,” is particularly witty and representative of cold New England and in particular, the Pittsfield location and the long theatrical legacy of BSC.
The very talented cast this year includes Ross Griffin, Gisela Chípe, Matt Neely, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Naire Poole, and Robert Zuckerman. These consummate pros know how to take the intimate stage and play to the audience. When they seemingly morph from one character to another, sometimes transforming their look, age, and ethnicity, their talents are on full display.
The plays chosen for this year’s collection range widely in scope and style. The playwrights include some veteran writers and some relative newcomers. Five of the plays are directed by Alan Paul, Artistic Director of BSC, and Matthew Penn, television and theatre director. One of the joys of the collection is that each play is presented as a unique vision of the authors’ work. Congratulations to the directors for finding the right balance and interpretation of these very different short plays.
Evaluating 10-minute plays is sometimes tricky. Often short plays lack any wrap up, or conclusion. But even more importantly, can the authors, directors, and actors tell a complete story? Among the most successful in this year’s lineup are “The Consultant” by Brent Askari, which pits a senior couple (Peggy Pfarr Wilson and Robert Zuckerman) who have won a session with a sex therapist in a raffle, against the methods of the therapist (Gisela Chípe). “Meeting Fingerman” by Mark Evan Chimsky prompts painful thoughts of life in a pogram where Zuckerman portrays an elderly Jewish man who recalls a shameful past when confronted by a younger writer, played by Ross Griffin. A note about this one—Zuckerman’s portrayal is so beautifully crafted; the price of admission is worth watching his master class in character interpretation. 
“Snow Falling Faintly” by James McLindon tells the story of a mother and son, lovingly portrayed by Peggy Pharr Wilson and Ross Griffin in an existential treatise about snow shoveling, loss, and moving on. Finally, Glenn Alterman’s clever “A Doubt My Play” with the entire cast, is a very insightful examination of playwriting from inside the playwright’s head!

February 13, 2024

Review: Springfield Symphony Orchestra “Havana Nights”

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
February 10, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Springfield Symphony Orchestra's presentation of “Havana Nights” was a fantastic performance that injected the Latino rhythms into the mild February night. Conductor Nick Palmer kicked off the program with lively dances and Spanish songs interpreted by featured soloist Camille Zamora. It seemed as though the castanets and cymbals amplified the enthusiasm of the crowd for the bright tones and snappy tempo. The hall was as full as I've seen it, and the audience's enthusiasm overflowed.

Even the orchestra members appeared relaxed and primed for something special; some wore bright tops and most men left their neckties at home. One exception was the resplendent Zamora who was dressed to the nines in formal gowns appropriate to her operatic soprano. She conversed with the audience in both Spanish and English with aplomb. She described Gimenez's “Zapateada” as Verdi takes “La Traviata” to his favorite salsa bar. 

Zamora’s soaring lyricism blended so well with the orchestra that it sounded like she was singing duets with the violins or wind section. Performing in front of a standing microphone did seem odd for concert rendition, but the music blended well. In some of the orchestral pieces, the sound was so striking, I searched the stage for a pianist or accordionist (perhaps because I was trained on the keyboard).

Composer Jeff Tyzik's “Tango” featured a solo oboist whose melodious part contrasted sharply with a staccato violin introduction where the strings seemed to scream and cheer the reed's dancing line. Ernesto Lecuona's “Andalucia” evoked the contours of a Spanish countryside with a bold arrangement. Tyzik's “Three Latin Dances” closed the first half with a modern Cuban feel that revealed the influence of his work with Chuck Mangione in unique chord changes and swinging transitions.

The Mambo Kings
The concert's second half was even more dynamic. On stage were The Mambo Kings’ energetic and improvisational style, whether blending into orchestral arrangements or performing as a quintet. I could feel composer Dave Brubeck's infectious smile in pianist (and Peruvian) Richard Delaney's arrangement of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Percussionist Tony Padilla's congo beats alternated with the traditional jazz refrain creating an exciting showcase for each musician's solo. John Vivattini held court on flute and saxophone.

Camille Zamorra returned to perform “Besame Mucho,” “Como Fue,” and the encore piece “Sabor A Mi” matching style and pitch with the ensemble. The showstopper was composer Tito Puente's “Oye, Como Va” featuring an extended solos by bassist Hector Diaz and percussionist Wilfredo Colon. The latter substituted a new drumstick after dropping one without missing a beat. 

Although only one couple took up the conductor's invitation to dance in the aisle, many heads were bobbing and the appearance of phones taking video gave the concert a rock-concert vibe. The standing ovation felt sincere and well-deserved for both guests and orchestra musicians. Bravo and Ole for this season's most memorable and enjoyable concert yet.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Enduring Love Stories"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
February 9-11, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With five musical selections about love stories and a married couple as featured performers,
the fifth “Masterworks” weekend of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season offered an early celebration of Valentine’s Day.

What better way to open the program than with Tchaikovsky’s popular 1869 “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture"? Music Director Carolyn Kuan led the orchestra in an incandescent account, which captured the foreboding tension of the quiet opening, the drama of the family feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and the youthful passion of Shakespeare’s famous lovers.    
Boyd Meets Girl

Next came the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s concerto for guitar, cello, and orchestra, "Anahata,” commissioned by the HSO for, and played here by, the duo “Boyd Meets Girl” – Australian-born guitarist Rupert Boyd and his wife, cellist Laura Metcalf. The composer notes, “Anahata," “unhurt”…in Sanskrit, refers to the heart,” and “its three movements explore…love’s wounds [and] its most precious dreams.”

From a stirring “The Color Green” to a haunting “Desert Roses” and a lively “Full Circle Reel,” the elegant solos and duets by Boyd and Metcalf blended sensitively with Assad’s brilliant orchestration (including water bowls), which reflected the Latin rhythms of her native Brazil.

The duo’s encore was a jazzy yet poignant setting of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” evoking America’s love affair with the Fab Four on the 60th anniversary weekend of their first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show".  

Tchaikovsky’s love for and regular visits to Italy inspired some of his finest music, like his 1880 “Capriccio Italien,” which quotes local tunes he heard in Rome. The HSO reveled in its solemn opening fanfare, sprightly folk dances, giddy tarantella, and closing blaze of orchestral color.

This was followed by a radiant performance of the sublime “Adagietto” movement from Mahler’s 1901-1902 fifth symphony, a musical love letter to his wife-to-be, Alma, which Kuan and the orchestra dedicated to beloved recently deceased 57-year HSO violinist Frank Kulig.

The overture to Offenbach’s 1858 opera “Orpheus in the Underworld” proved a surprisingly apt concert closer in these musicians’ exuberant reading. Its cheerful “Can Can” tune suggested a happier ending to the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice than his failure to bring her back from dead.  

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (March 8-10) will feature music of Copland and Bernstein.

February 10, 2024

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, “The Garbologists”

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through February 25, 2024
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by Mike Marques
With a title like “The Garbologists” you have to be ready for just about anything. TheaterWorks Hartford’s newest show has a promising premise.  Two sanitation workers, an old hand, and a newbie, are assigned to work together. The one with experience, Danny, played by Jeff Brooks, is a White career sanitation worker with no pretense about what he does, and a wealth of knowledge about how to do the job right. For him, being a sanitation worker is an art form, and he subtly instructs us about the dangers of doing this type of essential work.  
Marlowe, played by Bebe Nicole Simpson, is Black and has an Ivy League degree. There’s something in her past that she doesn’t want to talk about, and why she has become a sanitation worker is part of the unfolding of this story.
The comedy begins with both starting their day in the sanitation truck.  Danny cracks Dad jokes, and Marlowe scrolls on her phone while sipping coffee. They are clearly mismatched, so where might this plot go? Will it be a love story? A buddy adventure? A race/class theme? 
There’s a lot to like in this 90-minute production, including Director Rob Ruggiero’s clever use of the stage crew dressed as sanitation workers themselves. The amazing set design by Marcelo Martínez Garcia, with authentic costumes by Joseph Shrope and lighting design by John Lasiter present a unified vision of the garbage-laden streets of New York City.The pacing is brisk and there is something very appealing about a story focusing on people who are often overlooked.
Lindsay Joelle’s script is effective in giving the characters backstories and focusing on the idea of a civilization’s record being comprised of what we throw away, but the writing is somewhat uneven and at times the dialog seems a bit manipulative. What seems to be lacking between the characters is chemistry that raises the possibility of an outcome that propels the action toward the conclusion. At the same time, what emerges is a heart-felt twist that is realistic, and at the same time contrived.
Theatre depends on the characters changing as the plot develops, and Brooks infuses his performance with an energy that is consistent and totally believable. Simpson’s authenticity is charming, and she is most effective when warning Danny to curb his exuberance in a heated family confrontation, but the tension between the two seems uneven. At the same time, the show its audience sees on opening night is not the same show that emerges throughout the show’s run, and as these two talented performers become more connected over time, “The Garbologists” may become the type of play that has a long life on many stages.  

Review: The Bushnell, "Disney's Frozen"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
February 9 - 18, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

The Magic of Disney comes alive in the musical production of "Frozen" directed by Andrew Flatt, Thomas Schumacher, and Anne Quart. The story of two sisters who face their greatest fears and discover, that despite their differences, their love for each other will (surprise!) save everyone.

Set in a Nordic kingdom, the combination of scenery and an interactive light display magically transform a warm, inviting palace with a lilac filled garden to a sparkling, solitary, ice castle on top of a mountain.

Anna, played by Lauren Nicole Chapman, gives an energetic, occasionally salacious, performance. Everyone will fall in love with Anna’s ever hopeful, sometimes challenging, awkward youthfulness and her warm, loving heart. Chapman‘s talented acting, singing and dancing abilities make her a joy to see live onstage.

Elsa, played by Caroline Bowman, is a solitary, young woman fearful of her own abilities, but devoted to her family. Bowman does an excellent job of conveying the conflict between duty and desire, although at times, it is difficult to perceive her as a young woman coming of age.  However, all disbelief is suspended when she sings. Her voice enchantingly transports you into the storyline so that her inner struggles become your own.

Hans, played by Preston Perez, is an actor to keep an eye on. His transformation from loving prospective husband to calculating, manipulative usurper shocks the audience so much so they booed him during the end of the night accolades. It is said, if you can play the villain well, you can play anything. This reviewer looks forward to seeing Perez, perform anything in the future.   

Special mention and kudos go to Jeremy Davis as Olaf, and Dan Plehal as Sven. Admittedly it was a little distracting to see the puppet master, Davis appear with Olaf, but within seconds of his?/heir? entrance, the two merge into one lovable snowman.  Plehal‘s mimicry of a reindeer is so realistic that one questions if Sven is animatronic or human. In addition, comic relief is provided by Evan Duff as Lord Weselton, and Jack Brewer as Oaken is “Hygge”.

There is so much more to say and even more to personally enjoy in this production of "Frozen". It is a must-see experience for the whole family. 

REVIEW: Opera House Players, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
February 8 – 18, 2024
by Shera Cohen

When I first read that Opera House Players (OHP) had chosen “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” for its 2023/24 season my thought was that this community theatre troupe was taking on a huge task. Having attended OHP productions for 30+ years, I set my expectation level high. 

Current trends for plays in particular, as well as some musicals, are smaller and shorter. This is not the case with “Gentleman” which comes in at two and a half hours + intermission. The plotline of Act I is divided into seven sections with never a lull in dialog or music.

“Gentleman” is based on the 1940’s Alec Guinness movie, “Kind Hearts & Coronets”. Not one of my favorite 4-star movies and not as funny as I hoped, but that’s only my take. In his pre-Obi Wan days, Guinness was quite the actor! 

The play’s narrator, reading his diary aloud to himself and to the audience, breaks the fourth wall from the get-go; a nice method to bring the audience into the story so that we care about our hero (Monty) even more than we would possibly like any other baby-faced, naïve, destitute serial killer.

No worries, that’s not a spoiler. The director’s notes in the playbook tell us about Monty’s climb on the social ladder and search for overdue respect from his uppity relatives in the musty D’Ysquith family.

With the D’Ysquith  patriarch meeting his maker, eight heirs stand in line for the inheritance. Kudos to Zach Bakken, who plays all of the D’Ysquith family members: men and women, young and old. Each caricature seems funnier than the last as Bakken quickly changes costumes, accents, volume, demeanor, and voice. Bakken is a hoot, extremely versatile, and undoubtedly can do anything. Let’s see more of him!

The much-mentioned Monty Navarro is portrayed by Christopher Marcus. This attractive young man can be compared to Bakken as Laurel to Hardy, Abbott to Costello. The two play-off each other with ease. Marcus is thin and sinewy, using  physical humor to its optimum. Since this musical’s key factor is to be funny, you wouldn’t expect Marcus to be an excellent singer. He is! 

Monty’s love interests are Sibella, played by Caroline Darr; and Phoebe, played by Nicole Marie Newell. Darr’s mistress-role is more hysterical than lusty. Newell’s fiancé-role, again, is exceptionally funny. Each woman’s voice could easily be heard on a Broadway stage.

The orchestra, led by Graham Christian, even played funny, if that makes sense; a lot of schtick from the pit.

So much more to say. “Excellent” will have to be the single adjective to those on sound, lights, costumes, and sets with painted backdrops.

None of what I saw onstage, and surmise happened backstage would have been superb without the deft hand of Director Marla Ladd. Her bio is extensive. New to New England, any group who manages to swoop up Ladd in the future, will have an amazing piece of theatre on their stage. 

February 6, 2024

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, "Merz Trio"

Smith College, Northampton, MA
February 4, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Merz Trio
Founded in 2017 and named after a German collage artist, this Boston-based ensemble “juxtaposes classical standards, new music, and their own arrangements of familiar and forgotten works,” according to their program note. This concert, with a “Night Songs” theme (said cellist Julia Yang in opening remarks), was a textbook example of that eclectic philosophy.

It began with a suite of six short meditative pieces, mostly arranged by the Trio and played without pause. A haunting account of German mystic Hildegard von Bingen’s 11th-century hymn “O Fiery Spirit” was followed by: a rhapsodic “Andantino” solo by pianist Amy Yang from Robert Schumann’s 1845 “Six Studies in Canonic Form;” a mesmerizing “Hush No More,” from Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera “The Fairy Queen;” a lush take on Alma Mahler’s 1911 song “Mild Summer  Night”; a soulful “Round Midnight,” Thelonius Monk’s 1943 masterpiece; and a luxurious version of Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1897 song “Conception." The Trio’s singing in several selections deepened the suite’s nocturnal spell.  

Next came a vibrant interpretation of Schumann’s 1847 Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, which featured: an expansive opening movement, briefly quoting his song “Intermezzo,” Op. 39/#2; a radiant slow movement, which came across as a lullaby; a mercurial waltz-like third movement “in moderate tempo;” and a lively, almost explosive finale.

The program closed with an impassioned reading of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, written in 1853-54 after the 20-year-old Brahms first met Robert and his composer-pianist wife Clara Schumann, but substantially revised in 1889. The Merz Trio offered: a vigorous opening “Allegro con brio;” a supercharged “Scherzo,” with a delicately nuanced interlude; a hushed, nocturne-like “Adagio;” and a turbulent “Allegro” finale.

Noting that “we can’t leave you in B minor” (the key on which Brahms’ finale ended), violinist Brigid Coleridge introduced as an encore the Trio’s luminous arrangement of Richard Strauss’s ravishing 1894 song “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”).

Along with their inventive programming, this threesome is notable for the rare mix of intensity and balance in their performances, with every instrument always clearly heard in this storied venue’s flattering acoustic.    

The next concert in Valley Classical’s 45th season will take place on February 24, 2024.

February 2, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Stage “Simona’s Search”

Hartford Stage, Hartford CT.
January 18-February 11, 2024
by Jarice Hanson

“Simona’s Search” at Hartford Stage is intelligent, touching, brilliantly crafted, and so thoroughly engrossing, it gives an audience member something to think about for days. It is a masterpiece from the pen of the highly original playwright, Martín Zimmerman. 
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
This is a complicated story, told in part, through monologs by Simona, the daughter of a father who we learn, experienced trauma in his homeland before coming to the United States. Simona, a precocious child, relays the story of being ten-years-old and noticing her father’s unusual traits as well as his reticence to talk about his past. She begins her search to understand how and why Papi acts and behaves as he does. 

The investigation takes her through graduate school where she looks for answers in the literature of neuroscience and behavior, and she questions whether trauma is actually passed from one generation to another. In a mere 90-minutes, this show gives us a full plate upon which to feast. Pacing is perfection and every word is crystal clear.
The collaboration between director Melia Bensussen and Zimmerman is highly successful. The show is part immigrant story, and part a detective story in which the audience becomes captivated by the “what if’s.” What if this is all in Simona’s head? What if Simona’s theories about post-generational trauma are right? What if the body and mind are repositories of collected trauma and grief?
To make these complicated ideas more visual and universal, Bensussen and Zimmerman use the magical realism endemic to Latin American literature and storytelling to show the relationship of body and mind. A simple set designed by Yu Shibagaki, projections by Yana Biryukova, lighting design by Aja M. Jackson, and sound design by Aubrey Dube enhance the multi-dimensional experience that enhance the visual and auditory experience for the audience.
Simona is played by Alejandra Escalante, an actress with an resume that suggests she is more experienced than the clean-faced actress we see who successfully expresses the feeling of growing from 10-years old to an adult. She is a winsome actress with grace that makes her a sympathetic protagonist.

Papi is played with charm and intelligence by Al Rodrigo, who, as a committed single father, clearly loves and wants the best for his daughter. In brief cameos as other characters he demonstrates an uncanny ability to shift accents and range. The third member of the acting trio is Christopher Bannow as Jake, Simona’s boyfriend as well as other characters in which his physicality brings both comedy and fear.
Zimmerman raises two important questions in his script: Do parents have a right to privacy, and do children have a right to know everything about their parents? “Simona’s Search” may well ask audience-goers those questions of your own families.