Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 28, 2024

Review: The Bushnell, "Wicked"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 12, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

"Wicked" is a playfully, mischievous musical presentation at the Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut. 

Photo by Joan Marcus
Through a dizzying myriad of themes, including nature versus nurture, the harm of classism, the detriment of excluding those who are different, and the power of hope, kindness, and love, "Wicked" retells the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Beginning with the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, and in keeping with all funeral celebrations, curiosity brings about the story of the bemoaned Witch's life, her hopes and dreams, her hardships, her friendships, her enemies, and her romances, as told by her best friend, Glinda.

Glinda, played by Celia Hottenstein, is a popular, perky, effervescent character who “seems” to get everything she wants in life. Hottenstein’s comedic timing and vocal range enhances the character's outrageous audaciousness and truly shines in her rendition of “Popular.”

Olivia Valli’s dramatization of Elphaba a/k/a The Wicked Witch of the West, as an in-your-face, termagant forced into being the scapegoat despite her good intentions is the perfect counterpoint to Glinda’s flighty vivaciousness. Valli’s renditions of “Defying Gravity” and “No Good Deed” are breathtaking for both the artist and the audience.

The brusque, productive manner of Kathy Fitzgerald of Madame Morrible; and Tom McGowan's creation of the charming Wizard, are spectacular as the anti-heroes. Boise Holmes’ portrayal of Doctor Dillamond is emotionally moving.

As for the atmosphere, it’s definitely not Kansas. The scenery is a medley of vibrant colors making up poppy fields and the yellow brick road. The Emerald City is dazzlingly vibrant enhanced by the contrast of metallic gears framing the stage.  A variety of dancing from simple box steps to complicated ribbon and acrobatic routines add to the enchantment. The costumes, a mixture of wigs, colors, and textures, complete the bizarre elements of Oz, thus creating a world where everyone is different, and ultimately the same.

"Wicked" offers a multitude of sights, sounds, and emotions; one might have to see it more than once, to take it all in.  

April 23, 2024

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

Goodspeed Opera House, Haddam, CT
through June 2, 2024
by R.E. Smith

Bouyant, playful, high-spirited and a little bit naughty, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is the type of musical that is becoming increasingly rare: one that doesn’t take itself too seriously or try to earnestly deliver a deep moral lesson. In fact, it revels in the idea that Dicken’s never actually finished the namesake novel, leaving the audience to decide the ending, setting the show on a foundation of chaotic energy. 

Rupert Homes won multiple Tonys for the original Broadway production including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Before you reach for the Google, this IS the same Rupert Homes who wrote and performed the 1980’s hit “The Pina Colda Song”. But his musical background is quite varied and, being British by birth, he took inspiration from Dicken’s London and 1800’s music halls.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Interesting to note is that the most successful songs are not actually connected to the “mystery” part of the script but rather the English pantomime tradition of the framing device. “There You Are”, “Off to the Races,” “An English Music Hall” and “The Writing On the Wall” have the peculiar effect of being so genre-familiar that the audience wants to sing along, even if they don’t know the words.

All this opens the book up to a much lighter tone than the Dickens’s source material. Holmes has said that “the musical is to the novel what “Kiss Me Kate” is to the “Taming of the Shrew”. Exaggerated melodrama, double entendres, split personalities, hiss-abale villains, and broad stereotypes (gleefully acknowledged) abound.

A few characters are crafted to be audience favorites and the performers at Goodpseed do not disappoint. Liz McCartney as Princess Puffer, David Beach as Durdles, and Jamie LaVerdiere as Bazzard each have smaller, but memorable roles, with cracker-jack comedic timing and crowd-pleasing numbers. Lenny Wolpe as “the Chairman” is on-stage more than any other, serving as ringmaster, narrator and “stand-in”, and his energy is deceptively consistent throughout. He makes an immediate connection.

The costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski is vibrant and fun, Ann Beyersdorfer’s scenic design is at once modern, but nicely referencing the music hall setting. 

More than usual the cast is given the opportunity to connect with the audience and break the fourth wall. Often and repeatedly. Like a theatrical nesting doll, we’re watching actors, playing actors, playing characters in a mystery, set inside a music hall, staged at an Opera House.

All this makes for comedic hard work, but the entire cast makes it look effortless. The only unsolvable mystery with this show would be if someone was seen leaving the Opera House without a smile on their face!

April 22, 2024

Review: Majestic Theater, "The Play That Goes Wrong"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through June 2, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Laughter billowed from the Majestic Theater for a solid 2 hours during the performance of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Described as a cross between Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes, this play within a play depicts a community production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” 

Photo by Kait Rankins
The farce begins before the lights go down as two "crew members" place/misplace props and
make last minute repairs to the mantle, grandfather clock, and lighting. As these preparations extend, the audience starts to realize that the game's afoot. Chris Bean (Jack Grigoli), the character who plays the director and stars as Inspector Carter, provides a brief introduction to the play. As each character takes the stage, they valiantly perform though the mistakes of the actors, production, and literal collapse of the elaborate set.

The Majestic's cast includes actors familiar and new to their theater. These polished performers not only have the talent for timing and physical comedy – no small feat that includes scaling a bookshelf to a loft action-area, but also the chemistry with other players that allow audience members to believe  that those on stage are community members struggling to keep the play going.

Two examples are Mariko Iwasa's Annie, a gifted mime who projects earnestness as both a tech and understudy; and Shaun O'Keefe's Robert, who scrambles about the set convincingly while accusing and denying his character's role in the murder investigation.

The design of the set is ingenious to fail so consistency and convincingly without truly injuring the actors.

“The Play that Goes Wrong” gets it right for diverting and entertaining. Even if absurdist comedy is not your cup of tea, those seated in the theater will immediately become caught up in the visual surprises, performative flourishes, or plot twists that ensue. There are a few blind spots for the patrons -- on the left and right sides of the stage that obscure some key action areas, so the best seats are in the middle. This kind of production is particularly suited to multiple viewings as the staging and special effects are a delight to behold. Be prepared to giggle, hoot, and guffaw in the best aspects of live theater.

Review: Hartford Stage, “All My Sons”

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 5, 2024
by Shera Cohen

My Plus 1 for “All My Sons” at Hartford Stage told me, “I prefer to attend dramatic plays [to any other genre]”. Arthur Miller’s classic “All My Sons” is about as dramatic any piece of theatre can be.

Entering the theatre takes patrons directly onto the set; stepping through grass with tree stumps in view next to a large house. Staging creates the home of the Keller family in the 1940’s/50’s. Just about everything seems right as houses and backyards go, yet a small torn-down tree, situated front and center, works as a foreboding sign important to the plot.

Joe and Kate Keller (Michael Gaston and Marsha Mason, respectively) are in their early 60’s, have lived in this “anywhere” town for decades. They know their neighbors. The neighbors think they know the Kellers. Yet the play is packed with a giant secret, at first shrouded in light-hearted, off-the-cuff banter, developing slowing into emotional, and even physical chaos.

Although the Keller’s elder son, Larry, had died in WWII three year ago, he is ever-present, just as the tree, planted in his memory. Younger son, Chris (Ben Katz) is left with the scars of his brother, parents, girlfriend, as well as the lives others left behind.

Family issues are at the forefront: loyalty, loathing, varying degrees of truth and lies, mystery, most importantly denials . There are many questions for an audience member to  take home. The overall question is “When do morals supersede extremely difficult situations?”

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Gaston takes the lead as the erstwhile patriarch of the family. From the start, Gaston portrays a tortured man with an exterior of bravado, which the audience immediately observes. The actor’s facial expressions, voice, and stance are accentuated as the story progresses.

Marsha Mason, a well-known actress usually in light roles on television and movies, musters her metal as Kate Keller, portraying the epitome of denial regarding her son’s death. The audience can feel her pain.

Fiona Robberson and Reece Dos Santos, portray sister and brother Ann and George. Their roles are smaller than others, yet their characters are pivotal. There is never hesitation that the conflicts in the plot effect each character’s future.

Melia Bensussen, HS Artistic Director takes on double duty as “AMS” director, keeping the pace smooth and rapid, especially in Act II, when onstage  conflicts are at peak level. No more mystery and inuendo. It’s Bensussen’s job to permit Arther Miller’s characters to peel off the layers of deceit. And it’s the audience’s job to see how the artistic staff and superior actors manage to do this.

April 17, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Vivaldi’s Gloria"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
April 12-14, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

At first glance, the seventh “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season looked like a hodgepodge of disparate, unrelated works. But guest conductor Jacomo Bairos, quoting Hartford Chorale Music Director Jack Anthony Pott, called it a “garden” displaying the “wonderful variety” of classical music.  

The evening's concert opened with several selections from “Spirituals: A Medley,” 1920's arrangements by William Grant Still, the “dean of African-American composers,” of traditional Black spirituals. The ensemble was joined in all but one number by eloquent soprano Schauntice Shepard, who brought aching poignancy to “Were You There?” and fervent hope to “Deep River.”

Jacomo Bairos
HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal was next featured in Edouard Lalo’s 1873 “Symphonie Espagnole,” a concerto for violin and orchestra in all but name. A Frenchman’s homage to Spanish musical traditions, its five movements included offbeat and imaginative rhythms and require a virtuosic soloist. Sigal’s secure technique and silken tone, which he shaded at times to achieve a husky, almost gypsy-like sound, met or exceeded the piece’s every demand. Bairos and the HSO matched their soloist in sensitivity and flair.

The other major work on the program was Antonio Vivaldi’s 1720 “Gloria,” which has become the best known of the Italian master’s many sacred compositions. The text of the half-hour work, sung in Latin by mixed chorus and soloists, is derived from the Catholic Mass. Its 12 short movements featured wide contrasts in tempo and dynamics, including several intimate passages for soloists and one or two instruments. Bairos led a thrilling performance, with robust, flexible, and lucid singing by the men and women of the Hartford Chorale, soprano Suzanne Lis, mezzo-soprano Hannah Shea, and notable contributions from all sections of the orchestra.

The program closed with a sumptuous reading of “Make Your Garden Grow,” the stirring finale of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Broadway musical “Candide,” based on Voltaire’s 1759 satire, with lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur. Tenor Dominick Chenes was a plangent title character, and Lis, a radiant Cunegonde, his loving bride. The Hartford Chorale, HSO, and Bairos offered vibrant support.

The Portuguese-American Bairos, currently based in Miami Beach, Florida and Lisbon, Portugal, has a charismatic, Bernstein-esque stage presence, and his strong rapport with HSO and its audience would make him a welcome return visitor to Hartford.

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (May 10-12) will feature music of Mozart and Prokofiev.

April 13, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "An American Celebration"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
April 6, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With engaging and informative spoken remarks about each piece on the program, guest conductor Peter Boyer proved as able a raconteur as a conductor and composer in his SSO debut.

The “celebration” theme of the evening started even before the official concert with an upbeat rendition of “Happy Birthday” for 32-year SSO violinist Miho Matsuno by her colleagues under concertmaster Masako Yanagita. It also showcased the family feeling among SSO members.

They opened the formal program with two contrasting fanfares: Aaron Copland’s grand and spacious 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man,” honoring World War II American soldiers; and Jennifer Higdon’s fast-paced 1999 “Fanfare Ritmico,” depicting, in her words, the “rhythmic motion, of man and machine…in the new century.” Boyer and the SSO were fervent advocates for both forceful scores. 

Next came a vibrant account of the concert suite from Copland’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Written for dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, its eight movements tell the story of a pioneer couple moving into their first home. While the most famous movement is based on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” Boyer shaped the quiet closing (which he quoted film composer Elmer Bernstein as wishing he had written) with special sensitivity. 

The concert closed with two rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, both featuring soloist Jeffrey Biegel: George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue;” and Boyer’s own “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue,” which Biegel commissioned him to write in celebration of the “Rhapsody in Blue” centennial this year. Boyer’s piece was played first (he quipped, “you never want to follow the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’”). Biegel brought virtuosity and interpretive finesse to its energetic opening, lush, bluesy midsection, and jubilant, showy finale. Boyer led the SSO with a sure feeling for “the composer I know best.”

After KeriAnn DeBari’s sinuous opening clarinet solo (which drew an approving smile from Biegel), the pianist loosened up for a jazzy take on Gershwin’s crowd-pleasing classic. Biegel included some rare solo passages omitted from Ferde Grofe’s expansion for symphony orchestra of Gershwin’s original setting for Paul Whiteman’s 23-piece jazz band. All the musicians played with a white-hot intensity that brought the capacity audience to its feet.

The SSO’s next classical concert is “Magic & Glory” on May 18. 

April 8, 2024

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, "Oklahoma!"

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
Through April 14, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

NOTE: According to the venue website, all performances are sold out.

“Oklahoma!,” the 1943 show that marked both a new level of complexity in the Broadway
musical and the first collaboration by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has been performed in many ways, but leave it to the innovative Theatre Guild of Hampden to present its exuberant new production as an immersive hoedown in its theater-in-the-round home, the Red Barn at Fountain Park in Wilbraham, MA.

Set in Indian Territory in 1906 (Oklahoma became a state in 1907), it tells the story of farm girl Laurey and her two suitors, cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud, with comic relief from cowboy Will Parker, his fiancée, Ado Annie, and Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Using minimal props (two chairs and a few cloth-covered hay bales) and open space between audience seats (with a small porch at one end) for their stage, co-directors Chris Rojas and Mark Giza wisely put the focus on their resourceful 18-member cast.

Joey Valencourt’s plaintive tenor and skilled guitar-playing make him an appealing and sympathetic Curly. Ally Reardon’s full-bodied, expressive soprano gives her Laurey a thoughtful, yearning poignancy. The chemistry between the two leads is instantly palpable. Nick Adams’ rich baritone finds hidden sensitivity in the morbid Jud. Max Levheim’s hapless Will Parker is an endearing foil for Dominique Libera’s ditsy Ado Annie. Joe Lessard is a nimble Ali Hakim, and Kathy Renaud’s portrayal of Laurey’s Aunt Eller is a hoot, with a spine of steel.

Musical highlights include: Valencourt’s exhilarating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin;” Levheim’s hyperactive “Kansas City;” Libera’s hilariously over-the-top “I Cain’t Say No;” Reardon’s carefree “Many A New Day;” Adams’ dramatic “Lonely Room;” a soaring “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Valencourt and Reardon; and a stirring title song by the ensemble.

Choreographer Dina Del Buono somehow keeps the full cast in frequent motion across the narrow playing space with no collisions and dances with fluid grace herself as Laurey in the haunting “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I. Instrumental support by music director Bobby Scott on piano, violinist Anne-Marie Messbauer, and percussionist Ray Cole heightens the prevailing mood of festive intimacy.

This inventive production is modest in scale but wide and deep in emotional resonance. Local fans of great musical theater should snap up tickets while they last.

April 7, 2024

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, “Sanctuary City”

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through April 25, 2024
by Jarice Hanson
“Sanctuary City” at TheaterWorks Hartford is an ambitious contemporary play by Martyna Majok, the author of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Cost of Living.” The 90-minute play is written in three parts and structured (somewhat) like a three-act play.
Photo Credit: TheaterWorks Hartford
The characters are “B” (for Boy) played by Grant Kennedy Lewis, and “G” (for Girl), played by Sara Gutierrez. It is no accident that these characters do not have an identity in the sense of having a name. They represent the many boys and girls who find themselves undocumented in America and burdened by the limitations made on them by the decisions of their parents. A third character is introduced in the third part of the play. It is “Henry,” played by Misha Yarovoy, who upends the situation and forces B and G to rethink their plans and choices.
All three of these characters are courageous, and the actors who inhabit them are likable. Each is smart, resourceful, and kind. The audience can’t help but hope for a happy ending. Still, there is an overriding feeling of gloom that permeates the situation, so that when the inevitable conclusion arrives, we feel a level of empathy that teaches us a lesson about people whom we may not understand. This is good playwriting, and excellent acting.
The play is set in the Ironbound section of Newark, shortly after 9/11. The place is a bleak, poverty ridden area known as a tough place to live. Immigration has just become a major topic for the country, and the fear immigrants experienced then, as now, is a constant undercurrent of the play’s meaning and message. When we meet B and G, they are children, facing an uncertain future, but as they grow and get to know each other, they hatch a plan for their long-term survival. Each lives with their mother, and each of those mothers are representative of so many single mothers who want the best for their children. When the children grow to be young adults living in America, we see a very different viewpoint of survival and desire.
This play was developed in partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, and is listed as having two co-directors, Jacob G. Padrón, and Pedro Bermúdez. The publicity for the show states it as an “immersive environment,” largely due to Bermúdez’ stunning video projections and video design, enhanced by Emmie Finckel’s imaginatively spare set. The multi-media aspect of the show is visually arresting and flawlessly executed, but despite the augmented backgrounds and suggestion of three-dimensionality as characters are displayed against a series of screens that suggest a maze, the play itself is almost unabashedly traditional in structure and impact. The special effects are nice, but the message of this play is what stays with the audience and gives this play a social currency unlike others.