Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 29, 2024

Review: The Bushnell, “Beetlejuice”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
May 28-June 2, 2024
by Jarice Hanson

If you think the stage production of “Beetlejuice” will be faithful to the popular film, keep an open mind and throw yourself into a fun-filled performance at The Bushnell. There are similarities between the film and the musical—enough to please the full house, many of whom were obviously fans of the original film, but seeing the story unfold on stage is a special treat. The story may be a bit silly and a bit of fluff, but the very talented cast of this touring production and their team put on a show that is entertaining, and just plain fun. Visually, there are more than a few moments that have a “Wow!” factor.

Justin Collette in the lead role is fabulously funny and knows how to work with a live audience to involve them in the performance. He charms and repulses the audience with his antics. Collette is a master of working with his voice. He can growl one minute, and shift to a full-chested belt the next.
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Playing the role of the young Lydia, Isabella Esler gives her music a beautiful voice and
impressive range. While her bio indicates that she is making her professional debut in this company, it also states that she “recently graduated high school.” Much of this show rests on her shoulders, and if this production is any indication of her ability to work on the professional stage, she has a bright future.
While the six principal performers have excellent voices and wonderful stage presence, the large ensemble of 20 performers work energetically in a wide variety of singing, dancing, and comic roles. 

Director Alex Timbers, Choreographer Connor Gallagher, and Scenic Designer David Korins have teamed up to keep the action flowing. Different parts of the stage seem to transform within seconds, an homage to the play’s filmic origin. William Ivey Long’s brilliant costumes set characters apart from the colorful, sometimes off-perspective backdrops.

The music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect (yes, that is his name) are delightful and whimsical, but unfortunately the Bushnell’s sound system can be tricky.  Collette easily overcomes the problem by careful articulation of words and lyrics, but some lyrics and lines by other performers are muffled or lost. 

“Beetlejuice” is not one of those plays that gives those in attendance a lot to think about, but it does raise spirits, draw the audience into a special world of make believe, and allows everyone to just relax and enjoy a good story. There were many children in the audience so perhaps it’s no longer necessary to sound this “warning” but there are words, gestures, and a few lines that might give a parent pause before bringing the very young to the theater for "Beetlejuice".  At the same time, there are many more moments of magic and folly that will entertain children of all ages.

May 21, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Magic & Glory"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
May 18, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

The title of this concert could just as well have been “Fearless Women,” with women as conductor and soloist, and eight local women receiving the SSO’s second annual “Fearless Women Awards” for the “courage, resilience, and empowerment” they exemplify, often “under the radar,” said SSO President and CEO Paul Lambert, who honored the six awardees who appeared with him on stage before the concert.

The program opened with the Overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1791 opera “The Magic Flute.” From the solemn opening chord through the fleet urgency of the main theme, with an imposing brass interlude, Canadian conductor Tania Miller, recent interim leader of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and the SSO gave a taut and brilliant account of this lively curtain-raiser.

Rachel Barton Pine
Perhaps the most fearless woman on the program was Rachel Barton Pine, who next soloed in Jean Sibelius’ 1905 Violin Concerto. She met the work’s fiendish technical demands with aplomb, varying her tone from hushed delicacy in the soft opening notes to sharp and robust in the forceful solo cadenza. The opening “Allegro moderato” was alternately suave and tumultuous, the central “Adagio di molto,” ravishing and warm, and the closing “Allegro, ma non tanto,” a boisterous romp. Miller and the orchestra provided vivid accompaniment.

Even more astonishing was Barton Pine’s tireless virtuosity in an entertaining, often hilarious series of variations on “Happy Birthday,” an encore which she dedicated to the SSO’s 80th anniversary this year. The large audience roared its approval and delight.

The concert ended with an electrifying performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1937 fifth symphony. Miller’s spoken introduction highlighted the fraught political background of Stalin’s Soviet Union against which it was written, in a successful comeback after a devastating review in the Communist Party newspaper “Pravda” of the composer’s popular opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”

Miller’s kinetic conducting drew from an inspired SSO: an eerie and probing “Moderato;” a klezmer-influenced “Allegretto,” with flashes of ironic humor; a haunting and heartfelt “Largo,” in which Miller put aside her baton to shape more nuanced phrasing with her hands; and a powerful “Allegro non troppo,” whose half-joyful, half-fearful closing notes remain, in Miller’s words, “an enduring mystery.”

The SSO’s next concert will be their second annual free Juneteenth “Freedom Day Concert” on Wednesday, June 19, at 3:00 pm.

May 13, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Mozart & Prokofiev"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT
May 10-12, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

The eighth “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season presented three works in a ”classical” style and one recent piece in a more modern style. HSO Assistant Conductor Adam Kerry Boyles emphasized their differences rather than their similarities.

The concert began with Sergei Prokofiev’s 1917 first symphony, known as his “Classical Symphony” because he wrote it in the 18th-century style of Haydn and Mozart. But its four short movements – a buoyant “Allegro con brio;” a flowing “Larghetto;” a graceful “Gavotte: Non troppo allegro;” and a vivacious “Finale: Molto vivace” – also featured the spiky harmonies of his native Russia during World War I. Boyles and the HSO gave it a supple performance.

Angelina Gadeliya
Next came an HSO premiere, the 2016 piano concerto, “Spiritualist,” by New Jersey-born Kenneth Fuchs. In three short movements named after paintings by American artist Helen Frankenthaler – an ecstatic “Spiritualist;” a dreamy “Silent Wish;” and an exuberant “Natural Answer;” this colorful score was played with dexterity and imagination by Georgian-American pianist Angelina Gadeliya, with full-blooded support from Boyles and the orchestra.

Each painting was helpfully projected above the Belding stage, along with revealing overhead views of Gadeliya’s fluid hands at the keyboard.  Composer and soloist, both music professors at UConn Storrs, received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience.  

The program closed with two related 1786 works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the Overture to his comic opera “The Marriage of Figaro;” and the Symphony #38, nicknamed “Prague” after the city where it was premiered. Boyles and the HSO gave the overture a perky and playful spin. Their “Prague” symphony highlighted the mature Mozart’s variety of melodic invention in all three movements, from a mercurial opening “Adagio-Allegro,” to a radiant central “Andante” and a whirlwind closing “Presto,” which quotes an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Boyles is an animated conductor, who leads without a baton and whose toolbox includes a wide range of facial expressions, hand motions, crouches, leaps, and other postures, all in service of the music. His warmth, sense of humor, and easy rapport with audience and musicians alike bode well for his future with and beyond the HSO.

The orchestra’s final Masterworks program (June 7-9) of the season will feature HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan and violinist Melissa White in music of Simon, Bruch, and Holst.

Review: Springfield Chamber Players: "Johnny Appleseed & other Fun Stories"

First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA
May 12, 2024
by Lisa Covi

What is a happier childhood memory than a parent curling up with a picture book and being read to in your bed? Mother's Day in Longmeadow amplified that experience by gathering children of all ages at First Church of Christ to listen to three stories set to music (and a symphonic dance) performed by Springfield Chamber Players (formerly MOSSO). The composer and author of one of the selections were also on hand.

I don't ever think I will read or hear Munro Leaf's “Ferdinand, The Bull” again without recalling Marsha Harbison's braying violin playing Alan Rideout's arrangement for this story. Harbison introduced the tale, originally banned by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, as her favorite story. Martin Kluger's melodic voice narrated the tale – it was clear he is a vocalist and actor in addition to his other role as principal tympanist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

Clifton Noble photo by John Crispin
Boris Kogan on cello and Clifton J. Noble, Jr. on piano next performed Camille Sain-Saeen's
“The Swan” from his larger work, “Carnival of the Animals.” The delicacy of this movement inspired Anna Pavlova's trademark interpretative ballet. The piano evoked the surface of the water upon which the cello's swan passes across.

The centerpiece of the afternoon was Clifton J. Noble Jr's arrangement for “Johnny Appleseed: The Legend and the Truth.” The children's choir of the First Church sang catchy interludes to Jane Yolen's story of the Longmeadow native's journey to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Kara Noble narrated and introduced Yolen, who was present at the concert. The audience learned that Johnny Appleseed himself attended church in this very building. Michael Nix on banjo and Ellen Redman on flute joined the other musicians deftly enhancing the tale with original score and echos of American melodies.

The lively and euphonious afternoon drew active local families. Especially enjoyable were the projection of the text of the first piece and illustrations for all during the musical performance. Occasional imbalance of amplification made it sometimes difficult to hear the narration of the latter pieces.

The enthusiasm of the youth performers matched the professional musicians' dexterity. The opportunity for children to participate in the concert made a more impactful introduction to professional chamber music than my experience attending Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf.”

MOSSO's series continues with an outdoor concert in Longmeadow on June 13th at 6pm at the Maple Avenue Adult Center.

May 8, 2024

REVIEWS: Opera House Players, "Kinky Boots"

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
May 3, 2024 - May 19, 2024
by Shera Cohen

“Kinky Boots” echoes many musicals of through the decades; the lite ones with no hidden layers to tax the brains of audience members. Sometimes, a little bit of that is needed. “Boots” is contemporary fun.

The plot is essentially a version of the tried ‘n true: let’s put a play on in the barn, where the town rallies to mount a musical despite all sorts of problems. Instead, picture a rundown shoe factory, backlogs of footwear, the recently deceased owner, and the son who must reluctantly come to the rescue. The “barn story” always ends as a rollicking success. It’s not a spoiler to say that the “shoe story’s” ending is the same, with its criteria of success being the creation of bright, red, shinny, high-heeled boots; aka Kinky Boots.

Kudos to the actors wearing these boots; a tough bit of choreography. No one fell, except for the one actor who is supposed to hit the floor.

Cyndi Lauper, known for her many years on billboard charts, is the talent behind “Kinky Boots,” having written the music and lyrics. The musical won Tony Awards and has been kicking up its heels ever since.

The cast or 25 and band of 5 keep the music front and center with the script in the background. While “Boots” is not an opera-like musical as are many today,  it is not ladened down with dialog either. This factor offers those in key roles at least one solo, and sometimes part of a duet.

OHP must be applauded for selecting some of the best voices in the Valley. Yet, this is not a
surprise with Producer Moonyean Field and Director Sharon FitzHenry at the helm. These community theatre veterans know their crafts and the skills of talent onstage and backstage.

There is the problem of the too many set changes. Community theatre productions should not stray from the story, nor the staging indicated by the playwright. Yet, there could be some ways to tighten up the lags. That’s just a suggestion for next weekend’s shows.

Lead Michael King (the erstwhile factory owner) is “everyman”. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to portray “a regular guy” than the star. The audience has fewer expectations. However, King shines as a singer. It is through the lyrics that he shows his acting  prowess.

Cecil Carter (drag queen Lola) puts his label on the show that goes beyond the play’s text. Cecil struts his stuff and sings dramatic pieces with power and angst.

“Boots” presents a balance of three big, choreographed numbers at the start, end of Act I, and the musical’s end. The motley group of shoemaker actors are joyous on stage. Between Eddie Zitka (dance) and community theatre stalwart Bill Martin, “Boots” keep moving from start to finish.