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Updated: 12'15








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Jules Becker's
 Quick Takes
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Reviews
Table of Contents

2/4/15
Nice Work If You Can Get It
(The Bushnell, Hartford CT)

1/26/15
Proof
(Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT)

1/14/15
Iris
(The Majestic, West Springfield, MA)

1/7/15
Pippin
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

12/9/15
Mozart and Dvorak
(Hartford <CT> Symphony Orchestra)


10/23/14
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
(Westfield <MA> Theatre Group)

9/24/14

Evita
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

9/22/14
Ether Dome
(HartfordStage, CT)

9/15/14
Guess Who's Coming for Dinner?
(Huntington Theatre Co., Boston)

8/15/14

Dancing Lessons
(Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA)

8/5/14

Design for Living
(Berkshire Theatre Group. Stockbridge, MA)

8/4/14
Frankenstein
(Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA)

8/4/14
The Visit
(Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival)

8/2/14
Other Desert Cities
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

8/1/14
Cedars
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA)

7/31/14
Lizzie Borden
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

7/30/14
A Number
(Chester Theatre, Chester, MA)

7/5/14
The How and the Why
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

7/5/14
June Moon

(Williamstown <MA> Theatre Festival)

6/18/14
Kiss Me Kate
(Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA)

6/14/14
Ghost: The Musical
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

6/9/14
Bolero!
(Hartford <CT> Symphony Orchestra)

5/1/14
Damn Yankees
(Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT)

4/28/14
Hairspray
(Stafford Palace Theater, Stafford Springs, CT)

4/20/14
9 to 5: The Musical
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

4/20/14
Next to Normal
(Majestic Theater, W. Springfield, MA)

3/25/14
Guys and Dolls
(Westfield <MA> Theatre Group)

3/25/14
Enigma Variations
(Hartford <CT> Symphony Orchestra)

3/12/14
Sweet Charity
(Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA)

3/5/14
Heroes
(Majestic Theater, W. Springfield, MA)


2/20/14
Peter and the Starcatcher

(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

2/16/14
Intimate Apparel
(Trinity Rep, Providence, RI)

2/10/14
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
(Ocean State Theatre Co., Warwick, RI)

1/30/14
War Horse
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

1/22/14
The Lyons
(2nd Story Theatre, Warren, RI)


1/22/14
The Big Meal

(Gamm Theatre,  Pawtucket, RI)

1/20/14
The Little Dog Laughed
(Your Theatre, New Bedford, MA)


1/17/14
God of Carnage
(Alley Theatre, Middleboro, MA)

11/10/13
Stick Fly
(The Majestic, W. Springfield, MA)

11/8/13
Sweet Honey in the Rock
(UMass, Amherst, MA)

9/30/13
Les Miserables
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

9/26/13
Macbeth
(Hartford <CT> Stage)

9/17/13
33 Variations
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield)

9/9/13
Company
(Broad Brook <CT> Opera House)

8/25/13
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

8/24/13
Daniil Trifoniv
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

8/24/13
Scott & Hem in the Garden of Allah
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

8/20/13
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

8/12/13
Benjamin: Written on Skin
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

8/12/13

Glimmerglass Festival

8/11/13
Les Misérables
(Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham, MA)

8/5/13
Ravel & Beethoven

(Tanglewood, Lenox)

8/5/13
The Bridges of Madison County
(Williamstown <MA>Theatre Festival)

8/4/13
Music & More
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

8/3/13
Theatre by the Numbers & in Alphabetical Order
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

8/3/13
Same Time, Next Year

(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge)

7/23/13
The Fab Faux
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

7/23/13
The Other Mozart/Mahalla
(Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington)

7/22/13
Hello Dolly!
(Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT)

7/20/13
Extremities
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA)

7/20/13
West Side Story
(Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

7/20/13
Morgan O-Yuki
(Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA)

7/14/13
Assassins
(F.U.D.G.E. Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA)

7/12/13
Fiddler on the Roof
(Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham, MA)

7/6/13
Happy Anniversary Goodspeed
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

7/2/13
The Lion in Winter
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA)

6/30/13
Animal Crackers
(Williamstown <MA> Theater Festival)

6/28/13
The Sunset Limited

(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

6/28/13
"Arms on Fire"
(Chester Theatre, Chester, MA)

6/24/13
Dance Theatre of Harlem

(Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA)

6/23/13
CT Goes Country

(Summerwind, Windsor, CT)

6/21/13
On The Town

(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

6/19/13
Billy Elliot, The Musical

(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

6/17/13
The Art of the Chalumeau

(Daniel Arts Center, Great Barrington)

6/14/13
Lend Me a Tenor

(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

5/31/13
Bashir Lazhar

(Barrington Stage, Sydelle & Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA)

5/15/13
1776
(Wilbraham United Players, MA)

5/7/13
Good News!
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

5/5/13
Mozart & Beethoven
(Springfield Symphony, MA)

5/5/13
Next to Normal
(Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT)

5/4/13
As You Like It
(Suffield Players, CT)

4/21/13
Sister Act
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

4/6/13
The Mountaintop
(TheatreWorks, Hartford, CT)

4/13/13
Abundance
(Hartford <CT> Stage)

4/13/13
Gershwin & Rachmaninoff
(Springfield <MA> Symphony)

4/6/13
The Mountaintop
(TheatreWorks, Hartford, CT)

3/28/13

Masters of the Fiddle
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

3/10/13
The Liar
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)


3/9/13
Opera Night
(Springfield <MA> Symphony Orchestra)

3/8/13
Sunset Boulevard
(Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham-Monson Academy)

2/28/13
Skin Deep
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)


2/27/13
American Idiot
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

2/26/13
Spectrum: Motown and R&B Retrospective
(Springfield <MA> Symphony Orchestra)

2/12/13
Chapter Two
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

2/11/13
Hairspray
(Opera House Players, Broad Brook <CT> Opera House)

2/8/13
Deathtrap
(Suffield <CT> Players)

2/2/13
Caroline Goulding
(Springfield <MA> Symphony Orchestra)

2/4/13
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
(UMASS Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA)

1/26/13
Moonlight and Magnolias
(Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT)

1/9/13
Million Dollar Quartet
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

1/14/13
Scheherazade

(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA)

1/8/13
The Cabbage Patch
(Majestic Theatre, W. Springfield, MA)

12/1/12
A Christmas Carol
(Hartford Stage, CT)

11/29/12
Pachelbel & Tchaikovsky
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, CT)

11/12/12
Barefoot in the Park
(Majestic Theatre, W. Springfield, MA)

11/8/12
Dr. John/Blind Boys of Alabama
(UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA)

11/5/12
Toots and the Maytals
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

11/3/12
Electrifying Russian Music
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA)

10/29/12
Something's Afoot
(Goodspeed Opera House, Haddam, CT)

10/21/12
Keb'Mo' and His Band

(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

10/20/12
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

(Hartford Stage, CT)


10/16/12
Beethoven's Ninth
(Hartford Symphony, CT)

10/13/12
AIDA
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

10/10/12
Lord of the Flies
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

10/6/12
Mozart & Haydn
(Arcadia Players, Smith College, Northampton, MA)


9/30/12
Opening Night @ SSO
(Springfield Symphony Orchestra, MA)

9/21/12
Blood Brothers
(Majestic Theater, W. Springfield, MA)

9/16/12
Mary Poppins
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

9/10/12
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
(Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT)

9/8/12
Hedda Gabler
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)

8/27/12
Satchmo at the Waldorf
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/24/12
The Joffrey Ballet
(Jacob's Pillow Dance, Becket, MA)


8/20/12
Brace Yourself
(Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA)

8/19/12
The Betrothed
(Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA)

8/14/12
See How They Run
(Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA)

8/14/12
Homestead Crossing
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Great Barrington, MA)

8/11/12

Capitol Steps
(Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA)

8/4/12
Carousel
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

8/3/12
The Quality of Life
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

8/3/12
Running
(Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA)

8/3/12
A Month in the Country

(Williamstown Theatre Festival, MA)

8/2/12
The North Pool
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

7/28/12
Berlioz: Damnation of Faust
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

7/26/12
Brahms: Complete Solo Piano
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

7/23/12
A Thousand Clowns
(Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA)

7/22/12
The Hong Kong Ballet
(Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA)

7/21/12
Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin
(Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA)

7/14/12
Green River Festival
(Greenfield Community College, Greenfield, MA)

7/9/12
A Chorus Line
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield , MA)

7/8/12
Animals Out of Paper
(Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA)

7/3/12
The Blue Deep
(Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA)

7/2/12
Dr. Ruth, All the Way

(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

6/30/12
Red
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

6/30/12
The Importance of Being Earnest
(Williamstown Theatre Festival, MA)

6/30/12
Chris Robinson Brotherhood
(Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA)

6/28/12
Morphosis in Within
(Jacob's Pillow, Becket, MA)

5/15/12
Holst's The Planets
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA)

5/11/12
MAME

(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)


5/10/12
Into the Woods
(Westport Country Playhouse, CT)

4/16/12

Musical Legacy
(Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT)

4/15/12
Schuman, Mozart & Schumann
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA)

4/14/12
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

4/12/12
Almost Elton John
(Citistage, Springfield, MA)

4/11/12
Fiddler on the Roof
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)


4/1/12
Red
(TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT)


3/30/12
Country Royalty
(
CitiStage, Springfield, MA)

3/7/12
Les Miserables
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

3/5/12

The Whipping Man
(Hartford Stage Co. Hartford, CT)

2/29/12
Forever Kings

(CitiStage, Springfield, MA)

2/26/12
Long Day's Journey Into Night
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

2/23/12
The Addams Family
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

2/17/12
The Learned Ladies
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

2/15/12
CHICAGO
(Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT)

2/12/12
The Kingston Trio
(Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA)


2/5/12
Next Fall
(Good Theater, Portland, ME)

1/23/12
Mavis Staples
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

1/21/12
Mrs. Warren's Profession
(Ridgefield Theater Barn, Ridgefield, CT)

1/21/12
Boeing-Boeing
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)

1/17/12
Comedy Enlightened
(The Players Ring, Portsmouth, NH)

1/11/12
Memphis
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

12/6/11
The Santaland Diaries
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

12/5/11
Listomania
(Close Encounters with Music, Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA)

12/4/11
Godspell
(Unitarian Society, Springfield & Monson, MA)

12/1/11
Holiday Masterworks
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT)

11/29/11
4 Sides of 40
(CityStage, Springfield, MA)

11/23/11
Peter Pan

(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

11/14/11
Magna Opera
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT)

11/14/11
Greater Tuna
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

11/14/11
Cinderella
(Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT)

11/7/11
Barber, Schuman & Rachmaninoff
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

10/31/11
Swayambhu (Shantala Shivalingapppa)
(UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA)

10/29/11
Water by the Spoonful
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)

10/24/11
Mahler’s “Titan”
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT)

10/23/11
Jersey Boys
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

10/22/11
The Motherf#@ker With the Hat
(TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT)

10/20/11
City of Angels
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

10/18/11
Pushing the Envelope of Fun with the Bard
(Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT)

10/16/11
Wait Until Dark
(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT)

10/16/11
Rock On! Broadway
(Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA)

10/3/11
Rent
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

10/1/11
Springfield Symphony Orchestra Opening Night Gala
(Springfield, MA)

10/1/11
Best of Enemies
(Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA)

9/28/11
Traces
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

9/25/11
Mary Zentmyer is "Sister" in Late Nite Catechism
(CityStage, Springfield, MA)

9/20/11
War of the Worlds
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

9/16/11
Little Women-The Musical
(Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT)

9/8/11
The Crucible
(HartfordStage, Hartford, CT)

9/3/11
Buddy Holly Returns

(Majestic Theatre, Springfield, MA)

8/27/11
WICKED
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

8/27/11
Mark Morris Review
(Jacob's Pillow, Becket, MA)

8/22/11
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
(Jacob's Pillow, Becket, MA)

8/22/11
Film Night
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

8/21/11
Wittenberg
(Chester (MA) Theater, Chester)

8/21/11
Autres Temps
(Wharton Salon, The Mount, Lenox, MA)

8/21/11
The Game
(Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA)

8/18/11
FOOTLOOSE and Fancy-FULL
(North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA)

8/15/11
As You Like It
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/11/11
Ozawa Hall Concerts

(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

8/11/11
Open Marriage
(Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA)

8/8/11
A Quartet of Plays
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/8/11
Touch(ed)
(Williamstown (MA) Theater Festival, Williamstown)

8/7/11
Romeo and Juliet
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/6/11
Turn of the Screw
(Chester (MA) Theater, Chester)

7/23/11
Capitol Steps 2011
(Cranwell Resort, Lenox , MA)

7/23/11
A Doll's House
(Williamstown (MA) Theater Festival, Williamstown)

7/22/11
Sylvia
(Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, MA)

7/22/11
Dinner With Friends
(New Century Theater, Northampton, MA)

7/13/11
Disney's TARZAN
(North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA)

7/11/11
pride@prejudice
(Chester Theater, Chester, MA)

7/3/11
moonchildren
(Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA)

6/22/11
Guys and Dolls
(Great Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA)

5/12/11
My One and Only
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

4/23/11
Thoroughly Modern Millie
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

4/19/11
The Odd Couple
(Majestic Theatre, W. Springfield, MA)

4/9/11
The 39 Steps
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)

4/2/11
A Steady Rain
(TheatreWorks, Hartford, CT)

2/28/11
The Savannah Disputation
(Majestic Theatre, W. Springfield, MA)

2/21/11
The Mystery of Irma Vep
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

2/5/11
Snow Falling on Cedars
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)

12/05/10
Pinter, Pinter
(Atlantic Theatre, New York, NY)

11/17/10
Irving Berlin's White Christmas
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

11/23/10
Home Sweet Home
(Scandinavian American Theater Company, NY)

11/7/10
Jekyll & Hyde
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

10/21/10
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
(East Haddam, CT)

10/17/10
Antony and Cleopatra
(Hartford Stage, CT)

10/10/10
All My Sons
(Suffield Players, CT)

10/6/10
The Diary of Anne Frank
(Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT)

9/26/10
The Real Inspector Hound
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

9/14/10
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

8/30/10
Music of Sri Chinmoy
(Lincoln Center, NYC)

8/30/10
Musashi
& From the Pasolini
(Lincoln Center, NYC)

8/20/10
The Winter's Tale
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/17/10
I Do!  I Do!
(Westport Country Playhouse, CT)

7/31/10
The Comedy of Errors/The Amorous Quarrel
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/9/10
Tanglewood - Indoors and Out
(Lenox, MA)

7/31/10
Art
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

7/17/10
Capitol Steps 2010
(Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA)

7/14/10

Sea Marks
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

7/12/10
Happy Days
(Westport Country Playhouse, CT)

7/6/10
Festival Flamenco de Cordoba
(Town Hall, New York City)

6/27/10
Sweeney Todd
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)

6/18/10
Noises Off
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)

6/6/10
Dinner With Friends
(Westport Country Playhouse, CT)


5/14/10

Kyogen
(Yamamoto Kyogen Co., Japan Society, NYC)

Thank you, Mdme von Essen: Creditors
(Donmar Warehouse, MAB, NYC)

The Jackie Look

5/13/10
Annie Get Your Gun

(Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT)

5/1/10
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
(UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst)

4/29/10
She Loves Me
(Westport Country Playhouse,  CT)

4/9/10
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
(Hartford Stage, CT)

3/1/10
A Man for All Seasons
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

2/22/10
Communicating Doors
(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT)

2/8/10
Les Liaisons Dangereuse
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA)

1/30/10
The Lion King
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

1/11/10
Almost, Maine
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

1/6/10
In the Heights
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

11/1/09

Piecemeal - The Frankenstein Musical
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)

10/22/09
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)


10/12/09
The Hound of the Baskervilles
(Shakespare & Company, Lenox, MA)

8/31/09
The Bacchae
(Shakespare in the Park, Publick Theater, NYC)

8/27/09
Boris Dudunov
(Chekhov Int'l Festival, Lincoln Center Festival, Park Avenue Armory, NYC)

8/27/09
Life and Fate
(The Maly Drama Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia)


8/27/09
Trilogia della villegiatura
(Piccolo Teatro di Milano & Teatro Uniti di Napoli, Lincoln Center Festival, NYC)

8/22/09
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow (Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/22/09
Freud's Last Session (Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA)


8/6/09
Camelot (Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

8/2/09
Tanglewood on Parade

(Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lenox, MA)


8/2/09
Tanglewood Rehearsals
(Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lenox, MA)

8/1/09
Measure for Measure

(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)


8/1/09
Twelfth Night
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

07/18/09
The Temptations/James Naughton
(Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA)

07/18/09
True West
(Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA)

07/18/09
Boston Symphony Orchestra
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)

07/18/09
GOLF: The Musical
(Majestic Theatre, Springfield, MA)


07/18/09
Candide
(Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA)

07/18/09
The Capitol Steps
(Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA)

06/29/09
The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show
(Museum of Science, Boston)

06/01/09
Blue Day
(La MaMa, New York City)

05/24/09
Breaking the Surface 
(NYU Asian/Pacific/ American Institute)

05/24/09
The Singing Forest
(NY Shakespeare Festival)


05/14/09
42nd Street
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

05/12/09
Vitek Kruta
(Paradise City Fair, Northampton, MA)

04/27/09
Phantom of the Opera
(The Bushnell, Hartford)

04/23/09
The Life of Galileo
(Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT/ Underground Railway Theater, Boston)

02/28/09
To Kill a Mockingbird
(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT)

02/13/09
Four Dogs & a Bone
(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT)

02/11/09
Dead Man's Cell Phone
(TheatreWorks, Hartford, CT)

02/11/09
Jersey Boys
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

10/29/08
The Grand Inquisitor
(CICT/ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord/Paris, presented at NYTW, NYC)

10/29/08
Jerry & Ed
(Majestic Theatre, West Springfield, MA)

10/27/08
Sunken Red
(Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY)

10/27/08
Louder
(Vedensteatret, PS 122, NYC)

10/27/08
Big River
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, KY)

9/29/08
Four Mystics Minus Two
(Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College, NY)

9/29/08
The Peking Opera

9/12/08
The Thirty-third Year - Playing Life
(Theatre ASOU, Graz, Austria)

9/7/08
The Miracle Worker
(Majestic Theatre, West Springfield)

9/6/08
Spamalot
(The Bushnell, Hartford)

9/6/08
Eleanor: Her Secret Journey
(Berkshire Theatre Company, Stockbridge)

8/10/08
Les Miserables
Special School Edition

(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

8/2/08

3
Plays/1 Stage
(Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA)

8/2/08
A Man for All Seasons
(Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge, MA)

7/30/08
The Revenger's Tragedy
(National Theatre, London)

7/30/08
T
he Rake's Progress
(The Royal Opera, London)

7/23/08
Broke-
ology
(Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA)

7/22/08
Almost Maine
(Chester Theatre Co., Chester, MA)

7/22/08
Rabbit Hole
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)


7/22/08

Berkshire Choral Festival
(MA)



7/11/08
Rounding Third
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)


6/9/08
Metro Stage Company's Ruthless a Riot

(Metro Stage Company, Cambridge, MA)

5/26/08
Ancient Songs of South Africa

(Nggoko Cultural Group, NYC)

5/20/08
Happy Days

(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT)

5/9/08
The Pirates of Penzance
(New World Chorale, Milford, MA)

5/5/08
Pure Joy of Movement
(Prometheus Dance Elders Ensemble)

4/24/08
The Full Monty
Majestic Theatre, West Springfield, MA)

4/12/08
The Smothers Brothers & Springfield Symphony Orchestra
(Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA)

3/15/08


The Ten Tenors

(Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA)

3/12/08


Buddha

(off-off Broadway)

3/2/08


Enchanted April

(Majestic Theatre, Springfield, MA)

02/20/08


The Drowsy Chaperone

(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)

02/19/08


Love Letters

(Princebury Players, Wellesley, MA)

02/19/08


All My Sons

(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA)

02/17/08


Don't Dress for Dinner

(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT)

02/05/08

The 39 Steps

(Roundabout Theatre Co., American Airlines Theatre, NYC)

02/05/08

The Little Mermaid

(Lunt-Fntanne Theater, NYC)

02/05/08

Is He Dead?

(Lyceum Theatre, NYC)


02/05/08

The Seafarer

(Booth Theatre, NYC)

02/05/08

The Homecoming

(CORT Theatre, NYC)

02/05/08

The 39 Steps

(Rounabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, NYC)

01/30/08

Come Back Little Sheba

(Manhattan Theatre Club, Biltmore Theatre, NYC)

01/30/08

August: Osage County
(Imperial Theatre, NYC)

01/25/08

Pinocchio
(La MaMa, NYC)

01/25/08

Happy Days
(Brooklyn Academy of Music)

12/28/07

From Cairo to Bukhara
(World Music Institute, NYC)

12/10/07

Make Me a Song

(New World Stages, NYC)


12/6/07

Lulu

(Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Nice Work If You Can Get It by Sharon Smith
(The Bushnell, Hartford CT - www.bushnell.org thru 2/8/15
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” marks a homecoming for the musical, which traces its origins to the Goodspeed Opera House down the road in East Haddam. The show went through many changes on the journey from CT, to Broadway, to Tony winner, and back again, but in all incarnations the heart and appeal lies in the classic music of George and Ira Gershwin. In the madcap world of 1927 Prohibition, bootleggers, high society types, and a bevy of chorus girls collide in a mix of romance, mistaken identities, and slapstick high-jinx. This is the type of light and frothy story that finds gangsters posing as butlers and the vice squad partakes in more vices then it foils. Mariah MacFarlane as rum-runner Billie Bendix is a splendid talent, with a strong voice and crack timing. It takes such a balance to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” while holding a shotgun. A supporting cast of star-crossed lovers is top notch. Highlights include Aaron Fried and Stephanie Gandolfo’s, “Do It Again” and “Blah, Blah Blah.” Reed Campbell and Stephanie Harter Gilmore’s, “Looking for a Boy” is also a stand out, sung as it is from a swinging chandelier. In addition to “Looking” the choreography delights throughout, with the bathtub based “Delishious” yielding a bubbly surprise. Any “new” Gershwin musical is sure to invoke comparison to 1992’s “Crazy For You” and while “Nice” may not have the rock-solid book of that show, it does have exciting choreography, delightful performances and the kind of exuberance that can make any audience temporarily forget the chilly weather outside.

Proof
by Jennifer Curran
(Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT - www.playhouseonpark.com thru 2/8/15
Nearly 15 years ago "Proof," written by David Auburn, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. "Proof" has been produced in community, regional and professional theatres across the globe. Its themes of logic and reason, right and wrong, and trust and love are universal, but bring these deeply human emotions into the ultra-logical world of math, ambition, academia and insanity and the result is extraordinarily profound. The play is a story told through the eyes of Catherine, the daughter of Robert (Damian Buzzerio), a genius mathematician. Recently deceased after struggling with mental illness for several years, Robert was cared for by Catherine alone. he shares his love of math, but fears deeply she may also share the same mental illness as her father. The role of Catherine is inherently difficult, but in the hands of actress Dana Brooke it looks as easy as adding one and one. Brooke brings Catherine so fully to life, so perfectly balanced between likable and stridently imperfect that the audience is on her side within minutes. At times heart-breaking and others hilarious, this is a performance worth seeing again and again. Her scenes with Hal, played with everyman charm by Marty Scanlon, are endearing and enriched with a sweetness. Credit must be given to Melissa Macleod Herion for her ability to find the gentleness and love in Claire, also a role that is a tightrope act. It would be, and tragically often is, easy to play Claire deeply unlikeable, but here Claire is rooted in love and good intentions. She is the Big Sister and to that end, we love her for her imperfections, for her true desire to be a source of comfort. The two women lead this production with great care about this family and who they were and who they will become. With a stripped down stage, the acting is what matters here. Christopher Hoyt’s stage design is deceptively simple, a playground for actors who so clearly deserve a packed house. Director Dawn Loveland nail the casting and tells one great story. This is a truly terrific production of the modern classic.

Iris
by Shera Cohen
(The Majestic, West Springfield, MA - www.majestictheater.org thru 2/15/15)
It’s always a thrill for the theatre goer to participate in a world premier, which is the case with “Iris,” penned by Majestic’s Artistic Director Danny Eaton. The era is the present and future. The characters are every-day folk, primarily representing a family; one member, ever-present center-stage, lays in a coma. Her daughter (Iris) is the primary narrator as well as the lead character. As the story progresses, what seems to be normal under the circumstances and in the setting of a long-term health care facility, takes a twist. Myka Plunkett plays Iris as intelligent, spright, and charming. She portrays the daughter who every mother would want. It is through her eyes that the audience sees and understands the others on stage. She watches every minute movement and listens to every syllable, reacting with her eyes and demeanor. To say more is to give away the mysterious of the plot. The playbill refers to the subject matter as “putting a human face on issues.” Yes, “Iris” certainly fulfills that requirement, and in most cases appropriately, slowly, and gently. However, Act II, in particular, seems to have “issues” that come from nowhere, causing some characters to react unexpectedly. Issues include religion, war and veterans, and euthanasia, among others -- with a different character leading the charge and rhetoric on each. Tom Dahl portrays the best of these outspoken characters as maintenance man Leonard. Steve Henderson, whose volume on stage is often loud (or he is directed to be loud), is spot-on as a caring father. It is Keith Langsdale’s Columbo-ish cop who in Act II brings some much needed humor. An important factor in all Majestic plays is the mix of Equity and community actors. Skipping the definition of “Equity,” suffice it to say that these are pros, and community actors are just that -- from the community, usually with day jobs that don’t resemble the arts in any way. Yet, the difference between the two genres of actors is undetectable by the human eyes. Once again, The Majestic has mounted a play whose actors have been well-cast and, for the most part, exemplary.

Pippin by Michael J. Moran
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org thru 1/11)
Since it first opened on Broadway in 1972, this stirring tale of life choices made by the young adult son (Pippin) of medieval King Charles (Charlemagne) has become a classic coming-of-age story that resonates with audiences of all ages. In the Actors Equity tour of the 2013 Tony-Award winning revival at the Bushnell, director Diane Paulus adds a circus setting which heightens the drama of the plot and delights an enthusiastic full house. With catchy music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, the original production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, whose jazzy dance style is evoked in much of the new choreography by Chet Walker. Colorful costume design by Dominique Lemieux and often daring circus acts by Gypsy Snider further enhance the razzle-dazzle quotient in this fast-paced presentation. All these elements are brought to pulsing life by a well-matched cast, featuring the original Pippin, John Rubinstein, as his father, Charles, whom he portrays with zany exuberance. Kyle Dean Massey is a convincingly endearing and bewildered Pippin, a role he also played in the Broadway production. Sasha Allen, a veteran of NBC TV’s “The Voice,” brings a steely irreverence to her portrayal of the Leading Player/narrator who sets the overall tone for the production. The scene that best conveys the “Magic To Do” of the show’s opening number features Lucie Arnaz in a star turn as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe. As the now 63-year-old actress gamely cavorts high above the stage on a trapeze, her big number, “No Time at All,” brings the house down. With great ensemble work and other memorable tunes like Pippin’s “Corner of the Sky” and his stepmother Fastrada’s “Spread a Little Sunshine,” fans undeterred by cold weather should get their tickets to this entertaining production before remaining seats at later performances sell out.

Mozart and Dvorak
by Michael J. Moran
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra - www.hartfordsymphony.org thru 12/7/14)
Though HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan is a multi-talented musician, guest conductor William Eddins did something in the third program of this season’s Masterworks series that Kuan hasn’t done yet in Hartford (but give her time): performed as featured soloist and conductor in the same concert. He also did something Kuan does regularly and well: spoke to the audience. He opened by leading ten wind instruments from the piano in the HSO premiere of the nine-minute “Homage to Friendly Papageno” written in 1984 by Jean Francaix as “a hymn of gratitude to Mozart.” Sounding like a sprightly mashup of Mozart and Poulenc, it was played with charm and bite, and it led nicely into Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, in which Eddins led a larger ensemble of winds and strings again from the piano as soloist. Not rising from the bench or leaving the stage between these pieces, he engagingly discussed the themes from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” quoted by Francaix and Mozart’s pet starling, which loved quoting the main theme of this concerto’s coda but could never get all the notes quite right. From its lively opening Allegro through a flowing Andante and vigorous romp of a finale, the affectionate performance showed why this was one of Mozart’s own favorites among his concertos. The conductor’s clear and decisive head motions complemented the dexterity of his fingers. Intermission was followed by a white-hot reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 by the full orchestra. The dark color of the opening cello chords made clear that this would be a powerfully dramatic interpretation. A warm, loving Poco Adagio, a stately, Czech-flavored Scherzo, and a passionate, intense finale brought the audience to its feet. Here Eddins was a full-body and high-energy conductor (think Leonard Bernstein), who led without a baton or score all evening but with obvious communication skill. Music Director of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor of major orchestras throughout the world, and at 18 the youngest graduate ever of the Eastman School of Music, this gifted and charismatic musician can’t be invited back to Hartford soon enough.

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Mary Ann Dennis
(Westfield Theatre Group, Westfield, MA thru 10/25/14)
With a mental ward standing in for everyday society, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Westfield is insane (in a good way). Based on Ken Kesey's novel and with depth and understanding, directed by Jake Golen, this is a comically sharp indictment to urge establishment to conform. Playing crazy to avoid prison work detail, manic but free spirit Randle P. McMurphy, played by Carl Schwarzenbach, is sent to the state mental hospital for evaluation. There he encounters a motley crew of mostly voluntary inmates, all presided over by the icy Nurse Ratched. Ratched and McMurphy recognize that each is the other's worst enemy: an authority figure who equates sanity with correct behavior, and a misfit who is charismatic enough to dismantle the system simply by living as he pleases. Schwarzenbach as McMurphy is stellar. His approach to this boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel is performed with finesse. He commands the stage and is a delight to watch. Janine Flood’s Nurse Ratched is passive aggressive in shining armor. Flood’s approach is sterile and self-controlled which “works” for the character. Flood’s interpretation is consistent and valid, but a bit more whimsical playfulness would make a proper ingredient to the syrup manipulations. The evidence of Ratched’s authority is shown in the lobotomy character of Ruckly, played by Paul Bridge. Although few lines are delivered, Bridge pulls off the idiosyncrasies, twitches and outburst so believably that the audience is mesmerized. Bridge makes his acting debut with this production and is sensational in this intricate and most necessary role. Thomas LeCourt is successful as Dale Harding, a man simply trying to figure why, what and how but is scared and has been shut down from life. Kevin Montemagniis exuberantly puts himself into the role of Scanlon – a paranoid bomb-making maniac. Martini, played by John Kielb, is perfect for his role. Rob Clark's Chief evokes unexpected compassion from his audience. McMurphy's message to live free or die is ultimately not lost on the “inmates,” revealing that escape is still possible even from the most oppressive conditions. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax. This is an intricate show; a display of life and the conflict.

 

Evita by Walt Haggerty
(Bushnell, Hartford, CT thru 9/28 - www.bushnell.org )
Although “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats” have racked up considerably longer runs, “Evita,” which first arrived on stage in 1978, remains Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best work to date. Currently, the Bushnell is offering a production of “Evita” based on its most recent Broadway revival, and it is a triumph. A rags to riches story of a poor country girl with lofty ambitions, “Evita” transports its heroine, step by carefully calculated step, from “groupie,” to radio personality, to film actress, to mistress to the most powerful military man in Argentina, and finally to First Lady, with eyes focused on the country’s Vice Presidency. Without question, the centerpiece of this production is Caroline Bowman, who delivers a luminous portrayal of a woman determined to achieve her goals as she rises to an iconic pinnacle of adoration from her legion of followers. Bowman is superb as was recognized by Tuesday evening’s audience following her Act II performance of the “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” anthem – a spectacular moment! Max Quinlan performs the role of Che impeccably as an observer and sometimes participant in the action, narrating and filling in gaps in the story of Evita’s rise from obscurity to stardom. Quinlan’s waltz with Evita is a gem. Sean MacLaughlin’s characterization of Peron diminishes the stiffness of earlier interpretations as it humanizes him and adds a layer of warmth. Christopher Johnstone, as the appropriately oily Magaldi, and Krystina Albado, as Peron’s pathetically rejected young mistress, each contribute excellent performances in secondary, but key roles. The large cast, meticulously directed by Michael Grandage, perform beautifully. What appears to be some judicious pruning of the book, allows for additional and welcome opportunities to feature the excellent choreography of Rob Ashford. Handsome and effective settings and costumes by Christopher Dram grant precisely the right touches, ranging from poverty to elegance. A somewhat reserved audience throughout Act I rose to the occasion with gusto following Act II with a well-deserved standing. With this production of “Evita” the Bushnell has set a high mark for the remaining productions of their annual Broadway Musical series.

 

Ether Dome by Jarice Hanson
(HartfordStage, Hartford, CT thru 10/5 - www.hartfordstage.org )
The publicity for HartfordStage’s production of Elizabeth Egloff’s new play, “Ether Dome”, uses the term “exhilarating,” leading the reader to suspect hyperbole. Instead, the word is an apt description for the energetic, engrossing story that unfolds. Egloff tells the story of four men whom were instrumental in the quest for relieving human suffering and what might be considered the “birth” of modern health care. In the process, humanity vs. opportunism, science vs. superstition, and change vs. the status quo become interwoven themes. Can the invention of anesthetic be attributed to only one man? Should Hartford dentist Dr. Horace Wells who used laughing gas to calm his patients get the credit? Should it be his apprentice, the ne’re do well William Morton, who attempted to patent the gas? Was it Dr. Charles Jackson, who favored science over superstition, or Dr. John Collins Warren, the founder of Mass General, who feared change? As the story unfolds, each of these men undergoes personal transformation as the medical world shifts. Egloff writes that Wells, for example, may have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Does that pique your interest? The excellent ensemble cast is complimented by a brilliant scene and projection design by James Youmans who transforms the stage from the surgical space of the Ether Dome (which still exists at Mass General Hospital) to a variety of locations from Boston to Washington D.C., including a visually stunning representation of a New York subway platform. But the master of the show is director Michael Wilson who moves his cast through a fast-paced two hours and forty minutes of human drama and comedy as the personal stories unfold. Ether Dome is a gift to an audience who appreciate the occasional joke about Hartford and Boston, but who find the real story of a scientific breakthrough as mesmerizing as the drama and history that unfolds. HartfordStage has produced a winner with this very original, fascinating theatrical experience.

 

Stop in for ‘Dinner’ at the Huntington

(Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Huntington Theatre Co. thru 10/5 - www.huntingtontheatre.org)
Sometimes it’s difficult to see a movie after reading a book, and sometimes that same rule applies to seeing a movie before watching a staged version. Todd Kreidler’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” based on the screenplay of the same name by William Rose, plays very similarly to the film – which has an upside and a downside. The upside to this is that it’s a darned good movie. Released in the late '60s, the film is fondly remembered for it’s (at the time) edgy subject matter, and strong performances from Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and others. It was very well done and very well received. The downside to this is that, even if staged in 1967 San Francisco, the style of play taken from the script isn’t received as well today as it may have been decades ago. The text today in the style of yesterday can play very preachy and lengthy. Despite very strong performances by cast members, wordy monologues from each character became very redundant and sometimes seeming not to move the plot along, but instead to remind the audience what they’ve just seen. Audiences who remember and enjoy the film would find this production to be on the mark. A new audience of younger viewers, though, may not receive it as well. Director David Esbjornson was given a strong group of actors to portray the plays characters, two families dealing with the racial pressures of the late 1960s. Each of the families were well-defined, though it was a bit ambiguous as to whether one family was of wealth and the other from a “lesser” station, which I believe is an added stressor to the already bi-racial tension. A couple characters also fell toward stereotypes rather than being rich (in depth versus financials) people they could have been. Again, if the intent was to keep with the style of the original film, then direction was successful. Dane Laffrey’s set was a lovely home interior and exterior combined in one, utilizing a turntable to convey inner and outer settings. The inner room was fairly basic and non-descript in nature with a wall of windows connecting the outside terrace. No real indication to the era was included in the dressing or decor. On the terrace was a wealth of plants and cacti which, at first the impression, was more life outside the home than in. Moreoften than not, the staging in and out of the living space to the terrace worked well. The first scene didn’t play well with Mrs. Drayton, daughter Joanna and her fiancé John downstage on the terrace with friend Hilary and maid Tillie upstage in the living space. Though the conversation downstage was the focus, Hilary packing up paintings and casting large shadows pulled focus often, as did Tillie’s reactions looking through the window to the conversation on the terrace. Throughout, lighting seemed inconsistent with many downstage moments showing faces in shadow, walking in and out of shadows, or more dimly lit than an empty terrace upstage. Also a directorial challenge was orientation. Given, when working on a turntable and the room shifts, the orientation in staging should be consistent - only perspectives have changed. Still, when the terrace is downstage and the rest of the house remains unchanged around it, those exiting the terrace kept their orientation and, when leaving through the “front door stage right”, actors exited to stage left, which visually showed them going into the unseen portion of the house. It was as confusing to this audience member as it was to try to explain it herein. Individual performances in this production shone brightly. Guest artist Julia Duffy was quietly strong as matriarch Christina Drayton. Her portrayal was subtle, but her relationship with husband Matt Drayton, portrayed by area-favorite Will Lyman, was very strong. Lyman’s portrayal of the conflicted father had great depth and truth, and flowed seamlessly throughout. Another stand-out was guest artist Malcolm-Jamal Warner, portraying Dr. John Prentice. No one will argue that Sidney Poitier is a tough act to follow on any stage and/or screen, but Warner showed some great presence and depth as an actor – far more than you would ever remember him for in “The Cosby Show.” He was strong and proud, and the transition he showed in his interactions with his father in Act II showed a lovely arc in his character. Linda Gravatt and Patrick Shea were also enjoyable in their supporting roles of Tillie and Monsignor Ryan, despite being somewhat stereotypical in character, pushing the comedy rather than allowing it to show itself more organically. The Huntington, known for quality productions, did not disappoint with this endeavor. It was performed very well, and it stayed true to the film. If that’s what you’d like to see, you will enjoy it very much. If you’re not partial to wordy monologues (and/or dialogues), this production of “Guess Who Comes to Dinner” might not be your cup of tea.


Dancing Lessons
by Jarice Hanson
(Barrington Stage Company thru 8/24 - www.barringtonstageco.org)
The standing ovation for the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s "Dancing Lessons" was well deserved. Yet, upon leaving the theatre, overheard was a wide range of comments by patrons that expressed divergent views on what worked in the production and what didn’t. There is a lot to like in this new work. John Cariani is quirky and compelling as a professor with Asperger’s Syndrome. His charm and honesty provides much of the heart of the story. Paige Davis as an injured dancer clearly expresses frustration and anger as she faces a future she can’t control. Director Julianne Boyd weaves contemporary music into the fabric of the story to create a metaphorical dance of two people as they get to know and trust each other. One of the major challenges for a work dealing with autism is how to impart the peculiarities of the neurological condition to the public, and in this production, the writer, director, and actors are most effective when autism is shown, rather than described. There are moments of brilliance in the script, but the play suffers from trying to cover too much territory. Short, staccato bursts of dialog at the beginning of the show are intended to set a pace, but they fail to establish a rapport with the audience. At times, information on autism becomes didactic, and a litany of names of famous people who may have been autistic seems unnecessary to establish the fact that autistic individuals can be brilliant. Clues to the dancer’s backstory are delivered through phone messages from someone who sounds like a character from "The Prairie Home Companion." Surprisingly, the ending, though not particularly original, works well and leaves the audience with a message of hope for these two individuals trapped in worlds they can’t control. "Dancing Lessons" is appropriately titled, and the characters’ relationship creates a compelling story that touches our humanity and is ultimately moving. If some of the “extra information” embedded in the script were eliminated or downplayed, the basic questions of what we as individuals control, and what circumstances in our lives we would change if we could, are strong enough for the story to stand alone. As a new work, "Dancing Lessons" may not be perfect, but this production shows great potential for a script that will be produced often, and will touch many.

 

Design for Living by Jarice Hanson
(Berkshire Theatre Group. Stockbridge, MA thru 8/16 - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org)
The delight in watching a Noel Coward script come to life onstage is to watch the portrayal of society’s manners and morals played against personal pain and self-delusion. And, of course, there’s the unmistakable wit that endears characters to the audience. Unfortunately, none of these elements are used to their advantage in "Design for Living," currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre. While the young cast injects energy into their performances, they largely miss the quintessential Coward touches, and fail to connect with each other and more importantly, with the audience. This particular Coward story retains its timeliness, though this interpretation leaves one wanting more attention to the original script. Over a period of five years, three friends exchange sex and flaunt social conventions as each finds success, but director Tom Story allows his male actors to go over-the-top with gay stereotypes when the tension of any Coward play draws from the repressed sexuality of his male characters. The comedy is confined to slapstick, Marx Brothers-type of buffoonery that is well executed, but misses the sophistication provided by Coward’s erudite language. Coward based the story on his friendship with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the three performed in the 1933 Broadway production. The three acts reflect a bohemian Paris room, an upscale London flat, and finally, an apartment in a New York high-rise in which the characters’ successes are reflected by the decor. While the sets are imaginative and the costumes period-perfect, this production misses the mark when it comes to Noel Coward’s commentary about the soul of the artists, the fluidity of gender preferences, and the social repression of unmarried love and sex. Perhaps the actors will find the moments to really connect with each other as the run progresses, and the true spirit of Coward’s social comment on finding one’s personal truth will come through.

Frankenstein
(Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA 9/26-27 - www.olddeerfieldproductions.org)
After its huge success in Greenfield last month, a new adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein will be presented by Old Deerfield Productions for two nights only in Springfield. Written and performed by Lindel Hart as the Creature, the cast includes Colin Allen in the roles of Victor Frankenstein, Mr. DeLacey, and William, with Jane Williams playing Mary Shelley and Elizabeth. Tickets are $20 and available at www.olddeerfieldproductions.org or at the door. The production will feature projection design by Albanian artist, Florian Canga illustrating the story through light and image that will also draw parallels to the troubled present. Handheld video cameras and video installation manipulated by the character Mary Shelley incorporates images from the Scientific Revolution of her time with present day images. Athan Vennell creates set installation and costumes, Matt Cowan is the lighting designer, Sloan Tomlinson is the poster designer and the extraordinary makeup design and execution is by world renowned make up artist, Joseph Dulude, II. Not appropriate for young children. Tickets are $20 and available at www.olddeerfieldproductions.org or at the door.

The Visit
by Walt Haggerty
(Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival thru 8/17 - www.wtfestival.org)
Here we go again. It’s all about fresh starts, new beginnings,” commented legendary superstar Chita Rivera. Based on Friedrich Durenmatt’s play, "The Visit" has been turned into a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with a book by Terrance McNally. The Visit tells a dark and foreboding tale of a woman betrayed, abandoned and shamed by her lover. Late in life Claire returns to the village of her youth. The once beautiful and thriving community is decayed and the townspeople impoverished, including Anton, her former lover. Following a series of profitable marriages, Claire has become a woman of enormous wealth. Her mysterious visit is anticipated with curiosity as to why she has elected to return. The hope is that she will rescue her former neighbors. On arrival she makes an extraordinary offer, but demands an even more extraordinary price. As Claire, Rivera delivers a dynamic performance destined to cap a career of more than half a century. She is incomparable. Roger Rees, as Claire’s former lover, portrays a character deserving of total contempt. Enacting Claire and Anton as young lovers are Michelle Veintimilla and John Bambery, respectively, who reflect the youth and beauty that once existed. As schoolmaster, Jason Danieley makes his solo, “The Only One,” powerful and moving. Distinctive characterizations are also contributed by Judy Kuhn, Melanie Field, and Rick Holmes. The score and lyrics (Kander & Ebb) make this musical one of the team’s best, with each selection tailored precisely to the situations and characters as reflected in Claire’s bitter “I Walk Away” and “Anton’s egotistical, “I Must Have Been Something.” “Love and Love Alone,” sung and danced by Claire and Young Claire, is beautiful and moving. The Visit, directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, is still a work in progress. The strong, sturdy framework is in place for a memorable, even great, evening of theatre. Perhaps a reconsideration of the most recent cuts and condensation of the current production might be revisited, with an eye to adding definition to key characterization. More extensive use of the marvelous music would also be most welcome.

Other Desert Cities
by Konrad Rogowski
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA thru 8/9/14 - www.newcenturytheatre.com)
The unearthing and ghoulish autopsy of old family secrets, deceptions and plots creates the conflict and intrigue of New Century Theatre's production of Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities." The premise of the play is pulled straight from the often times brutal reality of today's "tell it all" autobiographies, recounted, most often, by the children of the rich and famous; and so it is with the Wyeth family. Author Brooke Wyeth (Cate Damon) arrives on Christmas Eve at the home of her movie star/high powered political hob-nobbing parents (Richard McElvain and Carol Lambert) with a present that promises to blow the lid off of a well kept family secret. She presents them with her "tell all" book that suggests what happened to drive her younger brother to both acts of mass violence and suicide. The author, who has her own take on the family dynamics which caused this situation, give other family members - brother Trip (Sam Gillam) and aunt Silda (Ellen W. Kaplan) - the chance to read and to deal with what has occurred. Each of the actors create characters dealing with a family imploding into a series of hateful accusations and counter accusations. The interesting and different facet of the play here is that each of these characters makes points that ring true in their facts and their hypothesis, only to be countered by the others' equally valid points, leaving the audience wondering just who's version of the truth is the one to believe. To compound the issue, Rand Foester has successfully directed his cast to express flawed people who deal with others, equally flawed. By play's end, a truth does come out. The audience discovers why Brooke finally takes the road she talks about to other desert cities. Foester keeps the action tight, and the arguments crisp and ringing of reality. Daniel D. Rist's set design creates the scene...and like the conflicts played out, it is panoramic in scope, and appears, at least to the uninitiated, picture perfect.

Cedars
by Jarice Hanson
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA thru 8/9 - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org)
Have you ever wished you could tell a parent what you thought of what they had taught you, and not have them interrupt? In "Cedars," a one-man play in five acts starring the talented James Naughton, currently at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage theatre, this premise is examined from the perspective of a self-absorbed 59 year old lawyer who talks to his comatose father while his own life is falling apart. The imagined location is the Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, and the script, penned by Erik Tarloff, is full of LA-speak; the criticism of pop culture, morals, and fractured families. Naughton is commanding on stage. His rich voice is polished and every syllable is clear. Director Kiera Naughton (his daughter) has some good ideas; shifting the passage of time visually with projections and costume changes, and setting up hospital background sounds from the time the house is open are nice touches. However, the minute Gabe, a lawyer by trade, is introduced by way of jarring music, the hospital illusion falls apart. Gabe could be anywhere, and until the end of the fifth act, the fact that he is speaking to his father seems irrelevant, if not inappropriate. Naughton spends a good deal of time wandering around the stage, without clear physical moments to help punctuate the story. But when Gabe’s moment of truth emerges, the scene is heartbreakingly beautiful. The problems with the show are in Tarloff’s script. The over-written dialog is too literary for this type of intimate show, and some of the dialog is crude and insensitive. Naughton gets a few moments where he shines like the star he is, but even he has a hard time overcoming the dialog that masks the truth Gabe and the audience need to find to make this show really memorable.

Lizzie Borden
by Michael J. Moran
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org)
American composer Jack Beeson, scenario writer Richard Plant, and librettist Kenward Elmslie first published their opera “Lizzie Borden” in 1965. A new version for chamber orchestra with orchestration by Todd Bashore and dramaturgy by John Conklin was commissioned and debuted by Boston Lyric Opera in November 2013. The same forces recently presented it at Tanglewood. Although the real Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892 at the family home in Fall River, MA, suspicions of her guilt still persist. The stark and stylized BLO production, performed in 90 minutes without an intermission, built a mood of almost unbearable tension from early scenes of family life to the murders just before the end. The orchestra was situated at stage right in Ozawa Hall. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland placed a table with four chairs downstage center, and most of the action was movement of chairs around the otherwise empty stage by the six cast members. Stage director Christopher Alden provided some comic relief by using the floor as a bed for Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, and his wife, Abigail, and the table as a piano and lounging area for Abigail. Soprano Caroline Worra played Abigail to the hilt, garnering much appreciative laughter from the enthusiastic audience. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Andrew, soprano Chelsea Basler as Lizzie’s younger sister Margret, baritone David McFerrin as Margret’s ship captain fiancé, and tenor Omar Najmi as the pastor of the Borden family church all sang with clarity, focus, and strong characterization. But the evening belonged to mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Lizzie, whose heartrending and harrowing account of the tragic heroine won sympathy as well as horror for her actions. BLO music director David Angus led a tight, intense performance, and the reduced orchestration highlighted both the astringency of the often violent score and the tenderness of its rare lyrical interludes. Members of the Voices Boston children’s chorus sang with spirit from the first balcony. Projected titles and a post-show panel discussion featuring the composer’s daughter further enhanced this rare opportunity to hear an American operatic masterpiece.

A Number
by Bettie Hallen
(Chester Theatre Company thru 8/10/14 - www.chestertheatre.org)
When staged in London in 2002, this play was identified by The London Evening Standard, as “the first true play of the 21stcentury." As its five scenes unfold, the audience is immersed in a depth of bio-socio-medical-ethical questions to ponder. This puzzler of a psychological thriller heads straight into the middle of the situation when, after having seen something unnerving, Bernard, a son questions Salter, the father who has raised him. "Are you my father? Was I the first one, the original? Would you know me in the batch?” The father answers somewhat evasively, often changing his story, finally telling Bernard, “I am your father (long pause) genetically.” At this point in the first scene, the audience, if not already confused, realizes it has no idea what is going on. Why does Bernard ask if he was the first of ‘a number’? Who are the “they” whom Salter wants to sue for a huge amount of money? Caryl Churchill’s intriguingly-styled script allows for a great deal of free rein of which director Byam Stevens thoughtfully takes full advantage. In a discussion with opening day audience, he would not categorize the play for all of the many questions which it poses. The script has no stage directions and little punctuation. Learning this, its audience realizes what imaginative command both Stevens and his truly brilliant actors have staged to create amazing characterizations. The versatile Jay Stratton returns to Chester as Bernards 1 and 2, and Michael Black, three of the identical sons who are not at all similar in behavior nor demeanor; this is most impressive acting. As Salter, Larry John Meyers is a brilliant choice in his first appearance at Chester. He adeptly changes in his behavior as each of the young men confront him. Audience members must watch carefully during the scene changes; that there are no black-outs is another clever directorial decision. Both actors speak with a gentle, easily understood British accent, while standing or sitting across from one another in unmatched kitchen chairs on an otherwise bare platform stage encircled with 19 slightly out of focus, varyingly angled mirrors. Be sure to see this play with a full carload of folks for a lengthy discussion on the ride home of the questions and their possible answers introduced by “A Number.”

 

The How and the Why by K.J. Rogowski
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA thru 7/12)
Sarah Treem's "The How And The Why" is an ambitious two-person show currently playing at New Century Theatre. This production is, in part, an extensive exploration and debate of a proposed scientific theory on the evolutionary reason for menstruation, part professional crossroads on how to get ahead in the scientific community while leaving your coworker/lover behind, and part exploration of the deeply conflicted relationship between a mother and the daughter. By a twist of fate, some 28 years later, the daughter who was abandoned at birth ends up being her own mother's scientific collaborator. As if this was not enough to absorb, the play also includes the introduced, but never followed though on, plot element of one of the characters having stage three cancer.  Act I moves fairly well, although the ongoing antagonism between the two characters is never explained, only vaguely hinted at, which leaves audience members wondering exactly what is happening and why. However, much credit especially goes to the two actors, Lisa Abend and Suzanne Ankrum. At the opening night performance, a stir-related power outage put their stage in sheer darkness. The two never lost composure, but assured the audience "this happens all the time," getting a good round of applause. In a few minutes the lights were back on, they came back, restarted a few lines back from when the lights went out, and moved ahead unflustered and seamlessly.  The scientific and career conflicts debated in the Act I are detailed and well punctuated with the push and pull of conflicted characters. They move towards and away from one another as the action and arguments play out. Act II, however, takes an odd turn, with the prime characters meeting once again in "a dive bar." At this point, the production looses its drive. The main factors at play are the script's repetition of the debates and arguments from Act I with scientific theories and counter theories explained, argued and re-argued, as are the personal conflicts. Director Sheila Siragusa's choice is to just sit the two at a table, in a room all alone, and there they stay for the majority of the act. In spite of lots of room to move, to push and pull, there was little movement. Useful props were not used, such as the dart board that, oddly, had no darts.  It may be that the script tries to take on and resolve too many complex issues, or something missing in the action, but the production leaves its audience, at least at the play's first performance, wondering about the how and why.

 

June Moon by Jennifer Curran
(Williamstown <MA> Theatre Festival, Williamstown thru 7/13 - www.wtf.org)
The production “June Moon” was the official start of the 2014 season on the Main Stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival. If the season didn’t open with fireworks, it did open with the legendary writers, Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Broadway’s Jessica Stone, the production was charming, scathing, warm and hysterically funny at moments. “June Moon” takes its audience back to 1929 and the heyday of Tin Pan Alley as the protagonist, the clueless and simple-minded Fred Stevens (quite lovable though infuriatingly insipid at times as portrayed by Nate Corddry) makes his way from Schenectady to the Big Apple. His dreams of becoming a famous lyricist are waylaid by various forms of temptation. In the train car he meets the lovely, but oh so safe,  dna Baker (Rachel Napoleon). Fred joins up with the almost has-been song writer Paul Sears soon after his arrival in the city. At their first meeting, Fred also meets Paul’s bored, but not as gutsy as she wants you to believe, wife Lucille (Kate Maccluggage) and her gold digging, scandalous for 1929 sister Eileen (Holley Fain). “June Moon” is both an homage and criticism of the era of churning out ditties and excess of the pre-Depression lifestyle. The female characters are little more than archetypes, but they are pieces to the puzzle -- each woman doing what she can within the constraints of a political and social structure that allows for few options. Edna, upon her introduction to Fred, changes who she is with each sentence, so unsure of who her suitor wants her to be and so very eager to become a wife and mother. These types of roles for women have been long obsolete and thank goodness for that. There are no truly sympathetic characters in this world, except perhaps for that of Maxie the piano player. In fact, they are so flawed, so selfishly drawn, it's hard not to enjoy watching them fall. Maxie (a truly terrific David Turner) is at once the sardonic truth speaker, the hit ‘em in the kisser with one-two punch jokes, but also the dark heart of this story. And dark it is, though the brilliance of the incredible set (Tobin Ost) and glittering costumes (Gregg Barnes) might want you to believe otherwise. On the surface, the dresses were fabulous and the clubs were hopping, but there is a desperation running through every line. That longing to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved under a June Moon, even if it is October.

 

Kiss Me, Kate by Shera Cohen
(Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield - www.barringtonstageco.org thu 7/12/14)
“It’s delightful. It’s delicious. It’s de-lovely.” Cole Porter’s own words from another of his musicals perfectly describe Barrington Stage’s (BSC) production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” Let’s bring on the adjectives...it’s energetic, playful, and endearing. BSC has set its own benchmark so high in producing musicals that it has the difficult task of, at the very least, reaching the mark. At best, exceeding it. Exceed, they do as BSC literally jumps into its 20th season with the first of “Kate’s” memorable songs; “Another Op’nin, Another Show.” The show? “Kate” is a play within a play where backstage problems and personalities come center stage. “Kate” mingles Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” with a post-WWII city-to-city pitstop theatre company. It’s The Bard meets Damon Runyon. And, it’s two love stories. Nearly all of Porter’s 18 songs are familiar (the sweet “So In Love,” the comic “I Hate Men,” and the rousing “From This Moment On”). It would be difficult for any audience member not to leave the house humming a medley. Porter’s lyrics are full of double entendres and farce, and are sometimes ridiculously funny. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” falls into all three categories. Elizabeth Stanley and Paul Anthony Stewart portray squabbling exes behind the play’s curtain and Kate and Petruchio on the stage within the stage in front of the curtain. Got that? It doesn’t matter. What matters most is the truth and humor they give to their characters in their private moments and interactions with each other. Bravado and ego abound -- loudly, relentlessly, and hysterically. Oftentimes, theatres hire actors who can sing, or singers who can act. There is a difference. Rarely are the skills equal. Stanley and Stewart make for a perfect match. Stanley’s soprano voice is almost operatic. Stewart holds onto his songs with passion. The pit orchestra -- yes, they are really in a pit with dancers jumping and spinning in precarious moves within inches of the players’ heads -- makes 12 musicians sound like 25. Joe Calarco’s direction and Lorin Latarro’s choreography are as in synch as their lead actors and the two plays. “Too Darn Hot” opens Act II as the entire ensemble mixes jazz, ballet, and modern dance into a sultry, sweaty, and steamy showstopper. And the costumes…the sets…Just get ye' to Pittsfield.

 

Ghost-The Musical by R.E. Smith
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org thru 6/15)
For a story about intimate connections and lost love, “Ghost-The Musical’s deepest impact comes courtesy of its grand, broad, cutting edge visual gestures. For instance, as befits a musical whose source material is a movie, “Ghost” features its own opening credits sequence. With book by original screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, Sam and Molly are young, successful and in love, until tragedy strikes (see the title). Sam must bring closure to his life and their love, while protecting Molly and dealing with his initially powerless state. Like another recent movie-inspired musical, “Flashdance,” “Ghost” relies on high definition video projection and intense lighting to create a show that is part play, part rock concert. Unlike that show, the effects are used for more than just scenery. Unique stage magic tricks and creative blocking serve to create an otherworldly environment in a surprisingly organic way. A subway sequence is especially cinematic; combining fast paced set changes with unique physical movement, shifting perspective at lighting speed. The choreography by Ashley Wallen, too, is inventive and unique, ably served by the ensemble. Slow motion, freeze frames, and fast reversals of direction serve to underscore the ebb and flow of the rhythms of life. The creators have wisely chosen not cast doppelgangers for the film’s original stars, and letting the performers bring more original portrayals of tenderness and longing. The role of suddenly relevant psychic Oda Mae Brown could easily go over the top, but Carla R. Stewart plays the comedy with a deft and realistic touch. Her big production number “I’m Outta Here,” as well as Katie Postotnik’s (Molly) plaintive “With You” were stand outs among the rock/pop score. Iconic moments from the film, such as the pottery wheel and “Unchained Melody” are present, but woven in more subtly than one would have expected. This helps to make “Ghost-The Musical” a unique companion to the film. The sights and sounds will wow your senses, but the story will still touch your heart.

 

Bolero! by Michael Moran
(Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org)
As the exclamation point after its title suggests, the goal of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan in designing this program must have been not only to dazzle her listeners but to end the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season on a high note. The trumpet fanfare that opens Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” got the concert off to a rousing start. This is one of several Italian melodies the composer heard when visiting Rome in 1880 and quoted in this musical memento of his trip. The HSO and Kuan deftly rendered the piece’s shifting moods, from the somber main theme after the fanfare to the exuberant closing tarantella. In complete contrast to the high spirits of Tchaikovsky’s curtain raiser, the program continued with the radiant “Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major” by his favorite composer, Mozart. Principal HSO flutist Greig Shearer was the mellifluous soloist, and his colleagues supported him with a delicate performance of classical poise. After intermission, this quietest selection on the program was followed by the loudest: the Hartford premiere of up-and-coming American composer Mason Bates’ “Alternative Energy for Orchestra and Electronica.” In opening comments, the Maestra explained its four movements (depicting energy sources at different times and places), and orchestra members demonstrated such exotic sounds as a car muffler and a hubcap (Kuan praised principal HSO percussionist Robert McEwan for finding them in a local junkyard). Despite some harsh moments of clashing dissonance, this colorful score is compulsively listenable, and electronic sounds from a laptop enhanced its drama. The huge orchestra played it with flair, and the near-capacity audience loved it. Closing the program was its crowd-pleasing title piece, Ravel’s “Bolero.” Like the jazz bands that inspired the composer in the 1920's, all the musicians stood to play their solos. Later, 10 members of the University of Connecticut Drumline marched onto the stage from throughout the hall, each playing the same ostinato rhythm on a snaredrum with which the music had begun. The HSO has in Kuan an inspiring leader who draws memorable performances from her orchestra and a canny programmer who educates and entertains her audiences.

Damn Yankees by Walt Haggerty
(Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT thru 6/21 - www.goodspeed.org)
Praying for a Red Sox win? Turn off the Sports Channel and head for Connecticut. Yes, East Haddam, CT, where Goodspeed musicals have launched a winning season with that old favorite, “Damn Yankees.” This time around instead of dealing with the familiar frustrations of Washington Senators fans, a brisk and hilarious new adaptation of the original book puts the Red Sox in the spotlight – and it works – brilliantly! Joe DiPietro is due well-deserved credit for this swiftly moving, laugh-filled adaptation of the book, and the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross score is still one of the best. As is customary at Goodspeed, casting is impeccable – every performer is spot-on perfect. Their Red Sox team actually looks like a baseball team instead of a chorus line. Each player has his own distinct personality and maintains that characterization throughout. Special credit goes to Director Daniel Goldstein for that accomplishment and to Choreographer Kelli Barclay, who has devised a series of spirited, challenging and inventive ensemble dance numbers that have the audience cheering. The cast performances of “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe” are show-stoppers, especially the latter as led by Lora Lee Gayer as Gloria Thorpe. David Beach’s delightfully deceptive, double-dealing Devil delivers the kind of evil that audiences love to hate. The irony of his “Good Old Days” solo is priceless. As his seductive temptress/assistant, Lola, Angel Reda is perfection, most notably in “Whatever Lola Wants.” Stephen Mark Lukas is every inch the strong, stalwart hero who really could be the answer to the Red Sox prayer. And WOW – what a voice. As Meg and Joe Boyd, Ann Arvia and James Judy, respectively, bring endearing moments of warmth to their characters, notably with “ A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You.” Kristine Zbornik and Allyce Beaseley, as Meg’s best friends and over-the-top Red Sox supporters, demonstrate the extremes of dedicated fans. “Damn Yankees,” resurrected from the memory book of great musicals of the past, has been given a well-deserved, vibrant new lease on life in this current Goodspeed production. It’s a winner.

 

Hairspray by Eric Sutter
(Stafford Palace Theater, Stafford Springs, CT - www.thestaffordpalacetheater.com)
Set in the early 60's, "Hairspray" tells the story of a plus-sized girl Tracy (Meghan Allen) who dreams of being a featured dancer on "The Corny Collins Show" - the equivalent of "American Bandstand." The musical mimics much of the time period's pop music sound explosion set to new lyrics with similar sock hop style dancing. To start, a simple set features a bed on which Tracy awakens to an alarm clock. She breaks out in song with "Good Morning Baltimore" accompanied by strange but funny characters that color her morning. A flasher does a slide flash in long coat, a drunken bum takes a fall and other characters gather around show host Corny Collins (Jon Todd). A "Cool Jerk" sounding song called "1960's Town" brings the characters into a campy fun roll call. Toe tappers ease the integration of the show's dancers which include cross-dressers and role reversal humor. "I Can Hear Bells" displays a troupe dance around the innocence of first love. Racial and gender barriers are broken down with strange twists. Of course, male authority figures such as Passion Park High's principal (David Sartori) try to suppress the music. Tracy is given detention for her discovery of Negro Day. [Remember, this shoe is dated.] Crazy dances ensue to "Feed The Monkey" and "Peyton Place After Midnight." Josh Farber, in the role of Tracy's mom Edna Turnblad, is hilarious as a drag queen. A Top 40 hit, "It Takes Two" is crooned by Tracy's love Link Larkin (Joe Lucenti) who appears as an Elvis clone. Many gyrations later, Link kisses Tracy. A Supremes style "Hey Momma" features Tracy and mom in a wild new stylish makeover... talk about heatwave. Motormouth Maybelle (Jasmine Keane) sings a hot R&B number "Run and Tell That" with a life affirming message of being okay to be different... it's time to integrate. Act II opens with "Big Doll House"... girls behind prison bars guarded by Prison Matron (Rae Banigan). As comic as the actors are, there is an honest love relationship between Tracy's parents; Michael Holt portrays dad. More comical repartee by the Turnblads during "Timeless To Me" makes light of gender roles. With Tracy in the house of detention, Link stages a jail break with Zippo lighter and, of course, the multi-purpose hairspray. The troupe sings "Without Love" to a funky soul dance step. Kudos to stage, set and costume crews for a unique production. Title song "Hairspray" by ego-maniac Corny Collins is fun. The flash of "You Can't Stop The Beat" integrates the Corny Collins Show with a soul clapping finale. Don't miss the final entrance of Edna Turnblad and Maybelle's soulful solo.

9 to 5 the Musical
by Eric Johnson
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA thru 5/10 - www.exit7players.org)
Yes, the 1980 movie is also a musical. Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick will not likely be compared to Rogers and Hammerstein for this work, however, the show is good for quite a few laughs and some toe tapping. Jeff Clayton plays the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Franklin Hart just enough over the top (verbally and physically) to elicit enthusiastic laughter from the opening night audience. Kathy Renaud is most entertaining in her portrayal of the hopelessly infatuated Roz, Hart’s executive assistant. The chemistry between Doralee, Judy and Violet, is crucial to this show and Jami Byrne-Wilson, Emily Stisser and Diane Lamoureaux pull it off without a hitch. These are characters whose relationship changes and grows dramatically and swiftly. These extremely talented actresses handle it deftly, creating many moving comical, and dramatic moments. The scene stealing supporting role award goes to Heather Maloney as Margaret. She reels across the stage sipping from a flask eliciting numerous laughs. All supporting characters and ensemble did a very nice job and complemented the production ably. Music director George Garber Jr assembled competent, talented musicians to provide the soundtrack for the evening’s entertainment. The opening number ("9 to 5") did seem to be going a bit fast for performance as an ensemble piece and, as a result, was a bit shaky. There are, however, many enjoyable musical highlights to the evening. The songs "I Just Might," "Backwoods Barbie," "One of the Boys" and "Let Love Grow" all showcase the assembled musical, vocal and dance talent present in the theatre. Director Scott Nelson, along with Mike Crowther, created a very stylish and functional (albeit sparse) set design using modular, multi-tasking pieces. Fiendishly clever. If criticisms must be made, the show could benefit from some general tightening up, pace and timing were not consistent. Perhaps opening night jitters are to blame for that. There were numerous anachronisms in costumes and hairstyles. If the show is set 300 years ago, few will notice, when it is set 35 years ago, that’s a different story. That said, an on-stage office full of singing, dancing and jokes galore is a nice way to wrap a week of one’s own 9 to 5.

 

Next to Normal by K.J. Rogowski
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA)
Musicals by their very nature can present a challenge, in finding the right singers who can act, or actors who can sing. But, add to that, a serious central theme such as a family struggling with the impact of a family member with a long history of bi-polar disorder, and that challenge is increased. That said, Majestic Theater's presentation of "Next To Normal" meets and exceeds on both of those challenges. Working with an excellent script, which relies on very little actual dialogue but conveys the characters' inner struggles and situations, and interpersonal conflicts between the family members through their songs, this cast of six easily draws the audience into the instability and anxiety of trying to get through a single day and some of the most mundane daily tasks, when no one knows what might happen next. Sue Dziura and Tom Nunes as the parents, trying to hold their marriage together, and Emery Henderson and Daniel Plimpton as their teen-aged children caught, as so often happens, in the middle, portray an average family, living with a real, puzzling, and sometimes debilitating disorder. As their story unfolds, visible are parallels between the parents' struggles and those of their daughter and her new found boy friend, played by Josiah Durham. Add to this upheaval, the many visits to Doctor Fine and then to Doctor Madden, both played by Freddie Marion (and both with their own treatment plans), and the lines between which plan and which cocktail of medications will bring some relief and stability blur like the patient's view and hope of a normal life. The authors play a little name game here also, with our average family, the Goodmans, treatened by their doctors, who are "fine" and "madden." Greg Trochlil's set design, comprised of clean institutional lines and generic panels, with smooth gray steel furniture, and puzzle piece gray floor reflect and enhance that gray zone that is the Goodman's life, and the disorder that they must deal with. The strength of this show is the strong voices of the cast, both in their ability to deliver on the music and to create characters who are real/next door people who tell their story, and make us care about what happens to them.

 

Guys and Dolls by Eric Johnson
(Westfield Theater Group, Westfield, MA -  www.westfieldtheatregroup.com thru 4/12/14)
What’s playin’ at the Roxy? A tight, well rehearsed, energetic and thoroughly entertaining production of "Guys and Dolls." That’s what’s playin’ at the Roxy! First time director John Farrell and seasoned music director George Garber Jr. work well together. The casting choices, including a few bold ones, serve this production admirably. Farrell’s objective to keep it simple, using projections along with a few easy to move set pieces, keeps the scene changes short and the action flowing. Garber leads a 10-piece band through the score by Frank Loesser with deft precision and an ear for detail that sets a very high bar for a community theatre produced musical. All of the instruments and voices blend together so well that the balance rivals that of a recording, and all of this at a very comfortable volume. The members of the ensemble cast, unfortunately too numerous to mention everyone by name, work together like a well-tuned and oiled machine, a machine with some mad vocal skills as well. Soloists and chorus alike bring some lovely voices to the party. Stand out performances from supporting roles come from Pat McMahon as Nicely Nicely Johnson; his timing and physical comedic ability are quite entertaining. Paired with Jay Torres as Benny, the two elicit belly laughs galore from the receptive opening night audience. Rick Buzzee contributes a wonderful, grounded performance as Arvide; his solo “More I Cannot Wish You” is a wonderful moment. Lead performers Tom LeCourt as Nathan, Martina Haskins as Adelaide, Carl Schwarzenbach as Sky and Lyndsey Ryder as Sarah, all work very well together. LeCourt is not subtle in his portrayal of Nathan, creating some hilarious moments. Schwarzenbach's Sky is a bit more subdued, adding a contrast between the two inveterate gamblers. The chemistry between Schwarzebach’s Sky and Ryders’ Sarah works nicely.A bit more range of emotion from the Sarah character would be welcome, especially in the duet with Adelaide. Which leads to the strongest performance of the evening; Martina Haskins as Adelaide slams it home with poise, talent, and skill. The emotional range in “Adelaide’s Lament” is both heart wrenching and hilarious at the same time. The chemistry between Nathan and Adelaide is there, especially in “Sue Me”. Kudos to cast and crew for putting together a polished and enjoyable show.

 

Enigma Variations by Michael J. Moran
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org)
Guest conductor Michael Lankester was warmly welcomed to the Bushnell’s Belding Theater for a program that played to many of the strengths he demonstrated as HSO Music Director (1985-2000): an English symphonic favorite; and a lesser-known Bruckner symphony. The concert opened with a deeply felt account of Sir Edward Elgar’s masterpiece, formally titled Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” but usually called simply the Enigma Variations. Following a stately opening theme, each of the fourteen variations depicts a friend or family member of the composer, varying widely in pace and mood, from the tender first variation on Elgar’s wife, Alice, to the “Presto” seventh variation on a high-spirited friend, to the noble ninth variation (“Nimrod”), a tribute to Elgar’s publisher, which is often played separately as an elegy. Though some of Lankester’s tempos were daringly slow, all sections of the orchestra did themselves proud in this loving rendition of a work by a fellow Englishman that sounded very close to the conductor’s heart. None of Anton Bruckner’s nine symphonies are programmed very often, perhaps because of their enormous length, but the third appears less in concert than the more familiar fourth, seventh, and ninth. So hats off to Lankester for leading a monumental performance of the 67-minute piece after intermission. Bruckner was a church organist for many years in his native Austria, and the symphony’s huge sonorities resonated much like an organ in the ample but intimate Belding acoustics. With spacious tempos in all four movements, Lankester emphasized its majestic grandeur, which evokes for many listeners the high peaks and deep valleys of the Austrian Alps. The HSO brass made a glorious choir in the symphony’s blazing climaxes, while the woodwinds played many softer passages with contrasting delicacy. During his tenure as HSO Music Director, Lankester showed a special feeling for the English repertoire, with memorable local premieres of contemporary works by John Taverner and Michael Tippett, as well as for large-scale pieces like Mahler’s eighth symphony. Both strengths were well served by this Elgar/Bruckner program, and much of the audience seemed anxious for a return engagement soon.

 

Sweet Charity by Walter Haggerty
(Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA)
“Sweet Charity” was one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Tailored to the unique talents of the incredible Gwen Verdon, directed by the incomparable Bob Fosse, with a book by Neil Simon, score by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, “Charity “ couldn’t miss. And it didn’t. With that history as a challenge, director Mark Giza and choreographer Kathleen Delaney have recreated “Charity” in a fantastic Theatre Guild of Hampden production with a stellar cast of home-grown Talent…and that capital “T’ is not a typo. “Sweet Charity” is the story of a New York dance hall “hostess,” a girl who doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, it is tattooed on her arm. Searching for love, Charity falls for every hopeless prospect who comes her way, always with the same result, but never without hope. Charity, played by Diane Fauteux, is totally convincing throughout in her acting, singing and exceptional dancing. Her caring, warmth and vulnerability are skillfully blended in an award-worthy performance. She is a pro! The entire cast is superb, especially Charity’s best friends, Nickie and Helene, played by Aileen Terzi and Chae-Vonne Munroe. The FanDango dancing girls are never carbon copy members of a chorus line. Each gives a meticulously conceived portrait of a distinct, individual character with Terzi and Munroe particularly memorable. Other standout performances are contributed by Heath Verrill as Oscar, Charity's latest prospect; Brad Shepard as Daddy Brubeck, who delivers a show-stopping “Rhythm of Life"; and Mark Gagnon who does the same with “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Arnaldo Rivera is star-perfect as Italian matinee idol Vittorio who is amusingly matched by his girlfriend Ursala, delightfully played by Christine Arruda. In “Where Am I Going?” Charity’s fragile character shines through. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby Dream Your Dream” each deliver with humor the underscore of frustrations and disappointments faced by the dance hall girls. Other powerful and better known numbers include “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now." “Sweet Charity” is musical comedy at its best supported by a great score, a humorous yet moving story and most importantly performed by a cast that is never less than perfect.
 

 

Heroes by Shera Cohen
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA - www.majestictheater.com)
Three men, each of whom has experienced some of the worst human horror imaginable, find themselves residents in a senior citizen home for veterans. They live in a lovely site in France overlooking an expanse of near-pristine nature. Each seems well-to-do, dressed in suits of the late 1950’s era. On the surface their lives in these last years have turned 180 degrees from their four decades earlier on the battlefields in Europe in WWI. This is “Heroes.” Each man was a hero and, although current circumstances are rather mundane and even boring, each man is still a hero. Director Keith Langsdale, along with a lot of help from set designer Greg Trochlil, have created a surface tranquility as the antitheses of the inner, sometimes overt, turmoil of the gentlemen. While the play is chock full of more dialogue than movement on stage, the repartee between the members of the trio is brisk, crisp, and seemingly unrehearsed. In fact, slowing down a bit is recommended in order to give the audience a moment to process many of the characters’ quips and asides. J.T.Waite (a regular at the Majestic) shares the stage equally with Walter Mantani and J.C. Hoyt. It is a cliche term, but the actors do fit the roles perfectly. While their characters aren’t friends, they are comrades who face the very real problems of old age together as a force to be reckoned with. Plotting a “getaway” from the residence keeps them busy in a fantasy world which pleasantly revs up the action in Act II. The audience cannot but like these former soldiers, although it is not necessarily to be enthralled with or fully understand them. Even today, many do not understand the reasons for the war supposedly “to end all wars.” How can an audience fully comprehend such conflagration or the men who faced it and lived through it? “Heroes” offers a brief yet in depth look at survivors, depicted well on the stage at the Majestic.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor by Richard Pacheco
(Ocean State Theatre,
Warwick, RI)
 
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at Ocean State Theatre is a wildly funny and merry romp into the world of television in the 1950’s into a hit comedy show. A terrific ensemble cast sparks this vividly to life with loads of  laughter and some great comic timing. It is hilarious, a real treat. Inspired by Simon's early career experience as a junior writer (along with his brother Danny) for “Your Show of Shows,” the play focuses on Sid Caesar-like Max Prince, the star of a weekly comedy-variety show circa 1953, and his staff, including Simon's alter-ego Lucas Brickman, who maintains a running commentary on the writing, fighting, and wacky antics which take place in the writers' room. Max has an ongoing battle with NBC executives, who fear his humor is too sophisticated for Middle America. The work is a roman à clef, with the characters in the play based on Neil Simon's co-writers on “Your Show Of Shows” The real-life inspirations: the Sid Caesar-inspired Max Prince", hypochondriac Ira, inspired by Mel Brooks, dryly witty, sane Kenny, inspired by Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, and "fussy Russian émigré” inspired by Mel Tolkin and Carol, inspired by Lucille Kalle. The show is mart and funny—and I trouble with the network. First, the network wants to cut it to an hour from 90 minutes. Then the bosses insist that they trim the budget by firing one of the writers. By the time of the 1953 Christmas party, the situation has deteriorated. (And although Sid Caesar and many of his writers went on to other series, “Your Show of Shows” ran only from 1950 to 1954.)  As Kenny says, “Maybe we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.” Max, the Sid Caesar character is more than a little bit nuts. At times he is stark raving, but very funny when he is. The fabulous Fred Sullivan Jr., a longtime member of  the Trinity Rep acting company delivers yet another tour de force performance as the wacky Max. he has a volatile energy and remarkable stage presence. He is a real treat in the role. Max is a tortured genius, very funny but truly nutty and eccentric in so many ways. This is Sullivan’s debut on the Ocean State Theatre stage and a wining one it is. Matt DaSilva is Lucas, the Simon alter ego in the play. Lucas is uncertain, a novice with desire and talent but not yet full of self confidence yet. DaSilva handle it all with likeable flair and finesse. Jean-Pierre Ferragamo as Milt also stands out in this wonderful cast. He has a keen sense of coming timing and a great sense of physical comedy, both of which he delivers with skill and expertise. Tommy Labanaris as Ira.a writer who is extreme hypochondriac and perpetually late for work for a variety of heath reasons. Lananaris also shines in the role. He is adept at physical comedy and quick with the one liners as well.  He is a delight and delivers the laughs. Aimee  Turner, the producing artistic director of Ocean State makes her stage debut with the theatre here and shines as the sole female writer on the show, Carol. The rest of the strong cast consists of Mark S. Cartier as Val, Tyler Fish as Kenny and Tom Andrew as Brian. While they are not as distinct as characters as the other writers, these actors shine in their roles, adding to the hectic , frenetic and very funny atmosphere. Director Brad Van Grack keeps this merry romp always on track, full of witty interchange and physical comedy. It is his directorial debut with the company and an auspicious one in it. The set by Kimberly V. Powers is excellent and really captures the 1950’s New York office flavor. The costumes by Brian Horton are also period perfect and effective. The terrific cast has a great time throughout it all and it is contagious to the audience was well. They got a well deserved standing ovation at the end.

Peter and the Starcatcher by R.E. Smith
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org)
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is an inventive, irreverent, and entertaining twist on familiar themes: reinventing, and repurposing not only theater conventions but the tale of Peter Pan as well. Told in a mélange of styles from English music hall, to Renaissance-fair storytelling to “Irma Vep”, there are hidden gems for all ages sprinkled throughout the script, costumes, performances and set. Based on a young adult novel by thriller writer Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry, those familiar with the book will recognize the basic framework and characters but familiarity is not needed. While this is the “origin” story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, the true protagonist is that of Molly, an English lord’s 13-year-old daughter who gets to prove her upper crust English mettle on a grand adventure on the high seas. The theme of childhood and imagination runs strong, and simple items are used to great effect; pieces of rope become cramped ship’s cabins, rubber gloves come to life as birds. The proscenium is littered with repurposed items, enhancing the idea that anything can be transformed with a little imagination. The cast is repurposed as well, with 12 actors portraying scores of characters, from pirates to mermaids. There are modern references and vernacular sprinkled throughout the script and work well to connect with the younger members of the audience, some of whom seemed a bit off put by so few actors playing so many roles “I really liked it (the show), but I’m still not quite sure what was going on!” remarked one young lady. For the adults, there are sly double entendres and knowing nods to an eclectic swath of pop culture. The entire ensemble works well together with snappy pacing and boundless energy and all had their stand-out moments. John Sanders as pirate Black Stache is given a showy and physical part with which to run amuck, but he never does so at the expense of the other players. Luke Smith as Smee, and Edward Tournier as Ted, for instance, made smaller supporting parts quite memorable. Much of the cast and technical crew hail from the New York production and the show sails along like like the fast moving toy boats that feature prominently. There is humor, adventure, a little song, a little dance, even haiku! The laughs come broad and subtle, physical and cerebral, moments range from bawdy to tender... there is, indeed, something for every child and for the child in all of us.

 

Intimate Apparel by Richard Pacheco
(Trinity Rep, Providence, RI)
The play had its world premiere at Center Stage on February 2, 2003. Directed by Kate Whoriskey, the cast featured Shane Williams (Esther), Brenda Pressley (Mrs. Dickson), Kevin Jackson (George Armstrong) and Sue Cremin (Mrs. VanBuren). It next ran at the South Coast Repertory from April 11, 2003 through May 18, 2003 directed by Whoriskey and with the same Center Stage cast. The play made its New York debut off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre, running from March 17, 2004 to June 6, 2004. Directed by Daniel J. Sullivan, it featured Viola Davis (Esther), Lynda Gravatt (Mrs. Dickson), and Corey Stoll (Mr. Marks). The play won the 2004 Steinberg New Play Award, presented by The American Theatre Critics Association to "outstanding new plays produced around the United States, outside of New York City”. Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, based the exquisitely written “Intimate Apparel” on her own family's history – in particular her great-grandmother's experiences as a seamstress in New York at the end of the 19th century- It is her brilliant attention to characterization and narrative that makes this pal shine and gives its wonderful actors so much to work with. The story centers on Esther Mills (Mia Ellis), an African-American woman living in New York City at the turn of the 19th century where she works as a highly skilled seamstress of the kinds of garments of the title for a wide range of clients, the wealthy to saloon singers. Esther might have dreams of marriage, but she is down to earth and a practical woman and does not believe in fairy tales. She is 35 and knows that avenue in her life is limited at best so she strives to save her money for her dream to own an elegant beauty parlor for black women. She has a single mindedness that is impressive, but gets distracted with a warm and friendly correspondence, long distance with a laborer in Panama working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong. As the warmth and attraction grows so do the possible side effects of it. Ellis is wonderful in the role, full of sensitivity and nuance, delivering a vivid and vivacious performance. This is her first year as a resident actress at Trinity and this performance establishes her talent and abilities beyond doubt. She deftly captures the mixture of insecurities in that Esther cannot read and write, giving it a richness and sincerity that is compelling. It is a rich and stunning performance on many levels. Joe Wilson Jr. is equally stunning as her “Panama Man” delivering a varied and sensitive performance, full of nuance. Throughout the first act, he shows up through the letters they write to each other and comes into the scene in the second act, becoming more that a voice at the end of the letters. When the long awaited George steps into her life for real, some things are different than she expected. All that is revealed in their body language when they first meet revealing, a difference between the gentleman of the letters and the flesh and blood man at her side. The other characters in this brilliant ensemble shine as well. Nottage described Intimate Apparel as "a meditation on loneliness," and each of the play’s characters underscores that vividly and distinctly. It ends up a rich and varied interplay between their interactions with Esther, depending on their race, social status and their expectations built on those criteria. Angela Brazil plays Mrs. Van Buren, Esther's wealthy, high-profile client. She considers Esther more than mere seamstress, but more confidant and friend, something unique for a Fifth Avenue socialite and upper crust of New York Society. Brazil is sheer delight in the role, garnering many laughs along the way with her antics and actions as well as her words. Another character who develops a deepening attachment to Esther is Mr. Marks (Mauro Hantman) a Romanian-born Jewish man. Marks is a soft spoken, eminently polite and well mannered fabrics seller. He is sweet, humble and respectful in all his dealings with Esther. They have an easy rapport and warm companionship within a business context and it is obvious their rapport is not merely professional. They are vey attached to each other even though it is unspoken. Hantman delivers a skillful performance as Marks, full of bittersweet poignancy and sincerity. Barbara Meek, always wonderful and delightful, opens the show as Mrs. Dickson, Esther's motherly-if-meddling landlady. She has some of the funniest lines in the show and always is on the mark with flair and finesse. Shelley Fort, a second-year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program and keeps up with the fine company she keeps in this play as the brassy and brazen fallen woman, Mayme. Mayme has tons of unfulfilled and never will be fulfilled dreams and hopes. She has deep hurt and quick witted humor and fast tongue. There is a scene in the second act between her and Ellis that is emotionally powerful and intense where they both shine with extraordinary proficiency and emotional depth. “Intimate Apparel” is directed by TRC's own Janice Duclos who handles her superb cast with depth and fine distinction throughout. Patrick Lynch designed an elegant multiple set piece for the play which creates several small, intimate spaces with distinct touches. From the rich array of fabrics for Mark’s shop to the boudoir of Mrs. Van Buren and the period piece furniture, all come vividly to life and create and handsome and effective atmosphere. Photo projections on the high walls also offer the audience the sights and sounds of New York City, 1905. John Ambrosone's lighting design establishes a dreamy, romantic tone for Esther and George's first innocent flirtations through the mail correspondence.

 

War Horse by Shera Cohen
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT thru 2/2 - www.bushnell.org)
It is impossible to think that any piece of theatre could be as superbly all-inclusive of the hundreds of elements that create the perfect play production as “War Horse.” Look in a thesaurus for rows upon rows of superlatives synonymous to any of the following words, and the reader can only come close to describing this play: exemplary, innovative, creative, ingenious. The star is Joey, who grows from a scrawny foal to a full-sized horse onstage. He is made of fabrics, metal, and wood. He is real. Granted, no attempts are made to hide the three actors who shape the body, sounds, and demeanor of Joey. While this trio of puppet masters are visible, within 30-seconds the audience is oblivious to their presence. The team of Handspring Puppet Company are the geniuses who gave birth to Joey, along with the other animals in the production. Joey runs and struts like a horse, nays and breathes like a horse. Again, he is real. His owner/friend Albert, is a teen living on a poor farm in Great Britain. Yet, this is not just a story about a boy and his horse. Played against the seemingly literal backdrop of WWI, the hell of this conflagration to man and “beast” is wrenching. The technical effects of explosions are particularly terrifying, not just loud. War is seen and felt just as much by Joey as by Albert. The exposition of three scenes in particular showcase the extraordinary talents of the puppeteers: Joey’s miraculous efforts to till the rock-ridden soil, his rivalry turned friendship with horse Topthorne, and his panic and struggle caught in barbed wire along enemy lines. The set is minimal and in that sparseness multiple scene drawings fixed overhead carry Joey and the play forward. Interspersed folksongs of the early 20th century string scenes from one to another. “War Horse” is a play. Plays are nice (or maybe not), but they are essentially worthless without superior production qualities. “War Horse” has become a benchmark of excellence for future and even many past play productions.

 

The Lyons by Richard Pacheco
(2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren, RI thru 2/9/14. 401-247-4200; www.2ndStoryTheatre.com)
“The Lyons” at 2nd Story Theatre by Nicky Silver bristles with quirky and sassy dialogue, making for many laughs along the way and some touching moments as well. They are ill-tempered and nasty to each other, seem like the cannot cling without stabbing each other verbally. It is loaded with one liners as they kick the ego out of each other. Silver’s play, “The Lyons”, opened on Broadway in April 2012, after an Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theater in 2011. This is his first play to be produced on Broadway where the play stared Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa. His new play, “Too Much Sun” is expected to premiere Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in May 2014, with direction by Mark Brokaw and starring Linda Lavin. Ben Lyons is in a hospital where he is dying from cancer. His family gathers around him. His wife Rita kept the illness secret from the children. The family surrounds him including his grown children, Curtis Lyons and Lisa Lyons. He is also attended by a pleasant nurse who takes care of his needs. Ben is no longer constrained by manners or family niceties, and says whatever he wishes, including tons of expletives. Rita, trapped in a 40-year loveless marriage, now thinks of the future without Ben and plans to re-decorate the living room. Lisa is an alcoholic, who has left an abusive marriage; but is still attracted to her husband. Curtis, a homosexual, has had little to do with his father, who is homophobic and despises his lifestyle and isn’t afraid to say it. In a getaway from the hospital, Curtis looks at an apartment with the help of an actor moonlighting as a real estate agent. The Lyons were vastly ill suited for each other and the main question remains of what will happen to the children as well as Rita when he dies. Vince Petronio is Ben, who recently found out he had cancer and was dying—soon. It has made him blunt and ill tempered and he has little patience left for his wife of 40 years or his two grown children of whom he vastly disapproves for various reasons. He unloads all on his family with particular nastiness on his son Curtis. Petronio is taut and hilarious in the role as he spews swears out like a machine gun aimed in all directions, spraying the room with pent up frustration and rage. Paula Faber is Rita, a woman frustrated by her 40- year marriage whose greatest current joy is that she will be able to redo the lining room and toss that ugly furniture once her husband dies. She even tries to enlist his aid in picking out a new look, but he balks at the idea with fierce determination and forbids her to do it. She is a suffering belittling Jewish mother whose loves comes in like porcupine quills, sharp and pointed. Faber is the epitome of the well dressed, sophisticated and ever nasty Rita, always poised to take another shot at her husband and her children with relish and abandon. Lara Hakeem is Lisa, the divorced battered ex-wife still attracted to her former abusive husband and the alcoholic daughter. She doesn’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, something reinforced when she meets a man down the hall from her father in the hospital who is dying and is attracted to him. Hakeem is delightful in the role. She withers beneath her mother’s barrages of meanness and insults and she struggles to keep battling the omnipresent urge to drink and drink a lot. Kevin Broccoli is Curtis, the gay son hated by his father for not living up to dad’s expectations. Curtis is awkward, brainy, full of fantasies with serious problems, not big surprise considering his family situation and in particular his father’s bile towards him. He is without doubt the product of Rita and Ben’s upbringing. Broccoli is terrific in the role, delivering a balance of awkwardness and intelligence along with a wounded tiny animal quality that is effective. Lucia Gill Case rounds out the cast as the nurse so is so attentive to Ben and more no nonsense when Curtis ends up on the hospital in the same ward later on. Case is solid and effective in her role. Director Mark Pelham keeps the pace brisk and potent, oozing nastiness at every turn. It is also vastly entertaining while being down and dirty. He mines the sheer malice here for great comic effect, making us laugh in spite of ourselves. Set designer Karl Pellitier uses a less is more concept with the sparsely decorated hospital room and even the apartment later has very little but more than enough to make it palatable and work. The play is a raucous family free for all, with all the family members going at each with rare zest and venom a take no prisoners approach that is as nasty as it is funny. The play never wanes in its energy or its spite. The wining cast boldly blazes into battle from the first without faltering, spewing some very funny anger at each other as they reveal the truth of who they really are beyond the surface.


The Big Meal
by Richard Pacheco
(Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, RI thru 2/9/14. (401) 723-4266; www.gammtheatre.org)
“The Big Meal” by Dan Le Franc at the Gamm Theatre sparkles with wonderful performances, deft direction and a terrific set. It starts with the flirting between Nikki a young waitress and Sam and the rest is life and their history together. In many ways it is related to Thornton Wilder’s wonderful “Our Town” and his “The Long Christmas Dinner.” It’s life on speed, rushing through all stages with whirlwind pace, moments compressed and compiled with a keen eye. As the play progresses it sometimes gets a little hard to figure out who is who since the eight actors play multiple roles. For example in the beginning the young Nikki and Sam played by Amanda Ruggiero and Joe Short. As they grow older those roles are assumed by Steve Kidd and Karen Carpenter and finally as an older couple by Richard Donelly and Wendy Overly. Despite all the years compressed in the play the velocity is swift and does not dawdle at all. There is not really a plot, more the ups and downs of ordinary life compiled and compressed into 90 minutes. But those 90 minutes are rich with humor and touching moments in abundance. There are several times when the children are grown when they come back with different romantic partners, played by the same actor or actress with different names and it proves to be funny and sometimes challenging to keep track just as often in our lives it is difficult to keep track of our children’s significant others from time to time. While by the title it may seem like food predominates the play, it is only used as significant moments in this lifetime adventure, when someone is about to die. Those moments end up touching and heartrending, very real and emotional, leaving an impact. Richard Donnelly plays the older men in the play, at times being Sam’s father to a daughter’s father in law to an older Sam himself. He sports himself with bold self confidence and bravado as these men. So when he transforms into and old man spoon fed by his wife, Overly, it is powerful and heartbreaking. Wendy Overly is magnificent in her various roles as Sam’s mother to later on becoming Nikki, Sam’s wife when he is feeble and on the verge of death needing to be spoon fed. She delivers richly nuanced performances in all the roles. Amanda Ruggero and Joe Short play the younger lovers at the beginning of the play, including the children when they get older in the play. They are highly accomplished, delivering the right touches to the sassy flirtations they exchange and the more tender moments. They are very convincing as the other roles as well, truthful and full of energy. Steve Kidd and Karen Carpenter play the next set of couples in age. They go through a number of trials and transitions, but we never learn what he does for a living or what they really want out of life. Kidd is poised and sincere full of a down to earth dose of humanity that is appealing in its many transmutations. Carpenter is a joy, moving from conflicted wife considering a divorce and split up to mother with her children, either young or older. Finally, but not least, we get to the two young people who play a variety of children throughout the play, Emeline Easton and Eliot Peters. They are endearing and fun, They deliver sharp performances that were highly enjoyable. Eliot is on the mark when he is particularly obnoxious and petulant teen. Director Tyler Dobroski, Associate Artistic Director of Trinity Rep, keeps the pacing swift and does not sacrifice the more touching moments, in fact takes the right amount of time with them to leave an impact. The set design by Michael McGarty is simple and efficient, basically a diner or restaurant used throughout the play. It works well. The cast is strong, full of verve and vitality. There is plenty of humor here and also some fine emotional moments which leave an indelible impact that continues to resonate after you have left the theater. There is richness in this face paced look at life. It is well worth seeing.

 

The Little Dog Laughed by Richard Pacheco
(Your Theatre, New Bedford)
Your Theatre’s production of the often raunchy, wild and wooly romp of a production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” is sassy, smart and full of fun. Fast moving, it is often outrageous in its humor, loaded with sexual overtones and sparkling with energy. This satire is smart and funny at times down and dirty. Beane’s works include the screenplay of “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and several plays including “The Country Club” and “The Little Dog Laughed,” which was nominated for the 2007 Tony Award for Best Play and “As Bees in Honey Drown”, which ran at New York's Lucille Lortel Theatre in 1997. Beane often writes works with sophisticated, "drawing room" humor. This play was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play and Julie White won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her performance. The 2007 Theatre World Award was presented to Johnny Galecki. The title is a reference to the fictional short story written by Arturo Bandini in John Fante's Ask The Dust. The same title is also used for a fictional play that appears in Agatha Christie's Three Act Tragedy. It is all propelled forward by the efforts of the agent, Diane, a deft mixture between the Wicked Witch of the West and a fairy godmother. She is the epitome of the Hollywood agent, conniving, determined, at times unscrupulous to get what she wants—and her ten percent out of it. She is in New York to buy the rights to a play that will make her working actor client into a big time Hollywood star. Her wit stings and sings at the same time. She is reminiscent of Diana in “Network,” a cold calculating heart and manipulative mind. Her client, the actor Mitchell, is a closeted gay actor who strives to be a matinee idol, He strives to keep his sexual preferences secret. All this goes to hell when he takes up with a rent boy, male prostitute, Alex, in New York. Diane has secured the film rights to a play in which the lead male character is gay. And as she observes: "If a perceived straight actor portrays a gay role in a feature film, it's noble, it's a stretch. It's the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar." Both Mitchell and Alex insist they are not gay, no matter what. Alex has an erstwhile “girlfriend”, more a friend with occasional benefits, Ellen. There are more twists and turns in this quagmire of mistake and denied sexual identity. Chris Bailey is the methodical and calculating Diane, a woman is not above or below anything to achieve her goals, no matter what it takes. Bailey is a delight in the role, managing to make the biting edge sharp while maintaining its often viscous humor. Ray Almeida Jr. is Mitchell, the actor in crisis over the conflict of his true sexual identity and his desire to be a matinee movie star. His ego as aspiring matinee ego does constant battle with his sexual desires for Alex. Almeida is excellent as the actor with ego and sexual desires which contradict them. He delivers the elements of expanding ego with deft touches and finds his elements of sexual attraction with sincerity and attention to detail. Tyler Rowe is Alex, the sweet smart hustler, the rent boy. Her is genuinely conflicted and somewhat a sentimental character. Rowe is admirable as Alex, managing to muster a combination of earnestness and flair as he wriggles through the complex convolutions of his relationship with both Ellen and Mitchell. Underneath it all, he has an integrity despite his lifestyle as a hustler, there is an underlying honesty which is both revealing and engaging. Caroline Paradis is Ellen, the erstwhile girlfriend/friend of Alex. Ellen is rebounding from an affair with an older man and ends up with her friend, soon to become friend with benefits, Alex. Ellen might be reading too much into this affair and her dreams may prove stilted and out of whack with reality as it stands. Paradis is wonderful in the role, offering a tantalizing balance between self assured and insecure with a keen bland of the two for a complex character. Director Robin Richard keeps the pace fast, and the zingers on target. He extracts the best from his cast who have a good chemistry together.

God of Carnage at Theatre One by Richard Pacheco

Alley Theatre, 133 Center St., Middleboro, MA thru 1/28/14. Tickets at the Door “Cash Only” Students & Seniors $15 Gen $18 Info 1-617-840-1490)
Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed dark comedy, “God of Carnage” catapults to life at Theatre One’s vigorous and very funny production at the Abbey Theatre. Sparked by a strong cast and excellent script the play merrily rambles along, growing darker and funnier as it goes. It won the Tony Award for best play in 2009. Before the play begins, two 11-year-old children, Benjamin and Henry, get involved in argument because Benjamin refuses to let Henry join his 'gang'. Benjamin knocks out two of Henry 's teeth with a stick. That night, in the Novak apartment in Brooklyn, the parents of both children meet to discuss the matter. They are determined to be civilized about it all, very mature and intelligent. They want to be the epitome of restraint and self control. It is a noble goal which soon goes awry and gradually descends into a vehement nastiness and disarray, turning both sets of parents into petulant children, who spew ill temper and meanness despite their good intentions at the beginning of the meeting. Benjamin’s father, Alan is a lawyer who is never off his mobile phone. Benjamin's mother, Annette is in "wealth management" (her husband's wealth, to be precise), and consistently wears good shoes. Henry's father, is a self-made wholesaler with an unwell mother. Michael's wife, Veronica is writing a book about Darfur. As the evening goes on, the meeting degenerates into the four getting into irrational arguments, and their discussion falls into the loaded topics of misogyny, racial prejudice and homophobia. One of the central dramatic moments of the play occurs when Annette vomits onstage, all over the coffee table and books. In 1987 Reza wrote “Conversations after a Burial”, which won the Molière Award, the French equivalent of the Laurence Olivier Award or the Tony Award, for Best Author. The North American debut premiered in February 2013 at Players By The Sea in Jacksonville Beach Florida. Holly Gutshall & Joe Schwarz directed; with Set Design by Anne Roberts. The cast for this US debut was Kevin Bodge, Paul Carelli, Karen Overstreet, Dave Gowan, Holly Gutshall and Olivia Gowan Snell. Reza translated Polanski's stage version of Kafka's Metamorphosis in the late 1980s. Her second play, “Winter Crossing”, won the 1990 Molière Award for Best Fringe Production, and her next play, “The Unexpected Man,” enjoyed successful productions in England, France, Scandinavia, Germany and New York. In 1995, “Art” premiered in Paris and went on to win the Molière Award for Best Author. Since then it has been produced worldwide and translated and performed in over 30 languages. In the midst of their meeting rum eventually replaces coffee. And so beings the disintegration from the spouses as respective confederates, poised to defend to realizing each is on their own and basically alone. Yet in the midst of this carnage there are small acts of kindness and helpfulness to make it more humane. Robert Duquette is Alan, a lawyer with a cell phone glued to his ear in the midst of a major crisis with his main client, a giant pharmaceutical company. He is only partial attentive to the crisis at hand brought about by the conflict of his son and the other boy. He can be distracted and aloof to all around him, his wife included and at times nasty and downright cruel. Duquette delivers a fine performance, full of nuance and skill. He has a keen sense of comic timing which he uses to advantage throughout the play. Dawn Moquin is Annette, Alan’s wife. Whose major job in life is managing her husband’s wealth and their son, both of which seems in dire straits presently. She is more interested in excellent shoes than anything else, and struggles to maintain her composure in a difficult and strenuous situation. Moquin is delightful as she struggles to come to terms with what her son has done and the self-righteousness of her neighbors, particularly the wife, Veronica. Her growing lack of composure, her comic descent from the epitome of civility into illness and volatile rage is a wonder to watch, fun to behold. Her nausea prone moments end up being very funny. Omer Courcy is Michael, the wholesaler, who seems down to earth and is not always fond of his wife’s posturing and attitude. His mother is ill and constantly calls with some new question which little by little enrages him in the mist of the crisis he faces in his home with the neighbors. Courcy is a delight as the man caught up in a situation he hates and would rather avoid altogether, but cannot thanks to his wife’s unrelenting determination. He has a fine comic timing and some of his expressions are priceless. When he defends his tossing out the hamster and takes a hair dryer to some wet arts books, he is hilarious. Watching him go through his transformations, is pure fun. Linda Monchik is Veronica, a woman who is proud of her ability to remain rational, or at least her version of it and proud of her commitment to creating a better world and her book on Darfur. She is wired tight and on the verge of slipping over the edge into nastiness and ill temper. Monchik is right on the mark with her super proper, uptight crusader for a better world. When she loses it, Monchik is a delight, hilarious and a good time with her quirks and fine comic timing. The chemistry between the cast is excellent, with nice touches along the way that make things more vivid and funny. These wonderful cast members are deftly directed by Peg Holzemer, who keeps the dark humor ably on track and the laughs coming with perfect timing. She also designed the set, which is very effective. It is a play loaded with at times painful laughs, full of energy, propelled by a sold cast and strong direction. If you like your humor dark, always funny, sometimes gritty, running over a wide range of topics, this is the play for you. This comic gallop is a mery ride indeed. It runs without intermission at about 90 minutes or so.

Stick Fly by Shera Cohen
The Majestic, West Springfield, MA thru 12/15/13 - www.majestictheater.com 
The folk at the Majestic Theater seem to have developed their 2013/14 season with emphasis on stronger subject matter than in the past. For example, “Stick Fly” presents racism, classism, and prejudice through the characters in the LeVay household. The LeVays are black and their summer home is Martha’s Vineyard. The color and setting literally and immediately set the stage for conflict. Yet, lots of humor takes the edge off the tough topics. The LeVay brothers -- complete opposites in looks, goals, and lifestyles -- bring their girlfriends home to meet mom and dad. Kent’s gal is a well-educated, high-strung, preachy spitfire. She is black. Flip’s lady is a well-meaning, introspective negotiator. She is white. At its core, the play points fingers at fathers and their affects on their children of both sexes. Kent and Flip’s dad is very much in the picture of this dysfunctional family. But, neither color nor money clean up dysfunction. There are no stars in “Stick Fly,” but an ensemble that holds well. Ashley Denise Robinson (Cheryl, the maid’s daughter) is the first to step on stage doing funky choreography to her headphone music. She hasn’t said a word. Her audience likes her. Seemingly a small role develops into the most important in the story. We really like Cheryl, her language, nuances, quips. We really like Robinson. The other actors in the sextet do their jobs -- some far better than others. Even though the play’s theme explores the importance of fathers, it is the girls who rule onstage. “Stick Fly” will have to overcome a few problems to become an excellent production. First, the play is too long. This is not the director’s fault. However, some cuts within scenes is advised. Second, the set does not work. In fact, it works against the characters/actors. The audience sees a kitchen, living room, porch, and entries/exits. Okay, that’s a lot, but doable. But, the partition between rooms not only looks like a slab of drywall, but even worse, is so high that actors can only be seen from the torso up. Many important scenes occur in the kitchen. Because the stage area is so small, the actors block each other, and sometimes only their heads are seen. The play’s run just began. It’s not too late for some interior redecorating. This play is recommended for adult audiences.

 

Sweet Honey In The Rock by Eric Sutter
UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA - www.umass.edu.fac

The female African American a capella group Sweet Honey In The Rock sang a spectacular set with a live jazz trio which they dubbed the Honey Men. The men, Parker McAllister on bass, Jovol Bell on drums/percussion and Stacey Wade on piano/keyboard served as a tasty jazzy side dish to the soulful main course female harmonies. This was a celebration tribute to four out-spoken musical icons: Nina Simone, Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Abbey Lincoln. The evening featured unique African music as in Makeba's South African chant, "Shuka, Shuka (Choo Choo Song)" which sounded like a steam engine. Female harmony and hand claps supplemented Odetta's, "I Can't Afford To Lose My Man." A beautifully sung solo vocal by N. B. Casel on Simone's "If I Should Lose You" was matched by Stacey Wade's earnest piano solo. Aisha Kahlil interpreted Simone's "Feelin' Good" with sign interpreter Shirley Childress doing an outstanding job. Louise Robinson highlighted "Trouble In Mind" with the sweet added Honey Men refrain, "She's Got Trouble In Mind." "Pata Pata" solicited lively audience dance participation that revved up the fun factor. The next theme focused on the Civil Rights movement. Kudos to sound director Art Steele for his creative talents as the girls sang "Oh Freedom," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," "I'm On My Way To Freedom Land", and "Glory, Glory Hallelujah." The Abbey Lincoln tribute included "Down Here Below," "The Music Is The Magic" and a spirited "I'm In Love." Robinson rocked Odetta's mind-blowing "God's Gonna Cut You Down" with a powerful message. The performance seemed to flow with music that touched all aspects of life. A jazzy rendition of "Let There Be Peace On Earth" was silky smooth. Sweet Honey closed with a sultry West African Makeba song, "My Love Has Come" which showcased an infectious keyboard solo. The encore, N' diarabi/Africa Is Where My Heart Lies" was a hand percussion soother with colorful imagery of African skies, valleys, and mountains.

 

Les Miserables by Shera Cohen
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA - www.exit7players@gmail.com - thru 10/13/13
It is habit for theatre audiences to give standing ovations no matter what the show's quality. Your neighbor stands and so should you? Not necessarily. The standing ovation "rule" is to laud only the exceptional. On opening night before a full house, "Les Miserables" (Les Miz) deserved and received an instantaneous ovation that seemed not to stop. This year, the rights for community theatres to perform "Les Miz" were released. A blessing or a curse? Tackling this undertaking is Herculean, requiring insight into many lead characters, directing smooth transitions, selecting top notch singers and a "cast of thousands." Exit 7 accomplishes all of this. "Les Miz" is the epic, set in early-19th century France, of Jean Valjean -- a19-year prisoner all for the wont of stealing a loaf of bread -- and Captain Javert, his eternal nemesis. Their lives entwine to test the metal of what makes a man good and worthy. On the surface, there is the hero and the villain. Yet, each man defines truth differently. The story's crux is justice and injustice. Ben Ashley portrays the smoldering, tortured, and loving Jean Valjean. He creates an exemplary larger than life character while physically aging on stage. Ashley successfully outdoes himself with each song, especially "Soliloquy" and "Who Am I?" The true test falls on the fatherly determination of "Bring Him Home." He nails it. Peter Thomsen's Javert is cold, merciless, yet vulnerable. The play allots him only two songs, "Stars" and "Soliloquy," both of which are masterful. There are so many superlatives to write about each of the featured players. In general, three types of performers populate musical theatre: singers who can act, actors who can sing, and those who can do both. Exit 7 selected an even balance of each type to compose the best of all worlds. Special bravos to talented youngsters Wynton Jarvinen and Lily Girard in their demanding roles. Still more kudos, yet this review's word count mounts: director Jeffrey Flood's skills especially in mounting the barricade/battle scenes, the authentic-looking period costumes, the smooth-staging set crew, and conductor Christina Climo and her dozen musicians! Is it the applause still ringing in this reviewer's ears or the surging power of "One Day More," the sweet "In My Life," the boisterous "Master of the House," or the sorrowful "On My Own?" All of the above.

 

Macbeth by Shera Cohen
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordstage.org)
A woman in the audience at "Macbeth" was overheard asking her companion, "What the hell is she [Lady Macbeth] saying?" The other person did not respond, but neither returned to the performance after intermission. Both did themselves an injustice by, what seemed to be, never attempting to understand Shakespeare's play. Surely, scholars do not "get" every word. It's not necessary to translate 16th century script into 21st century language to fully appreciate "Macbeth" - one of the Bard's best known, shortest, and accessible plays. Enough lecturing on the merits of Shakespeare's work. In the case of Hartford Stage's presentation, the merits are extraordinary. Most theatre-goers are familiar with this tale of ambition forsaking all else. Macbeth says that he has "volting ambition." His wife describes her strength as a "woman on an evil mission." Set in ancient Scotland, Thane Macbeth and his lady chart a swift and evil course to obtain the keys to the kingdom. Soothsayers, in the form of three disgustingly ugly witches (brava to the young actresses and to costumer designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb), set the look, tone, small, and color for what will follow in this literally and figuratively dark drama. The set is essentially bare with sometimes-lit columns in the rear, the clothing is black or grey, the shadows are giants, the lightning cracks deafening. Director Darko Tresnjak has created small rooms and large, castles and forests on the same stage, sometimes simultaneously with a use of a one simple prop. More would have been too much for this production. Instead of the accoutrements, Tresnjak relies on his actors and Shakespeare's words. Never before has a script (almost lyrics) focused so intensely on each syllable. Portraying the ruthless couple are Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes. Each are formidable in their roles. Rauch places every sound and body movement into creating a crazed Macbeth. His head ticks, his shoulder edges up, he becomes a man who would be king yet terrified of himself. In the few scenes where he is absent, one hopes that he will show up to see such powerfully perfect acting. Forbes holds a near-candle to Rauch, also in demeanor and speech. Doesn't there have to be something "wrong" with this production? Well, it is quite bloody and death scenes (without giving specifics) are over the top. On balance, however, this "Macbeth" is a theatrical gem.

33 Variations by Shera Cohen
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield thru 10/27/13 - www.majestictheater.com
The Majestic open its 17th season with a quirky but interesting, funny yet somber, contemporary yet period piece (1800's), "33 Variations." The play focuses on Dr. Katherine Brandt, a present day musicologist, and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Needless to say, the two devote their lives to music, but "Variations" shows far more in common about the relationship and affect of the two on each other. The obsession for perfection, particularly under crucial deadlines, is the crux of two intertwining stories. It is nearly impossible for anyone entering the Majestic's stage to not "wow" at Greg Trochlil's set. The floor to ceiling library is exquisite. Also serving as numerous smaller sites (usually with the aid of a single prop), the set easily creates 21st and 19th century settings simultaneously. The trappings are more than a landscape, but an essential piece of the stories, equal in importance as the actors and dialogue. Barbara McEwen, a Majestic "regular," portrays her character (Katherine)with intelligence, strength, and stubborness. McEwen's Katherine is fiesty, determined, in spite of an illness. [Not a spoiler alert.] This is McEwen's top performance to date. Buzz Roddy, a Pioneer Valley regular (New Century Theatre), exudes every adjective associated with the genious of Beethoven. Roddy buffers the bravado with his character's struggle to create as he bears the weight of his own malady. This, too, is Roddy's best character portrayal seen in years. While the two characters are rarely on stage together, and never speak to each other, the duo develop an important kinship especially at the conclusion of Act I. Director Maxwell Williams has attended to the minutia - making character movements, set pieces, and overhead projections purposeful, although some scenes and/or parts could have been snipped. The play is long enough to look at one's watch a few times. Huge kudos to the sound crew, especially in creating Beethoven's oncoming deafness. And, speaking of sound, pianist Larry Picard (who never leaves the stage) is a one-man extremely talented "orchestra." Equity and non-Equity actors nicely step into roles of both centuries: Darcie Champagne, James Emery, Jaris Hanson, and Jonathan Saulmon. It is difficult to know if Benjamin Cole (as a music producer) is a skilled actor or not. His booming voice envelopes every word of dialogue and inordinately and negatively affects those on stage with him. Tone down the volume control or the director should pull the plug. Words of note: it helps if audience members are knowledgeable about Beethoven. A short read in Wikipedia is suggested before attending the play. This homework assignment will ultimately make the play more enjoyable.

Company
by Walter Haggerty
(Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT thru 9/22/13 - www.operahouseplayers.org)
“Company,” introduced in 1970, was the first “concept” musical. Today the show is a classic and has transitioned through revivals, concerts, and never-ending renditions. The lyric, “Art isn’t easy,” is from a later Sondheim work, however, it applies aptly to “Company.” Art isn’t easy, and neither is Sondheim, considered a creative genius of contemporary musical theatre. Sondheim is a challenge to perform for the artists who give life to his characters, and sometimes to audiences. His music is magnificent, his lyrics inspired. The Opera House Players are to be commended for accepting the Sondheim challenge of “Company,” and they make it work. The talented cast delivers an ensemble performance that is a miracle of acting and direction. The performers have captured each little quirk and eccentric nuance from every character to develop a series of portraits that stay with the audience long after the evening has ended. The story focuses on several couples who live in an upscale Manhattan apartment house, and have gathered for a surprise birthday party for Robert, the lone single member of the group. Several side interludes reveal the conflicts and foibles of the various marriages and introduce a trio of prospects for consideration as a wife for Robert.”Company” is overflowing with memorable performances. Sue Dzira’s “Getting Married Today” stops the show, and Julianne Rhone’s “Another Hundred People” is a lacerating take on New York. Becky Rodia Schoenfeld gives April just the right touch of off-center innocence, but it is Kathi Such who earns the evening’s highest accolades with an electrifying delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The role of Robert fits Steve Wandzy perfectly. He captures Robert’s warmth and caring as well as his confused and superficial side. With “Someone Is Waiting” and “Being Alive,”Wandzy’s acting overcomes any vocal shortcomings, allowing the impact of each number to shine through. At Broad Brook the cast delivers 100%, but the audience needs to work too. Every word is important, there is meaning that goes deeper than what is being said. “Company” demands and deserves attention. It’s worth it and the rewards are great.

 

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Shera Cohen
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA - www.shakesepare.org thru 9/15/13)
Playwright Martin McDonagh may have become Ireland’s version of prolific Neil Simon. With no offence to the latter, this Gaelic writer continuously succeeds at grabbing the human condition, balancing it with humor and outright pain. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is similar in text to McDonagh’s other works – raw and raunchy, poignant and pathetic. This play, however, offers a meaty mystery plot which attracts its audience moreso than the author’s pieces which stress humorous dialogue over storyline. At its core, “Beauty Queen” is the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter. The location (on this well designed set) is a home in rural Ireland. The mother, portrayed as a disgusting and conniving creature that clings to her daughter, who has her own problems in addition to caring for mom. Maureen shouts, “You’re old and you’re stupid!” Mother Mag retorts with constant belittling. This is not a pretty play. What a difference an excellent director makes in executing a production. Matthew Penn’s movement of characters in perfect timing with the lilting and oftentimes poetic language takes “Beauty Queen” steps above what the play could have easily slid into – uncomfortable audience laughs and groans. In spite of this saga of “creature” and her offspring on the road to becoming cliché, these are two actual people. The audience needs to know their stories and outcomes. The same truth applies to casting decisions. No two actors on the Berkshire scene could have portrayed this duo better. Pairing Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Maureen) and Tina Packer (Mag) is an equally talented match. Aspenlieder has taken on a role atypical of most of her prior characters at this venue where she is the resident female protagonist, often frothy and on a mission. Aspenlieder’s “Beauty Queen” mission is survival, portrayed with heartache, longing, and corruption. Tina Packer, donned in an ugly wig and unwashed nightgown, plays Mag as the epitome of harsh, unsympathetic, and formidable. Mag’s weak mannerisms unmistakably convey power and control. For two-hours, Packer becomes Mag. In smaller, yet extremely significant roles are the men: David Sedgwick (the beaux) whose gentleness and understanding is beautiful to watch and Edmund Donovan (young neighbor) whose combination of charm and exasperation is delightful. This summer’s repertoire at Shakespeare & Company has presented exceptional plays, emphasing “& Company” part of the venue’s title. In addition to “Beauty Queen” were “Heroes,” “Mother Courage,” and “Master Class.”

Scott & Hem in the Garden of Allah
by Shera Cohen
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA thru 9/29/13 - www.barringtonstageco.org)
Being a Mark St. Germain “groupie” is not as juvenile as it might sound. After all, this man is not a one-song rock singer or actor of ephemeral fame, but an accomplished playwright whose dialogue is snappy repartee covered with wisdom, intellect, humor, bravado, and warmth. Previous works included “Freud’s Last Session,” “Best of Enemies,” and “Dr. Ruth.” At the most, his pieces number three characters which permit the audience the opportunity to delve into the personalities, as is the case with St. Germain’s latest play, “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah.” Literally hot off the computer is the rolling world premiere (translation: opens in several cities simultaneously) of a portrait of two of the most well-known authors in the English language – F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. St. Germain has studied his subjects extremely well, composing textbook research into conversation, utilizing the writers’ rule, “Show, don’t tell.” The staging – one of the most elaborate yet at Barrington – is a Hollywood hotel one day in 1937. To call the writers “friends” might be a stretch; perhaps their relationship was that of rivals and/or student and teacher (Scott at the nadir of his career and Hem at the zenith). What make them compatriots are their writing, alcoholism, insecurities, and microscopic knowledge of each other. They speak of death, depression, and sexuality; each cushioned with much humor – not jokes but humor as they look at and question each other and themselves. Joey Collins as Scott and Ted Koch as Hem personify the visual and aural images most have of these two men. Collins’ Scott is prim, proper, and as gentle as his alcoholic demeanor permits. Koch’s Hem is boisterous and hard-edged. The actors seemingly know each other as well as the writers did. Although in a smaller role, Angela Pierce, as a top level secretary holds her own piece of the stage formidably. The authors’ chummy banter drifts into provocative exploratory psychological sessions. The actors/characters have captured their audience. Kudos to Ryan Winkles’ choreography of the knock-down, drag-out, furniture-tossing fight in which only the actors go unscathed. It’s not always a wise move for the writer to direct his own play, but except for one point at the play’s conclusion (this would be a spoiler), St. Germain has enough talent to take on both important jobs.

Daniil Trifonov
by Michael J. Moran
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)
Much buzz has followed the young (22-year-old) Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in the classical music world since he won medals at three international piano competitions in 2010-2011. Local concert goers had a chance to see what all the fuss is about when Trifonov recently made a triumphant Tanglewood debut. Coming on stage he looked stiff, boyish, and even a bit shy. But as soon as his fingers touched the keyboard, he was a changed man and never looked back. He luxuriated in the rich sonorities of the first movement and the restless harmonies of the second in Scriabin’s 1897 Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor. Both its roots in the lyricism of Chopin and its hints of Scriabin’s later mystical style were carefully balanced in an exquisite performance. Contrasts were then heightened in a visceral interpretation of Liszt’s 1853 Sonata in B minor. The slow, portentous opening followed by a grand, dramatic statement of the second theme set a pattern in which slow passages were slower than usual, fast were faster, and the dynamic range was extremely wide. Trifonov’s playing in the fugue was breathtaking, and the sublime closing notes achieved a rapt stillness. The second half of the concert was devoted to a dazzling account of Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes, Opus 28. Published in 1839, these miniatures vary from Agtatos and Vivaces that flash past in less than a minute to several Largos and Lentos which take five minutes or more to unfold. Trifonov played them without pause, emphasizing their mercurial nature with solid technique, full-bodied tone, and subtle nuance. Thunderous applause was rewarded with three encores: two rarely heard Fairy Tales by Nicolai Medtner, delicately played, and an arrangement by Guido Agosti of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird in an athletic but sensitive rendition. As Trifonov’s career develops and his artistry matures, it will be interesting to see how he approaches the core Germanic repertoire by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Meanwhile, this rising star proved at Tanglewood that he has few peers in the romantic Slavic repertoire with which he seems to feel most at home.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players
by Michael J. Moran
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA)
Many orchestral musicians have long professed their love for playing chamber music. In a nod to this time-honored tradition, 17 members of the BSO presented a wide-ranging program dedicated to the memory of Elliott Carter, who died last November a month short of his 104th birthday. Two short pieces by Carter opened the program. The first, a jazzy ten-minute “Woodwind Quintet” in two short movements, written in 1948, sounded very different from the starker, more challenging four-minute “Figment III” for double bass solo, written in 2007, which followed it. The five woodwind soloists were impeccable, and double bass player Edwin Barker was entertainingly virtuosic. The first half of the concert closed with the original chamber version for 13 instruments of Copland’s Suite from the ballet “Appalachian Spring.” BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger led a ravishing account of this classic score, which sounded even more transparent than usual in this scaled down version. Special kudos were earned by flutist Elizabeth Rowe and clarinetist Michael Wayne, whose sensitive playing made the most of the familiar big tunes. While the first half of the evening showcased some newer and younger BSO members, the half following intermission belonged to an older generation, as 90-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler and three elder statesmen of the BSO took the stage. In 2012 Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag wrote his haunting two-minute “Hungarian Impromptu” for Pressler, a member of the Beaux Arts Trio from its 1955 Tanglewood debut through its disbanding in 2008. Pressler’s delicate performance of the Impromptu led without pause into a genial rendition of Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, to close the program. The partnership of BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin with Pressler yielded a vigorous opening Allegro, a lush but restrained Larghetto, and a joyous closing Allegretto. The obvious pleasure that all the musicians took in each other’s company was echoed in the three standing ovations they received from an appreciative audience at the end of this memorable musical soiree.

 

Benjamin: Written on Skin by Michael J. Moran
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org)
The 2013 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concluded with the U.S. premiere of "Written on Skin," the latest opera by English composer George Benjamin, who also conducted vocal and instrumental Tanglewood Music Center fellows in this concert performance. The piece is based on the 13th century Provencal story "William of Cabestanh – The Eaten Heart," in which a troubador falls in love with the wife of a king for whom her plays. The opera’s lead character is an illuminator of manuscripts, called "the Boy," who is taken into his home by "the Protector" to produce an illustrated book in celebration of the Protector’s life and good deeds. The other characters are the Protector’s wife, Agnes, her sister, Marie, and Marie’s husband, John. The singers portraying the Boy, Marie, and John also play three angels. The 15 short scenes of the 90-minute work are performed with only brief pauses between its three acts. The spare and stylized text by English playwright and previous Benjamin collaborator Martin Crimp clearly set the action in the distant past, but the sensitive performances by all five cast members made it easy for a contemporary audience to identify with the characters’ emotions. Soprano Lauren Snouffer was gut-wrenching as the tortured Agnes, and countertenor Augustine Mercante brilliantly rendered the Boy’s growth from otherworldly innocence to human wisdom. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes balanced the menacing authority of the Protector with bewilderment in the later scenes at his wife’s new independence through love of the Boy. Mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isaiah Bell were versatile and affecting as Marie and John. The huge orchestra filled every corner of the Ozawa Hall stage, with an expanded percussion section that included a glass harmonica, steel drums, and maracas. The colorful and haunting score both reflected and moved beyond the influence of Benjamin’s teacher Messiaen, from sensuous and exotic harmonies to clashing dissonance. He drew a thrilling and flawless performance from the virtuosic TMC players. Projections of the text on screens at either side of the stage completed a stellar presentation that earned multiple standing ovations from the modest but enthusiastic audience.

Glimmerglass Festival by Michael J. Moran
The Glimmerglass Festival ( www.glimmerglass.org )’s 39th season presents five works in four programs, all of which can be seen in one weekend during August in the exemplary acoustics of its 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater. This year’s festival celebrates “the Romantics,” notably the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner. Verdi’s early (1840) comedy of mistaken identity “Un Giorno di Regno,” here presented in an English adaptation by Kelley Rourke as “King for a Day,” proved an entertaining rarity, with a perky score and intricate plot evoking both Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan. Baritone Alex Lawrence was a hoot in the title role, with especially hilarious support from mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson and baritone Andrew Wilkowske and rousing accompaniment by the festival orchestra under their new music director Joseph Colaneri. Written just three years later, Wagner’s tragedy “The Flying Dutchman” sounded more like its composer’s mature works in Glimmerglass’s dramatic production, which was galvanized by the riveting bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in the title role. Soprano Melody Moore as Senta, the woman who could rescue the Dutchman from his endless seafaring, stood out among a strong supporting cast, and John Keenan led the energetic orchestra. An innovative pairing of Pergolesi’s 1736 “Stabat Mater” and David Lang’s 2007 “Little Match Girl Passion” showed contrasting perspectives on suffering: Mary’s witnessing of her son Jesus’s crucifixion; and the Hans Christian Andersen character’s death by freezing on New Year’s Eve. Soprano Nadine Sierra and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo were moving soloists in the “Stabat Mater,” and they joined eight nonsinging Glimmerglass “young artists” as dancers in this visual interpretation of the text. Four other young artists sang Lang’s “Passion” text, played several soft percussion instruments, and were joined by the Glimmerglass Festival Children’s Chorus, whose distinguished work was a tribute to the festival’s community education programs in local schools. Speranza Scappucci (Pergolesi) and David Moody (Lang) conducted eloquently. An exuberant production of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” this year’s installment in the festival’s annual mounting of a classic Broadway musical, showcased the talented local-born conductor James Lowe. Baritone Nathan Gunn, 2013 festival “artist-in-residence,” was a dashing Lancelot, but soprano Andriana Churchman as Guinevere and baritone David Pittsinger as Arthur made even stronger impressions. Such nearby attractions as the Baseball Hall of Fame, scenic Otsego Lake, and the Fenimore Art Museum, this summer featuring several exhibitions on American Romantics, offer worthwhile diversions from the busy Glimmerglass schedule.

 

Les Misérables by R.J. Nickerson
(Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Robinson Theatre, Waltham. 781-891-5600; www.reaglemusictheatre.org)

Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston is bringing its triumphant 45th anniversary season to a close with Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s revolutionary pop opera, Les Misérables – seen in 42 countries by more than 65 million people – is the longest-running musical in the world. One might argue that it is also one of the longest musicals to sit through, as well... unless you’re at the Robinson Theatre in Waltham! With bold new direction and choreography by Broadway’s David Hugo, this production is truly a stunning spectacle of theatre at its best. A little mix of professional and community actors, Reagle’s Les Mis features a 42-person, multi-layered cast, all (well, maybe one disappointing exception not worth mentioning in what I want to be a rave review) of whom were more than up to the challenge of this complicated piece. Hugo’s direction should first be applauded for obviously requesting of his actors to convey people first… and oh yeah – sing well, too. Characters with true depth. Songs with true emotion. Acting with little to no “put ons”. Next to mention - it is more than clear that acclaimed Broadway tenor Ivan Rutherford has performed the role of Jean Valjean more than 2000 times on Broadway and on tour… though he’s not tired with it. Rutherford’s beautifully played, natural presentation of the story’s central character was truly breathtaking, gracefully transitioning in age and character from young, angry prisoner to the gentle, thankful father. His performance was inspiring, as was local Angela Richardson’s as victim Fantine. To call her soulful “I Dreamed a Dream” would be an understatement, and I applaud Hugo again for casting her versus a traditionally waifish woman. Broadway vocal coach Doug Jabara (Javert), Tony Award nominee and Theatre World Award-winner Maureen Brennan, Ross Brown (Marius), and high school(!) powerhouse Mara Wilson (Éponine) also deserve high praise for outstanding performances. I would be remiss if I were to not include the Ensemble of actors and actresses to helped to fill the stage with life at all times, ably becoming whomever they needed to become to fill the stage with personality and ambiance. Ensembles are often forgotten – this one cannot be so. Performances of Les Misérables continue at Reagle August 15-18. Do YOU hear the people sing? You should!

 

Ravel & Beethoven by Michael J. Moran
(Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org)
An overflow crowd welcomed the return to the BSO podium of frequent guest conductor Charles Dutoit and the second Tanglewood appearance (10 years after the first) of celebrity pianist Lang Lang. The concert was dedicated to the memory of French composer Henri Dutilleux, who died in May and had long ties with both the BSO and Maestro Dutoit. The musicians wove a diaphanous web of sound in a somber but comforting account of the opening “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” which Ravel orchestrated in 1910 from his 1899 original version for solo piano. Dutoit’s and the BSO’s long experience with Ravel’s music was instantly apparent. Beethoven wrote his first piano concerto in 1795, during his early classical period. While respecting its historical roots, Lang Lang played the concerto with a grand romantic sweep that was better suited to the composer’s last piano concerto, the “Emperor.” But his flawless execution, dramatic gestures, and obvious enjoyment of the piece also highlighted its kinship to the rhythmic invention and emotional range of its successors. Orchestra and conductor were with him all the way. Lang’s personal charisma was evident when he graciously answered questions at intermission from several children among a large crowd that had gathered outside the stage door. Ravel’s complete ballet “Daphnis and Chloe,” which closed the concert, is a Dutoit specialty. His glorious 1980 recording with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus put that ensemble on the international map and set a high standard that he fully met with the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The huge orchestra featured an expanded percussion section, including a wind machine. The virtuosity of Ravel’s orchestration placed high demands on every section, and both the players and the wordless chorus found every nuance in this sensuous score.
Approaching his 77th birthday, the seemingly ageless maestro was as lithe and graceful on the podium as the 31-year-old Lang was energetic at the keyboard. From the prolonged standing ovations that followed the Beethoven and “Daphnis and Chloe,” it’s fair to say that this pair would be lovingly welcomed back to Tanglewood anytime.

The Bridges of Madison County by Walt Haggerty
(Williamstown Theatre Festival, Willamstown, MA - www.wffestival.org)
“Together we all make magical, memorable summertime bliss.” Those are the final words of Artistic Director Jenny Gersten’s opening letter to this summer’s audience at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and a perfect introduction to the final production of the season on the Festival’s Main Stage. In “The Bridges of Madison County,” impeccably directed by Bartlett Sher, all of the values and forces of great theatre come together handsomely in a wonderful evening that reaches the highest level of professionalism, a hallmark of Williamstown productions. From the opening notes of an incredible, to the single, full ensemble bow by the marvelous cast, the experience is exhilarating. In the program notes from a joint interview with book author, Marsha Norman and music and lyrics contributor, Jason Robert Brown, Brown commented, “What I wanted to write was like ‘La Traviata,’ where people sing with that much passion.” It is a pleasure to report that the pair has succeeded admirably. While never imitative of Verdi, Brown’s score overflows with rich, glorious melody that begs to be heard again, and again. The score includes 22 numbers performed beautifully. The principal roles of Francesca and Robert, acted and sung magnificently by Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale, include a series of solos and duets, virtual arias in some cases, each performed with appropriate passion.
Every role has been cast perfectly. Daniel Jenkins is Bud, a husband who has taken too much for granted. The rambunctious teen-age children are exuberantly performed by Caitlin Kinnunen as Carolyn and Nick Bailey as Michael. Neighbors, Marge and Charlie, are played by Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan, with Morgan especially effective in her “Get Closer” solo. A panoramic portrait of Iowa farm country stretching off to the horizon, by set designer Michael Yeargan, provides a distinctive backdrop to the constantly changing action. Alternating with the farmland setting is a generously star splattered night sky. Simple frameworks represent farm houses and the symbolic bridge. “The Bridges of Madison County,” heading for Broadway later this season, is certain to be a prime contender for Tony Awards. This is the perfect opportunity to be “one up” on New Yorkers. “Madison County” is already a winner.

Music & More at Mahaiwe by Shera Cohen
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org)
Adding to the recent concert reviews at Mahaiwe – in which both The Fab Faux and Mary Chapin Carpenter were highly praised – is Manhattan Transfer. The four-part harmony of this group, with a resume boasting awards over four decades, brought in a full house of avid fans. Sometimes a capella and sometimes with piano accompaniment, the quartet echoed smooth and often jazzy sounds in a relaxed and intimate concert. Highlights included a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, several of their own compositions, and audience favorites “I Love Coffee” and “Route 66.” More than a review, however, In the Spotlight gives kudos to Mahaiwe on its programming, not just in the summer. This, indeed, is a 12-month venue. Art and entertainment genres include music (of course), theatre, dance, lectures, comedy, film, and family shows. Running from October through May is the Met Opera Live in HD – live Saturday afternoon operas broadcast simultaneously at Mahaiwe. Important to note is that only a few sites in the Berkshires offer this unique series. Coupling the visual elegance of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City with the grand picturesque Mahaiwe in Great Barrington makes for double the pleasure in seeing the finest opera in this country. Other series on the stage have been (and will continue to be) the Berkshire International Film Festival, the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and London’s National Theatre in HD plays. Mahaiwe is also the lovely home of the Close Encounter with Music orchestra and singers. Music tends to be folksy, 50’s, and New World with lots more packed in. For instance, on any given month there can be 10 performances of numerous arts. Examples of the array of upcoming programs include: Bela Fleck NY Banjo Summit, Pilobolus Dance Company, Bill Cosby, Chef Francine Segan’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen, and (Springfield’s own) Taj Mahal. For those interested in the theatre’s name, the Mahican Indians’ translation was "the place downstream." I never excelled at geography, so I can’t say if Great Barrington is or isn’t downstream on any lake or other waterway in Massachusetts. I do know, however, that Mahaiwe should be a destination point for some of the best in the arts.

Theatre by the Numbers & in Alphabetical Order by Shera Cohen
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA - www.shakespeare.org
Let’s look at some numbers at Shakespeare & Company. This venue is abuzz all year, with the bulk of their work produced in the summer months. 4 theatres. 10 plays - 3 by Shakespeare and 7 by others (Moliere, Brecht, McNally, Stoppard, McDonagh). 4 lecture/program series (tallies to 28). 7 special performances/events. Countless free outdoor shows by Riotous Youth. In six days, I had the opportunity to see five plays, two talks, one rehearsal, and one outdoor mini-play. These are in addition to the one play which I’d already seen (“Richard II,” see review) and the two which I will attend in a few weeks. Apparently, I can’t get enough of Shakespeare & Company. Now, let’s take a look, in alphabetical order, of the plays on my most recent theatre menu. Heroes (through 9/1) - The play examines the lives of three WWI French veterans, now living in the same retirement home. So, it’s another senior citizen piece with interchangeable people and either a warm ending or someone dies. Wrong. Director Kevin Coleman and his cast of superior Shakes & Co. “regulars” proves each man a hero in his own way. Les Faux Pas (through 8/24) - Costumes reflecting a palette of primary colors make each member of this young cast literally shine. Picture love triangles, really bad sword fighting, cheesy props, slamming doors, shouting and crying, original music with ridiculous lyrics, and lots of laughs. Feature actress Jennie Jadow (the troupe’s funniest leading lady) and here’s a family-friendly play. Love’s Labour’s Lost (through 9/1) - The king, along with three lords, pledge celibacy and ban women from the castle. Why? It’s a comedy; no one knows or cares. Arriving on the scene is the French queen and three ladies. The guys swoon, are rejected, all does not run smoothly in lust and love. The gals have the upper hand. I’m not sure if the Bard would have enjoyed the 1940’s setting though. Master Class (through 8/18) - Annette Miller usually stars in a one-woman (or essentially one-woman) play annually. In the past, she has shined at Golda Meir and Margaret Mitchell. Miller outdoes herself as Maria Callas in what is a study of and passion for art (specifically classical music) experienced by a renowned operatic soprano in an unkind world. Mother Courage and Her Children (through 8/25) - Olympia Dukakis, at age 82, is a marvel. During a Preview performance, Dukakis – the star of the play and on stage for every scene but two – is a powerhouse actress who takes no prisoners. She commands the stage without scene stealing in this drama (albeit with lots of humor) about war, family, money, and survival.

Same Time, Next Year by Shera Cohen
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org)
George and Doris might be the couple who live next door, each in their 30’s, handsome, living their mundane lives. Except, George is married and Doris is married, but not to each other. They begin their one-night stand innocently and soon each character and the audience sees love blossom. “Same Time, Next Year” is not a new play, and many may have seen the movie version. The eras are the 50’s through the 70’s. In spite of the piece being dated, it is still delightful to glimpse back at the mores, language, and dress of three decades that many of us recall. Yet the retrospective is not a textbook lesson for the audience, but a seemingly true story of growing affection into love of two people. Corinna May and David Adkins (Doris and George) are evenly matched as they give truth to their characters and situation. Each is a skilled actor, frequent players at Berkshire Theatre, and knows how to connect with their audiences. Through them, Doris and George stretch their outlook and response to the changing world, sometimes in completely different directions. Like an old married couple, they bicker and then make up. Their annual tryst – both funny and poignant – of nearly 25 years will continue beyond the play’s ending. Yet, surprisingly, each has his/her own happy marriage. Director Kyle Fabel moves the actors in logical ways in and out and around a large rustic hotel room. It must be located in a ritzy section because a piano fills a good part of the upper stage level. Randall Parsons’ set is exquisite, although one might expect a picture or piece of furniture to have been replaced or moved out of place in a quarter-century. While the play is a duet, a crew of four young actors makes the most of their frequent short bits on stage as they change set pieces (primarily making and remaking the bed). With background music from the 50’s to 70’s (Harry Connick?) the team, dressed at maids, is a comic hoot.
“Same Time, Next Year” poses questions about honesty and truth, guilt and even religion. This is a play to think about, but not too deeply.

 

The Fab Faux by Eric Sutter
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org)
The ultimate Beatles' tribute band brought their happy frolic to the Mahaiwe. Sky of blue and sea of green illusions shined sunshine yellow as the slow whirl of sound and familiar words to Beatles' songs fluttered like a warm electric current. The show, titled "The Cavern to the Rooftop," tickled senses with intense happiness of the jump for joy style. "Back in the USSR" touched down with a harmony sound of tingling joy. A river of melody from The Beatles' songbook flowed -- "Dear Prudence," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Nowhere Man" splashed waves of happiness. The upheaval of souls in what was sheer joy bedazzled the crowd. "Drive My Car" motivated the exhilaration to new distances with a slide guitar solo and "Beep, Beep Yeah" chorus line. As Fab Faux peeled away at the Beatles' magic, the band proved amazingly versatile. The numerous guitar changes evoked all the Beatles' to reflect early hit "All My Lovin'" to the later day "Come Together." The mighty chorus rang true with Jimmy Vivino's howlin' guitar solo. Of course, "Help" brought plenty of smiles of delight to performers and the audience. Each band member's solos proved near perfect, and their harmony singing was impeccable as "I Feel Fine" stated it all. "This Boy" was a special treat that warmed the audience. "Get Back" equalled pure excitement. Following intermission, Fab Faux continued to play both directions. They blasted rock n' roll on "Hard Day's Night" with Vivino's lead guitar. Bassist Will Lee was full of energy dancing around the rhythms. The band mined a forgotten rockabilly nugget, "Leave My Kitten Alone," from the Cavern Days. Within minutes, Vivino played a psychedelic sitar on "Norwegian Wood." Another guitar style change sounded the jangle of Rickenbacker guitar on "Ticket To Ride." Early days' hit, "Anna" featured drummer Rich Pagano's lead vocal with great accompanied harmony by the full band. Musically varied hits "Please, Please Me" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" galvanized the masses. The complicated song, "Strawberry Fields," sparkled flawless. Keyboardist Jim Boggia resurrected the classic "Oh Darling" with nailed high mark vocals. The Fab Faux rocked an amped up "Revolution" screamed in glorious full throated harmony. Guitarist Frank Agnello answered with the plaintive "Let It Be." "Twist and Shout" danced an ideal high note encore.

The Other Mozart/Mahalla
by Kait Rankins
(Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington - www.berkshirefringe.org thru August 5, 2013)
Bard College is a home to a unique theatrical tradition in the Berkshires. Now in its ninth season, Berkshire Fringe has hosted over 140 full-length productions and more than 600 artists, giving audiences the chance to see new and experimental works that would not ordinarily be seen in Western Massachusetts venues. On all nights from July 15-August 5 except Tuesdays, Berkshire Fringe presents either two or three productions in rotation. Patrons can opt to see one or more shows in one evening, which run from 50-80 minutes in length. The material is challenging, new, and experimental. The Anthropologists' new play "Mahalla" intertwines two stories of Egyptian revolution -- the modern Arab Spring and the Passover story of the Jews' escape from Pharoah. While "Mahalla's" narrative structure seems forced and doesn't intertwine as often as it should, it will surprise and delight audiences with innovative staging and use of movement and dance. Berkshire Fringe was also host to "The Other Mozart," a one-woman tour-de-force written, created, and performed by Sylvia Milo. It tells the true story of Mozart's older sister Nannerl, a music lover and harpsichord virtuoso who, because of her gender, was forced to confine herself to society's expectations and live in her younger brother's shadow. Through Milo's layered and beautiful performance, brilliant lighting and atmospheric sound design, Nannerl's tale is told with heartbreaking beauty, leaving one wondering if she could have become as great (or perhaps greater than) as her brother, had she been born a man. The tiny blackbox theatre has extremely limited seating, and the plays are small in scale and designed to travel. For example, the elaborate skirt featured in "The Other Mozart," which stretches across the entirety of the stage and contains all of the play's props, fits into a rolling suitcase. Berkshire Fringe performances are at Bard College's Daniel Arts Center. This is an intimate theatre experience you won't want to miss. Tickets for each play are $16 in advance and $20 at the door, with free music, talk backs, and workshops interspersed throughout the schedule.

Hello Dolly!
by Walt Haggery
(Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT - www.goodspeed.org thru September 14, 2013)
America’s long-term love affair with Dolly Gallagher Levi was officially launched in 1963 with the arrival of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway with the incredible Carol Channing as Dolly. At Goodspeed Opera House, Klea Blackhurst brings her own brand of charm, exuberance, and show-stopping delivery to a Dolly that has the audience cheering at frequent intervals. Blackhurst’s Dolly has captured the heart of the character and deserves to be ranked up at the top of the list of exceptional Dolly interpretations. She is extraordinary! Goodspeed’s production of “Hello Dolly” has been handsomely produced by Michael Price, with flawless direction by Daniel Goldstein. The choreography of Kelli Barclay is miraculous. Her dancers are seldom given breathing space, spending most of the evening airborne. In the "Waiters Gallop" they are magnificent. As Horace Vandergelder, Tony Sheldon has totally absorbed he character down to the last double take. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a more captivating Irene Malloy than is portrayed by Ashley Brown. She is pure joy, as is Catherine Blades as her assistant, Minnie Fay. Spencer Moses as Cornelius Hackl, Mr. Vandergelder's Chief Clark, and Jeremy Morse, as Assistant Clerk Barnaby Tucker, are superb. Their frantically executed romp in the hat shop is a masterpiece of choreographic execution and timing, quickly followed by the inspired hilarity of “Dancing.” Jack Doyle deserves special credit for his excellent dual role performances as the Judge and especially as head waiter Rudolph Reisenweber. Creating the foundation for these marvelously endearing characters is the book by Michael Stewart, based on Thornton Wilder’s original play “The Matchmaker.” The score by Jerry Herman, who contributed both music and lyrics, is one of his best, filled with a series of show-stopping solos, duets, quartets, and full company ensemble numbers. It is a pleasure to hear such glorious, infectious music from a Broadway show performed with such enthusiasm and professionalism. As is customary at Goodspeed, everything that could possibly be done to create a memorable afternoon or evening at the theatre has been accomplished to perfection. “Hello, Dolly!” is another treasure of America’s glorious musical theatre past impeccably restored to vibrant life.

Extremities
by Shera Cohen)
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org thru July 27, 2013)
“Extremities” personifies the violence of rape in three different time periods: before, during, and after. The emphasis in this powerful and oftentimes uncomfortable drama is, of course, on the victim as well as her assailant. Although the play was written 30 years ago, it is a sad reality that the story is quite relevant today. A large black sign covering half of a wall space in the theatre’s lobby lists statistics from 1982 and the present; i.e. number of rapes, number of reports, percentages of convictions, percentages of depression. Yet, “Extremities” is not data collection or book learning. There’s the woman, and then there’s the stranger who enters her home. This is not your typical rape story (if there is such a thing as typical, and there shouldn’t be), as the attacker eventually becomes the attacked. The characters and the audience face the question of how to define justice. Does an eye for an eye apply here? There’s another question, perhaps even more important, of what does violence and justice mean to both people in a terrible situation? The casting of Molly Camp (Marjorie) and James McMenam (Raul) is masterful. Camp transforms from a somewhat wimpy and board young woman to a bug-eyed, quivering, determined soldier of circumstance. McMenam morphs from a physically aggressive man to a caged animal-like creature. Director Karen Allen molds the two, at first giving one character an edge up, then the other, and soon the audience wonders just who is in control. Marjorie’s housemates, portrayed by Kelly McCreary and Miriam Silverman, arrive on the scene. Both actresses define their individual personalities quickly. Kudos goes to the backstage crew on music, lighting, sound, and set design. This is the most detailed story-telling staging at the Unicorn Theatre to date. A coupe for this reviewer was the opportunity to attend the talk-back. All of actors participated, as well as the director. Karen Allen (of “Indiana Jones” fame, and wasn’t it serendipitous that I had just caught the last half of the movie the day before on TBS?)…anyway, was quite shy, humble, and solicitous of her actors. Yet, it was obvious that she knew each character inside and out, and so did the audience.

West Side Story
by Shera Cohen
(Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org
How did they do that? How did the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and its conductor David Newman recreate the entire score to the Academy Award winning movie musical “West Side Story” simultaneously with the singing and dialogue on screen? Didn’t the movie already have a sound track? Didn’t the actors/singers’ voices meld with the music? Yes and yes. However, today’s electronics and masterful techies designed means to lift the singing from the movie and, using layman’s terms, permit the BSO to perform as if it was the original composition of a half-century ago. The debut of “West Side Story” was 1963. Oftentimes, the police on “Law & Order,” “CSI,” et al will ask the brilliant computer guy/gal to isolate the background sound (ah ha, I hear a train whistle) or increase the pitch and machination of the person talking (ah ha, sounds like our killer). Perhaps this isn’t exactly the way that the BSO managed the monumentally creative task of playing “pit band” to “West Side Story,” but the process was similar. Tanglewood’s program book gives the details about “recognizing and removing orchestral elements on the sound track while retaining vocals, dialogue, and effects.” The program continues to describe the arduous work to synronize the music with the action, the singers and the dancers in the movie. The shed was completely sold out, and the lawn “seats” just about full. The off and on rain of the day stopped an hour prior to the first downbeat, and the 90 degree day cooled to a 75 degree dusk and evening. Large movie screens were set in the shed and along the outside. In other words, the view was perfect for all. Hopefully, Tanglewood will program similar events like the coupling of the BSO with “WSS” to astound its audiences with other successes like this perfect evening of movie music.

Morgan O-Yuki
by Shera Cohen
(Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA - www.gildedage.org  through September 1, 2013)
One of the somewhat hidden gems in the Berkshires is the annual play at Ventfort Hall. Each summer’s performance stars a solo female actor in the role of an historic figure related to Ventfort’s history. Subtitled, “The Geisha of the Gilden Age,” the story is the biography of Yuki Kato, wife of George Morgan of the famous J.P. Morgan family. George’s parents were owners of Ventfort Hall in the 1900’s. Mayu Iwasaki is beautiful and splendid in the role of the Japanese geisha whose life changes dramatically upon her marriage and life in the United States. It is, obviously, difficult for one person to hold an entire play together. Iwasaki, along with director Enrico Spada, flows smoothly from scene to scene just as her costume flows onstage. Iwasaki tells her audience Kato’s story in the first person – a story that isn’t always pretty, yet honest. As Ventfort Hall’s renovations continue, the staff increasingly adds public programs and events. In addition to theatre is a unique fashion doll exhibit, lectures, Appraisal Day, and the Tea & Talk Summer Series. The latter features noted experts speaking on such subjects as the Jekyl Island Club, the New York Subway tunnel art, Louisa May Alcott, Nellie Bly, and Miles Morgan. Talks are on Tuesdays from 4–6pm.

 

Assassins by R.J. Nickerson
(F.U.D.G.E. Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA thru 7/20/13)
Assassins, a musical with music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, is a piece to be reckoned with; an amazing vehicle for actors to portray extreme characters in an extreme setting, while telling an audience points of view that help us to understand (maybe) why horrific acts in history came to pass. The play takes audiences to a carnival of individuals who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) U.S. Presidents. Abstract in nature, the musical can be hard to follow if audiences are not escorted through via a clear through-line. Unfortunately in the case of F.U.D.G.E. Theatre's production, though performances were strong overall, it seemed somewhat misguided, without the piece to connect us from history to present day. At first sitting, F.U.D.G.E.'s set seemed an intelligent usage of space (or lack thereof in the intimate Black Box at the Arsenal Center) - two rotating boxes accented with a transparent but reflective surface, lolly columns decorated with holiday lights, and a staircase to a carnival booth atop a platform. In the program's description, we are told that we are in Limbo, where all of the characters can co-exist. Comparing Setting to the set (Design by Jim Petty), an assumption was made - if the colorless play area was Limbo, then the colorful area atop the platform might be Heaven, and Hell might be introduced behind the rotating boxes. As the action played out, this did not come to pass. The rotating boxes were under-utilized when they weren't illuminated to reveal character silhouettes, and became very distracting by reflecting everything. The raised carnival booth (also Zangara/Ben Oehikers' electric chair & Sam Byck/Patrick Harris' domain) proved to be Proprietor (Kelton Washington)'s home base, as he remained onstage throughout... but why did he? Was he God in Heaven, passing judgment over them?  Or Satan manipulating them all to kill?  Initially, the Proprietor is effective as the Carnival host, handing out guns to each assassin in "Everybody's Got the Right," but after that - it did not make sense to have him in many of the scenes. It became distracting, especially when he sat atop the platform with his legs draped over the side directly in front of Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme (Katie Preisig)'s face. At other points he maneuvered himself in and out of scenes as if a part, but turning out to not be, which then pulled focus - such as having him climb back up the stairs as a primary character began their featured solo. Perhaps the intent was a 'leading player' as in "Pippin," though it seems the Balladeer (Jared Walsh) and John Wilkes Booth (Jim Petty) seemed smarter choices to keep the flow moving and the through-line consistent. Direction aside, all actors were strong in the cast, each dedicated to their character and committed. Standouts include Petty as 'Booth,' who grew stronger as the show progressed, Ben Sharton as 'John Hinckley,' and Walsh as 'The Balladeer' - though more notably after his transition into 'Lee Harvey Oswald'. Steven Bergman's orchestra, tucked neatly and no doubt tightly under the Proprietor's platform, played beautifully and truly helped the actors musically through Sondheim's typically impossible score. Despite my confusion with this production, I applaud Director Joey DeMita's belief that any show can fit in any space, and look forward to seeing more by F.U.D.G.E., including a certain not to be named Shakespeare play and Bergman's own "Jack the Ripper: The Whitechapel Musical" coming up in 2013-14. www.fudgetheatre.com.

 

Reagle Music Theatre Brings Fiddler Back to Life by R.J. Nickerson
(Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham, MA thru 7/21/13)

Reagle is nothing if not consistent with its dedication to bring classic shows to life time and time again, capitalizing on strong performers, a great orchestra, and Broadway sets and choreography. It's a near guarantee when you go to one of their productions, you will enjoy the experience. In the case of Reagle's current "Fiddler on the Roof," featuring well-known actor/newsman Scott Wahle as Tevye, one can expect no less. The production was enjoyable, much credit to Reagle's orchestra and some very strong performances onstage. Standouts include Wahle - a very entertaining character; Gillian Gordon (Hodel), Nora Fox (Tzeitel) and Peter Mill (Motel). The ensemble as a whole made the production viewer friendly...however one thing was missing, and it's kind of important (IMHO). Tradition. For whatever reason, this production lacked from start to finish ethnicity. Eliminating accents when a cast can't be consistent is one thing a viewer can get past, but when a production that has ethnicity at its very foundation but does not convey it fully, the overall essence seems lost; hollow. "Fiddler" is the story of Tevya, a father who attempts to maintain his family and Jewish traditions despite outside influences that invade their lives and community. Unfortunately, aside from a couple of Judaic gestures in staging, this production's direction did not convey a true sense of family, commitment and devotion so that when it started to break apart, the audience couldn't really feel the devastation Tevye's family and their little town of Anatevka went through, and how they bonded even stronger to get past it. Regardless, this spectacular lived up to Reagle's traditional strong dance numbers and spirited stagework, so for the not-so-critical theatregoer, it was well-worth the price of admission. The production runs through July 21st at the Robinson Theatre. (781) 891-5600; www.reaglemusictheatre.org.

 

Happy Anniversary Goodspeed by Shera Cohen
Not a lot of marriages reach their Golden Anniversary. Yet, Goodspeed Opera House celebrates its happy “marriage” to its audiences of the past 50 years. This picturesque, large, white building – atypical in shape to any other theatre that I have seen – whose home is the little town of East Haddam, CT is the benchmark for superb musicals in this county. While many might disagree with me, and I admit that I don’t frequent Broadway as often as I should, Goodspeed’s work is comparable in production quality, actors’ skills, and pit orchestra talents to The Big Apple. Add the amenities of ferry boats on the Connecticut River, a pristine landscape, and a lush red staircase upstairs leading to the stage and Goodspeed has its own charm that NYC cannot offer. I have just finished reading “Achieving the Impossible Dream – Goodspeed Musicals at 50,” a softcover, coffee table book of the history and photos of this prominent theatre. The title comes from the song “The Impossible Dream,” which is the showstopper of “Man of La Mancha.” Let’s credit Goodspeed with premiering one of my favorite musicals. Other shows were launched here; i.e. “Something’s Afoot” and “Shenandoah.” Then, of course, there’s “Annie” in 1976. Because our family vacationed nearby, my parents had attended some Goodspeed’s shows. However, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I had the opportunity to go. “Swinging on a Star” was my orientation in 1995 to what was to be followed by the consistently best Broadway-quality musicals that I have seen. In 1996, I saw “Paper Moon,” based on the movie. I can’t believe that this poignant and funny story did not land, at the very least, on Off-Broadway. In succession, I enjoyed a variety of frothy musicals, none of which I had never heard of: “Lucky in the Rain,” “On the 20th Century,” “Babes in Arms,” “Me and My Girl,” and “Where’s Charley?” Each one was delightful, with fine singers, bright costumes, fabulous dancers, and impetus for me to return year after year. More and more, I was especially in awe of the creative choreography on Goodspeed’s postage-sized stage. Then came “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” How could they ever fit seven brides, seven brothers, seven suitors, and several townsfolk exuberantly dancing up a storm without at least a few dancers falling off the stage and breaking body parts? No one fell. It was a “wow moment.” “Brides” went on the books as my favorite Goodspeed musical – that is, until two years later when “Singin’ in the Rain” trumped “Brides.” Maybe I am fickle, or maybe it’s the fact that Goodspeed consistently mounts better and a better production, if that is even possible. Who knows, “The Most Happy Fella” (which I will see in September) could supplant my prior favorites. It’s not impossible – it’s very possible.

 

The Lion in Winter by Jennifer Curran
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org)
This is how you welcome your 85th season of top notch theatre. An ensemble cast led by Jayne Atkinson and Treat Williams, a set that would give Rubik something to puzzle over, and a plot with more twists and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco. Sharp, hysterically funny, smart, and brutal is the world of “Lion in Winter” by James Goldman and as directed by Robert Moss. Set during Christmas in 1183, King Henry II and his Queen Eleanor of Aquitane (currently imprisoned by her own family but allowed out on furlough for the holiday), their three sons, King Phillip of France (Matthew Stucky), Phillip’s niece Alais (Tara Franklin),who naturally is also Henry’s mistress, spend their time plotting, scheming and back-stabbing over who should inherit the throne upon the aging King’s death. The Queen adores her son Richard (played with intense ruthlessness by Aaron Costa Ganis), while the King has inexplicably chosen the whining, pimple-faced youngest son John (Carl Gregory) who is more court jester than kingly. Left out in the cold is the unmerciful Geoffrey (Tommy Schrieder). As Queen Eleanor, Atkinson’s ability to thrust a line right into the heart of her target, yet never coming across nearly as hateful or frigid as her family would have you believe, is a performance worth seeing on its own. Paired with Treat Williams’ King Henry, the two crackle with history and chemistry. There was love there, under the threats and the lies and the affairs, there was love and perhaps there still is. As the family plays each other, creates partnerships and strikes deals, the audience is on the edge of its seat following these antics wherein the only goal is to win. Going through the motions of celebrating the Christmas holiday, they tear each other down as the holly goes up. And yet, the audience never loses sight that somewhere, under it all, there is a small current of love -- buried but enough to keep everyone in the same room. "The Lion in Winter" is an exquisite production, impeccable pacing and just a whole lot of fun. Berkshire Theatre Group has been around for almost a century, and this is just another example of why that is.

 

Animal Crackers by Shera Cohen
(Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA - www.wtfestival.org)
For those familiar with the loony non-stop humor of the Marx Brothers, “Animal Crackers” is the consummate impetus to reminisce. For those who have never seen this crazy trio on celluloid, be prepared to thoroughly enjoy the wackiness of the actors portraying Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. At its core, “Animal Crackers” is a dressed-up outlet for the brothers to perform their one-liner shtick, fast banter, risqué jokes, and pratfalls. Wrapped around this Borsht Beltish repartee is a flimsy and funny script that balances perfectly with these shenanigans. In what, on the surface, looks and feels a slightly unrehearsed, sometimes ad-libbed free-for-all, is a well-crafted production with room for anything. For example, while there is no rubber chicken, a rubber duck suffices. Humor is what propels the play at its speedy pace, but there is far more to “Animal Crackers.” With music by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, melodies like “Why Am I So Romantic” and those with ridiculously funny lyrics like “Keep Your Undershirt On,” abound. Of course, musicals require dance, and lots of it. “Three Little Words” highlights a spectacular dance duo quick at tap, soft shoe, jazz step, and Charleston. “Long Island Low Down” features the entire cast in a lively romp. The double proscenium arch creates a stage within a stage. In the center of the art deco-styled set is a seven-piece band in full tux, two large staircases, and giant cardboard chandelier. The band is terrific and plays an essential and unexpected part of the show, as do the stagehands, and some audience members. Costumes are elegant and hairdos are 1920’s. While certainly a format for Marx Bros antics (kudos to the three actors who look, walk, and talk – well, Harpo doesn’t talk – exactly like the originals), “Crackers” is truly an ensemble production. Director/Adaptor Henry Wishcampter’s choice to cast each actor in double roles is curious. Although, all the more reason for recognizing and praising the troupe. Rarely is separate playbill credit given to Director of Physical Comedy, except in this case, as Paul Kalina must have worked his actors into a full play’s-worth of safe chaos. “Animal Cracker” is goofy fun. Enjoy it.

The Sunset Limited by K.J. Rogowsi
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA)
“The Sunset Limited” roars through the New Century Theatre with a compelling head of steam and a cargo of provocative questions, arguments, and passions. Cormac McCarthy’s skillfully designed plot and characters, along with two actors who understand and deliver his contrasting messages make the evening. The playwright has crafted a trap, symbolically locking tthe duo in a room, struggling to discover why they are there. They, like their names and races: Black and White, set the tone. For these two men, that is the way they live their lives, each believing in their unique creed, unyielding, and engaged in a series intense debates of age old questions on the value of life, commitment to your fellow man, and what, if anything, there is after all this. For one man, the answer is a drive to help those in need, living where the down trodden and social misfits dwell; and for the other, to simply end the suffering which he sees his life has become because of the ultimate futility of all man’s undertakings. For one it has been a life of crime, prison, and murder; and for the other, a life of privilege, education, and insights; but for both, lives that have brought them to have done things neither can dare to reveal. The set, designed by Shawn Hill and Amy Putnam, captures the power of McCarthy’s plot, for as the show opens, the sound of "The Sunset Limited" bellows, lights pulsate, and the set rolls headlong towards the audience, screeching to a halt at the stage’s edge. And just like the two locked in the room on stage, the audience instantly knows that the Limited is headed dead on for them, just as McCarthy intends. This is a trip well worth taking.

"Arms On Fire"
(Chester Theatre, Chester, MA - www.chestertheatre.org)
"A play with music" pinpoints the emphasis precisely where it should be for "Arms On Fire," a revelatory play -- part memory, part contemporary reality. However the importance of the music should not be deemphasized, as it contributes importantly in mood and lyrics that comment on the action and underscore past events. There are moments that evoke memories of the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the film "Midnight Cowboy," but these are merely brushstrokes on a much broader canvas. Overall, "Arms On Fire" is given an outstanding production by the Chester Theatre Company. The story focuses on Ulysses, a factory worker, originally from Honduras, now living in a basement apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen. An unanticipated intrusion comes as Smith, a young singer hoping for a career break, arrives on the scene and soon probes and prods Ulysses until he learns the story of Ulysses' lost love. In the process, Smith manages to inject himself into Ulysses life -- and his apartment. The influence of Josephina, Ulysses former lover, has a lasting affect on both men. Natalie Mendoza, ideally cast in this role, offers a seductive portrayal, much of which must be delivered from behind a scrim. Guieseppe Jones' gently modulated and restrained performance gives Ulysses the persona of a passionate but patient man who has accepted what life has handed him, but also reveals how much he has to give back. It is James Barry, as Smith, who has the showiest role of the evening with wide-ranging mood swings, colorful language, and opportunities for excessive behavior. His characterization could easily stray out of control, but thanks to Barry's always controlled, brilliantly honed performance that never happens. It is a consummate gem of acting an "over-the-top" character without the actor ever following suit. Barry and director Byam Stevens must share well-deserved honors for this. The set design by Travis A. George creates an ideal, flexible backdrop for the action. Musical accompaniment from an exceptionally talented group of four musicians on six instruments, was excellent. "Arms On Fire" is a great opener for the Chester Theatre Group's 2013 season

 

Dance Theatre of Harlem by Amy Meek
(Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA - www.jacobspillow.org)
Jacob’s Pillow has begun another season filled with diverse, thought-provoking dance companies and works. Dance Theatre of Harlem was the first to grace the Ted Shawn Theatre for the summer. This historical ballet company gave a varied performance showcasing a blend of styles. The weekend’s performances also kicked off the Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival, a collaboration between various community venues celebrating African-American heritage and culture. The first work, Agon, showcased the neoclassical ballet style made famous by George Balanchine. This difficult piece was a combination of solos, duets, trios, and quartets which interplayed with the music, creating many classical shapes in a flurry of activity. The ensemble displayed a distinctive muscular energy, which is not always seen in some traditional Balanchine dancers. Igor Stravinsky's highlighted the complexity and sensuality of the choreography. The Black Swan Pas de Deux was the second piece in the program. This section from the ballet Swan Lake is always a treat to watch because of the exciting feats of technique from the male and female dancer. Michaela Deprince and Samuel Wilson were spot-on with their execution of the steps. Deprince finished the 32 fouettes, which characterize the Black Swan’s solo, with ease. The duo also displayed artistry as well as excellent technique. The last two pieces, The Lark Ascending, choreographed by the famous Alvin Ailey, and Return, a work set to music by James Brown and Aretha Franklin, further exemplified the range of the company’s repertoire. The first of these was filled with beautiful movements, costumes and music, whereas the second work was sassy and and humorous. The Dance Theatre of Harlem gave a wonderful performance and started out the Jacob’s Pillow season with a bang!

 

CT Goes Country by Eric Sutter
(Summerwind, Windsor, CT - www.sscsummerwind.org)
The Summerwind Performing Arts Center hosted two up-and-coming female country music artists backed by Connecticut's own Monthei Brothers. The twin brothers have played country music in CT since the 70's. Their five-piece band began the night with an Eagles' classic "Take It Easy." On this beautiful cool moonlit night, the boys played bluegrass and the rock hit "Memphis" by Chuck Berry. They proved what 40 years of experience is worth. John Monthei's flashy fiddle style colored "Orange Blossom Special." The 20 year old Marla Morris from Bethany, CT rocked her country sound from the opener title cut of her CD, "Ready For The Rain," to the closer, "Take Me Home." She shared songs of lost love, friendship and growth. Morris' songs "Last Dance" and "Let You Go" were interspersed with rock hits "Long Train Runnin'" and "Walking In Memphis." Listen for more from this talented young singer. Nicole Freshette, from Madison, is another young powerhouse country singer who showcased her amazing dual natured voice that rocked and soothed. Her charismatic presence propelled new songs from her latest CD "Blonde Ambition." "Bird On A Wire" had a Miranda Lambert influence. In fact, later in the set she performed Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart." Freshette's confident vocals belted out "He Wants Me" with gusto. The Phil Vassar penned pop-hook hit "Yeah Right," from Freshette's debut CD, featured a captivating chorus and smooth pedal steel guitar solo by John Monthei. The country ballad "Old Dirt Road" gave the singer the opportunity to show off her lovely voice in a tender song, with acoustic guitar as backdrop. "Heartbreak Overdrive" added riveting rockin' country with hot electric guitar leads of the wild abandonment variety. Freshette shifted to a bluesy singing style for a soulful take of Tracey Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." She closed with the bristly Dixie Chicks' country-rocker "Let Er' Rip." This girl is going places... as is Summerwind. The venue features a fine array of talent this summer.

On The Town
by Shera Cohen
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA - www.barringtonstageco.org thru July 13, 2013)
Barrington Stage Company opens each of its summer seasons with a crowd-pleasing musical. “On the Town” continues to fit this format, not solely because it does and will attract audiences – some obvious reasons being that the names of Bernstein, Comden, and Green are attached to it; Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra starred in the movie version; and the setting is the Big Apple – but because BSC mounts top-notch quality productions. Delightful and joyous, funny and frothy are perfect adjectives for “On the Town.” The plot is simple. It’s the 1940’s, take three young sailors off the boat, land them in NYC, and give them 24-hours for each to find a gal. It is certainly no spoiler to write “mission accomplished.” After all, this is a comedy. Except for “New York, New York” (not the Liza Minelli NY) most of the tunes will not ring a proverbial bell. That’s okay, just enjoy them. Many are silly (“Caveman Dance” and “I Can Cook”) and a few lean toward serious (“Some Other Time” and “Lonely Town”). While the sailors make for a splendid vocal trio, it is their dancing that unites them and with the audience. When the hoofer ensemble joins them in frequent numbers, “On the Town” becomes a town not to be missed. With emphasis on dance, one might not expect the excellent quality of each lead as a singer. The men – Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Tony Yazbeck – also croon solos, with Yazbeck shining as a fine dancer as well. Two of their ladies sing –Elizabeth Stanley and Alysha Umphress – and Deanna Doyle stands on her head, performs other gymnast feats, and dances. Simply by opening her mouth to talk, Umphress commands the stage. Actually, she doesn’t even need to talk, since her body language shouts out loud. Here is a great young comedic talent. The direction logically and seamlessly fills every moment of every scene, the choreography feels natural, the pit band of 10 sounds like 20, the costumes and hairdos replicate the era, and the staging offers simplicity. It’s far more important in this musical to make room for a smooth soft-shoe or ballet than the furniture. Pittsfield is a perfect town for “On the Town.”

Billy Elliot, The Musical
by Shera Cohen
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org)
Noah Parets IS Billy Elliot. Noah Parets makes “Billy Elliot” a character-centered, poignant, humorous, and strong musical. While “Billy” boasts a large cast of perhaps 40 singers, dancers, and actors, this impish spitfire 13-year-old steals the show. But, then, that’s his job, and Parets takes command in a boyish manner that never steals scenes from others. The bottom line – this boy is an exemplary talent with a remarkable future in dance. The backdrop is a piece of British history during the coalminers strike in the mid-1980’s when poor towns people vs. police and community vs. government. This is a bit of a political drama, with the audience leaning toward the plight of the coalminers. More so, it is a drama of circumstances with one family at the crux, particularly one young boy. The musical closely resembles the movie version. The plot is the unexpected dream of Billy to become a ballet dancer – certainly not the career his widowed dad picks for him. Then there’s the ever-present assumption that a boy who dances is a sissy. “Not my son.” Billy dances up a storm throughout the two hour musical. While the Elton John music is oftentimes lovely (“Dear Billy”) or funny (“We’d Go Dancing”) or haunting (“Once We Were Kings”), it’s the music that thrusts Billy into non-stop action that makes this an excellent production with a long life. Billy proves his stuff to the judges and to his dad in “Electricity.” The end of Act I’s “Angry Dance” pushes and shoves Billy in the midst of the political factions. As the dance’s title indicates, this boy is angry, the world is angry, and Billy is angry at the world. Powerful stuff with lots of percussion from the excellent pit band. However, Billy’s ballet, accompanied by his older self to “Swan Lake” is one (there are several) of the show stoppers. Special kudos should be handed out in various categories: a charming Cameron Clifford as Billy’s cross-dressing little buddy, the lighting designer who creates giant shadows for Billy to dance with, a cast of little girls who fake bad dancing very well, and to Tony Award-winning choreographer Peter Darling. Billy’s moves combine boyish awkwardness with mature skill – a contrast at best that works superbly.

The Art of the Chalumeau
by Barbara Stroup
(Daniel Arts Center, Great Barrington)
After a cold winter and a wet spring, Aston Magna returned to the Berkshires with the best in chamber music - the pleasing combination of strings, winds and voice. Offering a rare glimpse at an obscure instrument, the ensemble provided guest artist Eric Hoeprich with respectful support in both programming and musicianship. In Hoeprich’s hands, the chalemeau is an instrument that can enter mysteriously from the background texture, rivaling the voice in its soul-touching sound. The range of this small instrument belies its size, and the artist achieved a balanced timbre throughout. Paired with the oboe in a short work by Johann Adolph Hasse, the combination was ethereal. One wishes again that, like other neglected early instruments, audiences could hear much more from chalemeau players. The program opened without the wind instruments with a Vivaldi work in three parts. Artistic Director Daniel Stepner’s leadership, particularly at the cadenzas, gave the notes a chance to linger in the air and gave the audience a change to savor them. It was a pleasure to be able to follow Vivaldi’s fugal theme, as players took turns getting “out of the way” so it could be highlighted. The evening’s ensemble included a continuo section of three: violone, baroque cello, and theorbo. The group was a perfect combination throughout the varied program of arias, concerti, and other short works and the balance throughout was impeccably maintained, regardless of the number of voices. Soprano Kristen Watson joined the instrumentalists for several pieces from Handel and Vivaldi, and for the closing Cantata by Francesco Conti. Her instrument excellently matched the ensemble. She seemed to particularly enjoy the opportunities to ‘converse’ with the chalemeau when Hoeprich and she were paired. Baroque oboeist Steven Hammer brought a masterful technique to the familiar Marcello Concerto, ending the first half of the program with rapid passagework and flying fingers. All three featured artists had so much command of technique that they could put the audience at ease with their musicianship. The program was a delightful mix and it is hoped that a recording might be issued, because the term “chalemeau” on ITUNES results in only ONE find.

Lend Me a Tenor
by Eric Johnson
(New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA - www.newcenturytheatre.org)
Nothing says “let the summer theatre season begin” better than a good farce, set on a stage with six, count ‘em six, yes that’s right six, functioning doors beckoning to be flung open and slammed. Mistaken identities, characters in various stages of undress, compromising positions, and incidents of borderline insanity now have a perfect setting for the madness to begin. Add to this, a group of seasoned and talented actors and the stage is set for an evening of pure entertainment and lots of laughter. The wonderfully detailed set design by Dan Rist immediately lets the observer know that it is a hotel suite, circa 1930s, complete with art deco designs on the doors. Performances by the extremely talented cast, under the direction of Jack Neary, elicited almost non-stop laughter from the opening night audience, which is as it should be. This is a top-notch production of a very funny show. Steve Brady and Brian Argotsinger, as Saunders and Max, have great chemistry and timing in the numerous scenes involving only this duo, almost channeling Abbott and Costello at one point in a hysterical rapid fire dialog sequence. Sandra Blaney, always a joy to see on stage, plays a marvelous mixture of innocence and wantonness as Maggie. Tito and Maria are brilliantly portrayed by Sam Samuels and Lisa Abend. They step onto the stage with intensity and energy as a bickering couple, with an emphasis on heavy Italian accented English. Margaret Streeter, as Diana, is alluring and sexy, especially when she appears wrapped in a bath towel. The Bellhop, enthusiastically played by James Emery, is a great character and Emery knows it, bringing full commitment to his character’s mission to meet Tito. Julie Robbins also does a splendid job of bringing the supporting role of Julia to the forefront whenever she is on stage. “Lend Me a Tenor” is a fast paced, laugh out loud production well worth seeing. So, let the summer theatre season begin!

Bashir Lazhar
by Jennifer Curran
(Barrington Stage, Sydelle & Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA - www.barringtonstageco.org
It began as a twenty-page monologue written by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. Later, it would become an Academy Award-nominated film and now Bashir Lazhar is a one-man, 80-minute play. The story of a French-Algerian political refugee finding solace and escape in a Canadian elementary classroom from unspeakable horror and sadness. M. Lazhar, portrayed with bravado by Juri Henley-Cohn, is not a professional teacher. Rather, he attempts to become an educator intent on finding a way to start over and to help his new students heal from the traumatic event that led to his employment as a permanent substitute teacher. The story he tells unfurls in its own time, perhaps too slowly for a one-act play. Bashir Lazhar, directed by Shakina Nayfak, begins a conversation about the constructs that attempt to define citizenry, education, war, and what happens when those worlds are crashed together. In this tiny microcosm we see a single man try to come to grips with what has happened to his life while attempting to instill in his students a love of life and play and learning. If the length of the play wasn’t already a hurdle, Mr. Henley-Cohn was also tasked with set changes. A risky choice and one that doesn’t always work well and ultimately detracts from the final moments of the play while the audience is distracted by watching the actor side-step set pieces inexplicably left strewn around the stage from an earlier scene. Attempts at unique lighting cues and sound to signify scene and set changes worked well enough, but at times seemed more staged reading than complete production. It’s too bad this was the case; the story and the actor deserved more than creative cheats by the lighting and sound designers. What the play doesn’t do is tie it all up in a lovely bow by curtain call. It opens the door and asks the audience to come inside and reflect on what it means to be a teacher, a student and a citizen of any country. It reminds us that we are all three in our daily lives but nothing is more important than remembering to carry a light in ourselves, that a do-over isn’t always as easy as wiping a chalkboard clean, but it is always a possibility.

 

1776 by Shera Cohen
(Wilbraham <MA> United Players - www.wilbrahamunitedplayers.com)
The musical “1776” is not often performed in community theatre, one good reason being that the cast includes 25 men. From the start, mounting this show is a huge undertaking. Add to the “crowd” on stage, the fact that not many are familiar with “1776” adds stress to the troupe to get decent size audiences. While Wilbraham United deserves praise for taking on the challenge, the results sometimes fall apart. The plot is the one learned in elementary school – the founding of these United States – focusing on the personalities of the Declaration signers and set to song. Assuredly, there is much fiction, and at the same time a humanized history lesson. All of the usual suspects appear; i.e. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, et al. There is not much opportunity to individualize the other 22 men. Brad Shepard and his character John Adams hold the play together which is a difficult job because there are so many people onstage, let alone on very small stage. Little did the audience know that the original Adams was “obnoxious and disliked,” performed admirably and with intelligent humor by Shepard. Franklin (Paul Nesbit) and Jefferson (Brian Freeman), as Adams’ cohorts in creating a new nation, hold their own. Except for solos by South Carolina’s Rutledge (Jay Lee), Pennsylvania’s Dickinson (David Chivers), and Virginia’s Lee, the rest of the founding fathers just happen to be in the room. Color-blind and sex-blind casting has become familiar, yet casting some women in these roles was a mistake, even when desperate for actors to audition. It’s probably a good guess that few readers have ever heard of the songs “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.” Both are lovely warm duets and highlights of “1776” as sung by Adams and his wife Abigail (Teri LaFleur). In spite of the fact that LaFleur is only slightly visible as she stands behind a scrim throughout the play (why?), a mature romance comes through because of the ability of the two actors. Although a minor role, JohnMartin Patton’s courier sings a haunting “Mamma, Look Sharp.” Director Deb Trimble, whose work has wowed audiences in the past, moves her actors at a very slow pace, oftentimes blocking each other. A good effort is made in costuming, although the ill-fitting wigs are distracting. Perhaps “1776’s” second weekend will pick up and/or sections cut and/or choruses deleted.


Good News!
by R.E. Smith
(Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT thru June 22, 2013 - www.goodspeed.org)
"Good News" is the musical theatre equivalent of comfort food: familiar, pleasing, and it fills you will smiles. Just to prove that this is an true song and dance show, the night begins with a choreographed overture complete with tap dancing football players. The story is slight, and part of the charm: college football hero falls for his astronomy tutor while co-eds frolic and sorority girls swoon. Further enhancing the warm and fuzzy feelings is the score of recognizable standards: "The Best Things in Life are Free," "You're the Cream in My Coffee," "Keep Your Sunnyside Up," and "Button Up Your Overcoat." Closing out the first Act, "Varsity Drag" earns the energetically physical cast a thunderous and lengthy round of applause. As jock and tutor, leads Ross Lekites and Chelsea Morgan Stock are Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds personified. Slapstick sidekick Barry Shafrin (Bobby) displays the rubbery comedic chops of Huntz Hall and Danny Kaye. Shafrin is paired up nicely with Tessa Faye's bombshell Babe O'Day, who countless intermission-goers likened to a young Carol Burnett, with her broad delivery and angular movements. The chemistry is not limited to the youngsters either, as Beth Glover's Professor and Mark Zimmerman's Coach Johnson, prove that the "responsible" adults can get just as moon-faced as the kids. It would be easy to say that the show is filled with musical theatre archetypes, but since the show was first produced in 1927, these characters are really the original molds. Jeremy Desmon's adaptation and Michael O'Flaherty's direction pull off the admirable feat of staging an old fashion show, with modern methods, as a loving homage to itself without being condescending. One mesmerizing feature of the show is the color scheme. While the physical set time is fairly simple, it, and every aspect of the show, has a dazzling color design. Vivid blue backgrounds, vibrant red uniforms, dazzling accents are all enhanced by a saturated lighting palette. The costumes, the make-up, the props, every detail is awash in living colors, making for a singing, dancing rainbow of old fashion entertainment.

Mozart & Beethoven
by Michael J. Moran
(Springfield <MA> Symphony - www.springfieldsymphony.org)
Springfield Symphony Orchestra Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican that he hoped “the path [from Mozart’s Requiem to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] would be a rewarding one worthy of a season’s grand finale.” The concert of both works, which he led to close the orchestra’s 69th anniversary season, fulfilled that hope resoundingly. The high drama of this Requiem performance was clear from the solemn first notes of the opening Introit movement. Momentum built to an urgent level in the Kyrie, to moments of terror in the Dies Irae, and to shattering power in the Rex Tremendae. There was moving tenderness in the Lacrimosa and Offertorium sections, and playful abandon in the joyous Sanctus. The orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, played with sensitivity and precision throughout. The Springfield Symphony Chorus sang almost without a break in the Requiem, and their work displayed consistent enthusiasm and unanimity of phrasing. All four vocal soloists made distinguished contributions, from the sweet-voiced soprano, Monica Yunus, to the warm tenor, Eric Ashcraft, the bracing mezzo-soprano, Stacey Rishoi, and the penetrating bass, Gustav Andreassen. The contrasting timbres of their voices produced an ideal blend in the frequent passages when all four sang together. Though some audience members would have known the Requiem text, newcomers at this well-attended event might have felt more engaged if a printed text and translation had been included in the program book and/or projected above the stage. Returning from intermission, the audience was greeted by probably the four most familiar notes in all of classical music as an inspired account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony got off to a thrilling start. As he had done in the Mozart, Rhodes deftly balanced the forward thrust and drama of the outer movements with passages of almost chamber-like intimacy in the inner ones. In pre-concert remarks, season sponsor MassMutual spokesman and incoming SSO President John Chandler said that retiring SSO horn player Thomas Haunton had told him that the “trust and mutual respect” the orchestra’s members show each other give the SSO a special excellence. Those qualities were everywhere in evidence at this season’s closer.

Next to Normal
by Felicity Hardy
(Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT - www.operahouseplayers.org)
"Next to Normal" is the story of Diana, a wife and mother suffering from bipolar disorder, delusions, and hallucinations. Dan, her steadfast husband, tries to hold the family together in the wake of Diana's illness and a years-old family tragedy that he doesn't want to acknowledge. Natalie, her teenage daughter, struggles to find herself despite feeling neglected. As Diana experiences the highs and lows of her mental illness and attempts new methods of treatment. The audience is left wondering: will this family survive? This is not an easy show to produce. Few moments of laughter help keep "Next to Normal" from becoming a preachy melodrama. Without genuinely heartfelt dedication from both the acting and direction, the play is two-dimensional. Under the direction of Sharon FitzHenry, the Opera House Players manage to find that delicate balance between tragedy and humor. Sarah Gilbert (Diana), Luis Manzi (Dan), Tomm Knightlee (Gabe), Kate Elmendorf (Natalie), Josiah Durham (Henry), and Randy Davidson (Doctor) are each exceptional in their roles, offering powerful and nuanced performances. They flawlessly handle Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's complicated pop-rock score (helped along by a phenomenal pit orchestra led by Bill Martin), but never forget that first and foremost, they are actors telling a story. The plot is mostly expressed through song, and the actors' diction and the clarity of the sound design are paramount that every lyric can be understood. A couple of microphone mistakes and a wheelchair getting caught on a corner were the only noticeable glitches, with the rest of the show running at a smooth, fast pace which rare for an opening-night community theatre performance. This production of "Next to Normal" takes the best of what community theatre has to offer and delivers a professional and heartfelt production with a message of hope. The audience was small, but captivated by the show's plot, often too engrossed in the material to find places to applaud. "Next to Normal" is a must-see night of theatre.

As You Like It
by Shera Cohen
(Suffield <CT> Players - www.suffieldplayers.org)
Love at first sight is all around in the palaces of Shakespeare’s era some four centuries ago, its Robin Hood forest, and on the stage at Suffield Players. One of the Bard’s richest comedies, “As You Like It,” abounds with action, comedy, and swooning. The play is such a delight that audience leaves the theatre having “liked it” very much. As is familiar with Shakespeare’s humor, the play includes his basics: mistaken identity, banishment, the wise Fool/Jester, gutsy women, sidebar stories, and of course love. Place most of the action in the Forest of Arden with four passionate or convenient duos, and a philosopher; the result is “a comedy of errors” coupled with the “all’s well that ends well” happy ending. There are no surprises in the script. However, there might be some in the production for those who are not frequent Suffield Players’ fans. Surprise #1) A community theatre troupe so successfully mounts a Shakespeare play and the cast memorizes Elizabethan language without a blip. #2) The cast of 20 move, romp, and love on a very small stage without bumping into each other and forest accoutrements. #3) The time is present day, complete with cellphone props. #4) Lead actors fit their roles perfectly. This last surprise is especially important because most community theatres mount their season finale in May, so many of the “best” actors are grabbed up. Suffield selected some of their regulars along with newbies to form an excellent mix. Chris Rohmann directs his actors in purposeful poses when needed (“I am no woman” quartet) and running and chasing, also when needed. The bottom line is, there is no time for anyone in the audience to look at his watch or, more importantly, even want to. The dialogue and action are tight. To single out a few actors is difficult, yet…Becky Rodia Schoenfeld’s Rosalind plays spunky and intelligent with aplomb, Rylan Morsbach’s Orlando personifies naiveté, Robert Lunde’s Touchstone (Fool) displays the devil-may-care, and Nathan Rumney’s shepherd portrays bumpkin with a capital “B.” The set! Kudos goes to designers Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip for masterful creation of the Forest of Arden. During Act I, drably painted doors of a court open to trees, flowers, shrubs, and a brook; from gray to in-living-color. Far more to say, but instead of reading this, get ye to Suffield.

Sister Act
by Walter A. Haggerty
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org)
Take one eager, would-be night club singer who can really belt, give her the opportunity to be in the right spot at the wrong time to witness a gangland style murder, hide her in a convent for protection, then add a dozen singing-swinging nuns, and you have the perfect recipe for a riotous, jubilant musical that restores the key ingredient of “comedy” to the world of musical comedy, and that’s “Sister Act.” A visit to Hartford’s Bushnell this week offers an audience a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The authors have found all they needed for focus in the framework of a highly successful Whoopi Goldberg movie. By adding an original score by multi-Academy, Grammy, and Golden Globe composer Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glen Slater, a ton of sequins and glitter, and a cast that knows how to deliver show-stoppers, “Sister Act” is ready for the big time. Heading the large and exuberant cast is Ta’Rea Campbell as Deloris Van Cartier, in an audience-pleasing rock ‘em, sock ‘em performance that is terrific. Hollis Resnik’s Mother Superior manages to bring some warmth and subtlety to a characterization that relies more on her delivery than to the material provided. Kingsley Leggs, as Curtis Jackson, contributes a healthy measure of laughter aided by Todd Horman, Ernie Pruneda and Charles Barksdale, as a trio of inept hoods. As Eddie Souther, E. Clayton Cornelius turns a bumbling, stumbling police officer into an instant hero. Lael Van Keuren, as postulant Mary Robert, has an endearing opportunity to shine in "The Life I Never Lived.” Each member of the chorus of nuns brings distinctive nuances to, what are intentionally, very broad and amusing character studies. A suggestion to the “Sister Act” sound technicians or the Bushnell’s own sound personnel – reduce the volume. Every number does not need to be transmitted at the highest level to the point that all singers sound like overpowering stereos instead of real people. Back to “Sister Act.” It’s strictly for laughs at a time in our lives when sharing a good laugh is something everyone can use.

The Mountaintop
by Jarice Hanson
(TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT - www.theaterworkshartford.org)
An exact replica of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel provides the set for Katori Hall’s imaginative play, "The Mountaintop." The scene recreates the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination on the balcony of the Memphis motel in April, 1968. After delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King returns to his room to meet Camae, a maid who delivers his coffee and tells him that “God wants me to get you ready to go home.” Hall’s script is uneven, blending images of historical accuracy and collective memory with fantasy, popular culture and time warps, but director Rob Ruggiero makes the script work by building tension between the two actors, and between the actors and the audience. Occasionally a line is prescient with meaning those watching the play see King struggle with the burden of leadership while experiencing the carnal desire of a man who spends too much time on the road. Actors Courtney Thomas as Camae, and Jamil A.C. Mangan in the difficult role of MLK, give intelligent performances resonating with sexual tension and humor. Room 306 is the place where they share cigarettes, reflect on the meaning of Civil Rights, and the brief time we share on earth. When Mangan powerfully builds to the pinnacle of the performance, the audience is left to ponder the significance of destiny. Evan Adamson’s detailed set is flawless, and provides a link to time and place integral to the story. John Lasiter’s lighting and Michael Miceli’s sound design punctuate the action with foreshadowing that heightens the tension. While it is difficult to describe everything that happens without giving away the twists and turns that make the story so compelling, "The Mountaintop" delivers strong performances, and a meaningful experience that packs a punch.

 

Abundance by Jarice Hanson
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT thru April 28, 2013 - www.hartfordstage.org)
Beth Henley writes great scripts for strong women. That reason alone, was impetus to see "Abundance" at Hartford Stage. The premise is promising. Two mail-order brides travel to Wyoming in the 1860's and strike up a friendship that ultimately withstands husbands, famine, homesteading, the coming of the railroad, Indians, anniversaries, successes and failures. Billed as “wickedly funny and deeply touching” the dialog is strong and the actors infuse their characters with energy, but the play lumbers along. The laugh lines are clever, but the play is anything but a comedy. The female leads, Bess (Monique Vukovic) and Macon (Brenda Withers), are talented actors who work well together, but though their their characters' 25-year friendship is challenged by extraordinary events, it’s hard to see the emotional turmoil between them as their lives unfold. The actors playing their husbands - the sadistic Jack (James Knight) and the good, but dim William (Kevin Kelly) - are also fine actors, but the roles are stereotypical and it’s unclear what makes each man change over the years. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are perfect, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design are standout contributions to creating mood. The large playing space and the spare set reinforce the wide open spaces of the west, but director Jenn Thompson uses the revolving stage far more than necessary and she often blocks her actors to speak upstage, for no real reason. Wilson Chin’s scenic design is highly representative, but the actors are directed to break walls and violate the audience’s sense of space. It is questionable whether Henley’s script calls for the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” or whether the sound designer or the director chose this music to signal time passage, but the tune seems inappropriate and overused. The production has potential to grow throughout the run, but unfortunately at this point, "Abundance" leaves this reviewer unfulfilled.

Gershwin & Rachmaninoff
by Michael J. Moran
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org)
Two familiar headliners, but only one familiar work, appeared at the sixth classical concert of the current SSO season. In her welcoming remarks from the stage, SSO President Kris Houghton noted that at least two of the three works on the program were “new music” to many orchestra members. That may explain why they all sounded especially fresh and bracing. The evening got off to an exuberant start with Gershwin’s familiar “An American in Paris,” which the composer called “a rhapsodic ballet…to portray the impressions of an American visitor as he strolls around the city.” Energetic leadership from Music Director Kevin Rhodes drew vivid and committed playing from all sections of the orchestra, which featured jazzy clarinets and saxophones and an enlarged percussion section, including car horns. The program continued with an unfamiliar piece by an equally unfamiliar composer, the Symphony No. 4, written in 1950, by Walter Piston. In a spoken introduction to the work, Rhodes called it an “incredibly beautiful” example of the composer’s strong influence on later generations of musicians whom he taught at Harvard. The orchestra seemed to relish the variety of rhythms and moods in the symphony’s four short movements, and the audience’s enthusiastic response suggested that Piston’s music should be played more often. Intermission was followed by an unfamiliar composition by a familiar composer, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, perhaps the least known of his four concertos but also the most harmonically advanced. Written in 1926, its lack of a clear tonal center made it sound newer than Gershwin’s piece, which was written two years later. And heard after the two American works, the Rachmaninoff even seemed to reflect some of the jazz influence that was infiltrating classical music in the 1920s. Guest soloist, Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin, who played Rachmaninoff’s only slightly better known first piano concerto with the SSO several years ago, made a passionate case for the fourth concerto, tempering virtuosity with lyricism in a performance so impressive that he played two encores by the young Rachmaninoff: a rarely heard but lovely Elegie; and the famous Prelude in c sharp minor.

The Mountaintop
by Jarice Hanson
(TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT thru 5/5/13 - www.theaterworkshartford.org)
An exact replica of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel provides the set for Katori Hall’s imaginative play, "The Mountaintop." The scene recreates the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination on the balcony of the Memphis motel in April, 1968. After delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King returns to his room to meet Camae, a maid who delivers his coffee and tells him that “God wants me to get you ready to go home.” Hall’s script is uneven, blending images of historical accuracy and collective memory with fantasy, popular culture and time warps, but director Rob Ruggiero makes the script work by building tension between the two actors, and between the actors and the audience. Occasionally a line is prescient with meaning those watching the play see King struggle with the burden of leadership while experiencing the carnal desire of a man who spends too much time on the road. Actors Courtney Thomas as Camae, and Jamil A.C. Mangan in the difficult role of MLK, give intelligent performances resonating with sexual tension and humor. Room 306 is the place where they share cigarettes, reflect on the meaning of Civil Rights, and the brief time we share on earth. When Mangan powerfully builds to the pinnacle of the performance, the audience is left to ponder the significance of destiny. Evan Adamson’s detailed set is flawless, and provides a link to time and place integral to the story. John Lasiter’s lighting and Michael Miceli’s sound design punctuate the action with foreshadowing that heightens the tension. While it is difficult to describe everything that happens without giving away the twists and turns that make the story so compelling, "The Mountaintop" delivers strong performances, and a meaningful experience that packs a punch.

 

Masters of the Fiddle by Eric Sutter
Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org
Two of the world's most celebrated fiddlers -- Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy -- heated a cold Berkshire night to hot. They combined French, Celtic and American Bluegrass styles with MacMaster's Cape Breton fiddle work for a medley of jigs and reels from her latest CD "Cape Breton Girl." It seemed especially a propos that this married pair performed a warm and relaxed "Anniversary Waltz" that especially touched the audience. Life, love, and laughter showed, especially when many family members joined Leahy and MacMaster on stage. Donnell Leahy played the lengthy moody piece, "Fiddler's Despair" which ebbed and flowed with vibrant passion. Another fiddle tune brought out the sparkling Leahy children to play their wee fiddles and step dance. Youngsters Mary and Michael dazzled the audience. The impish Claire made a surprise visit for truly a joyful family affair. The entire family demonstrated some fancy dancing as well. "Madness" was a mix of whimsical piano and fiddle sounds that brightened delightfully. Erin Leahy stood out on a ragtime piano piece followed by the Canadian fiddle duel of "Orange Blossom Special." As MacMaster herself exclaimed, "Holy Smokers!" The second half of the concert brought Donnell Leahy to the forefront. The intense "Gypsy Boy" seared with heat. The musicians joined forces and blended their talents on the beautiful Scottish air "Professor Blackie." This plunking piano piece caused an emotional stir. This was a literally forceful performance. Apparently in the past, and particularly when they have had an extended blast of reels, while sawing away a string would break. On this evening it was Leahy first, and then MacMaster followed. The duo, who carry extra equipment, simply made everything "well" again as they continued on. MacMaster began a blast of reels that drove the show into an overdrive of pure exhilaration. The headliners did some magical step dancing of their own, set to a Cape Breton groove. The encore sizzled with a quick reel of dueling fiddles which included a surprise "Jingle Bells." This was brilliant music that appealed to all.

The Liar
by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA - www.shakespeare.org
About 370 years ago, playwright Pierre Corneille penned one of the most cunning farces of that era, titled “Le Menteur.” Oddly, Corneille was dubbed “the founder of French tragedy,” yet the gentleman probably needed a break from gloom, because brought to Shakespeare & Company’s stage in the gloom of New England winter is “The Liar.” The story is light, and includes love and feigned love, mistaken identity, a funny maid (actually two), etc. There’s no need to know French to enjoy this brilliant fabrication set to rhymed couplets. Contemporary playwright David Ives has accomplished the task of translating or adapting the original into quick-witted dialogue. Sometimes the rhyme is a bit of a stretch, making the words even more humorous. Bravo to the seven actors who speak, seemingly, effortlessly. Director Kevin Coleman, a master of moving his cast fast and furiously through many Shakespeare & Co. farces, has exceeded even his own benchmark of talent. Our hero is a handsome young man whose occupation is that of an inept professional liar. David Joseph, an actor who has certainly proved his metal at this venue, has moved up the ranks to leading role. His Dorante (Liar) is suave yet slippery, intelligent yet dumb, egotistical yet soft-hearted. He’s a loveable cocky SOB. With a rapid fire tongue, Joseph rips through his rhyming repartee, while at the same time running, jumping, and fighting. Indeed, the duel between Dorante and Alcippe (Enrico Spada) becomes the high point of the play. Imagine an aggressive sword fight without swords with each exceptionally choreographed lunge simultaneously described by Joseph as both the participant and referee. The entire cast is always on point, and apparently having a super time pulling off this comedy. Of particular note is Dana Harrison in the dual role as twins Isabelle and Sabine, one sister as dim and frothy as the other is prim and stern. Both are a hoot. There's so much more to write about this terrific cast; and…there’s backstage “stuff”: 1600’s indoor/outdoor settings with minimal staging, costume designs worthy of prizes and booby prizes (Pops dressed like a bumble bee), sound effects. Dorante’s motto is, “Never, ever, ever speak the truth.” Alas, truth must be spoke…get ye to “The Liar” foresooth.

Opera Night
by Shera Cohen
Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org
Maestro Kevin Rhodes called the evening “a potpourri of opera.” With 15 arias – primarily dramatic with a smattering of comedic –penned by 11 different composers, Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s “Passion, Love, Murder & Mayhem: It’s Opera” was a success on many levels. As expected, Rhodes’ exuberance was contagious. The members of the SSO responded to their director’s enthusiasm in kind. Each section had its moments to shine, and each of these professional musicians could easily hold the proverbial candle to the talents of those in more well-known symphonies in larger cities throughout the United States. Rhodes, equally delightful as a storyteller, preceded the performance of the arias with a mini-synopsis. Particularly for those uninitiated to opera, placing the upcoming piece into context made the music even more special. The job of assembling the concert’s five vocalists must have been daunting, because these three women and two men could not have been more perfect. Mary Wilson’s high soprano trills in Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia was joyful. Amy Johnson’s Pace pace from Verdi’s La forze del destino was as lush as her harp accompaniment. Verdi work represented a good portion of the second part of the concert, including the full orchestra’s rousing Overture to this same opera. O don Fatale, from Don Carlo, highlighted Stacey Rishoi’s vibrant mezzo-soprano. Verdi’s La Traviata’s duet Un di Felice featured Wilson and Eric Ashcraft. At this point in the evening, Ashcraft had already shone his talent in pieces from La Giocana and Madama Butterfly capping with the poignant Vesti la guibba from I pagliaci. Finally, it is not often that the bass singer is given solos, but the SSO gladly shared its stage with Gustav Andreassen who was particularly deep and dramatic in two roles as the Devil in Faust and Mefistofele. While seemingly something small to notice was the stance of the singers – simply put, they didn’t just stand there. Without props or staging, they “acted” their roles in the operas. Solos and duets formed the two hour presentation, with an ensemble work as an encore – a fun piece, whose composer is obviously not identified in the program book; after all it was an encore. Let’s hope SSO encores Opera Night each season.

Sunset Boulevard
by Walt Haggerty
Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham-Monson Academy - www.thetheatreguildofhampden.org
…and now, “Sunset Boulevard” is ready for its close-up! In the supremely capable hands of Director Mark Giza, Theatre Guild of Hampden is giving this difficult Andrew Lloyd Weber classic a production that is amazing. For more than six decades the singular character of Norma Desmond has been a challenge to actresses of both stage and screen. Norma was a star of the silent screen – a BIG star. Now she wants to return. To tackle the role of Desmond an actress must have a rare combination of gifts, a credible singing voice, and exceptional acting ability, capped with the looks of a faded beauty. In Anna Giza’s performance as Norma, all these gifts and more are there, in abundance. Giza gives an unforgettable bravura portrayal of that faded actress determined to “return” to the screen. Her electrifying performance throbs with desperation. Her Norma reaches deep below the surface as she uses everything at her disposal to draw a complete character – her eyes, her mouth, voice, arms thrust upwards, fingers grasping, caressing – everything is used and everything works. Beyond that, she performs Weber’s two glorious arias, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” like a diva. Giza IS Desmond, and she is extraordinary. Josiah Durham’s Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who has hit bottom, grasps at straws for survival. Durham convincingly capture Gillis’ easy slide into acceptance of the benefits of being “a kept man” until he suddenly realizes what has happened to him and tries to escape. Kiernan Rushford, as Betty Schaeffer, Gillis’ new love interest, is a perfect young innocent finding that love has crept into what had been simply a “business relationship.” The pair is excellent in their “Too Much in Loved to Care” duet. As Max Van Mayerling, Michael Lorenzo is excellent; giving his character a taught, even threatening, treatment. The deft direction of the production permits even minor characters to have complete personalities. Sets and costumes are superior, particularly the endless series of hats, gowns and ensembles worn by Giza in a virtual fashion Parade of 1920s Hollywood style. Theatre Guild of Hampden deserves extra bows for meeting the many challenges of “Sunset Boulevard.” Bravo!

Skin Deep
by Shera Cohen
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
“Skin Deep” might be labeled a “chick play.” That description works, but there is far more depth than froth. If such a term exists, perhaps “human play” is a better fit. Playwright Jon Lonoff (never heard of him, but hopefully more of us will soon) has penned an adorable relationship story chock full of quick repartee, one-liners, and pungent words of wisdom. Neil Simonish in tone and text, Lonoff takes his characters steps further, from caricatures to real people. In the case of “Skin Deep,” the story is seemingly simple – 30 or 40-something Maureen Mulligan (Liliane Klein) and Joe Spinelli (Buzz Roddy) are about to have a blind date. Both actors exude the awkwardness, vulnerability, sweetness, and sadness of their characters. Klein, in the lead role and in every scene of the play, is a newbie to the Majestic. She is instantly likeable, particularly as she pokes fun at her ice cream loving full figure size. She is sarcastic with a sense of humor that is able to soften her own blows. Lonoff and Klein could have easily put Maureen in a very dark place, but that would have been an easy out. Instead, this is a woman with an equal share of doubt and hope for her future. Danny Eaton, Majestic founder and “Skin Deep” director, gently takes his audience toward some profound issues of relationships, friendship, and love. He moves the Maureen/Joe story along slowly, yet bumpy. Initially appearing as a complete contrast to this duo are Sheila and Squire, Maureen’s sister and her husband. Sheila is the pretty one with the adoring husband. Life for them is easier than for Maureen. Maybe not? Cate Damon, a Majestic regular in one of her best roles to date, portrays Sheila as shallow, but in many ways she is as insecure as her sister. This might seem unusual for a play review, but kudos to whomever writes the program book. Bios and photos of the production staff and crew are given equal space as the actors. Theatregoers can read about the creative team that brings the text come to life.

 

American Idiot by Eric Sutter
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT thru March 3, 2013 - www.thebushnell.org )
"American Idiot" is an electric blue of snarling fun. Featuring the music of Green Day and lyrics of its lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong makes this show a must see. The cast is bombarded by T.V. broadcasts of bad news from their post 9-11 world from which they scream out their frustration in the title song. This bold new musical tells the story of three life-long friends - Johnny (Alex Nee), Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) and Will (Casey O'Farrell) - who are forced to choose between their city dreams and the safety of suburbia. Strong language and gestures color the action when needed, particularly effective in "I Don't Care," simulating choreographed fight scenes. Craving fun, the trio plan to move to the big city. It's a bust when Will's girlfriend turns up pregnant. Johnny turns to drugs and his alter-ego St. Jimmy to search for meaning. The spark ignites with durable songs "Holiday" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" which weave emotion and develop the story with hologram images of New York City projected over the set. The love scene "Give Me Novocaine" is splintered by wild dance in "Last of the American Girls/She's A Rebel." "Extraordinary Girl" find Jenna Rubaii descending from the ceiling on wires, singing like an angel. In another scene, hooded sweat-shirted dancers punk out "Do You Know Your Enemy?" "21 Guns" involves the entire company in disjointed harmony. "Wake Me When September Comes," with Johnny on acoustic guitar, adds a nice touch for a moment of reflection. Great rock harmony builds the show to a head banger crescendo in "Rock and Roll Girlfriend." The troupe reunion "We're Coming Home Again" is the perfect finale. Quick costume changes, fantastic lighting, and spontaneous choreography make for a very fast joyride of intense cutting edge musical theatre.

 

Spectrum: Motown and R&B Retrospective by Eric Sutter
(Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org)
In a tribute to "The Sound of Young America," the Las Vegas group Spectrum presented Motown hits and a river of R&B melodies. Perhaps surprisingly yet delightfully, Motown is completely adaptable to the sound of a symphony. Love and romance was in the air as the Symphony Orchestra Orchestra introduced the group with an instrumental prelude of the Temptations' "Get Ready." Four incredible singers combined their glorious voices to "The Way You Do the Things You Do" which featured blissful choreography of breathless spins in glittered black and white suited splendor. The formally dressed guest conductor Matthew Kramer looked sharp and up to the task of keeping everything in syncronized harmony. A high benchmark was David Prescott's falsetto take on Smokey Robinson's doo wop "Ooo Baby, Baby." The quartet segued into a smooth as velvet a capella "Have You Seen Her" by the Chi-Lites. Rhythms synched to the Righteous Brothers and Four Tops medleys. The first half of the concert ended with the horn section's pumped up volume to the Spinners propulsively vocalized "Rubberband Man." After intermission, the SSO string section swelled the hall with the lovely "Reach Out, I'll Be There," accompanying the sharp blue and white jacketed group finger poppin' to the beat. During "Backstabbers," Cushney Roberts leaped of the stage, singing into the aisle simultaneously with dance spins twirled on stage by the group. Another musical peak was Prescott's high notes in "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." The smooth sound of The Drifters doo wop soul floated "Up On The Roof." The audience was captured. All four singers soloed, but their harmony perfect Stylistics medley of "You Are Everything" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New" were especially exquisite. A tasteful rendition of the refined "Just My Imagination" featured the string section and a stirring guitar solo. The simple gem, "My Girl," caught the audience in song as the words and music glided through Symphony Hall as people smiled at each other. The Four Tops closer, "I Can't Help Myself," was a cream of the crop Motown sing and dance-along. The audience demanded more. The group encored with "Soul Man."

 

Chapter Two by Walt Haggerty
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA - www.exit7players.org)
Neil Simon, master of the one-liner, joke-a-minute comedy classics “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” and countless others, has a dark side revealed in depth in “Chapter Two,” the current production of Exit 7 Players. The play does offer a carefully rationed measure of humor, but generally with a bite, as it relates the story of a grieving novelist whose adored first wife has passed on, leaving him totally devastated. Once he meets the woman destined to be wife #2, the courtship is compressed into less than two weeks with predictably unhappy and ultimately unfunny results. The Exit 7 production is cast with great care. The play is reportedly inspired by Simon’s own loss of his first wife to cancer, and his marriage to actress Marsha Mason. As novelist George Schneider, Scott Nelson does an excellent job, navigating the route of his character from depression and resistance to “matchmaking,” to exuberant, smitten suitor. His darker, even cruel behavior near the end of Act II is convincingly played. Leo, George’s caring but misguided brother, having marriage problems himself, is determined to find a mate for George. Stephen Fruchtman squeezes as much humor from this character as is possible, but also shows a serious side in his description of the relationship that existed between George and his late wife. Christine Voytko, as Faye Medwick, a dizzy friend of heroine Jenny Malone, played by Chris McKenzie-Willenbrock, is given the greatest opportunity for laughs, bringing welcome spurts of humor and lightness when most needed. Top laurels in this production go to McKenzie-Willenbrock for her brilliant portrayal of Jenny. Her performance captures every emotion from light repartee, early affection turning into deep love and concern, until finally nearly total collapse, as what once appeared to be so right shows signs of disintegration. A positive resolution by the novelist, George, saves the day and the play. A visit to “Chapter Two” is well worthwhile to see this actress alone.

Hairspray by Kait Rankins
(Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT through February 20, 2013 - www.operahouseplayers.org)
“Hairspray” is the story of effervescent teen Tracy Turnblad, who despite being short and stout has dreams of rising to stardom as a dancer on the Corny Collins Show. Along the way, she breaks social and racial barriers and helps to integrate the program and usher it into the modern era where everyone can dance together. The fast-paced musical adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film is unquestionably difficult. The music is catchy but hard to sing, the comedy is quick and clever, and the ensemble must deliver infectious energy to the audience. Under the skilled direction of Becky Beth Benedict, they absolutely succeed. Benedict and choreographer Alison Bogatay keep up the pace with the kind of staging that's necessary for modern musicals: constant movement, tight dance, and a minimum of mobile set pieces. Most of the transitions between scenes are seamless, with only a couple of noticeable exceptions that break the otherwise consistent flow of action. The lead cast and ensemble stand up to the challenge of keeping up the energy; in many community theatre productions the ensemble can lack focus, but every member of the “Hairspray” carries the show with pep and personality.Most notable performances include Nina Rodriguez, who despite her young age carries the role of Tracy's best friend Penny with brilliant comedic flair; and Ruben Soto, who plays Seaweed J. Stubbs with incredible charisma and a powerful voice. Michael King and Rick Fountain, Jr. are clearly the heart of the production as Tracy's parents Edna and Wilbur. They take what could easily become one-note comedic characters and give them charm, heart, and surprising romantic chemistry. Unfortunately, a lot of the show's stellar performances are overshadowed by sound issues, with mics not coming on at the right time or often being turned up too loud and causing problems with sound balance and making strong singing performances sound shrill. Despite this, the cast's energy is still infectious and the show's message simple but powerful.


Deathtrap
by Walt Haggerty
(Suffield Players, Suffield, CT through February 23, 2013 - www.suffieldplayers.org)
With 1,793 performances to its credit, a stellar cast, and a plot with more twists and turns than the Merritt Turnpike, “Deathtrap” has much to recommend it for an evening’s entertainment. Written by novelist/playwright Ira Levin, “Deathtrap” is unique in its clever manipulation of characters that keep the audience guessing who the real villain is, until that climatic moment in Act II, when the answer is revealed. With comedy sprinkled generously throughout the play, the action moves swiftly through a series of meticulously crafted scenes that keep the audience on edge and the actors on their toes. Director Robert Lunde has accomplished a superb job in pacing the performance at break-neck speed, yet making certain that every plot twist and bit of humor comes through. Performances by all cast members are perfection, with Christopher Berrien as Sidney Bruhl, completely convincing as a playwright with a writer’s block even larger than his ego. His level of desperation and lack of scruples are expertly delineated throughout the evening. Matching Berrien’s performance as an exceptionally talented younger playwright, Steve Wandzy runs the gamut from naive and impressionable beginner to treacherous and devious accomplice and adversary. The combative moments between these two are totally realistic, with audible head bumps and certainly inevitable bruises. (Is combat pay provided?) In the role of Myra Bruhl, Sidney’s wife, Anna Marie Johansen is a delight. Supportive yet suspicious, high strung and erratic, Johansen manages to convey all of these emotions and make them appear plausible. Larry Chiz’ Attorney Porter Milgrim is excellent as a surface-friendly family lawyer who knows exactly when friendship transitions into “billing” time. Mary Fernandez-Sierrra, as Helga ten Dorp, with a scrupulously maintained accent that was to die for and an antic performance that borders on spastic, manages to steal every scene in which she appears without ever over-playing the character. She is wonderful! The setting, credited to Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip, is outstanding, as is the charming and comfortable Mapleton Hall Theatre.


Violinist Caroline Goulding
by David Chivers
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA)
From her opening notes in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, 19-year-old violinist Caroline Goulding grabbed hold of both the piece and the audience, and didn’t let go, giving a lively, engaging performance that belied her youth. Not surprisingly, she displayed technical brilliance (not surprising, because why else would someone so young even be asked to solo in such piece.) What was even more rewarding though, was the emotion and maturity that enveloped her playing. She not only ripped through the quick and tricky runs and high trills, but brought deep, sonorous sounds and mood from the lower, quieter moments of the piece. Playing a Stradivarius, she used the full capabilities of the instrument to fill Symphony Hall with the beautiful strains of this violinist’s masterpiece. Her tone was remarkable, her interpretation of the Mendelssohn both strong and subtle. Goulding, dressed in a deep blue gown, created an engaging physical presence to her performance as well, leaning forward in the melodious moments, dipping and bending in the energetic passages, seemingly at one with the music and her reading of it. And the audience responded to her performance with a well-deserved standing ovation.  The Springfield Symphony’s program to bring young, vibrant, emerging artists to play with them is shown to be a wise strategy, allowing the artist a chance to perform with a professional orchestra, and giving Springfield audiences a chance to hear soloists destined to be international stars in the near future. The other two pieces on the program, the short Bach air to begin the night, and after intermission, Mozart's Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) -- a masterwork with melodies familiar to even the casual classical fan. A strong orchestra can make even mediocre pieces sound good. A mediocre orchestra can be carried through a performance by the strength of proven masterwork. So when a wonderful orchestra such as the Springfield Symphony plays wonderful music, such as here, it’s easy to just sit back and have its beauty wash over the audience while barely noticing the skill and adeptness of the playing. It is a credit to the Orchestra (especially its marvelous string section featured throughout) and Maestro Rhoades that these classics roll out with seeming effortlessness. The pieces provided excellent bookends to a wonderful night of music.

 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo by Eric Sutter
(UMASS Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA)
For 50 years Ladysmith Black Mambazo has taken its message of peace, love and harmony around the world through their unique musical fusion of traditional South African and Christian gospel music. The group crosses cultural boundaries with musical messages in a Isicathamiya (a cappella) choral style. Intricate rhythms and nature effects combined with their glorious voices to create sounds that mystified the audience. The nine man troupe began with the chant, "I Love My Brothers and Sisters." This beautiful music is so joyful it crossed the entire emotional spectrum, evoking enthusiasm and excitement regardless of spiritual direction. Love songs and folk songs weaved vivid imagery that transported one to another place. "Uthekwane" (The Prettiest Bird), from their latest CD "Songs from a Zulu Farm" brought forth singing in Zulu and English. Funky dancing and clowning ensued -- high Zulu leg kicks, hand claps and foot stomps enhanced the musical vision. Lead singer Joseph Shabalala led the group with his high tenor as alto and bass voices harmonized on the first song he wrote, "Nomathemba." Passing the tradition on, his youngest son sang lead falsetto on the love song "Hello By Baby," which raised spirits high with some smooth hip-shakin' dance moves. Some pieces described their beautiful jungle homeland with bush calls, whistles and bird sounds. The second half celebrated Mambazo's worldwide recognition from Paul Simon's landmark 1986 recording, "Graceland" with a wonderful rendition of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Their body language expressed lots of joy, with literal body movement light on their feet on the tips of toes. "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain" from 2006's "Long Walk To Freedom" was a soulful nature ballad. The Paul Simon penned "Homeless" was well received. The group is superior at expression of universal joy and sadness through music. The South African folk song, "Shosholoza" or "Down In The Mines" was sung as audience participated, clapping to the beat. Mambazo encored with the hopeful message of "Amazing Grace."

Moonlight and Magnolias by Jarice Hanson
(Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT thru February 10, 2013 - www.PlayhouseOnPark.org)
The stories and anecdotes that surrounded the making of the movie "Gone With the Wind" are as legendary as 1930s Hollywood itself. "In Moonlight and Magnolias," one of those stories is realized as a zany farce. The play uses slapstick and speculation to comically comment on popular culture, the star system, and the role of Jews and Blacks in the formation of the most powerful storytelling industry in the world. Self-referential and melodramatic, the play is written in the same way that Margaret Mitchell wrote her novel. There are moments of insight, but more often, clunky dialog drags down the story. The play comes alive with director Russell Garrett’s deft hand and ability to “find the funny” on the arena stage. The three fine actors who energetically infuse their characters with charm, narcissism, and intelligence, portray what might have happened when Selznick (Kevin Eldon) summoned screenwriter Ben Hecht (Allan Greenberg) and director Victor Fleming (Bill Mootos) to “fix” the movie that had already started production. The three attempt to reenact famous scenes while sequestered for a five day period in Selznick’s office, including the burning of Atlanta, the search for a better way for Rhett to say “I don’t give a shit,” and the meaning of Scarlett’s famous last line in the movie, “Tomorrow is another day.” Beleaguered secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Denise Walker) adds a comic comment and the result is an evening of fun. Playhouse on Park is a young professional theater, but productions like this are promising. Kudos to the cast and the exceptional production team for their attention to detail and allowing the spotlight to shine on this story of Hollywood history with passion, whimsy, and good, old fashioned fun.

Million Dollar Quartet by Eric Sutter
(The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)
Ironically, Elvis' 78th birthday coincided with the opening night of the Broadway musical "Million Dollar Quartet" at The Bushnell. Hartford is stung with a smash rock n' roll revival show that re-enacts the date of December 4, 1956 when four alumni of Sun Records met in Sam Phillips Sun Studio for an impromptu jam. All the early rock n' roll moves are presented as the company sings "Blue Suede Shoes." The rock n' roll beat, stand-up bass twirls and swivelled hips bring back the glory of the sound. Benjamin Goddard plays a "Real Wild Child" as Jerry Lee Lewis who pounds the keys and creates theatrical drama on piano. James Barry as Carl Perkins proves to be an unruly presence with guitar swagger performing snatches of "Matchbox" and "Who Do You Love." A unique Johnny Cash persona is portrayed by David Elkins whose deep bass voice sings hits "Folsom Prison" and "I Walk The Line." Then there's Elvis. Billy Woodward's Elivis is pure charisma, crooning both softly on "Memories Are Made Of This" and frenzied on "That's All Right Mama." Woodward has the Elvis magic, moves, and mannerisms. The greatness of the young Elvis style is precise. In a quieter moment, he sings the gospel song "Peace In The Valley" in harmony with the entire company. Putting this "fab four" together is Vince Nappo as an impressive Sam Phillips with his hard driving style and banter. "Let's Have A Party" really rocks the Bushnell house and lights the fuse for fun. As Carl Perkins cranks out guitar riffs, Elvis swivels and slids to the floor. "Great Balls Of Fire" finds the audience giving into the fun spirit. The piano sounds vibrant with energy that transfers from stage to audience. Elvis sneers "Hound Dog" for smiles galore. Each peformer has his turn in the spotlight and together. The show is on fast pace, to say the least. The cast encores with a must see finale of "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On."

Scheherazade by Michael J. Moran
(Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org )
Two familiar masterpieces bookended the local premiere of a work by a leading contemporary American composer in the third classical concert of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's season. The programming skills of Music Director Kevin Rhodes made the old warhorses sound new again. The program opened with four selections from Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” Placing “Ingrid’s Lament” from the standard second orchestral suite before three movements from the first suite commanded the attention of the well-filled house, after which “Morning Mood” was a calm interlude, “Anitra’s Dance” a light diversion, and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” a rousing finale. The orchestra played with warmth and flair. Next came Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 2003 piece “Rituals” for five percussionists and orchestra. Thirty percussion instruments arrayed in five “stations” across the front of the stage were introduced and demonstrated by the soloists. The Maestro added that the title of the 25-minute work reflects the ceremonial importance of drumming in many cultures and eras. The titles of its four movements – Invocation, Ambulation, Remembrances, and Contests – suggest the wide range of sounds produced by the various gongs, cymbals, bells, drums, and other instruments played with amazing dexterity against a colorful orchestral backdrop. “Contests” in particular gave the soloists their chance to sound like rock stars, and the audience loved it. Those extra percussionists came in handy for the exhilarating account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite “Scheherazade” that followed intermission. Inspired by the Arabian setting of the stories told by the title character in its four movements, the brilliant orchestration sounded even more exotic than usual in the wake of “Rituals.” Rhodes' flexible tempos and careful balances highlighted the surprising intimacy of many quieter passages, and concertmaster Masako Yanagita played "Scheherazade’s" recurring theme with heartfelt sensitivity. Along with Rhodes and the orchestra members, no one is more responsible for the SSO’s current artistic excellence than retiring executive director Michael Jonnes, who was honored for his distinguished 15-year tenure here by a proclamation from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno before the concert and a special reception in Symphony Hall’s Mahogany Room afterward.

 

 The Cabbage Patch by Shera Cohen
(The Majestic, West Springfield, MA - www.majestictheater.com through February 10, 2013)
While reviews should primarily focus on production quality, actors’ talents, and the director’s vision, it is sometimes difficult to set aside a story’s shifting premise and the script’s cliché writing. Kristen van Ginhoven and her troupe of excellent performers, unfortunately, have little to work with, although the actors especially, pore themselves into the roles as much as can be possible. Set in Canada in the 1980’s, with frequent flashbacks to a decade earlier, are the adult members of the McKay family – Mr. & Mrs. along with a brother and sister-in-law. It’s not an interesting bunch so their conflicts are boring. Admittedly, the play revs up toward the end of Act I with the presence of the town drunk, bringing with him the more important parts and true essence of the story – the personal experiences of veterans and effects of war. However, this element in the script is secondary. Not that the theme should immediately hit the audience in the face, but it seems ancillary to the plot. Barry Press and Jeannine Haas in the lead roles are quality actors portraying an old married couple who often take each other for granted. Sam Rush’s character, arriving late in the play, realistically exemplifies narcissism and meanness. John Thomas Waite, perhaps one of the finest actors frequently seen on the Majestic’s stage, is given the role of the town drunk which, for the most part, is played without individuality. There are numerous distractions throughout, the most frequent being one character’s constantly changing his shoes. Only two off-handed lines in the script indicate his reason for this habit. It’s a guess that this was a director’s choice that ended up being a nuisance. Greg Trochlil continues to work magic on set design. The kitchen/porch complete with essence of a roof is enough to depict an entire house. Planks of wood and a dirty window create a work shed. This house becomes a home that “real people” live in. Perhaps the best part of the experience of “The Cabbage Patch” was the full house in attendance on a Wednesday night. This speaks to the reputation of the Majestic and its large following.

 

A Christmas Carol by Jarice Hanson
(Hartford Stage, CT - www.hartfordstage.org thru 12/29/12)
From the opening scene featuring dancing and flying ghosts, the audience knows that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is going to be different. The 15th anniversary production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, directed by Maxwell Williams, marks the holiday season in a spirited way (pardon the pun). Originally adapted and directed by Michael Wilson, this production is a masterpiece of family fun that Dickens himself would appreciate. Bill Raymond is irascible, endearing, and a master of comic timing as Scrooge. His portrayal of the iconic curmudgeon reflects an ability to integrate classic and children’s theatre to entertain audiences of all ages. The venerable Noble Shropshire, in a dual role as Mrs. Dilber and Jacob Marley’s ghost, provides a brilliant catalyst for Scrooge’s epiphanies. The professionals gently guide the children in the cast to realize their own characters, and the result is a caring stage family that resonates with everyone. When Tiny Tim says “God Bless Us Everyone” audible sniffles of sympathy from the audience were heard. While the story is true to the original text, special mentions are deserved for choreographer Hope Clarke, scenic designer Tony Straiges, costume designer Zack Brown, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel for their contributions. The Spirit of Christmas Past (Johanna Morrison), the Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) and the Spirit of Christmas Future (whom, according to the playbill, was played by “Himself”) are memorable portrayals. For those who know youngsters who have never seen a live performance before, this production is a wonderful way to introduce them to the magic of theatre. When the performance was over, one bright eyes young girl was asked what she liked best about the production. Her reply was, “All of it.” She might not become a theatre critic in the future, but it's pretty sure she’ll want to go to the theatre again.

Pachelbel and Tchaikovsky
by Michael J. Moran
(Hartford Symphony Orchestra, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org)
The first half of the third “Masterworks” program in the current HSO season offered a historical survey of music for string orchestra over several centuries. Tt played to the strengths of guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet. The program opened with Pachelbel’s Canon, likely written around 1694 but lost until 1919, which, for all its familiarity, is rarely performed in concert. The Hartford string section gave it a warm, affectionate reading at a steady, flowing tempo. A smaller ensemble then backed HSO principal violist Michael Wheeler in Telemann’s 1720 Concerto in G for Viola and Strings. Wheeler played this tuneful and appealing showpiece with a sweet, mellifluous tone that earned him enthusiastic applause from the audience and his colleagues alike. Orchestra keyboardist Margreet Francis gave discreet support on harpsichord continuo in both works. The string ensemble expanded again for a sumptuous account of Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Premiered in 1910, the Fantasia opens and closes with a simple 1567 melody by Elizabethan composer Tallis and features a string quartet and a larger group which build to a rhapsodic climax in counterpoint with the full string orchestra. Smirnoff balanced these antiphonal forces with passion and precision. The full orchestra appeared after intermission for a terrific performance of Tchaikovsky’s seldom heard Symphony No. 1, called “Winter Dreams” by the fledgling composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes episodic structure and an overly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. The woodwind, brass, and percussion sounded supercharged by their earlier rest period, with impressive solo turns by oboist Stephen Wade in the dreamy “Adagio Cantabile,” principal flutist Greig Shearer in the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo,” and bassoonist Louis Lazzerini in the opening and closing movements. Smirnoff brought a lively and engaging stage presence to Hartford, earning the affection and respect of both his fellow musicians and an appreciative audience. A return invitation to the Belding podium would clearly seem well advised.

 

Barefoot in the Park by Walt Haggerty
(Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA through December 16, 2012)
In "Barefoot in the Park" playwright Neil Simon has created one of his most endearing and enduring triumphs. The Majestic is presenting a superb production of this first of Simon's long list of hits. In this presentation everything works. From the moment the lights go up on the unfurnished, fifth floor walk-up on New York's East 48th Street, the laughter begins and, except for a few moments of tension, it never stops. Director Rand Foerster has assembled an amazing cast for this romantic comedy. The plot invites the audience to look in on the first week of a newlywed couple as they settle into their first apartment, immediately following their honeymoon. It is, as Foerster says in his Director's Note, a "flash back in time." Yesterday's audience clearly identified with, and thoroughly enjoyed, that nostalgic view of the past. Darcie Champagne, as the young and impetuous bride, is perfection. From her opening scene, without a single word of dialogue to help her, she establishes her character while eliciting ever bigger laughs from the audience. Matching her, laugh for laugh, is Matt Clark as Paul the husband, also in a Majestic debut. He delivers a hilarious, boisterous, physical performance that is a joy to witness. In what would normally be considered secondary roles, Barbara McEwen as the caring but intrusive mother of the bride, and Bill Nabel as the eccentric, charming and impoverished neighbor, are both absolutely wonderful. Their performances are exquisite examples of creating believable, loveable characters from material that might easily be overplayed by less skillful actors. These two are pros who never miss a beat. Even such brief roles as Roger Patnode's Lord & Taylor Delivery Man and Stuart Gamble's Telephone Repairman become standout gems of humor as presented by these veteran performers. Set designer Shawn Hill deserves special praise for his excellent apartment setting that is transformed from drab to charming between Acts I and II - and the snowstorm is a convincing winner. The Majestic is a comfortable, affordable, and easily accessible theatre producing outstanding diversified entertainment. Missing the current production of "Barefoot in the Park" would be a mistake. It is a complete delight.


11/8/12 - Dr. John/Blind Boys of Alabama by Eric Sutter
(UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA - www.umass.edu.fac)
Two icons of American music collaborated on the first ever "Spirituals To Funk" concert that is touring America this autumn. Dr. John is an ambassador of all things New Orleans as his music testifies flawlessly. The swampy gris gris of "Iko, Iko" revved up the Lower 911 band he tours with. He showcased music from his latest CD "Locked Down" due out this April. "Revolution" and "Big Shot" had a slight departure from style with a hip R&B sound geared up with a younger set of musicians. Trombone solos by Sarah Morrow were hot. Dressed in a purple suit and fancy hat, Dr. John pounded the funky strutter "Right Place, Wrong Time" with its throbbed rhythms of funk ectasy which plunged the audience over the edge. "Such A Night" delivered a smooth blues streaked soul sound with solid piano intro and outros by Dr. John. The tone was set as the gold suited Blind Boys of Alabama stepped into their sacred ground to sing the spiritual "People Get Ready" accompanied by a sweet slide guitar solo by John Fohl. Their pure hearted harmonies humbled and moved the audience to sing and sway. "Spirit In The Sky" had everybody rockin' true. Dr. John backed them on keyboards for the fantastic dazzle of "There Will Be A Light." The gospel rave-up "Free At Last" percolated to a vibrant zenith with group member Jimmy Carter's highmark vocals - pure musical pairings don't come more inspired. This integrated show explored the connections between jazz, blues and gospel. As the opening chords to "House Of The Rising Sun" began, the Blind Boys sang America's favorite hymn "Amazing Grace" with Dr. John's triumphant keyboard solo adding dimension. The folk standard "If I Had A Hammer" turned into a glorious gospel jazz handed stomper. Dr. John soloed rock n' roll guitar with a solid punch on "Let The Good Times Roll." Bass player David Barard jazzed a funky bass solo. He sang lead on a bluesy spirited "When The Saints Go Marching In" to the Blind Boy harmony. The concert encored with the gospel standard "Since I Laid My Burdens Down" for the send off.


Toots and The Maytals
by Eric Sutter
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org)
The Jamaican musical group Toots and The Maytals appeared at the Mahaiwe on their first ever Unplugged Acoustic Tour. As the creator of reggae music and a key figure in its development, Frederick Hibbert (Toots) combined ska, rock steady and American soul in a vocal group style to help popularize the unique reggae music of Jamaica. He recently received the distinguished Order of Jamaica for his contributions. With a high voltage vocal delivery, Toots began with "Reggae Got Soul" from 1976. The group, along with vocalists Chantelle Ernandez and Elenore Walters, delivered gospel/soul ballads and exuberant reggae rhythms equally well. It was like being held in the warm tide of a lover's arms -- calmed but stimulated, the music swayed the audience to dance. "Time Tough" and "Pressure Drop" urged folks to move. The laid back groove of 1968's "Do The Reggae," which was the first recording to coin the word "reggae" in music, delighted all. Next was a 2007 love song called "Celia" followed by "Sweet And Dandy" from the breakthrough 1972 reggae compilation recording "The Harder They Come." "True Love Is Hard To Find" featured the distinctive style of call and response interplay of lead singer Toots and the dynamic dual female back-up vocals. The magical 70's hit "Funky Kingston" worked its vibe on the audience as the charismatic Toots went into the spiritual healers "Amen" and "This Little Light of Mine" with full force female vocal accompaniement. The audience was swept away by the mellifluous gospel tinged ballad of determined optimism, "Dreams To Remember." Toots, et al, performed his first international hit from 1970, a bluesy rendition of "Monkeyman." Two familiar popular songs "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Louie, Louie" featured another interactive vocal feature between the musicians and their fans. The new light spark of "Love Is Not Gonna Let Me Down" engulfed with a great sweep of love upon the ocean of people below, resulting in giant waves of movement. Hallelujah was the call.What a joyful noise! Toots encored with the freedom call "54-46." He sequed into a soulful rendition of Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" which satisfied.

Electrifying Russian Music
by Michael J. Moran
(Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org)
“I never need much of an excuse to do an entire Russian program,” SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican. For the second classical concert of its current season he led the orchestra in three pieces which reflect the wide range of emotion and orchestral color of Russian music in performances which fully delivered on the “electrifying” promise of the program title. The program opened with Overture to Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” Left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1887, it was completed by his colleague Glazunov from sketches and a memory of Borodin’s performance of it on the piano. Its mix of Russian nationalism with exotic suggestions of the opera’s Central Asian setting was deftly captured in an exuberant account that featured strong, cutting brass and warm, lush strings. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 reunited Rhodes with his undergraduate piano teacher Ralph Votapek, who won the gold medal at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 50 years ago playing the same concerto. His long experience with this 1921 piece, written mostly in Brittany and premiered in Chicago with the composer as soloist, and his obvious comfort with his former student yielded a performance of both dazzling virtuosity and relaxed lyricism. At age 73, Votapek’s manual dexterity is exceeded only by his interpretive maturity, and the large audience rewarded his efforts with a standing ovation. Intermission was followed by an exhilarating rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the “Little Russian” symphony because it quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. Less familiar than the composer’s last three symphonies, its mostly original melodies also sound more folk-like than any of his other works. The opening motif was beautifully shaped by principal horn Laura Klock, and woodwind and percussion players were prominently featured throughout the program. Principal Michael Sussman gave ravishing voice to the solo clarinet melody that opens the Prokofiev, whose staccato quality was even enhanced by castanets. The maestro threw himself into his conducting duties with typical abandon all evening, and the orchestra responded with playing of impressive polish and passion.

Something's Afoot @ Goodspeed by R.E. Smith
(Goodspeed Opera House, Haddam, CT through December 9, 2012 - www.goodspeed.org)
The home of the American musical settles into the dark and stormy nights of fall with a quintessentially British drawing room mystery. Originally produced by Goodspeed in 1973, 'Something's Afoot" is a change of pace in many ways. Owing much to Agatha Christie's novel, "And Then There Were None," ten supposed strangers are trapped in an isolated manor house and one by one meet their ends. The score, as the director's notes point out, is more music hall than Broadway musical. There are no show-stopping numbers or poignant ballads that the audience will leave humming. However, a few of the show's little ditties are pleasant enough. "Carry On," is a rousing suffragette-style march and "Problematic Solution (The Dinghy Song) is straight out of vaudeville. " I Owe It All (to Agatha Christie)" is a traditional song and dance tune, albeit with literary references. The performers are certainly game. Ron Wisniski, as Clive the Butler, seemed to connect with the audience upon entrance, by his voice and physical presence. Black-sheep nephew Nigel, played by Benjamin Eakeley, had the most successful solo musical number with "The Legal Heir." Ed Dixon's Colonel Gillweather generates the most smiles. Ever the precise and punctual military man, he has the most unexpected reactions to surprising revelations. Dixon works wonders by underplaying the role at just the right moments. As always, the set is spectacular, resplendent with wood paneling, ornate wallpaper, and period details. Nevertheless, the action seems too confined. The nefarious means of dispatching the guests are somewhat ill conceived by the authors. This is evident when the cast has to reassemble a piece of the set after a murder just to accommodate its continued use. Students of American Musical theatre will be pleased to add this lesser known work to their inventory, fans of Agatha Christie will be content with all the nods to her famous oeuvre and the Goodspeed audience will be pleased by the "good show, old chap" they have come to except from the venerable institution.


Keb' Mo' and His Band
by Eric Sutter
(Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org
Singer-songwriter, guitarist and three time Grammy winner Keb' Mo' flashed a Mississippi "Big Grin" in the "Muddy Water" at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Here's the lowdown. Even though the performance spotlighted this gifted musician's guitar playing, much praise should be given to his tight rhythm section's playing and keyboardist Michael Hick's loose soulful groove. Keb' Mo's ease of style guitar playing made for a warm and comfortable downhome experience with stories of love and heartache. Although rooted in the Delta, his music transcends those boundaries to update that sound to modern times with R&B influences. His depth of emotion and living grace typified his persona of the link to the Delta blues. Beginning solo on "Love Blues" and "The Action" he showcased acoustic rhythm guitar playing and slide. Love songs to females "Loola Loo" and "Rita" were up against electric numbers with full band on "Let Your Light Shine" and "France." He performed one of his best known works from 2009's CD "Live & Mo" in "More Than One Way Home" with a terrific bass solo by Vail Johnson. Drummer Lester Falconer kept a steady beat through "Everything I Need" on the keyboards with Keb' Mo' bringing it home with his mellow resonator slide guitar solo. Slower blues numbers like "Don't Try To Explain" captured the wounded heart of pain and misery. The show featured guitar changes galore, including banjo. His melodic slide glissaded true in "Perpetual Blues Machine." He performed acoustic with harmonica on "City Boy" which showed his neo-traditionalist blues style. "America The Beautiful" moved the audience to singing. "Whole Nutha Thing" expanded on the theme of the importance of woman in his blues with a laid back groove and strong rhythm section. Good use of lighting made for an authentic duplication of the traditional blues "Come On Into My Kitchen" with Keb' Mo' solo center stage on sweet slide guitar. Incidentally, Keb' Mo' broadened his fan base with the docudrama "Can't You Hear The Wind Howl" in which he played Robert Johnson. He brought the house down with the encore of an early funky blues "She Just Wants To Dance."

 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder by Shera Cohen
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT through 11/11)
Attending the opening of a world premier of any play is pretty special. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is exactly that – special, extra special. While most theatre goers are not familiar with the names Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, they undoubtedly soon will be. This duo, who has penned the book and music, has only begun to see their play’s full potential. Our protagonist, boy-next-door jobless Monty is a young Englishman in 1909 whose only kin, his mom, just died. Poor Monty. Yet, surprise – unbeknownst to Monty, he discovers his rich lineage. Therein is the wonderfully funny story of just how delightful it is to become a serial killer. With eight heirs in line ahead of Monty, the lad has much deadly mischief to achieve to get the keys to the manor. Told as flashback, this reviewer had a personal flashback. Hmm, this world premier sounds a bit familiar. “Guide” is, indeed, similar to the 1949 Alec Guinness movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” with Guinness portraying all of the heirs (male and female) as they are bumped off one by one. At Hartford Stage, actor Jefferson Mays takes on the herculean and hysterical task. Mays has even more work to do than Guinness because he must also sing and dance. Playing off of Ken Barnett’s Monty, this duo attacks the brunt of the script, seemingly effortlessly. Darko Tresnjak’s direction is precise in his tableaux pictures, exaggerating the movements and caricatures. In particular, the numerous death scenes are clever and whimsical. The creative crew deserves bravos on set design, lighting, sound, and costumes. A colorful vaudeville-like set within a set with changing scenes and backdrops creates a cartoon atmosphere. One suggestion would be to make a few judicious cuts solely for the sake of time. While there is not a single song that should be removed (the lyrics are especially integral), many are too long. By dropping a paragraph or two in each tune, this perfectly delicious show can be perfect. The play’s first song, “A Warning to the Audience” [to go home] is, of course, not heeded. No one should leave the theatre until our serial killer hero and his eight victims receive standing ovations. www.hartfordstage.org

Beethoven’s Ninth by Michael J. Moran
(Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT)
Leave it to the programming genius of Carolyn Kuan not only to upend tradition by launching her second season as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the season closer at Tanglewood every summer) but to make practical use of the same vocal forces to introduce an unfamiliar work to local audiences which reflects her own Chinese heritage. The “Yellow River Cantata” was written in 1939 by Xian Xinghai in the Chinese city of Yanan, partly as settings of poems by Guang Weiran celebrating the river, and partly in defiance of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. Though Xian had studied in Paris with D’Indy and Dukas for several years, the music sounds most inspired by Soviet socialist realism. But its use of Chinese folk idioms and of several Chinese traditional instruments makes for a colorful half-hour score which drew a stirring performance from the orchestra, the Hartford Chorale, the Farmington High School Chamber Singers, the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford, and three vocal soloists, of whom Chinese-born baritone Yunpeng Wang made the strongest impression. The account of Beethoven’s Ninth that followed intermission was blazing and driven, in the tradition established by Arturo Toscanini. The first movement was intense and relentless, and there was no easing off of tension in the scherzo second movement, including a rapid-fire trio section. The third movement, though taken at a flowing tempo, achieved a rapturous calm before the high drama of the finale, in which the orchestra was joined by the three choruses and four vocal soloists. Wang was again the standout singer, but soprano Yahan Chen, mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, and tenor Laurence Broderick also acquitted them well. The choruses did fine work in both pieces, singing with clarity, precision, and enthusiasm, and blending well with each other and the soloists. English translations of the texts were helpfully projected over the stage. The focus of both works on global harmony among peoples served not only as a grand opening statement for the HSO’s new season but as a timely message in a divisive political season.


AIDA
by Eric Johnson
(Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA through October 28, 2012)
Strong, solid, spirited. All words that aptly describe the title character of Aida as well as this production of the rock opera by Elton John and Tim Rice. Director Kim Lynch and Musical Director Christina Climo have assembled and guided a wonderfully talented and dedicated ensemble cast of performers, all of whom possess the skills, talent and experience to make "Aida" a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. Choreography by Amy Bouchard is impressive, fluid and agile movement that compliments the plot and the music nicely and, as with all good choreography, looks effortless even though one knows better. Chae-vonne Munroe (Aida), Ryan Slingerland (Radames) and Chris Willenbrock (Amneris) all bring stunning vocal ability and a completely believable chemistry to the characters they portray. The intensity that Munroe channels into Aida is almost disturbing at times, yet thrilling to watch. Slingerland portrays Radames internal battle of duty and conscience subtly yet most effectively. Willenbrock is a joy to observe as she deftly showcases the many facets and trials of Amneris. The remaining lead actors and ensemble do a fantastic job with pace and energy in this show, keeping it flowing throughout. The multi-level set by Josiah Durham, Paul Hamel, and Ken Samonds is a very nice addition to the production. The artwork by Samonds goes a long way towards transporting the audience into Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Lighting design by Frank Croke is, as usual, a perfect compliment to set and scene. Costumes by Solvieg Pfluger and Moonyean Field integrate evenly into the overall aesthetics of this show. With "Aida," Exit 7 once again proves that their reputation for high quality community theatre is both well deserved and hard earned. It is obvious that there was a lot of careful planning, inspired vision, and just plain hard work that led up to this enthusiastically received opening night performance.


Lord of the Flies by Jennifer Curran
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA through October 21, 2012)
Somewhere between the drum beats, the savagery and the lost innocence lives a world of desperation and the desire to hold onto what is precious. William Golding’s classic and controversial "Lord of the Flies" has been daringly adapted by Nigel Williams and brought to life with a raging and brutal blast at Barrington Stage. As in the novel, a plane that was to deliver a group of British schoolboys to safety away from the war (likely WWII) ravaging Great Britain crashes into a deserted island. What at first seems like a vacation in the land of plenty to the survivors quickly turns as the boys split into factions of savagery versus civility. As the boys’ fears grow, they become certain that somewhere in the heart of the forest lives a beast ready to devour each of them. In a unified vision, the direction (Giovanna Sardelli), lights (Scott Pinkney), scenic design (David M. Barber), sound and haunting music (both by Anthony Mattana), Barrington Stage has brought to New England something far beyond expectation. In a bold and brave production, audiences watch as young boys slowly and violently beat back the beast, spill the blood and kill the pig. John Evans Reese as Jack Merridew delivers the sort of antagonist you love and hate at the same time. Pitted against Jack is Ralph (Richard Dent; the reluctant leader who questions his ability and desire to lead. Dent’s ability to take us from an innocent boyish romp on a lost beach to murderous stomps and then utter desolation is a performance audience members will likely not forget. As Jack and Ralph take sides, there in the midst of it all is the sacrificial lamb, Piggy (Matthew Minor). Minor’s Piggy is endearing and thoroughly engaging. It is Simon (Chris Dwan), however, in a moment of prophetic truth that is able to see who they have come and the treacherous path they follow. "Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.”

 

Mozart & Haydn by by Michael J. Moran
Arcadia Players, Smith College, Northampton, MA
The Arcadia Players, an instrumental and vocal ensemble based in the Pioneer Valley and presenting music of the Baroque and earlier periods in historically informed performances, launched its 24th season with a varied program of concertos and other works by Mozart and Haydn. They were led by Ian Watson, beginning his ninth season as their Artistic Director. The concert opened with the two-minute Overture to the one-act comic opera "Bastien et Bastienne" by the twelve-year-old Mozart. It was notable for introducing the guttural but full sound of the Arcadia strings and for a passing melody that foreshadowed a theme in Beethoven’s "Eroica" symphony. This was followed by Mozart’s first work for a wind instrument, his only surviving Bassoon Concerto. Still the major repertory concerto for the bassoon, it showcased the formidable interpretive and technical skills of soloist Andrew Schwartz, who returned to his seat as a member of the ensemble for the rest of the program. His colleagues gave him solid support. The first half of the concert closed with a piece by the mature Mozart, his Keyboard Concerto No. 12, in an exuberant performance on the fortepiano by Monica Jakuc Leverett. The metallic sound of the fortepiano, a cross between a harpsichord and a modern piano, took some getting used to, but the soloist’s sensitivity to the concerto’s shifting moods displayed its full expressive potential. Following intermission Watson led Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 from keyboard continuo in a thrilling account with Arcadia cellist Guy Fishman as soloist. After playing the virtuosic cadenzas in both the first and second movements, Fishman dispatched the Allegro Molto finale at record speed. The tone of his Baroque cello was rich but slightly sharp-edged. The concert closed with a radiant performance, featuring soprano Kristen Watson, of Mozart’s motet "Exsultate, Jubilate," which Fishman, in his witty and literate program notes, calls a "concerto for soprano and orchestra." Watson’s clear, bell-like voice brought the program to a lovely close. The large audience rewarded these world class musicians and their consistently engaging soloists with enthusiastic applause.


Opening Night
by Michael J. Moran
(Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA)
In his familiar tradition of programming something new with something familiar, Kevin Rhodes opened his twelfth season as Music Director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra with three varied pieces by Central European masters, including two SSO premieres and a warhorse. After another tradition of launching the new season with the orchestra playing and the audience singing the national anthem, the concert proper began with the seventh of Liszt’s 13 symphonic poems, “Festklange (Festive Sounds).” With its blazing brass fanfares and exuberant climaxes, this 15-minute rarity proved a welcome program opener, especially in the SSO’s exciting account. Peter Serkin, the soloist in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is no stranger to the orchestra or to Springfield, where he played a benefit concert for the SSO as recently as last year. Reflecting Hungarian folk and American jazz influences, this concerto is one of Bartok’s most accessible works, and Serkin has been among its strongest advocates since recording it while still in his teens. With the SSO he offered an ideal mix of muscular, athletic playing in the two outer movements and hushed delicacy in the prayer-like theme of the sublime central “Adagio Religioso.” All sections of the orchestra provided nimble and sensitive accompaniment. An exhilarating performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor followed intermission. The forceful opening notes set an urgent tone for the dramatic first movement. The slow second movement was lovingly shaped by lush strings and woodwinds. The third movement was taken at a lively pace, which gave it a brisk, playful spirit. The main theme of the finale was nicely prepared by an almost ominous start and followed by a thrilling race to the triumphant close. The work of conductor and orchestra was strong, natural, and cohesive all evening. The absence of any spoken introductions to the music by the famously loquacious maestro and of the “Rhodes’s Reflections” column from the program book was a relatively small price to pay for a stimulating program that got the new SSO season off to a promising start.


Blood Brothers
by Shera Cohen
(Majestic Theater, W. Springfield through October 28, 2012
Reprising the Majestic Theater’s hugely successful production of “Blood Brothers” in 1998 was undoubtedly a task that faced many pros and cons for the director and actors. The end result is not without its own pros and cons, yet stressing the “pros.” A soothsaying narrator tells the audience the saga of a poor but ever-pregnant mom living in Liverpool in the 1950s. The focal point is the separation of her twins at birth – one of whom is given to her affluent yet barren employer. While growing up, seemingly worlds apart, Mickey and Edward unwittingly become best buddies. The boys pledge their oath of friendship becoming Blood Brothers. Through fateful circumstances, frequently crediting the Devil and superstition, the boys’ troubled lives continue to be thrust together. Some light moments brighten this otherwise dark play. Produced infrequently in this country (kudos to the Majestic for mounting “Brothers”), this musical continues to be a hit for 18 years in London. Perhaps one of the tasks in tackling “Brothers” is its core of class structure. While certainly not dismissed in the U.S., centuries of English history create the foundation for the play. That said, this makes for more incentive to experience this unknown world. The three lead actors have stepped into their roles seamlessly, with the age factor (yes, they are 14-years older) nil. In spite of the men portraying boys at age 7, Doug Major and Ben Ashley are extremely effective. The audience does not hesitate for a moment to believe each. Their bond as brothers is sincere and sweet, rough ‘n tumble. Christine Greene (their mother) continues to prove that she is one of the best sopranos in the Pioneer Valley. She infuses her solos with sadness and bravado. We believe her angst. One newcomer is Beau Allen, whose narrator is much too sinister with a voice that doesn’t quite fit the range called for. Another newcomer is Tyler Morrill (Mickey’s brother) who mixes his character with boyish spunk and hardcore reality. Here is a young actor to watch. All actors maintain British accents – not a small feat. Slow at its opening, the pace only goes up a notch throughout the bulk of the play until a speedy end. Sometimes this works, and sometimes not. The big question which only applies to those who had already seen “Brothers” is: where is the beginning? Choice was made to cut out a visually important scene which sets the movement and the mood. Mitch Chakour leads his band in soft jazzy pieces accompanied by eerie percussion. Greg Trochlil’s set parallels the boys’ lives, simply and effectively.

 

Mary Poppins by Shera Cohen
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org
Why would an adult enjoy a performance of “Mary Poppins”? Let me count the ways. 1. To re-capture pleasant childhood memories. 2. To experience the joy of accompanying a youngster to perhaps his/her first musical. 3. To awe over numerous, interchanging, spectacular 3D sets (the park scene wows in Technicolor). 4. To cheer the creative choreography and swift kickin’ chimney sweep rooftop dancers. 5. To sing along to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” front words and maybe even backwards. What adults in the audience will not get is a profound script (that’s a given), fine acting (hardly necessary), and the Uncle Albert segment from the movie version (never liked it anyway). “Mary,” the practically perfect nanny of the Banks’ household, brings order, life lessons, and new-found joy to all. Bert, a wannabe artist and chimney sweep, serves as narrator. Madeline Trumble’s (Mary) sweet soprano voice and Con O’Shea-Creal’s (Bert) cockney tenor are appropriate to their character. The kid actors are cute, the Bird Woman shabby, and the banker brittle. All of the elements shine to make “Mary” a treat. This version of the classic tale adds many new songs, most of which are uninteresting. Yet the goal of those producing this hugely successful music was probably to appeal, even more than already accomplished, to a youthful audience. It works. Interspersed are reprises of the familiar “Chim Chim Cheree” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Indeed, “Mary” would not be a hit without everyone (yes, everyone) humming or singing at least one of the infectious tunes on the drive home. Back to point #4. Mary, et al, rev up a slow paced “Super…” to a top-speed “YMCA”-like spelling (in body movement) – Act I’s show stopper. In Act II, Bert and his dusty friends perform a rollicking number seemingly on the rooftops of London for “Step in Time.” Again, a show stopper. A third, yet unintended and literal show stopper on opening night was the recorded loud speak voice, smack in the middle of “Feed the Birds,” to “evacuate the building” to the sidewalks and parking lots. A scary situation particularly for most of the youngsters, they were calmed upon return to the theatre a half-hour later, by a soothing announcement that everything was okay and that the problem had been due to a special effect. Huge kudos goes to Bushnell staff, volunteer ushers, and audience for acting swiftly, orderly, and professionally.


The Mystery of Edwin Drood
by Walt Haggerty
(Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT)
Charles Dickens’ "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was the great British author’s final work. Unfortunately death inconveniently intruded before the master had arrived at a conclusion. Ever since, other writers and mystery enthusiasts have offered as many as 500 theories as to Dickens possible intentions. In the current presentation of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a musical adaptation, presented by The Opera House Players, there are at least five – possibly six - potential murderers. Or, did Drood actually survive? A visit to the Broad Brook lets the audience decide. In a triple-threat capacity, Rupert Holmes has contributed book, lyrics and a delightful English Music Hall-flavored score. Great credit is also due the artful staging of John Pike, musical direction by Melanie Guerin, and lively choreography by Kelsey Flynn. A special bow should also be given for the elegant 19th century costumes by Moonyean Field and Solveig Pflueger. As is customary with Opera House Players, casting is impeccable. Brandon Nichols, in his debut, is outstanding as Chairman of "The Music Hall Royale Players." Will Caswell is a formidable villain as John Jasper. Theresa Pilz contributes equal measures of sweetness and innocence as Rosa Bud, without ever becoming cloying. Brother and sister, Neville and Helena Landless, are effectively portrayed by a stalwart Mike King and an exotic and enchanting Elizabeth Drevits. Erica Romeo skillfully blends charm and mystery into her captivating performance as Princess Puffer. Charles Della Rocco and Matt Falkowski are perfection as a cockney-accented father and son. The score provides several strong production numbers for the entire company, including the spirited "There You Are" and a rousing "Off to the Races." Each of the principals also has opportunities to shine in solos and/or duets. The only disappointment of the afternoon was the number of empty seats. This impressive company deserves better. Although this musical may not be as familiar as many of the hits of the past, it is a "Best Musical" winner with a fascinating story that involves the audience in its outcome, a charming and melodic score, and is a perfect opportunity to introduce young family members to Charles Dickens and the theatre.

Hedda Gabler
by Shera Cohen
(Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT)
Before the play begins, one is struck by the enormity of the setting – completely occupying stage left to stage right, floor to ceiling. Yet this largesse is full of gaping holes, as the image of a house is wrapped around scaffolding. Rain drenches the backdrop, and as the lights go down the almost deafening sounds of storm command the attention of the visual and aural senses. It is loud and clear that the classic drama “Hedda Gabler” is about to capture its audience. Many may be familiar with Ibsen’s flawed strong-willed women characters whose lives are caught in the mores of the late 19th century. He has created Hedda as harsh, demanding, and self-serving seemingly with no redeeming factors other then her beauty. Yet, in the very capable hands of actress Roxanna Hope, she has ensconced her character with intelligence, torment, futility, and madness. It’s easier to hate Hedda than to understand her, but Hope demands that the effort be made. The play displays several character triangles from the past, present, and future. The triangles overlap. None are pleasant. Some are deadly. Hedda is the lynchpin in every scenario particularly through her control of her new husband. John Patrick Hayden epitomizes this put upon “nice guy” through many nuances in speech, movement, and demeanor. At the same time, Hedda is cagey and encaged by others in her small world. The play runs two and a half hours and not a second is wasted. Director Jennifer Tarver orchestrates her actors and their movements as Hedda manipulates those in her grasp. Is Hedda pure evil? Is she sick? These are important questions for each audience member. However, adding an element to the confusion of just who is Hedda, is the script penned in Jon Robin Baitz’s adaptation and/or Tarver’s direction. While the entire play need not be laden in doom and gloom, at times the humor seems inappropriate to the era and the setting. That may be a small element among the many pluses in this production – so many, and most importantly the suburb skills of the actors. The audience gave all an instant standing ovation.

Satchmo at the Waldorf
by Jarice Hanson
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
There are two stars in the wonderfully imaginative, one-man play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf." The gifted actor, John Douglas Thompson represents Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong backstage, at his last performance in 1971. Thompson affects a vocal growl and the bowed-leg stance of the sick, aging musician, but also transitions into two very different characters—Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager and friend, and Miles Davis, from a different generation of Black entertainers who criticized Armstrong for pandering to White audiences and being an “Uncle Tom.” While never resorting to impressions, Thompson physically and vocally creates a dialog with the audience that allows the trio of characters to explore the soul of a genius, race in America, and the human cost of success. The second star is Terry Teachout’s well-written script, which gives Thompson the opportunity to explore the pain of racial bias, the evolution of jazz, and an era of performance in which the mob controlled business in the night clubs of major cities. Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, has written a biography of Armstrong and knows his subject intimately. In this, his first play, he scores a home-run with an intelligent, honest script, superbly directed by Gordon Edelstein, with a set designed by Lee Savage, and sound designed by John Gromada. Special kudos go to lighting designer Matthew Adelson for punctuating Thompson’s transitions from character to character effortlessly, and collaborating with Thompson to transform him into Miles Davis through light and actor artistry. One-man plays often have a tendency to venerate the subject, but in this production Thompson and Teachout each perform their craft through the story of Armstrong. The audience does not watch, as much as participate in this play, and is given the gift of seeing theatre at its most magical. The standing ovation was well earned, shouts of “bravo” mark this production’s success.

The Joffrey Ballet
by Amy Meek
(Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA)
Jacob’s Pillow ended its 80th season with the historical and dynamic Joffrey Ballet. The choice of this renowned Chicago-based company shows Jacob’s Pillow’s expertise in selecting and exposing audiences to eclectic, thought-provoking dance groups. The history between the Pillow and The Joffrey goes back over 50 years, starting with appearances by Robert Joffrey, the company’s founder. During this special engagement, East Coast audiences experience this talented company in their first appearance back at the Jacob in 47 years. The program consists of three works showcasing the varied repertory of the company and its dancers. The first piece, "Age of Innocence," choreographed by Edward Liang, takes a look at females in Victorian Era society as depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. Through the use of traditional English social dances, the ballet shows the repression of Victorian society over the women and relationships between women and men. This constraint contrasts with beautiful moments of partnered dancing, which exemplify the passion and love which lies beneath the surface. The ballet proves the dancers’ wonderful lines, musicality and balance. The choreography works with the music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman in a creative way, especially in the timing. "Bells," the second work, is choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. It is lighter work filled with stylistic flair. The variations on costumes and lighting help convey the expansiveness of the piece, as does the music by Rachmaninov. The third work, "Son of Chamber Symphony," is a Jacob’s Pillow World Premiere choreographed by Stanton Welch. With great athleticism the male This work shows dancers focus on leaps and turns. The lone ballerina evokes images of a music box dancer caught in a chaotic world. This intriguing work, with its sweeping music by John Adams, concludes the performance. The evening was enthusiastically applauded by the audience, ending a successful summer season at Jacob’s Pillow.


Brace Yourself
by Kait Rankins
(Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA)
Directed by two-time Tony Award winner James Naughton, “Brace Yourself” is the story of Sunny, an uptight and tense mother of two who just wants to hold on to control of her life. But with an easygoing husband who just wants to go fishing, a daughter rebelling against her meticulously-planned and lavish wedding, a son who’s gaining a reputation for being promiscuous and extremely noisy neighbors, keeping control isn’t easy. Add to that a 92-year-old aunt dying suddenly in her living room and a hurricane threatening evacuation of the island, things feel about as out of control as possible. David Epstein’s breezy one-act comedy about kids growing up and leaving the nest threatens to become predictable, but it’s saved by a few plot surprises, unexpected irreverence, and charmingly funny characters. Golden Globe winner Jill Eikenberry is brilliant in her deadpan and grouchy portrayal of Sunny, and her chemistry with real-life husband Michael Tucker (Sunny’s husband Milt) is spot-on. Also of note is Clea Alsip (the son’s girlfriend) with adorable believability that makes her a breath of fresh air. Jackie Hoffman steals the show as Sunny’s chain smoking friend and neighbor Jeannette, delivering most of the play’s punch lines. Special recognition needs to be given to scenic designer Hugh Lendwehr, lighting designers Paul Gallo and Craig Steizenmuller, costume designer David Murin, and sound designer Scott Killian for creating a fully-immersive set that can make the audience forget that they’re sitting in a theatre and not at Sunny and Milt’s island summer home. Both the cast and the design keep the play grounded in realism, which is ultimately its greatest asset. “Brace Yourself” could easily fall flat if played solely for laughs, but Naughton’s direction keeps the characters from becoming abrasive caricatures. The plot can read like a sitcom episode where all the characters shout at one another and mug for the audience, but that kind of heavy handed approach is gracefully avoided. The result is a production that is lighthearted but realistic, and it’s a charming end to BTF’s summer season.


The Betrothed
by Robbin M. Joyce
(Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA)
Chester Theater Company concludes its 23rd season, “Uncommon Love Stories,” with the regional premiere of Dipika Guha’s “The Betrothed.” This unusual love story, directed by CTC’s Artistic Director Byam Stevens, is presented in the Commedia Dell’Arte style and has the feel of a middle-eastern fairy tale in which magical realism abounds. The staging, designed by Vicki R. Davis, sets the cartoonish tone and the music and sound effects by Tom Shread reinforce it. As the play opens, Simon is en-flight, sitting in the middle seat and talking to his invisible seat mate. It’s an utterly amusing monologue that reveals he’s going to the Old Country to meet the woman to whom he’s been betrothed for 30 years. As he arrives at the home of his beloved, the stock characters typical to Commedia Dell’Arte begin to appear: the old hag, the lothario father and the lustful priest. What unfolds is a wacky love story with all the twists and turns of a gnarled walking stick. Chad Hoepnner stars as Simon and is endearing as the naïve, eager suitor. Caitlin McDonough-Thayer is a delightful dichotomy, easily shuffling characters from the ugly, hunchback crone to her cold, beautiful daughter and back again. John Shuman entertains as both the potion-making, gender bending Priest and the nearly silent best friend of Simon’s father. Anderson Matthews rounds out the cast as both the woman-stealing father and Simon’s future son. “The Betrothed” is presented in a single, 90-minute showing without an intermission. It starts out strong and interesting, with comic moments that engage the audience; but the action slows down mid-show. Is this love story meant to have a moral like so many fairy tales? What is the social commentary? The audience is left wondering as the play comes to its conclusion. Perhaps the moral of the story is: in this case, magical realism is neither real nor magical.


See How They Run
by Kait Rankins
(Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA)
Barrington Stage's production of Philip King's farce "See How They Run" is the story of Penelope Toop (Lisa McCormick), a former actress who has married Reverend Lionel Toop (Cary Donaldson), the vicar of an English village. Thanks to her free spirit and modern mindset, she struggles with fitting in - frequently drawing the ire of the buttoned-up Miss Skillon (Michele Tauber). When Clive (Michael Brusasco), an old acting friend who is now a British soldier, comes to call, Penelope insists on seeing a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," a play they toured in years ago. There's only one catch: Clive can't travel too far away from where he's stationed. If he's seen in his uniform, the consequences are dire. Refusing to take "no" for an answer, Penelope dresses Clive in the vicar's clothes to allow him an escape for the evening. "I've played in too many plays where characters have done this sort of thing, and something's always gone wrong," warns Clive. He's right: what follows is a madcap plot relying heavily on wordplay, physical comedy, mistaken identity, slamming doors, elaborate chase scenes, and no fewer than four men dressed in identical clothes. With the play's frothy, lighthearted subject matter and broadly-drawn characters, it seems easy to dismiss it as an easy play to perform; it isn't. Director Jeff Steitzer and fight choreographer Ryan Winkles had their work cut out for them in crafting a fast-paced comedic spectacle that relies on timing and complicated movement. The nine actors must work as a team as if they're partners in a dance. If one visual gag fails, the breakneck momentum of the play is lost. They succeed. In fact, they succeed so well that it all appears effortless. Each character is a piece of a puzzle, where timing is everything. Characters are drawn with a broad brush, but they're played with skill and precision. Despite the ridiculous nature of events, actors never cross into self-indulgence and mugging. While all members of the ensemble excel in their roles, Dina Thomas, Michele Tauber and Jeff Brooks give standout performances.
See How They Run is a feat of comedic skill and the perfect summer treat.


Homestead Crossing
by Shera Cohen
(Berkshire Theatre Group, Great Barrington, MA)
The program book for “Homestead Crossing” states that the play is “about life, love and relationships.” Well, those three subjects seem to describe the subject matter of just about half of the plays ever written. “Romeo and Juliet” fit the bill, as does “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Indeed, if one was to mix the pair of couples, put them in one setting, then lighten them up (a lot) the end result is a bit like Berkshire Theatre’s world premier of “Homestead Crossing.” However, even though the story is fun does not mean that it is without depth. Anne and Noel (Corinna May and David Adkins) live a middle-aged boring life in their lovely home. Enter Claudia and Tobin (Lesley Shires and Ross Cowan) who are younger, eager for life, and lost in the midst of a proverbial dark and stormy night. Each pair is in the midst of arguing. Seemingly disparate couples, the dialogue take delicate steps to intertwine the four personalities through experiences, dreams, mores, and expectations. May and Adkins easily don the demeanor of a mundane married couple with mutual comfort. Their crisp repartee, with undertones of solemnity, creates a real duo to watch, albeit relatively uninteresting to the audience. Shires and Cowan’s characters intrude and infuse quirkiness into the scene (both actors are terrific at quirky). They are the polar opposites of Anne and Noel. Or are they? Ah, the mystery. Now the foursome comes alive. Director Kyle Fabel moves his quartet on an even level in the one-set (living room). While in some important segments the actors seemed to be blocked by furniture, there is, after all, just so much that can be done in one static room. Whether unintentional or not, the relatively even and motionless set added to the purpose of the play’s focus. Although seemingly insignificant, the title “Homestead Crossing” is, in hindsight, absolutely perfect. Kudos to playwright William Donnelly on his world premiere and to Berkshire Theatre for mounting this special story of live, love, and relationships.

Capitol Steps by Shera Cohen
Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA - www.cranwell.com
The following are just some of the very important reasons why audiences should participate in the laughs at Capitol Steps: Cranwell Resort in Lenox is the locale; lush site, free parking, and air conditioned; Another Capitol Steps? How often can a person see it? The answer is once a year, at least. After all, the news changes constantly, and Capitol Steps keeps up; Pianist is the forgotten guy at the piano in the corner; he’s a great musician playing from rock ‘n roll, to country, to jazz, keeping the show fast and fun; I have seen Capitol Steps about 8 times, and have no doubt that I will enjoy it at least 8 more times in the future; Thirty years ago is when Capitol Steps began their long and continuing run of spreading mirth throughout the land; Original material is written constantly to keep up to date with the news of the day, needless to say; Laughs, and many more laughs are assured; although having read a newspaper or watched MSNBC in the last 12 months might help; Songs are familiar, but with specially written lyrics to fit the segments; they are a hoot; Tale told backwards in with consonants are juxtaposed in phrases (trust me, you have to hear it) are hilarious; i.e. “pea tardy” is “tea party.” This is the funniest segment of the performance; Election year brings out the best and funniest performances; no one can ignore Obama, Romney, et al; Politics, professionals, and just about everyone else whose names you have heard of are equally, yet humorously bashed in song; September 2nd is the final date to see this hilarious show.

 

A Month in the Country by Walter Haggerty
Williamstown Theatre, Williamstown, MA - www.wtfestival.org thru August 19
A very deep bow is owed to Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for their vibrant and lucid translation of Ivan Turgenev’s 19th century Russian masterpiece “A Month in the Country.” Williamstown Theatre Festival, with Nelson’s masterful direction, has given this comedy-drama new and exciting life. Last seen at Williamstown in 1978, this 2012 production is staged in a vastly different and stimulating manner. Taking a page from the legendary director Stanislavski, Nelson has presented the story with great simplicity, virtually scenery-less, with only basic, essential furnishings. On a thrust platform, extending into the auditorium, the capacity audience, seated on three sides, is all but enveloped within the production – and responds with rapt attention. The cast delivers an ensemble performance that matches the best of British repertory companies. In the most demanding assignment, Jessica Collins delivers an extraordinary, bravura performance as Natalyla (Natasha), convincingly managing instantaneous mood swings from deep depression to almost juvenile silliness – all brilliantly. Charlotte Bydevell, as the ward of Natalya and her husband, transitions from an immature 17-year old to a jealous young woman ready to fight for young love. As a “friend of the house,” Jeremy Strong’s Mikhail Rakitin contributes loyalty, dedication, understanding and sympathy while subverting his own love. The young tutor, Alexei, played by Julian Cihi, and the subject of Natalya’s infatuation, has the difficult task of maintaining an air of naiveté, until finally confronting reality. Louis Cancelmi as Arkady Islaev, Natalya’s husband and wealthy landowner, is first constrained in demonstrating his deep love for his wife, until the point when his caring character is clearly and convincingly defined. Sean Cullen, as a doctor, dispenses friendship and advice with sardonic humor. As a wealthy neighbor with an inability to approach women, Paul Anthony McGrave creates an indelible cameo, generously embellished with humor. Others in the smaller roles are Kate Kearney, Elizabeth Waterson,Parker Bell and Harry Ford – all contribute brief but important moments to this amazingly rewarding production. To see a rarely performed classic in an exhilarating new translation and dynamic presentation, “A Month in the Country” should not be missed.

 

Carousel by R.E. Smith
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT through September 29 - www.goodspeed.org
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is a “classic” musical, bringing with it all the benefits and drawbacks such a title conveys. The benefit is that no one does “classic” better than Goodspeed and there are songs, performers, choreography and technical elements in this production that shine. The drawback lies in some elements of the book, characters, and dialogue that are rooted in the time of its creation. As Musical Director Michael O’Flaherty’s marvelous orchestra whisks us along to the lilting “Prologue”, we meet Billy Bigelow, rugged and handsome roustabout and Julie Jordan, reserved but restless New England mill worker. Good girl meets bad (but sensitive) boy, boy and girl fall in love; romance and tragedy ensue. The show is a compendium of many different theatrical elements; a blending that at the time of its creation was innovative. There are elements of light opera, ballet, and pantomime. There are familiar “show tunes” like “June is Bustin' Out All Over,” and ”You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There is also “A Real Nice Clambake,” which is probably the only time a picnic menu has been successfully set to music. Director Rob Ruggiero, who helmed last year’s wonderful production of “Showboat,” makes the New England setting a character unto itself. A background of abstract clouds combines with Alejo Vietti’s costumes, to create tableaus straight out of a Winslow Homer painting. He skillfully mixes real and fantastic elements. James Synder as Bigelow, has a truly impressive voice, especially in the Act 1 closer “Soliloquy.” He balances the torment, tenderness, and damage that could prove unsympathetic if not done right. Teal Wicks brings a unique, Yankee, sensibility to Julie but her lovely voice is underserved by the score. (Erin Davie replaces Wick in the role as of August 8.) Audience favorites are the characters of “Carrie Pipperidge” played by Jenn Gambatese and her somewhat reticent but ambitious beau “Enoch Snow” played by Jeff Kready. The spunky Carrie gets the best lines, the cutest songs, and the better man and makes the best use of her Down east accent. The show does have a dark undercurrent, some of it stemming from Billy’s discontent. More of a problem is Billy’s unscrupulous friend Jigger, who not only leads the barker down a ruinous path, but also tries to assault a woman. The book attempts to lighten his brutal moments with humor, but an uncomfortable sensation remains. “Carousel” does succeed overall; at times, tender, moving, romantic and sentimental. As always, the Goodspeed production is well acted, sung and beautiful to watch. Fans will be well satisfied and newcomers are bound to find themselves fondly recalling magical moments both large and small.

 

The Quality of Life by K.J. Rogowski
New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life,” playing at the New Century Theatre is a production that pulls out all the stops, and takes on the topic of death, both recent and impending, with forthrightness, wit and humanity. The script introduces the thoughts, emotions, and philosophies of four individuals, two couples and old friends, whose views on death are as divergent as possible. One couple has lost a daughter to a senseless crime, murder. The other is facing a terminal illness and the plans they have devised to deal with it. As their stories are revealed, so are their stances -- be they emotional, religious, legal, or just common sense/practical. Arguments are fought, alliances are made and broken, and friendships and marriages teeter not only on the brink of their losses, but of impending dissolution. Dinah and Bill, played by Laurie Dawn and Sam Rush, are the practical mid-Western, church going visitors. Jeannette and Neil,acted by Cate Damon and David Mason, are their free spirited, free thinking West Coast friends, who are dealing with Neil’s terminal condition, and a devastating fire that has just destroyed their home. Their culture and lifestyle conflicts alone are a strain on their meeting, but as the painful layers of each couple’s suffering and style of coping surface, anger and indignation build, and other secrets are revealed. Set against the skeletal remains of Neil and Jeannette’s burnt out home, this play hits hot button after hot button, for the characters and the audience alike, and what seems to be the answer to the pain and loss now, is soon upended by an unexpected plot twist. “The Quality of Life” makes for a quick paced, challenging and rewarding evening.

 

Running by Robbin M. Joyce
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
Some experts says runners need not run more 20 miles on their long training runs in the weeks leading up to a marathon. The theory behind that opinion is that given a properly-followed training regiment, a runner will find the inherent determination and endurance for the final 6.2 miles on the day of the race. It's a leap of faith, per se. Much like a runner training for a marathon, Chester Theatre Company has taken a leap of faith in producing the New England premiere of "Running" by Arlene Hutton. The third of four shows in its 23rd season, "Uncommon Love Stories," director Ron Bashford has taken on a 90-minute, no intermission, glimpse into the neurotic world of wannabe runners and best-laid plans gone astray. Is this a love story? Perhaps. Enter Emily and Stephen, respectively played by Melissa Hurst and Jay Stratton. Emily has fled England and her husband without a plan for accommodations and desperately puts out a plea for help to her former roommate. Stephen is home alone while his wife is away on business and comes to Emily's rescue. He's running in the New York City Marathon the next morning, but allows his very structured routine to be interrupted because it's what his wife would have done. Stephen and Emily, initially very awkward with each other, warm up eventually and talk the night away. They discover they were roommates in that apartment at the same time briefly 30 years earlier and that discovery leads to further confessions and soul bearing. Melissa Hurst gives a performance that's free-spirited and vulnerable. She easily embodies the pain of betrayal while peppering her remembrances with gleeful nostalgia. She's a delight to watch. Jay Stratton gives an equally strong performance, but seems less suited to the role. He appears to be much younger than the 50-something character he's playing. Yet, he elicits an empathetic longing for Stephen's youth and passion, both irreparably lost as time runs on. The conversation flows quite naturally, at times feeling like an uphill slog and at other like a downhill sprint; but it's not compelling. Questions get raised but never answered. The actors in this "uncommon love story" have done their training work and it shows in their strong performances, but the script can't take them the final 6.2 miles.

The North Pool by Shera Cohen
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA - www.barringtonstageco.org
It’s safe to assume that each summer Barrington Stage Company (BSC) will present one or two new plays. Perhaps mounting an unheard of piece is risky business. However, not only has Barrington taken on the difficult task, but relishes and thrives on it. Two years ago, “Freud’s Last Session” took the stage in Pittsfield, and from there the play traveled for a long and current off-Broadway run. Last year’s “The Best of Enemies” was, without a doubt, the Berkshires’ finest work. Let’s not forget that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” came to life at BSC’s old home, which at the time was only a high school auditorium in Great Barrington. Many Tony Awards later, “Bee” is one of the most popular musicals performed throughout the U.S. This summer highlights the East Coast premiere (a sole production took place on the other side of the country) of “The North Pool.” The two-character, 90-minute, one act performance begins with Vice Principal and student in a high school setting. Dialog and action are a bit slow and seemingly cliché. The writer leads the audience in softly with each deliberate step. Layers form, questions asked, assumptions made not only between the two onstage, but also by the audience and characters. In a sense, the play is a mystery. The intrigue smolders, eventually erupting through the interaction of both men through their words and silences. In the talk-back following the production, the actors painted an analogy between the plot’s unraveling and an onion being peeled. Without explaining the play’s title or spoiling the exposition, not to mention the ending, without hesitation, “The North Pool” can stand proudly alongside “Freud,” “Enemies,” and “Spelling Bee” – all originally unheard of, yet huge winners each. Barrington’s experiment in presenting “New Works Initiative”– which includes world premieres, second opportunities for a new play, and first time musicals – is in itself worthy of praise. “The North Pool” exemplifies one particular example of a very successful end result.

 

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust by Michael J. Moran
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org
Berlioz called his “Damnation of Faust” a “dramatic legend in four parts,” but given its life-and-death text, its larger-than-life characters, and the passionate intensity of its music, he could just as aptly have called it an opera in four acts. The concert performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under frequent BSO guest conductor Charles Dutoit brought the score to vivid life in the suitably grand acoustics of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The orchestra was impressively joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite, tenor Paul Groves as Faust, baritone Sir Willard White as Mephistopheles, and bass-baritone Christopher Feigum as Brander, along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus, well prepared by their respective conductors, John Oliver and Andy Icochea Icochea. The BSO has a long and distinguished Berlioz tradition, most notably under French music specialist Charles Munch, but among living conductors only Sir Colin Davis rivals Dutoit’s command of the composer’s singular style. This riveting account of “Damnation” featured a wide palette of instrumental colors, from the coarse tuba-like ophicleide with the drunken chorus in Auerbach’s cellar to the lovely solo viola that accompanies Marguerite’s plaintive song about the King of Thule. The sensitivity of Berlioz’s orchestration could be heard not only in the massive choral-orchestral passages but especially in the delicate sounds of three piccolos portraying will-o’-the-wisps and two harps evoking heaven in the final scene. The contributions of the vocal soloists and choruses were consistently fine. Graham lightened her sumptuous tone to express Marguerite’s youthful innocence, then deepened it to summon the ecstasy of her romance with Faust and her grief when he abandoned her. Groves was by turns a movingly world-weary scholar, an ardent lover, and a tormented victim of his lust for life. White drew an often humorous, over-the-top portrait of Mephistopheles as a prankster who reveled in his deadly work, while Feigum sang a rousing “Song of the Rat” poisoned in Auerbach’s cellar. Prolonged applause after the two-hour-plus intermissionless concert should alert BSO management that this large Tanglewood audience would welcome the presentation of more eccentric but rewarding masterpieces like this one.

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Brahms: Complete Solo Piano by Michael J. Moran
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org
Brahms completists had a rare opportunity last month to hear every piece that composer wrote for solo piano in a series of four concerts over two weeks by the protean German pianist Gerhard Oppitz. By mixing longer, shorter, earlier and later works, each program showcased not only the soloist’s staggering virtuosity but the remarkable variety of Brahms’s piano music. At the age of 59, Oppitz also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to familiar images of the composer around that age. His approach to Brahms combined the deep, resonant tone of Claudio Arrau with the lighter keyboard touch of Julius Katchen, the first pianist to record all of Brahms’s solo piano works, as Oppitz has also done. His tempos were steady but flexible, always striking a perfect balance between youthful abandon and mature restraint, according to the particular piece he was playing. His use of rubato was sparing and carefully judged, honoring Brahms the classicist as well as Brahms the romantic. The ease with which Oppitz played even the most challenging repertoire, like the symphonically-scaled “Sonata No. 3” and both books of the “Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” may stem from his already having performed the complete Brahms cycle a number of times. But familiarity didn’t keep him from revealing fresh insights even in some of the most popular works, like the dramatic “Two Rhapsodies” and the exuberantly Viennese “Sixteen Waltzes.” The most impressive moments of these concerts may have been the rapt attention Oppitz commanded from the audience during quieter pieces, like the meditative intermezzi among the four sets of piano miniatures that Brahms wrote in his final years. It’s hard to imagine that any other pianist could have expressed the melting lyricism of Op. 118, No. 2 or the eerie desolation of the “Dies Irae” theme in Op. 118, No. 6 more compellingly. Oppitz’s monumental achievement was further enhanced not only by the marvelous acoustics of Ozawa Hall, which allowed every note to be clearly heard, but also by the extensive and detailed program notes about each musical selection by Brahms biographer Jan Swafford.

A Thousand Clowns by K.J. Rogowski
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of “A Thousand Clowns” is a tight, well paced and very funny show. As with any good comedy, it calls for great timing and delivery, and this cast does indeed deliver. CJ Wilson and Russell Posner as Murray and Nick, respectively, set a lively pace with their ongoing banter, songs, games, and general disregard for whatever the outside world may think of their cavalier take on life. Their situation, of Murray being five months unemployed, and Nick not really being under his legal care, is punctuated by the antics of James Barry and Rachel Bay Jones as the wonderfully uptight Albert Amundson, and his partner/ fiancée, the very sympathetic Sandra Markowitz of child welfare. Add to this comic mix the characters of Murray’s brother and agent, Arnold, played by Andrew Polk, who makes every effort to bring Murray back on board to write for the Chuckles the Chipmunk television show, and Jordan Gelber, as the jolly old chipmunk and equally self-centered and irritating kids show host, and the audience has a host of memorable characters, and comic moments to appreciate. The story of Murray and Nick plays out a gamut of emotions, expectations and disappointments, pitting their off the cuff life style against the demands of social norms, legalities, and the oftentimes drudgery of every day life and survival. The play depicts the art of compromise and the test of wills in action. Randall Parsons’ set design too plays a role, with its tall dull grey walls looming over Nick and Murray’s apartment sanctuary, dotted with colorful stuffed toy eagles, and too many clocks ticking away their hopes. "A Thousand Clowns" is an evening of wit and wisdom, played out by a fine cast, delivering close to a thousand laughs.

The Hong Kong Ballet by Amy Meek
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA - www.jacobspillow.org
The Hong Kong Ballet’s debut performance at Jacob’s Pillow was a beautiful and eclectic program. The company presented three contemporary works showcasing the dancers’ technique and artistry. All of the components of choreography, dancing, costumes, and lighting contributed to make the performance emotionally powerful. The first ballet, "Black On Black," by Kinsun Chan, explored the different meanings of the color black. The dancers worked together well, dancing in geometric shapes with grounded movements. The dramatic music, costumes and lighting created an intense effect of beauty and strength. Peter Quanz’s ballet "Luminous," in contrast, had an airy feel and sustained movements. This piece showed the complex emotions of human relationships. The dancers, clothed all in white, alternated between exuberance and control. The music by Marjan Mozetich was breathtaking and communicated the feel of longing in the ballet. The final ballet was "Symphony in Three Movements," a work choreographed by Nils Christe. This war-inspired piece, set to Igor Stravinsky’s score, was a display of power and technique. The ensemble group sequences were the most intriguing to watch with the dancers in unison through many dynamic and percussive passages. The Hong Kong Ballet truly howed off their versatility and talent as a company. The audience was very responsive, rising to their feet at the end of the performance. Jacob’s Pillow once again has given Western Massachusetts a summer season filled with the highest caliber international dance companies.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin by Michael J. Moran
Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire School, Sheffield, MA - www.choralfest.org
Subtitled “A Concert Drama,” the second program of BCF’s 2012 season was a moving tribute created by guest conductor Murray Sidlin to Czech musician Rafael Schaechter (1905-1944), who trained 150 of his fellow prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp to sing Verdi’s “Requiem,” of which he led 16 performances there from a legless piano between 1943 and 1944 before he and most of his singers perished at Auschwitz and other death camps. A complete account of the Verdi “Requiem” by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, the 180-member BCF Chorus, and four soloists was supplemented between movements with video testimony about these Terezin performances by surviving singers, excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film about Terezin, and a narration about the historical background. To suggest how the Terezin performances may have sounded, the orchestra was replaced in a few passages by solo piano. The BCF performance was impassioned and intense. Soprano Rochelle Ellis, mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins, tenor Scott Ramsay, and bass Stephen Bryant sang well individually and in various combinations. The large chorus sang with consistent clarity and unanimity. The orchestra played with distinction throughout, from the thundering brasses and percussion of the “Dies Irae” to the hushed strings of the “Offertorium.” Three narrators, including Sidlin, also made strong contributions. Actor and bass-baritone John Arthur Miller read the words of Schaecter; and acclaimed British baritone Benjamin Luxon, sounding as mellifluous as on his many recordings, read testimony of various Terezin survivors. Perhaps the most touching part of the performance was the end, when the chorus exited through the audience singing a Jewish lullaby, accompanied only by clarinetist Michael Sussman and concertmaster Robert Lawrence, the rest of the orchestra having exited backstage. A video projection requested a moment of silence for Schaecter in lieu of applause. In a program note, Sidlin quotes Schaecter as telling his Terezin Choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” This “concert drama” poignantly reaffirmed the power of music to bring “absolute joy” (which one survivor remembered feeling when she sang Verdi’s “Sanctus” at Terezin) even in the face of death.

Green River Festival by Eric Sutter
Greenfield Community College, Greenfield, MA - www.greenriverfestival.com
A hot and humid weekend had folks cool drinking during a euphony of music in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday. Three stages and three generations of Guthries made for a festive family reunion. Main-staged Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion kicked it off with a folk song about their Berkshire home, "When The Lilacs Are In Bloom." Wonderful harmonies colored Woody's "Pastures Of Plenty" and their own "Bright Examples." The Meltdown Stage featured the whimsy sounds of the Sweetback Sisters. Kids also loved Eloise the Great with the ukulele. Chuck Prophet rocked a "Summertime Thing" for older kids. He posed the question, "Who Put The Bomp?" in a modern rock style. The hip-shakin' Charles Bradley expressed deep emotion with the splits, sweat and a slow burn of soul wrenching heartache. His pain conjured a funky, "Heart Of Gold" and his "Never Give Up On Love" rave. A kids Mardi Gras parade ensued to the beat of Dixieland. Later, couples danced to the Latin roots-rock hits of Los Lobos. As dusk settled, hot air balloons lifted as the last of the frisbee players left yonder field. The Guthrie clan sang "Kindness" to the main throng of the large audience. Arlo and Sara Lee sang "Oklahoma Hills." The whole family rocked "Coming into Los Angeles" with Abe's stand-out keyboard solo. His son Krishna handled electric guitar on Wilco's "Airplane To Heaven." The fun sing-along ended with a spirited "My Peace." Day two caught the "Ramblin' Round" spirit of Woody. Day two featured Nashvillian Elizabeth Cook, who performed country and gospel. Her take on Merle Haggard's "Today, I Started Loving You" raised smiles. With a voice that tingled, she took the stage by storm with the gospel rave-up "Hear Jerusalem Calling." Chris Smither mellowed down easy with his fingerstyle guitar Delta Blues. Master British guitarist Richard Thompson performed songs from "Walking On Wire" including his classic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Peter Mulvey sang a warm vibed set at the Meltdown Stage ending with "Knuckleball Suite." The Reggae music of The Alchemystics competed with an appearance by powerhouse zydeco player C.J. Chenier on Yonder Stage. Green River had something for everyone, including awesome food.

A Chorus Line by Amy Meek
Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield , MA - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
The Berkshire Theatre Group’s presentation of “A Chorus Line” is filled with high energy and emotion as its cast takes over the stage during the opening sequence. Within the first few minutes, the audience finds itself immersed in the world of a dance audition complete with the tension, competitiveness and even humor of the experience. On the stage are nameless people. Only as the show goes on does the audience see a glimpse into the characters’ inner selves, which is the beauty of this musical. The original production was created, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, a dancer/director who wanted to make a show by dancers about dancers. “A Chorus Line” was immensely successful, winning nine Tony Awards. This production recreates the essence of the original, while giving it a fresh look through updated costumes and interpretation. The cast works together beautifully as an ensemble. There is no one star, although there are certainly some standout performances. Natalie Caruncho (Diana) gives a nuanced portrayal of the spunky, idealistic Puerto Rican dancer. Matthew Bauman (Mike) and Neil Totton (Richie) wow the audience with strong technique and bravado in their solos. Eddie Gutierrez (Paul) delivers his intense monologue with strength and ease of emotion. Nili Bassman (Cassie) is stunning as she sings her difficult “Music and the Mirror” number, fighting for her place on stage. Noah Racey (Zach) holds the show together with his intensity and authority as he manipulates all of the dancers during the course of the audition. There are too many individual moments to mention, but every performer is given a chance to shine. The choreography by Gerry McIntyre, a mixture of the original and new material, is spot-on and executed well by the dancers, especially the “Montage” and “Finale”. The vocals, directed by Steven Freeman, are also very strong. As a whole, Eric Hill’s direction of the show allows the dancers’ individual stories to shine through in the songs and dances. While an amazing spectacle to watch, the show is also introspective as it deals with the many issues dancers face during their struggles to make it in the dance world.

Animals Out of Paper by Robbin M. Joyce
Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA - www.chestertheatre.org
Chester Theatre Company is a gem tucked into the foothills of the Berkshires. Its reputation for producing top-notch productions continues with this 23rd season, "Uncommon Love Stories." May Andrales directs the first of four shows on this theme of love: “Animals Out of Paper” by Rajiv Joseph. The show opens on Ilana's apartment. She is a world-renowned Origami Artist and the set, designed by Vicki R. Davis and lit by Lara Dubin, is in utter disarray; it is strewn with paper, drawings, take-out boxes and origami animals, including a five-foot wide hawk composite hanging from the ceiling. Ilana, played by Elizabeth Rich, is clearly folding in upon herself while trying to deal with her failed marriage and the loss of her dog. When Andy, played by Chad Hoeppner, shows up uninvited and asks her to take on one of his troubled students as an origami apprentice, she has to decide whether to stay crumpled up or introduce a whole new set of folds and pleats into her life. This play draws the audience in during Act I. It's full of raw emotion and vulnerability that feels real and spontaneous. The dialog among the three characters is witty, fresh and funny. Rich embodies the frustrations of her character with ease. Hoeppner is adorable as the nerdy, besotted love interest. Vandit Bhatt, as Suresh, is delightful as a mouthy teenage prodigy trying to sort out his emotions after a life-altering tragedy. In Act II, however, the tone turns serious. Although some of the action becomes very static, the actors are still a joy to watch. They take the raw emotion and vulnerability seen earlier and transform it into heartbreaking tension. Rich lithely transforms her character from eremite to mentor with a compassion that, unfortunately, is misinterpreted. Hoeppner's wrenching portrayal of an irreparably harmed suitor is a stark contrast to his earlier sunny self. Bhatt's teenage angst is genuine and serves as a reminder of the need for hope, however tenuous it may be. Peppered with hip-hop music, at the hand of Sound Designer Tom Shread, this sprightly comedy is the perfect start to the summer theater scene.

The Blue Deep by Jennifer Curran
Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA - www.wtfestival.org
"The Blue Deep" is the sort of play that borders on something big, but bogs itself down with trying too hard. Too much obvious symbolism undermines the play’s real world message. It simply doesn't need dreams-as-symbols or actors suspended from the fly space. While beautiful to see, it is out of place. The play could be told with two characters rather than five. As fun and charming as Becky Ann Baker, Finn Whitlock and Jack Gilpin are, their characters really have no story or even purpose. Blythe Danner stars in Lucy Boyle’s new play as Grace Miller; a mother and wife dealing with the loss of her husband. Danner finds that perfect balance between strength and vulnerability. She rules the stage as Grace rules her perfectly tended yard. Everything in its place, kindly brushed under the carpet as Grace runs and darts and dodges the shadow of grief that seem to be looming ever closer. When Grace’s daughter Lila (portrayed beautifully if not predictably by Heather Lund) arrives with a few plastic bags of clothes, Grace's life comes to a screeching halt. What the play gets right is the fight between Grace and her daughter. Their fight is within themselves and finding a place for their sadness as well as finding a place in each other’s life and ultimately deciding upon who gets to claim the deeper pain. The words they haven’t been able to say are let loose in a stunning torrent of despair. Unfortunately, the play falls heavy by too many obvious choices. A cookie jar urn -- we know where this is headed. A bag of pot shared among three boomers? That joke again? The predictable pattern of fight – walk out, return, act like nothing happened became old. There are moments of brilliance found buried among the mundane. The best example is the scenic design by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata. Sag Harbor never looked so perfectly poised. Danner’s acting is raw and honest and almost hard to watch. In those moments, it makes all the rest superfluous. Why speak in riddles when the plainness of language bears such weight when delivered by a woman at the top of her game?

Dr. Ruth, All the Way by Jarice Hanson
Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA - www.barringtonstageco.org through July 21, 2012
The world premiere of "Dr. Ruth, All the Way," tells the life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the pioneer sex educator known to many from her books, radio and television appearances. Through playwright Mark St. Germain’s chronological script, we learn that Dr. Ruth’s public persona is the result of a most extraordinary life. Born in Germany, Karola Ruth Siegel was sent to Switzerland on the Kinder transport at 10. At age 16 she worked on a Kibbutz in Palestine and was trained to be an Israeli freedom fighter sniper. Eventually, she came to New York, where she began studying at the New School. Her story is peppered with self-deprecating wit, visual projections that help the audience relate to her family, and the choices history forced upon her. Debra Jo Rupp turns in an outstanding tour-de-force in this one-woman show, engaging the audience as new friends, conscious of the theatrical setting and the dramatic tensions of the story. Her accent, a combination of Dr. Ruth’s own, identifiable cadences marked by the influences of English as her fourth language, is flawless. The actress' energy and command of the material should have future audiences leaping to their feet after each performance. An actress small in physical stature, she is not as tiny as the 4’7” Dr. Ruth, but the set, costumes, and wig are all of a scale to emphasize the Dr. Ruth’s own life force, and Rupp’s sweet, expressive face communicates the joy, the heartache of loss, and love of husband, children, and grandchildren. Under the skilled direction of Julianne Boyd, and Rupp’s outstanding characterization of Dr. Ruth, we are reminded that to truly live and be loved, one can’t fear change, but see life as a journey of discovery.

Red by Kait Rankins
New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA - www.newcenturytheatre.org through July 7, 2012
Director Sam Rush has put together a masterpiece in New Century Theatre's production of John Logan's "Red." Buzz Roddy stars as abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, presenting him as an aging lion - aggressive, set in his views of what art should mean and who is fit to consume it. He has been commissioned by the Four Seasons to create a series of murals for the dining room. For $35,000, it is the ultimate sellout, but he stubbornly attempts to justify the choice to take the work while he holes himself up in his studio with his paintings and classical music. Justin Fuller plays his assistant Ken, starting as a nervous and over-eager painter who comes to work for Rothko, mixing paints and stretching canvases. As he both learns from and clashes with Rothko, he blossoms into a grown man and finds his strength of character. The play deals with and debates the nature of art as Rothko and his assistant interact and work in the studio over the course of two years. With paint splashed on almost every worn-in surface, there is no hint that setk/costume designer Claire DeLiso created this space for a play: Rothko's basement studio full of carefully-controlled lighting (by Dan Rist) is a living, breathing environment that seems too intimate for a theatrical set. The cigarettes and food are real, the sink has a working faucet. Red paint sloshes in buckets, drips from brushes, and covers the actors, who move through the studio like they truly work as artists there. The tactile realism of the production is what makes it a successful one, breaking up Rothko's lengthy intellectual speeches and causing the script to come off as honest rather than pretentious. The master/apprentice plot of "Red" is not surprising. The basic themes are common, familiar, and predictable, but the beautiful writing, immersive environment, and nuanced actors are what set it apart. Roddy and Fuller has the audience invested as their relationship develops and unfolds. Fuller's Ken could have been overshadowed by Roddy's more aggressive Rothko, but Fuller doesn't back down. Each actor knows how to give as well as take, maintaining a balance that keeps the audience transfixed. At 89-minutes without intermission, the play moves quickly and seamlessly through highs and lows, screaming and silence, the red and black that are thematic throughout. "Red" is tour de force not to be missed.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Jarice Hanson
Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA - www.wtfestival.org through July 14, 2012
The Williamstown Theater Festival is off to a great start this season with a delightful twist on not only one, but two old chestnuts, re-envisioned through the eyes of director David Hyde Pierce, who has combined Oscar Wilde’s wonderful comedy with the stylized voices of Damon Runyon’s "Guys and Dolls." The sent up of high-society satire and gangster mannerisms sounds far-fetched, but the cast embraces the challenge, and Pierce has effectively created a counterpoint of language, comedy and pacing that is loaded with surprises and wit. Tyne Daly plays Lady Bracknell as a tough, no-nonsense dame, and finds the nuances of Wilde’s language and Runyon’s delivery beautifully. Her relationship with Gwendolyn, played by Amy Spanger, powerfully sporting an “Adelaide-like” delivery, draws out the mother-daughter relationship as well as the reference to social class. Invoking the strongest sense of Victorian manners and music-hall mannerisms are Miss Prism (Marylouise Burke) and Reverend Chasuble (Henry Stram), both audience favorites who invoked an over-the-top (but highly effective) balance to the gangsters who leave the city to come to the country for love and finding true identity. Director Pierce has also found a way to move the multi-scene Act I quickly through imaginative designs and staging enhanced by Scenic Designer Allen Moyer’s linear sets—moving from left to right as the actors walk from scene to scene while allowing the exposition necessary to set up the laughs in Act I and III. But what really stands out is the language, unchanged from Wilde’s pen, spoken through Runyon’s dialect, and interpreted with intelligence and wit. The result is a delightful way of looking at a pastiche of 120 years of popular culture, mannerisms and morals. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a theatre gem, and this production, a shining example of artistic creativity.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion by Eric Sutter
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA - www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
Performing songs from their current CD, Sarah Lee Guthrie and husband Johnny Irion hit the Colonial stage, in yet another wonderful Berkshire music concert. They strummed acoustic guitars, accompanied by Charlie Rose's stand-up bass to supply sufficient back up, to their beautiful voices that sounded as one at times. "Speed Of Light" and "Seven Sisters," aided by Irion's harmonica added folk and country elements to the sound. "Hurricane Window," written after Katrina, featured especially fancy guitar. The title cut, "Bright Examples" told a tale of an Appalachian trail hiker, which combined a bright melody and vibrant harmony singing. The song had a pop sheen that hit. Groups like Furthur and Dark Star Orchestra have strived to keep Jerry Garcia's vision alive. In 2011, Chris Robinson Brotherhood began a similar quest and now comes their debut CD, "Big Moon Ritual." It is a new cosmic California sound with roots from the jam band grooves of the Grateful Dead. Robinson rocked tomorrow's blues with a 5-piece rock n roll band which featured Adam MacDougall on keyboards and Neal Casal on lead electric guitar. Robinson handled rhythm guitar, and all sang in four part harmony. In their mellow, melodically driven loose style the group performed "Star Or Stone" and "Tulsa Yesterday" from the CD. The Grateful Dead's "Brown Eyed Woman" was perfect company here. Robinson, et al, interpreted "Blue Suede Shoes" in their different but cool style with keyboard flourishes and the familiar "Go Cat Go!" vocal chant. Casal's slide guitar glided through "Never Been To Spain" and "Rosalee." "Girl On The Mountain" featured a deep blues that mesmerized. Casal's earthy guitar style channelled Garcia in many shades of blue. Dylan's "Tough Mama" sounded right on with guitar and keyboards interplay challenged to the maximum. The organic "Vibration and Light Suite" received the Grateful Dead treatment with a relaxed but rollicking guitar solo. "Sunday Sound" was a great closer with Robinson's vocal, "Like water underground, we will find our way." MacDougall's syncronized keyboard solo sounded like water swelling up and building momentum as it flowed. The music bended, accelerated and crescendoed until it eventually descended. Casal's white hot warm guitar lines were interwoven between Robinson's vocals and the laid-back mellow groove of the rhythm section. As for the audience... imagine dancing bears everywhere!

Morphosis in Within by Amy Meek
Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA - www.jacobspillow.org
Jacob’s Pillow Dance celebrates its 80th Anniversary Festival with a diverse and dynamic program of dance performances set amid the historic grounds in the Berkshire Hills. Morphosis' performance presents the world premiere of "Within" (Labyrinth Within), choreographed by Pontus Lidberg. The dancers are on stage alongside Lidberg's award-winning film “Labyrinth Within.” The two different presentations combined effectively to create a single interactive dance experience. The film, which stars Lidberg himself alongside dancers Wendy Whelan and Giovanni Bucchieri, portrays a passionate love triangle between the three dancers. It combines gorgeous dancing with a lush score by David Lang. The film tells the dark story of passion and sensuality through the dance and stunning camera visual effects. In particular, a scene with a room filled with red flowers makes a vivid impact. The real excitement comes in watching those on stage dance with the dancers in the movie. They alternated between mimicking the choreography shown in the film with responding to the dancers in the film in a new way, creating complementary and opposing shapes. The choreography comes alive with the dancers moving fluidly in circular motions across stage. All of the dancers on stage execute their moves with intense energy and conviction. They take the storytelling from the movie and make it come alive in the theatre with beautiful technique and artistry. It is a shame that the live dancers are underutilized in the second half of the performance. As stunning as the film is, there is too much time devoted to just the film. The film's story unfolds on screen very well, but it could be much more satisfying to incorporate the live dancers into the most dramatic of the cinematic sequences. Another flaw is the abrupt ending, leaving the audience to wonder if there is more to come. Unfortunately, it is the end of a thrilling and inventive night of dance.


Holst’s The Planets
by Shera Cohen
Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org
The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) ended its 2011/12 season on figurative and literal high notes. Not only was Holst’s “The Planets” (the primary focus of the concert) an exquisite piece which showed off the talents of these professional musicians, but the evening’s sky lit up with seven planets just as the audience left the hall. What a coincidence! Well, whatever these large red beams were, they certainly brought more cheers, in addition to the deserved and long standing ovation at the conclusion of “The Planets.” SSO and its Music Director Kevin Rhodes, undoubtedly, can feel proud of their stirring, varied, and well-attended season. There were but a few seats empty in the second balcony on this night. The familiar “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” written by Paul Dukas, sweetly charmed the listeners, with many, assuredly, envisioning Mickey Mouse and the walking brooms. Composer William Bolcom (a well-known musician in New England) penned the next piece, “Prometheus, Choral Fantasy.” Huge credit goes to the skilled pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the Springfield Symphony Chorus, led by Nikki Stoia, whose combined efforts made this work accomplish its goals. Yet, the choice of “Prometheus” in this season finale might well have been rethought. While it is wonderful to present contemporary works, this was so dark, bordering on the unpleasant. However, that was its purpose. “The Planets” encompassed the entire second part of the evening. Each of the seven sections depicted each of the planets. Alas, there was no Pluto due to the fact that it had not been discovered in 1916 (when the piece was composed), not to mention Pluto’s recent demotion in the planet stratosphere. The orchestra created each planet/section distinctly, with #4 Jupiter, the most expressive. Neptune capped off the series with a unique symphonic ending. The percussion team sat still as backstage voices hummed softly, lingering and touching the rafters throughout Symphony Hall.


Mame
by Walter Haggerty
Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT - www.goodspeed.org through July 7, 2012
That incomparable, enchanting and irresistible character, Auntie Mame, is kicking up her heels once again in a spectacular production of Jerry Herman’s “Mame” at the Goodspeed Opera House. Goodspeed, with two Tony Awards to its credit, is the unrivaled champion of reviving, restoring, and breathing new life into favorite musicals of the past. With “Mame” they have truly outdone themselves. It is a glorious production. Heading a matchless cast is Louise Pitre, in the title role, and she is incredible. From her entrance and that first blast on the trumpet, Pitre delivers every favorite number and every measure of humor and tenderness called for. She is sensational. Director Ray Roderick has found an ideal cast for this revival. In addition to Pitre’s Mame, Judy Blazer portrays a marvelous Vera Charles. When these two join forces for their Act II, "Bosom Buddies" duet, they deservedly stop the show. As young Patrick Dennis, Eli Baker is a heart-stealing winner, portraying the character with charm and humor. As the grown-up Patrick, Charles Hagerty glides over the hurdles of maturing and growing and performs a moving reprise of "My Best Girl." James Lloyd Reynolds' Beauregard Burnside is the epitome of a genteel Deep South aristocrat, loaded with charm and money. Kirsten Wyatt, from her entrance "Hymn to St. Bridget" to "Gooch’s Song," is non-stop hilarious. After learning to “live,” with guidance from Mame, her charactor of Agnes appears to virtually levitate like a hot air balloon, to the delight of the audience. “Mame” provides a cornucopia of toe-tapping numbers. Starting with "It’s Today," each number has the audience cheering. Following in quick succession are "Open A New Window," "We Need A Little Christmas," the knock their socks off title song. Plus, "That’s How Young I Feel" and Pitre’s moving treatment of "If He Walked Into My Life Today." Choreography by Vince Pesce captures the frothy spirit of the 1920's and 30's, as do the elegant scenic designs of James Youmans and the gorgeous costumes of Gregg Barnes. This production could easily make the transition direct to Broadway intact. It certainly deserves to make that journey.

Into the Woods by Sherry Shameer Cohen
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT
What happens after “happily ever after” is explored in this deft and delicious production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, Into the Woods. Jeffrey Denman immediately engages the audience as the show’s wiry Narrator. He intertwines some of Grimm’s Fairy Tales as familiar characters wish aloud for what is improbable for them. Jack (Justin Scott Brown) wishes his cow, Milky-White, would give milk while Jack’s Mother (Cheryl Stern) wishes he would fetch a good price for the old bovine. The Baker and his Wife (Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland) wish for a child. Little Red Riding Hood (Dana Steingold) wishes to visit her grandmother without getting lost in the woods and attacked by the Wolf (the rakish Nik Walker). Cinderella (compassionately played by Jenny Latimer) wishes to go the festival in the forest, while her Stepmother (Alma Cuervo) and stepsisters, Lucinda (Eleni Delopoulos) and Florinda (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) try to, well, side-step her. Rapunzel (Britney Coleman) wants out of the tower in which her mother, the Witch (outstandingly portrayed by Lauren Kennedy), imprisoned her. With every wish that is fulfilled, there is a price to pay. Their stories are interwoven in part by the Witch’s offer to reverse the curse of infertility suffered by the Baker and his Wife, the history of the magic beans that grow the stalk that Jack climbs to get his fortune, and the introduction of characters who were, perhaps, forgotten or lost in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Mysterious Man and The Steward (both played by Jeremy Lawrence). The Sondheim-Lapine retelling of the childhood stories we grew up with is though-provoking, even without delving terribly deeply into the underside of fairy tales. In the first act, the characters get their wishes after making their courageous journey. In the second, they learn the adage, “Be careful what you wish for because you just may get it.” There are lessons to be learned. Cinderella’s Prince (played by Walker) tries to pursue an unseen Sleeping Beauty, but settles for a roll in the hay with the Baker’s Wife, who is a mother at last, while Rapunzel’s Prince (Robert Lenzi) lusts after an off-stage Snow White. Little Red Riding Hood is hardly the sweet little girl intended parents wish for, but the sassy ‘tween or teen they dread. After the Baker’s Wife dies, the characters blame each other for the threat of an angry giant in the woods. The Witch admonishes the characters who, “Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow...Had to get your Prince, had to get your cow/ Have to get your wish, doesn't matter how.” This production was co-produced by the Westport Country Playhouse and Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE. It was recently announced that Rob Marshall ("Chicago") will direct a film adaptation of Into the Woods for Walt Disney Pictures. A new production of The Woods will also be staged this summer as a Shakespeare in the Park offering with two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy as the Witch, Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife, Gideon Glick as Jack and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella. But don’t think they can top this cast. One expensively dressed theatregoer said to her husband on opening night at the Westport Country Playhouse, “This was as good as or better than on Broadway.” She’s right. The flawless casting by Tara Rubin Casting, complemented by Mark Lamos’s skillful direction, Allen Moyer’s scenic design and Robert Wierzel’s lighting give the theatregoer an extraordinary experience.

Musical Legacy by Michael J. Moran
Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org 
The special attraction of the seventh “Masterworks” program in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s current season was the chance to see guest conductor Gerard Schwarz lead a concert featuring his son Julian as soloist. The esteemed elder Schwarz retired last year as music director of the Seattle Symphony. His 20-year-old son is a rising cellist who, though still a Juilliard student, has already performed with many professional orchestras. The program opened with an HSO premiere: Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng’s 2006 arrangement for orchestra of Brahms’ “Intermezzo in A Major” for solo piano. The seven-minute piece, which Sheng gave the enigmatic title “Black Swan,” captured and even magnified the autumnal warmth of the original and was given an appropriately lush and tender performance. This HSO concert marked the elder Schwarz's first told the Hartford Courant that these HSO concerts collaboration with his son in perhaps the greatest of all cello concertos, Dvorak’s 1895 “Concerto in B minor.” Its many Czech-sounding melodies recall the composer’s homeland, including a quotation from one of his songs that was a favorite of a beloved sister-in-law who died while he was finishing work on the concerto. The memorable performance revealed all the drama and poignancy of the music, from the grand opening of the first movement with its solo horn melody beautifully played by principal Barbara Hill, through the bucolic central Adagio, to the fleet rondo finale. The soloist’s rich, expressive tone and his interpretive maturity easily met both the technical demands and the wide emotional range of this 40-minute masterpiece, and earned him an enthusiastic standing ovation. The program closed with a powerful account of Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 2,” acclaimed at its world premiere in 1902 as a bold statement of Finnish nationalism. Schwarz’s affinity for this piece was obvious. It was clear in the dark, brooding sound he drew from the players, especially brass, woodwinds, and percussion. Mutual applause showed how much conductor and orchestra enjoyed working together. The “musical legacy” of this father has a long and promising future with his son.

Schuman, Mozart & Schumann by Michael J. Moran
Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org
For the fifth concert in its 2011-2012 "Classical" series, Music Director Kevin Rhodes indulged his love for "puns, word games, and language silliness" noted in the program book by leading the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music by Schuman and Schumann, with a piece of Mozart in between. In pre-concert remarks, Rhodes introduced William Schuman’s 18-minute "Symphony for Strings (Symphony No. 5)" as an "homage to the baroque," with each of its three short movements evoking a dance form of that era. From the vigor of the opening fugue through the heartfelt slow movement and the lively finale, Rhodes’ love for this composer’s music produced as passionate an account as their presentation earlier this season of Schuman’s masterful third symphony. Next came Mozart’s "Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major," soloist Spencer Myer’s own choice for his SSO debut. The 32-year-old Juilliard graduate from Ohio was the 2008 Gold Medalist at the New Orleans International Piano Competition and has many orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances to his credit on five continents. The concerto is one of Mozart’s last (1786) and largest (32 minutes). The first movement opened with a festive horn fanfare, but the piano’s entrance several minutes later was much quieter and more subtle. Myer and the orchestra kept the shifting moods and tempos of all three movements in perfect balance between classical restraint and aristocratic grandeur. Their efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation. Intermission was followed by a blazing rendition of Robert Schumann’s "Symphony No. 2 in C Major," written in 1845 as the composer was recovering from a period of ill health. The slow opening of the first movement featured a more solemn fanfare than Mozart’s, but the contrasting Allegro that followed brought with it an almost manic energy which only let up for a deeply moving version of the Adagio third movement. The freshness and joy of the performance on a mild April evening made this symphony sound more like Schumann’s "Spring" symphony than even his first symphony does, which actually bears that nickname.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Walter Haggerty
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA - www.exit7players.org 
How Do You Spell G.R.E.A.T? Exit 7 Players have the answer – and they are superb. In fact, the entire production of “Spelling Bee” is an inspired evening of top drawer entertainment from start to finish. The prospect of turning a traditional high school spelling bee into a hit Broadway musical is about as promising a project as a musical based on the life of Adolph Hitler becoming a success. Oh well, anything is possible on Broadway. “Spelling Bee,” which began its life at Barrington Stage, turned out to be a real winner with a Tony nomination and an extended run on Broadway and beyond. At the Exit 7 Players Theatre, a cast that has been fine-tuned to perfection by director Tom LeCourt, gives an ensemble performance that is impeccable. Their portrayal of a group of high school misfits, whose single opportunity to shine is their spelling expertise; discover through their competition that there really is more to life than winning. With a series of entertaining songs, a liberal dose of humor, and ultimately acceptance of, and even affection for one another, the evening arrives at a jubilant conclusion. Every member of the cast deserves accolades for his/her distinctively molded characterizations – each a bit off center, but always on target. Steve Grabowski’s Leaf Coneybear, with his cape and hand puppet, is a delight. Kyle Boatwright as Logainne, gives an evenly balanced performance of a brilliant, slightly confused teenager. Megan Hoy’s Marcy manages to escape her reputation as a perfect student by reveling in deliberately making a mistake in spelling. Todd Porter, as William Barfee (pronounced Barfay), is a hilarious, sarcastic spelling wizard with a “magic” foot. Nikki Wadleigh’s performance of the nervous, unsure, waif-like Olive Ostrovsky, is pure gold. Finally, David Webber’s Chip Tolentino, the handsome, bright, boy-next-door, betrayed by a quirk of nature, could easily settle into the cast of “Glee” as a replacement for one of their obviously aging teens. The adults – Eric Johnson, Michael Garcia, and especially Kathy Renaud, were excellent throughout. ”Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a perfect example and living proof that America truly does have talent – and some of it is right next door.

Almost Elton John by Eric Sutter
CityStage, Springfield, MA - www.citystage.symphonyhall.com
The audience can feel the sound of solid rock of the 70's and 80's in this "cover show" by Craig A. Meyer and the Rocket Band. This visually stunning performance is a tribute to Sir Elton John by a fantastic impersonator and crack band with singers that rattle brains and pull at heart strings. The brash, "Bitch is Back," seared with intensity... guitar against piano tearing loose like the outpouring of a sudden thunderstorm. Familiar songs "Philadelphia Freedom," "Daniel," and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" follow with audience participation of hand waving glowsticks and cell phones. Meyer dresses in many glittered costumes and wears big glasses, platform shoes and assorted brilliant headwear. His English accent adds dimension to this spectacular show as he coaches the audience in the correct way to sing the chorus of "Bennie and the Jets." Meyer flamboyancy burns with ardent passion as he prances in self-indulgence to "I'm Still Standing" and pounds the piano in interplay with Danny Howe's dangerous electric guitar solo. The river of musical delight feels like the rush of being suspended in mid-air. The swirling emotions quiet to the spotlight focus on Meyer on dark center stage at the piano as he sings "Tiny Dancer" with lap steel accompiament. The beautiful ballad on the simple stage with lighted disco ball brings a crisp chill of remembrance that dances off the skin and raises goose bumps. The great and powerful "Rocket Man" takes off and engulfs like a radiant torch of light. "Honky Cat" moves the audience to the song's percussive piano rhythms. Act II begins with the pensive but pendulous "Funeral for A Friend" with Meyer in glam rock pink. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" warms every heart. A duet with singer Kelly Fletcher, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" is fun and neatly juxtaposed to "Candle In The Wind." A blue bell-bottomed Meyer in a long-tailed coat brings the house down with a rock medley of "Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds" and "Pinball Wizard." The colorful roller coaster of sound crescendoes with "Crocodile Rock," "Saturday Night's Alright" and "Sad Songs," which closes the night.

Fiddler on the Roof by Walter Haggerty
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org
“Fiddler on the Roof,” considered by many to be the last production deserving of inclusion in “The Golden Age of Broadway Musicals,” is an especially enjoyable revival at the Bushnell. Opening night’s near-capacity audience, many of whom were clearly familiar with the show, demonstrated their appreciation with generous applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion. John Peerce, on his tenth national tour of “Fiddler,” with more than 1,780 performances as Tevye behind him, delivers an excellent performance – humorous, heartfelt, touching when appropriate, but never over the top. Gerri Weagraff, a youngish Golde, has her best moments with Peerce in the Act II duet, “Do You Love Me?” From “Tradition,” the opening number of the production, all the way to the final strains of “Anatevka,” the score reflects the genius of the composers in their ability to create songs that match the spirit of each character and yet could stand alone independent of the award-winning, Joseph Stein book. Following “Tradition,” the other favorite selections flow as a lush, melodic bounty with “If I Were A Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Now I Have Everything,” and “Far From the Home I Love.” As the daughters, Brooke Hills as Tzeitel, Sara Sesler as Hodel, and Chelsey LeBel as Chava are each excellent in their distinctive characterizations that allow their love for their parents to shine through their desire for independence. Asndrew Boza as Motel, the Tailor, gives a standout performance, especially in his delivery of “Miracle of Miracles.” Also impressive is Joshua Phan-Gruber’s perceptive interpretation of the role of Perchik, the Student. The choreography, credited to Director/Choreographer, Sammy Dallas Bayes and Assistant Director and Choreographer, Ken Daigle, as reproduced from Jerome Robbins original, is outstanding and a tribute to its originator. For an introduction to “Fiddler,” as one of the great iconic Broadway musicals, or to relive treasured theatre-going memories of the past, this is a production well worth visiting.

Red by K.J. Rogowski
TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
TheaterWorks two man drama “Red” is presented in the style and spirit of its real life subject, painter Mark Rothko…without intermission, without let up, and without dramatic pretext. The factors that make this happen are John Logan’s taut script, Tazewell Thompson’s careful direction, and the delicate balance of Jonathan Epstein and Thomas Leverton’s ‘push and pull’ relationship on stage. The play chronicles Rothko’s conflicted commission to create an expansive mural for the Four Seasons Restaurant in 1958. Add to this internal artistic and philosophical dilemma, Rothko’s new assistant, Ken, who over the play’s two year span, transforms from assistant/floor sweeper,/paint mixer to Rothko’s second conscience, artistic and ethical critic, and sometimes confidante. Needless to say, the audience knows where this play is likely to go. They would be wrong, and that is the enjoyment of this production. Like Rothko’s works, the playgoer thinks he sees something, then realizes that there are several things to see, none of which are expected. The often times machine gun dialogue, like the staccato jazz that accompanies the swift set changes, pulls the listener along, jumping from arguments on lighting and color, to what the artist sees, feels and cares about his work, to what the work itself deserves, as a creation released into the world. As Rothko declares, “It’s like sending your blind child into a room full of razor blades.” This show could take many directions, interspersed with talk of suicide, childhood trauma and murder, failure, jealousy, but it holds true to its purpose, to explore the mind and vision of the artist, the relationship of the artist to his art, and his art to the world. Rothko asks “What do you see?” The answer Ken gives is “Red.” What should future audiences see? See “Red.”

Country Royalty by R.E. Smith
CityStage, Springfield, MA - www.symphonyhall.com
“Country Royalty” is billed as a ‘tribute” show, but it is more than just a standard greatest hits review. In addition to singing the “role” of Hank Williams, Sr., performer Jason Petty acts as lecturer, evangelist, and unabashed admirer of the “Father of Country Music.” Consequently, the show succeeds on many levels. Dedicated fans are obviously quite pleased with Petty’s portrayal, lavishing him with generous applause, as if he was the legend himself. The uninitiated come away with a richer understanding of a talented man with the added bonus of a toe-tapping soundtrack. Williams was influenced by and wrote in a variety of styles, from honky-tonk rave-ups to spirituals. Even those who are not country music fans have undoubtedly heard “Hey Good Lookin’, “Move It On Over” or ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. In an unusual twist on the tribute show format, the second half, focusing on Patsy Cline, is also narrated by Petty, albeit as himself. Carolyn Martin’s remarkable voice is well suited to all of Cline’s hits, from “Walking After Midnight” and “Crazy” to “Sweet Dreams.” In fact, her strong voice seems to be taxing the sound system at CityStage to the limits, causing some distortion. Though Cline’s career was shorter than Williams own brief career it did seem her story was given a shorter shift. Backing both performers is the “The Country Royalty Orchestra,” a talented, tight, and polished ensemble of piano, drums, bass, slide guitar, and fiddle. It is unfortunate that they are not given named credit in the program insert. Their authentic sound is every bit as important to the success of the show as the remarkable talent of the leads. “Country Royalty” is a unique, educational, and entertaining night of music, bringing to life two important and historical figures in a vibrant, compelling way.

Les Miserables by Shera Cohen
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org

Only six shows left to see the best musical ever set to stage! Sounds like a clearance sale ad? Yet, the urgency is the same, and in the case of the former – being “Les Miserables” – there is truth in advertising. Victor Hugo’s epic novel turned musical of the French Revolution, plagued hero Jean Valjean, and unrelenting nemesis Javert is flawless. Both are real men with a mutual relentlessness in their personal lives and their relationship. That said, “Les Miz” is so, so much more: love, sacrifice, regrets, despair, camaraderie, and even joy. This 25th anniversary production is billed as “new.” Oftentimes, “new” is followed by “improved.” Yes, this “Les Miz” at the Bushnell is indeed new in many facets of its production, but certainly equal to all perfect “Les Mizes” that came before. Gone is the circular turning center stage measurably moving scenes from one to another. Gone is the weaving crash of the monstrous barricade assemblage. Here is a dark and scary prison ship opening number. Here is escape through a 3D ever twisting sewer. The new elements do not replace the old, but surprise those who have seen the musical several times and wow first timers. Just when you think there can be no better singer/actor than the man who last portrayed Jean Valjean, another surprise. J. Mark McVey’s outstanding performance sets the bar high. Not only does “Bring Him Home” echo throughout the huge Bushnell hall, but the audience cheers do the same. Unique to McVey is his onstage aging process in demeanor, gate, and voice. Andrew Varela portrays the police officer in pursuit of his version of right at any cost. At first, Javert is pure evil, but Varela slowly embodies him with vulnerability. Although not one of the most hummable songs, his “Stars” is a thing of beauty. Lovers Cosette and Marius (Julie Benko and Max Quinlan) make a fine melodic and sympathetic match. Chasten Harmon’s Eponine creates sadness personified, and Shawna Hamic and Richard Vida (M/M Thenardier) provide needed comic relief. There are just too many highly skilled professionals onstage and backstage who deserve accolades in mounting superb theatre such as this near-Broadway caliber production. The sets, lights, orchestra – all fabulous!

The Whipping Man by Shera Cohen
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT through March 18, 2012 - www.hartfordstage.org
Applause goes to Hartford Stage for mounting new plays by young writers – in this case, “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez. Bravos are also deserved by the cast of three men who impart compassion, rivalry, hatred, and compliance to their characters. This play has a lot going for it. The fault, however, lies in the script. A suggestion would be for the playwright to return to the computer. While each character is fully human, the sequences of their life events goes astray, sometimes at an irregular pace to stress the unimportant more than what is important. The time is ante-bellum Civil War. The specific time is Passover. The place is a destroyed Southern Mansion. It might seem odd that the white soldier is Jewish, not to mention that his two slaves were brought up Jewish. Needless to say, religion plays a large underlining significance. The analogy between Moses and Jewish slavery and Lincoln and black slavery is perhaps novel at first thought, but the subject belabors itself throughout the play’s 90-minutes. Josh Landay (Caleb, the soldier) delivers true angst to his character as slave owner. Leon Addison Brown (Simon, the older slave – now a free man) shows wisdom as he often sits exactly center stage facing the audience. Che Ayende (John, the younger former slave) sasses with a bravado that works perfectly. One particularly long and gritty scene with the three men onstage together, is acting and direction at its best. Given another play to star in, the trio could have blown the audience away. Hana S. Sharif also faces some problems in directing. Oftentimes the language is straight out of the 21st century, therefore difficult to deal with. For the most part, Sharif moves her actors about realistically. Without giving a spoiler, it is important to say that after Caleb deals with an especially excruciating physical problem, his attitude and pain become blasé. Not enough praise can be given to set designer Andromache Chalfant and lighting designer Marcus Doshi. From the play’s first moment to the finale, this duo’s work magically creates a dark and haunting period in the lives of the characters and their time in history.

Forever Kings by Eric Sutter
CityStage, Springfield, MA - www.citystage.symphonyhall.com 
What a lucky day to view not one but two tributes to popular music with the bravado of Matt Lewis in tribute to Elvis Presley and the soul of Edward Moss with tribute to Michael Jackson. Phenomenal dancers superbly complimented both performers. Matt Lewis began with a clutch of older Elvis tunes interspersed with period pieces. Fun was the word from the get go with "Blue Suede Shoes" which thrilled the audience as Ed Sullivan show clips enhanced the sensuality. By "Love Me Tender" chests were heaving from heated audience interaction. The "Jailhouse Rock" scene spelled trouble as four dancers synergized with prison uniformed Lewis with jazz hands all around. In the '68 comeback in black leather Lewis rocked blues tune "One Night." A nice ballad, "If I Can Dream," prepared the way for Edward Moss as Michael Jackson who upped the energy with his "Dangerous" persona on songs "Stop Pressuring Me" and "You Want To Be Starting Something." "Thriller" took the swagger right to the top with a climax that produced four ghoulish dancers who groped on to the stage awkwardly around Moss' center stage gyrations. A soulfully sung "Man In The Mirror" featured a backstage Moss surrounded by dancers up front. Act II captured the white jump suited King in Vegas with a fiery medley of old and new. The cabaret style slickness of C.C. Rider exhilarated towards the time period...he supplied a lingering warmth to "Are You Lonesome Tonight" which fueled a swampy "Polk Salad Annie" which satisfied. A bluesy update of "Houndog" packed an emotional punch that set up the thrill of a dramatic take of "Suspicious Minds." The energy was exciting by the patriot's dream of "American Trilogy." Moss danced back to the 70's with the Jackson oldie "The Love You Save." More tricky dancing brought "Beat It" center stage with a simulated fight scene that simmered hot. The uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson was strongly evident on "Billie Jean" and it's smooth moonwalk dance. The great entertainment in the heart of downtown Springfield ended with a "Black and White" finale which featured both performers in traded vocals on the chorus line. See this show... it will bring you up!

Long Day’s Journey into Night by Robbin M. Joyce
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA through April 1, 2012 - www.majestictheater.com
Long considered to be his masterpiece, "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" is a heartbreaking, semi-autobiographical depiction of Eugene O’Neill and his family. The play takes place in the summer home of the Tyrone Family on the Connecticut shore in 1912. The set, designed by Amy Putnam and Shawn Hill, and the lighting, designed by Daniel D. Rist, have combined to create a summer home that feels simultaneously inviting and daunting. It has a façade of richly-stained, intricate woodwork while creating grimy pockets and deep shadows in the corners that could hide topics too painful to discuss. At the hand of Sound Designer, Mitch Chakour, Act II is punctuated by a haunting fog horn that could either help the wayward find their path or serve to remind them that they’re hopelessly lost. Under the direction of Rand Foerster, the Majestic has let the light shine to reveal the shortcomings of the Tyrone family; undoubtedly to the consternation of James Sr. who isn’t interested in helping the "electric company get rich." Kenneth Tigar, as James Sr., plays a venomous and stingy miser. Although believable as the short-tempered, overbearing patriarch, he just misses the sorrow over watching his family disintegrate before his eyes and the regret of choices made. Beth Dixon, as his wife, is dressed in a beautiful costume designed by Elaine Bergeron. She wheels through her lines, rather than wading through them, giving the impression that she is manic rather than addicted to a sedative. Dan Whelton, as Edmund, appropriately garners sympathy as the sickly younger son who desperately loves his mother and is undeniably crushed by her addiction. Chris Shanahan, as James Jr., is less believable as the jealous, self-loathing older brother. Kait Rankins adeptly provides some much needed comic relief as Cathleen the maid. The story and the actors circle and skirt issues, take stabs at each other and then try to sweep every hurt back into the corner where it doesn’t have to be seen; all under the hope for a better future that can’t exist in an uncommunicative world of addiction and shattered dreams. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, they all give engaging performances as evidenced by the standing ovation at curtain call. Mary says, "The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won’t let us." The cast takes us on an alcohol-fueled, deeply moving and emotional journey through past and present; don’t let the future slip by without catching this performance.

The Addams Family by Walter Haggerty
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org
Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley, and, of course, Lurch, are all on hand at the Bushnell and the opening night audience for “The Addams Family” loved them all. And they deserved it! The cast is impeccable from start to finish including the actors performing the “normal” Beineke family, plus a ghastly-ghostly ensemble of grave escapee singer-dancers. The show has been considerably reworked from its critically devastating New York run, with the story line revised and clarified, songs dropped, songs added and other changes. It would be a pleasure to report that the musical now has a great book and fantastic score, but that is too much to hope for. For most audiences familiar with the TV Addams clan, the current reincarnation will work just fine. It is funny with plenty of jokes. Reducing the amplification of the orchestra might help the audience hear all of them, especially the lyrics. Douglas Sills gives Gomez heart to match his humor. Sara Gettelfinger plumbs the depths of Morticia to reveal the cares, concerns and love of a mother along with her ever-present dark side. Blake Hammond, by employing a modicum of restraint, resists stealing the entire show from the rest of the cast. As the young lovers, Cortney Wolfson’s Wednesday, and Brian Justin Crum’s Lucas, give this oddly matched pair true credibility, particularly in dealing with their respective parents. Patrick Kennedy is disarming as he cheerfully submits to torture by his sister while plotting to derail her romance. Resorting to the first bars of the television theme to launch the overture cued the audience that they were in comfortable territory. As to the individual songs, “When You’re an Addams” provided a welcome introduction. “Death is Just Around the Corner” and “The Moon and Me” each contributed to the humor of the evening, while ”Happy/Sad” introduced a rare tender moment. “Tango de Amor,” led by Gomez and Morticia, with the entire cast joining in, was the high point of the performance. For an evening of laughs with a cast of zanies, and no message to interpret, “The Addams Family” is an innocent escape from reality performed with panache. Who needs more?

The Learned Ladies by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA through March 25, 2012 - www.shakespeare.org
The added treat to an anticipated fun romp through 16th century French farce at Shakespeare & Company was a talk-back by Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur. “The Learned Ladies” comes to this stage with a stack of fabulous credentials – written by Moliere, directed by Tina Packer, costume designed by Govane Lohbauer. As English translator of the play, Wilbur’s sharp and delightful wit topped off the afternoon at the theatre. Unfortunately, Wilbur’s visit was a one-timer. However, that fact cannot be used as a reason not to see this play. As is typical of Moliere, “The Learned Ladies” is hilarious, bawdy, and colorful (in costume, set and language) with lickety-split action and characters running in and out of doors. So much humor abounds that one would think there is no time to squeeze in an actual plot. Wrong. To educate or not to educate women, that is the question. Add over-the-top dialogue and super-exaggerated movement and the query of the benefits of being learned or merely wisely cunning become the crux of the plot. The actors are familiar to Shakespeare & Company’s summer audiences. The winter season’s offer this younger troupe their chance to shine in lead roles. For the most part, “Ladies” is an ensemble piece. Packer assembled a fabulous group of thespians who seem to have as much fun on stage as those watching in the audience. While praising the skills of 11 actors requires too many words than this review allows space for, let’s just say that each has his/her moments to savor onstage to the audience’s delight. Singling out Ryan Winkles might be unfair, but so be it – while he is not the star and has as many lines as others in the cast, he exudes more humor with a hand motion or glance than any of the company’s actors. Let’s add that purposeful scene stealing runs amuck. “Ladies” is a hilarious poem “sung” in rhymed couples throughout. Packer gets the absolute best from her cast as does the appreciative audience.

Chicago by Walter Haggerty
Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
www.operahouseplayers.org
“Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery.” Add them up and the result is an explosive, extraordinary production of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” by the Opera House Players. This production is Broadway-worthy from start to finish. From the first bars of the overture to the last crashing note of the finale, “Chicago” has audience members on the edge of their seats every minute that they aren’t standing and cheering. Director Becky Beth Benedict deserves special accolades for creating a seamless ensemble performance where even the smallest role is polished to perfection. The Fosse-esque choreography of Alison Bogatay, is an admirable reflection of the Fosse masterwork, without ever resorting to imitation. As for the performers, they are incredible. Nicole R. Giguere as Velma, sets the mood for the performance with a knock-‘em dead delivery of “All That Jazz.” Wow, can that gal belt! She is backed up by a stellar troupe of multi-talented singer-dancers. Meg Fenton Funk squeezes every ounce of ego, anger, pathos and petulance out of Roxie. With back to back numbers, “Roxie” by Funk and “I Can’t Do It Alone” Giguere, plus their duets of “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays,” this pair could revive vaudeville all by themselves. In the role of Billy Flynn, Jeff Clayton is a perfect match for predecessors Jerry Orbach and James Naughton as the scheming, money-grabbing defense attorney. Kathi Such, as Matron Mama Morton, deservedly stops the show with her performance of “When You’re Good to Mama.” Mike King, as Amos, Roxie’s naïve, two-timed, ever-loving husband, definitely gets noticed by the audience, especially for his “Mr. Cellophane” lament. P. Stone’s Mary Sunshine is a gem of a performance by an actor finding the heart of a character and playing it for all it’s worth – and this one was worth every falsetto trill. Kander and Ebb never ran away from a dark subject. With “Chicago” they achieved their greatest success and Opera House Players have given it an electrifying production that no true theatre lover should miss.

Kingston Trio by Eric Sutter
Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA - http://citystage.symphonyhall.com
A warm receptive audience was treated to the combined musical talents of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and folk icon the Kingston Trio from the first wave of the late 50's-early 60's folk revival. The glissading strings of the orchestra provided a smooth soundscape to a round of opening Americana themed music. Leroy Anderson's country numbers, "Fiddle Faddle" and "Chicken Reel" brought a down home hoe-down feel to energize the audience. Dressed in country attire, an animated Maestro Kevin Rhodes hammed it up with the audience for added effect. The piece ended with an authentic sounding "rooster crow." Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" set the tone for greater things from the brass section which pumped up the volume to a crescendo ending. The wonderful Bethoven's 7th Symphony moved mightily! The first half ended with the familiar theme to the John Wayne movie, "The Cowboys." To echo a word of description used by Rhodes, "Fantastic!" A strong soaring harmonied folk anthem, "Road To Freedom" sung by the Kingston Trio began the second half. The resounding cheer by the audience after the opening chords of "Charlie on the M.T.A." resulted in a sing-a-long of folk "hits" such as "Chilly Winds" and a calypso banjo fueled "Kingston Town" by George Grove. Much humor evolved from the trio, but their serious spiritual side shone forth on the joyous "Glorious Kingdom" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain." After 55 years, the Trio has received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Baritone Bill Zorn, who replaced original member Bob Shane, sang solo the favorite "Scotch and Soda." The ochestra offered a lovely prelude to the ballad, "Tom Dooley" complete with banjo lead-in to the narrative by Rick Dougherty. Incidentally, the song won the first country music Grammy in 1958. Their folk song, "A Worried Man," closed the evening. The Trio of Bill Zorn, George Grove and Rick Dougherty encored with Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" A slice of Americana, "I'm Going Home" (California) became another encore with the upbeat bass playing of Paul Gabrielson backing the Trio's golden harmonies.

Next Fall by Gregory Morell
Good Theatre, Portland, ME
Portland’s GOOD THEATER has presented an impressive season of terrific drama in their tenth year and their current production ofNEXT FALL adds to the richness. Smartly directed, beautifully paced through 14 scenes, and touchingly acted by a tight ensemble of six actors, this is an intimate drama of personal and familial conflict. The cleverly crafted scene sequence jumps back and forth in time, taking us in and out of a hospital waiting room after a mortal traffic accident. Our central character, Luke, is a law school drop out struggling with an acting career in New York City and the personal dilemma of trying to rectify his traditional Christian religious beliefs with his active homosexual lifestyle. Although openly honest about his sexuality with his friends and co-workers his gayness is a closely guarded secret to his family, especially to his red necked successful southern Georgia businessman of a father, aptly named “Butch." As the play opens Luke’s estranged parents and his friends are gathered in a hospital waiting room anxiously expecting news from doctors as Luke lies in a coma after being struck by a taxi on a city sidewalk. NEXT FALL presents glimpses of the past in an odd chronology. These poignant glimpses expose the unusual and thought provoking relationship conflicts that fuel this interesting story of discovery. Complexity of relationship is fully explored in the play’s two acts. Although his parents have been estranged for years they are deeply devoted to each other and their son. His happy and strongly forged gay partnership with his long time lover is plagued by Luke’s insistence to keep their relationship a family secret and additionally by Luke’s religious hypocrisy. When Dad suddenly arrives in New York unannounced, and telephones informing Luke that he is on the way over for a first visit to Luke’s apartment, an apartment Luke has shared with his gay partner Adam for four years, all the secrets and deceptions come bubbling to surface. Luke frenetically tries to “de-gay” the apartment as he is harassed by Adam who insists that he finally confront Dad with the truth. The comedy inherent in this humorous conflagration is joyously savored by the audience who cannot help but laugh at the shenanigans. Most interesting however, is the bizarre relationship that Luke shares with his friend Brandon. Throughout most of the play Brandon remains a secretive and reticent foil to his colorful and highly animated fellow cast members. Brandon’s tense brooding is artfully rendered by actor Matt Delamater who very successfully keeps the audience guessing as to how he figures into this web of conflict. He is like an iceberg whose true identity likes frozen beneath the surface. When Brandon’s secrets are finally revealed near the conclusion of the play the result is shocking. A plethora of serious themes are explored in this excellently drawn drama and the intimacy of the Good Theater playhouse continues to reward its audiences with superb theater craft and memorable performances. Brian Allen and his talented acting ensembles should be sought out.

Mavis Staples by Eric Sutter
Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.mahaiwe.org
Soul folk gospel singer Mavis Staples performed an inspirational sound of good news joy in a concert at Mahaiwe. Her voice always had a ring of truth to it and this night was no exception. Like the clang of a horseshoe hitting home, she began with the loud praise of "Wonderful Savior." Staples then eased into the traditional a capella gospel song "Creep Along Moses." Her band paid homage to contemporaries with the John Fogerty penned "Wrote a Song for Everyone" and a tribute to her "Last Waltz" performance with The Band's "The Weight" from their 1976 farewell concert. Next came the title cut from Staples Grammy nominated Americana CD which Wilco's Jeff Tweedy penned, "You Are Not Alone." This brought a hushed silence of wonder from the audience. The anticipation melted as the familiar strain of the pops Staples’ song "Freedom Highway" gushed with heartfelt emotion as the relief from the audience was audible with a collective sigh and forthcoming singing. The memories from the 1962 Civil Rights era continued with her urgent plea vocal set to the socially conscious lyrics of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite Staple Singers song, "Why? (Am I Treated So Bad). "We're Going to Make It" turned into an old fashioned ring shout of a capella delight with Donny Gerrard, Vicki Randle, Mavis and Yvonne Staples harmony voices which climaxed with a ferocious electric guitar solo by Rich Homstrom. Just as the gospel fervor hit its zenith, Jeff Turmes performed a cool slide guitar instrumental of "Go Down Moses.” Homstrom mellowed the deep emotional impact further with his sweet soothing challenge of a blues instrumental that cut through the messy condition of being human. Hallelujah! "I Belong to the Band" brought forth more lovely harmony singing and a positive message of love to close the show. Staples and troupe encored with the 1971 #1 hit on the soul and pop charts, the reggae influenced groove of "I'll Take You There." Scout's honor, the singing cheers were like the good vibe of a home run hit in your favorite baseball park...except everyone was a winner.

George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession by Carin Freidag
Ridgefield Theater Barn, Rigdefield, CT
Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, while written in a different century than today, is still just as relevant in many ways – economic survival, relationships, and discrimination. That he tackled the subject of Mr’s Warren’s Profession at all is quite remarkable given the lack of women’s rights and that a successful career was made out of prostitution! Prostitution is really not the driver of this play. It is really about the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren and her daughter Vivie; or really it’s the lack of relationship between the two. The play opens with Vivie a recent college graduate, who has spent the majority of her years at boarding schools and being cared for and raised by others. She is a brilliant mathematician and enjoys working but not much else. Work with numbers after all offers her the logic and solitude that she has grown accustomed to. She is emotionally void. She has always been kept in the dark about what her mother does as she travels and on this fateful weekend she finds out. Mrs. Kitty Warren is played by Judith Kealey. From the time that Ms. Kealey enters the scene she commands the stage. Her character runs the full gamut of emotions throughout the show and Ms. Kealey does not disappoint. As her daughter Vivie, JENNIFER GANTWERKER captures the emotionally devoid character well in both delivery and posture. There was one slight confusion to her character though in the very end. After she has made and insisted upon her decision with her mother, it was unclear due to her covering her face whether she made a final laugh or cry before regaining her composure. Either is a defining moment and good direction but I was left wondering. Supporting the women are a group of men who mean different things in Mrs. Warren’s life. Her dear friend Mr. Praed (Philip Cook) is a romantic and lover of life. Mr. Cook is a good foil to Ms. Mortiboys. Sir George Crofts, slickly played by Richard Zane Ross as it turns out is Mrs. Warren’s business partner. He falls for Vivie but when she spurns him, he is the truth teller. Reverend Samuel Gardner (Pat Spaulding) and his son Frank (Stephen Saxton) live next door. Frank is the one possibility that Vivie sees in a companion. Yet a secret is told and the door is firmly shut on him. Both Mr. Spaulding and Mr. Saxton play off each other well. Director Larry Schneider has pulled together a good production. The use of the space was well thought out and characters developed. Technically speaking I would have liked a little more light in some spots but overall it is well done.

Boeing-Boeing by Jarice Hanson
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT through February 5, 2012

While great plays are timeless, some plays are better suited to the era in which they were written. “Boeing-Boeing” is a good example of a play that encapsulates the 1960’s fascination with jet travel, breaking sexual mores, and women’s liberation, but satisfies that theater-goer’s appetite for substance by feeding them a Twinkie. While “Boeing-Boeing” won the Broadway 2009 Tony for Best Revival a Play, the Hartford Stage production tries, but fails to energize this tired farce. Director Maxwell Williams cleverly uses conventions of 1960’s television shows to place the plot in the appropriate era, but the story of an American man who has three fiancés from different countries, all of whom are “air hostesses,” relies on stereotypes; the ditzy American, the passionate Italian, and the Teutonic steamroller from Germany. The most well-crafted role in the play is that of a nerdy Wisconsonite male friend who comes for a visit, well played by Ryan Farley – a master of slapstick. From the start, the audience knows that the situation will get out of hand when all three women converge upon the apartment at the same time—no spoiler alert needed. The cast tries to overcome the thin script with abundant energy, and the three characters who deliver lines with accents effectively enunciate, though their tongue-twisting efforts result in occasionally bobbled lines. The 1960’s bachelor pad set is elegant, but simple, as is the plot. Each of the women’s costumes is color coordinated with the airline for which she works—and the audience is asked to believe that even on their days off, the stewardesses lounge in their uniforms, leading one to believe that the audience for the show is thought to be so dim that they might not be able to tell who’s who if the color-coding scheme falls apart.

Comedy, Enlightened by Greg Morell
The Players Ring, Portsmouth, NH

For those with a taste for outrageous wacky comedy the Players' Ring theater in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is serving up a gourmet feast that runs through January 22. The play, entitled "COMEDY ENLIGHTENED" is actually six fully realized comedic sketches that left me howling with laughter. Stylistically akin to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, this uproariously funny evening of theatrical hi-jinx is engineered by a bold and exuberant ensemble of players collectively known as "Darwin's Waiting Room." The complete ensemble reputedly hosts 70 members but COMEDY ENLIGHTENED is delivered by a jolly and completely irreverent cabal of comedians that number a little over a dozen. They are zany, they are bold, and they are insanely funny. The play was written by company member Eric Doucet, however much of what happens on stage seems to have sprung from improvisational interpretation. The evening opens with the MC being attacked by the cast as they promenade around the stage as prehistoric primates while the sound track from "2001, A Space Odyssey" blares from the stage speakers. The cast's next incarnation is as anthropomorphic fish in a singles bar. This satirical jab at the dating scene mocks the ill fated trials of a woman in search of her future husband. Ribald satire thrives as we encounter a hilarious send up of the legal profession that was very cleverly concieved at a tribal pow wow. A thorough skewering of the new spirituality cults follows and Act One closes with a thoroughly ridiculous and light hearted parody of Paul Newman's "Cool hand Luke." After a brief intermission Act Two opens with my very favorite comedic riff "Party of the Century." Set in a nursing home for nonagenarians, the characterization of these delightfully hilarious senior personages had me in laughing till tears flowed from my eyes. This was delirious dementia brilliantly rendered by deadpan facial expressions and spot on comic timing. A barn burner of hilarity, I was literally laughing like I haven't laughed in 20 years.

Memphis by Shera Cohen
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org
The Bushnell just keeps on bringing Broadway Tony Award winning musicals to Hartford. This week’s production is one from that short list of winners -- “Memphis.” Yes, New York is a nice place to visit, and theatre is perhaps the best of the best. However, do not ignore the classy, professional productions mounted in Hartford. The story is Memphis, Tennessee in 1951 and the birth of rock ‘n roll. The first image seen is a giant radio dial, then the voice of a refined DJ, followed by music of Perry Como and Patty Paige. A moment later, the lights pop up on the dance floor of a tucked away nightclub and headliner Felicia. The rousing opening number, “Underground,” is full of energy, verve, rhythm, fun, lively music, and black singers/dancers. In walks Huey, a disheveled white hick who wants what the others have. He is oblivious to color. While the emphasis of “Memphis” is music and dance – and there is plenty of it throughout – the story is fully developed (although predictable) and important. Rock ‘n roll represent black vs. white. It’s their music. No, it’s our music. These are fighting words. Yet, all could be right with the world through the melding of music, particularly heard in the beautiful and meaningfully song “The Music of My Soul.” One flaw in the production is the lack of chemistry between Huey and Felicia. Color is definitely not the issue. Completely different personalities, levels of sophistication, and philosophies do not always mean that opposites attract. Does the fault lie in the actors or the story or both? The answer is difficult. “Memphis” is a big show, told smoothly through simple sliding and rising set elements, bright lights, and rockin’ pit and onstage bands. Even if Huey and Felicia are not Romeo and Juliet, their surroundings full of countless ensemble dance numbers and singing pros keep the show moving, and the audience on their feet for a standing ovation.

The Santaland Diaries by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA - www.shakespeare.org

Ryan Winkles is just so cute. He looks like a flirtatious cherub. Even Winkles’ name is cute. It is no surprise that he is cast as Crumpet the Elf in “The Santaland Diaries.” Yet, don’t look for your usual holiday sweetness and charm (both of which are quite evident in Winkles’ talent) in this one-act play with a season appropriate title. Instead, expect comedy, satire, risqué dialogue, and some pointed jabs at reality. Playwright David Sedaris penned “Diaries” based on his own experiences as an elf at Macy’s in NYC. Wrinkles portrays a wannabe actor whose dream is to be cast on “One Life to Live.” He chronologically relates the detailed processes of how one becomes an elf. In the first seconds of the play, Director Tony Simotes immediately opens the fourth wall, exposing Winkles to his audience. He plays with us, jumps up the aisles, and asks questions. He has us at “hello.” Simotes and Winkles have been a creative team for several years. They are so in sync that their jobs seem incredibly easy. The script is clever, the anecdotes are gems, and the story has a point from start to finish. Amid the fun and oftentimes side-splitting humor, are surprisingly serious moments. These ebb and flow smoothly and return to the humor. Is the real Santa white or black? How do parents behave and respect their kids in public? These are subjects to think about, but later. Although Winkles seemingly portrays one character, he becomes many – chief elf instructor, a smart aleck Santa, a whinny child, and many more. How does he do this while dressed, for most of the play, in a bright multi-colored elf uniform? The answer? Perhaps better than any actor in the Pioneer Valley, Winkles uses his face, particularly his smile and his eyes. A curl of the lip, a darting glance “say” far more than pages of script. If audiences have as much fun watching “Santaland Diaries” as opening night’s crowd, and as much fun as Ryan Winkles aka Crumpit the Elf exudes, then it’s a new and great way to spend the holidays.

Lisztomania by Michael J. Moran
Close Encounters with Music, Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA - www.cewm.org

Franz Liszt’s 200th birthday anniversary converged with the 20th anniversary season of Close Encounters with Music in a program entitled “Lisztomania.” Cellist and CEWM Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani prefaced the concert with an entertaining and informative 10-minute lecture about Liszt, the composer-pianist who became a Catholic priest late in life but never gave up his close friendships with many notable women (Hanani quipped, “he wore the habit but didn’t kick the habit”). The program featured several of the solo piano works for which Liszt is best known, opening with the lovely “Two Legends” in sensitive performances by Jeffrey Swann, who later played the flamboyant “Les Jeux d’Eau a la Villa d’Este” with color and panache. Hanani joined Swann to present five more piano originals that Liszt himself transcribed for cello and piano. Most striking was “La Lugubre Gondola,” a late piece in which Hanani’s dark tone emphasized its early hints of atonality. His expressive playing brought a mellower sound to the charming “Romance Oubliee” and three romantic “Consolations.” Swann was a virtuosic accompanist.To end the concert’s first half, Swann was joined by violinist Yehonatan Berick for a scintillating account of Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” in a transcription for violin and piano. Saint-Saens was one of many fellow composers whom Liszt generously promoted throughout his life. After intermission, all three principals closed the concert with Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 2,” whose classical structure and emotional restraint contrasted sharply with the rhapsodic freedom of Liszt. But this passionate reading showed that both composers could express deep feeling with different resources. Hearing Liszt on the same program with music by two of his contemporaries gave the audience a nicely rounded portrait of his life and times. As both speaker and performer, Hanani is an engaging personality, but the program book could have included some notes about the music to expand on his introductory comments. This is a small caveat about an upcoming season of concerts by Close Encounters with Music that all feature a distinguished roster of world-class musicians performing at the Mahaiwe and other Berkshire venues.

Godspell by Felicity Hardy
Unitarian Society, Springfield & Monson, MA
There are some shows that appear often in the area. "Godspell" is one of those musicals. The loose structure of the show itself, which is told as a series of parables demonstrated by Jesus, John the Baptist/Judas, and a ragtag group of clown-like disciples, is one left wide open for interpretation and reinvention. The one thing that can be said of "Godspell" is that the same version is rarely done twice. Director Kathleen Delaney takes this a step further with a complete reinvention of the musical's structure. In addition to Jesus' main band of followers, she has added a Greek chorus, led by the mostly-silent character "Evry1" (played with mystery and commitment by Joshua Farber) designed to be "yang" to Christ's "ying." The chorus seems to have its own story to tell, at times antagonistic and at times adoring, but the already somewhat abstract structure of the show is both helped and hurt by this aspect. This abstractness adds further confusion to a story already struggling to tell itself clearly, but also delivers exciting visuals and innovative staging. Another departure is the inclusion of "environments" – a series of vignettes introducing each of Jesus' followers as individuals, providing snippets of backstory. While the sequence is drawn out, and perhaps could have been better served with all actors on stage with scene shifts designated through lighting changes, it clarifies these characters. Steve Pierce makes for a charming and charismatic Jesus, humble, funny, and personable in a way that makes it clear why the rest of the characters want to listen to him. Michael Lorenzo is brooding and dark as John the Baptist, serving as the group's sardonic rebel and lending both humor and drama. The rest of the group is a dynamic and cohesive ensemble, each with distinct personalities. By the play’s conclusion, they do feel like a family, and their chemistry as a unit is what makes for an emotional journey. This version of "Godspell" is one that takes risks in order to reinvent itself. Not all of these risks are successful, but the overall message of love and hope is still intact. It is a passionate and sincere production.

Holiday Masterworks by Michael J. Moran
Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org 
As Music Director of the Hartford Chorale since 2006, Richard Coffey was no stranger to the Hartford Symphony when he led the orchestra in an imaginative program of three “Holiday Masterworks,” the third program in their 2011-2012 “Masterworks” concert series. Even with no apparent holiday connection, a lively reading of Glinka’s exuberant “Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla” opened the concert on an appropriately festive note. Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 1 from The Nutcracker” was a more familiar but always welcome holiday treat, especially in the HSO’s glistening account. From the delicate celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the sweeping harp in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” every musician played with obvious affection for each movement at Maestro Coffey’s ideally balanced tempos. A snowflake projected across the wall behind the stage added another nice seasonal touch. After intermission the orchestra was joined by the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and three soloists in the HSO’s first ever performance of the rarely heard Christmas cantata “Hodie” (This Day) by Vaughan Williams. Dating from 1954, this hour-long piece was the composer’s last major choral-orchestral work. Its 16 short movements alternate between settings of Biblical texts about the Christmas story for children’s chorus and settings of poems by various authors for mixed combinations of chorus and soloists. The performance by all forces was brilliant. The very full orchestra reveled in the music’s wide range of moods and sonorities, from the grandeur of the opening chorus to the jubilant finale. Hushed settings of “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy and a “Pastoral” by George Herbert were the emotional heart of the piece, and both were movingly sung by baritone Eric Downs. Tenor Eric Barry was appealing of voice and clear of diction, and soprano Stephanie Gilbert’s singing was radiant. The adult choristers were magnificent throughout, while the children sang with purity and charm. Full texts were included in the program book, but they would have been easier to follow with projected subtitles. Still, the audience was clearly grateful to hear a thrilling new discovery by a 20th century master.

4 Sides of 40 by K.J. Rogowski
CityStage, Springfield, MA
CityStage’s “4 Sides of 40,” delves into the trials and tribulations of four individuals and the lives they lead as…forty and single, forty and newly married, forty and long time married with kids, and, of course, forty and divorced. This humorous walk through the possible perils of forty is told in an evening with four stand up comics, each with their own style and routine, and each with a tale of woe. The cast members - Lenny Marcus, Al Ducharme, Eric McMahon, and Patty Rosborough - are tried and tested stand up comics, who not only deliver their funny and very salty routines, but also encourage audience participation, ranging from comic movie trivia quizzes, to hugging audience members, (watch out if you sit in the front row), to calling attention to anyone who dares to leave for the bathroom during the show (since there is no intermission), which feeds right into that running gag. This is a production about adults. For those who attend, be aware, this is an adults only show. The stories deal with all aspects of relationships from the mundane to the intimate, and no topic is spared, told in colorful detail. Name a body part, and it's in there; name a bodily function, and it's in there; name something you don’t think they would dare say, and they’ll say it. But it is all done for the humor and not to shock or offend, and that’s what makes this evening of comedy that folks can relate to work. It's four folks just telling their stories, like they would to any trusted group of 300 friends. Letting their hair down and cranking the humor up. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 4 sides of 40.

Peter Pan by Walt Haggerty
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org

Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan has become almost as traditional as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade…and she's marvelous! Rigby is no stranger to the "boy who refuses to grow up" and it appears that, now in her fourth tour, that she is equally ageless. In the current production, Cathy Rigby is constantly in motion - somersaults, cart wheels, twists, turns, and of course, flying - oh yes, especially flying. It would be difficult to imagine a more exuberant or, in fact, endearing portrayal of Peter Pan. Finding an equally talented actor to fill the dual roles of Mr. Darling and the "slimiest villain of all,"Captain Hook, had to have been nearly insurmountable. However, in Tom Hewitt, success was achieved with a flourish. From tango to tarentella, to waltz, Captain Hook triumphs. Only in his duel with Peter is he undone. Kim Crosby gives an endearing performance as the mother of the Darling children, balancing her concern for them with respect and understanding for their overwrought father. Crosby is also effective as the grown up Wendy. Krista Bucellato as young Wendy is delightful, overflowing with tender concern for her brothers and the Lost Boys. Cade Canon Ball (John) and Julia Massey (Michael) perform admirably as Wendy's brothers, each adding special distinctive touches of humor, with Massey a particular standout in the big Act II dance number. James Leo Ryan, as Hook's sidekick Smee, is the soul of subservience with humor. Clark Roberts, without ever showing his face as either Nana or the Croc, creates distinctive personalities for each as he effortlessly steals each scene. Jenna Wright, as Tiger Lily and rescuer of Peter, charms the audience with her dancing and acting. The music and dance throughout are superb, perfect supplements to the original James Barrie story. The joy of all participants, principals, Lost Boys, pirates, Indians, et al is evident throughout and rewarded vociferously by a capacity audience. Some final words -- "Peter Pan" is a pleasure for all ages. If an excuse is needed to attend, borrow some children, but go and enjoy.

Magna Opera by Michael J. Moran
Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordsymphony.org
For the second “Masterworks” series of her debut year, Music Director Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in an exciting program of opera excerpts by five composers, featuring three overtures and two complete semi-staged acts. A rousing performance of Wagner’s dramatic “Flying Dutchman Overture” captured the eerie mood of that composer’s first successful opera. The piece also and set the stage for Act III of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” in which Violetta is reunited with her estranged lover, Alfredo, later joined by his father, Germont, only to die of consumption at the opera’s close. The 35-minute scene was movingly rendered by students in the Yale Opera program at Yale University, with only Violetta’s bed, a table, and two chairs as unobtrusive props. After intermission, Kuan began the second half of the program with a lively account of the playful Overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Next came the 20-minute Act III of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which finds the lovers Rodolfo and Mimi reuniting after an argument and their friends Marcello and Musetta separating after an argument. A mostly different cast of Yale students again turned in beautifully engaging performances. The concert ended on a high note with Offenbach’s exuberant “Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld,” whose diverse elements of humor, pomp, and dance Kuan unified into a brilliant whole. All the artists were excellent, with special praise to soprano Jamilyn Manning-White (Violetta) and baritone Cameron McPhail (Germont, Marcello), whose gorgeous voices and nuanced acting skills make them talents to watch. The orchestra, too, sounded wonderful throughout, from Wagner’s blazing brass, to the lush strings of Verdi’s prelude, to Offenbach’s many solo turns. A number of empty seats suggested that some HSO patrons may have feared the prospect of a night at the opera. They needn’t have worried, as the Maestra’s concise and earthy introductions to both acts summarized the main characters and the action preceding the staged scenes. Her explanation of Offenbach’s uniquely comic take on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was hilarious. The appreciative audience applauded all three of these pieces with standing ovations.

Greater Tuna by K.J. Rogowski
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
“Greater Tuna,” by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, challenges both its actors and its audiences on several levels. First, two actors must play a myriad of roles, requiring fast costume and faster character changes. Second,scenes deal with many topics, some just plain silly, and others of a hit close to home nature. Last, the challenge of the show is in which the direction the sets and props best succeed. In this case, basically less is more. All of these facets must work together to achieve this show’s primary purpose -- a night of raucous comedy. The Majestic’s production delivers on most of these, but misses some comic opportunities. James Hartman and J.T. Waite dash on and off stage, appearing in numerous funny costumes, depicting 20 of Tuna’s 26 inhabitants, which is no mean task. While most of the scenes/topics play well, several seem to miss that humor mark. For example, a KKK member delivering a diatribe on violence, or the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans has one impact on an audience, and it’s not funny. The possibility exists for the actor to portray the character and his messages with a tone that mocks both the character and the message, to deliver the pointed humor intended. The ‘less is more’ factor, at times, makes the audience think ‘where are they, and what are they doing ’ before going on to get the laughs. Here the set is especially important, since it is comprised of only two kitchen tables, four chairs, and a radio. An example is when the designated ‘radio station’ table suddenly becomes another kitchen. The same happens regarding the use of props, since there are none. Virtually all props are pantomimed -- phones, violins, papers, dogs, and dishes -- except at the end when a gun just appears. With its funny folks and pointed humor “Greater Tuna” should deliver greater laughs.

Cinderella by Walter Haggerty
Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT - www.operahouseplayers.org

There's magic in the air in Broad Brook as the Opera House Players present Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" with an outstanding company. This treatment of the beloved fairy tale was conceived by R&H in 1957 as a special project for live television and served to introduce Julie Andrews to an audience of 107 million viewers in its single performance. Broad Brook Players' production may not reach as large an audience, but it is no less enchanting. For adults and children in the area, this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity. The music is top drawer R&H with "Impossible," "Ten Minutes Ago I Met You," and "A Lovely Night" among the standouts. In addition to providing the lyrics, Hammerstein also wrote the book with a light and humorous touch. Impressive performances are contributed by many cast members, most notably Caitlen Fahey, making her Broad Brook debut, in the title role. With seven numbers, she carries the heaviest musical burden performing each song beautifully. Warmth and humor best describe Fahey's characterization which easily captivates the audience. David Climo and Julie Martini, as the King and Queen, manage their regal roles with great humor, balanced with a special tenderness that reflects their love and concern for their son. As Prince Christopher, Andrew Small is stalwart, handsome, and charming.every inch, a prince. The trio of Stepmother and "ugly" stepsisters, portrayed by Reya Kieppel, Khara C. Hoyer, and Megan Graul, respectively, temper their "meanness" with enough humor and out-and-out silliness to reward the audience with much laughter. Sara Steiner is a joy through her singing and nonsensical performance as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. Not to be overlooked are the contributions of two "magical" characters, Sprite and Pixie, played by Jessica Turgeon and Christine Zdebski, who contribute greatly to keeping the production moving forward seamlessly. The entire cast is elegantly costumed by Moonyean Field; and Debora Curyla manages to make a quartet of musicians sound like a much larger ensemble. Barbara M. Washer, in her Broad Brook directorial debut, rates highest praise for a flawless, highly entertaining production.

Barber, Schuman & Rachmaninoff by Michael J. Moran
Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org

SSO President Kris Houghton drew appreciative cheers when she welcomed the audience, many of whom had been without power at home for much of the previous week, to a warm and well-lit Symphony Hall for a concert that included one of conductor Kevin Rhodes’ “favorite pieces” and an “out of body experience” for 25-year-old Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang. The program opened with Samuel Barber’s most popular piece, the Adagio for Strings, arranged by the composer for string orchestra from the slow movement of his string quartet. Rhodes led a performance that was deeply moving for its simplicity and restraint. The strings sounded rich and full from the hushed opening to the powerful climax and the quiet conclusion. Rhodes' told his audience that most would next be hearing William Schuman's Symphony No. 3 for the first time. The Maestro asked orchestra members to play specific themes, thus providing a helpful road map through this “uncharted territory.” The taut and incisive rendition of this 1941 composition perfectly captured the “optimism and perseverance in overcoming great odds” that Rhodes identified as its guiding spirit. While brass and percussion were most prominently featured, the strings again played wonderfully, and the symphony’s closing peroration was particularly exhilarating. Following intermission, Joyce Yang’s stunning appearance in a floor-length sleeveless red dress reinforced her thrillingly romantic interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. Her flowing tempo at the opening became more lingering and then quickened as the first movement developed, with Rhodes drawing some portamento from the strings before the soloist’s powerful cadenza. Yang’s reference to the piece in a recent interview as an “out of body experience” was supported by her precise and strongly physical technique, when she almost lifted her body off the bench at climaxes in all three movements. Rhodes led a scrupulously balanced accompaniment, with woodwinds and horns unusually audible. After receiving a standing ovation from the audience and a bouquet of roses from the Maestro, Yang extended the mood with an encore of Rachmaninoff specialist Earl Wild’s sumptuous arrangement of Gershwin’s "The Man I Love".

Swayambhu (Shantala Shivalingapppa) by Barbara Stroup
UMass Fine Arts, Amherst, MA - www.fineartscenter.com

Shantala Shivalingapppa brought a reverent and appreciative audience back in time to an Indian temple in her Bowker Auditorium presentation of Kuchipudi classical dance. Alone with four musicians on the stage, she both interpreted a narrative and made a religious statement with her choreography. Body movement was agile and athletic, hand and facial movement explicated a story, and she captured complete attention throughout. As Ranjana Devi explained in her pre-concert talk on Indian classical dance, dance is theatre, and music is integral to it: "Without music there is no dance." Four musicians provided vocal expression of story line, flute embellishments, and percussion in absolute synchronization with Shantala's feet. They became a team of five and showed a total dedication to each other and to this art form. Its religious meaning was apparent to the largely western audience, even if the narrative was difficult to follow. Kuchipudi dance is one of nine government-defined classical dance forms performed by women only, and is characterized by leaps and jumps. Shantala was costumed first in purple and then in white. Henna adorned her fingers and toes, making her long limbs appear even longer. The seven-part program began with an invocation to Ganesha, elephant-headed god of new beginnings and ended with Pasayadan, a prayer of peace and joy for all beings. The stage was mimimally decorated with diaphonous curtains and a small Shiva statue on one of several transparent shelves that floated above the floor. Swayambhu was offered as part of the Asian Arts and Culture Program at UMass. Now almost 20 years old, the program includes diverse offerings to schools, audiences, and the general community. It illuminates the vast cultural heritage of many Asian and Middle Eastern countries by showcasing events and capturing touring artists for one-time performances here. Kudos to the Fine Arts Center for continuing to support this program.

Water by the Spoonful by Kait Rankins
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT - www.hartfordstage.org

In this world premiere drama by Quiara Alegria Hudes, “Water by the Spoonful” seems like two separate plays: the first about an Iraq war veteran and his cousin coping with his mother’s death, and the second about a group of recovering drug addicts seeking support in an online chat room. The two storylines are revealed to be deeply intertwined by the end of Act I. With a play that can easily trip over itself with its complicated settings and heavy subject matter, director Davis McCallum handles everything with a light touch. The settings ebb and flow with quick, quiet changes and shifts in lighting, and cyberspace settings are brilliantly presented with the characters’ avatars projected on the back panel. What could have been clunky and confusing is instead clear. Hudes’ beautiful writing is wordy and complex, handled effortlessly by seven actors: Armando Riesco (Elliot), Zabryna Guevara (Yazmin), Lisa Colon-Zayas ( Odessa), Theresa Avia Lim (Orangutan), Ray Anthony Thomas (Chutes&Ladders), Matthew Boston (Fountainhead), and Demosthenes Chrysan (Professor Aman/Ghost/Officer). In their hands, Hudes’ words are light and quick, between poetry and realistic dialogue, and yet never unnatural. The dramatic themes of addiction, parental neglect, post-traumatic stress, and mourning could easily pass into self-indulgent melodrama, but they never cross that line. Instead, the result is both funny and heartbreaking, with characters that are easy to care about. “Water” is about connection. Connecting with one’s family, connecting with strangers over long distances, and the bravery it takes to make (and repair) those bonds. The actors succeed not only connecting with each other, but with the audience, taking the audience on a journey of twists and turns and numerous storylines tied up together. The second in a trilogy that begins with “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and will end with “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” “Water” leaves the audience wanting to know more about where the characters came from and where they will go. For audience members needing more, Hartford Stage provides copies of “Elliot” (autographed by the author) in the gift shop.

Mahler’s “Titan” by Michael J. Moran
Hartford Symphony Orchestra - www.hartfordsymphony.org

In her “Masterworks” series debut as their first female and youngest Music Director, 34-year-old Taiwan-born conductor Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in a program that demonstrated her mastery of the Germanic core of the standard repertoire. Written in 1794-1795, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19, reflected the classical style of Mozart’s late concertos, but its high spirits foreshadowed the mature Beethoven, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra in the Adagio foretold its more famous counterpart in the Fourth Concerto. The boyish looks of the 21-year-old soloist from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Behzod Abduraimov, belied his interpretive maturity. He balanced measured tempos in the first two movements with a vigorous first movement cadenza and a romp through the final Rondo to achieve a performance of classical poise and grace. After intermission, Kuan directed an impassioned account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, whose nickname, the “Titan,” has stuck although the composer stopped using it after several early performances. Kuan’s flexible tempos and dynamics heightened dramatic contrasts and accentuated the varied roots of Mahler’s inspiration, from Viennese ballrooms to klezmer bands in the third movement alone. Balances were transparent throughout the piece, so that the triangle and the harp, for example, could be clearly heard even in the loudest passages. The orchestra has never sounded better. Though the horns in particular were challenged at times in the Mahler, they also turned in some of the evening’s finest playing in the first and last movements. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion were consistently impressive, and all the musicians seemed inspired by their charismatic new Maestra to play their best. The audience was excited not only by Kuan’s physical energy and engaging personality, but by her spoken introduction to the Mahler, with musical examples played by the orchestra. These were brief but pointed, as when she illustrated repeating themes and Mahler’s belief that a symphony was a “world that must contain everything.” This positive outreach to her community augurs well not only for the new HSO season but for the hopefully long duration of Kuan’s tenure in Hartford.

Jersey Boys by Shera Cohen
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org

“Oh, What a Night,” is not only the title of one of the Four Seasons’ hit songs, it is also the succinct description of the musical “Jersey Boys.” This chronological story of the creation of the group and the personalities of the men who made it happen is a non-stop, energetic, song filled retrospective. It puts faces to the names of the four young men from Jersey whose music has become instantly recognizable and loved. It is no surprise that “Jersey Boys” (JB) won the Best Musical awards at the Tonies, Grammies, and Outer Critics Circle. As of July, 2011, 13 million people worldwide have loved JB. As of October 20, 2011 the number is now 13 million + 1. For those readers who are under age 20 and/or have lived in a cave for the past 40 years, the Four Seasons were one of the preeminent guy groups. Think “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Dawn” and try hard not to hum silently. It can’t be done! Each member of the quartet narrates in four sections (aka seasons) the professional and personal highs and lows of the group and the individual men. The intertwining balance from dialogue to music and back again is seamless, as are the floating backdrops and sliding walls which set the eras apart. The boys inch their way from bowling alley gigs to empty nightclubs to eventual fame. The main cast are superior singers who can also act. Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie) does well at playing shy; Preston Truman Boyd (Bobbie), the best actor of the troupe, portrays the amiable composer; Michael Lomenda (Nick) has a nice comic touch; and John Gardiner (Tommy) becomes the tough guy. More importantly, the audience wants to hear Bwarie’s falcetto coupled with the other’s skilled voices, and these boys sound as close to the real McCoy as possible. The show closes with “Who Loves You?” The answer: everyone in the Bushnell’s full house. A note on theatre etiquette. It seemed, because of the nature of the music and story, that many in the audience were theatre newcomers. That’s wonderful – the more who support the arts the better. However, a professional venue like the Bushnell (or any other) is not the place to become inebriated and talk loudly throughout the entire performance. In spite of nicely asking our drinking neighbors to please be quite, being shrugged off, and then the house manager’s Herculean efforts ignored made for a tainted evening for what could have been a fabulous night at the theatre.

The Motherf#@ker With the Hat by Jennifer Curran
TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT - www.theaterworkshartford.org

It would seem that a play that cannot be named in polite company might be in need of a gimmick. Considering though that the playwright is Stephen Adly Guirgis, such nonsense is quickly put to bed. Within ten minutes it becomes abundantly clear that there really is no other title that would work. Add impeccable direction by Tazewell Thompson, a break-neck pace that never misses a beat and the result is a terrific show. Donald Eastman's set design is a sparse outline with plenty of gray space for the actors to fill in the details. From Veronica's rumpled mattress on a bare floor, to Ralph and Victoria's Pier 1 Imports loveseat or Cousin Julio's lovingly attended to cart of lush green plants, the audience is roller-coasted from points A, B and C and back again. At its very basics, “Hat” is a love story. Jackie (Ben Cole) and Veronica (Clea Alsip) have loved each other since the eighth grade, Ralph (Royce Johnson) and Victoria (Vanessa Wasche) are in a loveless marriage, Cousin Julio (Varin Ayala) may or not love his wife but his love of life and family keep Jackie in line. The eviscerating verbal sparring lays bare the truth of each the characters: I do as I do and not as I say. There is much here about truth and honesty (one doesn't always have a lot to do with the other), addiction and recovery. There’s more in the script: being held accountable (or not) in a suffocating world where ignorance is far from bliss and language can't begin to communicate the complexities of these characters' struggle for love, understanding and a little bit of peace. “Hat” isn't a play for everyone. It isn't a “nice” play. Indeed, it’s a blood and guts revelation of a man whose own limitations and ignorance keep him stuck in the same pattern, unable to break out of it and incapable of explaining why. For theatre fans who want to see something without a gift-wrapped ending or a moral tale, one could do no better than a trip to TheaterWorks.

City of Angels by Jarice Hanson
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
Billed as a sexy Hollywood Whodunit, "City of Angels" mixes 1940's film noir with contemporary theatre conventions including scene projection, a slow-motion fight scene appropriate for America's Funniest Home Videos, and skull hand-puppets all as homage to tired gumshoes who can't resist a pretty dame. In this production, director Darko Tresnjak has mounted a complicated show with remarkable technical proficiency. You can't miss with a script by Larry Gelbart, who writes lines like, "Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever," and music by Cy Coleman, who crafted some of the best duets of his career in for this show, What sets this musical apart from others are the witty lyrics by David Zippel. The stock characters - the Brylcreemed private eye, the femme fatal with the rich, aged husband, and the nubile step-daughter may seem cliché, but the show has many fresh twists. About twenty minutes into Act I, the audience realizes that all of the characters are in the mind of a writer, hired by a movie studio to pen a screenplay, only to have his work changed by the hilarious studio executive, played by Jay Russell. The action revolves around the back-and-forth world of the movie studio and the life of the script writer, played by D.B. Bonds. There is not a weak character in the cast; and Bonds, Lauri Wells, and Nancy Anderson have wonderful voices and get some of the best tunes. Some members of the production team warrant a special shout-out; Michael O'Flaherty's music direction shines, and David P. Gordon's scenic design, enhanced by Shawn Boyle's projections, make this production a visual treat. The show may have been a bit fresher when it premiered on Broadway in 1989 and today's mash-ups and parodies take a bit of the kick out of the script, but the "City of Angels" is smart, entertaining, and this production is top-notch.

Pushing the Envelope of Fun with the Bard by Sherry Shameer Cohen
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT
The moment you see the filmy curtain in front of the set of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or, What You Will,” you know you are in for an unconventional production. Suffice it to say that director Mark Lamos is comfortable taking risks on stage – something that this reviewer usually welcomes to keep plays written centuries ago alive instead of just archival writings. That said, this production does not completely satisfy.  Andrew Boyce’s surrealistic scenic is stunning with its eclectic collection of beach scene, chandeliers, balloons, abandoned items and shabby chic architecture, all of which suggest the timelessness that Lamos seems to be striving to achieve. Tilly Grimes’ rather dilettantish costume design is rather confusing, especially since some of the characters are barefoot, and not on the part of the set that is clearly a beach. The cast, too, is diversified, both ethnically and in its mastery of Shakespearean dialogue.  Nevertheless, for all its unevenness, the play is thoroughly engaging, thanks to the performances of Donnetta Lavinia Grays (as the feisty Maria), David Schramm (as Sir Toby Belch), Jordan Coughtry (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and, above all, Darius de Haas (as Feste). David Adkins (as Malvolio), Susan Kelechi Watson (as Olivia), Paul Anthony Stewart (Antonio) and Lucas Hall (Orsino) also gave mostly fine performances, but this production really belongs to de Haas. It must be mentioned that de Haas injured his Achilles heel shortly before opening night, but that was worked brilliantly into the staging with the use of a period wheelchair. Being seated throughout the play did not prevent de Haas from delivering a performance so fluid and natural that one would think Shakespeare intended Feste to be in a wheelchair. Feste’s sole purpose is to be a seasoned observer of human folly in a play that encompasses joy and sorrow. He can do it from a perch or a beach chair. It doesn’t matter where because de Haas’ exceptionally beautiful voice and limber movements would have delighted the Bard. (Note to casting directors: Look beyond any disabilities a performer may have.)  But back to Shakespeare’s intent. The play’s title is believed to refer to the close of the Christmas season, when everything is about merriment, joy, hope and lightness. The play is dotted with lyrics (some set to more contemporary melodies, including the tune of the good night song from “The Sound of Music”) as well as its classical themes of mistaken identity and subplot which involves a prank on the puritanical Malvolio. Was Shakespeare’s intent really served? That part is debatable. Lamos pushes the envelope of fun, even in the few places some cast members may miss. On the other hand, the play is a bit complicated and the combination of the direction, set and costumes make it seem as if almost every performer and crew member simultaneously emptied all their tool boxes to create this production. (Four actors even did some calisthenics in one scene.) A bit of tightening would have been welcome. The production may be imperfect, but the audience loved it, and it is worth seeing, if only for de Haas’ memorable performance.  "Twelfth Night" runs through Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.  Lamos, who is Artistic Director of the Westport Country Playhouse and veteran director of 30 Shakespearean plays, will also conduct a master class on acting and directing Shakespeare on Monday, October 24 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

Wait Until Dark by Shera Cohen
Suffield Players, Suffield, CT thru 10/29/11 - www.suffieldplayers.org 
Suffield Players are particularly skilled at mounting murder mysteries. This play is the real thing, edge of your seat two hours of theatre. After the final applause, the audience leaves with the communal feeling of exhaustion. That is a powerful statement of cause and effect. The troupe accomplish exactly as planned for “Wait Until Dark.” The play’s title succinctly describes the plot. Our heroine is a blind woman who is physically and figuratively in the dark. What happens to her in one day is a terrifying test of her metal. Susy unknowingly becomes entrenched in the middle of drug trafficking and murder as she is pitted against three strong sighted men. Karen Balaska’s phenomenal success in portraying Susy is her physicality. She plays blind with a capital “B.” Her stance, movement, and manipulation of props are perfect. At the start, Balaska’s character is plucky and naïve. We see gradual changes as her intelligence and inner sight dominate. Susy’s motivation to stay strong and fight is first and foremost for love of her husband. However, Danny Viets is miscast as a too-young and too strict mate, making Susy’s emotional commitment confusing. But Balaska makes us believe. The first two villains on the scene are portrayed by Bill Mullen (Mike, faux friend of the husband) who effectively becomes the big lug bad guy with a conscience, and Zach Grey (Sergeant Carlino) who plays smugness well. Enter Konrad Rogowski (Harry Roat) as “the brains” of the operation. Rogowski’s acting is the epitome of super psycho intellect. Roat is a relentless crazed man. Young Emma Rucci (teen neighbor) does a fine job as Susy’s smart and smart-alecky ally. Director Robert Lunde could have taken the easy road on many scenes, particularly those set in pitch dark. Lunde introduces the play, telling his audience that some sections will be completely black. So, it’s not a spoiler to write about the success of these unseen scenes. Where sound effects might have sufficed in a lesser production, the undoubtedly battered and bruised actors, running on a small stage in the dark (Balaska and Rogowski in particular), and the less battered director treat the audience to a powerful ending
 

Rock On! Broadway by Eric Sutter
Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA - www.SpringfieldSymphony.org

With Kevin Rhodes conducting, the opening Springfield Symphony Pops concert of the 68th season was right on! Featuring music from the best Rock musicals of the 70's and 80's, the orchestra was challenged to perform. The "Chess" overture set the mood. The rest of the great evening followed. Broadway musicals were changed forever in 1968 when "Hair" debuted. Soprano Sarah Uriarte Berry and tenor Ron Bohmer gave an empowered "Aquarius." A nicely done "Easy To Be Hard" featured a lovely Berry as solo. Bohmer clowned as a long-haired hippie with his singing "Hair." Of course, they finished with a rousing "Let The Sun Shine In." Fantastic! From "Tommy," the Symphony shined on "Overture" with that great opening electric guitar solo. Piano, horns and strings built tempo to a crescendo ending. The percussion was steamy. Berry sang "Smash The Mirror" in a Broadway shrill that wasn't quite effective with its too high pitch. Bohmer, as Tommy, was better with the thrilling "I'm Free" which resounded triumphantly. The sound was excellent and lighting superb. A comical Rhodes joined both lead singers doing "The Time Warp" dance from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." By the end of the number, some of the audience engaged in dancing. After intermission, the "Overture" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" lead the second portion of the program. A solo by Berry, "I Don't Know How To Love Him," was pleasant, acknowledging why this number is a standout. Berry particularly showed her vocal skills in the slower numbers. The strings propelled "Gethsemane" with Bohmer in a heartfelt perfomance. The singers then paired up on the duet of "Seasons of Love" from "Rent." An offering from "Little Shop Of Horrors" was fun. "Godspell" provided a magnificent volley of music that the audience sang along to - especially "Day By Day." Orchestra and vocalists reprised "Let The Sunshine In" with much singing and dancing. Rebuilding Springfield through the the arts never felt better.

Rent by Eric Sutter
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA - www.exit7players.org
Jonathan Larson's Tony Award winning and ground breaking musical "Rent," about a group of struggling Bohemian artists on NYC's Lower East Side, revvs up the stage and the emotions at is Exit 7. This intensely entertaining production is a colossal undertaking by director Meghan Lynn Allen and musical director Bill Martin. It's a mixed-up, muddled up, shook-up world with themes of sexuality, AIDS, and the ravages of poverty. The intricate story is convoluted with many sub plots that turn delightfully, revealing various love connections. The set is simple with emphasis on music and dance. It simmered and seared with high voltage edgy rock numbers and challenging choreography by Amy Meek. Lead characters Mark (Josiah Durham) and Roger (Michael Lorenzo) must be carefully followed. Roger is a singer/songwriter looking for his big break. Love and friendships are unveiled through song dialogue. Big numbers -- "Rent" and "Seasons of Love" -- livened every cell in one's body. Relationship songs such as "You Okay Honey" with Angel (Michael Garcia) and Collins (Joshua Osborne), "Light My Candle" with Roger and Mimi (Kyle Boatright), and "Tango Maureen" with Mark and Joanne (Christine Greene) were loving fun and helped develop characters' personalities. "On the Street," a passionate full company number, featured a big voice stand-out by Blanket Lady (Susan Duncan). Maureen (Nikki Wadleigh) turned out the humorous "Over the Moon," which coaxed the audience to "Moo." Act I closed with the over the top "La Vie Boheme" in high fashion. The plot thickens in Act II as the characters' emotional baggage becomes weighty. Steamy duets ensue with "Take Me Or Leave Me" between Maureen and Joanne, and "Without You" with Roger and Mimi. "Contact" features Angel, who has proven to be a firm testament to the strength of the human spirit. After Angels' AIDS death, Collins sings "I'll Cover You" backed by a powerhouse group ensemble vocal. "Goodbye Love" finds Roger, Mimi and Benny(Silk Johnson) in a heated love triangle. "Your Eyes" is Roger's love song to Mimi -- watch for her strange twist of fate. There is no day but today! This powerful musical is chock full of strong language; it is intended for mature audiences.

Opening Night Gala - Springfield Symphony Orchestra by Michael J. Moran
Springfield, MA - www.springfieldsymphony.org
The Springfield Symphony Orchestra opened its 2011-2012 season with a program of three pieces by Russian composers, an “electrically charged…genre that has proven to be one of our strong suits” in the past, according to Music Director Kevin Rhodes in a program note. After a rousing performance, with enthusiastic audience participation, of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to mark the start of a new season, the concert proper began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” A colorful blend of Russian Orthodox chants with the composer’s exotic harmonies and orchestration, the piece made special demands on the brass and percussion sections, all of whom rose to the occasion with gusto. The Tchaikovsky “Violin Concerto” reunited Rhodes and the SSO with soloist Axel Strauss for the first time since he played the Mendelssohn “Concerto in E minor” with them 11 years ago. In 1998, Strauss became the first German artist to win the Naumburg Violin Award. Now in his mid-30’s, he has lived in the United States since 1996 and teaches violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While fully meeting its technical challenges, Strauss gave the Concerto a Romantic interpretation, drawing out the first movement cadenza to broad lyrical effect, along with the second movement Canzonett. The appreciative audience jumped to their feet after his thrilling rendition of the folk-inspired finale. A brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D minor” followed intermission. Rhodes reminded the audience that this 1937 piece was not an example of “art for art’s sake” but, in the composer’s words, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” of several of his earlier works by government authorities. With the entire orchestra playing marvelously in all four movements, the symphony’s links to the Russian historical tradition were also clear, especially in the intense Largo movement, which evoked the slow movements of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and Rachmaninoff’s second symphonies. The Maestro’s famously kinetic style of conducting was on full display throughout the evening, and the positive energy of this opening night promised a great season ahead.

The Best of Enemies by Shera Cohen
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
Based on the fact that Mark St. Germain is the playwright is reason enough to make a point of attending “The Best of Enemies.” St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session” was such a phenomenal hit at Barrington that it has moved to off-Broadway. The same may soon be said about “Enemies.” The play is a true story of life in Durham , NC in the early 1970’s when the divisions between races and classes were not simple lines in the sand, but high stone walls – unable to be climbed or torn down. Color and money dictated government and particularly the school system. The story’s focus is the relationship between Ann Atwater, a hard core elderly black woman whose only fears are the future of children, and E.P. Ellis, a strong and purposeful man who is proud of his Klan membership. The two are complete opposites in every way possible: sex, race, age. But are they? Perhaps it is their economic status which very slowly chips at the wall. Aisha Hinds and John Bedford Lloyd are superb in their roles. Clifton Duncan, as the young black mediator of the ongoing conflict, and Susan Wands, as Ellis’ down trodden intelligent wife, are the only other actors in this quartet. Both are strong in their roles. So much is said with a small cast and sparse set. In fact, more would have been ineffective. Julianne Boyd directs “Enemies” in vignettes created by large slide backdrops floating in and out. At many points, particularly when the actors speak out to assemblies, the audience feels that it is part of a documentary, and not theatre attendees. The play runs 90-minutes. Thank goodness for no intermission, as it not only would have broken the chronological momentum, but more importantly, the visceral experience. How much more “real” can theatre feel? Barrington Stage is one of the few theatres that dares to present some tough drama during each of its summer seasons. Music and comedy are the norm. Obviously, audiences accept the challenge of serious and actual events, which is why “Enemies” will be staged for an unexpected return in October.
 

Traces by Emily List
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT - www.bushnell.org
The five young performers in “Traces”— a fusion of circus, dance, comedy and music —actually trace a number of things through the course of this explosively energetic show. They trace the audience members’ journey from the lobby to their seats projected on a big screen at the back of the stage, which elicits laughter as they see themselves entering the theatre. They trace the playful tossing of a basketball as it develops into an aggressive break dance. They use chalk to trace one another’s limp bodies on the floor as a ballpoint pen traces an entire city on the screen. They trace their lives in a slide show and through personal facts spoken ardently into a microphone that frequently descends from the ceiling. “I’m a romantic,” Francisco Cruise breathlessly tells the crowd. “I love cereal. I especially love Cinnamon Toast Crunch.” The personalization and character development are aspects of “Traces” that make it so endearing. The audience cares for the welfare of the acrobats/dancers because they distinguish themselves as individuals, playing instruments and plunking out different tunes on a wooden piano, from balletic standards to Chinese pop tunes on chop sticks. But they also work as one, seamlessly propelling and flipping themselves through the air. This is done with the ease as props, such as wooden chairs and basketballs, are tossed through space. It matters little that the show is strung together as an eclectic, chaotic circus. The audience is pulled immediately into the dramatic action through humor: “Please take flash photography even if it permanently maims the performers,” is one pre-show announcement. That humor and energy keeps the audience uproariously supportive as the players display incredible agility, suspending one another with hand-to-hand circus techniques, leaping through hoops and climbing up and down vertical poles that reach from floor to ceiling. “Traces,” under the creative direction of the Montreal-based Seven Fingers Company, is a show not to be missed.

Mary Zentmyer is “Sister” in Late Nite Catechism
CityStage, Springfield , MA - www.citystage.symphonyhall.com - October 12–16, 2011
Many audience members think that Mary Zentmyer is a bona fide nun. That’s true testament to this actress’ skills in her performances of Sister, star of “Late Nite Catechism.” Having donned the habit for a good part of the last 15 years, Zentmyer was one of the first Sisters cast in the role. She was auditioned by the play’s writer team of Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan. There are now approximately 20 Sisters touring throughout the country. Zentmyer describes her role in three parts: acting, improve, and stand-up comedy. The thought of memorizing a 25-page monologue was scary at first. “This is not your typical play. It’s very interactive,” she said. “It’s a memory play, a nostalgia play. I connect with the people,” she continued. The target audience is former students (including herself) who experienced the nuns that resembled Army drill sergeants. “We thought they were mean, but it’s no wonder they were cranky, because they wore 20 lb. wool garments every day, all year round,” she laughed. Sister’s strictness is the best humor of the play, and the audience response is incredible. She pokes gentle fun; the show is never mean-spirited. Zentmyer has been on the road for most of her career due to her repeat performances primarily in the mid-West and New England . They keep calling her back! “People have been so nice to me. Being a one-woman show, they see that I’m alone and invite me to dinner,” she laughed. The best part of the experience is the Meet & Greet post-performance. It’s like confession, with lines of audience members, each telling stories from their youth. Asked: do you have to be Catholic to ‘get’ the show, she replied that it does help the audience ‘get’ the full humor. “It plays well to all religions and regions,” she responded. We all like to go back to a different time in our lives, even remembering strict teachers. The show is already sold out for her upcoming run in Detroit . “Middle-America Protestants enjoy it. And New England , with lots of Catholics, certainly ‘get’ it,” she continued. “Making people laugh for a living – it’s the greatest job,” Zentmyer said.

War of the Worlds by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA thru November 6, 2011 - www.shakespeare.org

The year? 1938. The day? October 30th. The place? Mercury Theatre, NYC. Shakespeare & Company takes its audience back to an actual episode in history, to the days when radio dramas were as brilliantly told and “visible” as any HD/3D/etc. movie of today. Tony Simotes directs a play within a play, starring a cadre of the troupe’s best actors. There’s the light-hearted “Jack Holloway Show,” complete with country music (for New Yorkers?), an episodic short drama (“Ace Moran, American Hero”), tap dancing (hmm, hard to see on radio), advertisements (the sales department’s excellent idea to highlight local businesses), and a vignette from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (shameless but hysterical self-promotion). Along with audience participation, a flashing “Applause” sign, and an onstage sound effects man using 70-year-old tools of the trade, Jack Holloway, et al, joyfully entertain their listeners and studio audience. “We interrupt this program…” With these four words begins the drama within the comedic variety show. Act II takes a 180 degree turn as laughter changes to gasps. Sounds of telegraph machines crank out more alarming words prefaced by “This just in...” Today’s audience knows the outcome of the story, but the scare of Martians invading Earth was very real when Orson Welles performed his live hoax in 1938. Simotes and crew (especially Michael Pfeiffer on sound and Stephen Ball on lights) create a sci-fi time revisited. While Shakespeare & Company’s performance is family friendly, there are many scares and terror of what could have happened long ago and to some degree has actually occurred in this century with other equally horrifying invasions. The actors take on double and triple roles – something quite common and expected at this theatre. Elizabeth Aspenlieder segues from chipper singer to an on-the-spot reporter meeting her death at the hands of aliens. She switches demeanor, voice, and language texture in a heartbeat. These same skills are those of Simotes’ dream cast – particularly Jonathan Croy, Josh Aaron McCabe, and David Joseph. It is a pleasure to see Joseph (newcomer of the group) excel in plumb roles at this venue. Lenox, MA isn’t Grovers Mills, NJ, but it very well could be.

Little Women – The Musical by Walter Haggerty
Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT through September 25, 2011
Louisa May Alcott's “Little Women” a musical? Well, if you can turn “Les Miserables” into a musical, why not “Little Women”? With a trio of newcomers at the helm - Allan Knee, music; Jason Howland, book; and Mindi Dickstein, lyrics - it works, and it's a delight. The March family comes alive and they sing and they dance and have a wonderful time and so does the audience. Each member of the March family has their moment in the spotlight but, as it should be, there is Jo as the focus of family, around which all else revolves. Jo, in an inspired and exuberant performance by Meagan Hayes, grows and matures as the story progresses. Hayes dares to relate the melodramatic potboilers that mark Jo's early writing efforts, she pulls it off. In later more serious moments, Hayes proves to be equally adept. As Marmee, the mother, Donna Schilke is the personification of loving, caring, concerned motherhood, somehow managing while her husband is off at war. Aunt March, played by Mary Jane Disco, offers a formidable, subtly nuanced portrayal of a powerful woman with a soft center. Daughters Meg, Beth, and Amy, played by Elizabeth Drevits, Kiernan Rushford and Jessica Frye, respectively, are each given their due with distinctive, winning scenes that demonstrate the uniqueness of each character. Paul Lietz brings youthful enthusiasm and humor to the role of Lurie and Brett Gottheimer's Professor Bhaer delivers a superb performance of a conservative, restrained teacher discovering love and doing it without ever losing his impeccable German accent. Director John Pike is deserving of special praise for finding precisely the right balance between the humorous and serious moments of the story, and in creating an outstanding ensemble performance from his enormously talented company. Projections of period settings and handsome costumes add greatly to the production. Musical accompaniment by a four-piece ensemble is excellent. For an evening or a matinee excursion to an age of innocence, “Little Women” is worth the visit.

The Crucible by Karo Kilfeather
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT thru October 6, 2011
A thinly veiled allegory on the communist hearings led by Senator Joe McCarthy, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is a weighty theatrical classic and fine example of pointed social and political commentary. The play is loaded, and the Hartford Stage production wields it like a gun. Beginning with a loud, chaotic start, “The Crucible” rises to a tension that is never fully released. The audience is as captive as the hapless innocents waiting for their turn at the witch trials. Choosing a “Grapes of Wrath” meets the Dust Bowl aesthetic over pilgrim attire brings the play closer to us in time, and in spirit. For such a searing political piece, could it be only coincidence that the play produced during the Great Recession recalls the dry somberness of the Great Depression? Indeed, director Gordon Edelstein probably does not want anyone to miss out on possible parallels to today’s political and military events, making some less-than-subtle choices along the way. However, the production overall is so strong, that these are easily forgiven. The outstanding ensemble cast is led by Michael Laurence as guilt-ridden everyman John Proctor, Kate Forbes as his accused wife Elizabeth, David Barlow as the well-meaning Reverend Hale, and Sam Tsoutouvas as the Deputy Governor who is a powerhouse of self-righteousness and disdain. He is larger-than-life, but never a ham, and matter-of-factly delivers crushing blows to the hopes of Proctor and his friends. Laurence offers a heart-wrenching portrait of torment as delivered by others and by one’s own self-loathing. He and Forbes create a marriage that is achingly real, and alternately resentful and tender. Rachel Mewbron as Abigail is frighteningly cold and unlovable, and shines coolly when tormenting Keira Keeley’s frightened Mary Warren. As can be expected of Hartford Stage, the production makes inventive, bold use of a spare and exposed set with well-executed light and sound design. It is a must-see, adult show that grabs the audience and pulls everyone to their seat’s edge. Luckily, Hartford Stage has extended the run through early October.

Buddy Holly Returns by Shera Cohen
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA - www.majestic.com - thru October 30, 2011
I would like to think that I am somewhat entitled to a bit of credit for the success of The Theater Project’s (aka Majestic Theater) success of “The Buddy Holly Story.” With over 100 performances under its proverbial belt from 1997, and reprised shows in 1998 and 2002, neither the Majestic nor its audiences will let Buddy go away. That’s wonderful news since it’s here again in 2011. After having seen “Buddy” in England, Danny Eaton (founder, producer, director, designer, set builder, playwright) knew that he must produce this musical. During the early years of The Theater Project, Danny often asked my opinion on the selection of plays and actors. Well, I’m not sure if he sought my learned opinion, or if I forced it on him. I knew very little about the real Buddy and less about the musical. “Peggy Sue,” horn-rimmed glasses, died very young – that was the extent of my knowledge. I researched, learning more about what an excellent talent Buddy had been and what he could have been. Some readers may remember the community theatre group St. Martha Players. With few exceptions, I made a point of attending their shows. At that time, St. Martha was “the” theatre for consistently well produced musicals. Unfortunately, their venue was not up to par with the quality of the troupe. A church cafeteria was what the crew and actors had to work with. A stage was placed in the middle of the room and the audience sat cabaret style. Sight lines were terrible. One of my favorite books, made into a musical, was “The Secret Garden.” It was next up on St. Martha’s calendar. A must-see! Sometimes reviewers are given the best seats in the house (a nice perk), but there was no best seat in this house. I went with a friend, and we sat at a table abutting the stage, with eye-level comparable to sitting in the front row at the movies. I knew the reputation of the director (Anna Giza, I believe) and some of the actors, so I came with high hopes. The playbill listed Ben Ashley as the uncle. Hmmm, never heard of him. The uncle is a starring role. Who is this actor? As a very attractive young man took his place onstage, acted well and sang even better, my friend and I mutually nudged each other that here was a guy with potential. We sat close enough to touch his shoes, so for the next two hours, Ben was up close and personal. I thought: Who does he remind me of? He next sand the duet “Lily’s Eyes” (with Frank Aronson). I was struck by the beauty of the song and the voices. I was also struck by who Ben Ashley reminded me of. Put a pair of 50’s black narrow glasses on him and a guitar in his hands, along with his already obviously good looks and talent. “I found your Buddy Holly,” I enthusiastically informed Danny the next morning. I don’t know all the particulars that happened next. I’d like to think that Danny called the new Buddy saying, “Hey, Ben, I hear you are great. Shera wants to cast you as Buddy Holly for the next 15 years (well, off and on). Do you want the job?” The rest is history.

Wicked by Bob Smith
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT through September 11; www.bushnell.org

In a relatively short time, "Wicked" has become a musical for the ages and it is not difficult to understand the phenomenon. This show succeeds extremely well on many different levels. It starts with solid storytelling; serious themes, populated with engaging characters but with a sense of humor. A strong contributor is the unique fact that both leads are strong, multi-dimensional females. All this helps to underpin an emotional reality in a fantastical setting, for this is the back-story of "the witches of Oz before Dorothy dropped in" and how friendship can shape our lives. "Wicked's" status as a timeless work is due in large part to the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz. Combined with the vocal artistry of the cast, the songs leave an indelible impression. The Act One closer, "Defying Gravity" melds every element of theatre into one chill-inducing moment. That song, along with others like "I'm Not That Girl" and "For Good" are already popular standards due to their tenderness and heartfelt lyrics. On the opposite end of the emotional scale is the giddy anthem of bubbly blond sorceresses everywhere, "Popular." This song is so frothy that it probably put a smile on people passing by the outside the theater. Dee Roscioli, the 'wicked" witch Elphaba in this production has played the role more than any other performer and her experience is evident. One needs a stellar voice for this complex role and Roscioli delivers goose bumps with almost every solo. As her opposite, understudy Megan Campanile gives a beautiful texture to the flouncy, bouncy "good" witch Glinda. The entire cast matches their energy and verve. The lighting is spectacular and the sets are practically a life form of their own. The crowds at this Bushnell return engagement are packed with prior fans that know the lines and music by heart. But there are plenty of newcomers as evidenced by the surprised laughter and gasps emitted upon seeing the show's many high points for the first time. Both types of audience members are well served by this outstanding, and yes, magical production.

Mark Morris Review by Emily List
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA - www.jacobspillow.org
Through his choreography for the 30th anniversary celebration of his company at Jacob's Pillow, Mark Morris proves that he is still what many critics have described as "the bad boy of modern dance." The visceral mischief begins before the dancing does, as the audience is shown projections of two characters - one, a native-American man; the other, a seemingly pre-Raphelite saintly woman with a halo. On closer inspection, the style is more art nouveau, with the woman wearing a jaunty 1930s cap. Indeed, the first piece, "Resurrection," is not a serious dance imbued with Christ-like images, but a hilarious portrayal of a Hollywood murder, set to music by Richard Rodgers. The dancers kick and roll around the couple like synchronized swimmers until the woman lifts herself up to bourree deadpan across the stage to the astonishment of her dance partner. "Ten Suggestions," is a solo admirably danced by Amber Star Merkens. Set to the menacing tinkling of Alexander Tcherepnin's "Bagatelles Opus V,” a chair, hoop, hat and ribbons are amply used to help Merkens cross from stage right to left, a feat in which she does not succeed. The piece is very circus-esque, as Merkens balances precariously on the chair, clowns around with her straw hat and plays with her hoop. She uses the hoop not as a hula dancer, but as a partner that is twirled, stepped through. For "Dancing Honeymoon," Morris' ensemble is back for another tribute to the 1920s and 30s - this time through Broadway musical comedy box-stepping and Rockette-like kicklines. The music sounds as if it weren't live, but resonating from a 20s speakeasy. This critic's favorite is "V". The choreography is more classically balletic and finds the dancers swinging themselves and their partners into suspensions, sometimes arabesquing into the air, and at times, lightly dropping to the ground. For the uninitiated, "V" is not about the number 5, but about playing with space and patterns. The dancers find ways of creating the V, then other formations. The evening is dramatically charged, from the use of live music to the bold lighting and costumes and especially to the dancers, whose sense of humor and light-heartedness easily transfer to the audience.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet by Amy Meek
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA - www.jacobspillow.org
Jacob’s Pillow, which is America’s longest-running dance festival, has once again put together an eclectic, thought-provoking summer schedule of shows. The festival was a 2010 National Medal of Arts honoree, and it continues to provide Western Massachusetts with an array of top international dance companies and choreographers. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has appeared at the Pillow numerous times, because audiences love the unique energy and diverse repertory of the company. This night was no different, and the dancers kept the audience engaged with a program of three commendable works. The first piece, "Uneven," was choreographed by Cayetano Soto and displayed the dancers moving throughout the space with each other in complex shapes. They showed great control, strength, and agility in both solo and partner work and moved from curved to angular movements with fluidity and sharp accented beats. The dancing was enhanced by the beautiful cello music played by Kimberly Patterson, and the dramatic lighting and costumes. "Stamping Ground" was created in 1983 by Jiri Kylian, an internationally acclaimed choreographer, based on traditional Aboriginal dance. The work explored the interplay of movements between percussion rhythms and silence. The mix of power and timing by the dancers made this an exciting and humorous work to watch. The last piece of the program, "Red Sweet," was choreographed by Jorma Elo. It is a work often performed by this company which showcased classical ballet technique, although blended with contemporary and some hip-hop dance.The choreography was playful and complex and a light ending to the show. Judging from the enthusiastic response from the audience, this company remains a favorite to watch at the festival.

Film Night by Shera Cohen
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA - www.bso.org
Standing at the maestro’s podium, John William turned from facing the Boston Pops Orchestra to see his audience of at least 100,000. He asked one simple question, “Isn’t this a magical place?” The response? Cheers, clapping, foot stomping, and every form of verbal accolade imaginable. This throng of percussive action continued throughout Film Night at Tanglewood. The shed was packed, as was the lawn with only inches of grass between patrons. More than any other year, it seemed as if many t’weens and teens populated the concert. It was wonderful to see them. John Williams needed no introduction on stage or now. As several overhead screens lowered, the conductor held his baton high and immediately led his orchestra through “Hooray for Hollywood.” To a fast paced montage of movie clips from the past 90 years, it was a toss-up as to which the audience liked better – the music or the movies. But this was no contest. The night was all about movie music. Throughout the concert, other lengthy film compilations filled the screens. The Salute to Westerns began with a rousing “The Cowboys,” followed by the whispery “Dances with Wolves,” culminating with “How the West Was Won” with split second edits of actors from Tom Mix to Jeff Bridges. Of course, John Wayne got a lot of screen time. A surprise montage, accompanied by the theme from “Sabrina,” delighted the audience in a remembrance of Audrey Hepburn. During The Tribute to Film Composers, it was no surprise that approximately one-quarter of the movie scores were those of Williams. Yet, this man is so humble and self-effacing. He shared all clapping and cheering fully with his orchestra, as the musicians rose each time at his insistence, especially after the “Star Wars” finale (a medley of all six SW movies). Was all of this enough for one of the finest concerts ever performed? No. Actor Morgan Freeman poetically narrated the story of “The Reivers” to Williams’ score; violinist Gil Shaham lovely played a trio of pieces from “Shindler’s List” and then exuberantly dove into the entire overture of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yes, Tanglewood is magical, as is the Boston Pops and music genius John Williams.

Wittenberg by Robbin M. Joyce
Chester Theater, Chester, MA - ww.chestertheatre.org
The slings and arrows of the conflict between Faith and Reason may seem a sea of troubles, but it makes for entertaining theatre. David Davalos has created a very witty play, set as a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" that will delight even those who don’t appreciate the Brooding Dane. Byam Stevens, along with a highly creative production team, has created a university setting wherein Hamlet seeks guidance from two renowned professors: John Faustus and Martin Luther. The set, complete with stone buttresses and heavy wooden doors creates a feeling of weight , while the compass painted on the floor could be symbolic of Hamlet’s need for direction. The lights expertly change with hardly a notice, but punctuate the gravity of the topic at hand. Joel Ripka, as Hamlet, allows the Elizabethan language to trip off his tongue and plays a suitably ambivalent Hamlet. Aubrey Saverino skillfully portrays all of the female characters, from a bar-maid to a defrocked nun to the Virgin Mother. Kent Burnham, as Luther, fairly portrays the father of the Protestant Reformation with a graceful strength of character and conviction. But it is James Barry, as Faustus, who steals the show. His engaging demeanor, combined with a mastery of his own presence and his relationship to his fellow actors, is a joy to watch. He lithely draws a willing and appreciative audience into the arguments between Faustus and Luther, and plays a mean lute to boot. This is a clever, creative play that allows Faith and Reason each their own valid argument, but justifies neither. It’s full of smart wordplay and sharp retort, with a nod to the work of The Bard himself. To see, or not to see, that may be the question; but see with most wicked speed.

Autres Temps by Shera Cohen
Wharton Salon, The Mount, Lenox - www.whartonsalon.org 
In its third year, the Wharton Salon troupe continues to mount one Edith Wharton short story each summer. Dennis Krausnick, once again, has adapted the work of Wharton into play form. While the productions of 2009 and 2010 depicted Wharton’s style, purpose, and stories admirably, this year’s “Autre Temps” fails to do Wharton or Krausnick justice. Celebrating Wharton’s 100-year old piece by staging it in what was once her stable, makes this the ideal and intimate venue for this relatively new and small theatre group. Many of Wharton’s novels and stories focus on the mores of a century ago, class, society, social change vs. tradition, oftentimes reflected through the subject of divorce. The characters, setting, and plot of “Autre Temps” fit the Wharton mold. This was an era when divorce was shameful, and the divorcee was often annihilated from social circles – essentially making her entire purpose for life worthless. Knowing that Diane Prusha (a Shakespeare & Company acting veteran) was the star showed high promise for the play. Unfortunately, even Prusha cannot pull it all together into a cohesive drama. Basically, the production is just not ready. Actors stumble on lines and many are inaudible (even from the fourth row), either the direction is sluggish or the actors or both, set areas are unused and set changes take much too long. Some important theatre elements are ignored; i.e. the audience’s seeing props when a stage door is opened, actors prematurely and inappropriately moving in anticipation of dialogue. Now, perhaps this third day of performance happened to be an especially bad day for cast and crew? The play’s French title means “Other Times.” From past experience, it is clear that the Wharton Salon is more than capable of wonderful productions. However, those were “other times” which, hopefully, can occur again next summer.

The Game by Walter A. Haggerty
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA - www.barringtonstageco.org
“The Game” is the not-to-be-missed event of the year. “The Game” is not just one more light summer musical. It is pure theatre magic in every way. It is in a word – sensational! Based on an 18th Century novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the story follows the scandalous misadventures of a fascinating assemblage of French aristocrats. It relates the sometimes amusing, but ultimately tragic outcome of their “game” when one woman’s manipulative actions unleash a tidal wave of events that result in devastating consequences. The score is magnificent. The music by Megan Cavallari is varied and richly melodic. The book and lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchick, traverse a game of subtle intrigue, moving from light and frothy early moments to deeply moving, even tragic results. Director Julianne Boyd has guided her fantastic company through their dangerous games making every move precisely the right one for each occasion, heightening the audience involvement and sympathies.
Rachel York is giving the performance of a lifetime with flashing smiles and eyes that could strike lightening into the heart of any adversary. From seductive teasing to vengeful manipulation, she is outstanding. As Vicomte de Valmont, Graham Rowat ranges from an amusing cad to consummate villain without missing a beat. Amy Decker’s shattering performance of her “My Sin” aria is a moment that will surely remain engraved in the memories of every member of the audience. Joy Franz as Madame De Rosemonde is a delight in the amusing repartee of Act I, but reveals a distinctly chillier side in Act II. Chris Peluso and Sarah Stevens as the young lovers are perfection, as is Christianne Tisdale as Madame de Volanges. The opulent costumes of Jennifer Moeller, together with the sumptuous scenic design of Michael Anania, give “The Game” a level of elegance rarely, if ever, matched in a summer theatre production. In short “The Game” is marvelous on all counts and should not be missed by anyone who appreciates great theatre.

Footloose and Fancy-FULL by R.J. Nickerson
North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA (produced in association with The Cape Playhouse, Dennis, MA) thru August 28 - www.nsmt.org

North Shore Music Theatre is cutting loose - FOOTloose, and it is a non-stop, fast-paced, energetic romp that should not be missed.  Taking us all back to the '80s in color, costume and content, Footloose is the story of a young man, Ren, who moves from Chicago to the "hick" town of Bomont where he turns things upside down and inside out before he brings the long-suffering community back together as a town. Featuring headliner (and NSMT favorite) George Dvorsy as Reverend Shaw Moore, this cast hasn't a weak link in the bunch.  Something is to be said for an ensemble show...that acts like an ensemble!  The fun onstage was more than shared by the audience, and each actor shined with individual moments to make every kid (and every grown-up) get their time in the spotlight.  John Jeffrey Martin won hearts the minute he walked onstage with a playful and charming 'Ren'.  The lovely Chelsea Morgan Stock was perfect as defiant 'Ariel'...and can we just talk about Matthew Dorsey?  Let alone his commitment to his quirky character throughout, numbers "Mama Says" and "Let's Hear it for the Boy" were throroughly enjoyable as we watched 'Willard' go from 'meek little geek' to charming and sleek'!  The supporting characters as a whole were united and strong; never disappointing.  And Maureen Brennan's sincerety as 'Vi' was truly touching.  The pairing of Brennan and Dvorsky was a beautiful, emotional match.  Eric Alsford deserves a cheer for some amazing harmonies, and choreographer Vince Pesce brought exciting, lively and non-stop movement - which was all expected when you go to see a toe-tapper like this show!  A shout out to Director Mark Martino, too, for understanding theater in the round and making ALL scenes accessible to all sides - subtle position shifts by actors throughout musical numbers, constant movement in staging without making anything un-natural - very well done. Kick up your heels, break out your best shoulder pads and dance your way to Footloose at NSMT.  You're guaranteed to leave the house invigorated.

As You Like It by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA thru September 4, 2011 - www.shakeskpeare.org

The audience at Shakespeare & Company certainly likes it very much – “As You Like It,” that is. This is of Shakepeare’s best known comedies with characters, script, and length which make it accessible to those who might feel terrified by anything written in the 16th century. As is typical of the Bard, the central story unfolds (along with secondary plots) to eventually weave the stories together into one happy ending. That is not a “spoiler alert,” since everyone knows that these comedies end with kisses and promises of a joyous future. They also include major elements: disguise, mistaken identity, banishment, love at first sight, a fool, country bumpkins, dukes, a palace, usually a forest, and our hero and heroine. In the case of this troupe, double and triple roles are the norm. Yet, audiences are never mistaken as to which character is acted at the time. Director Tony Simotes takes on double duty, not only at the helm of “As,” but other plays at this venue which perform in repertory. Simotes is a master at executing comedic timing. While slapstick abounds, it is the characters and their relationships that are paramount, and from these come laughter. Simotes has a dream cast, with Merritt Janson in the lead role. This actress has successfully portrayed dramatic characters in the past (Desdemona in “Othello”), but her forte is comedy. She creates a charming, intelligent, coy, witty, sad, and purposeful Roselind. Janson is surrounded by dream cast veterans Jonathan Epstein, Jonathan Croy, Johnny Lee Davenport, Malcolm Ingram; and newbies Jennie Jadow, Tony Roach, and Kevin O’Donnell. Credit must be given to the unseen players – the backstage folk who make it all look easy and flowing onstage. Founders Theatre stage is a long rectangle, so shaping a play has pluses and minuses. The set are numerous toy-size buildings, bridges, castles, etc. placed on the floor and moved about as the action moves. Certainly clever, the decision undoubtedly puts the focus on the people vs their surroundings. The costumes are a fun mix of 16th century, present day, and anytime. Music and full ensemble dance begin and end the play. “As You Like It" is very likable.

Ozawa Hall Concerts by Michael J. Moran
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA thru August - www.bso.org

The largest audiences at Tanglewood attend the weekend programs by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Koussevitzsky Music Shed. But comparable pleasures await listeners who attend the many smaller-scale concerts presented, usually on weeknights, in the more intimate setting of Seiji Ozawa Hall. The same world-class soloists who perform on weekends often come early or stay on to present standard repertoire pieces from novel perspectives. July, for example, featured a stellar evening of the Emerson String Quartet playing the last quartets written by Haydn, Bartok, and Schubert. Their technically flawless performances were given added emotional weight by the knowledge that these final statements in this medium were made late in each composer’s life. The following week, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the soloist in both Ravel concertos that Sunday) played Ravel's complete music for solo piano over two evenings. Even listeners who caught only one program were treated to insightful performances of such comparative rarities as the complete “Miroirs” suite and the exquisite miniature “A La Maniere de Borodin,”which sounded more like a product of the Russian master himself than Ravel. A special treat two weeks later was the opening concert of the 2011 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music in which Festival Director Charles Wuorinen led an ensemble of Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) vocal and instrumental students in two of his own works, including the world premiere of “It Happens Like This,” a “cantata” setting seven whimsical poems by James Tate. The music was delightful and surprisingly accessible, and the performances expert. In an August 10 concert by “Stephanie Blythe and Friends,” the mezzo-soprano, who started her career as a TMC student, shared the stage with her “friends” John Oliver and his Tanglewood Festival Chorus and several instrumental soloists in two works written for her by Alan Louis Smith, including another world premiere. But perhaps the high point of the evening was her soaring a capella rendition of Lowry’s “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The most heartening aspect of Ozawa Hall concerts may be the large contingent in every audience of TMC students, the future of classical music.

Open Marriage by Shera Cohen
Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA thru September 3, 2011 - www.gildedage.org

For the past several summers, Ventfort Hall has hosted a one-woman biographical play. Except for history buffs, the subject is a person unheard of, yet important as one of colorful people who populated the Berkshires. This is the case with “Open Marriage,” the life of Elsie Clews Parsons – a woman ahead of her time, highly educated, and a free-thinker. Being a wife and mother did not curtail her pursuit of unconventional adventure in her travels and in her bedroom. Z“Open Marriage” is the labor of two women to design one success. Writer Juliane Hiam has penned the last three Ventfort plays. In the matter of 75 minutes, Hiam and Undeland create Elsie. The character not only ages, while never changing makeup, but also manages to keep one foot in the 21st century and the other in the early 20th. Undeland is obviously wedded to her role. She is this woman, particularly as she involves audience members in the script. Last year’s play was mounted in a semi-circle alcove in Ventfort’s large entry. The setting was intimate and ideal for a small audience. Elsie, however, walks and trots around the library where the audience sits cabaret style. As much as this new venue perhaps evokes the character’s free life – through the actress’ movement and direct interaction with everyone in the room – the problem of where to watch the character is unanswered. Elsie is certainly a woman to keep one’s eyes on, but it literally means constantly turning in your seat, craning your neck and/or moving the chair. Return to the alcove. Ventfort is a hidden gem with much history, some of which is linked to JP Morgan. A suggestion is to plan time before the play to tour the Hall. The Berkshire Designer Showcase (runs through the fall) permits 14 local decorators free reign of one room each on the entire second floor. “Lovely” describes this summer mansion. Also, lovely is young teen tour guide Victoria Mason, who has drenched herself in knowledge of Ventfort since she was age 7. She is articulate and eager to tell the stories of the home and its former residents. And, if there’s time, check the amazing doll exhibit.

A Quartet of Plays: 1 Hound, 2 Gents, Twins & Molly by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox - most through September 4, 2011 - www.shakeskpeare.org

Read Spotlight’s review of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” from 9/30/2009 . Ditto. The production of this fast, furious, and funny play replicates its success of two years ago. The only significant change is the move from the Bernstein Theatre to Founders Theatre. The latter offers room for additional set surprises. The trio of humorous actors – Ryan Winkles, Josh Aaron McCabe, and Jonathan Croy – coupled with direction by Tony Simotes, make for a play worth seeing at least twice. “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a romp with the Actor Training Performance Intern Company. All of the usual Shakespeare stuff fills this comedy: mistaken identity, banishment, love at first sight, a forest, women disguised as men, a duke or two, and a happy ending. The outdoor Rose Footprint Theatre is home to “The Venetian Twins.” While this Moliere-ish farce could have been penned by The Bard, credit goes to Carlo Goldoni. And, since names are being dropped, keep watching David Joseph – a young actor with charm, versatility, and a singing voice to match any tenor. In the starring dual role (after all, these are identical twins), Joseph is a powerhouse as he runs through the tented stage and spouts hilarious lines. Deftly adapted by the troupe’s talented team of Jonathan Croy and Jenna Ware, the play is easily appreciated on two levels, with puns and asides for adult viewers and straight laughs for younger audience members. BTW, take a look up at the left corner of the tent top to see mother bird feeding her offspring in their nest. How she and the babes contend with ruff ‘n tumble antics of “Twins” is remarkable. The one woman show, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” started this week on the Bernstein stage. Who else but Shakespeare & Company’s founder/actress Tina Packer could play such a profound, funny, and big role? Packer gives life to the real Molly, a political journalist of note for several decades. On any given day except Mondays (even actors need a day of rest), this company mounts at least five plays per day. Whew!

Touch(ed) by Barbara Stroup
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown thru August 14, 2011
“Touch(ed)” is a fine two act play that explores the difficulty of psychiatric decision making when there is conflict between professionally-prescribed care and a common sense intuitive, approach. But that clinical description fails to describe the well-crafted drama presented here: playwright Bess Wohl places two sisters, Kay and Emma, and Kay’s caring boyfriend in an isolated cabin. Kay, the caretaker for 10 years, transports “Penelope” (or Emma, or Madeline) out of institutional care for a week’s trial in the real world. Boyfriend Billy comes along to help. Wohl balances drama and comedy perfectly, and has an uncommon ear for dialogue that is believable. These three characters are so accessible that they could be a friend or relative of any audience member. Yet their development has multidimensional complexity with each changing as they each see a more nuanced view the world. The actors – Michael Chernus, Lisa Joyce, and Merritt Wever – in inhabit their roles fully and live in Wohl’s dialogue with compelling comfort. Sensitive to each other, both laugh lines and serious lines work to move the piece forward at an appropriate pace. Without making a caricature of mentally ill people, Wever shows enough expression, gesture and posture to recognize the illness and effects of medications. In Act I, Emma dislikes any touch, and stares at the spot on her sleeve that Kay’s fingers forgetfully inhabited for a micro-second. By the climax, she is reaching out herself. Joyce goes from chirpy, nervous and controlling to angry, burnt-out exasperation and finally to subdued acceptance. Chernus possesses an intrinsically interesting vocal quality that he uses with skill for both comedy and pathos; he was an instantly likable Billy. His character sees the artist in Emma but also supports the controlling caretaker in Kay; Chernus’ interpretation makes all of this work. The set shows both the inside and outside of the cabin, and a dramatic change in its position contributes to the play’s climactic ending. These are three characters that try to do their best as they deal with problems anyone could face. The viewer feels enriched by having met them.

Romeo and Juliet by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox through September 3, 2011 - www.shakespeare.org

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the theatre, there it is again – “Romeo and Juliet” (R&J). Lovely, tear-jerking, and meaningful the first time around; mandatory reading in high school and then in college; movie versions produced every decade (whatever happened to Olivia Hussey?); and numerous 20th century adaptations make R&J synonymous with the name of Shakespeare.  BUT, R&J’s return in the Berkshires this summer is definitely worth another look. Boasting a huge cast with young R&J actors (they looked 14, which is the age the doomed lovers should be), director Daniela Varon focuses on the characters. This is no whitewash of Capulet vs. Montague families and a variety of others who populate the stage. Every role is uniquely human. Their names are remembered. Each comes with baggage to create fully fleshed people. Of course, there’s R&J – David Gelles and Susannah Millonzi. Both are Equity actors who come with experience. However, they portray naivety, joy, wonder, giddiness, and passion. There is not an audience member alive who does not know the play’s finale, and yet we watch and wait as if unknowing. One young teen boy was overhead afterward saying, “I was really hoping they were gonna’ make it this time.” He echoed the thoughts of many. The stage is stark with a woman’s eyes viewing the audience, the actors dress in white (save for the party scene), the time is the 1500’s or 21st century…it doesn’t matter. Of particular note is the superior acting of Kevin O’Donnell (Mercutio), Starla Benford (Nurse), and Walton Wilson (Friar). These are important characters, so it’s no surprise that skilled actors were cast. Here, again, the actors develop true, living, hurting people. O’Donnell’s Mercutio oozes the tortured man whose bravado often makes him uneasy to observe. Benford’s Nurse sasses in a spirited and keenly intelligent demeanor beyond her station. Wilson ’s Friar ebbs between his devotion to man or to what is holy. Yes, this R&J is very safe, warm, shocking, and new at Shakespeare & Company.

Turn of the Screw by Robbin M. Joyce
Chester Theater, Chester, MA thru August 14 - www.chestertheatre.org

There is nothing as fearsome as what the imagination can conjure. Jeffrey Hatcher has taken a story, plucked from the imagination of Henry James, and created an 80 minute psychological thriller that, under the direction of Daniel Elihu Kramer, will seduce even the most skeptical of audience members.  The stage is bare, except for a single Victorian chair lit from below with eerie, gas-style footlights. It is framed by floor-to-ceiling shutters in such a state of disrepair as to simultaneously create a haunted feel and provide a frustrating partial glimpse of the world outside. A low bass note punctuates the tale with an other-worldly resonance. The story begins with the Narrator, Justin Campbell, relating a story told to him by his sister’s Governess. As the story unfolds Campbell deftly becomes multiple characters: the Master, the Housekeeper, the Nephew and even provides vocal sound effects. Campbell moves through his characters with ease, creating a seductive employer that’s as believable as his precocious little boy is. Alison McLemore, as the Governess, takes the audience on her descent into madness. From her appearance as the naïve prospective employee to the self-proclaimed heroine who will save Miles’ soul at any expense, McLemore carries her role with an intensity that expertly drives the tension of the story. That tension makes this play worth seeing. Does the Governess really see the ghosts of her predecessor and the Valet? Are the ghosts trying to possess the children? Is she? The audience is left as frustrated by these unanswered questions as a sexually-repressed, Victorian-age woman would be. But that is the beauty of this play; it’s left to the viewer’s imagination to decide just how horrific and thrilling it really is.

Capitol Steps 2011 by Shera Cohen
Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA thru September 3 - www.capsteps.com

It should be no surprise that In the Spotlight’s reviews of Capitol Steps tend to be repetitive. Year after year, it’s the same show, format, music, and usually the same ensemble. But, this is a good thing, a very good thing. Take a solid production template and tweak it with new material and Capitol Steps can be enjoyed again and again. Past Spotlight reviews (written by this critic) included adjectives and accolades like: satirical, humorous, irreverent, lively, hilarious, energetic, and a treat. The quintet of comedians/singers (3 men, 2 women) and one pianist give a 90-minute, non-stop, laugh-a-thon on news headlines, primarily focusing on happenings in DC (thus, Capitol Steps). No one is safe from salacious lyrics set to familiar Broadway and pop music tunes. Donned in cheesy costumes and wigs, the actors do their best to look like Obama, Hillary, Bill, Joe, and Sarah. Immediately and “magically” they transpose into Quadafi, Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, various Cabinet members, and all of the current Republican Party candidates. Yes, all…the actors take dual roles. The topics are predictable in dozens of mini-scripts: the national debt, the Tea Party, airport pat downs, tree huggers, and homeland security. The troupe laughs at the audience and vice versa. There are just too many songs to remember, but “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea ” (think “Sound of Music”) is an example. Every show ends with a hilariously long monologue by one of the quintet. He essentially speaks backwards, juxtaposing letters, in fast motion. With twisted malaprops (isn’t that redundant?), it takes a keen ear to catch every joke. Yet, when it seems nearly impossible to understand this speedy repartee, it’s ultimately clear and very, very funny. Things are simple at a CS show: the set is a backdrop of the logo, the stage is an elevated platform, the room is a large windowless basement, the seats provide poor sight lines, but on a 90 degree day it’s pleasantly air-conditioned. Forgive and forget the amenities of which there are next to none. Just as the news changes daily, Capitol Steps is the show to see repeatedly.

A Doll’s House by Shera Cohen
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA - www.wtfestival.org

“If it ain’t broke, etc.” is the dictate Sam Gold should have adhered to in his direction of “A Doll’s House.” Why take a classic (by Henrik Ibsen) and modernize it in look, language, and feel? It doesn’t work on many levels.The story is Nora’s, a woman so influenced by her husband’s subtle yet strong hand of righteousness that she becomes childlike. She is his little squirrel as she crawls along the floor playing with her own children. Outside circumstances and people challenge her status. The audience waits for what should have been an extremely tense and dramatic outcome. Lily Rabe (Nora) holds the entire play together, not only literally as she appears in every scene but one, but figuratively. She portrays a young woman whose nerves are raw, on the brink of becoming insane. Rabe’s Nora appears frivolousness, yet smolders underneath. The audience feels for her plight and her future. As excellent as Rabe is in the difficult role, one questions why this particular actress was cast. She is tall and has a deep voice – neither of which connotes a child, particularly when playing against a man of equal stature. Yet, thank goodness that Rabe was hired. Actors appear primarily as sounding boards to Nora. Josh Hamilton (husband Torvald) needs an injection of meanness infused into his character; Lily Taylor (Nora’s friend) should reach her potential to make Kristine sympathetic; Adam Rothenberg (“threatening man”) is effective as a distraught man, yet the cadence of his speech is staccato; and Matthew Maher (Dr. Rank) is lost between humor and weirdness in Ibsen’s emotionally tortured character. The fault, dear audience, lies in the direction. The set depicts an old, stylish apartment complete with library and beach-like furniture. The sex is too playful touch and tickle. The kids and dog scene can be cut. Most importantly is the ending. Nora’s sacrifice is paramount and succinct. The scene drags endlessly, tells the audience what we already know, and emphasizes Torvald instead of Nora. Not good. This, being opening night, leaves time to make improvements. WTF is such a respected theatre venue, that the alterations are very possible.

Sylvia by Barbara Stroup
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
In a twist on the usual scenario - "Please Mom, can we get a dog?" - A. R. Gurney lets his mid-life protagonist propel the expansion of the family in this light-hearted play at Berkshire Theatre Festival. The real center of the play is Sylvia, the dog herself, played by (human) Rachel Bay Jones. Jones captures the antics and habits of everyone's favorite pet with her large eyes and expressive face. If dogs make the best people, Jones definitely makes the best dog. Greg's attachment to Sylvia is immediate and adoring - he is clearly a man in love. Sylvia adores him back. David Adkins plays Greg, and to his credit, is an unflinching recipient of licks and love attacks from Jones, the 'dog.' Dog lovers usually welcome these canine expressions of affection with joy, but it takes a real actor to welcome them from a human! The conflict in the play arises from the reaction of Kate, Greg's wife, and her attempt to keep the couple on the path they had mapped out for this child-free stage of their lives. Kate is played sternly by Jurian Hughes. The director dresses her in neutral no-nonsense business wear, just in case we need reminding that this lady has a Plan. Three supporting characters appear, and all three are played with comic excellence by Walter Hudson. Tom, a dog owner, counsels Greg about spaying. Phyllis, an old friend, gives up abstinence after an encounter with Sylvia. Leslie, a psychotherapist, hides all gender clues in his counseling practice, and then challenges Greg to 'guess.' These characters take the play out of the living room making them a welcome addition to the narrative, especially because of Hudson's talent for bringing them to life. The play becomes a musical at one point, with a trio of "Every Time We Say Good-bye I Die a Little" - a seriously sad song given a comically bizarre twist. The playwright resolves the conflict off-stage making the final epilogue seem a bit anti-climactic, but the play deals nicely with the pleasure and peril of canine companionship and its effect on a human relationship - while dispensing nicely with cats!

Dinner with Friends by Jennifer Curran
New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
“Dinner with Friends” was first presented won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The play focuses on two married couples who vacation together, dine together and raise their children together and what happens when one of the marriages ends seemingly abruptly. The upper-class Gabe (Sam Rush) and Karen (Kathy McCafferty) is the couple trying to understand what happened to their friends’ marriage and more importantly, what that says about their own lives and partnership. As Tom (David Mason) and Beth (Brianne Beatrice) let go of their union and reveal the truth about their lives to their friends, Gabe and Karen are left struggling to deal with possible weak spots in their own marriage. With beautiful set design by Jacquelyn Marolt that puts the audience smack dab in the middle of Connecticut suburbia or the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, gorgeous lighting by Daniel D. Rist and understated costume design by Emily Justice Dunn, everything is in place to create a perfect playground for willing and capable actors. It’s always surprising when a professional theatre fails to remember some of the basics. The director’s hand is seen in awkward movements and blocking which gets in the way of the action. In moments that were clearly written to be light-hearted to reveal an unspoken intimacy or the closeness of the characters, the lines tend to fall flat or sound over-wrought. That isn’t to say that there isn’t much to like about “Dinner.” David Mason provides a man reborn in his flawed but lovable Tom. Sam Rush’s Gabe offers a reaction to his friend’s departure from assumed domestic bliss with just the right amount of horror and hurt. There a person in the room who wasn’t silently cheering for Brianne Beatrice’s Beth as she offers up some brutal honesty to her friend Karen. And then in the center of it all is Karen herself. Kathy McCafferty’s performance is excellent. Her character’s desperate need to hear the words, to feel the feelings, to be reminded that it is in fact all worth it in the end is as universal to marriage as car pools and dinners with friends.

World Premiere Tarzan Swings at NSMT by R.J. Nickerson
North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA thru 7/24
Bill Hanney's North Shore Music Theatre is presenting a World Premiere production of the Disney musical, TARZAN.  Written by Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang, who wrote the musical's book based on both the 1999 Disney film and the original Edgar Rice Burroughs story "Tarzan of the Apes,"  Hwang worked directly with NSMT to revise the Broadway script. As most of us know, Tarzan tells the classic tale of a shipwreck that leaves an infant boy orphaned on the shores of West Africa. The helpless baby is adopted and raised by the mate of the leader of a tribe of gorillas who is grieving the loss of her baby. As he grows and matures, the boy yearns for acceptance from his ape father and to discover the reason for his uniqueness. Eventually he encounters his first human - Jane - and all of their worlds are transformed.  The cast of TARZAN is led by Broadway's Brian Justin Crum in the title role. 100% invested in his role, Crum was outstanding in his physicality, character and emotion. Innocent and naive one second, proud and strong the next, this role calls for an actor to run the gamut, and Crum not only ran it...he swung it. I have to note, a patron next to me commented, "Oh, I wish he'd straighten up," to which I had to reply, "Would you if you had been raised since birth by gorillas?"  From start to finish, Crum was... well, simply put - a primate. This was outdone only by his flawless vocals. Also a standout was Christopher Messina as Tarzan's sidekick, Terk. Ever so thankful to get the voice of Rosie O'Donnell out of my head, I found Messina's Terk thoroughly enjoyable to watch. His energy was perpetually high as he made his way about the stage, whether it be on all fours, tumbling, or swinging from a vine...which he seemed quite adept at.  I was very surprised to read that this was Messina's first professional musical production, but I will not be surprised to see many more in his future. A shout out to all in "Trash the Camp," which was too short, but wonderful still. Also worth noting, Robyn Payne (Kala), Todd Alan Johnson (Kerchak) and Jay Russell (Professor Porter). The touching "Sure as the Sun Turns to Moon" between Kala and Kerchak was playful and loving, and the Professor was beautifully understated but ever present. A character unto itself was the brand new 14-piece orchestration of the Oscar and Grammy Award-Winning music written by Phil Collins, conducted by Anne Shuttlesworth. Sadly, there are too few full company numbers, as those (specifically "Two Worlds" and "Son of Man") were by far the strongest overall. As an ensemble, this cast soared vocally. Enhancing the orchestra and cast were also added pit singers, one of whom being Massachusetts-native Alex Newell, currently of Oxygen's "The Glee Project" fame. I would prefer a CD of the NSMT company vocals over the Broadway CD. Tarzan is directed by Bill Castellino, who is making his NSMT directing debut. At times, I questioned choices made. For example, section 7 was blocked by Terk on the hanging ladder during Kerchak's final moments. Also, perpetual vines pretty much throughout were great for keeping us in the jungle, but they were very under utilized. Lastly, having some ensemble members in vague basic costumes (as the fruit hangers and later the carnivorous plants) made them seem like "other random people in the jungle".  My son, a '9-year-old theater kid' asked why those men were holding the fruit on that vine. He also did not recognize (nor did I) the different between the gorillas and the panther. Again, commented from son, "Why did that gorilla attack the family? That's not in the story."  Regardless, very much enjoyed were the use of screens and projections for "I Need to Know," the scenes of Tarzan's original family treehouse, and of special note - Kala and Terk's scene that actually took place in the house - wish there could have been more of those to further include the audience. Tickets for TARZAN are priced from $35 - $65. Kids 12 & under save 50% at all evening performances (though I might warn parents of an under 6 attention factor). Performances run Tuesday thru Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8L00pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm. For tickets and information call (978) 232-7200, visit www.nsmt.org, or visit the box office in person at 62 Dunham Road.

pride@prejudice by Robbin M. Joyce
Chester Theater, Chester, MA through July 17
How great would it have been to have a Smartphone years ago when slogging through the dreaded list of required reading in high school? Writing essays, book reviews, reports and term papers would have been a breeze; perhaps even enjoyable. Sitting in the audience of Chester Theater Company's presentation of pride@prejudice was almost like having that information available. Daniel Elihu Kramer delights the sold-out house with his adaptation of Jane Austin's novel, Pride and Prejudice. He carefully culls the important scenes from her storyline and cleverly interjects them with commentary, exposition, letters by Austin, questions from the audience and even some web-surfing and chat room conversations.  The five cast members -- Aubrey Saverino, Gisela Chipe, Jay Stratton, Michele Tauber and Colin Ryan -- all move among 30 characters with ease and aplomb. Despite the fact that Jay Stratton, for instance, plays both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins, the audience never for a moment is confused about which of Elizabeth's suitor is which. Indeed, we see all the major characters, several minor ones, the author herself and a plethora of frustrated high school and college students. This is a delightful production and one not to be missed. It breathes new life into a beloved story, and very well could inspire a re-reading of the novel. The only question left unanswered is the nature and outcome of Austin's relationship with Tom Lefroy. Perhaps we should Google it.

moonchildren by Jennifer Curran
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA through July 16
Michael Weller’s moonchildren opened on Broadway in 1972 to small audiences and rave reviews. There have been scores of plays written about the 1960's, but precious few that get it right. Moonchildren isn’t about tie dyed shirts or love beads; it is as rich and complicated as the time. Weller’s decision to choose a tiny slice of an era allows his audience to go beyond picket and peace signs. With scenic design by John Traub and costumes by George Veale, the mid 1960’s are brought to life in the most real way possible. The play itself is complex and its characters can feel just out of reach. Viewers go home without learning who everyone truly is or where they come from. The direction by the very talented Karen Allen bridges those gaps and allows the characters to take on lives on their own. The impeccable comedic timing of Joe Paulik (Mike) and Matt R. Harrington (Cootie) drive the show. In a master’s class of one-upmanship and rapid fire one-liners, Paulik and Harrington are brilliant. The two actors play so well together they could easily steal every scene, that they don’t is mostly due to Hale Appleman. Appleman’s Bob, the center of the story, is played with an understated grace and powerhouse of emotional reserve. The audience can see the rising frustration and fear and anger at the changing tides in Bob’s world. We watch as Bob struggles to find his way through death, both figuratively and literally. As a story about growing up, generational gaps and the certainty of change, moonchildren is a rarity. It defies its time and is as relevant today as it was in 1972. The casting is spot on and nary a weak spot to be found.

Broadway Classic, Alive and Well in the Berkshires! - Guys and Dolls by Walter A. Haggerty
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA through July 16, 2011

If you’re looking for the perfect musical (or just a great evening’s entertainment), look no farther than the Barrington Stage Company’s staging of the classic, “Guys and Dolls,” on through July 16. There’s no question that this ageless Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows blockbuster has earned its classical status and is counted among the greatest of all Broadway musicals.  In its current revival, superbly directed by John Rando, it has been given a swiftly moving, meticulous production that scores on every level. When laughs start during the choreographed overture, the audience members know instantly that it is in good hands.  This “musical fable of Broadway,” inspired by a host of colorful Damon Runyon characters, features a quartet of youthful performers with impressive Broadway credits. Michael Thomas Holmes’ Nathan Detroit has the audience as well as Miss Adelaide, well within his grasp from the moment he steps on stage. Leslie Kritzer delivers an incomparable performance as Miss Adelaide capturing every ounce of humor without missing a beat (or a bump). In a second act duet, this couple hold a note so long that it would have rocked the Met. Morgan James as Sarah Brown sings beautifully and handles the transition of her character, from cold to hot, with style and sensitivity. Matthew Risch gives Sky Masterson class and believability with a flawless interpretation.  As impressive as the principals are, every role is cast with care and directed and performed to perfection. From Daniel Marcus as Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s show-stopping “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” to Gordon Stanley, as Arvide Abernathy, singing “More I Cannot Wish You” to Miss Sarah, each performer becomes a real individual with his or her own personality. Even the ensemble members become distinct, individual characters.  The choreography of Joshua Bergasse is extraordinary in its range and complexity. From sets and costumes to a first rate orchestral accompaniment, this production bodes well for a great summer of entertainment in the Berkshires. Bravo to all!

My One and Only by Shera Cohen
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam (CT) thru June 25, 2011

Goodspeed continues to make the best British musical comedies even better. The production qualities of such classics as “Babes in Arms,” “Me and My Girl” and “The Boy Friend” – at Goodspeed in the past decade – are equaled by those in “My One and Only.” Considering that the familiar music is by Who’s Who of 1940s composers (in this case, the Gershwins), and the dancing is “wow,” it’s no surprise that this energetic, excellent show is up to the exceedingly high standard as its Goodspeed predecessors. Here’s another inane plot of boy meets girl – boy is a hick pilot and girl is a swimming champ (think: pretty Gertrude Ederle). At first, it seems as if Tony Yazbeck (our hero) is primarily a dancer who can also sing. After all, his opening song is the not very difficult “Blah, Blah, Blah.” Correction, once he is assigned more melodies, capped by the stirring “Strike Up the Band,” it’s obvious that Yazbeck excels at song and dance equally. Gabrielle Ruiz (our “little fish”) is to be complemented on her vocal skills which are similar to those of Julie Andrews, particularly in “S’Wonderful.” While her dancing cannot be judged, because she has little to do, lacking was charm and charisma. Ruiz’s character didn’t seem worthy of the affable hick. Other characters fill out the bill, particularly the versatile and funny “Greek Chorus” quartet who becomes reporters, preachers, barbers, etc. throughout the story. The side plot of the snidely bad guy (with thick accent and mustache) and female mechanic is adorable. Alde Lewis, Jr. (Mr. Magix, relationship advisor) gives a standout performance the minute that he literally stands up from his chair. His Magix has a suave air and dry sense of humor, with tap dancing feet that create a capella music. The title song and very long tap and soft-shoe number by Yazbeck and Lewis is the showstopper. The audience reaction indicated that the piece wasn’t long enough – give ‘em more. But there’s lots more, and now enough room to write about the 3D movie-like set, the array of costumes, and the choreography. Goodspeed follows the adage of truth in advertising. Billed as a “tap dance spectacular” – it certainly is!


Thoroughly Modern Millie by Eric Johnson
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA through May 8, 2011

Perhaps this show should be called “Thoroughly Timeless Millie” because that is exactly what the story line is, timeless. Small town girl hits the big city lights with a plan and a dream, both of which are compromised right from the start. It is a story that has been told many times before, and will continue to be told in various settings and with a plethora of characters. Everyone loves a story about triumph over adversity, and good defeating evil. The beginning of the opening number showcases Dylan Rae Brown as Millie, the aforementioned small town girl seeking out her fortune in New York City circa 1922. Brown captivates and charms the audience right from the start -- her remarkable voice and stage presence are most entertaining. The chemistry between Millie and Jimmy, the fast talking, street wise city boy (adeptly played by PJ Adzima) is delightful. The characters are real and believable throughout. The skilled and talented ensemble complements the production wonderfully. A few standouts include Katie Clark as Miss Dorothy, Jeff
Clayton’s Graydon, and Dawn Rendell’s Miss Flannery. The “scenery chewing” award for this production is a tie between Pat Haynes as Mrs. Meers and Kathy Renaud as Muzzy. Each actress takes a turn stealing the scene in the first act, and when they have a scene together in the second act it is pure, over the top hilarity. Director Kim Lynch has done an exemplary job of casting and directing a show which could lend itself to being too “cutesy” in the wrong hands. Musical Director Christina Climo and the orchestra do a very nice job with the score which includes a brief homage to the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. The choreography by Amy Bouchard works beautifully -- it is tight and deftly executed. A combination of built pieces and projections (courtesy of Technical Director Frank Disco) comprise the set design which also works very nicely. Exit 7 Players upholds its reputation for high production values with this show, as evidenced by the standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience. "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is an entertaining and skillfully executed production, thoroughly.

The Odd Couple by Eric Johnson
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA through May 22, 2011

The Devil is always in the details. When one sets out to produce a period piece from 100 or 1000 years ago, minor details will go unnoticed by most. Electing to re-create 1968,
however, is a bit trickier as anachronisms will be noticed. Director Gina Kaufman states in the program that “the specifics of the characters’ behavior don’t make sense to me anywhere or any place else,” and she is correct. Neil Simons’ play about two men sharing a Riverside Drive apartment following Oscar’s divorce and Felix’s estrangement from
his wife is most definitely dated and needs to take place in that when it was written. Now for the details: Greg Trochlil (set) and Ilene Goldstein (costumes) do a fabulous job of setting the scene and seeing to all the little things such as shoes, a Roger Williams’ album next to the stereo with turntable and 8-track player, and a generous smattering of that awful avocado green color that was a staple of furniture and appliances in that era. The performances all are genuine and natural. Tim Cochran (Speed), Stuart Gamble (Murray), Daniel Popowich (Roy), and Steve Henderson (Vinnie) do a fantastic job opening the show, sitting around the table playing cards, smoking and drinking in the litter strewn apartment. Josh Perlstein as the slovenly Oscar inhabits the role convincingly and confidently and commits to some great choices for the character. James Emery’s portrayal of the injury prone, obsessive Felix is delightful. Emery does a very nice job with a challenging role. Stephanie Carlson and Cate Damon as the Pigeon Sisters leave the audience in tears from raucous laughter in the date scene. Kudos go to producing director Danny Eaton and to the cast and crew of “The Odd Couple” for taking on a show that is considered by many to have been done to death. Exceptional production values and excellent casting make this a show worth seeing.

The 39 Steps by Shera Cohen
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT through May 1, 2011
www.hartfordstage.org


Only one serious error can be pointed out in Hartford Stage’s production of “The 39 Steps” – the ending. No, not the ending of the play, but the curtain call bowing. The cast of four are divided, two then the other two, receiving audience applause. Each member of the quartet deserves equal, and huge, credit. That being said, the play itself is an extremely clever combination of movie elements from Alfred Hitchcock mysteries (the play is based on his movie of the same name), to 1940’s film noir, to Keystone Cops, and Monty Python. Throw in a spy, a corpse, a mansion and it’s a flick. In fact, some audience members at Hartford Stage are seated as if watching a movie within a play. There’s the handsome run-away hero (with pencil mustache), the double roled femme fatale/woman on the train, and all the rest. The latter meaning two actors take on the incredibly difficult task of portraying dozens of characters each, changing costumes and sexes with split second timing. Director Maxwell Williams, along with his scenic designer, lighting and sound team, not to mention backstage dressers, is due equal kudos to those onstage. A rather disheveled odd looking set with a stack of motley props becomes numerous indoor and outdoor scenes – sometimes both at the same time. One prop morphs from a waterfall into a train. The train chase is the most creative and funniest moment in the play. While the characters take themselves very seriously, the humor is displayed through their movements. Dialogue alone would not make “The 39 Steps” a comedy, which is probably why Hitchcock knew it worked as a dark mystery. Robert Eli portrays our matinee hero with spot-on aplomb and a feigned sophisticated demeanor. For most of the play, Christina Pumariega depicts a damsel in distress who underplays her role to help the other cast members receive the laughs. Noble Shropshire and Steve French are “the other cast members.” Versatile, malleable, physical, and quick, with accents to fit each separate role, these two take the play from funny to hysterical.

A Steady Rain by Stacie Beland & Mark Axelson
TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT through May 8, 2011
www.theaterworkshartford.org


It is a rare feat, indeed, when one can be treated to theatre that is so raw, so visceral that the characters and their stories stay with you for hours after you've left the venue. Such is the case with "Steady Rain." The production is bare-bones, driven entirely by its two actors, Kyle Fabel (Joey) and Aaron Roman Weiner (Denny). Fabel and Weiner brilliantly bring (and, sometimes, push) the audience through a tale of morality, dedication, love, and loyalty. At an hour and a half with no intermission, the actors grab the theatregoers' attention from the moment they start speaking until the story reaches its ultimate, devastating conclusion. One scarcely has time to breathe as the rapid-fire pace of the dialogue, coupled with the brilliant sound design of J. Hagenbuckle, batter the senses.  Joey and Denny are police officers who have been friends all of their lives and, more recently, have been repeatedly turned down for Detective badges. Both characters are inherently flawed-they tell their stories with unflinching honesty. What's troubling is that as self-destructive as Denny is and as damaged as Joey is, they can't be hated, despite their actions often ranging far into the category of hateful. They're very human. It is painfully easy to see what drives them to the end of their story.  In a production such as this, there is a lot of storytelling responsibility for the actors. Fabel and Weiner are more than up to the task. As Joey and Denny, they describe their weavings through morality and immorality directly to the audience, only occasionally acknowledging the other actor. They hurl images, written with such exacting language that the audience has no choice but to visualize what Joey and Denny have experienced. Under the expert direction of Tazewell Thompson, who has masterfully choreographed the pace and the movement behind the words, the actors are brutally authentic. The production feels all too real. Thompson is to be congratulated - this is a show that relies heavily on human dynamic which is largely open to directorial interpretation. He delivers perfection.

The Savannah Disputation by Shera Cohen
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA through April 3, 2011

Throughout the centuries, wars have started in the name of religion. “The Savannah Disputation” is a blip on the radar of clerical conflict on the home front. The angle on this battle is humor which is sustained throughout. There is a heap of proselytizing going on, as the characters take the issue of Christianity vs. Catholicism very seriously.
Admittedly, this reviewer did not “get” all of the jokes, although theatre-goers at the Majestic certainly did. The saying is that you have to be Jewish or a New Yorker to fully appreciate Woody Allen’s humor. This play follows that code. “ Savannah ” is a comedy about religion with underlying skepticism and seriousness. The characters are caricatures for the most part. That said, the actors in these roles do exactly what they are supposed to do in their individual performances and their interaction with each other. Brenny Ravine, as the young over-zealous minister Melissa preaching her word from door-to-door, is charming and wide-eyed. She embodies strong will with some vulnerability. Her goal is to convert two middle-aged Catholic sisters – one more Catholic than the other. Barb McEwen’s opinionated and bossy Mary is mostly on the mark, leaning a bit toward over-acting. Jeannine Haas balances McEwen’s boisterousness with a mousy Margaret. Yet Haas personifies a woman with more substance. Writer Evan Smith’s dialogue pits one woman against the other lovely. Robert Lunde (Father Murphy) likens himself to the fulcrum of the seesaw (the ying and yang of the sisters and Christianity vs. Catholicism). He is a steady rock with a soft edge. Although the play’s date is the present, Greg Trochlil’s staging of the women’s home reflects that they have yet to leave the era of the 1950’s. Christine Thompson’s costuming accomplishes the same effect.  There are several written and directorial subtleties that underscore the battles related to getting the message “of the gospel,” so to speak. Melissa’s cell phone music is “Mission Impossible” and Margaret deletes answering machine calls. However, deleting this play from a theatregoer’s things to do list will be a loss of laughs in this bleak winter season.

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA through March 27, 2011
www.shakespeare.org


The play’s title is a misnomer. This is no who-done-it. Perhaps the real mysteries are, how did the each of the actors keep up the fast pace and a straight face. Without hesitation, “Irma” is simply one of the funniest comedies ever written. Yet, “simply” is the wrong word, as “Irma’s” plot is quite detailed, but at the same time it’s not important to understand what is going on. Hmmm? The characters, set, sound effects, lighting, costumes, and most importantly the dialog are spoofs of movie classics. “Rebecca,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Gaslight” meet “Psycho,” “Deliverance,” and “Twilight” (okay, so the latter isn’t a classic, yet). Toss in speeches from Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “Hamlet” and the hodgepodge is hilarious. The plot: the husband of the deceased lady of the manor (located on the foggy moors of England) remarries. Life on the estate is not very pleasant for new bride Enid. The maid hates her, hubby hunts a lot, and werewolves deliver the eggs and milk. However, Enid does enjoy a pithy ukulele duet with housekeeper Jane, as well as reading the one and only book in the library. This all sounds rather weird and stupid. It is. Take all of the above and cast only two actors, each playing multiple roles, sexes, and species, and this explains why “Irma” is unbelievable and unbelievably funny. Josh Aaron McCabe (Lady Enid, et al) and Ryan Winkles (Lord Edgar, etc.) are the acting duo who carry it all off while changing costumes in seconds. Fine actors in solo roles, put the two together on stage, and their quickly timed banter, movement, and expressions are priceless. McCabe’s wide-eyed Enid balanced with Winkle’s sly tilt of the head say a thousand words – all laughable. Pregnant pauses, sexual innuendo, and double entendres are aplenty. In recent years, Kevin Coleman has directed some of the most successful comedies at Shakespeare & Company. “Irma” is his best effort yet. It is safe to say that audience members will leave the theatre having missed some of the lines, because they were too busy laughing at others. BTW: Kudos to the three costumers, who deservedly took closing curtain bows.

Snow Falling on Cedars by Shera Cohen
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT through February 13, 2011
www.hartfordstage.org


It is opening night and Hartford Stage has its hands full creating and executing three inseparable stories into one plot in little more than two hours. "Snow Falling on Cedars," based on a best-selling novel, achieves nearly all that it strives to attain in story, character development, and the broader scope of historic facts.  At its core is the ashamed internment of Japanese-Americans during and shortly after WWII. One Japanese character softly and strongly says to a Caucasian, "Look at my face." Those four words sum up the deep conflict of the times and the people. The sub-plot of young, forbidden love takes the global crisis to a human level. Finally, is a mystery played out in a murder trial. The latter is the less defined with a pat and convenient ending. A lot happens in onstage, with 12 actors double and triple cast, a multitude of scenes jumping back and forth from the 1940's to the 1950's, and a stylized set with turning floor. Except, on occasion and at the play's start when some of the double roles are confusing, director Jeremy B. Cohen works a marvel of fast and seamless overlapping segments to become a full and excellent production. Admittedly, there are too many scenes which make the play feel longer than it is in spite of Cohen's swift changes of the set elements. As for Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata's accomplishments, less is more with a sliding backdrop of various pictures and two large moveable ramps expertly depicting nearly everything conceivable on the fictitious island off of Washington. Primarily an ensemble cast, the lovers might be considered the "stars." Kimiye Corwin and Dashiell Eaves make for a poignant duo. Yet, actors Bill Doyle, Kate Levy, and Ron Nakahara take advantage of their moments to shine.
Part narrative and part dialogue, the play simultaneously tells and shows the progression of the story. Oftentimes, Act II of any script is not as well depicted. "Cedars" is one of the exceptions, particularly with the balance of humor and hands-on war combat action, of which there is neither in Act I.

Pinter, Pinter by Steve Capra
Atlantic Theatre, NYC

Harold Pinter’s reputation was established by an early play, The Caretaker, which appeared in 1960. Two years later, he wrote The Collection. This play exhibits the signature Pinter themes: latent danger, the ambiguity of meaning, perspectivism. It’s this third motif that figures dominantly in the script. Two couples are involved, one gay, one straight. One of the gays may have spent the night with the young lady in question – or he may not have. Even the two involved change their stories, he at a whim, as if even the individual can’t be sure of a memory. They use their recollections as weapons or enticements, and their veracity is of no importance. Even the degree of vagary is carefully measured for effect.  The fellow’s lover (the older gentleman who’s keeping him) has his suspicions; his young partner gets anonymous phone calls and visitors. He responds with a lie of his own, exonerating himself from the responsibility of responding to his boy’s possible infidelity. It’s like the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the action is resolved by a lie. This difference is that in this play, it’s just one lie among many. If truth exists, it’s beyond our ken.  The Atlantic Theatre is producing the play on its second stage, impeccably. The clipped British English has the sharpness of the knife the two rivals use in a mock duel. When they turn their heads, it’s with a snap, like a switchblade flicked open. The direction is brisk, without dwelling on Pinteresque pauses. The actors modulate their performances marvelously, always keeping a characteristic guardedness.
The Collection, in its one-act simplicity, is a prototype of Pinter; indeed, it’s nearly generic Pinter. The second one-act on the Atlantic’s double bill is more intriguing. A Kind of Alaska was written 20 years after The Collection, in a period when Pinter was particularly concerned with memory. A Kind of Alaska springs from Oliver Sach’s book Awakenings, which chronicles this doctor’s work with victims of sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica). The disease swept the world ina pandemic between 1915 and 1925. Its victims lay in a sleep-like stupor.  Pinter uses the fact of the disease as his conceit. The central character, Deborah, “fell asleep” quite suddenly, standing up, when she was 16 years old. The play is set in her hospital room 29 years later, on the day she wakes. Knowing no better, she still believes she’s 16. She has no memory of the 29 years, and the onus of explanation falls on her doctor and her sister. The themes memory and time are obvious. Moreover, since this is Pinter, the other two characters lie or not as they see fit. But the deepest level of the play is revealed when Deborah describes her consciousness in her sleep. She talks about “interior windows masquerading as walls… glass reflects glass forever and ever.” It’s a spot-on metaphor for consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. Consciousness itself. The role of Deborah is played by a superb actress, Lisa Emery. The stage is almost exclusively her playground. She has the physical life of a teenager; her emotional life flows effortlessly. There’s no drama in the play to speak of; Madame Emery keeps us engrossed as she expresses the parade of thoughts that run through Deborah’s confused mind. This is, after all, what G.B. Shaw would call a “bravado play”. Larry Bryggman (who plays the elder gay in the first piece), plays her doctor, so proud that he can barely control his delight. He loves his patient (who is his one-time sister-in-law), but she is nonetheless an object to him. Walt Spangler designed both sets. The first is a handsome split stage, as Pinter specifies. For A Kind of Alaska, he’s kept to stark sterility: white walls, white bed clothes, and a mute white radiator.

Andreas Garfield's Home Sweet Home by Steve Capra
The Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC) is a new project with the mission to bring Scandinavian theatre to the US. The founders are ex-pats, the playwrights and directors borrowed Scandinavians. Their American premiere is a production of a play by Andreas Garfield, Home Sweet Home. In this play, a young couple have (has?) a friend to dinner, the fellow’s old army buddy (his name is Carsten). He’s just returned from Iraq (the Danes fought in Iraq with the “American-led coalition”). It’s a vivid portrait of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Carsten gradually reveals the effects that his experiences have had on him. In the process, he exposes the fatuous smugness of his hosts’ domesticity. Iben, the woman (her name is Iben), is a dove (in the jargon of the 60’s), and she’s tactless enough to speak her mind. At one level, the play is a discussion of the war, or, more precisely, of the polarized opinions of the war. The dialogue could be about any war. One point of mounting the Danish production here is that it translates literally into the American experience. It succeeds in being simultaneously specific and universal. Iben’s candidness naturally sets off a breakdown on the part of the soldier-guest (Carsten). The actor playing him has a Danish accent, while the other two do not. The dissonance stresses the guest’s being the other. He ultimately drops the courtesy and explodes, attacking their attitudes and experiences. At its deepest level, the script discusses the complacency of comfort. And so the play works on several levels. But its structure is flawed. It develops in fits and starts, its arc intermittently broken. Instead of progressing steadily toward its fate, it stalls and then jumps ahead as if to compensate. It goes off on an inexplicable tangent when Iben and the soldier flirt with each other. They may be doing it to tease her husband, but the have no reason to. Indeed, they dislike each other. Christopher Berdal’s direction is crystalline. By the same token, it’s too pointed, lacings subtlety. The acting is committed and often very effective, but generalized: we don’t see that the characters have a history together. The set is very nice, the walls defined by identical cardboard boxes (the pair is moving into the new house); we do indeed believe there are rooms behind them. One of these rooms is the bathroom, to which Carsten withdraws on occasion. His solitary scenes back there are projected on to the wall of boxes. I never find this sort of media-rich production satisfying. Something in the play wants to be a movie. And so we wish luck for the SATC. Its promise outweighs it flaws, and we’re looking forward to more work from them.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas by R.E. Smith
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT through November 21, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

Hey kids, let’s put on a Christmas show! Those familiar with the classic movie “White Christmas” with recognize the story and those who haven’t seen the film will still recognize the plot. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are a successful song and dance team in 1954. With romance in the air, they find themselves putting on a show in the barn of an inn owned by their former commanding officer. They’ve followed the lovely and talented sister act, Betty and Judy Haynes, to Vermont for some romantic entanglements and snappy tap
dance numbers.  But calling “White Christmas” a Christmas show is like calling “Meet Me in St. Louis” an Easter show. The score is a showcase for some of the best of Irving Berlin. There are memorable tunes throughout, including “Count Your Blessings,” “How Deep is the Ocean” and “Sisters.” Act One ends with a full out production number set to “Blue Skies” that would do Busby Berkley proud. The ensemble exhibits some first rate hoofing.  One role expanded upon from the film is that of busybody housekeeper
Martha. This affords the opportunity for Ruth Williamson to showcase the song “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”. As Betty and Joan Haynes, Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan are top notch. Their strong voices, impressive dance skills and snappy delivery appropriately recalled the starlets of the 50’s. The sets are beautiful, shifting from the intimate lobby of the Inn to the soaring windows of the Regency Room in NYC. In the fine old tradition, there are some colorful and massive backdrops used as well. It's a simple device that is still effective when emphasizing big song and dance numbers like “I Love a Piano”. The Bushnell itself was “costumed” for the occasion, with snowflake projections spilling over the building and even across the street. Even if one is not ready to start decking the halls or roasting chestnuts, “White Christmas” is still a terrific way to relive the glory days of movie musicals and the infectious melodies of Irving Berlin.

Jekyll & Hyde by Shera Cohen
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA through November 14, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org


It is nearly impossible for anyone who has ever seen “Jekyll & Hyde” (J&H) to leave the theatre without singing or humming the showstopper song “This Is the Moment.” In the case of Exit 7’s presentation, the song title literally describes the success of the production and the entire troupe. Ever since “Big River” (1995), the work of those onstage and backstage has continued to go upstream, sometimes against the tide of what many might expect from amateur theatre.  J&H is a musical rarely performed even by professional troupes, as it is extremely difficult for the actor in the lead role. Yet, Exit 7 tackles this musical head on. Audience members were heard saying, “This is better than Broadway.” Save for a large orchestra (instead of Exit 7’s excellent six-piece band) and expensive sets (Exit 7’s furnishings worked well, particularly with backdrop slides), the comparison between NYC and Ludlow is not a stretch.  Everyone knows the story of J&H – one man, both good and evil. But there is more to the story. The plot extensively details the motivation in this character and the dichotomy of the components that make a man whole. J&H is a disturbing play with exquisite music and important lyrics – somewhat opera-like.  Kim Lynch seems to have had an easy job directing, as well as Alison Forance choreographing, but only because their cast is perfect. From the kids in the chorus to the Red Rat dancers, those with secondary roles (each well defining his/her character) to the leads, it is difficult to find a single flaw.  Reams of accolades can be written about J&H’s star, Ben Ashley. This, too, is the best moment in his career as an actor and singer. The difficulty of switching from Jekyll to Hyde and back again within seconds of each other could have easily become comic. Not so here. These are the tensest moments in the production. Augmenting Ashley’s brilliance are Melissa Dupont and Katie Clark, in his duets with each, and their, “In His Eyes,” is lush.  The weekend of November 12th is your moment to see “Jekyll & Hyde.”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by R.E. Smith
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT through November 28, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

"How to Succeed in Business. . ." is a musical that is as much fun to watch as it is to hear. Colors, shapes, choreography, and costumes all serve to enhance and propel the story of .J. Pierrepont Finch. "Ponty" is an ambitious window washer who flatters, winks, and ingratiates himself a quick move up the corporate ladder. Despite the play's being over 40 years old, the characters of this business world will be quite familiar to today's "tired working man.”  Every member of the cast and ensemble is top-notch. One could choose to watch any supporting player in the background for a whole scene and still be treated to a well-rounded, smile-producing, performance. The choreography is energetic and strong. The show’s biggest stopper, "Brotherhood of Man" can barely be contained in the Goodspeed's intimate setting. Despite the male protagonist, the ladies are really in charge of this "Business.” Natalie Bradshaw, as Rosemary Pilkington, has the presence and voice of an ingénue from an earlier time. Her voice is strong but sweet and she has a confident sparkle in her eye. Erin Maguire as "Smitty," Rosemary's best friend, has the genuine voice, rhythms, and delivery of a classic screwball comedy "pal.” From Jennifer Smith's executive secretary to Nicolette Hart's blond bombshell, every actress delivers strong style, wit, and comedic chops. Even the set is a stand out. Since the Goodspeed is often home to revivals set in more rustic or rural times, it is a bit startling to see the "modern" lines and colors of the early sixties. But what a unique and lively set it is! Doors and panels slide about, shuffle, and rearrange, creating offices and elevators. Desks, chairs, and coffee carts glide around giving every transition a fluid energy. The score by Frank Loesser includes classics like "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm", "Grand Old Ivy," and "The Company Way" will have audience members literally tapping their feet along with the score. As always, the Goodspeed proves that "they don't make them like this anymore," but shows like this are every bit as worth seeing as ever.

Antony and Cleopatra by Stacie Beland
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT thru November 6, 2010

Hartford Stage is offering a decadent performance of "Antony and Cleopatra," hallmarked by a rich tapestry of solid ensemble acting and stunning production value. With so many aspects of the production being so original, it's difficult to give credit where it's due. Tina Landau's direction is spot-on. It resonates in the performances of the featured players, but is also visible in the performances of those characters who, under Landau's brilliant direction, remain wordlessly (but not silently) onstage. An example of this lies with Julio Monge's Soothsayer, who witnesses most of the dramatic action from the shadows. Monge never lets his focus waver even as the action shifts away from him. Truly, each and every actor's performance is layered with character development. Alexander Cendese's excellent portrayal of a frat-boy Pompey, Keith Randolph Smith's boisterous and ultimately repentant Enobarbus, Jake Green's much-maligned Messenger, and Scott Parkinson's simpering and snapping Cesar all deserve more praise. John Douglas Thompson, as Antony, raises the bar for the ensemble. While careful not to outshine any other performance, Thompson sparks onstage. That spark never leaves, even as he is lying motionless onstage after meeting his inevitable end. Thompson perfectly balances clear recitation and honest character. His portrayal of Antony's actions and the emotions behind them were are such that probably each audience member can feel them. As for Cleopatra, Kate Mulgrew's performance quality is up to the task, but more so than her physicality permits; she seems to push a youthful and impetuous Cleopatra. Her recitation and the sheer exuberance, however, make it an eminently watchable and enjoyable performance.  Every so often, a production comes around that reminds one what it is like to see a Shakespearean performance, instead of a performance of Shakespeare. This is that production. Pre-modern language is made modern, relevant, and eminently alive at Hartford Stage. This is a seamless balance of design, performance, and production that is simply not to be missed.

All My Sons by Shera Cohen
Suffield Players, Suffield , CT thru October 23, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

One has to dig really deep to find anything possibly wrong with the production of Suffield Players “All My Sons.” With the use of a spyglass, there are only two areas that could be improved upon – the trellis on the set and page 5 of the program book. More later. “All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s second play, is one of the single most dramatic and powerful plays written to date. Riveting, emotional, and gritty are words to describe this post-WWII story. The plot is about two families. Yet, Miller tackles something bigger than all of us and cuts to the core of morality. The play opens on what looks like a real yard and fully built backdrop of a kitchen. Family members and neighbors come and go as the play unfolds. Humor is gradually replaced by somber tones and ultimately and painfully to solid stillness onstage and in the audience. Miller wastes no words as we learn about patriarch Joe Keller, his wife, and son; and Ann and George Deever, former neighbors. Each comes with his/her own pack of secrets, lies, and sense of justice. They crash against each other on the battlefield of this backyard. Words as sharp swords draw blood and tears. This is drama at its best. Director Ed Wilhelms cast the finest actors to portray their personal best as well as ensemble best. Konrad Rogowski’s Joe inwardly smolders with a sense of righteousness and guilt. He is the crux of the play. Marge Patefield’s Kate (Joe’s wife) becomes eaten alive by her own secrets. Rayah Martin and Shaun O’Keefe are the young lovers with the weight of sorrow on their backs – not the expected joy. It is very hard to imagine any of these actors performing better than they did on opening weekend, except perhaps next weekend. Oh, to the two “faults.” The trellis is too busy, with its natural criss-cross design, sometimes distracting the audience from the actors seated by it. And, advice to future audiences – don’t read page 5 in the program as it’s a spoiler. “All My Sons,” however, is no spoiler, but the best community theatre seen in many years.

The Diary of Anne Frank by Sherry Shameer Cohen
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT thru 10/30/10

Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Whether it is in the book form that was required reading in middle school, the play or any of its film productions, the story of the teenager in hiding touches almost every living soul. No doubt every soul shed tears during Gerald Freeman's production at the Westport Country Playhouse.  Freeman considers his production "selective lyric realism" rather than a documentary. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's play was adapted several years ago by Wendy Kesselman to make it more Jewish and more reflective of the revised edition of the diary, which includes Anne's writing about her budding sexuality. This version is here to stay for at least another generation or two.  This production, cast to perfection, stars Molly Ephraim as the feisty, intuitive heroine, Mitch Greenberg and Felicity Jones as her parents and Lauren Culpepper as her sister. Mimi Lieber, Steve Vinovich and Ari Brand played the Van Daan family. Lou Liberatore played Mr. Dussel, the dentist, and Monica West and Allen McCullough played Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, who helped them during their ordeal. Finally, Philip M. Gardiner, Jack Kesy and Nicolas Wilder played the men who arrested them.
Even with the revisions in the original play, there is no surprise element in the story. We all know what happens. What made this production so good are the excellent direction, flawless casting, with an exceptional touch by Gardiner (to be mentioned later) and Willa Kim's faithfully recreated costumes. The one weakness of the production was the intention to recreate the annex, which has been repeatedly described as narrow, with very steep steps leading to it. Scenic Designer John Ezell had to work with the wide stage that has otherwise always served the Westport Country Playhouse so well. Could he have designed it to look more narrow and have facades of the buildings to either side of 263 Prinsengracht? Sure. But it might have looked rather forced and the younger members of the audience would have a hard time believing that people did indeed live in such cramped quarters -- and worse -- and that might well have detracted from the play. (Note to small theatres. In this case, an impossibly small stage can be a blessing, after all!)
Now about that exceptional touch I mentioned earlier. The Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel lived in that annex for nearly two years. There was no air conditioning in those days. There was no heat. There were no amenities such as clothes washer and dryer. There was one bathroom, and it was hardly spa-like. The readers and audience didn't see any of these things, but everyone knew that's how it was. Gardiner captured all unpleasantness that with one simple gesture: he took a handkerchief out of his jacket, brought it to his nose just long enough and put it back when his mission was over. It was a movement that was so natural and so credible. This is something I daresay they don't teach in drama school, and I give Gardiner kudos for coming up with this. Even if you've seen this play before, see it again. The Diary of Anne Frank will run through October 30 on Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00, with matinees on Wednesday at 2:00, Saturday at 4:00 and Sunday at 3:00. Tickets are available through the box office weekdays from noon to 6:00 p.m. Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court, off Route 1. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org


The Real Inspector Hound by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox through November 7, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

Laughs begin before the play does, as the announcer informs the audience of the usual dos and don’ts. Yet the instructions are far from usual. The audience’s second response of laughter comes seemingly prior to the production as well. A bumbling late-comer cannot find his seat, stumbles over patrons, and ultimately sits in the first row, stage left. Indeed, he is the lead in this quirky play – actually two plays. An extremely bad melodrama is swallowed up by a farce. Think: Monty Python performs Agatha Christie. As the pathetic play-within-a-play whodunit is mounted, two critics (actors) comment throughout. These men are none too bright although they sound smart – English accents do that. In reading the program book, character names are giveaways that something funny is amuck. Descriptions alongside these names (“the crippled half-brother” and “mysterious stranger”) are pluses in case anyone misses the joke the first time. Director Jonathan Croy, one of a Shakespeare & Company’s best actors/directors and ol’ timers, purposely paints both plays with broad strokes, all for the sake of non-stop humor. His cast includes some Berkshire “greats” like Josh Aaron McCabe (lecherous critic), David Joseph (suave murderer), and Wolfe Coleman (brainless inspector). The comedy is physical. A card game is a hodgepodge of anything goes. A love scene, if you could call it that, involves the pair rolling all over the floor and into a dead man. Yet, nothing stops this chaos. While the blind housekeeper joke is lovely, it goes on a bit too long, even for the farce factor of “let’s milk it.” Also, with two characters seated in the audience, it must be a problem for those seated behind them to fully see what is going on. Section A seating is dead on, but a recommendation is to ask about sightlines before purchasing tickets. The set is an isolated mansion. The sound is somewhat regal music upon the entrance of every character, every time. The elegant costumes are from a B movie set. And doesn’t everyone wear a gown while playing tennis? There isn’t anything on or in the set that is supposed to be real, which adds even more to the fun.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Shera Cohen
Majestic Theater, West Springfield through October 17, 2010
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

How do you spell the one word that means: delightful story of three-dimensional characters, highs and lows of childhood, set to music? The answer: M-A-J-E-S-T-I-C. The Majestic kicks off the 2010/2011 season with a sweet play about a spelling bee. Seemingly an odd subject for a musical, the opening full-cast number sets the tones for the next two hours of warmth and fun. The plot of “Bee” is exactly as one would expect – competition of youngsters in a spelling contest. These are the tense finals for six kids in the running. With audience participation of the brave souls who join the bee, the adults spell right along with the youth until all are purposely eliminated. The challenged words are those that the average person with a doctorate degree in English would never know. Each word is defined and used in a sentence, resulting in the biggest ongoing laughs of the show. Actor Tim Cochran’s (Vice Principal) deadpan delivery adds to the humor. Event MC and former bee winner Rona, portrayed by Lori Efford, serves as den mother to the pack. The competition continues with some losers and one winner. More important than the spelling of “chimerical” are the subjects of mutual and self-respect. Each young speller comes with poignant and sympathetic baggage, and every character possesses a physical or psychological flaw. In other words – these are real people. For adult actors to portray cute children is not an easy task. Throw in choreography and singing, and the burden (or joy) is three-fold. Two “students” need to enunciate their lyrics a bit (the funny lyrics must be heard). While “Bee” is an ensemble with a capital “E,” a Majestic “regular” should be mentioned. One of the area’s best actors/singers, Luis Manzi might have been better instructed to play his role as the ex-con Comfort Councilor broader. The set is ideal as a typical school gym. The band of three never overpowers. Songs are not memorable, yet one is exquisite (Manzi, Efford, and Hilary Buxbaum’s “I Love You Song”). Dual roles are clear. Passage of time is handled perfectly by director Meghan Lynn Allen. Be sure to be at the “Bee”.

Music of Sri Chinmoy by Steve Capra

Sri Chinmoy was born Chinmoy Ghose; Sri is an Indian title of respect, from the Sanskrit for radiance. He was born in Bengal and entered an ashram at the age of 12. He immigrated to the US, to teach, in 1964, at the age of 33. He became a celebrity guru, an internationally influential teacher with celebrity followers (and not without his detractors). He passed on in 2007, in New York. Sri Chinmoy delivered a message of peace and tolerance through writing, drawings, and music, and he’s credited with an astounding output. He was one of the inspirations of new age music, performing hundreds of Peace Concerts around the world. This year, a free concert called Songs of the Soul: Celebrating the Music of Sri Chinmoy is on tour, and it was just presented in NYC. Singers and instrumentalists from around the world presented "classical and modern arrangements" of Sri Chinmoy’s songs, many sung in Bengali. One song, a paean to Sri Chinmoy, was written by Leonard Bernstein. The program opened with a commanding call from three conch shells, and the enormous mantra word Om. The Achenbach String Trio (parents and daughter, apparently Austrian), with a cello and two violins, gave the songs a baroque sound unique to the evening. Eight women, billed as A Capella Singers, isolated the melodic lines. A group led by Tapan Modak and Santanu Bhowmick gave the songs more complexity than the other musicians. They played with two strings, a woodwind, drums, piano and vibes - and a sort of shruti box (like a flat accordion). The drummer used both ends of his drumsticks, alternately, covered with what looked like fabric of different thicknesses. The drum made a dull, primal thudding sound, giving the songs a force eschewed by the other groups. I’m not partial to the sound of a shruti box (or, for that matter, the sound of an accordion), but it can create a low drone that’s a marvelous constant under the changing pitches. At times Santanu (I think it was Santanu) broke into a sort of Sanskrit scat. Other groups included Vedic Fire, who sang in Sanskrit, and The Sri Chinmoy Bhajan Singers, a women’s ensemble. How does a fellow write about this music? It was written to be firstly a spiritual experience, the musical expression of peace, its musical harmonies reflecting devotional harmonies. It escorts us gently to a meditative place, and we’re thankful for Sri Chinmoy’s contribution. But without any tensions whatever, these songs become bland after preliminary listening. Without dissonance, they neither reflect nor transcend human suffering; they ignore it.

Musashi by Steve Capra
Lincoln Center, NYC

One of the international entrants in the Lincoln Center Festival this summer was a Japanese production of a play written by Hisashi Inoue, directed by Yukio Ninagawa. It’s a response to a Japanese myth about a fight between two samurai – Musashi being the victor. The one-to-one battle forms the brief prelude to the contemporary play Musashi. After the introductory fight, there’s a blackout, and then the new play begins. The opening is delightful. Trees glide down the stage and the modules of a wooden temple slide into place. A gorgeous set - and a rare moment of kinetic beauty as the foliage wanders and then finds its place. The set remains for the rest of the play, and when the occasion demands, those trees tremble and rustle - it’s marvelous. All of nature is party to the drama. The action is set 2,200 days after the classic fight. Musashi and a small group of Buddhists are about devote themselves to a three-day retreat at the temple – as we so often take ourselves off to the woods for re-creation. Musashi’s rival shows up, and the two foes agree to settle the old score in three days – on Genji Hill. They both stay for the retreat, vowing to keep away from each other for the duration. The story revolves around the attempts the other retreatants make to deflect the fight. Finally the supernatural is revealed, and we learn why the trees have been rustling.
There are references throughout to the Noh, Japan’s classical drama), throughout. One character is a Noh playwright who sings the Noh when he’s excited, and another sings a Noh song that might come out of one of its 14th-century scripts. The acting is meticulously kept in a mode between realism and classic Noh stylization. When the moment is right, the actors take on traditional gestures and stances. They combine the two established styles and create a style specific to the play. The balance is maintained with knife-point precision. It’s brilliant, a superb, transparent application of modernism.  But one piece of action doesn’t lead to another and form a plot in this script. At three-and-a-half hours, the play is beautiful but dull.  Sometimes a wonderful flute et al back up the visuals unobtrusively. But then the world of the play is violated by a tango played on an accordion. An accordion, thank you. Whatever effect this music has on Japanese audiences, for us it breaks the mesmerizing stylistic spell. As the retreatants would say, with endearing humor, “Buddha preserve us!”

From the Pasolini by Steve Capra
Lincoln Center, NYC

This summer, Lincoln Center presented Teorema as part of the Lincoln Center Festival,. The script is adapted from the Pasolini film (in turn adapted from his novel) by the show’s Flemish director, Ivo van Hove. The company is Toneelgroep Amsterdam, performing in Dutch with English supertitles provided. The characters in Teorema almost always talk not exactly to us or to themselves, but out loud, for our sake. They almost never talk to one another. Sometimes they speak in third person, occasionally in the first. Occasionally they speak in the third person and then repeat the line in the first person. Sometimes they don’t speak at all, and a heavy silence lingers on the stage. Indeed, this is the ultimate in verfremdungseffekt. The characters speak into microphones, so that even the acting is deconstructed. Usually they tell us what they’re doing while they’re physically doing something else, or while they’re doing nothing but wandering the stage. However, sometimes they tell us what they’re doing while they’re doing it. “I clench my hand in a fist,” she says, while clenching her hand in a fist. Hearing an actor describe what she’s doing while she’s doing it is repulsive. The script is a cross between a soap opera and a Dumas novel. We’re subjected to lines like “Your love was a consolation, but now you’re pushing me closer to the abyss,” and “I know your sadness is inconsolable and does not even want consolation.” There’s never a let-up to this pretentiousness, so we become inured to any effect the overblown prose might have.  There’s no through line in this play, only episodes. Nameless man visits a smug bourgeois family, seduces everyone, leaves. The family members are in one emotion at a time, and they always share the same emotion. They only have three – longing, lust, and loss. The handsome, dark-skinned guest is lust himself.  Minimalist, the script, actors and director give us no more than they must to make their sharp, scathing point. The characters are without motivation; they execute the action of the play like somnambulists, or robots. They are as James Joyce wrote of the Artist as a Young Man: “Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust.” The set is broad and wide and flat, grey on grey, with angles – no curves - dull and tense and loveless, like its occupants. The characters trash it after the nameless demonic leaves. Only one character survives the loss intact. In a magnificent, searing moment, he throws off his body mike and comes alive with a defiant scream. Van Hove’s work is bold, stunning, flawlessly executed, and directors would do well to note some of these techniques. But he directs like an ideologue, so committed to his intellectual premise that he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go. The trip’s too difficult. A marvelous string quarter called Blindman! [new strings] sits on stage and plays beautiful, lugubrious classical music. Sometimes they run the turntables that are on stage for no reason. The play is staged in a repurposed warehouse on Governor’s Island, in New York Harbor. We had to take a short ferry ride to get the island, and then we walked for 20 minutes to the venue (on the hottest day since the Big Bang). Now, Lincoln Center can afford a shuttle bus. If they made us walk, it’s because they want to give the production a distance from our ordinary lives (as if there weren’t enough distance in the script). They want to put the production in bold face by making us invest in it. But that’s no excuse. The play would be better served by a parlor reading than a production in this expansive space.

The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA thru September 5, 2010
by Shera Cohen
www.inthespotlightinc.org


“The Winter’s Tale” is not your usual Shakespeare fare. It’s not a “history” play as royalty populating the story are fiction. It’s not a comedy, because there is death. “Tale” is among The Bard’s quartet of Romance Plays – neither comedy or tragedy but what today might be termed tragicomedy.  The plot of misplaced jealousy and kind forgiveness, of kings and queens, of the mundane and mysticism, makes for a wonderful tale, no matter what the season. Many questions arise pertaining to morals, integrity, and betrayal. One of Shakespeare’s most accessible writings, it is a shame that it is not often performed. Shakespeare & Co. has rectified that in this visually beautiful set depicting two countries with characters dressed and coiffed to fit any ancient century. Most interesting is the profound difference between Act I and II – the first, tragic and dramatic; the second, frothy and comic. After intermission, 16 years have passed and with it the characters’ lives. Director Kevin Coleman has balanced the two acts as perfectly as a seesaw with strength equal on both sides.  Many from the cadre of regulars take lead roles in “Tale,” including Jonathan Epstein and Johnny Lee Davenport as the two kings. They are an excellent match, yet Epstein seems a bit affected. Corinna May pours every ounce of fury into her character Paulina, Malcolm Ingram creates a loveable shepherd, Josh Aaron McCabe embodies a moral man asked to do horrible deeds, and Jason Asprey intentionally steals the show as a con man. It is Wolfe Coleman as the young shepherd, a relative newcomer to the troupe, who portrays innocence, sweetness, and stupidity with physical humor to delight his audience.  In what is otherwise a nearly perfectly executed production, one suggestion remains – to significantly cut and/or tighten up the long festival scene in Act II. While it adds flavor (literally and figuratively) to the play, the music, dance, singing, picnicking, and even more dance stretches out to enhance little to all that is so powerful and funny in “The Winter’s Tale.”

I Do! I Do!
by Sherry Shameer Cohen

The ups and downs of marriage are retold in song and dance in a new production of I Do! I Do!, now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse. Based on Jan de Hartog's "valentine to marriage," The Fourposter, the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical begins in 1895 as newlyweds Agnes (Kate Baldwin) and Michael Snow (Lewis Cleale) celebrate their first time alone on their wedding night. The original play spans 25 years, but Jones and Schmidt expanded it to 50 years. That's a long time to consider, especially in an era when half the marriages end in divorce and many people marry later in life anyway. Who can't relate to most of the vignettes in the show -- putting up with a spouse's quirky habits, the sharp turns couples take once they have children, feeling unfulfilled in their careers and resigned about their life together? And in between, the moments of tenderness that make you realize what really matters in life.  Tom Jones has reworked part of the book, according to Mark Lamos, Westport County Playhouse's artistic director. Despite that, the show, like any good marriage, is still less than ideal. The beginning is dated and there is no reference to World War II. He could have deleted the song "Goodnight" about the couple's awkwardness at first-time intimacy. It would not have changed the storyline that the couple's love was tested by infidelity and feelings of being taken for granted even after reconciling. The three songs between "The Father of the Bride" and the finale "This House" represent a long stretch of the marriage, but do little to explain how Michael and Agnes transitioned from worried parents of adolescents to empty nesters to senior citizens. "What Is a Woman?" and "Someone Needs Me" focus briefly on Agnes' feeling of emptiness, but it seems to me those songs may have worked as well earlier in the show. Michael, after all, had expressed his chagrin at being forced to write romance novels because he could not support his family as the author of literary fiction. Agnes just seems restless and Kate Baldwin plays her as someone who is still young until nearly the final scene. Lewis Cleale was far more credible as his character aged. Their singing voices are superb, though, and their chemistry just right.  Wilson Chin's set keeps the large fourposter bed in the center of the bedroom, which is surrounded by the solid frame of a house. Still, there is a feeling of lightness on the set, mostly because of Michael Lichtefeld's clever choreography and Susan H. Schulman's deft direction. A nice touch was the use of a "wall" of picture to replace a traditional curtain. At the end, the frames were empty, ready for the next couple to create their own memories.

Tanglewood – Indoors and Out, Lenox, MA
By Shera Cohen

There are thousands of seats to choose from in front of the Tanglewood shed. Mine was a bit in the sun. As the afternoon progressed so did the shade. The “seats” are actually bring-your-own chairs and blankets, placed anywhere and everywhere on this ever so pristine lawn. On a Sunday afternoon with a temperature of 83 degrees and a shining sun, I was as close to nature as this city “girl” likes to get. The music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had not yet begun, and that was just fine, as time was needed to first take in the experience of this landscape called Tanglewood.  While I did have an assigned seat in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, I immediately chose the outdoor setting instead. I was one of thousands (as mentioned) who enjoyed this open-air amphitheatre. Prime seating seemed to be under the many tall leafy trees. Families, couples, seniors, babies – it was a who’s who of people that I didn’t know. While watching and listening from my lawn chair (one from the 1960s and not the new fold-ups), I discovered important facts that I was unaware of: sushi can be eaten warm, people still use Red Flyers, women are quicker and more efficient than men at setting up picnics, multi-tasking is a big deal (listen to music, drink a soda, read a novel, participate in conversations), many listeners leave the concert half-way through the final movements (that seems a shame), kids aren’t into Frisbees as much as they used to be, men wear Red Sox baseball caps, women wear huge straw hats, and everyone wears sun lotion. This is a colorful place – the newly cut green grass, blue sky with wisps of off-white clouds, tablecloths of flowers, and a sea of motley colored umbrellas. The clang of bells alerted those with seats inside the shed and outside that the concert was set to start. Without fanfare, conductor Christoph Von Dohnanyi led the BSO through two exquisite compositions. My critiques of music are far from expert, which is why this article does not focus on the soft strings, trumpet alerts, and dynamic percussion. As far as this layman is concerned, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Opus 61 featuring Arabella Steinbacher deserved the long standing ovation which it and she received. Following intermission, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G, Opus 88 was musically riveting. Not that anyone would notice, but I was among those lawn listeners who stood and applauded in awe. Was the music really captured in the breezes that surrounded me? Probably not. My place on the lawn became a small expedition, as I walked the entire perimeter to the high bushes setting the division line between Tanglewood and the Berkshire mountains and lake. My secret place (apparently not so secret as others had been on my same course) was the maze of trees, grass, shrubs, and vineyard. Not quite edible yet, blue and green grapes hung disorderly on their vines. I ran into three teens who said to each other that they were lost, but they didn’t seem to care. I observed that the longest lines were not to the women’s facilities, but to Ben & Jerry’s cart. When I arrived, I had asked the gatekeepers, sitting on small stools between the parking lot and the box office, if they were able to hear the concert from their distant location. How sad it would be to sit so close and not appreciate the music. They smiled and answered, “Yes.” Apparently, every “seat in the house” at Tanglewood is a great one.

The Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox through September 4, 2010
by Shera Cohen
www.inthespotlightinc.org


One of The Bard’s funniest plays takes the Bernstein Theatre, or rather the circus stage. All within the confines of a colorful, yet small, circle are 12 actors portraying 20 characters living in two cities with an ocean between them. Such is “The Comedy of Errors,” a fast-speed farce with (no surprise here) mistaken identities. Shakespeare and this Lenox troupe have double the work and double the pleasure with their story of two sets of identical twins – one a master and the other his servant. Directors Dennis Krausnick and Clare Reidy have successfully replicated comedy d’arte.  Sad is the dad who lost his wife and sons in a shipwreck. Sad is the servant who must marry the kitchen-maid whose body is “spherical, like a globe,” and sad is the mistress whose husband loves her sister. Yet, this is a boisterous comedy. The laughs increase with the addition of a medley of strange props (a chain gets the biggest laughs), a transvestite prostitute, some liberties with the script (2010 references), and pratfalls galore. Oftentimes, it seems that actors will crash into walls as they run at breakneck speed into the circus circle, and then leap out. But Shakespeare & Company actors are pros, so not a single knee was scrapped by this young cast – all members of the Center for Actor Training’s Performance Intern Program.

And, for something on an even lighter note, if that’s possible…
The Amorous Quarrel through August 28, 2010

This time it’s Moliere’s broad comedy of love, disguise, mistaken identity (again), jealousy, and slamming doors. Every character is dim, except the servants – it is they who steal the show. “Quarrel” is very much an ensemble cast, as is “Errors.” While the language is an English translation of Moliere’s French (with adaptation by director Jenna Ware), and “Errors” is Shakespeare’s own, both plays are extremely accessible for young audiences and their chaperones. Many jokes are double entendres that kids will not understand, but adults will. One special aspect of all of the plays performed in the tent stage of the Rose Theatre is the songs – each original for the particular play, with lyrics to pay attention to get the laugh.

Art
Barrington Stage, Pittsfield
by Shera Cohen
www.inthespotlightinc.org


Chick flick, loosely defined, is a movie (perhaps a play) whose lead character is a woman and primary audience consists of females. The opposite might be said about “Art” – which is definitely a Guy Play. However, while women may have to drag their male partners to the movie/theatre, it is a pretty good guess that these men enjoyed what they saw. “Art” provides women equal enjoyment. Friendship is at the crux of the story. Three men, each quite different from the others, are the protagonists. They talk about, fight over, philosophize, study, and laugh at one piece of art. Serge has spent a bundle on a large modern art painting by a pseudo-famous artist. He loves his purchase. His friend Marc hates it and tells Serge so. His other friend, Yvan, waivers on his opinion. The audience laughs at the trio, first in bewilderment and later at the raucous ridiculousness. Why? This supposed painting is solid white – white paint on a white canvas. The prop is far more than an unframed canvas; it is the playwright’s canvas on which to hang the relationships between the men as duos and as a trio.  Director Henry Wishcamper, along with help from his lighting designer, has set the quick pace of the plot of interaction coupled with numerous periodic soliloquies. Actors David Garrison (effectively feigning a highbrow character), Michael Countryman (nicely exasperated by the situation Marc is in), and Brian Avers (emotionally portraying a confused loose cannon) are completely in synch. The characters are intelligent, inquisitive, petty, hurtful, and supportive. Bits of jealousy are tossed about. They talk about each other in confidence, yet the audience eavesdrops, making for the humor of the story. “Art” is a 21st century version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” placed on a deeper level between individuals who could possibly be our own friends.  For anyone who has/had/will have friends, taking a microscopic look at male friendships is very pleasant for a change from the, perhaps, too many “chick flicks.”

Capitol Steps 2010
Cranwell Resort, Lenox thru September 5, 2010
by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org 

The 2009 flyer for Capitol Steps quotes accolades from numerous sources, one being, “Some people in Washington are confused…the Capitol Steps are not.” That was stated by former Vice President Al Gore. Little did Al know that he would be the brunt of the somewhat risqué humor by CS exactly one year later. But he isn’t alone, as numerous senators and Tiger Woods get theirs – jibes, laughs, and teases to the tunes of recognizable popular songs. For instance, “Eye of the Tiger” becomes “Fly of the Tiger.” CS is irreverent, humorous, fast, satirical, and up-to-date. No one is safe from being made fun of. Needless to say, whoever lives at the White House becomes a pawn. Past residents as well: Bill and Hillary, George W. The major factor that makes CS a success is the continuously changing scripts. CS in 2009 is not the same as 2010. The show in April was probably be very different from July’s production. Three men, two women, and one pianist are CS. Their costumes are cheesy, the wigs are worse, choreography is pathetic, and the basement theatre location is uninviting. None of that matters. Actually, all of it matters, because the worse the accoutrements, the better the show and the bigger the laughs. Surprisingly, the players’ voices are top notch. None will take the Metropolitan Opera stage, but they sing a mean “Evita” parody. In addition to the usual subjects personalities mentioned earlier are VP Joe Biden, Senator Scott Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, leaders of numerous countries (Korea was especially memorable), and an unintelligible Bob Dylan. CS also takes pot shots at news of the day: border crossing, airport regulations, the oil disaster, and the U.S. census. Every show ends with a hilarious long monologue by one of the quintet. He essentially speaks backwards, juxtaposing letters, in fast motion. It takes a good ear to catch every joke, but getting only half puts any audience member in proverbial stitches.

Sea Marks
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox thru September 4, 2010
by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org


Not so long ago, people wrote letters. Corresponding back and forth in long hand and with a pen is something today’s younger generation might think of as ancient. “Sea Marks,” set in an era of pre-email, texting, and tweeting in the 1960’s is, perhaps, a bit old fashioned – but that’s what makes it especially lovely. The plot takes the audience from the seacoast of Ireland to the city of Liverpool, England. The locales could not be any more different. In this two-character play, it seems that Colm and Timothea could not be any more different as well. Colm shyly begins the correspondence, although he has only met Timothea once. She responds, officiously at first, because she doesn’t even remember meeting this man. Not a good first impression. Yet, theirs is a growing and powerful love story. Nearly all of Act I is a series of letter writing, and, indeed, is the winning half of the play. While Walton Wilson has been a regular at this theatre for many years, “Sea Marks” is his first starring role. Kristin Wold, a Shakespeare & Company veteran, can play just about every role with perfection and her Timothea is no exception. Wilson is an equal match for her. Both portray fragile, quiet, middle-aged strangers who do more than fill each other’s loneliness. Each makes significant changes in their lives. Self-confidence begins to replace vulnerabilities as they take the risk to fall in love.  The play is sheer poetry, literally and figurative. The playwright could have easily written a book of sonnets in lieu of, or along with, the play. In fact, the language is the third profound “character.” The simple earth color sets, soft lighting, and director Daniela Varon’s juxtaposition of the lovers (particularly in Act I) subtly keep the plot flowing smoothly and slowly. Act II has a few speed bumps – some due to unnecessary verbiage about Timothea’s ex, and others from quickening the pace just a bit too much in contrast to the exquisite Act I. Yet, nothing spoils the sweetness, simplicity, sadness, and joy of love and “Sea Marks.”

Happy Days
At Westport Country Playhouse thru July 24, 2010
- www.westportplayhouse.org
by Sherry Shameer Cohen

Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, which just opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, is a compelling show that demands the audience's commitment as few shows do. Basically, the play is about a 50-year-old woman who is optimistic and life-affirming, even though she is literally imprisoned in the earth.  But that précis doesn't do justice to the play. There is a reason that Beckett's plays are not performed frequently. They are hard to like and it is often hard to relate to the characters or their circumstances. Happy Day’s main character, Winnie, is supposed to be Everywoman, but she is hardly the woman most of us would like to be, even if she were not in her predicament. It was not surprising that at least 30 people scurried out of the theatre between the two acts, which were performed without an intermission. It was a noble risk by WCP’s Artistic Director Mark Lamos to include this play, but one that this theatregoer appreciates. Lamos also directed the show, which stars five-time Tony nominee Dana Ivey as Winnie and Jack Wetherall as Willie, her presumed husband or partner.  Beckett's original stage directions called for Winnie to be a mound of sand up to her waist, but scenic and costume designer John Arnone's has her in rocks (made of Styrofoam, no doubt) the size of small boulders. Behind the rocks are three walls of gray and grayer divided by a line that is almost black. I questioned this change because Beckett was notoriously inflexible about the extensive stage directions he wrote into his plays, often interrupting the characters’ lines. Allegedly, if he saw a production in which the director changed anything, he would raise hell. They gray is self-evident. Despite the title, the play is not happy and delightful. The rocks, in my opinion, are an excellent idea because stone is so much more formidable. Moreover, Winnie -- and any actress who plays her -- must be equally strong for the play to work. Winnie spends her day keeping up her standards with the grooming supplies from her deep handbag and her optimism, although she admits that "sorrow keeps breaking in." Between the shrill morning and evening bells, she babbles extensively about her situation, her memories and her daily rituals. She is desperate for communication from the mostly unseen Willie. Even a word here and there will do to satisfy her. When he talks, she considers it a happy day. Hence, the title. And when Willie crawls up the rocks in the latter part of the play, only to fall, it evokes memories of the story of Sisyphus.  Why see it, then? As Lamos told the audience before the curtain rose, you have to be prepared "leave [your] world behind and must let yourself be available to this one." There are many ways to interpret this play. Many people can relate to Winnie's entrapment and isolation, whether they are ordinary people who are unemployed, working hard to keep their dignity and standards and trying to remain optimistic about their future, or Lindsay Lohan, who will soon face prison because of her illness and poor choices. Theatre is more than just about entertainment. You don't have to like a play or its characters, but it is satisfying to leave a play thinking about the different elements of it. Anyone who thinks acting isn't a real job absolutely must see it. Actually, read it first. Envision trying to play Winnie, especially reciting her many lines while executing Beckett's detailed stage directions. Then see it. Whether you like it or not, Happy Days is a play you won't forget quickly. And Dana Ivey's tour-de-force performance will stay with you forever. Some advice to all the young people whose idea of acting is based on actors from the Twilight franchises, Gossip Girl and Hollywood burnouts such as Lindsay Lohan: read and see Beckett's plays. You will get a much better idea of what acting entails.  Tickets are available through the box office weekdays from noon to 6:00 p.m. Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court, off Route 1. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org


What is the Sound of 16 Hands Clapping? By Steve Capra
Flamenco is magnificent, mysterious, subversive. Festival Flamenco de Cordoba performed at NYC’s Town Hall recently for three nights. Their performances are mesmerizing, riveting. The troupe is from Spain, 66 years old, and this is its first American appearance. The company as comprised of six dancers, including one man, and five singers/ instrumentalists, including one woman. The instruments are guitars, with one box drum called a cajon, on which the drummer sits.  Its maestro is Merengue de Cordoba (two of the dancers are his daughters), who opened with splendid guitar. His genre is flamenco puro – the second word meaning both “pure” and “antique”. The first baritone flamenco wail sounded like an adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, strident and insistent.  The women dance in gorgeous dresses – white, black, red, or print. Sometimes they hold up their trains and dance as if with partnera; sometimes they kick the trains behind them in a step that is the recurring accent of the piece. Sometimes they wore shawls with tassles half the width again of the main cloth. They dance with their arms and hands, sometimes tossing their heads abruptly, insolently. In fact, this work had an emotional intensity nearly violent.  In the first dance, I was surprised to see the three women begin and end the dance sitting. In one dance, the three women tossed their fans to the floor with a snap.  The single male dancer, Antonio Alcazar, was no less awesome. He crossed the stage virtually running, and spun with the alacrity of a skater, and with more grace. In one piece, he danced a cappella (do dancers dance a cappella?), accompanying himself with the incomparable tap of flamenco shoes. Like many jazz groups, they ended with a solo from each dancer, and eight company members clapped out the flamenco’s complex rhythm. This is the sound of 16 hands clapping.  The dancing is powerful in a way rare in dance. We’re eager for the company’s next visit to NYC!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA through July 17, 2010
by Karolina Sadowicz
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

The tale of the murderous, vengeful barber Sweeney Todd has been thrilling audiences for over 30 years with black humor and merciless wit, and has yet to lose its edge. Barrington Stage Company's production is a razor sharp presentation of the dark classic. After years of imprisonment and other trials, a mysterious man returns to Victorian London and assumes the name of Sweeney Todd (Jeff McCarthy), opening a humble barbershop above Mrs. Lovett's (Harriet Harris of "Frasier" and "Desperate Housewives") pie shop. There, he begins plotting his revenge against the sinister Judge Turpin (Ed Dixon) and impulsively kills a rival barber, setting off a bloody spree and inadvertently and repulsively growing Mrs. Lovett's meat pie business. McCarthy's Sweeney Todd is more vengeful and angry than brooding, fiercely expressive in his anguish and reluctant to show restraint. Never remotely amiable, he is hardly concerned about winning over other people, even the audience, but it works. His cool response to Mrs. Lovett's increasingly desperate affections provides some comic relief in a story that grows more somber and violent. Charmingly creaky Harris plays Mrs. Lovett as a bawdy, hilariously immoral pragmatist with a secret longing, committing and accepting all kinds of monstrosities to get what she wants. Despite her own dark secrets about Sweeney Todd's previous life, she deftly mixes both sour and sweet, and is a highlight of the show. A chartreuse-suited Pirelli played by Branch Woodman is an unabashed scene stealer and a delightful foil to Sweeney. The young sailor Antony (Shonn Wiley) and Johanna (Sarah Stevens), Sweeney's daughter, both offer beautiful singing performances and inject hopeful innocence into a world that seems as polluted as Sweeney believes it is. Christianne Tisdale brings unexpected laughs and tragic peaks in her portrayal of the mad beggar woman. The play is superbly produced, with efficient and appropriately grimy setting, and outstanding sound production that showcases the considerable talent and discipline of the entire ensemble. It's an exciting production that blends laughs, madness, and even a little fear.

Noises Off
New Century Theatre, Northampton
by Eric Johnson
www.inthespotlightinc.org


Sardines. It’s all about the sardines. Well, not really. What Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” is about is love, jealousy, anger, weakness, etc. Sounds like a drama, doesn’t it? This play is a comedy about drama, the drama that inevitably occurs when offstage romance blossoms.  New Century Theatre (NCT) is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and the entire season is comprised of audience favorites from the past. Director Sam Rush has assembled a wonderfully talented and experienced cast to take on this production, most of whom are reprising roles from the 2000 season production.  In an ensemble cast, Sara Whitcomb, Phil Kilbourne, Patrick Tango, Lisa Abend, Molly Haas-Hooven, Buzz Roddy, Cate Damon, James Emery and Steve Brady all give spectacular performances in this extremely demanding show. At times the pacing of the play is insanely fast and furious, and this group of actors manages to pull it off without missing a beat.  All of the ingredients of a typical British farce are present here – slamming doors, various states of undress, split-second timing, all deftly executed by this cast. Add to this, the actors are playing actors who then have to play characters and it becomes clear just how challenging this show is.  Daniel D. Rist once again creates a lavish set and complementary lighting design that draws appreciative “oohs” and “aahs,” and applause from the audience when revealed.
Congratulations to the NCT patrons for picking a marvelous show to kick off the 20th season, and kudos to Sam Rush for his precise direction of what could be a very unwieldy piece in less capable hands. This reviewer is pretty certain it will be awhile before he can say, or even think of the word ‘sardines’ without cracking a smile or chuckling
to himself.

Dinner with Friends @ Westport (CT) Country Playhouse
by Sherry Shameer Cohen

With the announcement of the Gores' breakup, could the opening of Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends at the Westport Country Playhouse be any better?  The Pulitzer-prize winning play stars Steven Skybell and Jenna Stern as Gabe and Karen and David Aaron Baker and Mary Bacon as Beth and Tom, two couples who are best friends and vowed "to get old and fat together, the four of us, and watch each others’ kids grow up, and cry together at their weddings." But Beth and Tom didn't live up to their commitment to themselves, their children or their BFF. As Gabe and Karen get custody of their friends' excess baggage, they reexamine their own relationship. The topic of infidelity is a staple in every genre of writing, but Margulies's insightful and incisive writing give depth and intricacies to the foursome without portraying them as stereotypes. Gabe and Karen are the picture-perfect couple who have exciting, fulfilling jobs as professional foodies and enviable homes in Connecticut and Martha's Vineyard. They are also principled, vulnerable, likeable and played well by Skybell and Stern. Gabe and Karen had reintroduced Tom and Beth to each other in a flashback scene set in their summer home. But Beth and Tom were never well-matched and it was no surprise that their marriage fell apart. What is surprising are the secrets each reveals. Tom hated his destiny to follow his father's footsteps into law, get married and have children. Beth reignited her affair with a colleague of Tom’s and is renewed, reinvigorated and ready to remarry. Gabe and Beth’s unequivocal trusted in their closest friends is now gone. Skybell transformed the witty and light Gabe into a man sincerely tries to understand his friends' marital meltdown and selfishness while accepting the inevitable slowdown of middle age in himself and Karen. Stern’s efficient, organized and pragmatic Karen also becomes more mellow and humble. Baker deftly navigates the role of the frustrated, self-centered husband who feels imprisoned in his life, while Bacon evolves from the off-centered ditzy artist into a woman of confidence and determination. But the real stars of the show are David Kennedy, who did a fine job in his directorial debut at the Westport Country Playhouse, Lee Savage for his amazing scenic design (I want Gabe and Karen's houses!), Matthew Richards's lighting design and, above all, Donald Margulies. Not only does his ingenious dialogue ring true; his choreography supports his words. During the scene in which Gabe and Karen make their bed at night, they move in perfect synchronization, underscoring their unity and commitment to one another. This is a couple you can believe in and a play you must see. Show times are through June 19 on Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00, with matinees on Wednesday at 2:00, Saturday at 4:00 and Sunday at 3:00. Tickets are available through the box office weekdays from noon to 6:00 p.m. Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court, off Route 1. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org

Kyogen by Steve Capra
Yamamoto Kyogen Company, Japan Society, NYC

New York’s Japan Society continues to present some of the most interesting stage work in the city. It recently presented Japan’s Yamamoto Kyogen Company. Kyogen is a tradition Japanese form associated with the noh. They were often performed together, collectively known as nogaku. The noh, was a serious form, and the Kyogen contrasted, addressing human foibles and scenes from daily life. Kyogen’s costumes are simpler than the noh’s elaborate designs, but its nobles still wear those wonderful overlong pants. Its backdrop, the only element of set, is a painting of a pine and, as the noh, actors enter UR. Kyogen actors (they’re always men) speak with a sound like growling, like throat singing. Their speech is so stylized that I’m told young Japanese find it difficult to understand. Their singing, while identifiable, is only marginally different. The stage conventions are important, as they offer us an alternative, non-representational stage language. The acting is stilted, almost somnambulistic. Actors face each other at the beginning of a conversation, then face us, then turn back at the last line. Turning to us is sometimes indicative of stress. They use fans as cups and vocalize the sound of pouring. They may be non-mimetic, but an actor coughs when necessary in an isolated bit of verisimilitude. I was surprised to see that when the occasion demands, two characters talk at once; one is talking to us. To indicate a horse walking and a man beside him, both may be still – we’ve been told they’re traveling – or the human may be still while the horse walks. The man playing the horse horse walks on feet and hands without putting his knees on the floor. The kyogen has some laughs, but it’s comedy more in the sense that we associate with Chekhov – ie, trivial. And like Chekhov, it can be moving through its triviality. In the second piece, Moon-Viewing Blind Man, a fellow plays a mean trick on a blind man he’s befriended. The blind man has just sung “Take pity on this blind man”, and we’re told “Sanity moves out of reach”. Let’s hope that he Japan Society keeps importing this wonderful sort of work.

Thank You, Mdme von Essen: Creditors by Steve Capra
Donmar Warehouse, BAM, NYC

August Strindberg wrote Creditors while he was married to Siri Von Essen. It is said that she played the barrel organ and taunted her husband by suggesting that their daughter may not be his child. Charming. Mdme Siri has divorced her first husband, a baron, to marry Strindberg, and the playwright apparently had some reservations about this. In Creditors he writes about a woman and her second husband. He says that “she was fully formed when I met her”, reflecting Strindberg’s debt to the baron.
But enough contextualism. The young man is led to doubt her fidelity by a new friend, an older man, a Strinbergian Iago. Strindberg makes it clear that he’s dramatizing the doubt within the young fellow when his new buddy tells him “I do not exist. Only you do”. The Donmar Warehouse production of Creditors has come to BAM from London “in a new version by David Grieg”. It’s brilliant, with acting as intense as Strindberg’s emotional tempest. Anna Chancellor in the bravura role of the wife is stunning in her command of technique an emotional grounding. She can act with subtle subtext or, when the occasion demands, abandon. Between the three characters there’s an excruciating series of emotions culminating in a resolution of brutal intensity. No one matches Strindberg when it comes to staging emotions as conflicting characters. They argue the way Shavian characters do, but instead of tossing around intellectual issues, they explore emotional ones. Ben Stones’ set is a wonder itself, colorless with waves of light, far from realism. It has the sparsity we associate with asylums for the insane, where objects are minimal so people don’t do themselves harm, and it’s chilling. The boards show on the whitewashed walls that seem to get dirty as the play progresses. The grand skylights expose only rain outside. Not a ray of sunshine here. Director Alan Rickman has put all this intense acting in the same key and kept the whole show crystal clear and precise. He’s put humor into Strindberg through careful details of line-delivery and blocking, and he wisely knocks it off after the first half of the play. The premise is that Strindberg intended the humor, but it’s difficult to believe this is what he had in mind when the play appeared in 1889. Does this laughter come from the script? Or does it reflect our distance from melodrama, our condescension to it? But then, it’s impossible for us to experience the play the way Strindberg’s audience did. Richman’s choices are probably as true as the somber interpretations of Strindberg we’re accustomed to.

Karen Finley Strikes Again with The Jackie Look by Steve Capra

Karen Finley was one of the NEA Four – the four performance artists whose National Endowment for the Arts grants were cancelled in 1990 over issues of “content” – i.e., “decency”. The then Senator Jesse Helms took exception to one of her acts – specifically, she had stood on stage in her panties and covered herself with chocolate (delicious!).
The issue became a cause célèbre. Because the other three were gay, the press usually spoke of “Karen Finley and four mainstream (or alternative) artists”, and her name became the most strongly associated with the issue. The NEA Four appealed to the Supreme Court, and in 1999 lost the appeal. Finley was blacklisted by New York’s Whitney Museum and other organizations.  But she's been back. Early in her most recent one-woman show, she alludes to the matter. The projection behind Finley shows us a webpage - jfk.org - and she says of the site “I certainly hope there’s no funding from the NEA.” If there were, you see, the organization would be in danger of losing its funding, being associated with her and all. The show is “The Jackie Look” in which Finley appears as Jackie Onassis. She’s dressed like Jackie O., but there’s no suggestion of impersonation. Indeed, she’s barely in character at all. To make it clear that this isn’t representational theatre, Mdme O. tells us tells us: “I’m going to be giving a talk on 42nd Street near Ninth Avenue” – that is, at the venue where we’re sitting.  She keeps her voice, for the most part, very soft, but late in the show, for a moment, she brays. This is the moment of unladylike anger we’ve come to expect in her work. he’s eschewed the striking visuals of her earlier work, and become more literary. The monologue is dense, meandering and impossible to follow. And so we stay with it in the present moment. We appreciate her telling us “Life is more important than art but life is meaningless without it,” even though we can’t put it into a context. ts chief theme is Finley’s signature concern, the commoditization of women, woman as icon. She reminds us “A women can’t be too perfect.” She refers to the recent first ladies, particularly to “Michelle”, as well as to Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, and the Mona Lisa. “Please release me from your gaze,” she pleads, but later she moves on to “Thank you for looking at me.” She ends telling us “I don’t have to pose for every shot. That is something women have to learn.” Her speech is a combination of poetry, humor, blather, and symbolism. Speaking of our current First Lady’s wardrobe, Jackie tells us smugly “I showed my arms during the cold war.” But speaking of the dress stained with JFK’s blood, she tells us “I never took the dress off.” She discusses, in parallel, the quality of being public, another characteristic theme. There are overtones of the NEA flak deal – that is, of Finley herself – here as well. When I interviewed her, in 1999, she said Helms “could only deal with me personally, even though it was public. There was a voyeurism – a public-ness in the relationship.” As always, much of her delivery is half-memorized text with much improvisation and errors of speech. She once told me “The whole notion of memorization and character is very dated in theatre… I’m interested in presenting real time, the struggle...” But when she reads from her script, the speaks the text nimbly and precisely. his is a terrific piece. On the whole, Finley’s work has been uneven. That dicey quality is entirely in her genre of experiment. She told me “I don’t like to have the work guaranteed.” She’s one of America’s important contributions to the theatre, as original as anything we’ve produced in our generation.

Annie Get Your Gun by R.E. Smith
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT through July 3, 2010

Truly the Goodspeed must have magical powers. How else is there to explain the method by which the venerable theatre can fit all the energy of a big top, Wild West show into its compact space? But then it is the vivid characters and intimate songs that really fill the stage in the classic “Annie Get Your Gun,” a loosely based account of the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The list of immortal Irving Berlin songs comprising the score starts with “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and proceeds, non-stop, to “Anything You Can Do”. Every song is extremely well served by the talent. Jenn Gambatese, late of Broadway’s Tarzan, brings a clear, pure voice to rough and tough, sweet and sassy Annie. She effortlessly switches from steely-sharp marksmen to moon-eyed infatuation at the drop of a clay pigeon. Kevin Earley, as Annie’s rival/romantic interest Frank Butler, has an easy charm and precise comic delivery. Earley’s tremendous, classic, singing voice causes delighted nods of approval every time he starts a number.  Andrew Cao and Chelsea Morgan Stock as romantic ingénues Tommy and Winnie make a delightful, winning couple. Cao has a physical presence, winning smile and boundless energy that make him a delight to watch, even in the background. Stock was spunky, determined and light on her feet. Their energetic song and dance “I’ll Share It All With You,” choreographed atop a train car, is an Act I highlight.  Working from the Peter Stone update of the original Herbert and Dorothy Fields script, the show features not only timeless songs, but also witty banter and sharp dialogue. Director Rob Ruggiero’s pacing is intelligent and quick, and the staging features delightful techniques to illustrate Annie’s sharpshooting skills. From the moment the audience walks into the theatre and is greeted by the authentic set, taking one inside the tent of the Buffalo Bill’s show, it is clear that everyone is in for a delightful evening of musical theatre without a single false note.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet by Stacie Beland
UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a fairly new company with an already extensive repertoire from the most influential choreographers in the world, presented a stunning showcase of four pieces. The program, which featured unconnected works each by a different choreographer, was tightly bound together by common themes and powerful dancing. Though ballet sometimes has a reputation for being somewhat boringly pretty, these powerful works were nothing short of spectacular.  The first, In Hidden Seconds, choreography by Nicolo Fonte, used stage haze - a shared responsibility of stage design between the choreographer and the lighting designer to create a mood of mystical transition. This powerful show opener presented the company in a stunning exhibition of movement that fluidly moved from staged anarchy to entropy to harmony and back again. It was a riveting, haunting piece. Twyla Tharp’s Sue’s Leg followed -- a joyful piece, bolstered by the music of Thomas “Fats” Walker . The dancers, costumed rather contemporarily in khakis and muted colors, moved as though there was a sly and subtle amount of flirtatious underscoring. The controlled actions included a few well-placed finger snaps, winks, and easy movements that highlighted the breezy fun of the choreography. Slingerland showcased the choreography, lighting design, and costuming by William Forsythe. A contemporary pas-de-deux took a ballerina and her male partner through a series of movements while keeping their hands tightly clasped together the entire time. There was a sense of “catch and release” through each tableau. It was a stirring and beautifully executed. Lastly, the audience was treated to a work by Jorma Elo. Red Sweet, performed by the company, paired the music of Vivaldi and Biber with calculated, intricate movement. A work of passion, it’s comprised of tight scenes of control, release, and play. As the music became bigger, so to did the movements; during the silences of transition between music, Elo set movement with poignancy.  It was a night of stunning, powerful dance -- a visual treat for anyone who stood witness to it. Aspen Santa Fe has leapt into the world of dance and is here to stay.

She Loves Me
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT thru May 15 - www.westportplayhouse.org

by Sherry Shameer Cohen

“She Loves Me” opened the 80th season at Westport Country Playhouse with freshness, energy and charm. The show, which opened April 20, stars Jeremy Peter Johnson as Georg and Jessica Grové as Amalia in the roles of bickering store clerks who already fell in love as anonymous lonely-hearts correspondents. Is the concept dated since its origins as Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 stage comedy, “Illatszertar?” It is not exactly implausible in an age of Internet dating and forums. Its last film production, “You’ve Got Mail,” was a hit. The show’s spontaneous sounding music and lyrics and old world courtesy are most welcome today. Its references to hard times, store closings and possible job loss make it very relevant to audiences today. Johnson and Grové are in fine form as the leads. Johnson is most likeable and Grové’s voice is glorious. But the strengths of this production are the performances by the supporting cast members. This reviewer has seen two other productions of “She Loves Me” including the 1993 Broadway revival and the one that toured at the Stamford Center for the Arts. The supporting roles are often played predictably and one-dimensionally. Shop owner Mr. Maraczek is usually portrayed as someone who lives in the past, Kodaly a suave cad, Ilona Ritter a ditz, Sipos a bully of a working stiff and Arpad a bit of a twerp. Here, Lenny Wolpe gives Mr. Maraczek an elegant vim and vigor that would make AARP proud and makes the audience wonder why Mrs. Maraczek would succumb even to the charms of Kodaly (played to perfection by Douglas Sills).. Nancy Anderson plays Ilona with poignancy, purity and sensitivity. Michael McCormick balances wisdom and likability in Sipos’s determination to survive on the job. Christopher Shin’s exceptional singing voice, disarming manner and skillful movements let Arpad fulfill his promise of promotion from young delivery boy to maturing sales clerk. Another find is the charismatic and capable David Bonanno in the dual roles of Keller and Headwaiter. He sings “A Romantic Atmosphere” beautifully and with just the right amount of comic restraint. The one flaw in this production is Riccardo Hernandez’s set design. Loyal patrons of the Westport Country Playhouse are spoiled by great sets. Sadly, this one seems simultaneously skimpy (no doubt due to budget restraints) with the overuse of curtains and overwhelmed with blow-ups of old-fashioned paintings and chubby angels. The touches of art nouveau design are beautiful, though, and Rui Rita’s lighting complements the rest of the set. Candice Donnelly’s costumes are appropriately dressy for the period. The sound, while clear, could be adjusted down a notch for the venue. Kudos to Wayne Barker for creating the sound and depth of a larger orchestra than is actually used. Overall, the production is a winner.  “She Loves Me” has been extended through May 15. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00, with matinees on Wednesday at 2:00, Saturday at 4:00 and Sunday at 3:00. Tickets are available through the box office weekdays from noon to 6:00 p.m. Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court, off Route 1. (203) 227-4177.


Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT thru May 9, 2010
by Karolina Sadowicz
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

This year marks the centennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s passing, and as part of ongoing celebrations in Hartford, Hartford Stage commissioned playwright Laura Eason to adapt Twain’s novel about a boy full of mischief. The result is a modern, high-energy staging that swiftly presents the highlights from one of Twain’s most beloved works.  A youthful (but adult) and exuberant cast breaks into dance as the lights turn bright, and as-yet-undefined characters take turns delivering some of Twain’s narrative. The structure of this production is purposeful, with little time spent on exposition. Tom’s (charming Tim McKiernan, in his professional acting debut) life and friendships are presented through quick, punchy vignettes so that the audience is promptly delivered to the heart of the story: a murder witnessed by Tom and Huck Finn (excellent Casey Predovic) in a graveyard, and the wrong man imprisoned. Tom and Huck struggle with what they witnessed, their own mischievous natures, and whether Tom’s “engagement” to relentlessly adorable Becky Thatcher (Louisa Krause) will impede their future adventures. A principal cast of eight carry off some 20 roles, with Teddy Canez convincingly playing the least likable characters: the schoolmaster, the minister, and the murderous Injun Joe. Nancy Lemenager is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Aunt Polly, and Erik Lochtefeld makes a woeful and endearing Muff Potter. The spirited, kinetic acting is supported by a lively soundtrack and Daniel Ostling’s superbly inventive set, which transforms with great effect from a schoolhouse, to a wheat field, to a jail cell, to a labyrinthine cave. Most set pieces are lowered from the ceiling to suggest changing settings. Some aspects of this stylized production don’t quite fit the material. A nightmare sequence tests how much the book ought to be modernized, jarring the audience out of the moment. The swift pace is well kept, but sudden shifts between unrelated scenes leave a sense of substantial omissions.  Including Twain’s narrative voice is a nice touch, and the playfulness of the original text is well conveyed. This creative, ambitious production reminds the audience what it is to play and seek adventure, just as it should.


A Man for all Seasons
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA thru April 3, 2010
by Eric Johnson

Conscience. Is it great courage or extreme folly to follow one’s conscience if it means losing everything? This is the question Robert Bolt poses in this play, and it is one we are left to answer for ourselves. Faced with the same choices, what would we do? A Man for All Seasons relates the story of Sir Thomas More and his devotion to his own conscience. The issue is separation from the Catholic Church and subsequent founding of the Church of England by King Henry VIII in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The multi-level and multitasking set design by Greg Trochlil is impressive -- no surprise there. Colorful period costuming by Elaine Bergeron and the muted lighting design by Daniel Rist complement each other nicely and create a raw mood that is a perfect setting for this historic tale.  Add to this backdrop, an extremely talented, competent, and confident cast and what follows is, quite simply, good theatre. The performances are all convincing and the “larger than life” characters are portrayed realistically without being overdone. The entire cast works well as an ensemble, the characters believable and genuine. Kudos must be given to director Danny Eaton for taking on this challenging project and bringing it to fruition -a job well done. A Man for all Seasons is a thought-provoking, dark production and, in all good conscience, one definitely worth seeing.


Communicating Doors

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT thru March 6, 2010 -
www.suffieldplayers.org
by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org
 
You don’t have to be a “Lost” fan to fully appreciate “Communicating Doors,” but it might help. Britain ’s “Neil Simon,” Alan Ayckbourn penned this comic, science fiction, mystery before the cult TV show began. Perhaps “Lost"’s writers saw the play, said “great concept,” and the rest is history? Toss sex and murder into the plot mix and there’s a lot to like in “Doors.”  Set over the course of one day, yet in a 40-year time span (sounds odd, but true) are six characters whose lives intertwine in 1984, 2004, and 2040. The lead role is that of a twenty-something, which makes the literal timing all the more purposely confusing. Time moves back and forth at the drop of a hat – actually at the opening of a door. The set is a hotel suite, beautifully crafted with three rooms, a balcony, and a surprise. The latter is a key element, as important as any of the characters. Well-executed lighting and sound design help create the mystery. A novice (yet fully equipped) dominatrix is our heroine. Relative newcomer Becky Rodia Schoenfeld portrays Phoebe with sweetness and naiveté. She is ever-present onstage, the lynchpin who keeps the steady swift pace from scene to scene. Schoenfeld is a top-notch young comedian who doesn’t mind throwing her whole body into the action. Much of her time is spent in dialogue and antics with Ruella, played by veteran actress Mary Fernandez-Sierra. The two characters’ immediate connection and rapport is honest. These total strangers care about each other and the audience cares about them.  Dale Facey’s direction nicely transitions from one decade to another and back again, yet on the same set in different time-warps. Albeit, the play is a bit long and small cuts would have been helpful. A section in Act I requires an elderly man to collapse, perhaps with a heart attack. This is done in humor, yet the audience cannot see the actor since the couch blocks the audience’s view. Had we seen it, there would have been more laughs. The writer has strewn his play with clever dialogue, the director with physical humor, and the actors with the best English accents heard on a community theatre stage.


Les Liaisons Dangereuse
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA through March 21, 2010
by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org


Most of the characters in “Les Liaisons Dangereuse” are evil personified. They are also smart, handsome, sophisticated, highbrow, cunning, vengeful, and, “evil” bears repeating. Christopher Hampton’s play, set in 1780s Paris, is created as a game, both visually and verbally. The squares on the floor and the sharp banter between the two lead roles add up to a championship chess competition. The stakes are high, even for the winner. At play’s end, it is difficult to determine who loses more. “Liaisons” is mounted at the intimate Bernstein Theatre. The 18 scenes fluently move from one to the next in the form of dance, accompanied by period music. From the play’s opening note, the chess/dance begins. Clever at first, the characters’ jumping from square to square becomes too obvious. It is safe to say that everyone in the audience “got it” – this is a deadly match, albeit with some humor. It is hard to believe that, when last seen at Shakespeare, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Josh Aaron McCabe each starred in comedies. They were uproarious, throwing themselves (even physically) into their roles. While reserved in demeanor that befits “Liaison’s” characters, the actors portray villains with capital “Vs”. Aspenlieder’s Marquise is the brighter and worse of the two, excusing her motives because she is of the weaker sex. Ha! McCabe’s Vicomte pads his evil ways with humor, making him a bit more palatable as a human being. Aspenlieder surpasses herself in each new role. McCabe has not appeared often to date, but one hopes he will. Tina Packer directs her actors in supporting roles, some with more stage time than others, so that each embodies a character not to be forgotten. Tony Simotes is to be credited as choreographer of the lengthy frightening sword and dagger fight in Act II.  Normal human emotions of jealousy and revenge, betrayal and cruelty run rampant among “Liaison’s” population. The play is far more than a battle of the sexes. Good vs. evil is too simplistic. The Marquise exclaims, “This is war!” And the audience relishes every evil moment. For mature audiences.


The Lion King
The Bushnell, Hartford
by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org


While many theatre-lovers have taken sides on the Disneyfication of today’s musical theatre – its effects on the medium, audiences, and future audiences – this review takes “The Lion King” strictly at face value. The fact that its Broadway opening earned just about every theatre award given is no surprise. Perhaps a bit surprising to some is that the national tour, in cities such as Hartford , is equal in presentation, skill, special effects, costuming, and choreography. “Lion King” in CT compares equally to NYC’s “Lion King.”  The story, straight from the movie version, offers some life lessons to lions and to humans, particularly the children in both species. There’s drama and humor – the later on two levels for the appreciation of the kids and their adult chaperones. Elton John and Tim Rice’s music ranges from contemporary rock (“The Morning Report”) to ballads (“The Live in You”) to calypso, and more. Of course, there is the expected beauty of “Circle of Life” and contagious beat of “Hakuna Matata.” Singers shine, particularly in “Shadowland” and “Endless Night.” All of this makes for the foundation of a good musical.  The “wow effect” of “Lion King,” and far bigger than the songs, singers, and story combined, is the staging. The real stars are exquisitely talented director/costume designer Julie Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan. Unfortunately, neither appears onstage to receive standing ovations.  “Lion King” is a visual delight with humans portraying life-size animals, birds, and vegetation. It is easy to only see the costumes and masks. Yet the faces of each actor “underneath” perfectly reflect his/her character. The backdrops of shimmering sun, dessert, sky, mountains, and elephant graveyard are massive. Color abounds in the come-to-life imaginations of the young lions. Technology is state-of-the-art in creating the art of live theatre, particularly in the stampede scene. Fagan, known for his choreography of his own famous dance troupe, as well as works performed by troupes across the globe, has created movements perhaps unseen onstage before “Lion King’s” debut.  As for opening night’s audience, chock full of children, it was a pleasure to hear their sounds of exclamation, lion “grrrrs,” and questioning “Is that real?!”


Almost, Maine
Majestic Theater, West Springfield through February 14, 2010
www.majestictheater.com

by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org


“Almost, Maine ” is charming, delightful, funny, and sweet. “Almost, Maine ” is also poignant, sad, powerful, and harsh. This is a non-existent town located in northern Maine where, on a Friday night, one can see the beauty of the aurora borealis lights, taste moose paddies, and fall in or out of love. John Cariani’s dialogue is as crisp as the cold winter night setting. Scene after scene offers the opportunity for clichéd one-liner responses between characters. Yet, the playwright takes the story on a more difficult path. Lines are tossed back and forth, seemingly on one level – then the surprise, or a series of surprises. Cariani’s work is clever as he balances the literal meaning of words with ways in which humans understand them; i.e. “falling in love” does not mean to fall on the ground…or does it? The play is actually a series of vignettes, loosely strung together. Four actors portray many roles each. Every scene is a mini-play about a couple, with actors pairing off in as many ways as the math will permit. Equity actors Sandra Blaney and Dan Whelton perform with non-Equity players Kait Rankins and Tim Cochran. All actors are evenly matched in skill and versatility. To see the range of talent of each player is worth the ticket price. Any one of the foursome shifts from a half-crazed being to a sober and somber person in the time it takes to change a parka. Segues of fast scene changes and minimal props to create both indoor and outdoor settings seem easy, but are probably not. The constant backdrop of stars, projected moving titles, and music help set up each segment.  Director Keith Langsdale, for the most part, orchestrates his quartet smoothly within scenes and between them. On occasion, one actor completely blocks out another. As the play continues to run its course, this will undoubtedly be “fixed.”  For theatergoers looking for a “real” play, “Almost, Maine ” might not fit their expectations. However, for those seeking fine theatre starring four outstanding actors, a trip to the deep freeze of a pretend town in Maine is worth the trip.


In the Heights
The Bushnell, Hartford - www.bushnell.org

by Shera Cohen - www.inthespotlightinc.org


While the title of “In the Heights” refers to New York ’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this is a musical that’s high on life, dreams, challenges, and changes. The story may be universal for all eras, yet this is very much a contemporary show evidenced particularly by the multi-racial cast, songs that toss English and Spanish lyrics back and forth, and atypical choreography unlike any that Rodgers & Hammerstein, Mel Brooks, or the Disney staff could imagine.  First to be noticed is the set. Wow! Against the backdrop of the Washington Bridge are floor to ceiling tenements, quite real with cracks to see through windows, doors, and walls. Storefronts create the ground level, where most of the action takes place. Second noticed is Kyle Beltran as Usnavi (leading role) spouting a rap song about his life and community. This reviewer wasn’t the only audience member to worry that the entire play would be rap, hip-hop, and generally not understood by anyone over age 25. Any reservation did not last long, as every word of Beltran’s song was not only distinct, but carried the plotline forward. While hip-hoppers jumped and jived all over the stage, this was true to their characters. Twenty-somethings are not going to waltz or do precision can-can. The dialogue is minimal, as the songs flow one after each other, with each better and more rousing that the last. There is the usual showstopper – “$96,000” – surprisingly followed by four more showstoppers. It is hard to keep up with and equally hard to stop clapping. Each actor is given his/her moment in the sun. Those in the roles of Benny, Nina, Carla, Sonny and Nina instantly become individuals to like. Beltran’s Usnavi is so charming and naïve that it’s hard to resist the temptation to take him home as a pet. Some of the plot of Act II is a bit disjointed, but minimally noticed against constant dancing that comes from nowhere and is contagious, the clever lighting, a pit band to beat the best of them, and one of the best touring companies to reach Hartford and the U.S.A.

Piecemeal – The Frankenstein Musical
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through December 6, 2009
by Shera Cohen - In the Spontlight -
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

“Piecemeal” has taken a known entity – the story of Frankenstein – and created a humorous, loveable, musical prequel. The Majestic presents local playwright Howard Odentz’s version of how Dr. F., Igor, the Monster, et al came to be. Not only did Odentz write the play, he composed the music. Perhaps one of this young man’s best talents is his sense of humor with lyrics.  The set is dark with a brick-like haunted house center stage. Dry ice flows thick, bolts of lighting appear. The staging is exactly what it should be, complete with graveyard, damsel in the belfry, and the very important “lab-or-a-tory.” Period costumes and coifs, eerie sounds, and body parts strewn about add to the expected macabre tone. Accents are British, but sometimes hard to understand by audience members.  However, most of the major elements are unexpected, which makes “Piecemeal” a pleasure to see. This is not an overdone plot, but one that takes twists and turns from opening number to finale. The main characters are not what audience members would expect either. The focus is on Igor (remember Marty Feldman’s “walk this way”) as a child who becomes an adult. What a horrible life he has, yet he has dreams that he pursues. He’s a Gothic “Rocky,” and we root for him. Nick Gilfor (young Igor) is so precious, and Scott Zenreich (adult Igor) is an excellent actor who can also sing well. As if there isn’t enough going on, toss in a love story as well a few stuffed animals.  Music abounds throughout, with nearly every song carrying the plot forward. While the story and set bring to mind images of “Oliver” meets “Sweeney Todd,” the score moves from honky tonk to 50s doowop to soulful melodic ballads. The cast includes many with skilled, trained voices; i.e. Luis Manzi, Frank Aronson, Laura Lites, and R. Steve Pierce. This is Pierce’s first time at the Majestic. His demeanor, voice, and movement create his stylish fop character. “I Love to Sew” is a showstopper. Zenreich and Lite’s dramatic and tender duet brings romance into Act II. And Zenreich’s “Choices” replicates “Rocky’s” run up the steps.  Most of all “Piecemeal” is very funny. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would burst his stitches enjoying this new musical.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT - www.goodspeed.org

by Shera Cohen - In the Spotlight - www.inthespotlight.org

The introductory song of “Forum” says it all. “Comedy Tonight” is exactly what takes place on the Goodspeed stage. The plot is silly, the women are sexy, and the characters are stupid – all with a capital “S.” One of Stephen Sondheim’s early works, it is also one of the more accessible. Perhaps better known for profound lyrics that move the play forward rather than beautiful music, Sondheim does show off his skill as a wordsmith. However, this time the text is all for laughs. “Forum,” set in 200 BC, takes the audience to a cartoon setting painted with bright colors. It’s a tale of noblemen and slaves, eunuchs and courtesans, long marriages and young love, warriors and wimps, mistaken identities, and cross dressing. Let’s not forget the rubber chicken. This is vaudeville at its best, an increscent flow of one-liners with ba-da-bing endings. The story is sexist, risqué, dated (okay, it’s Ancient Rome), and full of shtick. What could have been a drama about a slave seeking freedom is immediately tossed aside and replaced by constant comedy. Throughout the play, the fourth wall (the audience) is completely open. There is no pretense of anything serious, and as the first song also states – expect a happy ending. There are three categories of characters/actors: an ensemble of those in leading roles, curvaceous women who stand a lot, and a trio of Proteans (think Keystone Cops, each portraying a dozen roles each). Adam Heller (Pseudolus) works up a literal sweat as he creates the chaotic plot. David Wohl (Senex) underplays so well that he becomes one of the top laugh-getters. If John Scherer (Hysterium) had failed in his role of the nervous nelly, by the book, feigned female, a huge chunk of “Forum” would have sunk in the nearby Atlantic Ocean . All went swimmingly well, as this is an actor whose every nuance is the epitome of humor and comic timing. Director Ted Pappas moves his motley groups of characters (many dressed to look like jesters) at a very fast clip. “Forum” is a broad show with lots of physical humor. As dark winter comes to New England , take a trip to Rome , aka Goodspeed, for bright shinny fun.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox through November 8, 2009)
by Shera Cohen - In the Spotlight - www.inthespotlightinc.org


Leave any reverence for Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle at home before attending “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Shakes&Co. The play’s title is the only element of Doyle’s work that is still in tact. In just three weeks, director Tony Simotes has created one of the funniest play productions since “The Complete Works” and “Irma Vep.” In fact, blend the ingredients of theme and caricatures of “Works” and “Vep” and mix in dashes of any Monty Python spoof (for younger readers, think “Spamalot” without the music), and the U.S. premier of “Hound” becomes a delicious dish. While the plot of the original “Hound” forms the framework, it’s easy for the audience to realize within the first minute that this is no ordinary Holmes, the sleuth. The big mystery of this “Hound” is to wonder, how does Simotes pull it all together and how do three actors pull it off? The answers don’t really matter, as the end results are that they succeed phenomenally.  To paraphrase the playbill, Simotes stated that he wanted to present a richly layered play that speaks profound truths about the human condition. “But instead, I directed this.” That was a tease for the next two-hours of non-stop comedy onstage and audience laughter.  The sound effects are howling dogs. The lights are dim, creating gigantic shadows. The set is sparse; i.e. it’s unbelievable what can be done with an old park bench. The costumes are many because two the actors portray multi-roles (male and female). The pace is fast, faster, and fastest as the story moves to its conclusion. Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles are flawless in creating physical humor. While McCabe seems quite sober at first, he surprises in his hysterical roles as a Gypsy dancer and diminutive person (okay, a 3 foot hermit). Winkles is this year’s Shakes&Co. shining young star. He can do nothing wrong. His Scottish farmer with lamb in a sack is priceless. Jonathan Croy (a Shakes&Co. old timer) has the unenviable task of playing the semi-straight man, receiving fewer laughs than his cohorts. Ahhh, the price of fame.  Finally, kudos to the costume changers. Thank goodness for Velcro

The Bacchae by Steve Capra
(Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater, NYC)

Euripedes won The Dionysius Festival award for Best Tragedy award in 405 BC (a year after his death) for The Bacchae. This year, New York’s Public Theater is producing it as part of its Shakespeare in the Park program. They can be excused for the anachronism… The Bacchae isn’t the best Greek tragedy. Most of the action has already taken place before the play begins, or else it takes place offstage and we hear about the events through reports. This is perhaps just as well, since that action involves cannibalism and dismemberment, among other unpleasantries. Nonetheless, director Joanne Akalaitis and her cast make a notable, not splendid, production out of the script. Jonathan Groff plays Dionysius, the god disguised in jeans as a mortal, with the effeminate sexuality of Jim Morrison, and well done. Joan Macintosh has the production’s bravura moment as Agave, when she discovers that she’s murdered her son and is, indeed, holding his skull in hands. A classic Greek recognition. She lets out a prolonged shriek worthy of Fay Wray (King Kong), and she melts like the Margaret Hamilton (Oz). It’s marvelous moment of histrionic abandon.  Unfortunately, the other principles are no more than serviceable. But the production’s best moments occur during the choral odes, the most challenging passages of any script. Akalaitis has put her women – they’re all women – in red sort-of pantaloons, and she’s given them marvelous movement that is not merely blocking but not yet dance. They’re almost always doing the same thin physically, but the movement choices leave each an individuality.  Best of all, they sing the odes, intelligibly and demonically, to Philip Glass’ fascinating, pulsating music. The four musicians play three brasses and percussion, and the sound is commanding and elegantly simple.  The set of this direct, minimalist production has an upstage of non-parallel bleaches. They form beautiful lines, but they have an incomplete look. Dionysius’ long opening monologue is spoken before a smoking geyser and, later, a thin volcanic crevice appears running the depth of the stage, red from inner lighting. Terrific!

Alexander Pushkin's
Boris Gudunov by Steve Capra
(The Chekhov International Festival, Lincoln Center Festival, Park Avenue Armory)

Declan Donnellan is a Brit, but he’s staged Pushkin’s Boris Gudunov (1825) with a Russian company from The Chekhov International Festival. It was presented a part of The Lincoln Center Festival at The Park Avenue Armory, in Russian with English supertitles. It was wonderful, satisfying theatre, as crisp and pointed as Pushkin’s blank verse. Godunov was the Russian czar around 1600. Pushkin took as fact the belief that he had murdered the Czarevitch Dmitri, the child son of Ivan the Terrible, to gain the throne. The antagonist is a monk who pretends to be Dmitri grown (czarevitch as survivor) and mounts an army with the help of Polish nobles. The plot is the story of his assault on Boris’ czarist forces, Godunov’s death from conscience, and the pretender’s victory. It’s said that this play inspired Macbeth, and indeed, the script is like a lean Shakespearean tragedy. Like Shakespeare, Pushkin shows us all of society, from the court to the tavern. The descent to the common allows for comedy when the bar staff deal with both soldiers and a drunken bully. What a choice of devils! The Shakespearean overtones are explicit when the supertitle translation reads “Oh, what a noble mind!” as a court official refers to Gudonov. The line is from Hamlet, but the point holds. Like Shakespeare, as well, Donnellan mixes periods to keep the theme current. On throne, Godunov looks as czarist as we could want in rich robes, but off-duty he and his men wear suits. The pretender and his aristocratic retinue wear tuxedos. The battles, of course, are designed with the unmistakable uniform of the soldier. From the opening, with eight, cowled monks and the scent of incense, the production is spare in design and rich in effect. In the large armory space, the audience straddles the long, narrow stage. The piece is stunning when the monks hold one-foot candles in three-foot holders, and rich in sound when the monks chant under lines. A square of the floor is removed to produce a pool for the scene when the monk-turned-politico woos his mistress, and the political becomes the personal in her ambition. This elegant, simple production runs only about two hours, yet manages to present a great scope. However Pushkin might have imagined the staging, Donnellan has the advantage of being able to draw from Brecht’s techniques. It’s through the simple suggestiveness of epic theatre that drama manages to be, well, epic, and still retain dramatic tension. And so when Pushkin’s characters are in public, Donnellan lights the audience. We become Moscovites - or they become Americans, depending on how you look at it. He keeps the politics immediate with reference to waterboarding when a soldier is interrogated (his head is held in a bucket of water). The production is never overweight, never slight, never dull and never rushed. It balances its various elements exquisitely.

Life and Fate by Steve Capra
(The Maly Drama Theatre, St. Petersburg)

The production of Life and Fate presented in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival is from The Maly Drama Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s adapted from Vasily Grossman’s celebrated Russian novel, set during World War Two. There are various Russian locals, but the chief setting is a Moscow apartment. Its occupants are the family of a nuclear scientist, Shtrum, and most of the action of the play concerns his relationship with the Stalinist government. The production is in Russian with English supertitiles.
Lev Dodin’s staging of the play is brilliant, stunning stagework. His stage presents several locales at once fading into one another – the apartment, a work camp, a battlefield… What’s more, the characters show up in scenes where they have no business being. As the camp prisoners discuss cruelty and patriotism, the family is present, surrounding them, listening silently. The battle of Stalingrad takes place literally around the scientist’s bed, he and his wife entangled in love. The play opens with a recurrent image: the characters – many of whom never meet each other in the action of the play – are silently playing volleyball. The first words come from a woman who is nowhere in particular. She’s the mother of the Jewish scientist, killed by the Nazis, reciting her final letter to him, and she shows up a number of times. These two motifs create mythical moments, outside of the period of the action.  Dodin’s adaptation of the novel exploits the unique strength of theatre and does what a novel cannot do. It reminds us that in any moment other moments present. He shows them to us at once. We’re all connected; we all create a net. A volleyball net. The play’s chief theme is political. We watch as Shtrum’s relationship with the government reverses, and he’s approved by Stalin. When he asked to sign a document condemning other scientists he capitulates, with “I feel very sorry or you, but your fate is not mine”. Just as cogent is the flashing between the Soviet work camp and the Nazi POW camp, when the volleyball net becomes a fence. It makes no difference. A camp is a camp, and a dictator is a dictator. Unfortunately, Dodin has attempted more than any stage can handle, and the play is much too long. There are long speeches and political talk that weigh down the vehicle. And there’s melodrama when the script dwells on points that would be better merely suggested. Shtrum has a long monologue before he loses his integrity, and we don’t need to see this inner monologue. If Dodin’s staging lacks delicacy, its luscious, complex texture is bold and welcome, an enormously creative method of adaptation.

Carlo Goldoni’s
Trilogia della villegiatura by Steve Capra
(Piccolo Teatro di Milano and the Teatro Uniti di Napoli, Lincoln Center Festival)
As part of the Lincoln Center Festival, the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and the Teatro Uniti di Napoli presented Carlo Goldoni’s Trilogia della villegiatura (in Italian with English supertitles). Goldoni was an 18th century Venetian, and his plays – there are more than 100 of them - are Italian classics. He wrote in a comedy of manners, satirizing his society. The plot of Trilogia concerns two bourgeois families and their circle. They spend a vacation in the country replete with romantic entanglements.  Under the direction of Toni Servillo, this production gives the script a luscious, refined mise-en-scène. When the actress peers into a bin, she bends from the waist, and her back forms a lovely curve. This concern with gesture is clear throughout the play; the actors isolate movements and invest them with italianite grace. The sets reflect the refined aesthetic, with hanging vines and a gorgeous yellow sun. The lights pour a dappled rural pattern on the stage floor. And there are the sound of crickets and thunder, to complete the texture.  Goldini developed Italian theatre away from commedia del arte, but we can see its ghosts on stage. The lead characters are tall and handsome; the minor characters – the clowns – are short and dorky. There’s a fool catching flies. Upstage of the other characters, he’s a comment on them as well as one of them. Concerned largely with food and card-playing, the characters are drowning in trivialities. But the script rises above the trivial. The characters’ fashion-centered superficiality, their utter uselessness, is a timeless theme, as is their overspending. Money, of course, is our perennial concern.  But foremost in this play is the concern with convention. Betrothed to one man but in love with another, our heroine marries not for love, but for duty. Or is it for appearance? “One must choose honor before life,” she tells us. But also “My reputation’s at stake. It’s too horrible to consider.”  In Goldini, dialogue had not yet developed subtlety. Characters explain their emotions, and the texture of their conversation is more self-conscious than natural. But when the actress says “Te amo… te amo… te amo…,” we want nothing else in the world.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by Shera Cohen
(Shakespeare & Company, Lenox)
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

Many audience members, especially newcomers, to Shakespeare & Company do not realize two important factors. First, approximately half of the plays presented in a given season are not written by the Bard. Second, many plays (Shakespearean or otherwise) are mounted at the new Bernstein Theatre. Shakes & Co. is a campus of happenings nearly round-the-clock. In addition to Founders Stage (mainstage) and Bernstein, there are at least three other venues.  Back to the “otherwise plays” at Bernstein. “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow,” by playwright John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt”), is very much contemporary in its very explosive power of words, relationships, humor, and angst. Response to the reading of “Dreamer” at last year’s Studio Festival of Plays offered the Shakes & Co. staff a preview of what audiences wanted to see. The full house on a Wednesday night (not your typical “theatre” night) instantly rose to a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion. Donna and Tommy broke up. Tommy takes up with Donna’s young sister. Donna goes to dad for advice. Dad could care less. This is the four sentence synopsis of “Dreamer.” Doesn’t sound like much of a play let alone one of intensity. Add some twists. Donna still loves Tommy, yet is confused and upset. Tommy still loves Donna, yet doesn’t have a clue where his life is headed. Dad has the experience and wisdom to help the situation of both young people, yet is far from overjoyed to do so. Each is scared to help him/herself as well as each other. Herein, is the real play about father/daughter and male/female relationships, love and sex, art and soul shown with intensity and laughter. The language is beautifully poetic, especially in the soliloquies. Director Tod Randolph moves her cast of three seamlessly and purposefully for the most part. Actors John Douglas Thompson, and newcomers Miriam Hyman and Bowman Wright share equal time onstage. They are dynamic in their various duet conflicts.  “Dreamer” is a play for mature audiences.

Freud’s Last Session by Shera Cohen
(Barrington Stage, Pittsfield - www.barringtonstageco.org
)

It was a wise decision to bring encore performances of “Freud’s Last Session” – the play which kicked-off Barrington Stage’s 2009 season – back to complete the company’s summer months of plays. Another excellent choice was to mount “Freud” at Stage 2 located a few blocks from the Mainstage. This intimate theatre with its smaller stage and fewer seats is ideal for the audience to closely eavesdrop on the conversations of Dr. Sigmund Freud and author C.S. Lewis. While Freud and Lewis probably never met in 1939 (the play’s time) or at any other time, does not matter. Their discussion, which is the script, is timeless. Born a Jew, Freud was a staunch atheist eager to preach his beliefs. Lewis, on the other hand, was a steadfast Christian. Lewis enters the study of the eminent, elderly, and dying Freud, and their 80-minute conversation starts. A one-act play, with only two characters, one of whom audience members might not know (Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia”), arguing the merits of religion as well as life vs. suicide could easily become a snoozer. Excellent acting, directing, pace, humor, and setting (yes, the couch was ever present) keeps the verbal action intelligent and quick like a fine game of chess.Martin Rayner’s Freud is sick with incurable cancer, yet still brilliant and witty. The actor, perhaps half the age of Freud at 83, truly fleshes out the doctor. Yes, there is mention of psychoanalysis and sex, but the audience observes far more about Freud as a husband, father, and atheist. Mark H. Dold (a regular at Barrington ) portrays Lewis as unassertive, not yet famous, and intimidated by the renowned Freud. Yet, he grows -- through posture, voice, and physical proximity to Freud -- as a man to be reckoned with. Rather than adversaries, the two men become respectful debaters. The trappings of the period set, along with sounds of airplane bombers and radio broadcasts of caution, are seen and heard throughout the play. Kudos to the backstage crew.


Camelot
by Karolina Sadowicz
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT thru 9/19 - www.goodspeed.org


The tale of Camelot begins with a somber, apprehensive prologue.King Arthur is about to go to war against Lancelot, his beloved friend and knight, who stole off with the queen. The story is so familiar, and yet the mournful chorus and rumbling orchestra make the blood rush with anticipation as the audience is whisked away to the day it all began. Broadway regular Bradley Dean commands love and respect as a gregarious, playful King Arthur. Erin Davies as Guenevere is lithe and alluring in her vanity and lust for romance, and awakens in her king a desire to be a great man. In their first encounter they charm and disarm each other with such delight that it’s hard to believe there is heartbreak ahead. “Camelot” exceeds expectations from the first note. Though the theatre is small and intimate, the sound, light, and performances are Broadway caliber. Richly costumed by designer Alejo Vietti, the production is an ongoing exhibition of gowns, fur capes, and armor that ooze with royal splendor and lush textures. The simple but versatile set changes drastically with evocative, dramatic lighting, and creates a very strong sense of place. There is, however, nothing static about the performance. Superb vocal performances from the leads and ensemble carry notes of joy, excitement, longing, and anguish, making each moment bigger and more powerful. French actor Maxime de Toledo is effortlessly charming as Lancelot, and affable both in his hopeful grandeur and surprising humility. No one is surprised when Guenevere gives him her heart, because the audience has already done the same. Ronn Carroll plays a hilarious Pellinore and carefree foil to an increasingly mature and troubled Arthur. Adam Shonkwiller slithers about as the villainous Mordred, impossible to like even before he orchestrates the downfall of Guenevere, Lancelot, and all of Camelot. Creative staging by director Rob Ruggiero makes use of the aisles, allowing the actors to make the performance both more intimate and grand. Full of emotional peaks, beautiful music, and flawlessly timed humor, “Camelot” is an absolute delight that can be relished for days after the final bow.

Tanglewood on Parade by Shera Cohen
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

In spite of the fact there were no floats or horses, this “parade” was certainly full of music – in fact the best music in all of Massachusetts and probably New England . Started six decades ago, Tanglewood on Parade is an annual all-day event appreciated by more than 10,000 people. Overlooking the throngs of audience goers, particularly those on the lawn, the figure of 10,000 is conservative. The weather undoubtedly increased the expected crowds as this was a perfect Tanglewood day. Four orchestras performed various pieces from 2pm until the grand finale fireworks at 11pm. Admission included 14 separate concerts to choose from in 7 venues including troubadours on the lawn. This was a who’s who of conductors (John Williams, James Levine, Keith Lockhart, Leonard Slatkin, and Rafael de Burgos), composers (Rossini, Enescu, Bernstein, Copland, Tchaikovsky), and other recognizable names (choreographer Mark Morris, Governor Deval Patrick). The evening’s program listed primarily familiar pieces, which is common to Parade, and welcomed by the audience. The overture to “William Tell” was obviously rousing, performed by the “house band,” so to speak, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, kicking off the final concert of the day. Enescu’s “Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1” is one of those well-known pieces which the average listener does not know by name but only by ear. Gentle and yet swift like a speeding train that had lost its breaks, Enescu’s music is memorable. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (most talented youth) took on the lengthy dances from “West Side Story.” The young percussionist worked in fast-motion, and the audience did all but sing-along. Parade would not be complete without the Boston Pops. John Williams conducted his own “Tributes: For Seiji” (Seiji Ozawa), and Keith Lockhart took the podium for Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Narrated by Governor Patrick, the Pops performed the entire score. It took a few minutes for the combined musicians of two orchestras to overflow the stage for the “1812 Overture.” Every Parade’s finale is the “1812” coupled with fireworks. It’s been heard before, and will be heard again. Once is not enough, nor are a dozen or 100 times.


Tanglewood Rehearsals
by Shera Cohen
Lenox , MA - Saturdays, July & August, annually
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

The sounds of symphonic music compete with the squawking of crows. It’s the Boston Symphony Orchestra vs. the feathered creatures. Fierce battle ensues. While the birds hold their own periodically, the BSO always wins out. Such are Saturdays each summer at Tanglewood. Nearly every Saturday in July and August, the BSO opens its huge tent and pristinely mowed lawn for open rehearsals. Starting at 10:30am and ending at various times – whenever the conductor feels that the orchestra is rehearsed to his/her satisfaction (approximately between 12pm-1:30pm) – hundreds of music lovers enjoy these quasi-concerts. Usually, the music is that of the Sunday afternoon program. Tanglewood’s program book lists the composers, pieces, conductors, and guest artists. Audiences know in advance what and who they will hear.  The choice is to sit indoors (actually a huge tent) or outdoors, or both, as there are no designated seats. Many arrive at 7am to get the “best” seat. But “best” is in the mind of the listener, and for many their folding chairs on the manicured lawn is the best seat in the house. But, if arriving at 10:25am, nothing will be missed. Rehearsals do start exactly at 10:30am. The dress is casual with the musicians in shorts and t-shirts. The same applies for the crowd. It’s not unusual to see rows people donned in Tanglewood shirts, caps, and sweatshirts. Symphony rehearsals have become more and more popular, having perhaps taken a cue from the many years of success at Tanglewood. Some may think that by attending a rehearsal there is no need to go to the finished product. In fact, the experience is the opposite. Listening to a rehearsal, with its frequent or not-so-frequent stops and starts for the conductor’s corrections and comments, makes the ultimate performance clearer in appreciation and understanding of the work. The ticket price is $17 for adults and free for children under age 12. It is wonderful to see kids, usually on the lawn, enjoying the music of Bach, Mozart, Ravel, et al. Sometimes the sounds that they hear are only background to their chatting with siblings or playing video games. That doesn’t matter. They are there, soaking it all in, even subliminally. It is likely that these kids will be our future generation of symphony goers and patrons, remembering their wonderful trips to Tanglewood.


Measure for Measure
by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox through September 2, 2009 - , thru 9/5 -
www.shakespeare.org
www.inthespotlightinc.org

The subject matter of many of today’s movies and television shows is tragicomedy. While this word is probably a relatively new entry in the dictionary, a little known fact is that Shakespeare was one of the first to write a play with equal elements of drama and humor. “Measure for Measure” is such a piece.  Director Dave Demke has updated the play, setting it in 1930s pre-World War II Austria. At the same time, Shakespearian images remain in costuming, staging, not to mention language. As the title implies, the balance of several themes exists throughout the story; i.e. justice and injustice, loyalty and ephemeral causes, wisdom and ignorance, power and succumbing, church and state. Yes, these are serious issues, which make for the “tragic” side of the tragicomedy. They balance with the many Keystone Cop or Marx Brothers-like scenes of slapstick, stupidity, and literal running around in circles with no destination.  Future audiences should not be put off by the fact that the actors are not Equity (professional), but are members of the Center for Actor Training’s Performance Internship at Shakes & Co. This education program is highly selective and well-respected throughout the country. “Measure’s” cast is an ensemble of very talented younger actors, each of whom portrays at least three roles. A lecture by the director as well as a talk on the costuming of “Measure” took place in late-July. Attending either or both augmented understanding of the play, although neither is required to appreciate the story. Standout performers are Nathan Wolfe Coleman, lecherous townsman Lucio; Emily Karol, low-brow sheriff Elbow; Aaron Sharff; flophouse resident Pompey; and Tom O’Keefe, wise yet bookish Duke. Here again, in keeping with tragi and comedy and measure for measure, each actor (except for O’Keefe in the lead role) played both sides of the ying and yang – not an easy task for seasoned thespians, let alone theatre students.


Twelfth Night
by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, thru 9/5 -
www.shakespeare.org
www.inthespotlightinc.org


It’s no wonder that “Twelfth Night” is often considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Proof of that is Shakespeare & Company’s current production. Like other works of the Bard, the plot includes mistaken identity, women dressed as men (this was probably even funnier in the 1500s with male actors dressed as women), love triangles, a shipwreck, and sometimes a pompous idiot. This play has all of these elements down to perfection. Just by looking at the playbill, it was no surprise that the cast of many Shakes & Co.’s masterful “regulars,” director Jonathan Croy, and music director Bill Barclay would mount a clever, quick, and comic play. It never ceases to amaze that most of actors do double-time throughout the summer in dramatic roles in either “Othello” or “Hamlet.” The versatility of talent is evident on a daily basis. Croy, who also wears the hat of set designer, has created numerous scenes that receive audience laughs even before an actor speaks. Think Disneyesque topiary, add unnoticed paper on the bottom of one’s foot, and stick it all together with bubblegum. This makes for odd and hysterically funny staging. The lovely actress Corinna May puts her entire body into making servant Maria elegant and roughhouse simultaneously. Elizabeth Raetz (sought-after lady) spews both virginity and lustiness. Robert Biggs (Fool) gives his supposedly drunken character great wisdom. Ken Cheeseman (servant Malvolio) should be unabashedly ashamed and equally proud to well-create one of the most ridiculous roles of a blowhard to appear on any stage. Young actor Ryan Winkles (Sir Andrew) is a man to watch. His comedic timing is flawless as he uses every wink of the eye, scrunch of his neck, and fancy footwork to make Andrew the most memorable character in this large cast. Slapstick, physical humor, and broad strokes form the canvas of “Twelfth Night.” But this is more than a meaningless, laugh in the moment, comedy. While not dwelled upon, the plot includes the definition of love and how men and women feel and think differently.


The Temptations/James Naughton
by Shera Cohen
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA -
www.thecolonialtheatre.org
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

Separated by 24 hours, the Colonial Theatre played host to two extremely diverse evenings of music. It's not at all hard to believe that the rockin' doo-wop sing-alongs of the 50s/60s would be equally appreciated by an audience as the smooth, jazzy, cabaret songs of numerous eras. Yet, this was the case for The Temptations concert on a Sunday night followed by James Naughton on Monday. Perhaps one difference between the two was the familiarity. For anyone over age 50 (which seemed to account most in the full house), The Temptations evoked memories including the lyrics of nearly all of their big hits. Think "How Sweet It Is," "Just My Imagination," and "My Girl." The latter is dubbed The Temptations National Anthem. The five-member group, backed by a sometimes too loud band, included those who started 48-years ago. But age didn't deter the old-timers onstage, or those in the audience from moving, grooving, clapping, and swaying. Indeed, the quintet's choreography was that of the guys' groups of the 50s. Perhaps it looks comical today, but not then, and the Colonial audience ate it up. Selections from The Temptations platinum records and 57 CDs included showstoppers "Get Ready" and "Since I Lost My Baby." While two singers were obviously newcomers, the guys age 70+ held their own with still fine voices, including one whose bass went down to the proverbial floor.  The stage belonged to James Naughton on Monday. His is a name well-known in the Berkshires as an actor whose primary venue is Williamstown Theatre. His is also face that most have seen on TV or in the movies; i.e. Ally McBeal's dad, Meryll Streep's husband in "The Devil Wears Prada." Naughton works steady, particularly on Broadway, where he is a Tony Award winner. He calls himself an actor who happens to sing. And, he sings very well.  Naughton mixed a repertoire of oldies ("Star Dust" - yes, real oldies), a Duke Ellington medley, and rarely heard ditties full of odd lyrics sung at breakneck speed. The latter proved Naughton's agility and humor. While the Colonial is a large, elegant theatre, a cabaret setting was the format. In keeping with that, Naughton told many backstage anecdotes, which were equally as entertaining as the music.


True West
by Jarice Hanson
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA thru 7/26/09 -
www.wtfestival.org
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

When Sam Shepard's "True West" debuted in 1980, it signaled a shift from the playwright's earlier absurdist work toward a more realistic style. In the Williamstown Theatre Festival's production, the genius of Shepard proves to be timeless.  "True West" is a fable of brothers who represent archetypes of the hero and shadow, as well as a metaphor for the greed, corruption, and violence of the west -- this time set in a small suburban house 40 miles from Los Angeles. Nate Corddry, in his eighth Williamstown season, plays Austin, a screenwriter who has successfully pitched a romantic film treatment to Hollywood, and has now holed up in his mother's home to write the script while she's vacationing in Alaska. When Paul Sparks as Lee, the ne'er-do-well brother shows up, he pitches a ridiculous western to Austin's obsequious agent (flamboyantly played by Stephen Kunken) and the tables begin to turn. Debra Jo Rupp's cameo as mom showcases her control and comic timing, and adds to the understanding of how two brothers could be so different, yet so similar.  The show really belongs to Corddry and Sparks, who take sibling rivalry and contemporary ideas of manhood to extremes. On opening night, a few lines were rocky, and Sparks' words were muffled in the early part of the play, but this is the type of show that will undoubtedly grow as these two actors find a brotherly bond necessary to heighten the tension of Shepard's verbal intensity. Some of the funniest moments belong to Sparks who drinks beer with a straw, and uses a golf club for great comic effect.  Director Daniel Goldstein has created a wonderful set that honors Shepard's realistic, absurdist, and experimental modes, and has found the intelligence in this powerful comment on contemporary life.


Boston Symphony Orchestra
by Debra Tinkham
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA -
www.bso.org 

Home, Sweet Home! Tanglewood that is; summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the start of their 128th season. Today's incredibly brilliant performance began on an incredibly beautiful Berkshirian day, with Herbert Blomstedt, who made his conducting debut with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, in February 1954. First up was Ludwig van Beethoven's short Overture from the incidental music" to Goethe's "Edgmont," Opus 84, a story of victory, and ultimately, tragedy, which was first performed at Tanglewood in 1940. Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26" featuring the lovely and talented Joshua Bell, was a show stealer. This three-movement concerto was so beautifully performed that the only downside was that it ended much too soon. Bruch's love of the violin and his "desire to compose music that is immediately…comprehensive to the bulk of the audience on first hearing," was truly evident. So passionately and captivatingly performed, it was as if all other sounds paused to enjoy the "Allegro moderato prelude, Adagio, and Allegro energico finale." Bell's love of the violin began at the age of 12 and today he plays a 1713 Gibson Stradivarius.  Symphony No. 8 in G, Opus 88, a four-movement symphony by Antonin Dvorak, completed today's delicious venue. Its introduction was rich with cellos, clarinets, bassoon and horns, with ebbs of passion growing and waning throughout. Dvorak handled the many key changes craftily, leaving the listener with nothing but the feeling of flowing harmonics.  Today's music on the mountain left many speechless. The atmosphere, while packing up, and those lagging behind, was euphorically somber. Next Sunday's performance, with James Levine conducting an "All-Mozart Program" will be something to look forward to, for there's no such thing as disappointment at the summer home.


GOLF: The Musical
by Frank Aronson and Jarice Hanson
Majestic Theatre, West Springfield, MA thru 8/2/09 -
www.majestictheater.com
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

From the title, it is obvious that "GOLF: the Musical" is different from most theatrical fare. This affinity show (meaning that the performance is geared to an audience with a special interest in the topic) by Michael Roberts has played off-Broadway, and in small venues. The songs and sketches range from clichй to clever, but the four performers in the Majestic Theater cast create an ensemble that holds the various pieces together.  Darron Cardosa's sweet tenor shines in "The Beautiful Time," which contains the evening's most surprising lyrical twist. Luis J. Manzi's powerful, supple voice rings, and he deftly portrays a minister in the Church of Golf, and a tour guide at the Golf Museum. Lea D. Oppedisano was a favorite of the audience, especially with her solos "Great Lady Golfer" and "Golf's Such a Naughty Game." One of the sweetest tunes was sung by Bill Nabel, crooning a love song to his golf club, "Big Bertha." His lyrical baritone voice has a surprising range, used to create his own characterizations as well as supporting the ensemble. The foursome trade vaudevillian barbs, step in and out of different characters, and most of all-blend their voices as though they've been together for years.  The spare set is effective for this full-scale cabaret act, which also has a crowd-pleasing audience participation putting contest. Director Danny Eaton has found the most humorous moments in this brazenly self-referential script, and uses the theatre space to great effect. Music Director Amy Roberts-Crawford and percussionists Leo Arthur and Brian Peltier masterfully set the pace for the evening which is par for the course (this joke fits the material). Real golfers will get the inside jokes, while the rest of the audience can laugh at the plaid and the puns.

Candide
by Shera Cohen
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA thru 8/15/09 - www.berkshiretheatre.org 
www.inthespotlightinc.org

Many know that the musical “Candide” was composed by Leonard Bernstein. That’s about all that even the most avid theatergoer is aware of. This can change, as Berkshire Theatre Festival mounts the satirical operetta based on the work of Voltaire, yet set in the 21st century – well, more or less. The theme that life as we know it is “the best of all possible worlds” runs through both the dialogue and music. Also running (literally) is a hodgepodge of characters, scenes, and strange people. The action begins in a colorful jungle gym school setting full of children and their teacher Dr. Pangloss – the latter, effectively portrayed by Ben Rosenblatt – who is another thread stringing the plot along. Songs like “Life Is Happiness” and “Oh Happy We” fill the Pollyanna-like Act I. The story increasingly adds war, death, and rape, so that perhaps the audience is not viewing such a lovely world onstage? Like “Pippin” and “Into the Woods,” this musical twists its plot and fleshes out its important characters from one dimension to two or three. McCaela Donovan (heroine Cunegonda) is a charmer with excellent comedic timing and mannerisms, not to mention a wonderful soprano voice. Her “Glitter and Be Gay” is the play’s showstopper. Julia Broder (The Old Woman) portrays a gypsy character with bold Lucille Ball-like humor and a tad of reality. Director Ralph Petillo deserves bravos for manipulating his cast of 20 around the stage, down the aisles, on the floor, and perched on scaffolds into nearly as many separate scenes. Two pianists hold it all together through 22 songs. Important to add is the fact that every lyric of every song is distinct. Opening night saw a full house. Some youth attended. At first, “Candide” seems like a fairytale for children. They can certainly enjoy the play and excellent production values. Yet, like the old “Rocky & Bullwinkle” cartoons, there are two layers of humor – one blatant and the other black. The adults will easily “get” and thoroughly enjoy both.


Capitol Steps by Shera Cohen
Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA thru 9/6/09
www.capsteps.com
Lightning, thunder, near-hail size rain, and a dark sky at 6:30pm in July were reasons not to venture out for any cultural activity. However, the show was Capitol Steps, and even though this reviewer has seen CS a half dozen times in the past, every show is new. Get the raincoat and run from the car to the vestibule of Cranwell.  A quintet of comedians/actors (2 women, 3 men), plus one pianist are the members. While material, both in stories and songs differ from week to week, the show’s format is constant. The purpose: lambaste politics, celebrities, and current events to the tunes of familiar music with clever and oftentimes uproarious lyrics, while wearing incredibly awful costumes. Each of the five play numerous roles as one skit immediately follows the next, giving the audience little time to breathe between laughs. No one is off limits to receive a jab. Of course, those in government receive the brunt of the satirical lyrics; i.e. Obama, the Clintons , Biden, Pelosi, McCain, and even George W. The latter never knew that the White House had a library. An example the to-the-minute CS’s script was the rifle-packin’ ex-governor of Alaska , Sarah Palin. Starting with three songs to the tunes of “Mamma Mia,” the troupe’s other background music included Broadway and 50s/60s sounds. Octomom was picked on for “littering,” Susan Boyle had not yet discovered make-up, Korea ’s leader needed a haircut, and auto company execs bemoaned their decreased bonuses. The greening of America was set to song, as was the topic of prescription drug commercials. A constant treat in each show is the backwards, twisted malaprops of contemporary politics. The first letter of a word is juxtaposed with that of the next word. Just when it seems impossible to understand this very fast repartee, it’s all clear and very, very funny. One word of advice is to arrive early for two reasons: pick your seat in the least cramped aisle, and CS is often a sell-out.


Nano, Nano
by Beverly Creasey
Muhammed Ali used to demonstrate the speed of his famous jab by asking, "Do you want to see it?"  A nanosecond later, he'd ask "Wanna see it again?"  Nanoparticles are a little like that.  So how do you demonstrate what can't be seen?  With jugglers, of course!  Tom Stoppard used jugglers to illustrate Wittgenstein's theory about the limitations of language in his play, JUMPERS.  So it should come as no surprise - well, maybe a little surprise - that jugglers have taken up residence at Boston's Museum of Science.  Carol Lynn Alpert's The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show was conceived (in collaboration with juggler/comedians Dan Foley and Joel Harris) to teach audiences painlessly about nanotechnology.  Her clever script has a prologue, three acts and a finale, all of which fit into forty thrilling minutes.  Kids will love the shenanigans and adults will come away knowing exactly what makes up DNA - and how a scanning probe microscope works - and it won't hurt a bit.  In fact, you'll leave the museum feeling better, since laughter is, as they say, the best medicine.  Foley and Harris can juggle tennis rackets, baseball bats, birdbaths and houseplants AND they can execute these breathtaking feats while atop unicycles!  They're deft comedians who can charm the little ones and impress their parents equally.  My only disappointment is that they didn't, like their distant cousins The Flying Karamazov Brothers, juggle a cat.  The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show returns to the Museum of Science in October'09.  Watch for them.


Blue Day at La MaMa
by Steve Capra
Alessandro Corazzi is an Italian playwright/director. One of his plays, directed by himself, appeared recently at La MaMA. Blue Day is a stage duet: we discover a disgruntled, laid-off factor worker dousing himself with kerosene (timely, no?). A young girl, a teen, passes by and, of course, through her trivial chatter, he passes from a lower state to a higher state, a sort of tragedy in reverse (there should be a term for that). An opening siren is followed by a film of factory workers, and our anti-hero is discovered wearing a sign saying “I lost”. The actor is suitably morose and defeated, with a disciplined, flat delivery of nearly every line. The young actress, on the other hand, is clichéd and false, and her performance is painful to watch.  At 45 minutes, the play might be engaging if it were directed with insight. Its referrals to labor politics are intriguing, but clumsy. It has mystery in the psychology of both characters, but Corazzi never examines it in directorial terms. The translation doesn’t help, with lines like “Who tells you such nonsense?” There’s an explanatory voiceover that adds nothing. What’s more, the gamine turns into another character or a few moments, and we have no idea what reality she’s in.  Corazzi shows subtlety and creativity by having the poor fellow ascend from despair to desperation – no higher. And there’s a surreal sequence at the end that we’d like to see expanded. Perhaps in the hands of a skilled director the script could be salvaged.


Breaking the Surface by Steve Capra
Susan Lei’ataua is artist-in-residence at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She’s put together a presentation of monologue and music called “Breaking the Surface”, presented recently at NYU’s Skirball Center.  We discover her upstage, at the top tier of narrow, elongated four-tired step piece; she introduces herself saying “Salutations to the first heaven! ... This is the story of a mountain. This mountain is a woman”. Her white dress flows on the sides to the stage floor, so she does indeed look like a lovely, symmetrical mountain. She takes a step down as the stages of the tale proceed, with “Salutations!” as appropriate.  Her narrative is a sort of myth combining the spoken word with singing and instrumental music. It’s extraordinary that she speaks and sings in the same voice; it makes for seamless transitions and gives the piece a marvelous, smooth flow, like the flow of her gown.  Her story is pretty, referring to nature and a mythic journey from New Zealand to Hawai’i, to Alaska to NYC. It has some lovely poetic moments, as when it describes her transformation into a sequoia as “a height not from a rock”.  However, the prose depends on natural images we’ve heard before, like “Massive waves crash turquoise”. Indeed, the script borrows from primitivism, animism and symbolism to produce an educated sort of world kitsch. She ends on the subway, admonishing us to “Wake up!” and asking “What is your name?”– but by this time we’ve lost the thread of the complex extended metaphor. The music is by Gareth Farr, and performed by him and five other musicians in an ensemble including cedarwood flutes. It’s exquisite, never dull, never intrusive, lovely in song and perfectly blended with the spoken words. Sometimes it reflects the sounds of nature, like classical Eastern music, but then it slips in jazzy slides.

The Singing Forest by Steve Capra
Craig Lucas has a brilliant design for The Singing Forest (at The New York Shakespeare Festival). He’s written an lively, silly farce about some guys and some gay (psycho)therapists. The therapists know each other, they share clients who may be gay, etc, etc… What’s more, there’s a rich guy and his celeb family and a bunch of characters floating around who all end up being connected to one another one way or the other… But on top of this he’s added a gruesome backdrop: the Nazi persecution of gays. These segments are largely flashbacks to Vienna around the time of the Nazi annexation, and they’re not at all farcical.  An aging ex-therapist, played by Olympia Dukakis, is hub of the farce. In the flashbacks, we meet her as a teen. We watch (as do the other witnesses, silently) as her brother and his lover are arrested. We follow her attempts to help him, and in these scenes the adolescent fraulein is played by the adult Mdme. D. It’s a brilliant scheme. Unfortunately, the script has a series of fatal shortcomings. The first act of this long three-act play is a total disaster. Lucas never creates real people in this farce. The characters speak to meet the playwrights need, not their own, so the machinations are merely contrived. The jeune premier, we’re told, is a cipher, a bland (his name is Grey). We’re told this, but we don’t see it; his blandness is never dramatized. Then there’s the problem of using therapy as a dramatic device. There’s nothing more facile in drama than therapy. The structure of therapy is not the stuff of drama. Lucas’ sense of gay-on-stage is none too sophisticated, either. Some of these guys prance around stage like Chelsea types. And of course, because the characters are gay, there has to be nudity; it’s become a stage iconography. After the first intermission, the evening improves. As scenes get serious, the people get real, the gays are classy. Lucas is not one to miss an opportunity to throw in a dramatic technique, and Freud himself shows up in Vienna. But in the last scene, Lucas panders to his Jewish audience with a revelation that has nothing to do with the rest of the play.  The farce is so complex and contrived that we never really understand the relationships. The play is at its best in it serious moments, particularly when Lucas has the sense to make his characters shut up – ie, in Vienna, when the young men are arrested. But he succumbs to cheap effect: there’s an onstage atrocity we’d prefer not to see, thank you very much. Oedipus blinded himself offstage, and Lucas would do well to be more circumspect. In using the gay holocaust as a backdrop, Lucas is attempting the sort of historic scale that Stoppard gave us in The Coast of Utopia. Stoppard failed, and so does he, without even that Brit’s flair for dialogue to sustain him. He tries, like John Osborn, to hot things up with sex – but he lacks Osborne’s vicious sensibility.  Mdme Dukakis is terrific, showing us extraordinary comedic and dramatic skills as she weaves the conflicting styles together. Jules Ahmad, as well, is brilliant in both farcical and his tragic roles. Director Mark Wing-Davey exploits the strengths of the script, but fails to compensate for its weaknesses.

42nd Street by Shera Cohen
Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT - www.goodspeed.org

www.inthespotlightinc.org

"The show must go on!" This cliché is the entire plot of the sparkling, toe-tapping "42nd Street" at Goodspeed Opera House. The story is the backstage life of a new musical - the audition, rehearsal, and tour of "Pretty Ladies" (the play within the play). The era is the Great Depression. Why "great" was ever linked with the economic doldrums of "Depression" is a question to ponder. "Great" can, however, apply to this revival in 2009. Perhaps it was not a coincidence when Goodspeed planned its season opener to be more apropos in theme than one would have guessed. As the sounds of the pit orchestra hit that strong opening note and the ruby red curtain rises, onstage are 14 hoofers tapping away. Their shoes are another instrument, and one that never stops during the entire musical, thank goodness. The ensemble is first and foremost superb dancers. They are young, energetic, attractive, in unison, and can sing. The production itself is the "star" and can be compared to a large canvas - on it are colors, swooshes, vibrancy, glitter, boldness, and whimsy. Some of these colors are literal in the costumes (the musical becomes a 1930s fashion show) and the lighting. That said, this is not to discount those in leading roles, with each actor playing his/her caricature exceptionally well. Kristen Martin (ingénue heroine) is a sweet soprano who taps as fast as a speeding bullet. Austin Miller (her beau and Harry Connick look-alike) is sassy with feet that keep up with his gal. James Lloyd Reynolds (the boss) doesn't sing much, but delivers comedy so straight to get extra laughs. Laurie Wells (leading lady) is the real singer in this quartet. And what do they sing that leaves the audience unable to eradicate tunes from their collective heads for the next week? "We’re in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and the title number. The other important stars are choreographer Rick Conant and director Ray Roderick - a dynamic duo who set the tone and spirit of "42nd Street" to please the likes of Busby Berkeley.

Vitek Kruta, International Artist from Holyoke by Shera Cohen
Paradise City Fair, Northampton - 5/23-25/09 - www.paradisecityarts.com May 23 - 25, 2009
"Doing art is a basic human right. It's my way of life, a force and purpose for being here," says Vitek Kruta. One of the hundreds of professionals showing and selling art at this spring's Paradise City, Kruta is also one of the many talented individuals who does not need a "day job." In Prague, Germany, and now in Holyoke, Kruta has perfected his various art genres for the past 35 years.  A bedroom wall was his first canvas as he sculpted a purposely lopsided molded frame with painting inside. People went to the wall to straighten the picture, and the joke was on them. This Trompe L'oeil 3D art form can be translated "fooling the eye, illusion." This continues to be one of Kruta's styles which have been successful and popular - enough to have made him a "regular" at Paradise City for eight years. This juried show accepts only the best of fine and functional art from throughout the country. Visionary Landscapes are Kruta's mainstay. From his mind and memory, he almost feels, smells, and hears a scene. "I try to open an esoteric door and invite the viewer to go to these places," he says. His Surrealist Paintings "illustrate reality that is not real." Kruta's explanation of his technique is exploration of the subconscious. Shapes are familiar and resemble what is known - not the tangible, but the essence. "I like to work with materials - wood, clay, mosaics, metal. The enjoyment is in the process of making things. I get an idea and I do it," he says. His home is his workplace with an attic and basement full of materials of all forms, shapes, and sizes.  Exposed to art since he was a youngster, Kruta's own children have followed this career path. Three family members restored the paintings in Northampton's First Churches. In fact, art restoration is a large section on Kruta's resume. One genre which will not be seen at Paradise City is his murals. Needless to say, they are too large, not to mention affixed to walls in hospitals, buildings, and homes. Yet, easy to carry and perhaps place in one's garden are exotic 3' metal flowers. He cuts, bends, and shapes the stems and petals out of sheet metal "to simultaneously become real, yet not real," not unlike his other art. He made the clear decision as a youngster that he would never separate himself from art. "Whatever I do must be connected to art," continues Kruta. That was his commitment to himself many years ago, and still holds today.

Phantom of the Opera by Donna Bailey-Thompson
The Bushnell, Hartford CT thru May 10, 2009 - www.bushnell.org 

There are big shows and then there is Phantom of the Opera, an extravaganza. Before the first note is played, billowing yards (tons!) of fabric enhance the proscenium pulling the audience into its dark interior that reeks with mystery. At center stage is a large lump covered with an aging canvas on which is stenciled, "C H A N D E L I E R." Before the performance has yet to begin, seeds of apprehension are planted.  The simple storyline belies the spectacular tension of this world-wide favorite that opened in London in 1986 and is Broadway’s longest-running show: a deranged musical genius with horrendous facial scars who lives in the depths beneath the Paris opera house, falls in love with a young soprano. She is seduced by his admiration of her voice but alarmed by his possessiveness. The opera house employees and performers are kept off balance by the Phantom’s malicious mischief which becomes progressively violent.  Throughout, under the direction of conductor Jonathan Gorst, the outstanding pit orchestra fills the theater with the emotional music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics by Charles Hart. Directed by Harold Prince, a cast of 36 finds its marks for 19 different scenes. The energy generated on stage is palpable. The intricacy of the sets, the engineering required to swing from one scene to another (54 motors are used to fly scenery on and off stage), the unseen use of pulley, winch, a radio-controlled boat moving through dry ice fog, the crashing of the 1,000-pound chandelier – and more – support the human drama that swirls about the damsel in distress.  The familiar arias – "The Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You" – are performed with passion that stirs the soul by John Cudia (Phantom), Trista Moldovan (Christine), and Sean MacLaughlin (Raoul). The costumes (230) are electrifying. The entire company is a well-oiled machine which imparts spontaneity. To transport this show required twenty 48-foot semi trucks. In turn, this production transported individual theatergoers into a rapt, wildly-appreciative audience. Applause explosions rivaled the startling pyrotechnic effects.  "The Phantom of the Opera" is an over-the-top WOW.

The Fight for Intellectual Freedom - Brecht’s The Life of Galileo
by Beth Purcell
Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT and Underground Railway Theater - www.centralsquaretheater.org -  April 10 – May 17, 2009

The famous recantation. The famous recanter: Galileo taking back his revolutionary theory, when faced with torture, that the Earth moves around the Sun and not vice versa. The thought sends shivers up our spine that someone so strong in his convictions could recant his beliefs – and in Galileo’s case, that meant his bedrock belief in reason, in science, in the truth he’s seen and proven. Brecht wrote the play in the late 30s when the Nazis were in power, crushing any research, teaching, expression that didn’t align with their propaganda. His play makes us question: Is a man, a scientist, great if morally weak? How important is it for a person to be morally strong?

“The Life of Galileo” is a wordy problem play where the most sensational plot point, the Inquisition, happens off stage. In order for it to work as compelling theatre, URT/CC immerse the audience in the sights and sounds of 17th century Italy with a carnival scene, giant murals of red Jupiter and of ancient Greek temples and statues exploding into space, projections of a star-strewn dark sky and moody music between the many scenes. Director David Wheeler keeps the actors in motion on the 3/4-in-the-round stage; the scaffolded platform and stairs are in plain view; the audience is close to the action and can see other theatre-goers’ expressions across the stage – this is a shared, live theatre experience.

And Wheeler’s down-to-earth direction keeps the story real with Galileo washing his legs in a stone basin or his housekeeper, hands on hips, making her outspoken pronouncements. It’s the human relationships, the feelings between people, that the audience relates to: the fear the Cardinal Inquisitor generates as he warns Galileo’s innocent daughter, Virginia, in a tone of menacing desire; or Galileo’s callous disregard of Virginia’s marriage prospects when he resumes his forbidden research, symbolically pointing the telescope skyward which causes her to fall in a faint as if shot by canon. Most moving is the relationship between Galileo and a small boy, Andrea, who grows up to become his protégé. When, later, Galileo seems to betray everything he stood for, Andrea’s disillusionment is heartbreaking. He declares: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” to which Galileo replies: “Unhappy the land that needs the hero.”

In some way, the play is all about smashing cherished beliefs – or clinging blindly to them. Several characters speak of the peasants’ need for religious faith and a civil hierarchy, something Galileo has taken away from them by “abolishing the Heavens,” the mystery of God’s workings. Neither the higher clergy nor the peasants want to be reduced to a speck of matter on “a chunk of rock endlessly revolving,” as they perceive Galileo’s new theory about the Earth. We ponder: Is our life meaningless if we are not the reason the world came to be?

This production brings up soul-searing questions which Underground Railway Theatre and Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT are eager to engage. The play is staged in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, so they’ve invited scientists to lead pre and post-show debates and discussions and have set up “talk back” boards in the lobby where people can post their answers to the Big Questions posed by MIT scientists, such as, “What did Galileo unleash?” One broad answer: “Opportunity for dissent.”

There are excellent performances from Stephen Barkhimer as both the Inquisitor and Chancellor, Amanda Collins as Virginia, in the evolution of her character from giddy girl to resigned caretaker, and from Debra wise who brings a physical immediacy to her role as the housekeeper. In a masterful turn as Galileo, McElvain brings energy and gravitas to a role that could lack sympathy. In his hands, we see the selfishness, obsession and cowardice, but also the anguish, frailty and the thirst for knowledge and discovery.

We live in a modern world with a heliocentric view of the universe. And yet – we say the sun rises and sets every day, favoring our naked senses over what we know is true. There is something in us that clings to the idea we are central, our Earth is central, to sustain our sense of self.


Best Little Whorehouse: A Good Ole Time
by Beth Purcell
Turtle Lane Playhouse - www.turtlelane.org


Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a kick up your heels, feel-good musical. What it lacks in inner conflict, it makes up for with high energy song and dance numbers and, in this production, a strong rapport amongst the characters. Based on the story of the Chicken Ranch, a popular brothel just outside La Grange, Texas, where the Sheriff closed an eye to its illegal doings, the musical version romanticizes the relationship between Mona, the keen-witted Madam with a heart of gold, and her “girls,” and makes the Governor himself a patron of the bordello, complicit in its ability to operate.

The story rotates from the setting of the brothel, a homey place despite its sleazy purpose, to the contrasting outside world: a coffee shop where the Mayor and other men discuss their options in keeping the Chicken Ranch open; the Sheriff’s office; locations where the Watchdog reporter interrogates people. This investigative reporter is a funny character, a moralizing egotist with a self-styled evangelical bent. The Watchdog (based on television reporter Marvin Zindler who crusaded against the Chicken Ranch) has a commanding stage presence as David Giagrando plays him, raving about the house of ill repute, banging on a tambourine, his chorus or groupies, the Dogettes, echoing his sentiments.

Another stand-out performance is given by Harry Rothman as the Governor, especially in the song “The Sidestep.” What a song-and-dance-man! The audience guffawed as he sang “Ooh, I love to dance a sidestep. Now you see me; now you don’t,” referring to the slick character of a politician, expert at evading reporters’ questions.

The heart of the musical is the snappy dancing, well-choreographed by Karen Fogerty. The girls are sexy and spunky and when they get together with the men, as in “The Aggie Song,” it’s a yee-haw good time. The music by Carol Hall is less interesting, but full of energy and Texas twang. Ballads such as “Hard Candy Christmas” and Angela Foley’s soulful “Doatsey Mae” add a poignancy to this story of the importance of a unique brothel in a small community.

Despite the fairy tale quality of the writing, the acting is quite honest, especially from Rebecca Shor, who carries the show with authority, as Mona, and David DeCosta as the Sheriff, with a real chemistry between them. Director James Tallach encouraged a feeling of intimacy between Mona and her girls, and amongst them, that pulls the audience in.

John MacKenzie’s set and lighting evoke a sexy, yet homey atmosphere, with the brothel wallpapered in red and often softly lit. It’s a place where the girls casually drape themselves and their unmentionables over the upstairs railing, where they feel taken care of by their mother hen, and where the customers – as well as the audience – can suspend their disbelief for an evening and pretend it’s a place of romance.


To Kill a Mockingbird
by Shera Cohen
Hartford Stage, Hartford through April 4, 2009
www.inthespotlightinc.org

Why would anyone who has already read the book, or watched the movie, or both (perhaps a couple of times each) want to spend time seeing a theatrical production of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? The answer is not necessarily “wanting” but “needing”. Every decade or so, audiences/readers must be reminded of the tale of the mockingbird and its themes of justice and courage amidst ignorance and fear.

Hartford Stage has, thankfully, brought this Depression-era story set in the Deep South to today’s New England audiences. While Harper Lee’s characters lived 70-years ago, it is not hard to understand and empathize with many of the important issues that, to a large degree, remain the same.

Throughout the play, a narrator (the adult Scout) reflects on episodes in one particular year in her young life. Her presence, coupled with floating sets and seamless onstage movement by cast and crew, creates an unbreakable line of content and emotion that build to the perfect crescendo. All the time, director Michael Wilson uses every scene – even those that are but three minutes long – to subtly maximize the audience’s belief of the times, struggles, and characters.

Matthew Modine is one of those actors seen often on TV and in movies, but few remember his name. He’s not an “A List” guy, but he should be. To be equally excellent on screen and on the stage is rare. This man is the consummate professional. Modine’s Atticus Finch personifies a man of integrity who, by the way, is one of the wisest father figures in literature.

The three child actors (Olivia Scott, Henry Hodges, and Andrew Shipman) probably have the most onstage time and dialogue, yet each is ideal in his/her role. It’s hard to imagine others cast in these parts. They create the mold that structures the play with their innocence, respect, fearlessness, lack of prejudice, and frankness (“out of the mouths of babes”). Their characters exemplify the qualities that ought to be and that there might be hope for the future.

A visionary director, exemplary actors, and skilled crew make “Mockingbird” a piece of theatre to experience more than once.


Four Dogs and a Bone by Donna Bailey
Suffield Players, Suffield, CT thru February 28, 2009
www.inthespotlightinc.org


As befits their reputation, the Suffield Players are presenting a demanding play whose success is contingent upon savvy direction and an experienced cast. This production scores on all counts.  "Four Dogs and a Bone" is a biting comedy about the dirty little details encountered when filming an underfunded movie. Written by John Patrick Shanley, a veteran Hollywood script writer and best known recently for his honored Broadway play and now a movie "Doubt," three of the dogs are a dishonest producer and two actresses who are rapacious carnivores: their diets include ingesting their own kind. The fourth dog is the script writer whose desperation to save the movie does not include devouring the others through bloodless means.

The first act covers a lot of expository ground, of the shock and awe variety. At times the abrasiveness seems nonstop, especially as spewed forth by Lea D. Oppedisano who as Colette, knows she is no longer an ingénue to reap empathy but is now headed for character roles where she can be type cast as incarnate evil. Oppedisano’s Colette’s is a force of nature – major disaster category. Her adversary is the supposedly sweet Brenda (Megan Fish) who chants and plots mischief. During the second act, their scene within a minimized dressing trailer is as tight as the space itself.

As Bradley, the money-short producer who is plagued with a flaming hemorrhoid (nothing like a little bathroom humor), Josh Guenter seems to channel Paul Giamatti – glib, light on his feet, as tailored as an unmade bed. Robert Lunde as the fair-minded script writer, Victor, throws up his arms in frustration at the unbridled shenanigans. His disapproval gives the audience permission to feel shocked by the despicable behavior, even while laughing at scabrous remarks they would not tolerate elsewhere.

Director Meghan Lynn Allen prevents "Four Dogs and a Bone" from becoming farcical melodrama. The production can inspire anything from the killer comment, "That was much ado about nothing!" to the exclamation, "What a hoot!"


Dead Man's Cell Phone
By Jarice Hanson
TheatreWorks, Hartford CT thru March 15, 2009
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

In Sarah Ruhl’s comedy, "Dead Man’s Cell Phone," the audience enters a world of feelings and emotion by eavesdropping on cell phone messages. Two people are in a café, where a woman is annoyed by the constantly ringing cell phone of the man at the other table. When she grabs the cell phone to answer it, she realizes he is dead.To protect his dignity, she lies to a series of callers, leading her to ultimately meet and confront Gordon Gottlieb’s overbearing mother, miserable wife, ineffective brother, and exotic mistress.

The protagonist, Jean, is played by Finnerty Steeves, an appealing actress who can communicate much by just raising an eyebrow. We meet her in the stark café, wearing a frumpy gray and black outfit that matches her life, before she is catapulted into Gordon’s life, illustrated on stage by colorful backlighting and an annoyingly effective sound design that assaults the senses the way an incessantly ringing cell phone does. As a result of the world she finds herself in after taking Gordon’s phone, Jean begins to expand her senses (and those of the audience) beyond what she hears on the cell phone to touch, taste, and sight. Each of the other characters, also fully realized and expertly directed by Rob Ruggiero, find what they need in life, through Jean’s interpretation of Gordon’s wishes.

In addition to Steeves’ portrayal of Jean, Craig Wroe as Gordon, stands out in this ensemble piece, for his expository monolog from another dimension—letting those seated in the theatre in on the real Gordon. With a touch of absurdity in the second act, carried through by the audience’s immediate cell phone use after the show, the play ends with an appreciation and marvel at Ruhl’s comic absurdity of contemporary life.


Jersey Boys By Sharon Smith
(The Bushnell, Hartford CT, thru February 22, 2009)
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

“Oh, What a Night” at the Bushnell, indeed! That song title is also the best way to describe an enjoyable evening watching a performance of "Jersey Boys," the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The quartet may sing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” but if you miss this must-see show, you just might! 

"Jersey Boys" recounts the story of how four singers under a street lamp, from the wrong side of the tracks, made it in the big time. Who would have thought that the performers of such wonderful songs as “Sherry”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Walk Like a Man” would have personal histories that include theft, jail time and mobsters?  The incredibly talented Four Seasons are played by Matt Bailey (Tommy DeVito), Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie Valli), Josh Franklin (Bob Gaudio) and Steve Gouveia (Nick Massi). Their vocal and physical similarities to their real-life counterparts are uncanny. The actors portray the characters so well that it is difficult to believe they are not the real Four Seasons -- to cry when Frankie cries and feel betrayed when Tommy’s indiscretions tear the band apart.

Jersey Boys moves along quickly and uses effortless transitions to instantly shift focus from a small smoky nightclub to the set of American Bandstand. Even the costumes help trace the band's trajectory and tie it to their name by using vibrant colors for the Spring and Summer of the Four Seasons career and finishing with more muted colors as the (literal) Fall of the band began. As befits the rough and tumble New Jersey upbringing of the boys, their language is also pretty colorful.

A drawback to the "Jersey Boys" is wanting to “Stay” just a little bit longer enjoying the trip back in time. With at least 40 singles on the best- selling charts, the Playbill included a song list of “The Ones That Got Away” (songs that couldn’t be squeezed into the show). Any hope that the curtain call would feature one or more of these songs remained unfulfilled.

Don’t miss this “Fallen Angel” of a show!

The Grand Master
  by Steve Capra

The Grand Inquisitor (CICT/ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord/Paris, presented at New York Theatre Workshop in New York's East Village).
Peter Brook is probably the most famous and influential director alive. He works out of Paris. He's directed an adaptation of The Grand Inquisitor that was presented in the East Village.
The reader will recall that The Grand Inquisitor is a chapter from The Brothers Karamazov. It's a parable that Ivan tells his brother Karamazov to make a metaphysical point (they talk like that). The story is about Christ returning to us during The Spanish Inquisition. He is not welcomed by the authorities.

Brook's contribution to theatre has been minimalism, and his stage here is nearly bare, with a raised platform center, a chair UL for the Inquisitor and a chair DR for his Prisoner, Christ. The stage picture is stark black and white.

This script is a monologue. Bruce Myers begins and closes with narration describing the episode, but he spends the bulk of the hour speaking as the GI himself. He's usually addressing Christ, Who sits with His back to us, and when he does there are some wonderful moments. As he recites his dizzyingly philosophical discourse, he reflects a series of fleeting emotions - in turns accusatory, smug, challenging… His spare, carefully determined gestures are eloquent. "Man must decide for himself what is good and what is evil," he says, and he raises his forefinger to his temple in a gesture with mystery. And he has a silent moment when his arms seem to debate with one another, reflecting his own doubt.
Unfortunately, he has none of this emotional fluidity when, from time to time, he relates to us. "Now you see them, your free men," he says to Christ his Auditor, standing DC and facing us.

His attitude to us includes only accusation and, lacking subtlety, it lacks truth.

Marie-Helene Estienne's adaptation is neither reading nor drama, and so it has neither distance nor tension. It's ill-conceived that she and Brook have the same actor narrating and acting. Worse, we hear lines like "The day ends, followed by night."

There are painful moments during the narration that frames the speech. Speaking of the Inquisitor and his relationship to the Listener, Myers says "Then he draws nearer," and as he says it, he draws nearer the listener. This sort of trans-form literalization is difficult to sit through.

In short, this production belongs to my least favorite theatre species - the show that depends on the celebrity of the artist. If Brook's name weren't on the program, the name of the Grand Master, the production would be quickly dismissed.

Directors might note that the wooden riser on stage, perhaps six inches high, does not define space strictly. Sometimes our man steps off it, like a drawing that laps over its border. It's beautiful.

Jerry & Ed by Donna Bailey-Thompson
Majestic, West Springfield MA through November 30, 2008
www.inthespotlightinc.org

Life-long friendship, mutual respect and tomfoolery, and the vicissitudes and nonsense of aging are woven into an original play that entertains while unloosing emotions – especially love.

"Jerry & Ed" has come along at the right time, a best buddy play that momentarily blocks out today’s downer news. The charm doesn’t unfold immediately because Jerry’s opening monologue is a collection of cornball one-liners that net painful groaning. But once Jerry (Steve Henderson, who also wrote the play) gets that painful shtick out of his system, the play rocks and rolls.

The plot is simple: Jerry and his life-long best friend Ed (Dick Volker) are widowers residing at the Garden Acres Retirement Community. They have walkers they don’t need; with a wink they let the audience in on the scam, "It’s an insurance thing." When their tempers flare, the walkers held at shoulder level turn the aging bad boys into antlered game who lock horns, so to speak. If their balance were better, they’d probably paw the ground.

As one memory leads to another, their adventures and misadventures are resurrected. They take us and the girls they’re courting, Margaret and Doris, to an amusement park where they hate the ferris wheel and are not thrilled with the rollercoaster. Their romancing is interrupted by World War II. During one firefight, pinned down by ordnance, Ed is injured in the leg. Even in the midst of battleground horror, their love and exasperation with one another spawns humor. When the war ends and their troop ship arrives in New York, they phone Margaret and Doris. They are battle-tested veterans, giddy with romantic longings. When their barely articulate proposals are accepted, they are euphoric.

Henderson’s Jerry and Volker’s Ed are fully developed characters. Volker’s restrained remembrance of Doris’s final illness grabs the heart. Jack Neary’s direction is sensitive to Henderson’s deceptively simple script that teems with the high drama of ordinary human beings’ basic emotions. Throughout "Jerry & Ed" a sweetness permeates. Regardless of how old and wise they get, their boyish innocence endures.


Like Under a Microscope by Steve Capra
Sunken Red began its life in 1981 as a novel, in Dutch, by Jeroen Brouwers. It relates the author’s life from his childhood imprisonment with his mother in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, through his adulthood, to her death. Guy Cassiers, a Belgian director (invariably referred to as Flemish), has adapted it into stage monologue, Sunken Red, presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music. Cassiers focuses on the most personal elements of the novel. The script is good, not great, intensely self-absorbed, reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.  Alone throughout, the character addresses us. Apart from the Japanese guards who terrorized him as a child, there are no men in his memory. He speaks of his mother, his wives, his daughter, his mistress, in an objective stream-of-consciousness. He’s obsessed with sexual organs. Unfortunately, Cassiers jumps on this character element and includes a masturbation scene that caused one yuppie couple to march up the aisle. Indeed, it’s an ill-advised choice, unsuited for the context. The character climaxes, but the play doesn’t – it just continues, as if libido counted for nothing. Moreover, Cassiers disregards his character’s basic drive – to analyze in order to avoid experiencing.  Cassiers’ great accomplishment is to cast Dirk Roofthooft, a Belgian actor. His solo performance is brilliant, insightful in analysis, fluid in technique, subtle and expressive in emotion. Our man is speaking soon after his mother’s death, he’s skipped the cremation, and he’s embarked in an intense introspection to solve some indefinable problem of life. He’s complex, course and vulnerable. Roofthooft brings the character as close to us personally as we are aurally – we can hear him soughing. With exquisite control, he reveals the emotion beneath the character avoids. “At times I’m half crazy with fear of undefined things” he observes, and we wonder if this is one of those times.  Cassiers constructs the script with a late climax dwelling on a particularly horrendous experience the child had as a prisoner of war. He throws his tech at the moment. Like the set and the other obvious directorial choices, it’s superfluous. Cassiers should have remained unobtrusive and concentrated on supporting his extraordinary actor. Roofthooft is so commanding and absorbing, that he needs no mis en scène. We want to explore his work in isolation. It suffers examination like a perfect gem under a microscope.

Heart of Concept by Steve Capra
Louder was produced by Verdensteatret, a Norwegian company. Company members travelled to the Mekong Delta to absorb material for this non-linear piece. The objects of the set suggest a gym, with speakers scattered on the floor instead of weights, and instead of a Nautilus machine, the huge spindly legs of a spider. Images on the back screen include the jungle, indigenous architectures intricately deconstructed, fish playing before a pagoda, and a long, ominous warship. There are drawings of death and war, some from Brueghel.  Cut-outs move across the stage in a rope. And there’s some pretty clever lighting. When the cut-outs themselves aren’t lit, they cast shadows on the lit backscreen. And when they are lit, the backscreen is dark. Actors,as well, lit or shadowed meticulously. They’re actors on stage, or musicians, not characters.  There’s next to speech, but there’s babbling, hollering, shrieking and, throughout, the unidentifiable sounds of the rain forest. These last crescendo to the point of our using the ear plugs we were given at the door.  The effect is evocative, engrossing – really terrific, if somewhat confusing. There’s more than a little Heart of Darkness here, overwhelming and oppressive. The company has left the referent behind and produced something abstract. For those with the background, however, it evokes Southeast Asia. A Vietnamese friend in the audience said it all took her back to her childhood. Those speakers, which rotate on different axes, and into which actors peer for no apparent reason, refer to the propaganda speakers throughout Vietnam.  It’s all a postmodernist combination of abstraction and reconstruction. It appeared at PS 122, off-off-Broadway,


Big River by Shera Cohen (Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT through Nov. 30, 2008)
Advertisements refer to “Big River” as “a slice of pure Americana.” Who was better than Mark Twain, through his most famous character Huck Finn, to simultaneously weave a tale of our county in its glory and shame?

“Big River” jam-packs most of the Huck Finn story (it was a thick book) along with 17 songs into two and a half hours. It’s a big task to accomplish this successfully. Goodspeed, known for its excellent productions of tried and true musicals as well as those fresh out of the computer, is the ideal setting for this important story. Many read Huck’s tale as a high school assignment. On the surface, Twain’s dialect is melodic and humorous which gives the tone of froth. Yet, the author – and in the case of the musical, the composer, lyricist, director, and actors – is dead serious in the subject matters of conscience, trust, humanity, and slavery.

Huck (Will Reynolds) and Jim (Russell Joel Brown) seek their own freedom. At times they are equals, yet circumstances of the 1840s make that impossible. The camaraderie between the actors/characters is obvious, particularly in the songs “River in the Rain” and the showstopper “Muddy Water.” While the lanky, curly top Reynolds portrays Huck with vim, naiveté, and a voice to accentuate his character, he seems a bit old for the role. Brown brings depth, sorrow, and his own innocence in his portrayal of the slave Jim. His only solo, “Free at Last,” shows off his pure baritone voice.

Director Rob Ruggerio, along with his crew, creates sets with minimum multi-purpose staging and maximum skillful lighting. The pit orchestra is as fine as any at Goodspeed, with the wonderful addition of The Musician (David Lutken), an ever-present figure onstage as he plays the guitar, harmonica, banjo, and zither. Tunes run the gamut, including country, gospel, ballads, and blues. The large ensemble of townsfolk, Huck’s buddies, and slaves fill the small stage with song and dance from the opening funny number “Do a Wanna Go to Heaven?” to the reprise of “Muddy Water” finale.

The Sunday matinee full house loved Twain and Huck in October, 2008 as much as readers must have loved both in 1885.


Four Mystics Minus Two by Steve Capra
The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus and the Sheikh Hamza Shakkur Al-Kindi Ensemble presented The Sufi Liturgy of the Great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus recently (at The Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College in New York). There were meant to be fours dervishes, but two were denied visas, as was one of the musicians. New York was honored to host them, and the concert was a marvelous artistic and worshipful event.  The songs have the majestic reverence of prayer:

“Oh God, I begin my entreaties by praising your goodness.
In humility and acceptance I turn to you.”
Instruments included the qana (zither), ney (reed flute), ‘ud (lute), and riqq (tambourine). The music is intricate and subtle, and all the more engaging for its strangeness. As Hamlet advised, “As a stranger give it welcome.”

From time to time the dervishes would stand and begin their extraordinary ritual. They start by walking in small circles, about four feet in diameter. As the music intensifies, they begin to whirl, counter clockwise, accelerating until they reach about 60 rpm’s. They rotate on the left heel, with their eyes closed. This lasts for perhaps ten minutes, during which their splendid white gowns billow around them like great sugar bells. They return to their seats with perfect composure.
The position of the arms is important. It varies within a piece, and with the dancer, sometimes symmetrical, sometimes not, always with the elbows bent, the fingers pointing down or up, sometimes with a hand before the face as if the dervish were examining his palm through his closed eyelids. In certain positions they’re channeling energy from heaven to earth. I’ve also been told that the various positions stimulate various parts of the brain. They are unquestionably deliberate.

The ceremony is firstly a form of worship. The Mawlawiyya (order of the dervishes) is a brotherhood of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The name of the ritual is sama; it’s a spiritual listening. Sama developed in Turkey in the twelfth century, and spread to the neighboring Islamic countries.

There’s no dissonance here between worship and performing. The perfomer is a priest (as in most priesthoods, they were all men). They were whirling for all of us.


The Peking Opera by Steve Capra
The Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera is technically an American company, but its members are Chinese nationals. Purists (like me) will be satisfied with this. After all, at the opening of the show, we are addressed in Chinese before we’re addressed in English. The company recently presented Women Generals of the Yang Family at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Performed in Chinese, it’s a great show. From the moment we see the opening backdrop with its stunning blue mountains, we know this will be a spectacle. This is a traditional and elaborate Chinese form. Costume is central – bright colors and complex patterns, red robes with white cuffs to the floor, feathers yards long, soldiers in pants. Actors speak, sing, scream or speak over music. They dance, tumble, and sometimes move with a graceful sideways walk. They work with gorgeous, stylized gestures. The first backdrop morphs to the golden emperor-dragon icon of the court.
Note that all the stage movement is SR to SL. It’s apparently the natural stage flow, not dependant on the way we read.  The story of this play tells us how 12 widows in mythical history (during the European middle ages, actually) saved the country from invasion after the general falls in battle. The dialogue is suitably artificial (“As we face a hanging bluff, the horse will not budge”); when it wants to be humorous, it’s delightful. It all culminates in a wordless, acrobatic battle with juggling and kicking and stylized swordplay (stickplay, actually). It’s all wonderful.
The music ensemble includes traditional instruments – gong, drum, fiddle, horn, etc… The Qi Shu Fang company has added an electric synthesizer! The music is insistent, commanding, not subtle.  This drama works for expansion, not compression. It’s all clearly designed to impress – a festival of nationalism. There are no ideas here, no discussion.  The Peking Opera dates from the 18th Century; its repertoire includes over 1,400 works. We applaud the Qi Shu Fang company for keeping it alive and offering it to us here in the States.

Unblinking: The Thirty-third Year - Playing Life, Theatre ASOU at Mabou Mines, PS 122 by Steve Capra
Theatre ASOU, from Graz, Austria, visited Mabou Mines recently (at PS 122, New York), with a sort of performance piece called The Thirty-third Year - Playing Life. The company uses projections, costume changes, and a disembodied, amplified voice to create a set of characters, all manifestations of the sole actor. Indeed, the script was devised from the actor's life through interviews with the author (Robert Riedl). It's a probing exposure of character, and it doesn't shrink from life's worst experiences - death and grief.

Throughout, the actor is engaged in conversation with an alter ego. "What is it that you want from me?" he asks his other self. "Just shut your mouth," comes the response. But this disembodied voice (who is the director) can be reassuring as well, "Just be you", he tells our man. There's a great deal of Pirandelloing around here. The best bit is a visual pun on the word "cast", as the actor enters with his leg in one of those plaster things - he's in the cast today.

We admire the expression of loss and guilt that Theatre ASOU gives us. However, the repartee re: acting vs life goes on well past its welcome, and the production fails. It depends too heavily a concept that isn't developed, merely repeated. An upstage screen keeps throwing the actor's soulful eyes at us - sometimes his soulful eye - and, like the script, it doesn't blink. But this means it never changes, and the self-examination isn't stageable.

The production owes much to the honest, fluid emotional life of its actor, Gernot Rieger. His technique is sharp and sure and polished. When he addresses us, in the play's best moment, he's direct and disarming. "Would you like a relationship with me?" he asks. But still, the answer is decidedly "No". Who'd want to deal with his self-absorption? And when he says "Maybe this is a kind of therapy," we've had enough.

We'd like to see this company again, with its unblinking honesty, when its talents are channeled through a pithier vehicle.

The Miracle Worker by Shera Cohen
Majestic, West Springfield through 10/12/08


The staging is the first clue that the Majestic’s opening play, “The Miracle Worker,” launches a wonderful professional 2008/09 season. Set designer Greg Trochlil and lighting designer Daniel Rist arrange multiple areas, representing indoors and outdoors, clearly defined by outlines of wooden panels and variations of spotlights.

The high caliber of the play continues from the very first words spoken to final words of Helen Keller fingered in the hand of her teacher Annie Sullivan. Playwright William Gibson’s dialogue is exquisite as he initially hints at the potential of each character, and then proves it. Just as Gibson depends on choosing the right words, the plot is about words and language. Communication is the crux of the play – without it, the human spirit is locked. Helen and Annie’s story is real, and playgoers know its beginning, middle, and end. Yet, seeing it often never seems to be too often.

Zoya Kachadurian skillfully directs her cast of 14 (including some adorable children) in a well-paced natural clip. The flow is seamless, especially when moving in and out of flashbacks. There are no weak actors. Marianna Bassham (Helen’s mother) portrays a gentile Southern lady with a backbone when it comes to her child. Eric Love (father) could have easily phoned in his performance as one-dimensional, but this was far from the case. Dan Whelton (brother) shows the clear growth of his character’s inner self.

Wherever did the Majestic staff find Brittany Andrea? Actually, the answer isn’t important. What is pertinent is that she is a must-see young actress who is only in town for one month in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Helen. She balances relentless frustration with naïve awakening. Andrea is Helen.

The play is truly the story of Annie Sullivan, who was the miracle worker. Jen Schwaber gives Annie a dichotomy of forthrightness and doubt, strength and vulnerability, courage and bravado, humor and drama. Her battles with Andrea call for shear stamina, and perhaps accepting some bruises throughout the play’s run. Schwaber is an actress who easily meets the many challenges of Annie.

While at the Majestic, note the beautiful paintings by Willie Ross School for the Deaf students which are on display throughout the run of this play.


Spamalot @ The Bushnell, Hartford by Shera Cohen
There’s one really big thing wrong about “Spamalot” at the Bushnell – only five performances. Given that one fault, audiences have no choice but to fill the seats immediately and to the rafters to experience one of the most outrageous, creative, and funniest musicals ever.

To have remembered and enjoyed the Monty Python series or movies means instant love of “Spamalot,” because it’s more of the same along with music and funky lyrics, cartoon-like sets, costumes from every century (who cares if this is supposedly the Middle Ages), cheeky special effects, and this time it’s all in fabulous Technicolor. Nothing is off-limits – sex, politics, death, or religion. The monk and nun sensual dance is a hoot. To have never seen Python makes little difference. Audiences need only bring open minds, funny bones, and expectations of exaggeration and camp to thoroughly enjoy the play, at least enough to see it once a year.

The story is that of King Arthur, his knights, the Lady of the Lake, and search for the Holy Grail. Ahh, sounds familiar, from books of old. From that basic plot are twists and turns to Casino Camelot, “a very expensive forest,” and Broadway. Blatantly hysterical running jokes are poked at many musicals: i.e. “Fiddler,” “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Les Miz,” and “Phantom.” The knights especially like Mel Brooks and especially dislike Sondheim and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The actors are constant hams, which could give the expectation that the singing skills might not be equal to the shtick. Wrong. There are some wonderful strong voices, in particular Christopher Sutton at Prince Herbert doing a lovely falsetto. Except for those playing Arthur and Lady, all of the actors have at least three roles each. It wasn’t until after the standing ovation to boisterous audience cheers that this reviewer had time to read the playbill. Two of the best acted characters are Sir Lancelot and The French Taunter. What do you know – Patrick Heusinger portrays both.

Ending with an audience sing-along to a reprised “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” it is clear that “Spamalot” shines bright.

Eleanor: Her Secret Journey by K. J. Rogowski
Berkshire Theatre Company, Stockbridge through November 9, 2008

Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" is a one woman show of power, passion and change, that documents her reflections on the early years with yet to be president, Franklin. Equally important is a look at her personal observations on both world and intimate personal events that were to shape her future from 1945 on.

Elizabeth Norment's skill as an actor captures the panorama of that world stage as she plays Eleanor, Franklin, and a cast of others notables, as they discuss, debate and sort out the morals, mania and politics of world powers and family domination. Here, she faces the challenges of dealing with an unfaithful husband, a manipulative mother-in-law, the senseless inhumanity of man at war, and the strange, seductive power that each possesses. Through her journey, Eleanor strips away the grandeur and the public face of war, and those who manipulate that machine, and shows, instead, the back story, the human frailty that actually drives world events. She humanizes the inhumane, and reduces it to its most basic components. She reveals the personal quirks and idiosyncrasies of the great and near great, and casts a light on the personal toll of being a public figure, that the public sometimes thinks it owns.

Norment does all this with humor, passion and vulnerability, that make the view into the lives of these very public figures a true journey of little-known human struggles. Stephen Temperley's direction keeps the action smooth, uncomplicated, and focused on the message, as does the simple, yet elegant, set design. The use of lighting shifts and occasional sound effects to set the tone and to punctuate the changing emotions of Eleanor's pilgrimage are also nicely played. For an evening of drama, humor and humanity, Eleanor's journey is well worth the trip.


Les Miserables Special School Edition by Donna Bailey-Thompson
Exit 7 Players, Ludlow MA 

The tension of social unrest – generations of injustice that led to France proclaiming a Second Republic – and the individuals caught up in its life-changing drama, are knocking the socks off audiences as performed at a professional level by dedicated amateur actors ranging in age from five to eighteen. In this abridged version of the blockbuster musical, Les Miserables, the integrity of Victor Hugo’s classic novel is honored and in many respects intensified by the awe-inspiring performances of 47 young people.

Based upon the high quality of Exit 7 Players’ productions, the professionalism of their Les Mis should not be surprising, but, it is. To inspire such outstanding performances is a testament to Director/Choreographer Jenn Bauduccio’s skill and the cast’s trust in her guidance..

Exit 7's Les Miserables Special School Edition is an outstanding theatrical experience. As the dying Fantine, Monica Giordano’s solo is heartbreaking. Other emotional peaks are attained by Michelle Waslick, age 9 (Gavroche); Tray K. Sanders, age 13 (Enjalras); Sarah Banning, age 15 (Eponine) whose "On My Own" breaks more hearts. The amoral Thenardiers – Lisa Rizza, about to become a college freshman and Colby Herchel with three years acting experience – offer lively, humorous nastiness. Star-crossed lovers Cosette (Katie Stiefel) and Sam Plotkin (Marius, age 16) pour out their longing for one another.

The determination of Jean Valjean (Gavin Mackie, high school senior) to become an honest man and the doggedness of the sadistic law enforcer Javert (Michael Piels who enrolls in NYU this coming semester) to destroy Valjean, infuse their scenes, singly and together, with raw energy. Their duets stir and alarm.

Musical Director Devon Louise Bakum has infected the young cast with a desire to excel. The songs are not easy to sing, yet the chorus and soloists deliver with ease and conviction. The costumers – Bauduccio, Mary Hernandez, Sherri Montagna, Lori Rodriguez, Cheryl Chant – incorporated authenticity into their creations. The imaginative minimal sets are the handiwork of master carpenters Paul Hamel and Tom Marshall Jr.

Unsung are the parents and families of the cast who juggled their other responsibilities to support their cast member’s ambitions. Before the auditions, Exit 7 spent years planning and negotiating. And now, Bravo!

3 Plays/1 Stage by Shera Cohen
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox

Add it up: 2 Shakespeare plays (one deadly serious and the other almost deadly comedy) + 1 by someone else + 3 skilled directors (Tina Packer, Kevin Coleman, Tony Simotes) + dozens of exceptional actors (among them are Shakes & Co. “old timers” Jason Asprey, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jonathan Croy, Michael Hammond, Annette Miller, Dennis Krausnick) = a fabulous summer season at Shakes & Co.

“Othello,” directed by Shakes & Co. alum, teacher, fight captain Tony Simotes, offers a triumvirate of talent. Simotes’ stages his actors in exactly the right positions with voices and demeanor to become their characters. John Douglas Thompson (Othello) shines as the tortured man, triumphant in battle on the field yet failing himself and those he loves. This is the perfect role for Thompson. Michael Hammond shows his audience every minutia of what makes his evil, conniving Iago tick. Hammond is not shy in his in-your-face performance, which is exactly what is called for in this role.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” might be called a musical, or at least that is the case with this version. Called “the house band,” nine actors accompany singer/interlocutor Nigel Gore regularly liven up the stage with original rock music composed by Shakes & Co.’s own Bill Barclay. The songs link the scenes together in this feminist and perhaps atypical Bard play.

Charles Morey’s “The Ladies Man” (based on the work of Geydeau) treats the audience to non-stop comedy in the shape of traditional French farce. In the course of the show, a total of 14 doors and entries permit the cast comings and goings at such rapid speed nearly faster than the eye can see. One can only imagine the bumping and bruising that occurs backstage. The extremely talented ensemble (many from last year’s successful “Rough Crossing”) must be having the time of their lives, which is certainly contagious to the audience.

Actually, there’s more at Shakes & Co., and it’s the free stuff; i.e. the very funny premiere of “The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid,” a terrific lecture series, pre-show mini-plays, and more.

A Man for All Seasons by Shera Cohen
Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge

It’s been several seasons since Eric Hill was last on stage. The opportunity to observe Hill’s portrayal as Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” is one important reason to catch this play before it closes. Another is to watch the other actors, as this is a collection of thespian work at its best.

"Man” is based on the true story of More, of which there is much history. Set in the era of Henry VIII, is the battle of church and state over the divorce of the king’s first wife, Catherine. Equally, it is the conflict of conscience and convenience. The plot is far from black and white or right vs. wrong. The play could, indeed, be titled “A Man for all Days” or “Years” or “Centuries.” Beliefs and convictions of 1530 may as well be the same, with the same vehemence in 2008.

Richard Corley directs his cast in a series of chronological segments in the life of More, his family, and constituents. The thread linking each part is The Common Man, portrayed exceptionally well in multiple roles by Walter Hudson. David Chandler’s Cromwell plays sinister to perfection, Gareth Saxe’s Henry combines humor with determination in his king, and Diane Prusha evenly balances love and strength for and against her stubborn husband as More’s wife.

Hill is quite understated, except for a few short moments, as More. As a man of the cloth and of government, More’s professions pulled him in two directions, resulting in deadly consequences. Through Hill, we see the struggle of a man who willingly sheds both exterior garments to live solely by his own judgment.

The trappings of staging and costuming create 16th century England. Yet, actors do not feign British accents, and much of the playwright’s dialogue seems quite 20th century. Throughout, the play asks the question, “What is a man without principles and values?” Today’s audience members leave asking the same question of themselves.

Tell Everybody  by Steve Capra
Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy was first performed in 1606. Talk about family drama! The Duchess has three sons by a previous marriage, and the Duke has one, not counting the bastard (who takes up with his stepmother). It drips with intrigue and duplicity. It’s set, naturally, in Italy.

London’s National Theatre produced it this month with extraordinary success. The designs (by Ti Green and Melly Still) are all and marvelous, with a stark throne room for the Duke and glorious Renaissance murals for the court. The revolving stage has crannies of mystery reflecting the intricacies of the script. The costumes are modern and unobtrusive, making their point without attracting attention.

Our hero, Vindice, is played by Rory Kinnear, looking terrific under his red T-shirt and white sport jacket. When we meet him, he’s a Raskolnikov in his bare room, books scattered on the floor, his hair ragged. He morphs into a macho with a buzz cut, and finally dons a great fright wig in his final disguise. Kinnear is terrific, with a clear emotional life expressed through a fluid physicality. He flails his arms or stands in an introverted lump, as the need arises.

There’s a lot of physical action on this stage. We open with tumblers and dancers – they show up again from time to time – and occasionally there are nameless characters doing the most obscene things as the stage revolves. In the final masque, Still holds back, giving us the masked dancers (they’re really the young Dukelets) on a spare set, because she can’t top the spectacle she’s already given us. Wise choice – but executed without insight, and the macabre dance fails.

This terrific production has crisp asides, an elegant counter tenor, and, when the occasion demands, a disco beat. Even the face, projected on the walls of the set, that morphs into a demon in the way of computer graphics, is integrated into the design.

The script revels in the black Jacobean humor: Vindice confesses a series of deceits to the Duke before killing him and adds “Tell nobody” before he stabs him. And Still’s concern with macabre detail matches the playwright’s – there’s dummy that’s passed off as a woman (Vindice panders for the duke), and in a post-murder frenzy it comes to life.

The actresses of this cast don’t come off well – Vindice’s mother and sister are oddly colorless. And Still hasn’t expressed the cynical depth of the script, its unspeakable emotions. Determined not to dwell on a moment, he never savors the luscious evil. The trick is, though, that she’s managed to drive this dinosaur (mixed metaphor there) by us so deftly. Tell everybody that great drama is timeless and that a form intensely linked to the 17th century can speak to us as well.

Rolling their “R’s” by Steve Capra
Igor Stravinsky wrote his opera The Rake’s Progress in 1951. He was inspired by a set of paintings of the same name published by the English artist William Hogarth in 1735 that depicted the moral dissolution of a young man seduced by material goods. The plot loosely follows Hogarth’s: Tom Rakewell inherits money, dumps his girlfriend and, led by Nick Shadow (the devil himself!) he plays around in the big city. Then – after a bunch of adventures – he’s committed to an asylum. A timeless theme if there ever was one.

I am not at home with this material from Igor’s middle period. The effusive orchestrations of Right of Spring and Firebird were past for the composer by the time he wrote Progress. But Stravinsky is like Shakespeare; as the evening progresses, we’re educated to the idiom. The libretto is by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, and it’s uninspiring.

The Royal Opera in London has just staged the piece directed by the Canadian Robert Lepage. The production premiered in Brussels in 2007 and has travelling around (Not unlike its jeune premier). The production is dominated by concept as expressed in the grand set designs by Carl Fillion. The opera’s been set in the prototypical American Mid-west and decadent California. The libretto retains its allusions to London, and it’s really cool to separate lyrics and design this way.

The first set is a flatland with oil rig - the clouds move, with a vanishing point right of center, as the overcast grows. Then, in the first stage in our rake’s corruption, he makes a western movie (and here the designer is less successful), with Shadow floating around behind a sort-of cardboard representation of a classic Hollywood camera. In another scene, a wisp of grey balloon center stage inflates to become a trailer, and this is just cheap.

We spend a lot of time at a pool on the coast. There’s a terrific sunset here over a rippling ocean, and when a crowd of reporters appears, they’re in heartless black-and-white. “Ruin – disaster – shame” they croak.

In the opera’s best scene, Shadow leads our man to the entrance to hell – it’s wonderfully macabre with pictures of playing cards and of a yellow tub ducky, all sadistically tasteless, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” in pictures. And when Shadow says “Behold your waiting grave”, it’s just luscious. Anyway, Tom doesn’t go to hell – he goes to the asylum instead, where everything is worse - pale, colorless.

And so we’re served the two elements – libretto and design – linked by theme, not logic. The setting deepens the opera by adding dissonance. The problem is that the impressive design is so derivative that it lacks mystery. We know just where each idea has come from. There are specific allusions to classic movies and stage musicals – Oklahoma, Sunset Boulevard, et al.

Charles Castronovo is terrific as Rakewell, physically expressive, with clear diction. John Relyea, as Shadow, is sufficiently oily; in fact, he appears out of the oil well, and he looks like oil itself. As Anne Truelove, the dumped prairieland girlfriend, Sally Matthews modifies her vowels so extremely on the high notes that we can’t understand what she’s saying. I was grateful for the text next to the stage. In fact, the diction throughout is odd – sometimes they roll their “R’s”.

So Lepage’s stage has been enlarged without being enriched. Fillion’s elegant stage pictures are lifeless and, with no drama in the story or depth in the characters, the production is more impressive than memorable.

Broke-ology @ Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown (MA) by Shera Cohen
It’s not often that a play’s world premiere takes place in our region. It’s also not often that a playwright’s first piece of work is staged by such a well-known and respected venue as Williamstown Theatre Festival. Those two factors do not necessarily make for success. Yet, in the case of “Broke-ology,” the audience’s applause and standing ovation (including this reviewer) at the play’s end would lead many to believe that this play has a long life on the stage.

It’s a strange title, for sure. One character coined it and explains it as a college degree in “being broke (poor),” and this man would receive an A+. His younger brother, however, recently graduated from “real” college with a double major. The differences and conflict between these young men are immediately set. While in a happy marriage, their parents often see life from opposite points of view.

The setting is a poverty-stricken neighborhood, Kansas. But it could be Anywhere, USA. The times are 1982 and 2007. The family is African-American. Author Nathan Louis Jackson and Director Thomas Kail take these four characters and immediately make them real people. There are no good guys and bad guys; they are each human, opinionated, likable, and even lovable. The bottom line for the audience is that we care.

Every actor is exceptional, and while it is cliché, they seem born to portray their roles. Francois Battiste (the older brother) was outstanding. An actor with numerous Broadway and regional theatre credits, Battiste has also appeared in films. Like the long life of this play, here is a young actor to watch as he climbs the latter to his own success.

Some might think of the Nikos Stage at Williamstown as the smaller second cousin with plays that are less important or skillfully produced as those on the Mainstage. That would not be true. This is a wonderful venue, particularly for experimentation with new works before a live audience. Except for one detail at the play’s end (which will not be revealed) the story, dialogue, and execution were perfect. Take a chance on future Nikos productions

Almost, Maine @ Chester Theatre Company by Donna Bailey-Thompson
"Almost, Maine" is a delight, a smorgasbord of vignettes with beginnings, middles, and endings that make sense. Some are poignant, or frothy, or silly, even a tad shocking – especially the latter is to the characters played by two actors, Jim Beaudin and Paden Fallis, who are appropriately direct, awkward and flabbergasted.

A director less skilled and disciplined than Chuck Hudson might have encouraged excessive punching of some lines, even supported an actor’s inclination to go over the top. Not Mr. Hudson. Instead both he and the cast of four (who divvy up portraying 19 characters) respect the creative machinations of the playwright’s mind. That John Cariani’s "Almost, Maine," is included in "New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2006" by Smith and Kraus seems a logical choice.

This is an all A-Team production. The ending of one mini play and the beginning of the next are effected a few beats shy of blackout pace. As soon as the lights come up, the actors have nano seconds to establish who they are. Each actor assumes a new identity: Manon Halliburton (six), Tracey Liz Miller and Fallis, (four each), and Beaudin (five).

Halliburton and Beaudin may be sitting self-consciously on a bench. Miller may be waiting for a display of the Northern Lights or arriving at the door of a long-ago suitor. Fallis and Beaudin may be comparing notes on their individual preferences when it comes to spending an evening. Innocuous stuff? Not the stuff of drama? Wrong. And, wrong again.

It is possible to mount a play without sound and lighting designs but when the wind howls hard enough to overcome thoughts of a heat wave baking Chester’s outdoors and a shimmering aurora borealis fills one’s senses, the talents of Sound Designer Tom Shread and Resident Lighting Designer Lara Dubin enhance the many pleasures of "various locales in the small, remote town of Almost, Maine."


Rabbit Hole @ New Century Theatre, Northampton
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Clues to the type of play that will be performed are evident from Emily Dunn’s set design. A front door opens into an open layout of a sprawling family room that links with a kitchen table that fronts a roomy kitchen area. The overall effect is antiseptic; the furnishings could be metal and glass. There is nothing to suggest warmth. Even a child’s bedroom visible on an upper level is hospital-neat, in spite of stuffed animals and a poster. In the opening scene, Becca (Cate Damon) sits at the table folding a small child’s clothes. Her younger sister Izzy (Sandra Blaney) chatters, disclosing information, piecemeal, about herself which culminates with the announcement that she’s pregnant. Does that shock Becca? Only somewhat. Becca is mired in grief for the death of her son several months before, accidentally killed when he chased his dog into the street.

Keep tissues handy.

Oh, there is topical humor but not much. Becca and her husband, Howie (Keith Langsdale) are coping with a loss too profound for them to bear.They can’t derive comfort from one another. They’re living by rote. There is no clue to how they were before the accident. But now, they are barely functional. Izzy tries to divert with inanities, fulfilling a role textbooks classify as the "mascot" Becca’s mother, Nat (Ellen Barry) rattles on. Attempts at normalcy fail. One person who has addressed his grief and guilt is the high school boy, driving with a new license, who while trying to avert hitting the dog instead hit the child. As Jason, Daniel Plimpton "reads" the letter he has written to the parents, a recitation sensitively rendered that exudes authenticity.

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s "Rabbit Hole" won a Pulitzer Prize for the best drama of 2007. This production is well-executed; the performances are strong with one exception: too often dialog is missed because voices are lowered, particularly when Becca speaks of a rabbit hole.

Berkshire Choral Festival: Saturdays in July/August by Shera CohenThe experience of Berkshire Choral Festival was three-fold for this reviewer, having the privilege of attending three concerts in a matter of eight days.

For 27 years, thousands of choristers have gathered weekly to BCF for the love of singing and the camaraderie of those like themselves. An average concert includes 180 vocalists, who travel from nearly every U.S. state, the Americas, Europe, and Asian countries. One aspect that does not change is the “back-up” musicians – the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

Each Saturday night features different conductors and selections. Oftentimes, soloists are featured. Be assured that the pieces are all big; nothing but the most challenging.

A musicologist speaks in a free talk prior to each concert, offering better insight into the background of the pieces and composers.

Titled “I Hear America Singing,” under the direction of Craig Jessop, the highlight was “Frostiana.” This was a flowing compilation of seven Robert Frost poems including “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Coupling Frost with music by Randall Thompson made for a wonder to the audience’s ears.

That same week, a select group of BCF members performed a free concert at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Lead by an assistant conductor, the 20 or so singers crooned several old chestnuts, including big band tunes. Theirs was a nice teaser concert for the upcoming Saturday’s program.

There could not have been a better pair of choral works as Orff’s “Carmina Burana” was teamed with Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony (finale).” Tom Hall was the guest conductor. From the first loud and harsh bang of the instruments and voices to the soft and soothing movements, the lush and humorous songs of baritone Alexander Tall to the superior soprano notes of Penelope Shumate, “Carmina” was a standout piece. Its reputation precedes it as one of the most illustrious choral/symphonic works of the 20th century. To tackle the difficulty in the ebb and flow, ups and downs of the exceptionally long work, was no small task. This performance was without a doubt one of the most memorable music experiences for any in the audience. The well-deserved standing ovation lasted at least five minutes.

Rounding Third by Shera Cohen
Majestic Theater, West Springfield (MA) through August 2, 2008

It’s no surprise that the subject matter of a play titled “Rounding Third” is baseball. This all-American sport is not, however, a favorite pastime of many theatre-goers, and vice versa. The Majestic cast and crew had to do a lot of skilled work to win over this reviewer. Interestingly, one of the running themes throughout the play is that never the twain (jocks and thespians) shall meet.

Readers…not to worry. Knowledge of home plate, dugouts, and shortstops is not necessary to thoroughly enjoy “Rounding Third.” The only requirement for audience members to laugh at, sympathize with, and appreciate the play is the huge achievement of having survived childhood. There’s no doubt that everyone left the theatre having seen a “home run.”

The play takes place today in Any Town, USA. The set is simple – a backdrop fence of a baseball field and benches. Steve Henderson stars as an experienced little league coach and John Hart is the new guy assistant coach. While there are no other actors onstage, these two men, under the direction of Danny Eaton, bring to life a team of 12-year-olds, none of whom are ever seen. These little leaguers – Frankie, Eric, Timmy, et al – fill the stage. Now, that’s an accomplishment!

The essence of the story is to win at all costs even if it means tossing away one’s integrity vs. enjoying the journey while trying and hoping to succeed. Through dialogue, body language, and impeccable timing, the actors seamlessly react of each other. Occasionally, the banter is a little too fast, leaving some humor unheard or ignored.

Henderson and Hart create three-dimensional real life roles which are far from stagnant. Henderson is always a pro on the Majestic stage. It was a pleasure to see Hart return. When he was younger, Hart was just fine in small roles. He’s paid his proverbial dues in New York City and earned his Equity card. His talent continues to grow. His soliloquy in a final scene is so poignant that it undoubtedly touches anyone who has a heart.

Take a ride around the rotary to the Majestic to see “Rounding Third.” It’s “way cooler” than seeing a real ballgame, and it’s air conditioned.

Metro Stage Company’s Ruthless a Riot by Robin Chamberlain
In a continuing effort to bring Boston newer, edgier, more thought-provoking and less traditional musical material, Metro Stage Company’s newest offering, Ruthless! The Musical, is a fabulous flamboyant trip through every “bad girl in showbiz” movie and metaphor. Think “The Bad Seed” meets “All About Eve” meets Mama Rose and you’ve got Ruthless. The biting, bitchy, and hysterical script and score are loaded with references and double-entendres that will leave musical and B-Movie buffs rolling in the aisles, but may leave those without those interests feeling like they missed something. Still, there are enough other non-“insider” comic moments to satisfy everyone. Pay close, I mean close attention to every word- this script has more plot twists, turns, and about-faces than a Telemundo soap opera.

Director Rob Case does an amazing job with the small cast who winningly portray the deliberately stereotyped roles-Amazonian talent agent, talented tyke, suburban housewife deluxe, and more. Kudos to the entire cast: Tracy Nygard, deliciously over-the-top in dual roles as Judy Denmark-Stepford wife supreme, and Ginger DelMarco, Broadway’s latest musical sensation, plays both with equally fabulous and amusing results. Hannah Forsley is amazing as little Tina Denmark, the starlet wanna-be who is willing to do anything….anything to get (imagine a sinister chord playing as you hear the phrase)…the lead. She taps, sings, and mugs her way through the night as the perfect disingenuous ingénue. Christopher J. Hagberg winningly portrays Sylvia St. Croix, overbearing talent manager with the most…the most hair, the most jewelry, the most amazing drag wardrobe (compliments of Mr. Hagberg’s costumer Mark Frederics-Cabrera)…..you get it. You stop holding your breath hoping he won’t fall in 6-inch heels after about first 30 seconds after his/her entrance, because he does a better job of it than most women. Mary O’Donnell plays Mother/critic Lita Encore and her rendition of “I Hate Musicals” is a show-stopper. The cast is rounded out by Jaime Steinbach in comic turns as Miss Thorne, frustrated third-grade teacher and Miss Block, a reporter from Modern Thespian and Katherine Reynolds as Tina’s third grade classmate and school-play rival Louis Lerman, and Ginger DeMarco’s aspiring assistant, the aptly-named Eve.

Congrats are also in order to all of the theatrical elements that helped bring the production to life – Kimmerie H.O. Jones’ era-evocative costumes, Abigail Cordell’s music direction and orchestra, John MacKenzie’s lighting, including simple but effective Ed-Wood-esque lighting moments, Annita-Marie Brockney’s choreography and a straightforward set that ably managed to work as two distinct venues.

Each Metro production increasingly proves that there is room for this little company and its now almost stock company of talented regulars in the Boston theater scene. Pay attention.

Ancients Songs of South Africa by Steve Capra
The Ngqoko Cultural Group, NYC

The Ngqoko Cultural Group appeared recently at the Skirball Center in New York in their first American tour, presenting Ancients Songs of South Africa. The group preserves indigenous South African musical traditions, in particular, the traditions of the Xhosa culture of the Eastern Cape. While the larger company has 15 members, this touring group consists of six women and one man, the director, Tsolwana B. Mpayipheli. 


They entered through the audience, from the back of auditorium. The opening denied a split between performer and audience; these singers are us. The women wore glorious blue and yellow dresses (blue and white on one woman) and head scarves, with Mpayipheli in a white caftan.  During some songs, the singers were accompanied by traditional instruments:

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the uhadi, a bow with a calabash resonator

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the umrubhe, a mouth bow

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the umasengwana and the igubu, drums

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the inkinge, a bow with tin resonator

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the isitolo-tolo, a jaws harp

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…and also by the harmonica, not traditional in Africa but which, Mpayipheli explained, is included to please westerners. Traditional African instruments are not usually played together, but the company sometimes breaks with tradition and plays them simultaneously.

The singing was extraordinary, wonderful - euphoric and soothing. Even the ballads sounded like hypnotic chants. We learned that a chorus is greater than the sum of its voices – it has a collective life of its own. Sometimes the voices began timidly and intensified. Sometimes they faded out at the end of a song, and sometimes they just stop, but they never punctuated the ending like most European music.

Mpayipheli told us that this singing is not music because it has no written notes and no beats. I disagree. Music doesn’t have to be written down, and there are European traditions without beat, such as Gregorian chant. These African songs are music of the first degree. The singers hummed, murmured, whistled and clapped their hands, sometimes shaking their hands and shoulders, sometimes stamping their feet in polyrhythmic ecstasy. The music varied from simple unison to polyrhythmic complexity. When they sang with an instrument – or instruments – accompanying, the vocals sometimes took to the background, giving an unusual depth to the sound, a sense of aural spaciousness.

The Ngqoko Cultural Group feature overtone singing, a traditional manner of vocalizing also known as throat singing. It sounded less like the throat singing of Asia had I expected. It shared the harsh, brittle quality of the Buddhist monks’ voices, but it was deeper. Mpayipheli told us that they mix it with more familiar vocals “in order to make it pretty”. And here’s the lesson: there’s more to music than prettiness. A further clue to understanding may lie in one of Mpayipheli’s comments: “We put our complaints to music,” he told us.

Indeed, the director’s notes were helpful throughout the performance, given in a beautiful and lyrical, if not always intelligible, accent. African English is itself music. He would sometimes tell us the point of the lyrics. The song with the harmonica, for example, is about the dancing of a disabled woman. But I wanted more translation of the lyrics – is there a refrain? Indeed, are there verses? There was a bit if dancing during the course of the evening, and I would have liked to see more of that as well.

We’re enormously grateful to The World Music Institute, which presented this great concert. At a mere 75 minutes, it was intensely enjoyable, satisfying, educative. We applaud The Ngqoko Cultural Group for keeping this tradition alive. We want more of it – more of all the magnificent musical traditions that are threatened by cultural globalization.

Happy Days - A New Musical  by Shera Cohen
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT through June 29, 2008

Expect the expected at Goodspeed Opera House for their run of “Happy Days – A New Musical.” For the millions of baby boomers and their parents who loved the TV series, this is a step back in time to fun of the fifties, rock ‘n roll, perfect families, and poodle skirts.

The musical’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, the production is “new.” But there is nothing “new” about “Happy Days.” That’s quite alright. There’s Richie and his buddies, Mr. & Mrs. C, Joanie and Chachi, Arnold’s hangout, and dialogue that’s “really cool.” While not a series regular, Pinky – the hot chick in pink – plays a major role in the musical. Of course, there’s Fonzie. Ronny Howard was credited as the show’s star, but it was Henry Winkler who stole the show. Well, there’s no pretense this time. This play belongs to The Fonz.

Joey Sorge and Sandra DeNise (Fonz and Pinky) create characters, both rough on the outside and fragile on the inside, who are perfect together as they sing to or about each other. Sorge’s “Heartbreak” and DeNise’s “Message in the Music” offer examples of the singing and acting skills of the duo.

There is next to no story. Audience members could have easily turned on a “Happy Days” rerun on “Nick at Nite.” Important is the energetic, athletic, youthful cast of what seem like a dozen “American Idol” top winners, on a colorful and brightly lit set. Put together, these elements make for wholesome entertainment.

Many actors take double and triple roles. While not on the “star” list, Matt Merchant is particularly noticeable as Elvis and later as a tough guy wrestler. Merchant creates caricatures that don’t need to sing very well, but his voice is one of the best onstage.

It is obvious that the actors were cast to look like those on TV. At times, the musical even makes fun and inside jokes about the series. It’s doubtful that the balcony of school kids “got” all of the humor. What they got was a look at times when the worst problem of the day was which plunger to purchase or picking a favorite song on the jukebox.

The Pirates of Penzance by John Small
New World Chorale, Milford, MA
 
When I was a little lad, my father would frequently play G&S soundtrack albums on our family's stereo (the quaint term for such albums was "records", and they were made of an ancient substance called "vinyl"). I also have a dim memory of being taken by my father to a production of "The Pirates of Penzance", the only part of which I still remember is the "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha" section of "When you had left our pirate fold". 
 
A seed must have been planted, for not only have I recently played the first 2 G&S roles of my life (Major-General Stanley in "The Pirates of Penzance" in 2007 & Sir Joseph Porter in "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 2008), I have also taken to attending Gilbert and Sullivan productions at the Sudbury Savoyards, the Savoyard Light Opera Company, and the M.I.T. Gilbert & Sullivan Players - and I've been loving every minute of it!
 
In March of 2008, I attended the New World Chorale's production of "The Pirates of Penzance" in Milford, Massachusetts.  What struck me first, most, and overall, was the passion and affection that the vocalists and orchestra members obviously have for Gilbert and Sullivan's timeless, yet still politically and socially timely, material.
 
The quality of the voices of both the principals and the chorus members was impeccable and ideally suited to Gilbert and Sullivan's unique style - vigorous and strong, with lightness, clarity, and crystalline enunciation.
 
Holly Krafka is to be congratulated for having assembled such a talented and playfully enthusiastic group of vocalists and instrumentalists. Michael Prichard's Pirate King was a swaggering silver fox with a thundering voice and commanding stage presence. His sidekick Samuel, played by Jim Kauffman, was a self-confident and ever-loyal second-in-command. Their piratical maid-of-all-work, Ruth, played by Cindy Jones, delighted the audience with her vigorously-voiced confession of hearing impairment in "When Frederic was a little lad".  Brad Amidon's Frederic was the perfect blend of innocence, romance, and Victorian valor.  Rebecca Hains' Mabel was delightful and sweet and vocally stunning - her performance of "Poor wandering one" was breathtaking in its range, power, and beauty.  Mabel's sisters Edith (Alison Moll), Kate (Karen Wilcox), and Isabel (Amy Harris), delivered a hilarious performance of "What ought we to do" and "How beautifully blue the sky", and gracefully comforted their woebegone father with a lovely performance of "Oh, dry the glist'ning tear".  Rick Grenier's Major-General Stanley displayed a delightfully bemused and jovial self-importance - and he rose to the challenge of Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous patter song, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General", delivering it with clarity and enthusiasm.  Art LaMan III was brilliant as the boldly timid Sergeant of Police, leading his men with a vocal self-confidence which, of course, never completely obscured their collective reluctance.  Major-General Stanley's daughters (Sarah Brannen, Colleen Campbell, Nina Eppes, Debbie Slade Pierce, Susan Rubin, and Julie Steinhilber) were paragons of Victorian propriety, and the Pirates & Policemen (Dan Borges, William Clerx, Tyler Hains, Dennis Pereira, Jeff Pierce, Mac Sloan, Chris Loschen, Larry Millner, and Howard Wilcox) provided all of the sherry-fueled & nightstick-wielding testosterone needed to keep the laughs coming.
 
Bravo, New World Chorale!  I look forward to your next Gilbert & Sullivan production.

Pure Joy of Movement by Beverly Creasey (5/4/08)
Archeologists have discovered cave paintings of animals, warriors and dancers dating back 3000 years. Even before the written word, primitive choreographers were notating dances with pictures. According to these cave drawings, primitive man hunted, fished, fought ...and danced! So who were these figures whose movements were deemed so important that they were depicted on stone? Were they royalty? Priests? Elders?

After a performance by Prometheus Dance's ELDERS ENSEMBLE, you'll be thinking they were definitely tribal elders. Diane Arvanites-Noya and Tommy Neblett choreograph gorgeous, intricate pieces for their senior company (ages .55 to 85) which the dancers execute in elegant symmetry. Some of the work is highly theatrical, with dramatic components which the performers deliver like seasoned actors. What sets these dancers apart from their younger counterparts is the joy they radiate and the unabashed freedom of movement they exude as they dance. They're having a grand time out there on stage.

I Having seen all but one of the pieces before (An exquisite new work which celebrates the sacred premiered this weekend) I realized that the familiar works had changed slightly and seemed even more poignant. The dancers have grown into their roles so that the work is richer and fuller now. Audiences are struck by the exuberance and playfulness of the performances. ALL DRESSED UP (from 2007) is a madcap romp, a Felliniesque voyage of dreams and discovery, presided over by ringmaster Dorothy Elizabeth Tucker.

SHADOW PROPHECY (from 2006) sets Marcie Miller centerstage, surrounded and buffeted by the Fates. It's a harrowing lamentation which ends in triumph, when Miller comes to terms with, and embraces her destiny. Arvanites & Noya's remarkable new piece embraces the SACRED in all its forms: nature, spirit and worship. The dancers sway to ancient chants and Latin litanies and are lifted up as if in an embrace of peace. The transcendent images follow the music, changing from Eastern to Western, from Hindu prayer gesture to a Pieta tableau. Joan Green delivers a paean to nature at the end of the piece and the dancers whisper their own prayers as they exit the stage.

Their last dance has become their signature: It's a sassy, hip little number (from 2005) which says it all. The dancers sport saucy sundresses and shades, ready to catch some rays in their aluminum lawn chairs but they don't lounge for long. Those chairs are airborne, the music by Ray Charles and Nat King Cole beckons them to come out and play ...and they do, kicking their legs over their heads and amusing us with their stories. Leave it to Betty Milhendler to end hers with "THERE'S A DANCE IN THE OL' DAME YET!"

In Barbara Ehrenreich's new cultural history of dance, she speculates that no less than the decline of Western civilization began with the church's suppression of Medieval Festivals with their ecstatic ritual. dancing. You might say that The Elders Ensemble is saving the world, one dance at a time.

The Full Monty by Shera Cohen (4/24/08)
Majestic Theater, West Springfield thru 5/25.

Colloquial definitions of “the full monty” mean: the whole lot, entire pot, full amount, and the more commonly understood “full striptease routine.” The Majestic’s interpretation of the musical “The Full Monty” gives many meanings to the word “full.”

“Monty” tops off what has been a creative and exceptional season at the Majestic. From a two-character play, to Shakespeare, to a hysterically funny show on ice-fishing, to the large-cast and full-fledged musical of “Monty,” this company continues to prove that home-produced theatre is among the best. It’s costly and a risk, yet mounting plays from scratch instills a pride in cast and crew, not to mention audiences.

This musical, the story of down and out unemployed factory workers, is far from a “downer.” Yes, the characters are broke, with family problems, and depressed. Yet at the same time, they are full of hope, dreams, and the potential for self-esteem. Their means to the latter are unorthodox in the reluctant plan to become Chippendale-wannabes.

Randy Ronco (leader of the troupe) has energy, relates to his stage-son in poignant scenes, and represents a flawed man who doesn’t give up. Robert Clark (big-lug buddy Dave) portrays a pussycat with a heart. Darron Cardosa (mama’s boy) is the best of the singers. Also in this wonderful ensemble are Tom Knightlee, Van Farrier, and Dann Black. They are a perfect motley team, especially in their song and dance (creatively choreographed by David Wallace) piece “Michael Jordan’s Ball.”

While it’s the guys who “are” the play, Paula Cortis and Lea Oppedisano (wives) develop background of whom these men really are. Their juxtaposed scenes, in song and physical placement on the stage, in “You Rule My World” are highlights of the show.

Director Danny Eaton has a lot to do connecting the many segments to the next, as he works with Set Designer Amy Davis (creating a warehouse simply with moving panels) and Band Leader Mitch Chakour keeping up the pace.

“Monty” is a play with lyrics that move the story along, no hard-to-understand British accents (remember the movie version), and proof that there is no difference in talent between Equity and non-Equity actors.

The Smothers Brothers & Springfield Symphony Orchestra by Shera Cohen (4/14/08)
Symphony Hall, Springfield
www.inthespotlightinc.org

Tommy is age 70 and Dickie is age 68. Yet, the Smothers Brothers performance might as well have taken place in the 1960s. The “boys” never skipped a beat in impeccable timing, topical humor, irreverence, and their well-known stage personas. By the way, each aged very well.

Tommy’s trademark stupidity and naiveté bounced off brother Dickie’s exasperation and seriousness just as they had done throughout the past 50 years. Yes, a half-century! The audience got exactly what they expected in style, comedy, and music. Which was more perfect – the material or the delivery? It’s a toss up. Each went hand-in-hand to create a terrific show.

There was simply too much to remember for this critic to write, because the performance was extremely fast-paced and funny. Among the highlights were the following: the trilogy of “dog songs” coupled with a lame dog joke; the feigned gratefulness to perform in Springfield; and Tommy’s avocation as a trained pilot. As his brother commented, “Just because you accumulated thousands of skymiles, it doesn’t make you an airline pilot.”

Sometimes, it’s forgotten that the brothers are also very skilled musicians. With Tommy on guitar and Dickie on bass, their music and voices (Dickie, the better singer) make for an important part of the act – that is until Tommy always interrupts. The duo never managed through an entire song, but that’s what the routine is all about.

When music segued into comedy, that was the best of the routines; i.e. a tender Spanish song reverted to German, then yodeling (Tommy’s the culprit, of course). Another “normal” melody turned its notes to “Dueling Guitars,” only this time guitar vs. piano.

Special appearance by The Yo Yo Man (Tommy) and Voice of Yo (Dickie) had both back and forth on stage performing yo yo tricks and extemporaneous commentary. Who would think that a yo yo could be that much fun to watch?

A video of the brothers’ lives capped off the evening. The longest section showed excerpts from “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” including anti-Vietnam scripts, commentary by Pat Paulson, and being axed in the prime of the series. Thank goodness, the boys never really went away.

The Ten Tenors by Shera Cohen (3/15/08)
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
www.inthespotlightinc.org


Two math questions. What is Il Divo x 3.33? Hummm? Let’s make it easier? What are The Three Tenors x 2.5? Answer -- The Ten Tenors, or affectionally dubbed TTT. These Aussies combine camaraderie, energy, and animated choreography of a football team with debonair charm, wit, and professionalism of Wall Street bankers. They are personable, relaxed, and as one of the members referred to all, “incredibly good looking.” They are the boys next door, if the boys had voices like Pavarotis in the making.

Starting as impromptu street singers, the classmates launched their career performing in every town and hamlet in their homeland, quickly cut a CD, and then ventured to Europe. Except for one PBS performance, few in this country have had the opportunity to hear TTT. Now on their first North American tour, these boys are fast becoming known and applauded, and not just for their pretty faces. They can sing!

As a unit, TTT is at its best – whether singing as one voice or as a group sporadically highlighting individuals within sections of songs. It is clearly evident that each vocalist has his unique singing style, range, and genre expertise. They also can sing anything – and do!

There are folk, pop, rock, Australian pieces, disco, and a lot of opera. One of the men told the audience that they would perform, “opera without the boring bits.” The repertoire shifts from Pucci to Queen, “Waltzing Matilda” to Dean Martin’s “Volare,” the Tarantella to Simon & Garfunkel, and Verdi to the Bee Gees. Envision 10 businessmen walking out of an office, instantly singing “Saturday Night Fever” as a chorus line performing disco moves.

While the singers promised no encores, they lied. There were three, with standing ovations after each. The last was perhaps the best tenor aria ever written – “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot.” What an evening!

The wonderful experience of this concert starts before spotlights go up and a note is sung. It begins upon entering the newly renovated 100-year-old Colonial Theatre. Millions have obviously been spent in keeping the original historic luster. The venue was breath-taking, and every dime was well-spent. Pittsfield’s residents should feel proud of their good work in turning their arts around 180 degrees. Pittsfield is very much a destination point.

Buddha: In His Own Words - The Life of the Buddha assembled from the original texts
written and performed by Evan Brenner, off-off-Broadway
by Steve Capra (3/12/08)

Siddartha Gautama, a prince of the warrior class, now known as The Buddha, lived 2500 years ago. His writings have been preserved in fifty volumes. Evan Brenner (a Buddhist priest) has selected the material about the Buddha’s own life and distilled it into a ninety-minute monologue: Buddha: In His Own Words. There are some other characters - Ananda the servant, the charioteer, the devil himself – but for the overwhelmig bulk of the piece, it’s the Buddha himself who’s speaking.

The text is carefully structured.  The familiar story of the Prince abandoning the life of pleasure forms the first act, and the climax is, of course, the great Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The second act is often weak in this sort of script, but here it’s strong, well conceived, focusing on the Buddha’s ministry. In fact, the story is at its best here, thrust by the drive of the spread of the teaching and the joy of new converts: “And then there were six… And then there were sixty-one… And then there were thousands…” Its fantastic closing passage concerns the revenge of the Slave Prince, a story that will probably be new to many.

What’s more, the writing is elegant. It uses poetic repitition. We hear phrases repeated like “the four great continents with their surrounding islands numbering two thousand”. We hear sentences like “Wide open were the doors to Nirvana” and “There is this teaching discovered by me.” Brenner’s imbedded the rhetorical devices in the script so that they’re not intrusive.

Like any miracle play, this script’s purpose is to teach, and we indeed hear the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are repeated a few times. Brenner’s expression of them is particularly accessible, as we’re reminded to “let go of the origin of suffering, which is selfish craving.”

Brenner has commanding speech and has a refined sense of gesture. He could be a first-rate storyteller. But this is a monologue in the first person, and it cries for an actor’s technique, which Brenner lacks. There’s no evidence of the choices actors make. To whom is the Buddha speaking? His best pupil? His slowest pupil? When Brenner says “I fight on”, he shakes his fist, and the line cries for subtext.

Indeed, the production apparently has no director. The concept is right: Brenner stands barefoot in colorless clothes, with no set but a chair. But for some reason, he never takes the lotus position, only a sort of half-lotus. There are self-contained stories in the script, but they’re not defined in the staging. Worst, his trim, nice-boy haircut is a glaring anomaly on the stage.

But be that as it may. Buddha: In His Own Words is a religious and stage event, and we’re happy to have it. I saw it in previews. It “opens” on an unspecified date “a few months away”, on West 25th Street in New York. See www.thebuddhaplay.com. It was born in Cambridge about 18 months ago.

Enchanted April by Shera Cohen (3/2/08)
www.inthespotlightinc.org 

It’s March 2nd, dirty snow al