Backstage2020-11-25T19:04:01-05:00

BACKSTAGE

A Touch of Holiday Nostalgia

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA

Without question, this is the time of year that is flavored with nostalgia. The daily fusillades of pandemic numbers, employment crises, political caterwauling do little to “make the season bright.” To borrow a holiday standard, “We need a little Christmas … right this very minute.”

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, is two hours of nostalgia, music and heart-warming stories that whisk the audience away from the terrors of the TV and back into a time and place where life seemed a whole lot easier.

The Berkshire Theatre Group has assembled a talent-rich cast of singers, dancers and actors who, under the guiding hand of director Gregg Edelman transport the Colonial Theatre audience from the end of World War II through the adrenaline rush of The Ed Sullivan Show to a failing Vermont Inn where the estimable talents and efforts of Bob Wallace (Michael Martella) and Phil Davis (Michael Starr) combined with the objects of their affection – sister act Betty and Judy Haynes, played with merry coincidence by sisters Alanna and Claire Saunders – rescue the inn owned by wartime hero General Henry Waverly (David Adkins) from its demise.

There are challenges, twists and turns, pitfalls and pratfalls, but in true American musical tradition, “All’s well that ends …” You get the idea.

The supporting cast is robust and make the most of choreography created by Gerry Mcintyre and Bryan Thomas Hunt. And the music, the centerpiece of any Irving Berlin outing, is all that one could hope for. Not only does White Christmas appear twice in the production – serving as the resounding, colorfully costumed finale – but other gems of the Great American Songbook are showcased, as well. Blue Skies, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, How Deep is the Ocean and Happy Holidays … the libretto is filled with hum-along tunes with easy to decipher lyrics. Inviting the audience to join in the rousing finale puts the bow on the gift as Music Director Ross Patterson leads a skilled group of musicians through the score.

Along with The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, Amal and the Night Visitors, the Christmas pageant at the local church and a Salvation Army Band gathered around an open red kettle, this is holiday nostalgia in its purest form.

And, if you need a bit of motivation to be a part of the audience, simply sing along:

I’m dreaming of a White Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know.

Performances of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas run through December 23. Tickets for the performances are available on-line at berkshiretheatregroup.org or by calling the box office at (413) 997-4444.

 

By |Backstage|

Come Fall in Love

Shirley Valentine at Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA

You will fall in love with Corinna May as Shirley Valentine at Berkshire Theatre Company’s current production. Running through October 24th at the company’s Unicorn Theatre location in Stockbridge, MA, the play is a “one hander” … a monologue … a solo performance that brought the opening night audience to its feet with rapturous applause. May is, simply stated, brilliant.

Willy Russell’s play was originally a commissioned work which premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, England in 1986. In the spirit of “the show must go on,” when the original Shirley came down with appendicitis during its run, Russell, himself, stepped into the role and became Shirley Valentine for three weeks.

A London West End run soon followed, which led to a New York opening directed by Simon Callow and starring Pauline Collins. The play was showered with awards and attracted such theatrical giants as Ellen Burstyn and Loretta Swit.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware.

Which leads us to the magic of Corinna May on the Larry Vaber Stage at the Unicorn. She makes us laugh. She challenges us with her insight and honesty. She makes us call into question the most basic elements of relationship. She allows us to fall in love.

Shirley Valentine is a middle aged mother of two who has seen her life slip into the boredom of routine, a marriage without communication and an unfulfilled longing to simply be herself. From her kitchen, where she comfortably speaks to the wall, to taking the “leap of faith” required to accept a two week holiday in Greece paid for by her best friend – a holiday where she finds a rock to converse with as well as the liberated moments of finding herself, Shirley Valentine blossoms in front of our very eyes.

Corinna May is so convincing, so charming in her conflicts and resolutions, so comfortable on stage making a supper of “eggs and chips” for her ungrateful husband while honestly revealing who she has become that we end up feeling like we’ve known her for years. May weaves the story of her rebellious youth, her descent into middle-aged boredom and her exuberant self-discovery in such a engaging way that the audience almost needs to be reminded to breathe.

Eric Hill’s direction blends with May’s performance so well that the creative work seamlessly becomes one performance. Hill has a list of wonderfully turned out productions on the Berkshire Theatre Group stages and has continues to present exceptional work.

The technical and craft credits of Shirley Valentine are all first rate. Randall Parsons’ scenic design, Elivia Bovenzi Blitz’s costumes, Matthew Adelson’s lighting design and J Hagenbuckle’s sound design are so seamless that whether we are in a Liverpool kitchen or overlooking the ocean on a Greek island, we are immediately transported to be in the moment. Special recognition of Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer’s dialect coaching is deserved. Corinna May never drops her delightful accent. She speaks as if she were recently transported from the row houses of Liverpool to Stockbridge, MA, which is a glowing tribute to her uncanny ability and Ms. Blitz’s coaching skills.

Shirley Valentine plays until October 24th with tickets available at 413-997-4444 or on line at BerkshireTheatreGroup.org. Don’t delay. It’s time to revel in Shirley Valentine, and to fall in love.

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

By |Backstage, Main Street|

Review-Nina Simone:Four Women

Nina Simone:Four Women

Berkshire Theatre Group

The Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA

BRILLIANT

It’s not often that one word can capture the essence of a theatrical evening. The word most often overheard as the audience left Berkshire Theatre Company’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women, on stage at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, MA until Sunday, September 5 … was “brilliant.”

Like any well-cut diamond, the word “brilliant” has many facets and many edges. The cast that director/choreographer Gerry McIntyre has selected and nurtured through rehearsals and onto the performance stage is breathtakingly talented with energy so focused that the prospect of the regimen of regular performances is daunting. McIntyre was the choreographer that brought his talent to last season’s breakthrough performance of Godspell and in Nina Simone: Four Women, the brilliance continues.

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

The setting for the musical is the scarred interior of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL shortly after the explosion that killed four young girls. The conversations, the outbursts, the searing revelations and the eventual efforts at unified sisterhood are imagined, based on the songs of Nina Simone … herself a supremely talented, if troubled singer/composer whose career earned her the unofficial title “the High Priestess of Soul.”

In the title role, Felicia Curry is explosive. A major force in the Washington, DC theater world, she brings an intensity to the role of a performer emerging as a civil rights advocate that commands the stage with every word, every movement, every song. She is … not to overuse the term …”brilliant.”

And, that designation is echoed by the three women who join her on stage and bring their estimable talents to the roles of three very different women … women of widely divergent backgrounds who are suddenly thrown together in the aftermath of the Birmingham tragedy.

Darlesia Cearcy (Aunt Sarah) has appeared in several Broadway productions, toured internationally, appeared in an impressive list of network television programs and so captures the strength of her character that her interaction with Felicia Curry’s Simone is the backbone of the play. She has an extraordinary voice and uses it to reinforce her foundational role as a woman who has learned to deal with what life has given her.

Sasha Hutchings (Sephronia) is one of those elite performers who seems to move effortlessly from Broadway (original cast of Hamilton) and television (Blue Bloods) to teaching (Arthur Miller Foundation) to regional theater without missing a step. One of the many themes running through Nina Simone : Four Women is the prickly relationships of the implied social classes of the characters. Hutchings Is disarming in the way she destroys the social divides by relating the tragedy of her character’s own struggle.

Finally, there is “Sweet Thing” portrayed with elegant brashness by Najah Hetsberger who appeared in last season’s Godspell with her show stopping rendition of All Good Gifts. Her talent has not gone unnoticed as she will begin a Broadway National Tour this fall and take her estimable talent “on the road.”

Nina Simone: Four Women is anything but yawn-worthy “straw hat theater” fare. It is gritty, challenging, revealing, electric, elegant, painfully relevant, layered with topics that demand our attention … and an evening worthy of the attention of anyone who agrees with director/choreographer McIntyre that in a world reeling with chaos, “you just need to take the first step. Or write the first note.”

The production is, in a word, “Brilliant.”

Tickets of Nina Simone: Four Women may be purchase online at BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or by calling the box office at (413) 997-4444.

From Left: Diego Mongue (Percussionist), Sasha Hutchings, Najah Hetsberger, Gerry McIntyre (Director), Felicia Curry, Darlesia Cearcy, Danté Harrell (Musical Director)

By |Backstage, Main Street|
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