2012: The Shakespeare & Company production of Satchmo at the Waldorf is extraordinary, thrilling theater

Shakespeare & Company presents Satchmo at the Waldorf

By Terry Teachout

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Starring John Douglas Thompson as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Joe Glaser

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

John Douglas Thompson delivers an extraordinary performance in Satchmo at the Waldorf, portraying three men: the aging Louis Armstrong, his bulldog of a manager Joe Glaser, and even the critical Miles Davis. “I got stories on top of stories,” says Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s brilliant play, and it’s true – Armstrong’s story is utterly compelling and this excellent production, from the fine writing to Gordon Edelstein’s superb direction to Thompson’s bravura portrayal, serves Armstrong’s legacy well.

Toward the end of his life, Louis Armstrong (called by many the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century) recorded hundreds of hours of conversations and anecdotes. This play is set in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1971, shortly before his death, and the reel-to-reel tape recorder is prominently placed on the set, providing the framework for Armstrong to begin relating his life story. Teachout is an expert on Louis Armstrong, having written the biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong in 2009, and while this play is a work of fiction, Teachout based it on Armstrong and Glaser’s lives.

Satchmo offers a fascinating look at the music business in the first half of the twentieth century, told through the life experiences of this musical genius, from his impoverished childhood in New Orleans to his years on the road during Jim Crow to his success, which surely came at a price. We learn about his four wives, about traveling in the segregated South, about dealing with gangsters, and about Armstrong’s passion for his music.

But this play is about a relationship, possibly the most important relationship in Armstrong’s life – the one he had for forty years with his manager, Joe Glaser. Thompson is a chameleon, shifting from Armstrong to Glaser and back again many times during the play – and it is always immediately clear which man is speaking. That Thompson plays both Armstrong and Glaser – one actor giving us both sides of the relationship – is amazing, and in one scene he has a telephone conversation between the two men, seamlessly, convincingly. This is extraordinary acting.

Armstrong’s public persona was that of an optimistic, charming, smiling entertainer, but this play reveals a darker, more complex character. The challenges of race relations during Armstrong’s lifetime surely shaped the public face that Armstrong showed to his public, especially the white audiences who came to his nightclub performances. And between the characters of Armstrong and Glaser, they explain the successful strategy behind the marketing, the branding if you will, of Louis Armstrong.

Teachout’s play gives us glimpses of the familiar Armstrong who appeared on television on mainstream programs like the Ed Sullivan Show, playing the accessible hits that made him wealthy, and he also shows us the Armstrong who used plenty of profanity, the womanizer, the angry Armstrong expressing his disgust over the travesty of segregation, and the dedicated musician who wondered why more black people didn’t come to hear his music.

Thompson’s portrayal of Glaser is riveting as well – the Jewish entrepreneur who handled the finances, the negotiations, and the packaging of the jazz star was a brash, hard-charging individual. Glaser made some hard decisions and in some ways tried to shield Armstrong in what was a tough business. The two men were very, very different, making Thompson’s performance all the more impressive.

The third character appears in just a few vignettes: Thompson plays Miles Davis, who accused Armstrong of pandering to the white audiences and selling out musically.

There are so many reasons to see this show – under the sure hand of Gordon Edelstein, the production is seamless. Edelstein is the artistic Director of the Long Wharf theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and Satchmo will transfer there in the fall. Teachout has written a significant play, important in revealing the details of Armstrong’s story in this powerful way. But the main reason to make sure to see this exceptional show is to witness Thompson’s brilliant performance — it is an extraordinary artistic accomplishment.

Satchmo at the Waldorf runs approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.

Production team: Set design by Lee Savage; costume design by Ilona Somogyi; lighting design by Matthew Adelson; sound design by John Gromada; stage managers Diane Healy and Hope Rose Kelly.

Satchmo at the Waldorf plays through September 16. For tickets call 413.637.3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

2012: The Boston Pops Orchestra and a stellar array of guests celebrate John Williams in grand fashion in an inspiring concert

John Williams 80th Birthday Celebration

Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart, Leonard Slatkin, and Shi-Yeon Sung


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

The folks at Tanglewood really know how to celebrate. Saturday night’s concert marking John Williams’s 80th birthday was a marvelous occasion, from top notch performances and special guests, both in person and via video, to the perfect weather that enticed a near-capacity audience to fill the Shed and Lawn. Continue reading

Posted in Music | Comments Off

2012: Shakespeare & Company mounts a powerful production of the brash Parasite Drag

Parasite Drag by Mark Roberts

A new production at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre

Directed by Stephen Rothman

Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Joellen; Josh Aaron McCabe as Gene; Jason Asprey as Ronnie; and Kate Abbruzzese as Susie

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

[Lenox, MA] — “In one family you can have five different versions of the same story, and every person is affected by it five different ways,” says one of the characters in Parasite Drag, Mark Roberts’ dangerous drama about devastating family secrets. The play is both very funny and tragically sad, revolving around two estranged brothers, brought up in the same dysfunctional environment, who are as different as two men can be. Stephen Rothman, directing for the first time at Shakespeare & Company, has crafted an impeccably paced, balanced production filled with exceptional performances from the skilled cast. Roberts’ insightful script is full of tack-sharp dialogue that is outrageously funny, powerful, and provocative. This play is for adults only; there is plenty of profanity and adult content. Continue reading

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

2012: Barrington Stage presents the riveting East Coast premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool

The North Pool by Rajiv Joseph at Barrington Stage Company

Directed by Giovanna Sardelli

With Remi Sandri as Dr. Danielson and Babak Tafti as Khadim

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

[Pittsfield, MA] — The taut, tense plot of Rajiv Joseph’s psychological thriller, The North Pool, is a fascinating one, full of surprising twists. The excellent production at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage now through August 11 features a pair of powerful performances, with the two male characters, one a high school administrator and the other a student he has summoned for questioning, circling and stalking each other like modern-day gladiators, all in the space of one fraught hour of detention at a public high school.

This production is skillfully directed by Giovanna Sardelli, who has orchestrated a remarkably authentic dialogue between her two actors as well as creating real suspense for the series of revelations that constitutes the plot.

Continue reading

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

Spectacular performances by Bernadette Peters and the Boston Pops make for a perfect Tanglewood afternoon

Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart, July 8, 2012

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

A sunny afternoon, the Boston Pops, and the extraordinary Bernadette Peters combined for a perfect Tanglewood afternoon. Sunday’s concert, the first Boston Pops performance of the 75th Tanglewood anniversary season, began with a varied musical salute to the city of New York, followed by a set of marvelous songs performed by the incomparable Peters (she included a generous selection of tunes by Stephen Sondheim), and finished with the Pops’ signature march, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Together.

The Boston Pops, conducted by Keith Lockhart, opened with John Williams’s Liberty Fanfare, composed in 1986 for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The bold piece showcases the brass section, features a big and varied percussion presence and also includes a lovely melodic section; it was a perfect start to the afternoon’s proceedings and the Pops Orchestra was in fine form.

Keith Lockhart welcomed the audience and explained that the first half of the concert was a tribute to New York City: then he introduced the second selection, a terrific arrangement of 42nd Street, the tune from the film of the same name, with music by Harry Warren and a marvelous arrangement by Don Sebesky. The orchestration is huge, a brash celebration of the song, with a distinct swing/jazz flavor. There is a wonderful tuba solo, very engaging percussion, big sound from the brass, and a spectacular saxophone solo. This number was just a lot of fun.

Continue reading

Posted in Music | Comments Off

David Hyde Pierce directs an innovative “Earnest” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Directed by David Hyde Pierce

On the Mainstage at Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 14

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

Lady Bracknell as a tough, pistol-packing mob matriarch? Played by the indomitable Tyne Daly? Absolutely. In directing Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Williamstown Theatre Festival, David Hyde Pierce, with a touch of inspired alchemy, has given the audience a new way to enjoy this marvelous society satire.

Damon Runyon’s fictional New York gangsters, circa 1932, operated within a social hierarchy as clearly defined as that of Wilde’s fictional English upper class at the close of the Victorian era. So why not take The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s brilliant comedy of manners, and imagine the characters are members of an American mob family, transplanted to London to escape some awkward “entanglements”? That is precisely what Hyde Pierce decided to do, with fascinating – and very, very funny — results.

Continue reading

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is the subject of a brilliant new one-woman show by Mark St. Germain

Dr. Ruth, All the Way by Mark St. Germain

A world premiere at Barrington Stage Company

Directed by Julianne Boyd

Starring Debra Jo Rupp

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is well-known for her frank talk about sex, but anyone who thinks her appearances on radio and television sum up her accomplishments would be mistaken. Dr. Ruth is an exceptional woman, courageous and compassionate, whose sunny temperament belies the challenges she has weathered, from the loss of her family in the Holocaust to her struggles as a
single mother living and working in New York City. The story of her remarkable life unfolds in Mark St. Germain’s excellent new play, Dr. Ruth, All the Way, directed by Julianne Boyd, now playing at Barrington Stage Company.

Debra Jo Rupp is simply magnificent as the delightfully irrepressible Dr. Ruth Westheimer in this world premiere
production. This is a sparkling gem of a one-woman show; the story flows beautifully for the almost two-hour-long running time. Every element works: St.
Germain’s brilliant writing is beautifully interpreted by Julianne Boyd’s skillful, insightful direction, to say nothing of Debra Jo Rupp’s superb performance. 

Continue reading

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

Tod Randolph gives a superb performance in Cassandra Speaks at Shakespeare & Company

Cassandra Speaks

A Shakespeare & Company production of a new play by Norman Plotkin

Directed by Nicole Ricciardi

Starring Tod Randolph as Dorothy Thompson

Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre; performances now through September 2, 2012

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

[LENOX, MA] – Dorothy Thompson was the first journalist expelled from Germany on a direct order by Adolf Hitler and in 1939 Time magazine called her the most influential woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. In Cassandra Speaks at Shakespeare & Company, Tod Randolph delivers a complex, compelling portrait of Thompson in the world premiere production of this well-written, one-woman show.

Continue reading

Posted in Theater, Uncategorized | Comments Off

10 plays, 10 minutes each, equals an entertaining evening of theater at Barrington Stage Company

10X10 On North New Play Festival

A Barrington Stage Company production of ten new plays

BSC Stage 2, Feb 16-26, Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm; Sat/Sun at 3pm

Plays by Suzanne Bradbeer, Sara Cooper, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Will Eno, Jacqueline Goldfinger, Mikhail Horowitz, Maureen McGranaghan, Chris Newbound, Marisa Smith, Cait Weisensee

Directed by Julianne Boyd, Tom Gladwell, Frank La Frazia, David Sernick, Mark St. Germain

Cast: Lily Balsen, Emily Taplin Boyd, Matt Neely, RylandThomas, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Robert Zukerman

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival, part of 10×10 On North, the Berkshires’ first-ever winter contemporary arts festival, is a delightful diversion for a winter’s evening: the lineup of ten short plays, all approximately ten minutes long, makes for a lively and entertaining night of theater. The six actors are not only skilled but extremely versatile, delivering solid performances in a remarkably varied assortment of plays, from laugh-out-loud humor to budding romance to poignant drama, and even one or two plays that almost defy classification. These short plays prove that ten minutes is more than enough time to fall in love, change a life, be a hero, or just share important moments.

The ten plays included in the festival are particularly well-chosen. Another Cup of Coffee by Cait Weisensee depicts a husband’s patient, loving care of his wife, who suffers from some form of dementia, with gentle humor and poignant sadness. Robert Zukerman and Peggy Pharr Wilson are pitch-perfect as the challenged couple, skillfully directed by David Sernick. The Story by Mikhail Horowitz is a clever exercise in absurdist dialogue, as two men in a cave debate storytelling technique. Matt Neely offers a sly wit, countered by Robert Zukerman’s curmudgeonly demeanor, under the deft direction of Mark St. Germain.  

Mark St. Germain also directed Peggy Pharr Wilson’s strong performance in Lannie’s Lament by Jacqueline Goldfinger, a Southern Gothic tale about a funeral that takes a surprising turn. Wilson transports the audience to a sun-drenched porch somewhere in the deep South with her first few words. Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured by Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno, is also a monologue, this time a quirky recounting of a failed season by an embattled sports coach, ably portrayed by Matt Neely, also directed by Mark St. Germain.

The line-up includes romance, of a sort. In Tenderness by Maureen McGranaghan, Emily Taplin Boyd offers an appealing depiction of a young woman confronting a modern dilemma: she awakes in the night to find her one-night-stand sneaking away. Ryland Thomas is the feckless man in the scenario directed by Tom Gladwell. In Chris Newbound’s Lunch with Amanda, Frank La Frazia directs Lily Balsen and Ryland Thomas as gently flirtatious, bantering co-workers discussing the aftermath of a company softball game in a nuanced, naturalistic conversation. La Frazia also directs God in the Goat by Suzanne Bradbeer, featuring Matt Neely as an unscrupulous but surprisingly thoughtful member of the paparazzi, staking out a rock star’s funeral , and Lily Balsen in a quiet but powerful turn as a woman who once knew the celebrity.

Tom Gladwell is at the helm for Total Expression by Marisa Smith, a funny piece that features Emily Taplin Boyd in a spot-on depiction of a Russian model looking for fame and fortune in New York, with Peggy Pharr Wilson as the unlikely recipient of some adventurous advice.

Julianne Boyd directs two of the funniest offerings of the evening, the first being Things I Left on Long Island by Sara Cooper. Lily Balsen plays a young woman who has had to move back home and contend with the dreaded dysfunctional family dynamic: Peggy Pharr Wilson is her overbearing, over-the-top mother; Ryland Thomas is the perfect younger brother; and Robert Zukerman is absolutely hilarious in drag as the very outspoken grandmother. And in Laura Shaine’s Fugu, two highly competitive “foody” couples, played by Matt Neely, Lily Balsen, Emily Taplin Boyd, and Ryland Thomas, gather for a daring gourmet dinner with a very exotic ingredient as the centerpiece.

The 10×10 New Play Festival is a successful and very entertaining format: while some of the plays are more polished than others, the compelling performances from this very skilled, chameleon-like company of actors make for a very satisfying evening indeed. This reviewer is already looking forward to next year’s roster of ten new plays.

Production team: Natasha Sinha, associate producer; Jeff Roudabush, lighting designer; Andy Reynolds, sound designer; and Michael Andrew Rodgers, production stage manager.

Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 is at 36 Linden St. in Pittsfield. Tickets are $15 and $20; to purchase tickets or for more information, call the Barrington Stage box office at 413.236.8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org. Barrington Stage Company’s box office is located at 30 Union St. in Pittsfield.

Posted in Theater | Comments Off

The golden age of radio is celebrated in War of the Worlds at Shakespeare & Company

War of the Worlds

Adapted by Howard Koch from the novel by H. G. Wells and additionally inspired by the radio broadcast by Orson Welles

Directed by Tony Simotes

Now through November 6

Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre

Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jonathan Croy, Dana Harrison, David Joseph, Josh Aaron McCabe, and Scott Renzoni

Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck

[Lenox, MA] — Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our regularly scheduled program … for Tony Simotes’s terrific production of War of the Worlds at Shakespeare & Company.  The golden age of radio is alive and thriving at Shakespeare & Company, as six adept actors sing, dance, and emote their way through an old-time variety show, culminating in a gripping re-enactment of Orson Welles’ renowned War of the Worlds.

On October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the country were terrified when they heard Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre broadcast of War of the Worlds and mistakenly believed that Martians were attacking New Jersey.  Based on the classic H.G. Welles novel and adapted by Howard Koch, with plenty of inspiration from the original Mercury Theatre production, the new Shakespeare & Company production of War of the Worlds is an imaginative and entertaining evening of theater.

A circa-1930s radio studio has been recreated in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, from the authentic microphones to the APPLAUSE and ON THE AIR signs that cue the studio audience.  The show begins with the actors strolling into the studio, relaxed and bantering, getting ready to perform. 

Each of the six accomplished actors in the cast plays multiple roles, as the troupe, in various configurations, presents a sampling of 1930s-type radio entertainment, from tight-harmony bluegrass tunes “Man of Constant Sorrow” and ‘I’ll Fly Away,” to a series of commercial breaks for local businesses, a quiz show, and an episode of an action/adventure serial; to the fully dramatized War of the Worlds segment.  There is even a tap dance number.

Scott Renzoni plays Bobby Ramiro, the emcee, with an authentic 1930s inflection to his voice and a smooth, suave radio manner.  He introduces all the other actors, sings, and takes the helm for the clever “Bobby’s Knowledge Nook Quiz.”  Jonathan Croy is first-rate as Lionel Harrison, leading man and the star of “Ace Moran: American Hero,” who is battling the villain Drakkar Noir, voiced by Josh Aaron McCabe.  The good vs. evil action allows for lots of great sound effects, and the sounds not supplied by the in-view sound man are provided vocally by the multi-talented McCabe.

Sound designer Michael Pfeiffer is on stage, playing the part of Foley artist Max Michaels, creating a marvelous array of sound effects with a tableful of props from rubber gloves to bells and horns to ice cubes and coconut shells.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder delivers several effective performances, first as Darla Ford, one of the singing Sweetwater Sisters, and then as Carla Phillips, the hard-hitting journalist with microphone in hand who is on the scene in New Jersey, filing her eye-witness account of the Martian invasion.  David Joseph is wonderful as the sophisticated, handsome heartthrob crooner, who is rattled as the news of the Martian invasion begins to come into the studio, but stays calm and keeps on broadcasting.  Dana Harrison is Melinda Maguire, the other Sweetwater sister, and a whole roster of characters in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the radio play that is under way when the “Martian invasion” begins.  Harrison, Croy, and Renzoni are the harried thespians who are trying to get through their scene and are repeatedly interrupted by the breaking news announcements, a circumstance that adds to the hilarity of their scene.  Renzoni is a hoot as Pyramus, aided and abetted by Harrison and Croy.

Where the first part of the production is witty and light-hearted; the second section, which includes the War of the Worlds, is darkly dramatic and suspenseful.  Simotes has wisely decided to take the action outside the studio, so while we see some of the characters at their microphones, continuing to broadcast, the other actors change costumes and with the help of skillful lighting, perform as if they were in the small New Jersey town being overtaken by aliens.  Croy delivers a compelling scene as an Air Force pilot reporting on the destruction, and McCabe is very affecting as the Princeton professor who identifies the Martian threat.  

Simotes has skillfully woven the multiple elements of this show into a satisfying production, likely to please those nostalgic for days gone by as well as others looking for a spooky, autumnal show to set the mood for Halloween.  War of the Worlds is an enjoyable mix of smart direction, clever writing, and skilled performances, with just the right amount of old-fashioned suspense.

PRODUCTION TEAM: Set design by Patrick Brennan; costume design by Kara D. Midlam; lighting design by Stephen Ball; sound design by Michael Pfeiffer; stage manager, Hope Rose Kelly; singing coach, Bill Barclay 

Shakespeare & Company is at 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass.  For tickets, call the box office at (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.



Posted in Theater | Comments Off