Arts Beat: The Arts Year 2019 In Review

by Mark G. Auerbach


There was so much to celebrate this season in Western New England. WAM Theatre celebrated its 10th season, and is production of Holland Taylor’s Ann, starring Jayne Atkinson, moved to Arena Stage in Washington, DC and Dallas, TX. Chester Theatre Company celebrated 30 seasons, as both the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and The Springfield Symphony Orchestra completed their 75th seasons. Playhouse on Park celebrated 10 years as well.

J Anthony Crane and Ami Brabson in TheaterWorks’ American Son.( Photo by Lanny Nagler)

Hartford Stage said farewell to Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, whose final season included the world premiere’s of Samuel Baum’s thriller The Engagement Party and the new musical The Flamingo Kid. The theatre commissioned Matthew Lopez’s sprawling epic, The Inheritance, which took London by storm, and is now a hot ticket on Broadway. And, speaking of commissions, Barrington Stage commissioned Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son, which played Broadway last season, and was subsequently filmed for Netflix. It’s one of the most-produced plays across the country, and TheaterWorks opened its new season with it in its fabulous almost $6 million renovated theatre space.

In a world where the media pays less attention to the arts, New England Public Radio and PBS station WGBY, began a partnership, New England Public Media. Both provide plenty of arts, from Live from Lincoln Center and Great Performances on the TV side, to the Metropolitan
Opera, classical music and jazz on the radio side.

Westfield finally got a year-round concert series, when Gaslight Entertainment launched monthly music weekends at the Westfield Woman’s Club. And the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s Longmeadow Chamber Music series at Twin Hills, has proven to be a smart move.

And, a new Hartford Fringe Festival was launched to showcase new works. Plus, keep your eye on K&E Theatre, who has done some fine productions of Sondheim musicals, including the controversial Assassins.

Comings and Goings

Sarah Goeke and Keri Safran in Brad Sytsma’s Cold Feet at Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival. (Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Hartford Stage brought on a new leadership team, as Darko Tresnjak and Mike Stotts left for other ventures. Melia Bensussen and Cynthia Rider took the reins of the theatre, the first women appointed in those positions. We said farewell to The UMass Fine Arts Center’s Director Willie Hill, Goodspeed’s longtime music director Michael O’Flaherty; Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s manager Matt Pugliese; and Mahaiwe Theatre’s director Beryl Jolly, all who either retired or left for new opportunities.

Speaking of Tresnjak, his production of Anastasia, which moved from Hartford Stage to Broadway, is now on a national tour, and plays The Bushnell in January. He’ll return to Goodspeed next fall to direct Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

We remembered Bill Venman, co-founder of Valley Light Opera, Wendy Rabinowitz, the Berkshires-based fiber artist; and David Starr, publisher of the Springfield Republican, and a major philanthropist to the cultural organizations of Greater Springfield.

Outstanding Moments

In previous years, I’ve recapped the “best” productions and performances of the year, but this was a unique year for me, having missed almost six months of theatre due to an accident, surgery, and recovery. I missed the entire summer seasons of Barrington Stage, Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, WAM, and Shakespeare and Company. I missed what others raved about: Hartford Stage’s world premiere of the musical The Flamingo Kid; Barrington Stage’s American Underground; Eric Hill’s staging of Albee’s The Goat: Or Who is Sylvia. At Berkshire Theatre Group, and The Scottsboro Boys at Playhouse on Park.

The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

For me, Hartford Stage’s The Engagement Party was an unforgettable thriller, while TheaterWorks’ production of American Son retained the tension of the original at Barrington Stage. Both are memorable. I very much liked Barrington Stage’s innovative 10×10 New Play Festival of ten, ten minute plays, comedic, and drama, performed by a cast of five. Anyway you do the math, this was fantastic. Darko Tresnjak’s staging of The Engagement Party; Rob Ruggiero’s direction of American Son at TheaterWorks; along with Gabriel Barre’s direction of Billy Elliot: The Musical,at Goodspeed, and Jade King Carroll’s direction of Detroit ‘67 at Hartford Stage stood out as among the finest.

The Bushnell had a great line-up of touring musicals. Hello, Dolly!, the touring production of the revival built around Bette Midler, was superlative with Carolee Carmello as “Dolly” but the surprise of the year was The Spongebob Musical, which was retooled for its tour after its brief Broadway run. I never expected to like it, but I adored it.

Alexander Dodge, who designed Hartford Stage’s The Engagement Party followed by TheaterWorks’ A Doll’s House, Part 2, put beautiful scenery on stage. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes for Berkshire Theatre Group’s The Skin of Our Teeth were deluxe. Alexander Sovronsky’s sound design for Barrington Stage’s 10×10 New Play Festival and Frederick Kennedy’s sound design for TheaterWorks’ Fully Committed were both well-crafted. Matthew Richards’ lighting designs for Hartford Stage’s The Engagement Party and TheaterWorks American Son were terrific.

Tara Franklin’s solo performance in Chester Theatre’s On The Exhale and Jamison Stern’s solo turn in TheaterWorks’ Fully Committed were tour de force and unforgettable. Ami Brabson (American Son), and Ariana Venturi (Berkshire Theater Group’s The Skin of Our Teeth) were memorable. In a variety of roles, Michael Fell, Sarah Goeke, Deshawn Mitchell, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Keri Safran, and Robert Zukerman shined in The 10X10 New Play Festival, at Barrington Stage. And I enjoyed Arnie Burton, Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams in multiple roles in Jeeves and Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense” at Hartford Stage.

As A New Decade Begins

When we take stock of our cultural resources, there are so many. Numerous theatres big and small introducing classics and new voices; broad menus of theatre, music and dance at The UMass Fine Arts Center, The Bushnell, The Colonial and The Mahaiwe. There are intimate chamber music performances at the wonderful Sevenars and more. There are now talk-backs after many performances, or pre-concert informances. There are sensory-friendly performances. There are educational opportunities for kids, teens, and adults. We live in a region with a vital cultural economy, that sets us apart from other places. Make a New Year’s resolution to get out and about and enjoy these numerous arts opportunities.

Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark produces and hosts ArtsBeat Radio for 89.5fm/WSKB, and is a contributor to Pioneer Valley Radio. 

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