Thursday, November 21, 2019

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   The November 9 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra CSO) was a particularly eclectic program of five works exploring the theme of storytelling, beginning with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. In the genre of opera buffa, there’s hardly a more scintillating curtain raiser than this madcap orchestral frolic. The fast-paced music is replete with crisply punctuated rhythms and many shifting colors, and the ensemble played it impeccably.

   Following this invigorating romp into unfettered jollity, the musical temperament shifted dramatically with Concerto Dei Fiori (Concert of Flowers), a one-movement piece for violin and chamber orchestra composed in 1996 by Sylvie Bodorová. In the course of her career spanning from the late 1970s, she has become one of the most sought-after and performed champions of contemporary Czech musical culture.

   Concerto Dei Fiori is a piquant melding of moods, at once somber and sweet, tumultuous and meditative. All of the work’s thematic tensions were articulated here with mesmerizing panache in a sensitive dialogue between the small ensemble and the featured soloist, CSO concertmaster Cristian Zimmerman. His remarkably fluid playing was imbued with an emotive intensity that very effectively evoked the music’s sensations of wandering and discovery, of slowly ascending from brooding darkness to blossom in the promise of light. His electrifying cadenza nearly midway through, pierced by savage dissonances, was a grand unleashing that gave way to stratospheric high notes, finally ushering in a stately hush as the ensemble quoted J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele : “Adorn yourself, of beloved soul, leave the dark den of sins, come into the clear light, begin to shine with glory…”

   Following that gorgeous moment of found serenity was a story of a different sort - Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for soprano and small orchestra. Barber set this fascinating work - perhaps best called a free-form operatic poem, or “word painting” - to text written by American poet and novelist James Agee (1909-1955). The words form a distinctly dreamlike remembrance of a sultry summer evening, presented from the perspective of a child, and made all the more enchanting here thanks to the rhapsodic intonations from soprano Hilerie Klein Rensi. Beyond the sheer radiance of her actual singing, which was often inflected with a lilting, conversational timbre, Rensi’s performance was suffused with a captivating theatrical expressivity. She seemed to float effortlessly between wistful   moments of wide-eyed childlike wonder and the more bittersweet musings, implicit in the text, of an adult all too aware of mortality and impending sorrow. Throughout, the ensemble invested Barber’s seductive and haunting melodies with a crystalline, even magical dimensionality. 

   The concert ended, as it began, on a dazzlingly felicitous note, this time with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. This lavishly orchestrated work is a rambunctious Hungarian rondo with special attention given to the clarinet. The orchestra rose to the moment with all the lush sonority and clarity we’ve come to expect from this accomplished body of gifted artists. Yet interestingly enough, it was the performance of the work preceding this enthralling climax that remains in my mind as the most extraordinary musical encounter of the evening – Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. 

   Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann introduced this eminently familiar American classic - which I’ve always heard played by large orchestras - with a humorous and touching reminiscence about meeting, knowing, and savoring Aaron Copland. Then he faced his ensemble, now pared down to a scant 13 pieces (as originally performed in 1944) and proceeded to essentially transcend mere familiarity. You’d think that with such a small group of players, the scope and depth of Copland’s idyllic vision would be somehow diminished. Instead, they simply proved that less can in fact be more. ‘Tis the gift to be simple indeed. I’ve never heard this iconic work performed with more genuine emotional sensitivity, more sweeping lyrical elegance, than on this occasion. What was old had become new again. Better than beautiful, it was sublime.     

Monday, November 11, 2019

Prank and Circumstance

Prank and Circumstance

Dede Klein and Benjamin Gregg

April Deming (l), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Micah Harvey

Lames Alexander Rankin (l.), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Micah Harvey, Shani Ferry, Dede Klein

Dede Klein, Micah Harvey

By Tom Wachunas

Photos by Jeremy Aronhalt

   The series of four plays comprising the 2019/20 season from itinerant Seat of the Pants Productions are offered under the theme of ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ described as “…posing questions and inspiring dialogue about how we engage with the foreigner, alien, or person who is different in our midst.” There’s something curiously appropriate, even poetic, about landing the first play of the series in a venue as theatrically nontraditional as Canton’s Habitat for Humanity of East Central Ohio.

   Directed by Craig Joseph, Ripcord is a wickedly delicious comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire that centers on two elderly widows who turn their time in an otherwise pleasant senior living facility into a mutually adversarial habitat. Talk about odd couples. From the start, chronically cranky Abby (Dede Klein) complains about everything. She can’t stand her bubbly, newly-arrived roommate, Marilyn (April Deming). Abby pleads with a senior center staffer, Scotty (Benjamin Gregg), to assign Marilyn to another room, but to no avail. So when Marilyn - who says she never gets angry about anything – makes a bet, Abby - who says that nothing scares her - jumps at the chance.

   The wager? If Abby can first succeed in making Marilyn angry, Marilyn moves out. But if Marilyn can first frighten Abby, Marilyn can have the bed she wants - the one closest to the window with a beautiful view of the park outside.

   Pull the ripcord.  A madcap game of oneupsmanship ensues, escalating into ever more mischievous practical jokes, and thrusting both women into a scenario of painful revelations about their respective pasts.

   The theatrical acumen of Craig Joseph’s entire cast is marvelous. As Abby, Dede Klein presents a visceral rendering of feral grumpiness, colored by a tired cynicism that at times feels, frightfully enough, misanthropic. Similarly startling in her authenticity, April Deming paints a spot-on portrait of Marilyn’s seemingly unflappable kindness and garrulous optimism. It’s fascinating to watch these hopelessly conflicting temperaments subtly morph from a slapstick clash of wills into a pathos which perhaps neither character could have anticipated at the beginning of their prank war.

   The supporting cast performs with equally impressive aplomb.  Benjamin Gregg is downright endearing as the dutiful resident aide Scotty – patient, infectiously funny, but increasingly exasperated by the womens’ ceaseless shananigans. He’s sure they need to get out more. So at one point, he invites them to visit the haunted house attraction where he’s been hired as an actor. There, he plays a prisoner bellowing his melodramatic pleas for mercy and tearful goodbyes as he’s repeatedly executed in the electric chair. Amidst all of this scene’s belly laughs, there’s a fleetingly heartrending, indeed symbolic moment, wherein Abby stands away from the crowd, not so much scared as haunted by sadness, gazing down at a baby doll that’s been shoved into her arms by a desperate  woman (Shani Ferry) pleading for someone to rescue her child.

   Meanwhile there are first-rate performances by Shani Ferry as Colleen, and Micah Harvey as Derek, Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law. Marilyn has enlisted them as co-conspirators in her elaborate plots to scare Abby. In one particularly ingenious scene, we see all of them tethered together for a skydiving adventure led by a stoned-out instructor played by James Alexander Rankin, who later plays Abby’s estranged son, Benjamin, with riveting poignance. In another scene of bizarre, gut-splitting hilarity, Micah Harvey, disguised as a ridiculous rabbit with fiery eyes and gold fangs, attempts to rob Abby at gunpoint as she sits reading on the park bench. She’s perturbed, sure, but definitely not scared. Yet.

   Some darker truths about these embattled women are further revealed. But some truths can be freeing. In the end there’s a brief, gentle smile of truce as they sit near that prized window overlooking the park. This wildly entertaining freefall has placed them, and us, in a path of peace.

   Ripcord, at Habitat for Humanity East Central Ohio, 1400 Raff Road Southwest, #Ste A, in Canton, Ohio / Performances on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15 & 16 at 8 p.m., Sunday Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

Starring: Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Shani Ferry, Micah Harvey, and James Rankin. Directed by Craig Joseph; assistant directed by Kyle Huff, and stage managed by Allison Harvey. Set design and construction by Kevin Anderson; Scenic artist - Tim Eakin; costumes by McCarty & Morgan Custom Costumes; lighting by Ayron Lord; props by Lisa Wiley; sound engineer - Megan Slabach; sound design and original music by John Gromada.

   Tickets $25,  at Evenbrite 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Color It Joyful

Color It Joyful

By Tom Wachunas

   A suggestion: dust off your bible and open it up to Genesis, chapter 37. Therein begins the iconic drama (which continues for several more chapters) about a family torn apart by envy and hate. Jacob favors is son, Joseph, more than any of his other 11 sons, and makes him a spectacular robe of many colors, befitting, it would seem, a king. Joseph flaunts the garment, along with his gift for interpreting prophetic dreams, which include a vision of Joseph ruling over his entire family. This causes his already jealous and angry brothers to hate him all the more and subsequently plot his demise. Rather than kill him outright, they sell him to a caravan on its way to Egypt. Then they stain his precious coat with goat’s blood, presenting it as evidence to Jacob that his most beloved son had been killed by a wild beast. Prior to the joyous reconciliation some years later with his family, Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison, yet ultimately rises to a position of power and prestige second only to the Pharaoh himself.

   This has certainly been the adventurous stuff of many children’s Sunday school lessons. In many ways, that presentational spirit of a child’s perspective remains at the core of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a perspective carried over from the show’s humble beginnings as a very short “pop cantata” performed by a London children’s choir in 1968. Appropriately enough, then, the scintillating Players Guild production, directed by Jonathan Tisevich, begins with Rachael Armbruster as the effervescent Narrator, addressing a group of 12 wide-eyed children seated attentively at her feet. Throughout the show she effectively adopts the persona of an ever-friendly teacher, with a notably bright singing voice, brimming with bubbly warmth and enthusiasm. Interestingly, that pleasant persona is something of an ironic presence considering the gloomier underpinnings of Joseph’s plight.

    As Joseph, Jonathan Gruich is a commanding figure who brings real emotional heft to his singing. He’s wholly believable, either as the dashing, prideful dream-sayer, the slave wrongly accused of lusting after the wife of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard) and languishing in prison, or the powerful man who shows Pharaoh how to save Egypt from famine and in the process re-unites with his brothers and forgives them. Meanwhile, Todd Cooper’s portrayal of the strutting, booty-bouncing Pharaoh-in-a-jumpsuit is a deliciously shameless Elvis imitation that brings down the house.  
   So indeed the proceedings never become too dark or heavy-handed. There are in fact numerous truly hilarious passages, often thanks to the male ensemble playing Joseph’s brothers. After they break the bad news about Joseph, elderly father Jacob (Matthew Heppe) limps about in a state of very sincere sorrow while they intone “One More Angel in Heaven” with faces and voices wildly contorted into remarkably individualized expressions of feigned grief and not-so-secret glee. And much later, as they reflect mournfully on their situation in the chanson-style “Those Canaan Days,” the humor is all the more pronounced via their thick French accents.

   Additionally, the women and children ensembles are equally engaging singers and dancers. When these ensembles combine, a kind of tribal intensity ensues, with deeply sonorous vocal harmonies soaring through the brisk and nimble choreography by Lauren Dangelo. Beyond the bejeweled colors of the wild costumes by Suwatana Rockland, this dazzling gem of entertainment shimmers in a delightful pastiche of musical colors as well – from 1920s Charleston and vintage Elvis, to Calypso and Country Western, to name only some – driven by the infectious artistry of the live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons. 
    Everything seems to move so fast and furious. And just when you think the story has ended, that you’ve heard that final note of an electrifying communal hurrah, the entire cast rolls right back out in a raucous romp - a protracted medley of just about every tune in the show. It’s a madcap recap of unmitigated ebullience. It might at first seem like too much for too long.

   But then again, think for a moment on the terrible and terrifying condition of the world we live in these days. Can there ever really be such a thing as too much joy? Thanks, Players Guild, for the invigorating memo. 

   Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat / at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Through November 17, 2019 / Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.  (shows at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 16) / $34 for single tickets, $27 for 17 and younger, $31 for Seniors / available at   or call the Box Office at 330.453.7617