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Out & About: 'Side Show,' 'Gershwin Girls,' and more

Lifestyle

Out & About: 'Side Show,' 'Gershwin Girls,' and more

Musical theater takes center stage this week, as two excellent productions opened last week and continue for a couple more weekends.

Tops is “Side Show,” a Broadway musical that closes Portland Players’ 80th season, in South Portland.

There’s a new theater company in Freeport. “Gershwin Girls, an original musical revue based on the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, is the debut offering of Freeport Factory Stage.

Plus there are two excellent musical choices. The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra closes its season with a pair of performances: Saturday in Lewiston and Sunday in Topsham. Freeport pianist Laura Kargul will be the featured soloist. St. Mary Schola, a southern Maine ensemble that specializes in Renaissance music, has a concert in Falmouth on Sunday.

‘Side Show’

“Who will love me as I am?” That impassioned question underscores the central theme of “Side Show,” one of the most remarkable Broadway shows ever written. The 1997 musical, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, deals with an assortment of characters from a circus side show that travels around America exhibiting a collection of freaks.

The plot is a fictionalized account of two very real people. Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969) were conjoined (Siamese) twins who learned to sing and dance and eventually graduated from the freak show to become highly respected and very highly paid vaudeville performers who thrived in the 1930s.

The two Hilton sisters and the three men who loved them – or professed to love them – provide tremendous dramatic horsepower that’s exquisitely harnessed by the Russell-Krieger book and score.

Portland Players has mounted a superb community production under the direction of Brian P. Allen (of Good Theater fame) that stars two of southern Maine’s top musical actresses: Jen Means and Marie Dittmer. Both possess fine voices and commanding stage presences. I also liked the three men who complete this interesting romantic quintet: Mark Dils as a vaudeville promoter, John Robinson as an aspiring vaudeville performer and Nate Williams as the freak show’s “cannibal man.”

Despite its intense focus on a pair of remarkable ladies who faced extraordinary challenges, “Side Show” is really about every human being’s need for love, respect and acceptance. “Side Show” is an extraordinarily moving theatrical experience, and Portland Players’ current community production does full justice to the sweeping concept of its creators.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “Side Show” through May 29 with 8 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays plus 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 797-7337.

‘Gershwin Girls’

A new professional theater company launched last weekend in Freeport with an inaugural offering of an original musical collage that’s constructed around songs by George and Ira Gershwin, brothers who achieved outstanding success on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s.

The company moniker, Freeport Factory Stage, recalls the town’s shoe-making heritage as well as the present-day retail shopping mecca. The inaugural show is titled “Gershwin Girls,” and features five women accompanied by three instrumentalists who perform two dozen songs, mostly drawn from the brothers’ Broadway musicals plus “Porgy and Bess,” America’s most celebrated opera.

Interpolated among the songs is a narrative about the Gershwins, who were born of Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the 1890s. The script was written by Jon Wojciechowski especially for this production.

Of the five women, I particularly liked Caitlin Kelty Huber and Devin Dukes. The former’s rendition of “Funny Face” and “Embraceable You” were high points of the show. Ditto Dukes’ passionate performance of “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

The space, a reconfiguration of the former Venue music room, seats fewer than 100 on risers arranged in a U-shaped pattern around a small stage. My biggest issue with “Gershwin Girls” was the random and erratic lighting, which needs to be totally reworked.

Freeport Factory Stage is on Depot Street just below the parking garage. Performances of “Gershwin Girls” run through May 29 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 865-5505.

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra

The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, a community ensemble that draws its members from Casco Bay to Penobscot Bay, is wrapping up its 2010-2011 season with an exciting program that promises much for classical music aficionados.

Maestro Rohan Smith’s program opens with the Maine premiere of “Javelin,” a celebratory work with much prominence given to the horn section. It was written by Michael Torke for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in connection with the opening of the Olympic Games in that city in 1996.

The centerpiece is Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the celebrated showcases of its musical genre. Guest pianist will be Laura Kargul of Freeport, a University of Southern Maine School of Music professor who’s stepping in to perform this incredibly virtuosic part due to the illness of the previously announced soloist. I’ve heard Kargul many times and especially appreciate her devotion to the Romantic period – and this Chopin concerto is a brilliant exemplar of that style.

The final work of the season will be Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, another celebrated landmark of musical history and a showpiece of the orchestral art form.

Two performances are slated: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s in Lewiston and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Orion Performing Arts Center at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham. Call 846-5378.

St. Mary Schola

Pre-classical musical, especially of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, is a personal passion of mine, but Maine doesn’t have too many artists who specialize in this area. (Compare that to greater Boston, where there are dozens of ensembles and a choice of multiple concerts every week of the year.)

St. Mary Schola is a Maine early music group of 15, singing five vocal parts and playing five instruments. The Schola is led by tenor Bruce Fithian an early music scholar and professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

This Sunday’s concert is titled “Ever Grateful Spring” and features works by two men, Italian composer Orazio Vecchi and Englishman Henry Purcell. The former’s piece is a setting of a Commedia dell’Arte play, performed in madrigal style on the first half of the program. After intermission the Schola will perform a trio of substantial excerpts from Purcell’s opera, “The Fairy Queen.”

One 4 p.m. Sunday performance is scheduled at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Road in Falmouth.