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Out & About: Summer rolls in along 'Avenue Q'

Lifestyle

Out & About: Summer rolls in along 'Avenue Q'

Memorial Day marks the traditional start to the summer season in Maine. Although that notion advances the astronomical almanac by nearly a month, last weekend’s breath of warm air put many of us in a summertime mood. That’s certainly the feeling at Ogunquit Playhouse right now, as the 2011 season got started with “Avenue Q,” the recent Broadway hit show that pushed many boundaries.

Pushing artistic – and orthographic – boundaries is the mission of !Zing, a 13-voice choral group based in Portland. The all-amateur singing ensemble led by Charlie Brown, a professional musician with many years of experience. Catch !Zing this Friday in Portland at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.

Irish singer Maura O’Connell has made a career of pushing her own artistic boundaries far beyond the traditional boundaries of Celtic music. She’s performing this Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

‘Avenue Q’

Ever wondered about a possible sequel to “Sesame Street,” the perennially popular children’s television show? What’s life like after Cookie Monster, Kermit the Frog and that whole host of magical characters have faded into distant memory?

That’s the dramatic conceit of “Avenue Q,” an exceptionally imaginative hit musical that opened on Broadway in 2003 and ran for more than six years and more than 2,500 performances, followed by a very successful national tour that recently passed through Portland.

To open its 2011 summer season, Ogunquit Playhouse has scored a hit of its own: first, for being among the earliest regional companies to secure the performance rights to this show, and second, by mounting an exceptionally fine production that reunites many of the key actors from the Broadway and national touring companies.

Imagine “Sesame Street” two decades after its juvenile audience has marched off to school. Now they’ve graduated from college and start to face the challenges of the real world: poor employment prospects, low pay and unrewarding entry-level jobs.

That’s what’s facing 22-year-old Princeton, who graduates from college and searches for an affordable apartment, finally finding digs in the low-rent district of an outer borough of New York – on Avenue Q.

That’s where the show’s other imaginative device comes in, “Sesame Street” style: Puppet characters and people freely intermix on stage. And in a final challenge to the theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief,” there’s no attempt to hide the fact that the puppets are being manipulated by people.

Altogether “Avenue Q” has three human characters plus 10 puppet characters, handled by four on-stage actors plus two backstage. In order to allow for costume changes, a total of 62 puppets are used in this production, all crafted from the original Broadway designs.

If all of this seems far-fetched for a live stage show, be assured that it really works. The Tony Awards judges thought so too. “Avenue Q” received six nominations and won three, including the most prestigious: Best Musical, Best Book (by Jeff Whitty) and Best Score (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx).

Three puppeteer-actors excelled in Ogunquit’s production. Howie Michael Smith, whose principal role is the puppet, Princeton, played for more than 1,000 performances in the Broadway production. Princeton is a bright-eyed, idealistic young man whose search for a purpose in life provides the unifying theme of this fine parody and modern fable. Smith brings a believable, affable persona to this crucial part.

Ashley Eileen Buckman handles two big roles, a pair of women who compete for Princeton’s affection. One moment Buckman is sugar-sweet Kate Monster, the right girl, and at other times she’s swaggering, voluptuous Lucy the Slut, the wrong girl. Plus I loved Lexy Fridell; the best of her puppet roles is a Bad Idea Bear. Among the human characters, tops is Rebecca Larkin as Christmas Eve, an eccentric Japanese-American psychologist. Buckman, Fridell and Larkin are reprising these roles from the national tour.

Catch “Avenue Q” at Ogunquit Playhouse (a mile south of the village on Route 1) through June 18. Call 800-982-2787.

(Note: If you’re thinking of bringing your own recent “Sesame Street” graduates to this show, don’t. Due to language and sexual situations, “Avenue Q” is most definitely unsuitable for children.)

!Zing

Unconventional, non-traditional, and boundary-crossing are among the descriptions that apply to !Zing, a Portland-based vocal ensemble that will be appearing this Friday. I’ve heard this group a couple of times and liked them very much.

A nice summary of !Zing comes from longtime member Kathleen Egan:

“We are 13 voices led by Charles R. Brown Jr., music director, arranger, composer, bandleader and pianist/organist since his teenage years in Yarmouth. The group came together in Portland in 2001 when a few people expressed a desire to sing the unconventional songbook, and enlisted Charlie as director.

“The resulting sound is unique, shaped and tuned by Charlie’s ear. The arrangements are original and complex, and our weekly rehearsals require hard work tempered by an excellent sense of humor. Charles is central to our sound and work ethic. In Charlie’s words, we create choral music that covers ‘interesting, forgotten or underappreciated songs, which we perform with originality, sass and style.’”

Let’s also add “wit” and “panache” to Egan’s description.

The title of this Friday’s annual spring concert is “A Deluxe Nuts Mix – With NO Peanuts.” The program includes original tunes written by Brown, plus his arrangements of songs identified with artists as varied as Duke Ellington and the Everly Brothers.

Catch !Zing this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland. Call 775-5568.

Maura O’Connell

Traditional Irish music is one recognized and respected genre. Bluegrass is another. Combine the two, adding a healthy dollop of straight-ahead contemporary, and you get Maura O’Connell, an Irish singer who’s been profoundly influenced by American roots music and has made a career on two continents by bridging genres and spanning styles.

Growing up in a musical family in County Clare in the west of Ireland, O’Connell got her professional start with several Irish bands. From the early 1980s she was a frequent visitor to this side of the Atlantic, when she performed lead vocals for a number of American groups, and now lives in Nashville.

Her solo career spans four decades and her discography numbers 11 releases. Two, including 2009’s “Naked With Friends,” were nominated for Grammy Awards.

Maura O’Connell appears at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State) in Portland at 8 p.m. June 3. Edie Carey opens. Call 761-1757.