‘Magic of Christmas’ and ‘Victorian Nutcracker’ tops this season

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With the arts and entertainment calendar inexorably counting down to Christmas, some big items are coming up. Biggest of the season, certainly in terms of its box office draw, is the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas.” This annual family favorite runs two weekends at Merrill Auditorium, beginning this Friday.

Portland Ballet will present its signature “Victorian Nutcracker” for three performances, Dec. 12-13 in Westbrook and Dec. 16 in Portland.

On the non-Christmas side of the ledger, Portland Players is staging a wonderful community production of “Shrek: The Musical.” It continues through Dec. 20 in South Portland.

A world premiere of modern art music will be presented when three Colby College professors visit the University of Southern Maine School of Music in Gorham on Friday for a public concert.

‘Magic of Christmas’

A longstanding holiday tradition in southern Maine is the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas.” It’s been immensely popular in the  more than a quarter-century it’s been produced, drawing around 20,000 each year.

A family-oriented concert in the symphonic pops tradition, “Magic of Christmas” follows a familiar format, with a few fixed elements and many new items every year. One of the standing elements is the vocal power of the Portland Community Chorus; more than 100 members participated last year. Chorus master/Assistant Conductor Norman Huynh will lead singers during each 2015 performance.

Another fixed element is “Hallelujah Chorus,” the best-known part of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” performed by the musicians donning Christmas-themed headgear, is another perennial element.

For 2015, maestro Robert Moody has picked a jazzy medley of Christmas tunes, several light classical pieces with winter themes, plus a number of traditional and modern Christmas classics.

Three gymnasts will perform and there’s a dancing Santa Claus too.

Portland Symphony Orchestra performs “Magic of Christmas” 12 times at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Dec. 11-12 and 18-19 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 13 and 20 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

In December, 1992, Portland Ballet celebrated the 100th anniversary of the debut of “The Nutcracker” by creating its own highly localized version of the Christmastime terpsichorean spectacular. Artistic Director Eugenia O’Brien re-imagined the opening scene – a Christmas Eve party in an opulent European drawing room – as happening in Portland’s own Victoria Mansion, the elegant Italianate brownstone edifice on Danforth Street that was built in 1860 by hotel tycoon Ruggles Morse.

The characters of the original ballet were then renamed as prominent Portlanders of the period, including Morse himself, sugar baron J.B. Brown, Mayor James Phinney Baxter and music teacher Hermann Kotzschmar.

The set is designed after the interior of the Victoria Mansion, and the whole effect is both magical and local.

In terms of music and dancing, the story follows the familiar pattern. A young girl’s dreams, inspired by the gift of a toy nutcracker soldier, lead to a series of fantastic dance episodes. These include the “Snow Scene,” which happens in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park, and continue into the second act in the “Turkish Room” of the mansion.

Since 1992, “The Victorian Nutcracker” has become Portland Ballet’s signature Christmas offering, performed every December by the company’s professional dancers and advanced students. I’ve seen “The Victorian Nutcracker” a number of times in past years, and I’ve already reserved my tickets for 2015.

Three performances are slated. Two take place with recorded music at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center at Westbrook Middle School, 471 Stroudwater St., at 2 p.m. Dec. 12-13. On Dec. 16 the production moves into Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for a 7:30 performance with a live professional orchestra. Call PortTix at 842-0800 for all performances.

‘Shrek: The Musical’

Ugliness is only skin deep, and beauty isn’t always pretty. Those are two of the take-home messages from “Shrek: The Musical,” a modern fairy tale that also appeals to adults. It is a stage adaptation of “Shrek,” a 2001 computer-animated film produced by PDI/DreamWorks that achieved enormous box-office success and critical acclaim.

The 2008 Broadway musical version has book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abair, and music by Jeanine Tesori. It enjoyed a respectable run of more than a year and garnered nine Tony Award nominations.

It follows a traditional “quest” plot, where an an outcast – the title character – seeks to liberate an unhappy princess from confinement in a castle and finds true love in the process.

Portland Players has mounted a very powerful and moving community production. T.J. Scannell excels in the title role, aided by Rachel Jane Hardy’s forceful interpretation of the troubled princess and Mark Barrasso’s hilarious take on a very un-handsome and un-charming prince.

The scene-stealer is Thomas Smallwood as Shrek’s sidekick, a hip, motor-mouthed donkey whose wry observations are always spot-on. There’s also a large cast, mostly comprising a mash-up of traditional fairly tale characters, including Pinocchio, Little Bo Peep, a fairy godmother, three blind mice … and the long list goes on.

Kudos to Michael Donovan, who directs the whole production, while Evan Cuddy is music director and Raymond Marc Dumont skilfully handles the choreography. Also credit Louise Keezer for her imaginative costumes; given the number of characters and their requirements, this is a formidable task that is wonderfully executed.

Portland Players, 421 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “Shrek: The Musical” through Dec. 20 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-7337.

Pane-Funahashi Piano Duo

New takes on piano music is the theme this Friday, when Yuri Funahashi and Steven Pane, two piano professors at Colby College, give a public concert at the University of Southern Maine School of Music as part of its visiting artists series.

Part of the program is devoted to new takes on the established classical canon, such as an original dual piano transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet Suite,” and a new arrangement of Francois Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.”

The most intriguing item on the program will be the world premiere of “R-Motion: Drosera,” by Colby composition professor Jonathan Hallstrom. In this innovative piece, the two pianists interact with a computer through various gestural controllers; these affect not only audio responses but also 3-D surface mapped video.

Catch the Pane-Funahashi Duo at Corthell Concert Hall on the University of Southern Maine Gorham campus at 8 p.m. Dec. 11. Call the USM Music Box Office at 780-5555.

“Victorian Nutcracker,” a signature production by Portland Ballet, will be presented three times next week, beginning Dec. 12.