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Out & About: 'Death by Design': Lively, hilarious comedy in Portland

Lifestyle

Out & About: 'Death by Design': Lively, hilarious comedy in Portland

With Groundhog Day now past, we’re on the down-slope of winter. What better way to accelerate the ride toward spring than a rollicking good comedy? That’s what “Death by Design” is all about: a wonderfully funny comedy – with a murder thrown into the mix.

Two great musical events vie for attention this Friday. In Portland, Le Vent du Nord, a Franco foursome, perform traditional music of their native land at One Longfellow Square. In Gorham, the University of Southern Maine School of Music is featuring a variety of brass instruments in its Spotlight Concert series, which mostly highlights faculty and graduates.

Portland Ovations has an interesting foursome on Feb. 14: The Midtown Men, comprising former members of the cast of “Jersey Boys,” perform an evening of pop music from the 1960s.

‘Death by Design’

Playwrights don’t write comedies like they used to. That common complaint is totally disproved by the new comedy that’s running through Feb. 24 at Good Theater in Portland.

Rob Urbinati’s “Death by Design” is a wildly funny laugher that’s exquisitely crafted in the style of British playwright Noel Coward with a major added fillip: an Agatha Christie-style whodunit murder mystery.

“Death by Design” is definitely a major must-see of Maine’s 2012-2013 theatrical season.

“Death by Design” is a brand-new play that’s only been produced once before, in Texas. Publication is set for this spring and it’s destined to become a staple of American theater, predicts Good Theater founding artistic director Brian Allen, who also stage-directed this show.

The setting is reminiscent of Noel Coward: aristocratic England in the 1930s. The driving energy of the comedy stems from the perpetual bickering between a married couple. Think “Private Lives.”

The protagonists in “Death by Design” comprise a sophisticated and arrogant playwright and his air-headed actress wife. Their latest play has just been panned by the London critics, and the pair retreat to their country estate to lick their wounds and continue their psychological warfare.

They’re quickly joined by a host of guests, some invited, some not. Soon one of the guests lies lifeless on a sofa. All the characters have a motive for murder, but the mystery is solved by an impudent, sharp-tongued housemaid in cahoots with a young libertine chauffeur.

I’m a big fan of Noel Coward, England’s greatest comic playwright of the 20th century. “Death by Design” is intentionally written in Coward’s style, complete with interesting, over-drawn characters, brilliant comic repartee and wonderfully incisive social commentary. Plus there’s the Agatha Christie element: a country estate full of mysterious guests and isolated by a snipped telephone wire.

Good Theater is a professional company, and the cast of eight is led by a pair of former New York actors: Rob Cameron as the bumptious playwright, and Abigail Killeen as the self-absorbed diva. They’re wonderfully supported by local actors Matthew Delamater, Janice Gardner, Paul Haley, Kat Moraros, Susan Reilly and Benjamin Row.

Allen ably directs, helped considerably by the playwright, who attended rehearsals. Craig Robinson’s elaborate set helps create the mid-century milieu of the play.

Good Theater presents “Death by Design” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland through Feb. 24 with 7 p.m. performances Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 885-5883.

Le Vent du Nord

Le Vent du Nord is a four-man band from Canada that’s made its mark as a champion of the traditional Quebecois-Acadian folk style – with appropriate modern twists.

The four guys perform on several instruments with remarkable virtuosity and fluidity. Their instruments include an electronic keyboard and bass, but Le Vent du Nord notably excludes a big drum kit. Most songs are performed in French. Although rooted in traditional French-Canadian styles, Le Vent du Nord occasionally ventures a bit farther afield, sometimes showing influences of jazz, country and Celtic.

“They are well grounded by heritage and experience in the music of French Canada and ready to make that music in a way that speaks to modern day,” writes Kerry Dexter in Dirty Linen, folk music’s monthly bible. “All in all, it’s a wild ride through the energy of French-Canadian music, with just enough of the quieter side of things to catch your breath and prepare you for the next round of flying fiddle notes, hurdy-gurdy circles and stories in song.”

Catch Le Vent du Nord at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State) in Portland at 8 p.m. Feb. 8. Call 761-1757.

Brass ensemble at USM

This week’s Spotlight Series concert at the University of Southern Maine School of Music will feature a group of professors and graduates in a program that commemorates a British trumpeter and his unique brass band. The Phillip Jones Ensemble began in 1951 and elevated brass to a higher plane in the musical universe.

That’s a point that made a lifetime impression on Betty Rines, USM prof and trumpeter with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. “Jones took the brass from the back row to the forefront,” she commented.

To honor the memory and influence of Phillip Jones, Rines has assembled a group of UM musicians for this evening of brass – with a hefty dollop of percussion added.

Catch this interesting concert at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, to be held in Corthell Hall on the Gorham campus at 8 p.m. Feb. 8. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

The Midtown Men

Success breeds success. That’s the simple theory behind The Midtown Men, a pop music ensemble comprising four members of the original cast of “Jersey Boys,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway depiction of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Christian Hoff, J. Robert Spencer, Michael Longoria and Daniel Reichard are The Midtown Men. With the phenomenal success of “Jersey Boys” behind them, their new idea is to recreate other pop tunes of the 1960s era. These four charismatic singers and a stellar backup band come together in a modish and entertaining concert that features a Who’s Who of the times: Beatles, Beach Boys, Temptations, Jackson Five and of course, the Four Seasons.

The host, Portland Ovations, emphasizes that this concert is neither mimicry nor a tribute act. Instead it represents a celebration of the music of one of the most original and exciting decades in rock and pop.

Portland Ovations presents The Midtown Men at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.