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'Dreamgirls,' Miss Tess are top picks to start summer

Lifestyle

'Dreamgirls,' Miss Tess are top picks to start summer

Summer won't be here for more than a week, but the season is already under way in the arts and entertainment world.

Summer-only playhouses are a sure sign of the season, and Maine State Music Theatre opened last week for its 55th year of summer stock in Brunswick with a superb professional production of "Dreamgirls," a 1981 Broadway musical loosely based the story of The Supremes and Motown Records.

Miss Tess is another musical woman with a dream. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Miss Tess is an up-and-coming Americana artist who is making waves nationally with her newest CD, "Sweet Talk." Hear her sing this Saturday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

Five days later at the same venue, singer-songwriter Sam Amidon will appear in support of his newest CD, "Bright Sunny South."

Richard Roberts, who has been one of Maine's musical stalwarts for generations, is the featured performer as the Portland Rossini Club wraps up its 142nd concert season on Sunday.

‘Dreamgirls’

Readers of “Out & About” know that musical theater is one of my passions and that Maine State Music Theatre is one of my favorite places in the world. The company opened for its 55th season last week with a production that truly fulfills its mission of staging the best Broadway musicals in our state.

"Dreamgirls," with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, ran on Broadway between 1981 and 1985, and its best-known song, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," topped Billboard's R&B charts for 1982. The original cast recording won two Grammys.

Eyen's story depicts a number of highly fictionalized black musical stars of the 1960s, including soul singer James Brown, Motown Records chief Berry Gordy Jr., and his company's top-selling group, Diana Ross and The Supremes. Although all these characters (and others) are recognizable in "Dreamgirls," it should be noted that Eyen's book takes many, many artistic liberties with the original characters and their interwoven tales.

The basic rags-to-riches triumphant story of the Supremes – first called The Dreamettes and later The Dreams in this show – is thoroughly interlaced with heartbreak, intrigue, family feuds and corrupt business dealings. I loved MSMT's production, directed and choreographed by Marc Robin. Tops among the performers is Bryonha Marie Parham, whose show-stopping song concludes the first act.

Other outstanding performances are given by Britney Coleman, as the Diana Ross character, and Kelvin Roston Jr., playing the James Brown figure. Costuming, by Kurt Alger, is another MSMT strong point.

Maine State Musical Theatre presents "Dreamgirls" through June 22 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit www.msmt.org for more information.

Miss Tess and The Talkbacks

Jazz, blues, country, honky-tonk, swing and 1950s-era rock are the principal influences exemplified by Miss Tess, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who honed her craft in greater Boston’s thriving alt-country musical milieu. Taken as a whole, these various influences can be gathered under the "Americana" rubric.

In October, Miss Tess released "Sweet Talk," a CD that runs the whole gamut of Americana, showcasing her clear soprano voice, her heartfelt writing style and her new three-man band, whom she calls The Talkbacks. I attended the CD release party at One Longfellow Square last fall and the show was one of the best ever at the venue, Portland's top spot for Americana and roots-oriented music. Miss Tess and The Talkbacks are returning this Saturday, and I plan to be in the audience.

Her setlist included the entire recording – which has since spun many times on my CD player. I like its infectious swing beat, which infuses most of its 11 songs, which comprise 10 originals and one country standard. Highlights include "Don't Tell Mama," a jazz-tinged number which coyly exudes a simmering sexuality; "People Come for the Gold," a propulsive rocking dance tune; and "Save Me St. Peter," a gentle waltz that's redolent of beer and lonely barrooms. Another song that grabs me is "Everybody's Darling." By turns, it is thoughtful and cheerfully insouciant, wrapping with the discomforting conclusion: "I'm everybody’s darling but no one's sweetheart."

Catch Miss Tess and The Talkbacks at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State streets in Portland) at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 15. Call 761-1757.

Sam Amidon

Another contemporary artist who is inspired by multiple influences from the past is Sam Amidon, a singer-songwriter who will appear June 20 at One Longfellow Square.

The "songwriter" half of his description needs a bit of explanation. Amidon specializes in taking old songs from multiple traditions and de-constructing them, rearranging the constituent parts, then reassembling them in new ways that bear his unmistakable touch. In some cases, Amidon will take an old lyric and replace the melody with one of his own, while in other cases he'll do exactly the reverse. His vocal style is simple and unadorned, in keeping with the old-time songs that lie at the heart of his music, accompanied by guitar and banjo.

Amidon’s newest recording is "Bright Sunny South," which includes reworkings of some contemporary country tunes as well as shape-note hymns from centuries past, which he learned in Vermont from his parents, who are heavily involved in American traditional music.

Catch Sam Amidon at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 20, at One Longfellow Square (corner of State and Congress streets in Portland). Call 761-1757.

Portland Rossini Club

Dating from the middle of the 19th century, the Portland Rossini Club is Maine's most venerable musical institution. In recent decades it has produced a monthly concert series that features a mixture of professional performers and its own members – many who are former professionals or conservatory-trained amateurs.

One of the professionals is pianist Richard Roberts, who has been with the club for many years and has taught music at the University of New England for decades. Roberts is hitting his 80th birthday this year, and he's celebrating as the featured performer in this Sunday's Rossini Club concert, which benefits the organization's piano fund.

Roberts' selections cover a vast artistic territory, from the 18th century to the 2oth. Featured works include a partita by Johann Sebastian Bach, a "fantasy" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. Twentieth-century composers include Alexander Scriabin, Selem Palmgren and Christian Sinding.

The concert is slated for 3 p.m. Sunday, June 16, at St. Luke's Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Call the Rossini Club at 797-8318.