Out & About: Variety of Christmas shows and concerts
I love to attend quality Christmas shows, and this week’s picks of the tix include three excellent choices in three very different formats.
Portland Players is running a fine community production of “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.” It is a Broadway staging of the beloved 1947 film, with book and score by Meredith Willson, the same guy who wrote “The Music Man.”
Portland Ballet is presenting “Victorian Nutcracker,” the familiar terpsichorean spectacular with a special local twist: The story unfolds at Portland’s Victoria Mansion.
The Sweetback Sisters are two women from Brooklyn, N.Y., who love to sing country music with their four-man band. The Sweetback Sisters’ Christmas Country Sing-Along is coming to Portland’s One Longfellow Square on Dec. 12.
Utterly unrelated to Christmas, the DaPonte String Quartet has a busy weekend of concerts planned. Their featured work celebrates a birthday.
‘Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical’
One of America’s all-time classic Christmas films is 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” starring Maureen O’Hara at the height of her powers plus a young and precocious Natalie Wood.
In 1963, composer Meredith Willson, at the height of his powers (he’d written “The Music Man” a few years earlier) transformed the film into a Broadway musical. The script quite faithfully follows the original screenplay, and Willson’s melodic and lyrical talents are showcased in numbers such as “Here’s Love,” which was also the title of the stage version of the show until it was recently changed, and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which has a somewhat different lyric in the show.
Portland Players is running a fine community production of “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” through Dec. 16 at its theater in South Portland.
The setting is Macy’s department store, an icon on 34th Street in New York City, during the Christmas buying season. The appeal of this show is its imaginative clash between fantasy, faith, love and reality. The two female protagonists are a cynical divorcee, played by Erin Marenghi, and her very skeptical 10-year-old daughter, played by Kira Quinn. On the male side there’s Schuyler White, playing a young bachelor lawyer, and Steve Lupien, playing old Kris Kringle.
There are two central questions: Is Kris Kringle the real Santa Claus, and can the embittered divorcee escape from her self-imposed emotional shell. Both issues are tunefully decided in a New York courtroom on Christmas Eve.
Portland Players presents “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” at 420 Cottage Road in South Portland through Dec. 16 with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.
‘The Victorian Nutcracker'
Every child has fantastic visions of Christmas parties and presents, but none is as famous as those of the fictional 10-year-old girl whose gift of a toy nutcracker inspired the holiday season’s most cherished terpsichorean treasure.
That’s the start of “The Nutcracker” ballet, with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa. And there’s an added layer of fantasy in the production that’s coming up this weekend: The setting is Portland’s own Victoria Mansion, the celebrated Italianate architectural dream home on Danforth Street.
That’s a quick summary of Portland Ballet’s annual production of “The Victorian Nutcracker,” a unique version in which the first is act is re-imagined as a Port City family affair circa 1892. Christmas Eve party guests include four prominent Portland figures of the era: Ruggles Morse, who built the mansion, James Phinney Baxter, longtime mayor and philanthropist, Hermann Kotzschmar, the city’s foremost musician, and John Marshall Brown, owner of a large sugar refinery.
The second act, which includes the familiar sequence of exotic dances and the penultimate pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, takes place in one of the mansion’s grandest drawing rooms.
This year’s production features new choreography by associate artistic director Nell Shipman for “Battle Scene,” the dream sequence in the first act where the Nutcracker and his soldiers fight the Mouse King and his rodent army.
There are two new pieces of choreography in the second act. Joseph Morrissey has created an intricate “Ribbon Candy” variation, while Katrina Smedal presents a new “Chinese Tea” variation, featuring a dancing dragon.
Lawrence Golan, music director of the Yakima Symphony, returns to Maine to conduct the orchestra, which features many members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. (He is a former PSO concertmaster.) The Victorian Festival Singers, under the direction of Andy Chipman, will sing in the lobby and for the “Snow Scene.”
Portland Ballet artistic director Eugenia O’Brien dreamed up the Victorian theme 20 years ago, when her company celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first Russian performance of “The Nutcracker.” Since then it’s become Portland Ballet’s artistic signature and one of my personal favorite events.
There are three performances of “The Victorian Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 2 p.m. Dec. 9. Call PortTix at 842-0800.
One of the season’s most intriguing Christmas celebrations will take place Dec. 12 at Portland’s One Longfellow Square, when two country singers from Brooklyn, N.Y., take the stage with their four-man band.
The Sweetback Sisters, Emily Miller and Zara Bode, may not be blood relations, but their precise, family-style harmonies recall a strong tradition in country music. They also exude a robust honky-tonk style with strong rockabilly sensibilities.
The Sweetback Sisters have released two albums. The most recent is a country take on Christmas music, and their upcoming concert will feature songs from that album as well as an audience sing-along.
Catch the Sweetback Sisters’ Country Sing-Along at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland, at 8 p.m. Dec. 12. Call 761-1757.
DaPonte String Quartet
This weekend’s concerts by the DaPonte String Quartet aren’t celebrating Christmas. Instead they’re celebrating a birthday, specifically the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, considered by many to be the foremost composer of Italian grand opera.
But Verdi also wrote one string quartet, the String Quartet in E Minor, his one-and-only piece of chamber music. “I don’t know whether it is beautiful or ugly,” he said. History has judged it a masterpiece. Also on the program are works by Franz Joseph Haydn and John Adams.
DaPonte Quartet will be performing “Happy Birthday, Giuseppe!” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at St. John’s Church in Thomaston, Dec. 7 at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, Dec. 8 at the Portland Public Library and at 3 p.m. on Dec. 9 at Mid-Coast Presbyterian Church in Topsham. Call 529-4555.