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Out & About: New England premiere of ‘Suds' awash in music, laughs

Lifestyle

Out & About: New England premiere of ‘Suds' awash in music, laughs

Summer arrives, astronomically speaking, this weekend, and there's no place in Maine so redolent of summer stock than Adrienne Wilson Grant's Arundel Barn Playhouse, a modern reincarnation of a 19th-century farm.

I was there 11 years ago this month when Grant opened the barn doors for her playhouse, and ever since then she's been producing quality summer entertainment. Her current offering is the New England premiere of "Suds," a tuneful "jukebox musical" that gently spoofs the 1960s with a handful of laughable period characters and two dozen very memorable songs.

The Maine Blues Festival, an annual one-day affair in Naples, happens Saturday. And PortOpera presents its annual small-scale production by Maine's Emerging Artists beginning June 25. This year it's Domenico Cimarosa's "The Secret Marriage."

And finally, let's look at Portland Ovations. What's that? It's the new name for PCA Great Performances.

‘Suds'

There's a sub-genre of musical comedies specifically written for Off-Broadway theaters, cabaret venues and summer playhouses. Many of these are "jukebox musicals" – shows that are constructed around a couple of dozen Top 40 songs from an earlier era and connected via the flimsiest thematic threads.

Every year Arundel Barn Playhouse's producing artistic director, Adrienne Wilson Grant, picks one or two of these shows for her season of summer stock and light entertainment in her lovingly restored 19th-century Smith Sisters barn.

To open her 2009 season – Arundel Barn's 12th – Grant picked "Suds," a frivolous and frothy four-actor show that's totally melodic and thoroughly entertaining. And who cares if the plot is also thoroughly fluffy and totally forgettable? This is, after all, light-hearted summer stock, and "Suds" perfectly fits the bill.

Nostalgia for the early 1960s is the unifying theme, and co-writers Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott selected an even 40 hits by some of the era's top pop songwriters, including Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Burt Bacharach, Hal David and many others.

The plot of "Suds" may be inconsequential fluff, but the three principal characters are entertaining and emblematic icons of the fondly remembered era characterized by bouffant hairdos, crinoline skirts and teenage love. Don't try to analyze this show or apply any intellectual standards. Just enjoy Arundel Barn's happy slice of light entertainment. I did. Like the barn/playhouse itself, "Suds" is the essence of summer stock.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, just a stone's throw from Route 1 on the Old Post Road, presents "Suds" through June 20. Call 985-5552 or visit arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

Maine Blues Festival

Maine may be a thousand miles from Memphis, Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, but the Pine Tree State is home to an amazing variety of blues artists. For the past few years, a group of local blues musicians have been highlighting their acts with a one-day shindig in Naples.

The Maine Blues Festival happens Saturday, June 20, at a dozen different venues in the Lake Region mecca, centered on the Route 302 causeway. The action begins about noon at some of the outdoor sites and continues to midnight at some of the indoor venues. One ticket covers the whole event.

Eyeballing the schedule, it looks like about 40 different acts will be featured, as well as three blues education clinics. Although the roster includes some new, up-and-coming artists, well-established Maine performers will be very prominent. Among these are Pam Baker, Denny Breau, Blind Albert, D.W. Gill, Mark "Guitar" Miller, I.C. Waters and Jimmy & the Soulcats. Longtime radio/television personality Mark Persky, a passionate advocate of the blues, will emcee the affair.

Call the Greater Bridgton-Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce at 647-3427 or visit mainebluesfestival.com.

PortOpera/Maine's Emerging Artists

PortOpera has replaced its scheduled mainstage production this summer with a gala 15th anniversary concert – a cost-cutting move in a sour economy – but the company's Maine's Emerging Artists branch remains in full voice. As its 2009 production, MEA will perform Domenico Cimarosa's "The Secret Marriage" six times in six different venues in southern Maine June 25-July 12, beginning at the Portland Museum of Art.

Expect a tuneful, happy show with loads of appealing arias that revolve around a classic romantic farce. Written in Italian in 1792, the upcoming production will be an English translation that's been shortened to 90 minutes and slightly reshaped for a smaller cast.

MEA Artistic Director Ellen Chickering, a University of Southern Maine professor, and Music Director Kathleen Scott will shepherd six singers who are in training for operatic careers. They're mostly young, and all are either Maine residents or have very strong Maine connections.

The first performance will be given at 7:30 p.m. June 25 at the Portland Museum of Art. Call 879-7678. The five following performances will be given June 26 in Conway, N.H., June 28 in Augusta, July 7 in Harrison, July 9 in Damariscotta and July 12 in Ocean Park/Old Orchard Beach. Visit portopera.org.

Portland Ovations

For more than three quarters of a century, southern Maine arts aficionados have been giving standing ovations to PCA Great Performances and its several predecessor organizations and incarnations – beginning in 1931 with the Portland Concert Association. Over the past two decades, I've attended a couple of hundred of events hosted by PCA Great Performances and the organization figures prominently on this "Out & About" page.

Now Maine's foremost arts presenter is changing its name once again to better reflect its mission and reinforce its purpose. Executive Director Aimee Petrin announced the 2009-2010 season and also introduced a new moniker: Portland Ovations.

Petrin's mission is to bring the best of the globe's traveling artists to Portland. Her organization's wide-ranging artistic scope encompasses classical and modern music, traditional and modern dance, Broadway and opera, popular acts and "world music" of many distant lands and diverse cultures. The coming year's schedule includes 25 different traveling acts, beginning Oct. 9 with Pilobolus, a modern dance company.

Why the switch? "We're changing our name to better capture what we do and the impact of what we do," Petrin said. "What Portland Ovations focuses on is the connection between our artists and our community."

Noting the numerous different names over the years, Petrin said her organization itself has slowly changed over the years: "The reason this organization has been around for about 80 years is we continue to evolve and to be responsive to our community. The name change is one piece of that connection."

And that deserves a big "bravo!"