Offbeat musicals break familiar Broadway mold

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Boy meets girl, etc. Thus begins the commonplace story line that underlies many of the most popular Broadway musicals. But two decidedly offbeat shows in the Portland area this weekend break the stereotypical romantic mold in many ways, and both won a slew of Tony Awards.
Top billing goes to “Sweeney Todd,” the notorious Stephen Sondheim musical that’s based on themes of revenge, murder and an Englishwoman’s unconventional recipe for meat pies. (Less delicate folks might say “cannibalism.”) PCA Great Performances presents the national tour this Friday and Saturday. Yum!
“City of Angels” is an extremely interesting adaptation of Hollywood’s hackneyed private eye story line, a twisted tale where reality and illusion are cleverly intertwined around the Tony Award-winning score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Lyric Music Theater in South Portland presents a strong community production.
And check out two interesting musical acts. First up is Livingston Taylor, the Boston-based singer/songwriter whose career spans three decades. He stops by One Longfellow Square in Portland on Saturday.
Time for Three is a boundary-breaking string trio that visits Bowdoin College in Brunswick on March 4.
‘Sweeney Todd’
It’s been said that Stephen Sondheim musicals are an acquired taste – innovative and ground-breaking shows with unconventional themes that often go far beyond the normal boundaries of Broadway.
In terms of ticket sales, Sondheim’s shows have flirted with popularity, but he’s never enjoyed runaway successes with long runs. (For clarification, let’s note we’re talking about those shows where Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics; he penned only the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” the two most successful Broadway shows that carry his credit line.)
But Sondheim has always scored well with the Tony Awards committee and he’s had a lasting impact on American musical theater.
“Sweeney Todd,” subtitled the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is a prime example. It’s said to be based on a true story about a 19th-century barber who takes revenge on an evil judge who sentenced him to jail on false charges and stole his wife. Todd’s motives may be familiar dramatic fodder, but his murderous method wasn’t. The barber slit the jurist’s throat with a razor and enlisted the help of Mrs. Lovett, a neighbor and baker, to dispose of the body. Her solution? A special recipe for meat pies, which prove especially popular with her customers.
And the bloodthirsty pattern repeats ad nauseam. Add some romance, robbery and a tragic case of mistaken identity to heighten the dramatic effect.
“Sweeney Todd” opened in 1979 and ran somewhat longer than a year – at best a modest success for its day. But the very unconventional show ran off with eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book (by Hugh Wheeler) and Best Score.
The show has been revived twice on Broadway. The most recent remake collected many accolades from the press and ran about a year. PCA Great Performances has booked the national tour of “Sweeney Todd” into Merrill Auditorium with 8 p.m. performances slated for Feb. 27 and 28. Call PortTix at 842-0800.
‘City of Angels’
“City of Angels” is another mold-breaking Broadway tuner that opened a decade after “Sweeney Todd” and also won a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book (by Larry Gelbart) and Best Score (music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel). Although very unconventional, its themes are far less challenging and the show ran more than two years on Broadway. A fine community production of “City of Angels” opened this past weekend and continues through March 8 at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland.
The setting is Hollywood in the 1940s and the basic story concerns a private detective  hired under mysterious circumstances to locate a beautiful heiress who’s curiously disappeared. Or so it seems. Under the show’s unusual conceit, it’s a play within a play where the “fictional” part is the “reality” and a Hollywood film is being created around it, complete with egocentric directors, haughty stars and bedroom-hopping wives. And what’s truly unique is that the scenes of reality and illusion frequently interact and the characters interchange roles.
Lyric’s production stars Mark Dils as Stine, a Hollywood writer who’s writing a script about Stone, a private eye who’s played by Doug Miller. Dils and Miller are essentially the same character in various situations, and the balance of the characters are double-cast – once in the real version and secondly as their fictional counterparts in the film version.
Mary Meserve’s direction is spotty. Lyric’s production starts at a glacial pace and 15 minutes into the show I concluded that it was going to be a very, very long evening. But about halfway through the first act, the cast seemed to settle into their roles and the show began moving at a more comfortable clip. Of all the cast members, I liked veteran Lyric stalwart Ellen Emerson best, playing the paired roles of Stine’s alienated wife and Stone’s shadowy love interest.
Lyric Music Theater presents “City of Angels” through March 8 with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees. Call 799-6509.
Livingston Taylor
For three-plus decades, Boston-based singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor has been eclipsed by his far better-known brother, legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor. But Livingston Taylor has enjoyed a solid career in the sibling shadow, in part anchored by long-running teaching gigs at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music and residencies at Harvard University, across the river in Cambridge.
He currently performs about 100 shows per year in situations that range from solo appearances to guest gigs with full symphony orchestras. In the smaller venues, he’s immensely aided by his engaging personality and his genuine love of singing and interacting with audiences.
He’ll be visiting One Longfellow Square in Portland for one 8 p.m. performance Feb. 28. Call OLS at 761-1757.
Time for Three
The string trio Time for Three is a groundbreaking ensemble with a reputation for no musical boundaries. Defying easy classification, Time for Three blends elements of classical, country western, gypsy and jazz idioms. Their programs – each selection is announced from the stage during their concerts – comprise everything from Bach to the Beatles, from Ragtime to traditional, from Bill Monroe to Leonard Cohen. Each program also includes original compositions by bassist Ranaan Meyer.
Time for Three will perform at Bowdoin College at 7:30 p.m. March 4 in Studzinski Recital Hall, Kanbar Auditorium. Call 725-3375.

pnms-outabout-022509.jpgRevenge and murder plus an Englishwoman’s curious recipe for meat pies comprise the gruesome subject matter of “Sweeney Todd,” the notorious Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical. The national tour of the recent Broadway revival plays Merrill Auditorium Feb. 27-28.