Out & About: 2 Broadway musicals; 1 joyous, 1 tragic

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A pair of Broadway musicals dominate this week’s top picks among southern Maine’s performing arts offerings, and they couldn’t be further apart in terms of scope and tone.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which opens the 2018 season at Ogunquit Playhouse, is a compact jukebox musical based on the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote many of the top teen hits of the 1950s. The show is a joyous experience, and runs through June 9.

On the antipodal extreme of the emotional spectrum, “Titanic: The Musical” is a sobering musical tragedy based on the real-life story of the 1912 shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people. Portland Players’ strong community production is vast in scope; it runs through June 3 in South Portland.

On a more buoyant nautical theme, The Sea The Sea is the curious stage name adopted by a pair of singer-songwriters who will be performing in Portland May 30.

‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

Ogunquit Playhouse’s first offering of 2018 showcases the songwriting duo who wrote the soundtrack of a generation – three dozen top pop tunes of the 1950s and early 1960s. Artists who scored hits with their songs included Big Mama Thornton, the Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King, Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were teenagers who met in 1950, forming a long-lasting songwriting team that penned a string of innovative tunes that perfectly expressed the spirit of their times – and today represents a perfectly joyous retro celebration.

The show is “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a jukebox musical that covers 36 Leiber-Stoller songs performed by 13 actor-singers plus seven onstage instrumentalists. Ogunquit Playhouse’s fully professional production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a perfect jump-start to a fun-filled summer.

Leiber and Stoller did more than write (and often produced) pop chart-toppers. They presided over a paradigm shift in American pop music. They are best known for three accomplishments.

First, they helped black artists move into the musical mainstream. Before their time, black singers’ recordings – dubbed “race records” by the industry – sold only to blacks. But the Coasters, the Drifters and Ben E. King enjoyed huge crossover success among white teens.

Second, Leiber and Stoller gave voice to a younger generation, kids who rebelled against their parents’ big jazz bands and their companion crop of crooners.

Third, Leiber and Stoller put humor – lots of it – into their music. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” illustrates all of these qualities in abundance.

Several of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits are featured in this show, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog.” Interestingly, the latter’s performance is by a woman, delivered more in the style of Big Mama Thornton – for whom it was written in 1952 – than Presley’s much better known 1956 cover.

The songwriting duo’s flair for humor is featured in “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Love Potion #9” and “Along Came Jones.” Their romantic sensibilities are illustrated by “Fools Fall in Love,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.”

There is no dialogue to this show – just 90 minutes of non-stop singing, with most numbers performed as part of little scenes and skits with some very energetic dancing. Formats range from solos to full company roof-raisers.

The original 1995 Broadway production ran for more than 2,000 performances and garnered seven Tony Award nominations. Ogunquit’s current production has been somewhat retooled for an upcoming Off-Broadway run, with composer Stoller consulting on the project. (Leiber, the lyricist, died in 2011.)

Joshua Bergasse directs, Sonny Paladino is music director and Beowulf Boritt’s outstanding two-level set, with three spiral staircases and a dozen neon beer signs, is a visual treat.

Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St. (Route 1), presents “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” through June 9. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

‘Titanic’

In stark contrast to Ogunquit’s joyously tuneful opening show, Portland Players close their 2017-2018 season with a musical tragedy.

“Titanic” is the 1997 Broadway version of the very real 1912 maritime catastrophe that cost the lives of more than 1,500 men, women and children.

With book by Peter Stone and score by Maury Yeston, “Titanic” swept the 1998 Tony Awards, winning six, including the most coveted trio: Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.

The tragedy of “Titanic” is a story of overweening hubris – the idea of defying God and physics by building an “unsinkable” ship and then establishing a trans-Atlantic speed record on its maiden voyage on a course through a field of icebergs.

Stone’s book is based on established facts and real historical figures. Blame for the disaster is shared by three men: Titanic’s naval architect, the owner of the steamship line and the captain.

The other characters represent first-class passengers – grandees of the Gilded Age – plus those in second class and third class. Plus there are crew members: stokers, officers, stewardesses and bellboys. Stone’s book and Yeston’s score highlight a few stories drawn from the different groups.

Like “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Titanic” is an ensemble production, lacking a single hero or heroine, and except for the director of the steamship line, no real villain.

Players’ cast numbers about 50, which I’m told is among the biggest in the company’s 87-year history. Kudos are earned by director Michael Donovan, and music director Evan Cuddy. Unfortunately I found that Cuddy’s onstage orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, present “Titanic” through June 3 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-7337.

The Sea The Sea

There are several remarkable aspects of the folk-pop duo heading into Portland on May 30.

First is the name. Chuck E. Costa and Mira Stanley perform under the stage name The Sea The Sea. Twice, yes, and no comma.

More remarkable is the male-female pairing. Although it seems so obvious – at least to opera fans like myself – the mixed duo format is rather unusual in pop.

Finally their vocal arrangements, with Costa and Stanley singing in unison, create a mesmerizing timbre and texture. Performing a mix of original compositions and covers, The Sea The Sea create a memorable musical experience.

“The Sea The Sea are ready to take their place among the best young male/female duos now performing,” wrote Larry Groce, host of National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage. “Their sound and their songs are a perfect match of emotional strength and delicate beauty.”

Catch The Sea The Sea at 8 p.m. May 30 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a jukebox musical based on top teen pop tunes written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, opened the 2018 season at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

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