Thanks to the vagaries of theatrical scheduling, no fewer than three professional productions of musical comedies opened last week in a trio of communities north and south of Portland.
They represent three very different theatrical settings.
North of the city in Brunswick, theatergoers can visit “Xanadu.” As depicted on stage, Xanadu is the idyllic retreat of nine Greek goddesses plus a Greek chorus, disco music and roller skating.
South of the city, theatergoers can imagine that Route 1 is a yellow brick road. Maybe that’s a stretch of the imagination, but it will lead them to the imaginary land full of witches, ruby slippers and some unforgettable characters in “The Wizard of Oz,” which has taken up residence in Arundel for a few weeks.
Farther south, the setting is River City, Iowa, where a flimflam salesman collides with a small-town librarian and piano teacher in one of America’s best-loved Broadway shows: “The Music Man” is currently running in Ogunquit.
Modern Broadway musicals are increasingly based on films, and “Xanadu,” the current show at Maine State Music Theatre, is a prime example. It is based on the 1980 movie of the same name that starred Olivia Newton-John as an ancient and timeless Greek goddess who inspires a struggling artist in California.
Reworked significantly to emphasize nostalgia for the 1980s – roller discos, mirror balls and all – the 2007 Broadway version of “Xanadu” has a script by Douglas Carter Beane and score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.
I had not seen “Xanadu” before and I was delighted. MSMT’s fully professional production of “Xanadu” is a wonderfully nostalgic and melodic trip down Memory Lane and a personal highlight of my summer season.
The story revolves around nine goddesses: the Muses. Three in particular are central. Clio (Jenny Lee Stern) is the protagonist, whose efforts to help Danny Malone (Brandon Andrus) drives the story. She’s opposed by two jealous sisters, Melpomene (Charis Leos) and Calliope (Erin Maguire). All three Muses are very funny, very lovable over-the-top characters.
Ed Romanoff, an MSMT regular, ably tackles a pair of roles, first as a money-grubbing real estate tycoon, and second as mighty Zeus, king of the gods.
Dennis Hassan’s set nimbly shifts between several venues in Venice, California, and lofty Mount Olympus.
The music is very appealing. Most songs were recorded by Newton-John and achieved a widespread lasting popularity that transcended the movie. Hits include “Strange Magic,” “Evil Woman,” “I’m Alive,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” and of course, the title song.
Maine State Music Theatre presents “Xanadu” through Aug. 6 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit www.msmt.org.
The MGM musical movies of the late 1930s represented the gold standard of the newly minted genre. No single film epitomized those qualities better than “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 celluloid extravaganza that starred Judy Garland and featured her signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”
The movie, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, was a sensational success.
Arundel Barn Playhouse is currently offering a delightful professional production of the 1987 stage adaptation created by John Kane. His book reverently follows the familiar film script as far as possible.
Thematically, Kane retains the concept of discovering one’s own inner strengths through a dichotomy of parallel universes: a turn-of-the-century farm in Kansas and the phantasmagorical Land of Oz. The principal character is Dorothy, a girl who is unexpectedly transported from Kansas to Oz when a tornado strikes the farm.
Dorothy’s struggle to return to Kansas forms the main plot, with numerous subplots based on characters she meets in Oz. Each of these supporting characters has a counterpart in Kansas, a point that is emphasized by double-casting these actors.
Producing artistic director Adrienne Wilson Grant and stage director Josh Penzell have assembled a fine professional cast, mostly college students majoring in musical theater and recent graduates.
Brittney Morton, as Dorothy, has the biggest and most challenging role. She handles it with aplomb, maintaining an equable balance between insecurity and self-confidence.
The Wicked Witch of the West, the Oz incarnation of grouchy Miss Gultch from Kansas, gets top honors for character acting. I loved Kelly Morris’ vindictive characters in both worlds, and her bloodcurdling witch’s cackle is one of the show’s high points.
Arundel Barn Playhouse, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1), presents “The Wizard of Oz” through Aug. 6. Call 985-5552 or visit www.arundelbarnplayhouse.com.
Maybe you can’t fool all the people all of the time, but almost all of the unsophisticated citizens of River City, Iowa, have been bamboozled since 1957 by a flimflam traveling salesman who sells bands – the whole kit and caboodle, complete with dozens of instruments plus uniforms and the promise to teach and lead.
But Professor Harold Hill – the salesman’s nom de guerre – doesn’t know a note of music and intends to skip town the moment the goods have arrived and he’s collected the cash. Trouble is, the salesman gets his foot caught in the door when he contends with Marian the librarian and falls in love with her.
That’s the dramatic conceit of “The Music Man,” the triumph of American musical theater with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Set in 1912, “The Music Man” was the most popular show on Broadway in 1957.
For its third offering of 2011, Ogunquit Playhouse is presenting a splendid fully professional production of “The Music Man.” I’ve seen this musical many times over the years – and grew up listening to the original cast album – and I can’t recall a better production.
TV star Peter Scolari excels in the title role of the gentle-hearted con man, mixing bluster with sympathy for the River City townsfolk and some of their comic idiosyncrasies. He’s nicely matched with Julia Burrows as the reticent, suspicious librarian – one of the few people in town who sees him for what he is. Burrows has the beautifully clear soprano voice that’s needed to effectively deliver songs such as “Good Night My Someone” and “My White Knight.”
Director Ray Roderick has staged this classic beautifully, beginning with one of the most notable opening scenes in Broadway history: a moving railroad coach full of bickering traveling salesmen.
Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1, presents “The Music Man” through Aug. 20. Call 646-5511 or visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Nine goddesses are the central characters in “Xanadu,” a Broadway musical that’s based on the 1980s-era movie of the same name. It runs through Aug. 6 at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick.