Out & About: 3 shows spotlight American cultural history

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American cultural history is the common denominator that connects this week’s picks of the tix.

The first two decades of the 20th century are the setting for “Ragtime,” a 1998 Broadway musical that won four Tony Awards. A massive and powerful production is currently running at Ogunquit Playhouse.

“The Taffetas” is a little jukebox musical that celebrates popular songs and styles of the middle of the 20th century. Maine State Music Theatre presents two performances of a semi-staged concert version on Monday in Brunswick.

Patsy Cline was country music’s reigning female superstar in the early 1960s. Her heartfelt tunes and distinctive vocal style will be celebrated on Friday when Portland chanteuse Ronda Dale performs a tribute in Harrison.

‘Ragtime’

The maelstrom of social, cultural and political cross-currents that characterized this country in the years before World War I provides the setting for a powerful Broadway musical that’s currently running at Ogunquit Playhouse.

“Ragtime” won four Tony Awards in its 1998 Broadway debut, and it’s been revived once. Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, the musical “Ragtime” has a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The former won the Tony for Best Book, while the latter pair copped the honor for Best Score.

The show has a vast scope – so vast that most of its shortcomings stem from over-reaching vision – and covers a huge swath of American culture. Items include the infancy of automobiles and movies plus labor strikes and radical socialism. The new music of the period was ragtime, which underscores characters and action.

Three socio-ethnic groups converge in greater New York, often with conflict. First seen are well-heeled suburban whites. Second are blacks who are migrating from the Deep South to Harlem in New York City. Third to appear are Jews from eastern Europe who move to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

McNally’s book focuses on the dramatic interactions and interconnections of three representative families in Manhattan and suburban New Rochelle.

Ogunquit director Seth Sklar-Heyn has assembled a huge cast of 34 actors. Tops is an inspired performance by Darnell Abraham, playing a Harlem ragtime piano player whose personal tragedy is central to the story. Among the Jewish immigrants, Josh Young stands out as an aspiring movie maker. Kirsten Scott represents suburban whites; she also represents the budding feminist movement.

This is a massive and powerful show that ought to be on every Mainer’s must-do list this summer.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on U.S. Route 1, presents “Ragtime” through Aug. 26. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

‘The Taffetas’

Over the past 25 years, pop music of the 1950s has been theatrically recycled via a number of jukebox musicals that have focused on artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the Four Aces. These shows have been hugely successful, both in terms of box office sales and nostalgia ratings.

But what about the distaff side of the music business? What about Connie Francis, the McGuire Sisters, the Chiffons and the Chordettes? Is there a corresponding female show?

The answer is a resounding yes: “The Taffetas,” a very successful jukebox musical that creatively recycles about two dozen hit tunes sung by women artists. A semi-staged concert version of “The Taffetas” will be presented Monday by four performance interns at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick. “The Taffetas” is subtitled “The Original 1950s Girl Group Tribute.” Dating from the late 1980s, “The Taffetas” was one of the earliest jukebox shows.

Like many such musicals, the plot is minimal. Four sisters from Muncie, Indiana, dream of singing on the Ed Sullivan Show, and this is their rehearsal. Each of the four has a distinctive personality, and there’s witty dialogue and comic interplay. But the focus is mostly on the vintage music and aesthetics of the era.

Songs include “Johnny Angel,” “Mr. Sandman,” “You Belong to Me,” “Sh-Boom” and “Where the Boys Are.” The latter is the signature of Francis, who was the top female pop singer of that era.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “The Taffetas” at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, with two Aug. 14 performances slated: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call 725-8769 or visit MSMT.org.

Ronda Dale sings Patsy Cline

About the same time that Connie Francis was the reigning queen of pop music, another woman was making a similar mark on the country charts. Patsy Cline broke Nashville’s glass ceiling to become country music’s first female superstar, recording a series of hits from the late 1950s until her 1963 death in a plane crash.

Cline had many crossover hits, and her music remains popular. Earlier this summer, Maine State Music Theatre produced “Always… Patsy Cline,” a jukebox musical based on the singer’s life. This Friday, Portland singer-songwriter Ronda Dale will perform a concert focusing on Cline at Deertrees Theatre in Harrison. It promises to be a major event, and I’ve already reserved my tickets.

Like Cline, Dale hails from Virginia. And she has a passion for keeping Cline’s music alive for today’s audiences.

“I’ve always felt a connection to Patsy, to the way she sings and sounds,” Dale told me. “I love to sing her songs. That’s always been true, from when I was a kid in Virginia listening to her records.

“For the most part these songs are not simple to play; she was quite a vocalist. It’s a good challenge even to come close to singing these songs well, with the power and the feeling she delivered, not to mention to pull them off musically.”

Over the past couple of years, Dale studied Cline’s life and added more of her songs to concerts. Noting that Cline died at age 30, Dale speculates about what might have been.

“I like to think about what other songs she might have recorded, had she lived longer. Would she have gone into jazz? Stayed with country, which she said was all she wanted to sing, even as most of her success was due to the crossover appeal of her recordings? Would she have written songs?

“For this show at Deertrees I wanted to honor Patsy by presenting the songs she sang,” she said, “but also by picking other songs that I think she might have sung, or a few of my own tunes that could have been close to something she would have written, based on what I have learned about her.”

Catch Ronda Dale Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Deertrees Theatre, 156 Deertrees Road in Harrison. Call 583-6747.

“Ragtime,” a massive show that is set in the early years of the 20th century, runs through Aug. 26 at Ogunquit Playhouse.

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