Out & About: 5-day Phyzgig Festival fills A&E gap

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Winter arrives, astronomically speaking, at 12:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 22, and the post-holiday hiatus in performing arts and entertainment arrives with Christmas.

But 2011 still offers one big, outstanding event before giving way to 2012. For the 14th consecutive year, the Phyzgig Festival, a five-day celebration of “physical theater,” fills the once-yawning A&E gap between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

After Phyzgig has packed up, there are a couple of very quiet weeks, and “Out & About” will take its annual winter vacation, returning in late January.

But before saying adieu to 2011, let’s look ahead to the two most outstanding event of the first few weeks of January: Portland Ovations’ “Mamma Mia!” and the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the year, featuring violinist Steven Moeckel and guest conductor Christopher Warren Green.

Phyzgig Festival

Bring on the jugglers and the clowns and let them do tricks for you. That paraphrase of a famous Bob Dylan lyric is precisely the formula for the Phyzgig Festival, the annual celebration of physical theater and comedy that’s been presented for the past 13 seasons during the Christmas vacation week by Acorn Productions.

Impresario is Mike Levine, a mainstay of the region’s cultural life for nearly two decades. Levine’s accomplishments include starting and running the Oak Street Theatre in the 1990s. During those years, Levine was the only promoter in Portland to present a continuing parade of one-man and one-woman shows with a hefty dose of sophisticated physical comedy.

After Oak Street closed, Levine continued to independently produce the Phyzgig Festival in downtown Portland, five days of family-friendly zany insanity created by more than a dozen variety entertainers. Levine is joined as co-director by one of the region’s top performers in this genre, Avner “The Eccentric” Eisenberg. Both are Peaks Island residents.

Phyzgig is one of only two festivals in the country that present physical theater and vaudeville as a mainstay of their mission, according to Levine and Eisenberg. They also note that as Phyzgig’s fame has spread, performers from around the country now vie for slots on the program.

This year’s Phyzgig comprises five days of performances in two different locations in downtown Portland: Portland Stage Company (25A Forest Ave.) and the Space Gallery (538 Congress St.), plus the company’s own Acorn Studio Theatre, in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook (90 Bridge St.).

Genres include commedia cellaret, puppetry, mime, juggling, prestidigitation, aerial acts and old-fashioned clowning. Artists include Lauren Breunig, Jacob D’Eustachio, Daniel Forlano, Randy Judkins, Dan Link, Iman Lizarazu, Karen Montanaro, Norman Ng, Matthew Ragan, Ray the Big Ball Juggler, Reifer & Saccone, Antonio Rocha and Phil Smith.

There are three general formats. Vaudeville shows, slated for Portland Stage, feature four to five performers for a couple of hours in the evening. The mix-and-match formula harks back to the golden age of vaudeville in the early to middle years of the 20th century. Music for each Vaudeville show will be provided by a pit band known as the Fabulous Lacklusters (Joel Eckhaus, Tim Findlen, Elizabeth Trice and Mark Tipton).

Phyzkids shows take place both at Space Gallery and the Dana Warp Mill, mostly during late morning and early afternoon. Phyzkids shows are shorter and totally focused on children.

Finally there’s one adult-only late-night Vaudeville show at Portland Stage on Dec. 30. Three ensembles are featured: Vivid Motion Dance, the Dirty Dishes Revue (described as a “queer-positive and feminist burlesque group”) and Atomic Trash (described as “an explosive combination of dance and naughty humor”).

The Phyzgig Festival opens Dec. 27 and it wraps up with on New Year’s Eve. The full schedule and ticketing details are contained in a brochure that may be obtained by calling 854-0065 or downloaded from the website, phyzgig.org.

‘Mamma Mia!’

Back in the early 1970s, shortly after the Beatles broke up, another pop supergroup emerged from Europe. ABBA, a foursome from Sweden, achieved a long string of multi-platinum hits that stretched between 1972 and 1982 – and nearly all were penned by the band’s own songwriters, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

According to recording industry statistics, ABBA ranks in second place behind the Beatles in terms of all-time music sales by a group. In 2010 the band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When the craze for jukebox musicals hit Broadway it was naturally expected that that someone would try to produce an ABBA-based show. What was totally unexpected was the strength of the musical and its enduring popularity: “Mamma Mia!” opened in 2001 and is still one of the top tickets on the Great White Way. The Broadway production also spawned a 2008 movie version and several national tours. One of those will be coming to Portland Jan. 12-14 as part of Portland Ovations’ 2011-2012 season.

Much of the reason for the success of “Mamma Mia!” lies in the clever book; Catherine Johnson’s script is a classic of the romantic comedy genre.

The song list incorporates most of ABBA’s chart-toppers, including “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S.,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Honey, Honey” and “Money, Money, Money.”

Portland Ovations presents four performances of the “Mamma Mia!” national tour at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Jan. 12-13 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 14 at 2 and 8 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Finland can be a cold place in midwinter, so it’s appropriate that the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Jan. 24 concert will feature two works by Finnish national composer Jean Sibelius, a man whose long professional career spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sibelius is considered major transitional figure in music; his nationalistic approach to writing about his homeland was clearly in the 19th-century Romantic tradition, but his musical style was a precursor of the tonalities and harmonies of the 20th.

Sibelius has two pieces on the program. The Karelia Suite reflects a northern province near the Artic Circle, while the Violin Concerto in D Minor is a showpiece for soloist and orchestra.

The solo violinist will be German-born Steven Moekel, who is known for artful interpretations, rich sound and technical prowess. The orchestra will be led by Christopher Warren Green, a British-born conductor.

The final selection is Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, a work that reflects the Czech-born composer’s homeland in a rough-hewn, highly melodic fashion.

Catch this concert at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

A wedding on a Greek island turns chaotic in an utterly unexpectedly romantic fashion in “Mamma Mia!,” the smash Broadway musical that’s coming to Portland Jan. 12-14.