Out & About: ‘Act One’ is No. 1 pick this weekend

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As the calendar approaches the end of April, it’s end-of-season time for several of southern Maine’s performing arts producers. There’s naturally an impulse to exit with the strongest shows of the season, and that’s certainly the case this week.

Good Theater, the resident professional troupe at Portland’s St. Lawrence Arts Center, is mounting the largest production in its 14-year history. “Act One,” by James Lapine, provides a fascinating and largely factual look back at the life of one of the American theater’s iconic figures, actor-director-playwright Moss Hart.

Asked to name a composer who is most closely identified with Hollywood, most people will answer John Williams. The composer, who has scored five Academy Awards, will be the focus of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s final Pops! concerts of the 2015-2016 season this Saturday and Sunday.

Portland String Quartet wraps up its 2015-2016 season – the first with the current lineup of musicians – this Saturday with a concert of works by Igor Stravinsky, Leos Janacek and Felix Mendelssohn.

‘Act One’

The 1930s through the 1960s marked the pinnacle of American theater, and during those golden decades no figure stood taller than Moss Hart. Boasting incredibly versatile talents, Hart was variously an actor, writer, director and producer on Broadway. In one or more of these capacities Hart was involved in nearly 50 plays on the Great White Way.

Fifty years after his death, Hart is still remembered for co-authoring “You Can’t Take it with You” and “Once in a Lifetime” and for directing the original production of “My Fair Lady.”

In 1959, Moss published “Act One,” the first volume of a projected three-part autobiography. It spent 40 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list, but sadly Hart died before he could write volumes two and three.

“Act One” was recently adapted to the stage by playwright James Lapine, and it opened on Broadway two years ago. Now Portland’s Good Theater is producing it for the first time outside New York.

I loved this big, sprawling show; I was utterly hooked from first scene to denouement.

“Act One” covers the period beginning with Hart’s impoverished childhood in the Bronx and wraps up on Broadway in 1930, when his first big hit was produced. “Once in a Lifetime” was co-written with George S. Kaufman, and earned the young Hart the fabulous sum of $1,000 per week.

Good Theater artistic director Brian Allen has assembled a professional cast of 14, playing no fewer than 60 characters in this big show. Central is Michael Wood, who portrays the unflagging optimism and energy of the aspiring young thespian. He’s wonderfully contrasted with Mark Rubin’s interpretation of the notoriously neurotic Kaufman, who was already an established Broadway figure in 1930.

Among the many characters who interact with Hart, my vote for best goes to Aunt Kate, an impecunious relative who introduces the young boy to the world of theater. Aunt Kate is played by Lisa Stathoplos, who draws out both the pathetic and prophetic facets of this key character.

Good Theater presents “Act One” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland through May 1 with Wednesday and Thursday performances at 7 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 885-5883.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Any person in present-day America who who hasn’t heard of John Williams has probably been living under a rock for the past six decades. Best known as a prolific and popular composer of movie scores, Williams has left his mark on Hollywood, television, sports broadcasting and concert halls since the late 1960s.

This weekend the Portland Symphony Orchestra presents its final Pops! program of the 2015-2016 season with a pair of concerts entirely devoted the music of John Williams.

Winner of five Academy Awards (out of 50 nominations), Williams has composed the soundtracks for some of the most popular films in cinematic history. These include “Jaws,” “The Cowboys,” the “Star Wars” series, “Superman,” “Amistad,” the “Indiana Jones” series, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the first three “Harry Potter” films.

He’s also copped three Emmy Awards and an astounding 22 Grammys. Other notable compositions include theme music for the Olympic Games.

For this weekend’s concerts, PSO maestro Robert Moody has selected a program that leans heavily on Williams’ movie scores, including pieces from “The Cowboys,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Amistad.” Fully half the concert will be devoted to the “Star Wars” series.

Two choral groups will perform with the PSO. The Portland-based Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus comprises immigrant children from around the globe, bringing them together from extremely diverse backgrounds to sing as one.

The University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers, under the direction of Nicolas Alberto Dosman, will also raise their voices in this program.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Pops! programs at Merrill Auditorium on April 23 at 7:30 p.m. and April 24 at 2:30 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland String Quartet

The Portland String Quartet has been an anchor of southern Maine’s cultural life since 1969, but over the past several years, two of the founding members departed, due to death and retirement. About this time last year, following a season of auditions of new members, Patrick Owen was announced as the PSQ’s permanent cellist, joining violinist Dean Stein (who had been appointed two years earlier) plus two of the ensemble’s original founding members: violinist Ron Lantz and violist Julia Adams.

Accordingly, 2015-2016 marks the first full season with the present lineup. This weekend the season wraps up with a concert that features three works. Igor Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet was written in 1920 on a commission from a prominent European ensemble. Leos Janacek’s “Intimate Letters,” composed three years later, was inspired by his love for a married woman 40 years younger than himself.

The biggest piece on the program will be Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D, an 1838 work that was written at the height of the composer’s creative powers. Writing for AllMusic, Blair Johnston has characterized this piece as “warm and full-blooded” and “well-bred genteel music.”

Catch the Portland String Quartet at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. at 2 p.m April 23. (Note this departure from the usual Sunday dates.) Call 761-1522.

“Act One,” at Portland’s Good Theater, is based on the autobiography of American theatrical icon Moss Hart, played by actor Michael Wood, left, and his first creative collaborator, George S. Kaufman, played by Mark Rubin, right.

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