Out & About: Broadway hits, pop music icons

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Two big concerts are slated for this Saturday in Portland. One is a long-established showcase and fundraiser, while the other is a national touring act that’s just launching.

Best-known is the annual “Best of Broadway” revue in Merrill Auditorium. An ensemble of local singers and a dozen-plus dancers from southern Maine’s musical theater community will present 25 tunes made famous on the Great White Way. The event is a benefit, and the beneficiary just can’t be beat: The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

The second concert is titled “Piano Men: Music of Elton and Billy.” Local musician Joe Boucher will perform music made famous by two long-established pop stars: Elton John and Billy Joel. He’ll be backed by a four-piece rock band plus a full symphony orchestra. If it flies, Boucher intends to go national with the show.

Want something really offbeat? Songstress, humorist and satirist Cheryl Wheeler will appear at One Longfellow Square on Friday.

‘Best of Broadway’

Why mess with 19 years of success? When a musical fundraiser such as the annual “Best of Broadway” consistently clicks it’s pointless to try to “fix” the basic formula. Entering its 20th annual edition, the “Best of Broadway” song-and-dance show is immensely entertaining and earns about $35,000 for a wonderful cause: The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

As readers of this column know well, I’m a huge fan of American musical theater and I’ve been attending “Best of Broadway” nearly every year. I count it among my personal favorites.

The show is co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of Steve and Jane Filieo of South Portland, and their formula hasn’t changed much over the years: assemble a few dozen actors, actresses, musicians and dancers from all over southern Maine, then create a stirring revue of Broadway hits.

All the performers are volunteers who give up many hours of their time to rehearse the show, beginning every February. This year’s solo performers include Todd Daley, Jeremiah Haley, Larry Jones, Kammy Marcotte, Jennifer McLeod, Marilyn Melton, Chris Oberholtzer, Bethann Renaud, Tim Salce, Karen Stickney and John York.

WGME Channel 13 television personalities have been hosting the show since the start. In addition to sharing host duties, Kim Block will appear in a musical number with Salce: “Sue Me” from “Guys and Dolls.”

Dancers hail from three companies: Portland Ballet, Maine State Ballet and Studio for the Living Arts.

Twenty-five song-and-dance numbers are slated, ranging from sensitive solo ballads to big scenes with lots of people. The material that the Filieos have selected comes from timeless Broadway classics such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret,” plus newer shows such as “Miss Saigon,” “Fosse,” “Altar Boyz” and “The Wiz.”

There’s one 7:30 p.m. performance May 7 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Piano Men: The Music of Elton and Billy’

“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday. The regular crowd shuffles in.” So begins one of the most memorable popular songs of the 1970s: “Piano Man,” written and sung by Billy Joel, accompanying himself on the keyboard. The first-person narrative, set in a local bar, continues as Joel describes the sad collection of misfits who gather around his piano in an alcoholic haze to listen to him sing and play – and to forget their frustrations for a while.

This Saturday a very different crowd will shuffle into Portland’s State Theatre and listen to “Piano Man” and other tunes written and sung by the two most celebrated pianist-singer-songwriters of the past four decades: Joel and Elton John.

John and Joel have combined to sell over 350 million records worldwide. Since the 1970s they have been a huge part of the musical landscape, topping the album charts and playing to sold-out audiences. They still get plenty of airplay on classic rock radio. Since 1994 these two legendary performers have regularly been joining forces, selling out their worldwide “Face-to-Face” tours.

“Piano Men: The Music of Elton and Billy” is a tribute act, with local musician Joe Bouchard singing and playing the keyboard and backed by a four-piece rock band plus the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra under the baton of University of Southern Maine professor Rob Lehmann. The arrangements were written by guitarist Christopher Eastburn.

Bouchard, whose day job is orchestra manager for the Portland Symphony, wants to create a traveling show that can travel from city to city performing with local symphonies in their pops series, and this Saturday marks the launch of the prototype.

Saturday’s inaugural performance will concentrate heavily on the recordings by John and Joel during their heyday, when their hit albums featured lush orchestrations. Songs in the first set include “Angry Young Man,” “Your Song,” “My Life,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Allentown,” “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” “Moving Out,” “Anthony’s Song” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

The second act continues with “Ballad of Billy The Kid,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Pressure,” “Rocket Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “Levon,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Only the Good Die Young.” The encore is John’s poignant “Candle in the Wind” followed by the title song of the evening, Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Catch “Piano Men: The Music of Elton and Billy” at 7:30 p.m. May 7 at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland. Call 775-3458.

Cheryl Wheeler

Half poet, half musician, half humorist and one quarter of the Four Bitchin’ Babes: That’s the slightly cockeyed mathematical formula that underlies the popular appeal of Cheryl Wheeler, a singer/songwriter who motors into Portland this Friday for an appearance at One Longfellow Square.

Born in Maryland and living and performing in New England since 1976, Wheeler has recorded a dozen albums. The most recent was “Pointing at the Sun,” from 2009. Many of her songs are wistful observations about the life, landscape and characters along the road, reflecting her own constant traveling from gig to gig.

Over the years her songs have been covered by such diverse artists as Garth Brooks, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Bette Midler, Kenny Loggins and Peter, Paul and Mary. She’s also been seen in many collaborations with other artists, including Christine Lavin’s ongoing Four Bitchin’ Babes consortium.

About half the material she uses in her countless live shows has never been released, and many of her jokes are very topical and transient references to the ever-changing world around her.

Cheryl Wheeler appears at 8 p.m. May 6 at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State) in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Cheryl Wheeler is a New England songstress, humorist and satirist who will appear Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.