Out & About: Ed Asner, playing FDR, kicks off Portland Ovations series

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Portland Ovations has a slew of interesting programs planned over the next few weeks, and the next two on the calendar belong to theater sub-genres.

First up is a theatrical recreation of key moments from the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected during the Great Depression and died in office during the final stages of World War II.

Television actor Ed Asner, a seven-time Emmy Award winner, will portray Roosevelt this Friday in “FDR,” a one-man adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play, “Sunrise at Campobello.”

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” is one of the most popular and celebrated operas of all time, a triumph of 19th-century Italian musical theater that will be performed on March 12 by Teatro Lirico D’Europa, a topnotch bus-and-truck touring company.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra teams up with the Choral Art Society for a concert titled “Life, Death, Transfiguration.” The biggest work on the March 9 program is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. And yes, he’s the most successful composer of Broadway musicals over the past four decades.

Ed Asner as ‘FDR’

Dore Schary’s “Sunrise at Campobello” was one of the surprise hits of the 1958 Broadway season: a semi-biographical depiction of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that ran more than a year and won four Tony Awards, including Best Play.

More than 50 years later, seven-time Emmy Award-winning television actor Ed Asner is using “Sunrise” as the inspiration for “FDR,” a one-man show that focuses on Roosevelt’s presidential years and the many crises and controversies that faced our nation during that period.

Asner is best known for two roles in the 1970s and 1980s: the character Lou Grant in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a situation comedy, and later as an “MTM” spin-off that tackled weightier subjects – like journalism and its role in society. Asner’s also acted in mini-series and one-time television productions.

Roosevelt was a blue-blood New Yorker who was involved in public service all his life. His presidency began in 1933 at the depth of the Great Depression and ended when he died in office in 1945 during the final months of World War II. (If younger readers are wondering about the math, the answer is that Roosevelt was America’s only four-term president.)

“FDR” will cover domestic issues, foreign policy and the president’s own personal issues in the White House, including his sometimes troubled relationship with wife Eleanor and his very discreet affair with Lucy Mercer.

Portland Ovations presents Ed Asner as “FDR” at 8 p.m. March 5 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘La Boheme’

Readers of “Out & About” over the years have no doubt noted that musical theater is one of my personal passions, and one of the exemplars of that glorious genre is coming to Merrill Auditorium, under the aegis of Portland Ovations.

Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” one of the most romantic and tragic operas ever written, will be performed by Teatro Lirico D’Europa, perhaps the best bus-and-truck opera company doing business in North America.

Teatro Lirico D’Europa was founded in 1996 and tours North America with fully professional, fully staged operas that have an international roster of principal singers backed by a full contingent of orchestra and chorus – about 50 musicians total – who are associated with the Sofia Symphony. Sets and costumes are built in Bulgaria and shipped to this country in containers.

Portland Ovations has booked Teatro Lirico D’Europa 14 times in the past. I’ve seen most of these productions and I’ve been very favorably impressed by the quality of the company’s voices, orchestra and overall production values.

The opera is based on a novel and play by Louis-Henri Murger with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica and is set in the Latin Quarter in Paris in the middle part of the 19th century. Four impoverished artists live in an apartment in Paris and struggle with their work, their landlord and their girlfriends.

Two of these girlfriends are the principal love interests of the story – and principal sopranos – and they share some of the most enchanting and popular arias in the operatic canon. Puccini was a genius in terms of his seemingly effortless marriage of music to libretto.

I’ve seen “La Boheme” several times by different opera companies and it’s definitely one of my personal favorites.

Portland Ovations presents “La Boheme” at 8 p.m. March 12 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Expect the unexpected when Portland Symphony Orchestra maestro Robert Moody steps up on the podium on Tuesday for a program titled “Life, Death, Transfiguration.” Two of the pieces Moody has picked date from the 20th century, but recall earlier traditions of symphonic music.

The opener is Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” It was written about 10 years ago, but its origins are a thousand years old. “Rainbow Body” is a symphonic poem that is based on a theme by Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval German nun who was famous for her multiple talents – obviously including music – and her many mystic visions.

Moody’s title comes from a work by German composer Richard Strauss. In addition to its stated subject intent – documented in an 1894 letter written by the composer – depicting a dying man’s recollections of his struggles through life and his visions of the spiritual repose that he seeks, Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” also suggests his own artistic transformation.

Strauss’ grand symphonic tone poems are famous for their in-your-face explicitness, and “Death and Transfiguration” is representative of this especially theatrical genre. The piece opens with the man’s gasps and heartbeats and ends with the ascendant soul wafting skyward.

The biggest work on Moody’s program comes from a source that surprises many classical music aficionados: West End and Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. The work is a large-scale requiem mass, written in 1984 to honor the composer’s father, a church organist. Part of Webber’s talent as a musical theater composer lies in his ability to absorb and transmit a variety of radically different styles, so it’s not really too surprising that he mastered the requiem mass, a form that has been tackled by many of classical music’s top talents over the past centuries.

Multiple voices are required to sing the mass, provided by the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, plus solo tenor John McVeigh and solo soprano Natalie Fagnan.

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents “Life, Death, Transfiguration” at 7:30 p.m. March 9 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

Ed Asner, a seven-time Emmy Award-winning television actor, will portray President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 5, a presentation of Portland Ovations (submitted photo).