Out & About: Finale time for Portland Players, Oratorio Chorale

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It’s R&R time for most of Maine’s fall-winter-spring arts-and-entertainment producers and presenters. Most of these organizations have already bowed out until fall, but there are a few stragglers.

Portland Players wraps up its 2009-2010 season with “West Side Story,” the two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Oratorio Chorale, joined by members of the Maine Music Society and several featured soloists, wraps up its season with two performances of Dominick Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale” in Falmouth.

And with those productions, there’s a hiatus between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. Accordingly, Out & About will take a three-week vacation, resuming June 16.

‘West Side Story’

Portland Players, Maine’s oldest community theater, opened the final production of 2009-2010 on Friday with “West Side Story,” the classic American musical – with book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein – that’s based on re-imagining “Romeo and Juliet” in the context of street gang wars in New York City in the 1950s.

Two highlights from Friday evening stand out: First was sharing a vanilla-chocolate twister ice cream with my girlfriend at Red’s Dairy Freeze, the Cottage Road landmark that was destroyed by fire two evenings later. We fervently hope they’ll be back in business by the time Players’ fall season opens in September.

Second was Kristen Riley’s superlative performance as Maria (the Juliet character) in the show itself. Her fine voice captivated the audience with “Tonight,” her biggest number, and Riley’s radiant loveliness sets the gold standard for ingenues in community theater.

The rest of the Players’ 26-member cast wasn’t remotely close to the same level. Jason Hair-Wynn was flat as Tony, the tragic juvenile (Romeo character), and his cohorts didn’t provide the critically needed ensemble support.

Of all the supporting characters, Melissa Morad, playing Maria’s friend Anita, was tops in my opinion. Morad leads the “America” number, which is one of the show’s high points.

Portland Players, 176 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “West Side Story” through May 30 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.

Oratorio Chorale

One of the most familiar tales of the Old Testament is the subject of a modern American oratorio that will be performed twice this weekend. Oratorio Chorale presents Dominick Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale” as its season-ending concert.

Argento is an American composer who lives in Minneapolis and taught music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota for many years. He is primarily identified with vocal music. A work based on the diaries of Virginia Woolf won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.

“Jonah and the Whale” was composed in 1973, using the text of a 14th-century English poem that is based on the biblical story. Argento’s oratorio debuted in Minnesota in 1974, and has been recorded by the Providence Singers with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Oratorio Chorale is presenting the Maine premiere. Instrumentalists from the Maine Music Society plus organist Ray Cornils will accompany the chorus.

Timothy Neill Johnson will be the tenor soloist, representing Jonah, while bass Daniel Cole will represent the voice of God. Suzanne Nance, the host of Maine Public Broadcasting’s mid-morning classical music show, will narrate.

The familiar story, recounted in the Book of Jonah, has great significance in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Burke Long, professor emeritus of religious studies at Bowdoin College and a singer with the group, comments on the work’s intense dramatic content.

“From the belly of the whale, the tenor soloist – Jonah – utters a cry to God with words that Argento took straight from the ancient biblical story, while the chorus envelops Jonah’s prayer with intensifying waves of timeless Christian prayer,” Long explained.

“This is compelling theater, and it happens over and over again in the oratorio. Musicians lift Argento’s script off the page and send its emotional truth into the hearts of those in the audience.”

Two performances are slated at the Falmouth Congregational Church, 267 Falmouth Road: May 22 at 7:30 p.m. and May 23 at 3 p.m. Call 725-1420.

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra

And speaking of seasonal finales, the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra certainly ended its 20th season on a high note on Sunday, drawing 650-plus attendees who heard a sparkling concert that focused on two competing styles of Viennese music from the late 1800s.

Executive director John Teller was emphatically upbeat when I chatted with him shortly after the concert. A 12-year veteran of the MSO – he plays oboe in addition to running the business end of the orchestra – Teller noted that the total attendance for 2009-2010 had increased 25 percent over the previous season (also a record) and that the 85 current members of the orchestra represented another all-time high.

“This has been a great year for us!” he bubbled.

Despite the recession, which has taken a toll on symphonies across the country, Teller noted that the MSO was in good shape financially.

“So many orchestras are going broke, but we’re going to meet all our expenses and come out ahead,” he said. “And we don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Business sponsorships represent a big part of that healthy picture he said, pointing to the 104-page program book, which is bulging with ads. Plus he credited the Friends of the Midcoast Symphony, a support group that’s been spreading the word and boosting attendance.

Teller recalled that shortly after he joined the orchestra, concerts sometimes drew fewer than 50 attendees. In the past year, some concerts have drawn close to 800.

Much of the credit for the MSO’s good fortune belongs to music director Rohan Smith, an Australian native who boasts a magnetic personality and a lengthy resume with worldwide experience both as a concert violinist and maestro. Smith took charge of the orchestra for the 2003-2004 season and it has been improving ever since.

New members have joined and more challenging and interesting music has been programmed. Last year the MSO purchased a new Steinway concert piano, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.

The Steinway was spotlighted in Sunday’s concert, when Portland pianist Anastasia Antonacos was the guest soloist in a rousing rendition of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, a large-scale work that’s considered an exemplar of the German Romantic period.

“That Brahms was monster piece,” added Teller. “Five or six years ago we wouldn’t have dared tackle it.”

Its success on Sunday typified the entire MSO season and underscored one of Teller’s mottos: “Play well and good things will happen.”

Sidebar Elements

Oratorio Chorale wraps up its 2009-2010 season this weekend with two performances of Dominick Argento