Out & About: Glitzy musicals and a Chicago chanteuse

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You know that the end of summer is approaching when Maine State Music Theatre opens its final show of the season in Brunswick.

For 2016 it’s the first Northeast regional production of “Mamma Mia!,” the immensely popular Broadway musical that’s built around the songs of ABBA. The company has pulled out all the stops on this one, creating a set of costumes worthy of the ABBA originals.

Another glitzy show is running at Ogunquit Playhouse. It’s the regional premiere of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” an Australian odyssey that’s built around a couple of dozen pop tunes.

Shelley MacArthur is a Chicago chanteuse who is bringing a new act Maine’s newest concert venue, Arundel’s Vinegar Hill Music Theatre. “Mainely Magical” features MacArthur, a summer resident of Kennebunk, plus a trio from the Windy City.

‘Mamma Mia!’

In the annals of popular music, the Swedish foursome ABBA rank second only to the Beatles in terms of popularity.

Active from 1972-1982, ABBA performed live before millions and sold about 400 million records. Long after ABBA’s breakup, the songs continue to be played on radio and the internet.

ABBA was two men, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and two women, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. The name ABBA is simply the combination of their first initials.

Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote all of ABBA’s songs and played piano and guitar in performance. ABBA’s unique sound comes from the vocal pairing of Lyngstad and Faltstog, sometimes singing in unison, other times singing in harmony or solo.

In live performances, the four musicians were known for some of the glitziest costumes ever seen on stage.

In 1999, British playwright Catherine Johnson created a jukebox musical, inventing a story, writing the script and interpolating about two dozen ABBA songs. It became one of the most popular musicals in history. The Broadway production which opened in 2001, played for 14 years and nearly 5,800 performances. National touring companies have been on the road for more than a decade.

When the Broadway production closed last year, the performing rights became a red-hot item, coveted by regional theaters around the country. Maine State Music Theatre snagged one of the very first licenses, and is currently running a wonderful production in Brunswick.

The story takes place on a Greek island, where Donna (Lauren Mufson), an innkeeper and single mom, and daughter Sophie (Chelsea Williams) prepare for the latter’s wedding. Other principal characters include three men, played by actors Peter Simon Hilton, Aaron Galligan-Stierle and Ian Knauer. Each of these characters was Donna’s lover 20 years earlier. Now each of them is possibly the father of the bride. The driving force of the plot is Sophie’s determination to figure out which is her dad.

Comic complications arise when two of Donna’s former friends, played by Jennifer Swiderski and Mylinda Hull, arrive for the wedding. These two and Donna were once in a pop rock trio, known as Donna and the Dynamos.

The score includes most of the most famous ABBA hits: “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Honey, Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Super Trouper,” “Name of the Game,” “Take a Chance on Me” and the title song. Only a few of these songs are performed in true ABBA-esque fashion – paired soprano voices – while most use different vocal arrangements.

I loved this show. Mufson and Williams both played their roles on Broadway and national tours and their love for their characters is evident from opening curtain to denouement. The glitzy, glamorous costumes are pure ABBA.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “Mamma Mia!” through Aug. 27 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit MSMT.org.

‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’

Purely by happenstance, another popular jukebox musical with ultra-glitzy costumes is currently running at Ogunquit Playhouse.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is a stage version of the 1994 Australian cult film of the same name, which celebrates gay lifestyles in an oddly engaging, Odyssey-like plot, written by Stephan Elliott and Alan Scott.

This is also a Maine premiere. The 2011 Broadway production was not very successful, and Ogunquit’s artistic director Brad Kenney is part of a team effort to tweak and improve the show.

Three drag queens from Sydney (Jarrod Emick, Matthew Marks and William Selby) travel to the middle of the Australian desert in bus named Priscilla. Along the way they encounter a variety of characters, some friendly, others violently homophobic.

Each of the three is a lost soul in search of something, and each discovers a form of resolution along the weeks-long journey.

The audience will also discover some very creative repackaging of popular songs, mostly from the 1960s through the 1980s. These include “It’s Raining Men,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “True Colors,” “Hot Stuff,” “Always on My Mind,” “We Belong” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

The ever-changing costumes are eye-popping, and the overall performance is utterly memorable.

Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St. (Route 1) presents “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” through Sept. 3. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

Shelley MacArthur

A Chicago chanteuse will be featured next week at Maine’s newest major concert venue.

Shelley MacArthur, a jazz singer who is best known in her hometown, will be joined by the Bradley Williams Trio on Aug. 24 at the Vinegar Hill Music Theatre in Arundel.

MacArthur cites the late jazz great Bobby Short among her mentors, and the two of them played extensively in Chicago’s Gold Star Sardine Bar during the 1990s. She has also recorded two jazz CDs and given numerous benefit performances for her hometown Joffrey Ballet, She currently has a public television special running: “Shelley MacArthur and George Perris Live in Chicago.”

“Mainely Magical” is the title of her upcoming program. “I think that ‘magical’ is a good adjective for Maine,” she said. MacArthur knows what she’s talking about: Her oceanfront summer residence in Kennebunk is one of the most gorgeous spots on the coast.

Her song selection includes tunes written by Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, plus a several made famous by Frank Sinatra. MacArthur has also penned new lyrics to “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do” for her neighbor and friend, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush.

MacArthur will be accompanied by the Bradley Williams Trio, comprising the eponymous pianist plus bassist Dan DeLorenzo and drummer Jim Widlowski. “These guys are sensational,” said MacAthur. “Simply the best in the business.”

Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, 53 Old Post Road in Arundel, presents Shelley MacArthur’s “Mainely Magical” at 8 p.m. Aug. 24. Call 985-5552.

Costumes and pop tunes are principal attractions for Ogunquit Playhouse’s production of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”