Out & About: ‘Jersey Boys’ is big man in town

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The leaves are beginning to turn, and schoolchildren and college students have already returned to their classrooms. And it’s also the time when southern Maine arts producers, performers and presenters return from their summer vacations.

Two big Broadway musicals dominate this week’s pick of the tickets. Hottest of all is “Jersey Boys,” the 2005 show that is based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, one of the top-selling pop groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Maine’s first homegrown professional production is running through October at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

High school students are the stars in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the very quirky two-time Tony Award-winner from the 2005 Broadway season. Lyric Music Theatre is currently running a fine community production.

Classes are back in session at the Portland Conservatory of Music, and the series of professional jazz ensembles that are hosted there continues this Sunday evening with the Noah Haidu Trio.

‘Jersey Boys’

Jukebox musicals have a two-sided reputation. First, they are known for great popular music, Second, they are often strung together by weak or non-existent storylines.

That latter, negative aspect is emphatically absent in “Jersey Boys,” which is currently running at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

“Jersey Boys” is one of the most successful – both critically and commercially – Broadway shows of the 21st century. It’s based on the music of The Four Seasons, a pop group that sold millions of records – back in the days when they were made from vinyl – and featured the soaring falsetto voice of frontman Frankie Valli.

The score for “Jersey Boys” includes million-sellers “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Dawn,” “Big Man In Town,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Workin’ My Way Back To You,” “C’mon Marianne,” “My Eyes Adored You” and “Rag Doll.”

That’s totally expected. The show’s very pleasant surprise was summed up by my companion as we walked out of the playhouse last week. “It’s such an engrossing story,” she said.

Great music plus a totally engrossing plot: That’s the quick take on “Jersey Boys.”

The book is in biographical format, recounting the rags-to-riches tale of four Italian-American guys from New Jersey: Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. The latter wrote the music for most of the Four Seasons’ hits, while producer Bob Crewe wrote most of the lyrics.

The book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Ellice, contains several surprises which no doubt contributed to the show’s success. First is the unusual format, with the narration divided into four “seasons,” spring through winter, each told by a different band member.

Second, The Four Seasons had multiple antecedents, incarnations and prior names. Third, the four band members had gritty and unsavory backgrounds, and several had served jail time.

Ogunquit’s production is flawless, fronted by Jonathan Mousset’s portrayal of Valli. Mousset’s powerful falsetto voice is the can’t-forget feature of the evening, and he’s also a fine actor, rendering Valli’s highs and lows with conviction.

Excellent supporting roles are filled by Matt Magnusson as DeVito, Matthew Amira as Massi and Andy Christopher as Gaudio. Other significant roles are Doug Storm as Crewe and David McDonald as a gangster.

Adam Koch’s multi-level set also deserves special recognition. Direction is by Holly-Anne Palmer, with music direction by Jonny Baird.

“Jersey Boys” runs through Oct. 28 at the Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’

As schools’ academic calendars begin this month, Lyric Music Theater has mounted a fine community production of a Broadway show that’s based on an academic competition.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is one of the quirkiest shows ever seen on Broadway, but its eccentricities didn’t deter the Tony Awards committee. This 2005 show won a pair.

The book is by Rachel Sheinkin and the score by William Finn. The format literally follows a region-level spelling bee over the course of several hours, and the show’s charm and humor come from the oddball characters who step to the microphone, as well as some of the parents and other grownups who run the contest.

There’s a fairly flimsy plotline, but the main theme is how various characters meet various challenges and personally develop and grow during the contest.

When I attended opening night last weekend, I thought that the top performers were Schyler White as a comically medically challenged awkward young man who uses his “magic foot” as an aid, and Brie Roche as an equally awkward young lady who is very unsure of herself. Also outstanding was Gusta Johnson as the referee with a great soprano singing voice. Jamie Lupien Swenson directs, assisted by Bob Gauthier as music director.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Sept. 30 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-1421.

Noah Haidu Trio

For the past three decades or so, Paul Lichter has been Portland’s premier impresario in the specialized niche of modern jazz. His Dimensions in Jazz series has hosted hundreds of top names in intimate venues, beginning with his own Cafe No in the 1980s and 1990s and later continuing in other locations.

In recent years Dimensions in Jazz has found a home at the Portland Conservatory of Music, which boasts a jazz studies program among its menu of offerings. This Sunday evening Lichter will present an up-and-coming professional artist and his two sidemen.

The Noah Haidu Trio comprises the namesake pianist plus Peter Brendler on bass and Vinnie Sperazza on drums. The eponymous leader is a piano virtuoso who has been making a name for himself for using melodic compositions as a framework for energetic improvisations.

Haidu and various sidemen have released three albums to date. Most tracks are Haidu compositions, although he also includes a small selection of covers. “Slipstream,” his debut album, garnered a favorable review by jazz critic Bruce Lindsay. Writing for All About Jazz, Lindsay commented: “Haidu’s compositions – he wrote all but one of the tunes – are strong on melody and characterized by a gentle and soulful swing. As a pianist, Haidu sounds equally comfortable as a lead musician or as part of the rhythm section. Of course, his fellow musicians are high-quality players themselves, and are key to the album’s success.”

The Portland Conservatory of Music and Dimensions in Jazz present the Noah Haidu Trio at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 at 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call 775-3356.

“Jersey Boys” is a sensationally successful jukebox musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, one of the top pop music groups of the 1960s.

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