Out & About: Jukebox musicals top tickets for early fall

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With the arrival of the autumnal equinox this Friday, the fall-winter-spring season of performing arts is officially underway. A pair of fine jukebox musicals rate as the top two choices for this first weekend of fall.

At the Ogunquit Playhouse, which has recently expanded its season deep into autumn, the world premiere production of “Heartbreak Hotel” has two more weekends to run. It’s a jukebox musical based on the early career of pioneer rocker Elvis Presley.

Songs written by George and Ira Gershwin are the main draw of “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which gets a splendid community production in South Portland as the first offering of Lyric Music Theater’s 65th season.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra opens its 2017-2018 season with a concert that features one of classical music’s true sonic spectaculars: “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky and Maurice Ravel.

‘Heartbreak Hotel’

During its first 84 seasons, the top-selling title at the Oqunquit Playhouse was “Million Dollar Quartet,” a jukebox musical with book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott that recounted a real-life incident in the career of pioneer rock ‘n’ roll star Elvis Presley.

The formula was so successful that the venerable playhouse is currently working with Mutrux to develop a companion show. It’s another jukebox musical, this time based on the early career of Presley. The title is “Heartbreak Hotel,” and its world premiere is now running at Ogunquit Playhouse, and it’s no doubt headed toward an eventual Broadway production.

Mutrux is director, wife Birgitte is choreographer and Ogunquit Playhouse executive artistic director Bradford T. Kenney is credited as “creative producer.”

Central to the concept are the songs. This show employs about 30, with the biggest play being given to early Presley hits such as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and the title tune.

Mutrux’s book begins with Presley’s first recordings with Memphis-based Sun Records and ends with his signing to New York-based RCA Victor. Key figures are Presley’s hometown girlfriend Dixie Locke, manager Colonel Tom Parker and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Two other depicted musical figures from the era of the 1950s are Wanda Jackson and Chuck Berry.

This show revolves around Presley; he’s brilliantly channeled – look, voice and mannerisms – by actor Eddie Clendening, who starred in the original Broadway production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Other notable performances are given by Erin Burniston, Brenna Bloom, Geno Henderson, Jerry Kernion and Matt McKenzie.

“Heartbreak Hotel” is a terrific show, and it will undoubtedly get to Broadway within a few years. Here’s a chance to see its original production.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1, presents “Heartbreak Hotel” through Sept. 30. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’

George Gershwin was the top Broadway composer of the 1920s and 1930s, usually working in tandem with brother Ira as lyricist. Together they wrote some of the most memorable songs of those decades, including “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “S’Wonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

The Gershwins’ songs are still performed frequently, but their Broadway shows are almost never seen today. Why? Because the books of these musicals are simply too flimsy and too dated for modern tastes.

So how did a “new” Gershwin musical come about in 2012?

A production team hired two-time Tony Award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro to write a new book in the style of the Roaring ’20s and interpolate about two dozen of the Gershwin’s best-known tunes, including the four mentioned above. The result was “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which debuted on Broadway in 2012 and scored 10 Tony Award nominations, winning two.

To open its 65th season, Lyric Music Theater has mounted a wonderful community production that runs through Oct. 1.

The time is 1927 and the situation is this: handsome Jimmy Winter (Philip Hobby), a very rich and oft-married playboy, is on the brink of yet another marriage when he accidentally bumps into a gang of smugglers who desperately need temporary storage for 400 cases of bootleg gin.

The illegal stash winds up in the basement of Winter’s seaside mansion, and DiPietro’s plot unfolds in deliciously unpredictable ways with a wonderful array of comic characters. These include the stock dumb blonde (Emily Butson), a female gangster (Kelly Mosher), a phony English nobleman (Seth Crockett), a phony butler (Schuyler White), a bumbling policeman (Jesse Reich), a preening politician (Jonathan Libby), a temperance crusader (Angela Libby) and a love-lorn wannabe duchess (Gabby Salce).

Add six delightful chorus girls plus a four-man vice squad. The result is a thoroughly delightful comic romp. I attended the opening night last weekend and I was impressed with the fine cast under the direction of Joe Swenson, with musical direction by Bethany Perkins. I’ve been a Lyric regular for 20-plus years, and this is definitely one of the company’s best.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “Nice Work If You Can Get It” through Oct. 1 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees. Call 799-1421.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Start with a bang. That’s a time-tested tenet of showmanship that informs the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the 2017-18 season. The biggest bang on the program will be “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a monumental orchestral spectacular that is credited to two great European composers.

The original “Pictures” was written in 1874 as a solo piano piece by Modest Mussorgsky, a top Russian composer. It’s based on a simple conceit: strolling through an art exhibit, with each painting inspiring a different orchestral response, ranging from muted and thoughtful to majorly spectacular.

Mussorgsky’s piano score is so vast and technically difficult that it’s seldom performed. Instead, “Pictures” is usually performed in an orchestral version, with the most popular penned in 1922 by French composer Maurice Ravel. In Ravel’s version the implied colors of Mussorgsky’s original are given full symphonic treatment by the 80-odd instruments of the orchestra.

Another big piece on this season-opening program will be Hans-Andre Stamm’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, a 1998 work that will utilize Portland’s huge Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, with guest artist James Jones on the keyboards. This concert will be conducted by music director Robert Moody, who is entering his final season as maestro.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

The world premiere of “Heartbreak Hotel,” a new
tribute to Elvis Presley, is being shown at Ogunquit Playhouse through Sept. 30.

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