Out & About: Monster of a musical comedy in Ogunquit

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Two productions in very different branches of musical theater are the top offerings on late July’s arts and entertainment calendar.

Ogunquit Playhouse just opened Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” which is extraordinarily funny and extremely tuneful. The set, which soars more than 20 feet into the uppermost reaches of the playhouse, is one of the astonishing aspects of this Maine premiere.

In Portland, PORTopera is in the run-up to its 19th season, which comprises three performances of “La Boheme” starting July 24. It’s been 16 years since PORTopera last produced Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece.

In Brunswick, the Bowdoin International Music Festival will open its annual celebration of new compositions on July 25.

‘Young Frankenstein’

Hot summers and musical comedy go hand-in-hand like beaches and sunscreen. And that’s what’s happening this week at Ogunquit Playhouse, where beach-goers (and many others) are regaled with one of the funniest musicals Broadway has ever produced.

Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” which ran on the Great White Way 2007-2009 and had two national tours, is getting its first New England regional production through July 27 at the theater that bills itself as “Broadway on the Beach.”

Based on the 1974 movie, with screenplay by Brooks and starring Gene Wilder in the title role, the musical version keeps all the same laughably lovable characters and converts some of the iconic comic lines from the film – itself a riotously funny takeoff from the celebrated 1931 movie – into songs and dances. “He Vas My Boyfriend” and “Roll, Roll in the Hay” are two great examples.

Brooks himself adapted the screenplay for the stage and he also wrote the music. Broadway and television star John Bolton plays the title character, the grandson of the 19th-century mad scientist. Here he is a famed New York surgeon who is reluctantly drawn into “the family enterprise” of creating monsters in Transylvania. I was tremendously impressed by Bolton’s voice as well as his comic agility.

Bolton gets lots of help from Nathan Klau and Sandy Rosenberg, playing denizens of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, and Lara Seibert, playing the blond siren. Other actors I liked include Lesley McKinnell as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Tom Souhrada as a bumbling policeman and Brad Nacht as the (unnamed) monster.

Jeff Whiting ably directs, and Robin Wagner’s gorgeous set soars into the spacious fly loft.

If you’re looking for some great belly laughs this summer, catch this wonderful production. Performances are schedule at Ogunquit Playhouse, about a mile south of the village on U.S. Route 1, through July 27. Call 646-5511 or visit ogunquitplayhouse.org.

‘La Boheme’

Struggling artists in the Latin Quarter in Paris and the women who loved them: That’s the setting of one of the most famous operas ever written. “La Boheme” was penned by Giacomo Puccini in 1896 and has been a staple of the world’s opera houses ever since.

PORTopera, Maine’s summer resident producing company, is currently rehearsing Puccini’s masterpiece, with three performances slated for July 24, 26 and 28.

I stopped by for a couple of hours of rehearsal last week and chatted with Dona Vaughn, PORTopera’s artistic director. The two principal characters were rehearsing the scene in which they discover each other and realize their mutual – and eventually fatal – fascination and attraction.

Soprano Michelle Johnson easily demonstrated why she won the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. She’s cast in the role of seamstress Mimi, the tragic lead character. Her impassioned lover is impoverished poet Rodolfo, played by tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, who won plaudits in this role at Opera North a few years ago.

The other two major roles will be filled by soprano Alyson Cambridge, playing a cafe society courtesan, and Edward Parks, playing a painter. PORTopera fans have been delighted by Cambridge in a comic opera a few years ago.

“What I love about this cast is that they are all young, attractive, exciting people – exactly the sort of people this opera is all about,” Vaughn told me.

“I don’t want established stars. I want kids who really are these characters.”

Another rising star on the world opera scene is conductor Israel Gursky, who returns for his third season as PORTopera’s music director and pit conductor. Gursky’s orchestra will include about 40 professional musicians.

“La Boheme” will be performed in its original Italian, with English supertitles projected above the stage. Three performances are slated for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 7:30 p.m. July 24 and 26, and 2 p.m. July 28. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music

The over-arching theme of the 2013 Bowdoin International Music Festival is “Around the World in Forty Days.”

Want a quicker trip? Try three days. The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music will take listeners to three continents via a trio of concerts in three evenings, July 25, 27 and 28.

Gamper, a sort of festival-within-a-festival, has been part of BIMF since its founding in 1965. Over its 49 years much of the world’s best new music has been heard – and sometimes premiered – at Bowdoin.

For its 2013 edition, festival co-founder and artistic director Lewis Kaplan has appointed clarinetist-composer Derek Bermel as curator-director of Gamper. European composers will be featured on Thursday, with eight composers represented. Among them will be two British men: Ken Hesketh, serving as BIMF’s composer-in-residence for two weeks, and his student Tom Peterson, who is a 2013 Bowdoin fellow.

American music will be presented on Saturday, and Bermel himself will be one of eight composers on the program. Bermel will perform his “Theme and Absurdities,” scored for solo clarinet. Another intriguing title is “Airborne Contraption,” by Andy McManus, which won the festival’s sixth annual student composition competition and is scheduled as Saturday’s finale.

Five Asian composers comprise the artistic bill of fare for Sunday evening. Bermel characterizes Karen Tanaka’s “Invisible Curve” as “ear-bending,” while famed Chinese composer Chen Yi will be represented by “Feng,” scored for wind quintet.

Pertaining to the latter, I think it’s worth noting that Bowdoin is the only one of Maine’s summer music festivals that is big and broad enough to support a wind quintet, which is one of my personal favorite musical formats. Not only do we hear a few wind quintets in the regular concert series, thanks to Gamper we get to hear exciting 20th- and 21st-century music written for that unique fivesome.

All three Gamper concerts take place at 7:30 p.m. in Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Visit bowdonfestival.org for the full schedule.

Sidebar Elements

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein exclaims confidence that his newly created monster (lying on the operating table) is about to come to life in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” which runs through July 27 at Ogunquit Playhouse.