The Christmas spirit suffuses the arts and entertainment calendar as we move into mid-December. This week’s top shows employ three very different Christmas angles.
Lyric Music Theater opened a radiant production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” last weekend in South Portland. This is the Broadway remake of the celebrated Hollywood blockbuster from 1954, and it’s totally awash with wonderful tunes and warm feelings.
St. Mary Schola, one of Maine’s early music ensembles, holds its annual Christmas concerts in Falmouth and Portland, beginning this Friday. Expect a very traditional angle.
Dance enthusiasts will find a different angle on “The Nutcracker” with Portland Ballet’s annual production, which plays in Portland and Westbrook, beginning this Friday.
On the non-Christmas side of the ledger, Darlingside is a band that’s made its mark playing a genre-defying mix of traditional folk, indie rock, chamber pop and Americana – and it’s happening in Portland on Saturday.
Of all the many angles Hollywood has taken on Christmas, my personal favorite is “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” a lavish 1954 romantic comedy that’s simply awash in great tunes, warm feelings and old-fashioned American patriotism.
A live theatrical version was produced on Broadway nine years ago, but it is primarily staged by regional companies in the month of December. Lyric Music Theater is currently running a wonderful community production in South Portland.
The story follows a pair of soldiers, beginning on Christmas Eve 1944 during World War II in Germany to a ski resort in Vermont in 1954. After discharge from the Army, the pair form a popular song-and-dance team, which then partners with an up-and-coming two-sister song-and-dance team. Two romances ensue, followed by a pair of breakups and final reconciliations on Christmas Eve as a blizzard arrives in Vermont.
Lyric’s director/choreographer Sean Senior gets strong performances across the board, beginning with the two men, Jon Libby and Paul McIntosh, and their love interests, Kaitlin McGinley and Jacklyn Grigg. The show is full of funny characters, portrayed by Cory King as a blustery Army general and innkeeper, Jane Abernathy as a busybody eavesdropper and Jeff Campbell as an iconic and laconic Vermont handyman.
Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” through Dec. 16 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-1421.
A major Christmas work by the most important German classical composer of the early 17th century will be featured this weekend when St. Mary Schola gives its annual Christmas program, to be performed three times in Falmouth and Portland.
St. Mary Schola is southern Maine’s most complete early music ensemble, combining voices and instruments to perform music written between the Renaissance and the 19th century. The group is led by retired music professor Bruce Fithian.
The featured piece on Fithian’s program will be “The Christmas Story,” written by Heinrich Schutz in the early 1600s. Schutz was the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach.
For its narrative, Schutz employs a straightforward telling of the familiar Christmas story with text drawn from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, complete with angels from heaven, humble shepherds and three kings from the orient.
Filling out the program, Fithian has selected a number of smaller pieces, including motets by Michael Praetorius, a German contemporary of Schutz, and Thomas Tallis, an English predecessor of both.
Three performances are scheduled: Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Road in Falmouth, and Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Visit StMarySchola.org.
At a concert this past weekend, I bumped into Eugenia O’Brien, founder and longtime artistic director of Portland Ballet, and had a nice chat with her. Although now retired, O’Brien’s indelible mark on southern Maine culture remains via her company’s signature piece, “The Victorian Nutcracker,” a fascinating localized version of the familiar Christmas ballet that will be performed five times in the next few weeks.
“The Nutcracker” is performed by countless ballet companies around the world, usually in December. In 1992, to commemorate the centenary of the original Russian production, O’Brien re-conceived the setting, translating it from a 19th-century European household to the Victoria Mansion, Portland’s 19th-century Italianate edifice on Danforth Street.
The characters in the first act were renamed after prominent Portlanders of the period, such as sugar magnate John Bundy Brown, musician Hermann Kotzschmar, mayor James Phinney Baxter, and hotelier Ruggles Sylvester Morse, who built the mansion as a summer home in 1860.
The familiar plot, a young girl’s Christmas Eve dream of a journey to the Land of Sweets, remains the same. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music is unchanged; ditto the choreography. But O’Brien’s localized angle is utterly charming. There’s even a brief scene of snowflakes falling in Deering Oaks Park.
I’ve seen “The Victorian Nutcracker” numerous times over the past 25 years and I’m always delighted.
Five performances are planned on a curious schedule. It opens Dec. 7 with a 7:30 p.m. performance at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. This performance includes a live professional orchestra. Then it repeats, with recorded music, at Westbrook Performing Arts Center, 471 Stroudwater St. with performances Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800 for all performances.
If you need a musical respite from nonstop ho-ho-ho and mistletoe, then try a Boston-based folk-ish band that’s coming to Portland on Saturday.
Darlingside has made its mark by defying easy classification. Visually-speaking, Darlingside looks like a bluegrass band, but the aural signature is traditional folk and indie rock, “chamber pop” and Americana performed with seamless vocals and impeccable instrumentation.
The four-man ensemble formed in 2009 at Williams College in Massachusetts, recording its first album the following year, and following that release with an inaugural national tour. Five more recordings have followed, the most recent being the 12-track “Extralife,” which offers a haunting look at our world through a post-apocalyptic lens. It was released this past February.
The fourth track on the album,“Hold Your Head Up High,” recently received a nomination for the 2019 UK Americana Music Association’s International Song of the Year.
Catch Darlingside at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St. in Portland. Call 800-745-3000.
Two romances revolve around the Christmas holidays in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” playing through Dec. 16 at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland.