Out & About: Music for Christmas, theater for Hanukkah

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The biggest show of southern Maine’s Christmas season is the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas,” a musical extravaganza that runs Dec. 10-19.

Rock My Soul is a 23-voice gospel choir that offers a special Christmas concert in Portland on Sunday.

Hanukkah concludes this week, but Mike Levine, an innovative creative force in greater Portland theater, is trying to establish a new Hanukkah tradition in southern Maine with a staging of “The World of Sholom Alecheim,” a trilogy of short plays.

‘Magic of Christmas’

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s biggest draw is its annual December series of pops-style concerts titled “Magic of Christmas,” which attracts about 20,000 people each year.

Maestro Robert Moody’s program revolves around light orchestra music and holiday favorites played by the 70-plus members of the PSO, plus a number of guest artists.

Two guest solo vocalists are featured. Joe Cassidy has performed on Broadway in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “1776” and “Les Miserables.” Suzanne Nance is a conservatory-trained soprano with a long performing resume.

Two vocal ensembles will add power: the Saco Bay Children’s Choir and the Magic of Christmas Chorus. Freeport-based Figures of Speech Theatre performs a condensed version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – with all the character voices provided by Cassidy.

All performances take place in Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Here’s the complete schedule: Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 12 at 1 and 5 p.m., Dec. 17 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 18 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 19 at 1 and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Rock My Soul

One of the most intriguing Christmas concerts in southern Maine takes place Sunday at One Longfellow Square. Rock My Soul is a 23-member choir and five-piece band that hails from South Berwick and Portsmouth, N.H. Rock My Soul performs music from all gospel traditions, including Negro spirituals, black gospel, white Southern gospel, folk and blues gospel plus a few selected secular songs.

Originally founded in the spring of 2004 by Dawn Boyer, lead soloist and president of the Gospel Music Project, Rock My Soul performs at concerts and benefits throughout New England.

Catch Rock My Soul in concert Dec. 12 at 4 p.m. at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in downtown Portland. Call 761-1757.

‘The World of Sholom Aleichem’

Practically everybody in the world loves Tevye, the pious Jewish dairyman at the center of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Broadway hit musical about life in a shtetl in Czarist Russia.

This wonderful character was created by Sholom Aleichem, a writer (in Yiddish) who was born in Russia and died in New York. As edited by Arnold Perl, Aleichem’s stories formed the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tevye has some neighbors in the fictional shtetl, and they’re the subject of a trilogy of plays by Perl, performed under the rubric “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”

They evoke the same sort of characters and the same milieu as “Fiddler.”

The finale is based on a popular story by Aleichem, while the second is based on a story by one of his contemporaries. The opener was written from scratch by Perl himself.

Acorn Studio Theater opened this show last weekend in Westbrook, and it runs through Dec. 19. In the future, producer Mike Levine hopes to present “The World of Sholom Aleichem” every year during Hanukkah.

I loved these three little dramatic gems, performed by a semi-professional acting company that is largely based on Acorn’s theatrical school. I particularly liked Perl’s, which is a wryly clever and humorous depiction of a mythical village of fools and how these fools multiplied, scattered and populated the earth.

Acorn Studio Theater, 90 Bridge St. in Westbrook, presents “The World of Sholom Aleichem” through Dec. 19 with Thursday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. (There are no Friday evening performances, in observation of the Jewish Sabbath.) Call 854-0065.

Acorn Studio Theater is the latest of a long series of thespian projects under the direction of Mike Levine, a personable chap from Peaks Island with a passion for teaching actors and producing the works of local playwrights. I first met Levine in the mid-1990s when he quit his job as business manager for Portland Stage Company to found the Oak Street Theater, a “black box” that hosted many dozens of plays and special events during the latter years of that decade.

For the past four years Levine has been based in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, primarily running an acting school. Acorn Studio Theater is a new and related venture that provides an outlet for the adult students to showcase their talent before the public; Fairy Tale Players does likewise for the kids.

The tiny performing space seats about 40 and boasts a basic minimum of professional accouterments such as sound and lighting. Levine also describes AST as “a work in progress” and a “lab theater” where the emphasis is on developing creative talent rather than producing finished products.

“This is the sort of theater that I like,” he told me. “It’s a situation where we focus on text and character and action, rather than spectacle.”

Another comment: “Picture us as community theater with a professional work ethic.”

Levine added, “This is a great place to spark the fire of creativity.”

Next in the Studio Series is “Crying at the Movies,” by John Manderino, which runs Jan. 13-30, and a playwrights showcase/festival which runs April 1-20.

Sidebar Elements

Trumpeters of the Portland Symphony Orchestra don festive headgear for one number in the annual “Magic of Christmas,” which runs Dec. 10-19 at Merrill Auditorium.