Out & About: Music, theater, dance for Christmas

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This week’s performing arts calendar includes Christmas shows in a variety of formats and settings.

Portland Symphony Orchestra will offer 12 performances of its annual seasonal spectacular, “The Magic of Christmas,” beginning Dec. 12.

Portland Ballet’s “Victorian Nutcracker,” the company’s signature take on the terpsichorean Christmas classic, runs for three performances in two cities beginning this Saturday.

Portland Players is currently running a fine community production of last season’s Broadway hit musical: “A Christmas Story.” It’s a Maine premiere and it’s happening in South Portland.

Heather Pierson performs her “Charlie Brown Christmas” all over New England every December. She and several bandmates will be visiting Portland on Dec. 13.

Magic of Christmas

Christmas music from a symphonic angle has been the shtick of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual Magic of Christmas concerts for the past 34 years. In recent seasons maestro Robert Moody has added quite few additional angles to the mix.

For the 35th edition of Magic of Christmas, which opens on Friday, there are a slew of new twists. Just look at Moody’s list of guest artists. Nationally known Simply Three is the marquee ensemble. Comprising a trio of classically trained musicians playing violin, cello and bass, Simply Three is known for seamlessly fusing multiple styles.

Ray Cornils, Portland’s official municipal organist, will play the recently rebuilt and re-installed Kotzschmar Memorial Organ. The featured singer will be Susie Pepper, a two-time winner of FOX23’s “Maine Idol.”

The Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, founded by a PSO horn player, will perform. Ditto Inanna, Sisters in Rhythm, Maine’s longstanding corps of African drummers. Fancy footwork will be provided by Maine State Ballet.

Several PSO musicians will be highlighted in addition to the guests. Concertmaster Charles Dimmick will be featured in one modern number. The PSO viola section will be showcased in a traditional Christmas carol, while Moody will team up with Pepper to sing a modern classic. (Moody was an active vocalist before switching his focus to conducting during his conservatory years.)

As always, major vocal horsepower will be provided by the Magic of Christmas Chorus under the direction of Richard Nickerson.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra presents the 35th edition of Magic of Christmas for 12 performances at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Dec. 12-13 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Dec. 19-20 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 21 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

The dreams of a child mysteriously and beautifully morph into one of the Christmas season’s most joyful terpsichorean creations. We’re talking about “The Nutcracker” ballet, where a 10-year-old girl receives an unusual gift – a miniature nutcracker in the form of a colorfully uniformed soldier – then falls asleep and imagines that her precious toy comes to life.

“The Nutcracker” debuted in Russia in 1892 and has become one of the Christmas season’s most popular events. A production that’s coming up in Westbrook and Portland adds another dollop of old-fashioned charm: The setting is Portland’s own Victoria Mansion, the large and ornate Italianate edifice on Danforth Street.

That’s the quick take on Portland Ballet’s annual “Victorian Nutcracker,” a unique production in which the first is act is re-imagined as a Port City family affair circa 1892.

The second act, which includes the familiar sequence of international dances and the penultimate pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, segues into traditional aesthetic styles in one of the mansion’s grandest drawing rooms.

Eugenia O’Brien, artistic director of Portland Ballet, dreamed up this wonderfully interesting variant on the basic story line for her 1992 production, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first performance.

I’ve attended often over the past two decades, and I’m always delighted. I’ve already reserved my tickets for 2014.

Three performances are planned: Dec. 13 and 14 at 2 p.m. at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, 471 Stroudwater St., and Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800. The Westbrook performances will have recorded music, while the Portland performance will feature a professional orchestra.

‘A Christmas Story’

“A Christmas Story” is another Yuletide tale related from a child’s point of view. But “A Christmas Story,” a hit Broadway musical in 2013, adds an unexpectedly quirky sense of humor to the fairly predictable celebration of heartwarming family values.

The creators of the musical are Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on the 1983 film of the same name. The musical has enjoyed two seasonal runs on Broadway.

Portland Players, New England’s oldest community theater company, has scored a coup as the first Maine troupe to secure the performing rights. Last weekend I caught the show on opening night and I was thoroughly delighted.

Framed as childhood memories by an adult narrator, the story recounts the anxieties and misadventures of a 10-year-old boy who has his heart set on one special Christmas present: A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot BB Rifle. Obtaining this prized gift seems like an impossible quest, especially given the boy’s joyfully dysfunctional family and his challenges in school.

Top performances are given by Peter Salsbury as the narrator, William Pearson as the 10-year-old, Tommy Waltz as his dad, Amy Torrey as his mom and Lucy B. Sullivan as his teacher in elementary school.

Portland Players, 176 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “A Christmas Story” through Dec. 21 with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.

Heather Pierson Quartet

Forty-nine years ago this month, the Vince Guaraldi Trio released a jazz album that comprised the entire soundtrack of the television special titled “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The show was a hit, and the original soundtrack album remains among the best-selling Christmas recordings of all time, notching more than three million copies.

In the past few years, the Heather Pierson Quartet, based in North Conway, New Hampshire, has performed the entire album on a December tour of New England. This Saturday, Pierson and her three bandmates will bring a live performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to Portland.

I’ve known Pierson for about five years, and have attended numerous performances, including one that copped a New England songwriting competition.

Pierson will lead the ensemble from the electronic keyboard, accompanied by a saxophonist, bassist and drummer. In addition to the album music, Pierson will add a selection of popular Christmas tunes.

Catch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at Acoustic Artisans, 594 Congress St., Portland. Call 671-6029.

Sidebar Elements

Portland Ballet will perform its signature “Victorian Nutcracker” three times in Westbrook and Portland, beginning. Dec. 13.