Out & About: Musical theater rules in mid-August

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Three choices on the musical theater menu are the top picks of the tix this mid-August week.

Maine State Music Theatre is wrapping up its 2013 season with “Mary Poppins,” the stage version of the celebrated 1964 Disney film. “Mary Poppins” was a big hit on Broadway, and now the Maine premiere is a big hit in Brunswick.

Arundel Barn Playhouse is continuing its season with “All Shook Up,” a jukebox musical that revolves around 26 hit songs made famous by Elvis Presley.

In Portland, a national touring production of “Menopause The Musical” will play Sunday in Merrill Auditorium. Jeanie C. Linders’ four-woman show has entertained millions of people in multiple countries.

‘Mary Poppins’

In recent decades, most new Broadway musicals are stage adaptations of successful films. One of the most successful recent shows was “Mary Poppins,” which was based on the classic movie of the same name (starring Julie Andrews) of 1964. “Mary Poppins” opened on Broadway in 2006 and closed a few months ago after a seven-year run.

Performing rights for regional professional companies were only made available beginning this summer. Maine State Music Theatre seized this opportunity, and is currently presenting the New England regional premiere.

The title character was created in a series of children’s books by Pamela Travers, and the stage script was written by Julian Fellowes. The 1964 film’s lushly lyrical and much-beloved score, by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, was retained, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were added.

The setting is London in the first decade of the 20th century. Mary Poppins is a young nanny with magical powers who mysteriously appears in a deeply troubled, dysfunctional household to take care of a boy and girl. Via a number of magical adventures in various locations in London – often aided by a chimney sweep friend – the children experience the love and attention that’s been missing at home.

Eventually all is set right in the entire household through Mary Poppins’ interventions, and at the denouement she vanishes just as magically as she first appeared.

I loved this show. Lauren Blackman is perfect in the title role, exuding a magnetic charm that pervades the whole theater. Tyler Hanes is equally apropos as her friend the chimney sweep.

The family – played by Jeff Coon, Heidi Kettenring, Alec Shiman and Sophie Calderwood as the husband, wife, boy and girl respectively – provide a solid supporting cast, with additional comic roles played by David Girolmo, Susan Cella, Chuck Ragsdale, Janelle Robinson, Charis Leos and Buddy Reeder.

Director Marc Robin keeps this large show moving at all times. Scenic design, by Charles S. Kading, is another outstanding feature of this production.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “Mary Poppins” through Aug. 24 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit msmt.org.

‘All Shook Up’

Purely by chance, the current offering at Arundel Barn Playhouse is built around the same dramatic device that “Mary Poppins” employs: A stranger arrives and shakes things up.

That’s the basic device that drives “All Shook Up,” a jukebox musical that is based on songs made popular by Elvis Presley, the rock ‘n’ roll superstar of the mid-20th century.

The 26 disparate tunes are linked by an excellent script by Joe DiPietro, a very talented playwright. DiPietro uses William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a classic romantic comedy, as a rough model.

Arundel Barn’s “All Shook Up” is an engaging and exhilarating piece of musical theater that’s also immensely entertaining. The entertainment mostly stems from the songs, which include many of Elvis’ greatest hits, including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Burning Love,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog” and the title song.

DiPietro’s book revolves around a charismatic musician (Chris Cannon) who mysteriously arrives in a sleepy little town on a motorcycle and proceeds to animate all the teenagers – and alienate some of the adults – with his swiveling hips and sexual magnetism. Among those who fall under his spell are a female mechanic (Andrea Wright) and a museum curator (Shayna Verzell).

The town’s imperious mayor (Beatrice Crosbie), representing antipodal values of self-righteous moral rectitude, opposes the musician and rails against those who have been captivated by him.

The cast numbers 16 and there are several parallel romantic pairings – too many to include in a short review. But noteworthy performances are also given by Deidra Grace Chiverton, a widowed and lonely tavern keeper, and Phylicia Freeman, as her high-spirited teenage daughter.

Chris Rhoton’s set design, full of kitschy 1950s images and visual recollections, effectively frames this show.

At the denouement, when the mysterious musician motors back out on the highway with a newfound mate, no fewer than five couples have marched down the aisle and the town’s social, cultural and romantic order has been permanently changed and rearranged for the better.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, 53 Old Post Road (just off U.S. Route 1) presents “All Shook Up” through Aug. 17. Call 985-5552 or visit arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

‘Menopause The Musical’

Another gem of musical theater that recycles a couple of dozen popular songs from decades past is “Menopause The Musical,” a wonderfully incisive comedy that was crafted by Jeanie C. Linders and first played in Florida in 2001. It’s been playing there ever since. Plus it’s enjoyed a long Off-Broadway run, productions in many countries and a never-ending national tour.

The national tour motors into Portland this Sunday for one performance.

“Menopause The Musical” is very funny and tuneful. Linders’ script is about “the change” in particular, and women’s midlife course corrections and alterations in attitude in general.

The dramatic conceit involves four middle-aged women who meet by accident in Bloomingdale’s department store. The characters are unnamed, but each represents a modern archetype: Power Woman, Soap Star, Earth Mother and Iowa Housewife. These four strangers unite to make fun of their woeful hot flashes, forgetfulness, mood swings, wrinkles, night sweats and chocolate binges.

Two dozen songs, mostly pop tunes from the 1960s, have been “re-lyricized” by Linders, with “hot flashes of hilarity” as the underlying common theme.

“Most women know intuitively that every other woman is experiencing hot flashes or night sweats,” explains Linders. “There is always a close friend or two who can sympathize or identify, but when they are sitting in a theater with hundreds of other women, all laughing and shouting ‘That’s me! That’s me on stage!’ They know what they are experiencing is normal. They aren’t alone or crazy. It becomes a sisterhood.”

Catch “Menopause The Musical” at 3 p.m. Aug. 18 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

“Menopause The Musical” is coming to Merrill Auditorium in Portland this Sunday, via a national touring company.