Out & About: Musicals transport us into summer season

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Last week I attended season-opening productions at all three of the region’s professional summer stock companies – and I was magically transported into Maine’s arts and entertainment summer.

At Ogunquit Playhouse, “The Drowsy Chaperone” uses the show-within-a-show device to melodically transport theatergoers back to the 1920s.

Maine State Music Theatre opened “Always… Patsy Cline,” a musical tribute to a famous country singer.

Arundel Barn Playhouse opened the sixth sequel to the immensely popular “Nunsense” musicals. “Nunset Boulevard” transports the five daffy nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken to Hollywood.

!Zing is more than an orthographic/typographic challenge; it’s a 14-member vocal ensemble of Mainers that bills itself as “singing the flip side.” You can flip over !Zing this Saturday in Portland.

‘The Drowsy Chaperone’

A happy and melodic journey to an old-fashioned age of musical theater is the big idea behind “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the opening show of Ogunquit Playhouse’s 2010 season. I enjoyed this fully professional (Equity contract) production immensely.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Book (by Bob Martin and Don McKellar) and Best Score (by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison), “The Drowsy Chaperone” uses the play-within-a-play device to re-create a hit musical of 1928 in the very vivid imagination of a fan (Carson Kressley) who spends most of his time in a chair in his dingy New York apartment.

Other stars include Georgia Engel, who is reprising her Broadway role in Ogunquit, and Liz Larsen as the title character. The costumes, from the Tony Award-winning designs by Gregg Barnes, are superb. Ditto the set, by David Gallo.

Ogunquit Playhouse (a mile south of the village on Route 1) presents “The Drowsy Chaperone” at various days/times through June 26. Call 646-5511 or visit ogunquitplayhouse.org.

‘Always … Patsy Cline’

With her distinctive contralto voice and heartfelt delivery, Patsy Cline was the most popular, notable and respected female country singer in the early 1960s. She also enjoyed great crossover success, with many of her records appearing on both the pop and country charts.

With hits like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces,” Cline was the reigning queen of Nashville in the early 1960s, before her life was tragically cut short in a 1963 airplane crash.

Her legacy was three studio albums released during her lifetime, plus another three released after her death.

Cline’s meteoric career is affectionately recalled via a stage musical written and originally directed by Ted Swindley. “Always … Patsy Cline” starts with her national TV appearance on the Arthur Godfrey talent scout show and ends with her death – all cleverly presented from the viewpoint of a fan who met the singer in 1961.

I loved Maine State Music Theatre’s production of “Always … Patsy Cline.” Jenny Lee Stern is simply sensational in the title role, singing 29 of Cline’s best-loved hits and portraying her as a warm-hearted, down-home woman who never acted like a superstar entertainer. Charis Leos is also sensationally funny in the role a fan who befriended Cline after a concert in Texas.

Maine State Music Theatre, a fully professional (Equity contract) company, presents “Always … Patsy Cline” at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick at various days/times through June 26. Call MSMT at 725-8769 or visit msmt.org.

‘Nunset Boulevard’

Twenty-five years ago, a cabaret-style musical comedy about five daffy nuns in a New Jersey convent debuted in a small Off-Broadway theater. The show was “Nunsense,” written and directed by Dan Goggin. Much to his own surprise, his little show became an international sensation.

The success of the original “Nunsense” spawned a variety of sequels using the same five characters and the same formulaic plot. A quarter-century after the original opened, there are seven “Nunsense” shows, and they’re all favorites with summer stock companies.

The latest of the series is “Nunset Boulevard,” which debuted last year. This year it’s the season-opener for Arundel Barn Playhouse.

Executive producer Adrienne Wilson Grant and director/choreographer Chris Saunders have mounted an excellent professional (non-Equity) production.

As in all the prior “Nunsense” shows, there are five characters, nuns who belong the Little Sisters of Hoboken. Also like all prior “Nunsense” editions, the central device is a show-within-a-show. In “Nunset Boulevard” the gimmick is this: The Little Sisters have traveled to Hollywood after accepting an invitation to perform. They believed that they were booked into the famed Hollywood Bowl, but instead find themselves performing in a bowling alley – the Hollywood Bowl-a-Rama.

Despite the sisters’ disappointment with the mix-up, they perform their show, a revue comprising nearly two dozen ensemble numbers, solo turns, dance routines and an audience quiz. All revolve around tactfully presented Catholic themes and universal human values.

“Nunset Boulevard” runs various days/times through June 26 at Arundel Barn Playhouse, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1). Call 985-5552 or visit arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

!Zing Sings

“It’s like a musical yard sale; the stuff comes from everywhere.” That’s a description of this Saturday’s concert by !Zing, a Portland vocal ensemble, according to music director Charlie Brown.

I dropped by a !Zing rehearsal last week to get a feel for the group, and this weekend’s concert is now on my to-do list.

“Singing the flip side,” is the group’s official motto. Fourteen members strong and about eight years old, !Zing covers a wide variety – “odds and ends” in Brown’s words – of pop tunes from the 1950s and 1960s plus a fair number of contemporary songs and pieces especially written for the group. Brown arranges all the songs for !Zing’s four vocal sections plus he writes the group’s original material. He’s also the accompanist on electronic keyboard.

This weekend’s concert comprises 20 numbers. Covers include songs made popular by Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, The Fifth Dimension, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Costello. “Love Come Down” is a hauntingly beautiful Brown original. All of the arrangements are characterized by Brown’s four-part harmony and about two thirds of the selections feature one of the 14 singers.

“It’s a big sound, but there’s still a tight harmony,” adds Brown.

The members clearly enjoy their vocal avocation and appreciate their leader. “Charlie’s so incredibly talented we are in awe of him all the time,” says Annette Elowitch, an alto singer from Portland.

Catch !Zing Sings on June 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland. Two websites offer further information: zingsings.com and stlawrencearts.org.

Sidebar Elements

Country star Patsy Cline is the subject of Maine State Music Theatre’s first show of 2010. Actress Jenny Lee Stern plays the iconic Nashville singer, whose meteoric career ended in a 1963 airplane crash.