Out & About: 'My Fair Lady' is fairest of all

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Brunswick represents southern Maine’s cultural pivot point, at least as far as this week’s “Out & About” is concerned.

At Maine State Music Theatre, the current offering of “My Fair Lady” is a truly memorable theatrical experience. MSMT has mounted an incredibly fine production, with standout, stellar performances by the four leading characters plus excellent support from the entire ensemble and technical team.

I’ve spent some quality time at the Bowdoin International Music Festival over the past week, including checking out some of the new offerings, such as the Monday Sonata series, Artists of Tomorrow series and the Festival Extras.

In the Port City, I recommend this Friday’s performance by Clara Berry, a very talented and appealing young pianist-singer-songwriter.

‘My Fair Lady’

Of all the wonderful musicals ever created for Broadway, “My Fair Lady” easily ranks among my Top 10 personal favorites. The original cast recording, a well-worn 33-rpm vinyl disk with the voices of Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, was a fixture of my childhood. I’ve seen it many times over the years in productions that range from fully professional to rank amateur.

“My Fair Lady” is a musical adaptation (with significant changes) of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It debuted on Broadway in 1957 and held the record for longest-running musical for many years.

The best professional production (Equity contract) of “My Fair Lady” I can recall is running through Saturday at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick. Starring Kate Fisher as the feisty Cockney flower seller who seeks to “learn to talk like a lady” and Peter Simon Hilton as the crusty British phonetics professor, MSMT offers a memorable theatrical experience.

The top supporting actor in the cast is Ed Romanoff (of the Portland area’s Schooner Fare family) as one of the most memorable characters in American theater, a beer-swilling London garbage collector who sells his daughter to the professor to finance his nightly visits to the pub.

Other excellent supporting roles include John-Charles Kelly as a dignified retired army colonel, Chuck Ragsdale as a lovelorn aristocratic fop and Charis Leos as the professor’s housekeeper.

Charles S. Kading’s set and Ed Reichert’s musical direction are spot-on. Especially intriguing is the two-piano score, prepared in 1957 by the show’s original orchestrator, then lost for many years.

My personal joy at seeing “My Fair Lady” was tempered by the realization that it also represents the final directorial outing for Charles Abbott, who retires at the end of this season after a 31-year run, including the past 20 years as MSMT’s artistic director. I’ve treasured my friendship with Abbott for nearly two decades, and I’ll sorely miss his presence.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “My Fair Lady” through July 17 at various times at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit msmt.org.

Bowdoin International Music Festival

I’ve been attending concerts at the Bowdoin International Music Festival for about a decade, and most of them have been in the two main series: Wednesday Upbeat! and Festival Fridays. For 2010 I’ve been checking out some of the other opportunities.

The Monday Sonata series was established a couple of years ago when Bowdoin College transformed the former Curtis Natatorium (swimming pool) into Studzinski Hall. Initially used only for student recitals, festival Director Lewis Kaplan recalls that his faculty approached him and wanted to perform in the handsome new space with superb acoustics. To answer these requests, Kaplan created the Monday Sonata series.

This year there’s been another new twist. Each of the Monday concerts is followed by a meet-the-artists reception at the Brunswick Inn, a five-minute walk away. Hosted by innkeeper-owner Eileen Hornor, it’s an opportunity to chat over wine and cheese with some of the world’s top performing artists and conservatory professors in the parlor of the historic inn.

I’ve also attended some of the student concerts, recently renamed the Artists of Tomorrow series. As the name implies, these concerts provide the public an opportunity to see and hear the festival’s top young performers. It’s also a reminder that BIMF has about 280 students and music education is its primary function.

Programming for these concerts is a bit more interesting and varied. For example last Sunday’s bill of fare included two rare pieces for harp, including an enchanting harp duet, plus a post-graduate composition student playing a very interesting piece of his own creation.

Also new this year is a series of lecture-demonstrations. The first I attended was titled “Chopin in the Midst of a Piano Revolution.” The presentation was made by four men. Bates College professor James Parakilas is the author of a book on the history of the piano. Rodney Regier is a world-renowned Freeport craftsman who builds historic replica harpsichords and pianos. Cellist Steven Doane and pianist Barry Snyder performed snippets of a sonata, alternately using a contemporary Steinway and one of Regier’s early 19th-century replicas.

The lecture-demos are part of the Festival Extra series. The complete schedule of concerts and other events, plus online program notes and web links by Canadian musicologist Durrell Bowman, is available by visiting www.bowdoinfestival.org.

Clara Berry

And speaking of young and appealing up-and-coming artists, I recently met one the Portland music scene’s most intriguing singer-songwriters. Clara Berry is a 20-year-old from Kennebunk who has been composing, playing electronic keyboard and singing her own songs for the past six years.

She attends college in Massachusetts – majoring in the music business – but returns to her home state each summer and plays out often.

Berry has a fascinating and skillful style of interweaving melodic and poetic elements into a whole musical fabric, whether she’s performing solo or with a backup band. I recently caught a show in Portland when she introduced her new CD, titled “Creature.”

Some of Berry’s material is dark and thoughtful while other songs display a rare and mercurial sense of humor. Plus she avoids most of the cliches and pitfalls that plague some singer-songwriters. With an earnest performing style and distinctive red hair, Berry also boasts a commanding stage presence.

She’s got another Portland show coming up, at Blue, an intimate downtown eatery that’s been making gentle waves through the Port City music community by hosting an eclectic and highly varied program of local artists. Berry is scheduled to appear at 8 p.m. July 16. Find Blue at 650A Congress St.; call 774-4111.

Sidebar Elements

“My Fair Lady,” the current offering at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, is a truly memorable theatrical experience. From left: Peter Simon Hilton as Professor Henry Higgins, Kate Fisher as Eliza Doolittle and John-Charles Kelley as Colonel Pickering.