Out & About: New comedy, new jazz, new director

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The element of newness powers all of this week’s top picks of the tix. Topping the list is the Maine premiere of “The Grand Manner,” the most recent effort by celebrated American playwright A.R. Gurney, who has crafted a number of wonderful comedies in the classic mold. Portland’s Good Theater opened its “grand” production last weekend.

In Gorham, the University of Southern Maine School of Music has a novel faculty concert slated for Friday that revolves around tunes written by rockers such as the Beatles and Radiohead.

In Brunswick and Portland, Oratorio Chorale will have its first public outing under the baton of new music director Emily Isaacson, who replaces Peter Frewen. Isaacson’s program is titled “Musical Fireworks,” and it includes several familiar pieces, plus one Maine premiere.

‘The Grand Manner’

Among living American playwrights, I think I like A.R. “Pete” Gurney the best. His oeuvre mostly comprises genteel comedies about nice people and includes masterpieces such as “Love Letters,” “The Cocktail Hour,” “The Dining Room” and “Silvia.”

His newest is an overtly autobiographical play titled “The Grand Manner,” and Portland’s Good Theater is producing its Maine premiere.

“The Grand Manner” is a valentine to the theater and the offbeat and fascinating characters who inhabit it. Plus I sense that’s it’s also a sort of valediction for the 83-year-old playwright, who grew up in Buffalo and taught humanities for many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The historical basis is a very brief real-life encounter in 1948 between the playwright, then a teenage prep school student in New Hampshire, and 55-year-old Katherine Cornell, the acclaimed “first lady of American theater.”

With four characters – Gurney himself, diva Cornell, her gay husband and her officious lesbian lover – “The Grand Manner” recalls (and partly imagines) a multi-hued portrait of American theater at the crossroads of change immediately following World War II. It’s very funny, very informative and leaves audiences wishing for more.

I liked the lead characters very much: Tristan Rolfe and Denise Poirier’ they get excellent support from Tony Reilly and Maureen Butler in the secondary roles. Kudos also to scenic designer Cheryl Dolan.

Brian Allen directs with a personal flair; his memories of a decade working with a similar larger-than-life Broadway character are included in the program notes. These life-changing experiences clearly inspire this wonderful production.

Performances are slated through Nov. 24 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill). Performance times are 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call Good Theater at 885-5883.

University of Southern Maine Faculty Jazz Ensemble

This Friday the Faculty Jazz Ensemble of the University of Southern Maine School of Music will give its only public performance of the 2013-2014 academic year with an intriguing program that crosses genre boundaries and stretches established concepts.

I’ve been attending these concerts for close to two decades, and I’ve reserved my seat for this one.

The program is titled “The New Standard” and it involves re-imagining and re-casting rock music into the idiom of modern jazz. The program will be led by USM jazz prof Brent LaCasce on trumpet and vocals. He’ll be joined by Barry Saunders on saxophone, Bill Street on saxophone, Christopher Oberholtzer on trombone, Jed Wilson on piano, Gary Wittner on guitar, Broneck Suchanek on bass, Les Harris Jr. on drums and Micah Maurio on trumpet.

Here’s the big idea. Back in the heyday of jazz, innovative artists such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane turned to the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen for their inspiration. The resulting style, which evolved from the 1920s-1950s, is what is now known as “the jazz standard.”

In a similar creative vein, LaCasce and the USM Faculty Jazz Ensemble will focus to pop and rock music from the 1960s through today for inspiration, de-constructing and re-imagining the original instrumentations in an exploration of a modern jazz standard. For Friday’s concert LaCasce has picked melodies of Radiohead, Prince, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and other contemporary pop and rock artists.

LaCasce says that while he and the ensemble are respectful of the original composer of each song, they’re taking the tunes in a direction those artists would never have imagined.

“I take the lyrics or the melody, place it on the blank canvas and see what happens,” he explains.

Catch the USM Faculty Jazz Ensemble at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Oratorio Chorale

For the first time in nearly three decades, the Midcoast-based Oratorio Chorale has a new music director, and she’ll step up to the podium for her debut in two concerts this weekend in Brunswick and Portland.

For Midcoast music aficionados, Emily Isaacson is hardly a new face. She grew up and got her initial musical training in Brunswick. Nowadays she lives in Boston, where she is very active with several Bay State musical ensembles, and commutes via Amtrak.

Isaacson has earned master’s degrees from Edinburgh (Scotland) University and the University of Oregon and is currently a doctoral candidate in choral conducting at the University of Illinois.

She is also an advocate of new music, and was part of a team that created and produced the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition.

Isaacson takes over from the retiring Peter Frewen, who led the Oratorio Chorale for 27 years and helped turn it into one of Maine’s cultural gems.

This weekend the Chorale will be joined by the Portland Brass Quintet, the Maine Chamber Ensemble, organist Ray Cornils and three vocal soloists: soprano Jessica Petrus, mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo and baritone John D. Adams.

Isaacson’s program includes six works, combining old and familiar with brand new and/or less familiar. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn are the two best known composers, plus there will be a new contemporary work with several out-of-the-box features. Isaacson points out that this weekend’s Maine premiere of an excerpt from American composer Scott Ordway’s “The Festival Mass” uses the very unconventional instrumentation of voices, organ, strings, timpani and brass quintet.

Two performances are planned: Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 333 Maine St. in Brunswick, and Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call 798-7985.

Sidebar Elements

A young man and an aging Broadway star, played, repectively, by Tristan Rolfe, left, and Denise Poirier, are the principal characters in “The Grand Manner,” a classic comedy by A.R. Gurney that runs through Nov. 24 at Portland’s Good Theater.