Out & About: 'Nutcracker' bigger, better than ever

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With Turkey Day behind us, the Christmas season is in full swing. And southern Maine’s arts and entertainment producers are out in full force for the next few weeks.

This weekend’s biggest Christmas show is Maine State Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” I was thrilled when I saw it last weekend, and urge anyone who hasn’t attended recently to get out to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium for the final four performances.

The Choral Art Society’s “Christmas at the Cathedral,” one of my personal favorite events of the season, is slated for four performances in Portland this Saturday and Sunday.

The annual production of Broadway at Good Theater, which typically features about 50 percent Christmas material, runs Dec. 1-4 in Portland.

Among non-Christmas offerings, Big Band Syndrome is a new locally produced event that features mostly original material by southern Maine musicians. BBS debuts Dec. 2 at Portland’s State Theatre.

‘The Nutcracker’

Bigger than ever. That’s the mantra for the Maine State Ballet’s 35th annual production of “The Nutcracker.” I revisited this show this past weekend after the absence of a few years, and I was thrilled with the experience. With a huge cast, live orchestra and elegant costumes, this is a big, big colorful event. If you haven’t seen MSB’s “Nutcracker” recently, I urge you to get out this weekend for the last four performances.

Artistic director for this (and the past 34) productions is MSB co-founder Linda MacArthur Miele, a former dancer with New York City Ballet under the direction of the legendary George Balanchine. She has licensed Balanchine’s copyrighted choreography for two of the scenes from the first act.

Dancers are drawn from MSB’s teaching staff and students. They range from pre-schoolers to fully professional adult dancers. The total number is 292, but because of rotating casts, not all appear on stage together. The 35-piece professional orchestra performs under the direction of Karla Kelley, while the dazzling costuming was created by MSM co-director Gail Csoboth.

Maine State Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall Dec. 2 at 7 p.m., Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Christmas at the Cathedral

Emotionally drained by the shopping madness of Black Friday? Then recover your Christmas spirit this weekend with something diametrically opposite, when the majesty of Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception provides a perfectly relaxed and spiritually uplifting venue for the Choral Art Society’s annual musical celebration of the season. Entering its 24th edition, Christmas at the Cathedral has become a personal favorite of mine.

The Society’s 60 voices perform a wide variety of holiday and seasonal pieces, accompanied by trumpets and brass from the Portland Brass Quintet and the organ, played by Dan Moore. The voices and instrumentalists fill the beautiful church all the way up to its magnificent vaulted ceiling.

Audiences will hear traditional holiday songs such as “The First Noel” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” among several other more rarely performed holiday pieces, some dating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A truly moving concert highlight is the candlelit procession and performance of “Silent Night,” which concludes the evening. 

There are four performances at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland: Dec. 3 at noon and 8 p.m., and Dec. 4 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call CAS at 828-0043.

Broadway at Good Theater

Another excellent annual event for the Christmas season is Broadway at Good Theater, which features local singers and a genuine star of American musical theater. The big names from New York perform with this small professional theater company thanks to the myriad Broadway connections of artistic director and co-founder Brian P. Allen.

The Broadway luminary for 2011 is Kevin Earley, who has played starring roles in “Les Miserables” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He’ll be joined by 17 singers from southern Maine, most of them longtime Good Theater performers, plus a three-piece band under the direction of Victoria Stubbs.

This year marks the professional company’s 10th anniversary, and Allen’s program pays tribute to prior productions, with show tunes from such musicals as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Spitfire Grill,” “Ruthless” and “Baby.” Seasonal and Christmas tunes were penned by top Broadway and Hollywood composers and lyricists of the mid-20th century.

“This is our biggest set of concerts yet,” Allen said. “I wanted to pull out all the stops for our 10th anniversary and I think we’ve done it. The cast of 18 is amazing, and to have this music performed live without microphones in the beautiful St. Lawrence space makes this my favorite event of the year.”

Catch Broadway at Good Theater at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland for five performances: Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 3 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 4 at 2 p.m. Call Good Theater at 885-5883.

Big Band Syndrome

A new musical event debuts this Friday in Portland, and it has nothing to do with Christmas. Big Band Syndrome, a production of the Fogcutters, transforms and transports contemporary music written by Maine singer-songwriters and local bands backwards in time into the format of the Big Band era of the mid-20th century.

The local musicians are Jacob Augustine, Dave Gutter (of Rustic Overtones/Paranoid Social Club), Spose, Darien Brahms, Zach Jones, Dominic Lavoie (of The Lucid), the Mallett Brothers, Lyle Divinsky and Sly-Chi.

The Fogcutters are a 21-piece big band with a fresh approach to a traditional style of music that incorporates modern sounds and a melting pot of musical styles. The band plays standard big band repertoire but isn’t afraid to cross into uncharted territories.

Two songs each from the local writers will be transformed into Big Band style, according to Brian Graham of the Fogcutters. “Most of the show will be original arrangements,” Graham said. “We will of course pay homage to the great bands that pioneered Big Band music, but the majority of the night will be original arrangements done by Maine musicians. One of the things that makes this show special is the fact that it’s 100 percent local. Everything you see and hear is produced by a local artist/musician.”

Catch this unique act at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland. Call 956-6000.

Sidebar Elements

Clara and the nutcracker prince take a journey through the Christmas Tree Forest to the Palace of Sweets in Maine State Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” which runs through this weekend in Portland.