Out & About: Powerful musicals in Brunswick, Ogunquit

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July is here, and that means full throttle on the summer schedule of performing arts, with special emphasis this week on our state’s two premier musical theater companies.

In Brunswick, Maine State Music Theatre just opened its revival of “Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance.” First produced in 1996 by the company, it is based on the very real exploits of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Gettysburg, governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College.

Looking south, Ogunquit Playhouse has mounted the New England premiere of “Billy Elliot,” another musical that is set in a time of conflict.

‘Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance’

July 2, 1863, marked the turning point in the American Civil War, the moment when the struggling Union army stopped a mighty Confederate force at the Battle of Gettysburg. The crucial spot on that vast battlefield on that fateful day was Little Round Top, a modest hill where a small number of Union soldiers – including the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment – repulsed repeated attacks by a much larger Confederate force.

Multiple Confederate attacks took a fearsome toll on the 20th Maine, and after several hours of constant fighting, the men were outnumbered and out of ammunition. The Confederacy might have won the battle on the next attack, then smashed through the Union lines and continued their drive toward Washington, D.C.

But the tide at Gettysburg was turned when the commander of the 20th Maine, a colonel from Brunswick, ordered a desperate downhill charge with bayonets, an extraordinary move that surprised, scattered and ultimately defeated the men in gray.

After the war, Chamberlain returned to a well-deserved hero’s welcome in Brunswick. He was later elected governor of Maine and subsequently selected as the president of Bowdoin College. He is lionized by historians to the present day.

Far less known was Chamberlain’s private life. The fascinating, intertwined story of the public figure and private man is the subject of the current show at Maine State Music Theatre. “Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance” was commissioned by MSMT and written by the husband-wife team of Steve Alper (music) and Sarah Knapp (libretto).

I was there when “Chamberlain” premiered in 1996, and I was mesmerized again last week when it was revived for the 2014 season. “Chamberlain” recounts his victories on the war front and his domestic struggles on the home front with a thoroughly compelling narrative and engaging melodic score. Director Marc Robin has assembled a first-rate professional team to bring this classic of enduring love and timeless values to a Maine stage.

Told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, “Chamberlain” begins in the 1850s, as an aspiring Bowdoin College student, who knows seven modern and ancient languages, courts Fannie Adams, the strong-willed daughter of a Brunswick minister. They marry when he is appointed professor of rhetoric and religion. But the Civil War soon intervenes, and the two are separated, much to Fannie’s distress.

Both are physically afflicted in ways that shape their lives. Chamberlain returns from the war with a disability caused by a bullet wound, while Fannie suffers from a congenital eye disease that leaves her blind.

I loved James Patterson, who is strong and passionate as the title character. He is wonderfully paired with Kathy Voytko, who brilliantly and plays the difficult role as the emotionally needy wife of a national hero and famous public figure. (Co-author Knapp played Fannie in the original.)

Top supporting performances are given by Ben Mayne and Sam Weber as Chamberlain’s two brothers; their very different weaknesses provide a dramatic foil to the war hero’s excellence.

Kudos are earned by the technical team – scenery, lighting and costumes – of Robert Klingelhoefer, Jeffrey Koger and Kurt Alger. With so much of the action taking place a stone’s throw from the stage – the Chamberlains’ house is just across Maine Street – this production deserves and gets this team’s all-stops approach.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance” through July 12 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. For complete ticket and schedule info, call 725-8769 or visit msmt.org.

‘Billy Elliot: The Musical’

Another tale of passion amidst conflict is the subject of another powerful musical that opened last week. “Billy Elliot,” a British musical that won 10 Tony Awards during its three-year Broadway run, is getting its New England premiere at Ogunquit Playhouse.

Based on the film of the same name, the musical version boasts a libretto by Lee Hall (who also wrote the screenplay) with music by Elton John.

The background is economic strife. In 1984 many thousands (but not all) British coal miners went on a year-long strike to protest the looming closures of money-losing government-owned collieries in northern England. After a year of desperate economic hardship and many ugly incidences of violence on the picket lines, the miners caved in, calling off the strike without achieving any of their demands.

Against this backdrop is the story of the title character, an 11-year-old boy who improbably discovers himself through the medium of ballet. The story that unfolds through dialogue, song and dance follows Billy’s struggle to establish his own identity and grow up to be the man he wants to be – against the opposition of family and community, who are mostly angry, desperate striking miners.

Ogunquit’s executive artistic director Brad Kenney has assembled an outstanding team to bring this hit to Maine, beginning by hiring two men associated with the Broadway production and the national touring company: director B.T. McNicholl and choreographer Adam Pelty.

Two Billys rotate through the run. Noah Parets played the role during the 2012-2013 national tour, while Sam Faulker, debuting as Billy, has appeared in more than 20 professional productions around the U.S.

I loved this show, beginning with the powerful prologue: “Stars Look Down.” Other topnotch scenes range from big and comical – a third-rate ballet school for untalented girls – to powerful intimate numbers, including solos by Billy and his dad. “Angry Dance” and “Electricity” are show-stopping terpsichorean triumphs.

The supporting cast is outstanding, with a special nod to Anastasia Barzee as the gin-tippling ballet mistress. She first recognizes Billy’s talent, nurtures his passion for dance and advances his dreams. Also outstanding are Armand Schultz, playing Billy’s dad, Anthony Festa, as Billy’s older brother, and Dale Soules, as his grandmother.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Rt. 1, presents “Billy Elliot: The Musical” through July 26. For complete ticket info and schedule, call 646-5511 or visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.

Sidebar Elements

James Patterson, playing a young Bowdoin College professor, courts Kathy Voytko, playing a minister’s daughter, in Maine State Music Theatre’s current revival of “Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance.”