Out & About: Rock musicals rock southern Maine

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Southern Maine rocks. That’s the take-home message from two theaters that are currently running big, successful rock musicals with stellar Broadway records.

“Rock of Ages,” one of the longest-running jukebox musicals in Broadway history, is the choice at Portland Players as the company closes out its 2016-2017 season with a very melodic and slightly raucous flourish. Imagine this stellar community production as a party, and it’s rocking in South Portland.

“Mamma Mia!,” which holds the undisputed title for longest-running jukebox musical in Broadway history, is the 2017 season-opener at Ogunquit Playhouse. “Mamma Mia!” is based on the songs of ABBA, the wildly successful Swedish foursome that dominated the world’s pop charts in the 1970s.

Palaver Strings is a Boston-based classical troupe that aims to perform for new audiences outside traditional orchestral venues. They’ll perform May 31 in Portland.

‘Rock of Ages’

Jukebox musicals have a checkered history on Broadway. Most have been flops or enjoyed limited success, while a tiny handful have been stellar hits. “Rock of Ages,” Portland Players’ current show, is one of the latter. Built around popular chart-toppers of the 1980s with a book by Chris D’Arienzo, “Rock of Ages” ran for nearly six years on Broadway.

Since closing two years ago, “Rock of Ages” has been on national tour, and recently the performing rights have become available to community companies. Portland Players is one of the first to exploit this opportunity, and the company does this fine show due justice with a splendid community production that runs through June 4.

D’Arienzo’s book revolves around a traditional dramatic model: a romantic matchup in the midst of cultural conflict. The setting is a Los Angeles rock club on Sunset Strip in the 1980s, and the romantic sparkle is provided by a young man from Michigan who dreams of being a rock star and a young woman from Kansas who aspires to be an actress.

Conflict and dramatic energy are provided by a variety of comic characters. Chief among them is the aging proprietor of the club and his hyperactive emcee, who also serves as a program narrator and comments on the action at times. Funniest is a drug-addled, sex-crazed, self-absorbed rock star. Plus there’s a greedy businessman, his effeminate son, a corrupt mayor and his hippie-style urban planner.

Briefly, the plot involves the businessman bribing the mayor and influencing him to condemn the club and raze it. The businessman needs the land in order to build a high-class shopping center. Needless to say, the denizens of the club resist in many ways.

And the music: Thirty-one songs, most of them very memorable hits from the 1980s, are interpolated into “Rock of Ages.” Examples include “Oh Sherrie,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “We Built This City” and of course “I Wanna Rock.”

Director Michael Donovan has assembled a wonderful cast, beginning with the romantic pairing of Michael Jenkins and Rachel Friedman. I particularly liked Friedman; her character is more robust and requires a wider range of acting talent, which she delivers.

TJ Scannell is funny as the club owner, but he’s somewhat upstaged by the antics of Sean Senior as his musical majordomo. David Van Duyne is the comic gem of the show; the rock idol’s role is underscored by a shoulder-length blond wig and Mick Jagger-style swagger.

Other fine comic turns are delivered by Mark Barrasso as the money-grubbing businessman, Dan Neuville as his feckless son and Jessica Libby as the leader of the opposition.

I’ve been attending Portland Players for about 25 years, and I think that this show was probably my best-ever experience. I hope to catch another performance before it closes.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “Rock of Ages” through June 4, with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-7337.

‘Mamma Mia!’

The pop music charts of the 1970s were dominated by a foursome from Sweden, known as ABBA from their first initials. Selling about 400 million albums, ABBA is rated as the second most popular ensemble in pop music history, following only the Beatles.

Nearly two decades after ABBA’s breakup, “Mamma Mia!,” a stage show based on the group’s songs – all written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus – became the longest-running jukebox musical in Broadway history, opening in 2001 and closing in 2015.

British playwright Catherine Johnson’s book is both interesting and clever, focusing on a middle-aged single woman and her 20-year-old daughter, whose upcoming wedding provides the dramatic context. Central to Johnson’s concept, the single mother is the principal romantic interest, with several parallel sidebar stories adding zest.

The score includes 24 songs, including all of the familiar ABBA hits, but the vocal and band arrangements are very different. Two of the songs, “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All,” give lead actress Jodie Langel a chance to show her vocal and dramatic powers.

Other top performances are given by Briana Rapa, as the bride-to-be, plus Angie Schworer and Kate Chapman as a pair of the mother’s old friends. Top male roles are David Engel, Fred Inkley and Patrick Cassidy.

The performance I attended this past weekend was sold out, and I expect that most of the rest of the run will sell out too. For good reason.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1, presents “Mamma Mia!” through July 1. Call 646-5511 or visit ogunquitplayhouse.org.

Palaver Strings

Nearly every classical musician dreams of ways to bring new audiences to orchestral concerts. Boston-based Palaver Strings is a member-directed ensemble that believes that one way is to concertize in smaller, non-traditional venues. These include alfresco performances and concerts in smaller venues that usually feature popular acts.

That’s what’s happening on May 31, when the 10 or so – the exact number varies a bit – Palaver Strings musicians play One Longfellow Square. Their program comprises a number of light classical pieces by traditional European composers such as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Arensky and Bela Bartok.

The most familiar piece will be “Simple Gifts,” variations on a theme written in Maine in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett of the United Society of Shakers. “Simple Gifts” is one of the most familiar American melodies ever written.

Catch Palaver Strings at 8 p.m. May 31 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Palaver Strings is a small orchestra that aims to bring classical performances to new audiences in non-traditional venues. The ensemble is slated to perform in Portland on May 31.

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  • Colton

    Two classics! Great read 🙂

    – coltonsblog.com