Out & About: Summer theater, festivals in full swing

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We’re still a week away from the astronomical start of summer, but Maine’s seasonal theater and music festivals won’t wait for the solstice.

In Brunswick, Maine State Music Theatre lifted the curtain on its 53rd summer season last week with a wonderful professional production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a tuneful and nostalgic jukebox musical that recycles many popular songs associated with female artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

Arundel Barn Playhouse opened its 2011 summer season last week with a professional production of “The 39 Steps,” a comical send-up of the famous Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller.

Maine’s bluegrass aficionados have seen the number of festivals dwindle over the past few years, with several going out of business entirely or morphing into something else. But one of the state’s best is getting better: The Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival has a new home at the Litchfield Fairground and top national and local artists are slated to appear daily through June 19.

‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’

Summer theater schedules are traditionally dominated by fluffy, funny, tuneful musical fare. That’s exactly what’s offered in Brunswick through June 25 as Maine State Music Theater opens its 2011 season with “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a nostalgic stroll down memory lane.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is an exemplar of the “jukebox musical,” a stage show where a selection of unrelated pop songs that were originally written and performed by various disparate artists are assembled around a minimal story line, thinly drawn characters and a few other unifying features.

Roger Bean wrote the script, and his unifying aesthetic is the female artists and girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a period when solo singers Connie Francis and Brenda Lee were at their peak of popularity. Ditto an assortment of all-female close-harmony vocal ensembles such as the Chordettes, Marvelettes, Shirelles and Crystals. Some of these groups formed in high school and scored their biggest hits before they reached their twenties.

That’s the story of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” four teenagers who won a high school competition. The setting is the 1958 Springfield High School senior prom, and Bean’s young ladies are performing at the big dance. Cindy Lou (Linda Seibert) is the prettiest, most popular and most poised. She knows it, and acts accordingly. Betty Jean (Brittney Morello) is her rival and tends to act out. Missy (Morgan Smith) is awkward and geeky, while Suzy (Danielle Erin Rhodes) is the archetypal dumb blonde, complete with a mouth full of malapropisms and bubble gum.

The second act is the class reunion 10 years later. The tone is more somber, and the women, now in their late 20s, have logged some experience in life, including unfaithful boyfriends and philandering husbands.

The music that Bean has selected recycles about two dozen hit tunes, including the Chordettes’ two biggest: “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop.” Others fondly recall an assortment of different girl groups and female artists. Among the most memorable songs are “Lipstick On Your Collar” and “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To).”

I loved this very tuneful, joyfully nostalgic show. MSMT’s four very appealing actresses boast fine voices and excellent stage presences, and their big crinoline skirts gaily recall the fashions of the times. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a perfect way to start the summer theater season on just the right note.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “The Marvelous Wonderettes” through June 25 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or go to msmt.org.

‘The 39 Steps’

Mysteries and comedies are the two other legs of the summer theater triad, and Arundel Barn Playhouse opens its 2011 season with a show that combines both genres. “The 39 Steps” is a comic send-up of the famous 1930s-era Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller of the same name.

The script follows a familiar Hitchcock story arc: An innocent man is falsely accused and is pursued by a band of villains. In the hands of playwright Patrick Barlow, “The 39 Steps” has been transformed into a British spy farce. As an added fillip, Barlow’s version faithfully reconstructs virtually the entire Hitchcock script – which involves a Nazi spy ring that’s stealing British aviation secrets – using only four actors.

The principal male actor tackles the hero role, while one actress plays a trio of love interests. Two other actors play about 100 parts, often only for a few seconds at a time.

Barlow’s version of “The 39 Steps” is an over-the-top, fast-paced parody of the Hitchcock film that careens from crisis to crisis, interpolated with shootings and chase scenes.

Director Gary John LaRosa helms a cast of four professional actors from the New York area. Matthew Krob, playing the lead character, is a picture-perfect example of sophisticated, virile manhood who is a perfect fit for the hero role, while Jessica Morgan adroitly plays his three dim-witted love interests.

Robert Rice and Danny Prather gallop through a wide gamut of secondary parts, including policemen, railroad conductors, vaudeville actors and assorted villains.

Needless to say, the fiendishly clever Nazi plot unravels and Britain’s secrets are saved – with a million laughs.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, just off Route 1, presents “The 39 Steps” through June 25. Call 985-5552 or go to arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival

It’s been a blue decade for Maine’s bluegrass fans, with two major festivals going out of business and a third transforming itself into something else. But one of the best of the rest is getting better. The Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival has a new venue at the Litchfield Fairground and the 2011 lineup of artists includes major national acts plus a variety of local artists.

Most of the music is scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, all day Saturday and Sunday into the early afternoon. Bring your own lawn chairs, plus sunscreen, bug dope and clothing suitable for chilly Maine evenings. (In case of rain, there’s a tent.)

The top three national headliners are Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Nothin’ Fancy and Dan Paisley & Southern Grass. New England acts include Cumberland Crossing, Wilf Clark & The Misty Mountaineers, White Mountain Bluegrass and the host band, Blistered Fingers. The top Canadian act is Bluegrass Diamonds.

I’ve attended this alfresco shindig several times in the past, and this weekend I look forward to reacquainting myself with the Blistered Fingers Festival, and with Greg and Sandy Cormier, the energetic and affable Waterville couple who run the show. For details, including the full schedule, call 873-6539 or visit blisteredfingers.com.

Sidebar Elements

Girl groups and female artists of the 1950s and 1960s are fondly recalled in “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a jukebox musical that opens the 2011 summer season at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick.