Out & About: ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and Willie Nelson are top choices

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Fields of goldenrod mark the second full month of the summer, and the seasonal offerings in music and theater continue at a hot pace.

The most notable offering in musical theater opened in Ogunquit last week: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” is a dark tragedy based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film of the same name.

Willie Nelson, the gravel-voiced singer-songwriter who’s been on top of the country music scene for five decades, comes to the Port City Aug. 11, courtesy of Portland Ovations.

Portland Chamber Music Festival, an annual late-summer event since 1994, starts its 2010 season on Aug. 12. The festival has become known for championing new music by living composers.

‘Sunset Boulevard’

Andrew Lloyd Webber is the most successful composer for the stage of the late 20th century, boasting an incredible string of hits on London’s West End and Broadway beginning in the 1970s.

One of Webber’s darkest shows is “Sunset Boulevard,” a tragedy that’s closely based on the celebrated 1950 Billy Wilder film of the same name. With libretto by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, “Sunset Boulevard” opened on the West End in 1993 and enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway between 1994 and 1997. That production garnered 11 Tony Award nominations, and won seven.

Performance rights to this show are not yet generally available to regional theater companies, so Ogunquit Playhouse has scored quite a coup by producing the New England premier.

Set in the late 1940s, “Sunset Boulevard” follows a young Hollywood screenwriter (Todd Gearhart) who’s down on his luck. To make ends meet, he collaborates on a script written by an aging and largely forgotten movie star (Stefanie Powers) from the silent film era. Despite a 20-year age difference, the faded film star also has romantic designs on the young man.

Powers, best-known as a television star, is the central figure in the show, but I couldn’t really warm up to her character until early in the second act, when she performs “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” one of Webber’s best-known songs.

Gearhart is superb throughout, alternating between lead character and occasionally stepping aside to narrate. I also loved two of the supporting cast, Sal Mistretta and Christina Decicco. Ogunquit’s elaborate sets (Todd Edward Ivins) and costumes (Anthony Powell) are other highlights of this wonderful production.

Ogunquit Playhouse, on Route 1 a half-mile south of the village, presents “Sunset Boulevard” at various days and times through Aug. 14. Call 646-5511 or visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.

Willie Nelson

Country music fans have been “crazy” about Willie Nelson’s music since the 1960s, when the 30-something songwriter penned top-selling hits for Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison, including the legendary “Crazy” and “Pretty Paper.”

But Nelson couldn’t find the same success as a singer. For the first decade of his career, Nelson’s deep gravelly voice – his instantly recognizable signature style – was deemed too out of fashion by the solons of Nashville’s Music Row.

But in the 1970s Nelson achieved megastar status after a few shrewd business moves that included switching record labels, which allowed him the artistic freedom to create and sing in his own voice. “Shotgun Willie,” his 1973 breakout album on the Atlantic label – a non-Nashville imprimatur – marked the watershed of his career.

The height of his popularity arrived in the mid-1970s, when he was the acknowledged leader of the “outlaw country” movement. It’s worth noting that “outlaw” referred to thumbing his nose at Nashville conventions and working in Austin, Texas, instead of Music City. Hits from those years included my personal favorite: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

Not wanting to argue with success – multiple gold records and multiple Grammy Awards – Nashville has since embraced Nelson as one of their own. For the past four decades Nelson has been recording, writing and touring – plus he’s appeared in a number of movies – as a solo artist and in collaboration with others. Willie Nelson and Family is one of those collaborations, which features the icon himself plus kith and kin.

Portland Ovations presents Willie Nelson and Family Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

Back in August of 1994, two highly talented and energetic 20-something women with a yearning to play more chamber music opened Maine’s newest classical festival with four days of concerts at the University of New England on Stevens Avenue.

I remember attending all four of those first-year concerts, and “Out & About” noted the very polished performances – as well as the enthusiastic response from the distressingly tiny audiences.

Fast forward 16 years. Violinist Jenny Elowitch, a Portland native, and pianist Dena Levine, a New Yorker with a distinguished musical pedigree, are both 40-something moms whose initial vision has been totally fulfilled: The Portland Chamber Music Festival, which opens Aug. 12, has gained national recognition as one of the best small gatherings of its type, and Elowitch and Levine have been cited as notable arts entrepreneurs.

There have been a number of changes over the years. Those minuscule audiences of 1994 grew to the point where the festival had to find a bigger venue. It’s currently ensconced in Hannaford Hall in the Abromson Community Education Center, one of several new buildings on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.

PCMF has always featured new music by living composers. The current festival expands and extends that advocacy with a national competition and ongoing recognition of Maine composers. Bowdoin College professor Elliott Schwartz has been involved from the beginning. Several of his compositions have been played over the years, and for 2010 he delivers the pre-concert lectures on all four evenings.

The featured Maine composer this year is Daniel Sonenberg, a USM scholar-performer. He will be represented on the festival’s first concert this season with “Whistlesparks,” a piece written for the unusual combination of flute and harp.

Each of the other three evenings showcases a contemporary work. The Aug. 14 concert features Chen Yi’s “Happy Rain on a Spring Night,” scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Andrew List’s “Six Bagatelles for String Trio,” the winner of the fifth annual PCMF new music competition, will be played Aug. 19. The contemporary music series wraps up Aug. 21 with Charles Loeffler’s “Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano.”

All concerts take place at 8 p.m. at Hannaford Hall, 88 Bedford St. in Portland. For details, visit www.pcmf.org.

Sidebar Elements

A young Hollywood screenwriter and a former movie star are the principal characters in “Sunset Boulevard,” running through Aug. 14 at Ogunquit Playhouse.