Out & About: The Christmas arts, entertainment season opens

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Thanksgiving weekend marks the traditional start of the Christmas season in both shopping and the arts.

While leaving the shopping reportage to others, let’s look at some of the offerings on the arts and entertainment side of the ledger.

Lyric Music Theater opened its second production of 2011-2012 last weekend in South Portland. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a stage version of the iconic 1944 MGM musical film. Although it isn’t a Christmas show per se, its climactic scene happens on Christmas Eve with a happy family united around a gaily decorated tree.

University of Southern Maine School of Music has a number of offerings coming up. One of its best is “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season,” an a cappella concert by the USM Chamber Singers. There are also a number of end-of-semester student performances – with very low (or zero) admission fees that can help stretch the shopping budget.

‘Meet Me In St. Louis’

Let’s start this mini-review with a confession: I adore “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the 1944 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer musical film that starred Judy Garland, Lucille Bremer and Margaret O’Brien. The film’s wholesome Midwestern aesthetic values, expressed in gorgeous music and portrayed by a totally lovable American family appeal to me greatly.

It is also an icon of American culture. The American Film Institute ranked “Meet Me in St. Louis” at the No. 10 position on its list of the greatest musical movies, and the Library of Congress has rated it as “culturally significant.”

Three of the show’s musical numbers remain in today’s popular canon, even when totally divorced from their original settings: “The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis.”

When such a wonderful classic film is adapted to the stage, there’s naturally some apprehension. In the case of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the misgivings were justified. The 1994 Broadway musical ran for less than a year and has largely been forgotten.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version of “Meet Me in St. Louis” when it opened at Lyric Musical Theater last weekend. It’s a wonderfully melodic evening of entertainment, and Lyric is a fine community company that is perfectly suited to present this show.

The plot is utterly inconsequential, and that’s part of its charm. On the eve of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition, held in St. Louis, the story principally revolves around the ups and downs of the marriage prospects of two teenage daughters of a prosperous family in the city. It’s the old boy-meets-girl story, told twice in parallel, that results in two marriages as the fair finally opens. Several major scenes and turning points revolve around a precocious pre-teen, a younger sister of the two principal love interests.

Lyric’s fine community production revolves around two women. Josephine Cooper and Celeste Green play the two teenagers and perform most of the best-known songs. Cooper is the younger of the pair, and her infatuation with a boy who has just moved next door, played by Schuyler White, is the principal thread of the plot. I liked Cooper’s ingenuous charm; without it the show would unravel. Green is Lyric’s newest star; she plays the secondary love interest in “St. Louis,” the older and very slightly wiser sister.

As in the movie, the precocious pre-teen is also one of the show’s principal attractions. Twelve-year-old Alicia Fournier is the catalyst for several of the show’s scenes in Lyric’s production. She’s totally captivating.

Other good performances are given by David Smith, Lisa Smith, John Robinson, Quinn Malter, Janie Downey Maxwell and Bill McCue. Louise Kezar’s costuming is elegant and effective.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “Meet Me in St. Louis” through Dec. 3 with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday plus 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Call 799-1421.

University of Southern Maine

Two factors are responsible for the upcoming outpouring of talent at the University of Southern Maine School of Music: the holiday season and the end of the fall semester.

I’ve been a regular attendee at USM faculty and student performances for nearly two decades and I’ve enjoyed every minute. Here’s a brief summary of what’s happening music-wise at USM. Venues include the Gorham and Portland campuses plus Portland.

• “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season,” Nov. 29. The USM Chamber Singers is the school’s principal a cappella ensemble, directed by longtime music professor Robert Russell. The program will include a variety of works. Classical composers include Felix Mendelssohn – part of the 200th anniversary of his birth celebration – and Gerald Finzi. Seasonal songs include “The Huron Carol,” which is based on a Native American theme, plus a candlelit presentation of “Silent Night.” Venue is Immanuel Baptist Church, 156 High St. in Portland. Time is 7:30 p.m.

• USM Jazz Ensembles, Dec. 1. Several of the jazz groups at the school will perform a program that ranges from Big Band to modern under the direction of professors Chris Oberholtzer and Mark Tipton. Local composers Craig Skeffington and Michael Sakash will also be featured. Venue is Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Time is 7:30 p.m.

• 21st Anniversary Music Scholarship Gala, Dec. 2. This fine evening is a benefit for the scholarship fund at the USM School of Music. The school’s principal student ensembles will perform, and the evening is also a major gastronomic happening. Venue is Abromson Community Education Center, 88 Bedford St. on the USM Portland campus. Time is 5:30 p.m.

• USM Opera Workshop, Dec. 3. I’ve attended several of the USM opera workshop performances over the years and I’m always positively impressed with the young talent, under the direction of longtime voice professor Ellen Chickering. The program includes excerpts from famous and less-famous operas. Among my personal favorites is Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Venue is Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Time is 5 p.m.

• USM Composers’ Ensemble, Dec. 3. Students in the composition program under the tutelage of professor Nancy Gunn will showcase their works. Venue is Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Time is 8 p.m.

• USM Graduate Showcase, Dec. 4. Ever wonder what happens to the USM School of Music students after they graduate? Here’s an opportunity to see and hear some of those former students as they enjoy professional careers in an event coordinated by professor Ellen Chickering. Performers include two vocalists, two pianists plus a hornist and violist. Venue is Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Time is 5 p.m.

The contact phone for all USM School of Music performances is 780-5555.

Sidebar Elements

University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers will present “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season” in Portland on Tuesday, Nov. 29.