Out & About: ‘Tis the season for Christmas entertainment

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Leftover turkey is the typical Maine family’s plat du jour in the days following Thanksgiving, but there’s a big platter of tasty, Christmas-y arts and entertainment offerings, too.

Lyric Music Theatre is currently running a musical version of “A Christmas Carol.” This is the big Broadway-style adaptation of Charles Dickens’ perennially popular novella, and performances are slated through the next two weekends in South Portland.

Also running through the next two weekends is Maine State Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” This annual event happens in Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, complete with live orchestra.

The University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers hold their annual public Christmas concert, titled “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season,” on Nov. 28 in Portland.

Canadian fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy and their children are on tour with their popular “A Celtic Family Christmas.” This big musical family will motor into Merrill Auditorium Nov. 29, hosted by Portland Ovations.

‘A Christmas Carol’

One hundred seventy-four years ago, British novelist Charles Dickens published his most popular and enduring book, a thin volume titled “A Christmas Carol.” In the many decades following, Dickens’ ghostly little tale of avarice, revelation and redemption has proven immensely popular, and many stage adaptations have been produced. (Because it is in the public domain, anyone can write one without worrying about copyright restrictions.)

In 1994 a Broadway-style musical adaptation was staged in New York. I say “Broadway-style” because it debuted in a large Manhattan theater that is not officially considered to be a Broadway stage, and thus the show is not eligible for a Tony Award.

But the creative team was Broadway royalty. Composer Alan Menken had a Tony on his shelf – in addition to 11 Grammys and nine Oscars. Lyricist and co-librettist Lynn Ahrens, writing the book with Mike Ockrent, had also copped a Tony. And its large cast was definitely in the style of the big Broadway musical. For 10 years, between 1994 and 2003 this show was presented during the month of December.

“A Christmas Carol” is a superbly crafted musical, and it’s the second offering of Lyric Music Theater’s 2017-2018 season.

Ahrens and Ockrent take some liberties with Dickens’ original story, adding a few small scenes and characters, but their libretto faithfully adheres to the spirit of the original story. Added scenes? There’s a short courtroom scene where young Ebenezer Scrooge’s father is sentenced to debtors prison – something straight out of Dickens’ own childhood, but not included in his story.

New characters? A chorus of eight gravediggers and eight nuns has been added. They seem to fit in just fine, but the quartet of scantily clad tap dancers had me baffled.

Lyric has mounted a fine community production, led by Bob Gauthier as Mr. Bah Humbug himself. I would have preferred a little more avaricious edge to Gauthier’s interpretation, but his subsequent redemption is quite uplifting.

Karen Stickney is outstanding as the Ghost of Christmas Past. I’ve admired her voice and stage presence for more than 25 years, and she literally shines in this show. She also delivers Menken’s most memorable melody, “The Lights of Long Ago.”

Other fine performances are given by Jonathan Libby as Bob Cratchit, Joshua Chard as Jacob Marley and Paul Stickney as Mr. Fezziwig. Director is Don Smith, with musical direction by Jaye Churchill.

This show definitely belongs on your Christmas list.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 3 with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-1421.

‘The Nutcracker’

For the past four-plus decades, people have been flocking to Maine State Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” on the two weekends after Thanksgiving. This year will continue the tradition, and about 10,000 people are expected to attend the biggest and longest-running Christmas show in Portland. An extra performance has been added to the 2017 schedule.

Hundreds of dancers, ranging from 30 experienced professionals to 6-year-old children, will perform on stage, directed by MSB founder Linda MacArthur Miele. Forty-five professional musicians, under the direction of Karla M. Kelley Brenner, will play Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s celebrated score.

Maine State Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for eight performances: 2 p.m. Nov. 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 25, 2 p.m. Nov. 26, 2 p.m. Dec. 1, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 2 and 2 p.m. Dec. 3. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

USM Chamber Singers

Another annual event that’s normally scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving is the fall concert of the University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers, usually held in downtown Portland. I’ve been a regular attendee for about a decade, and it’s definitely marked on my calendar for 2017.

The USM Chamber Singers number about 25, and represent the top students in the university’s choral program. Since 2015 the director has been music prof Nicolas Alberto Dosman, who has proved to be a very popular successor to Robert Russell, who directed the ensemble for three decades.

The concert is titled “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season,” and it includes a selection of Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, often featuring several very unusual selections from foreign lands and disparate cultures.

The University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers present “Joyous Sounds for a Festive Season” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28 at Williston-Immanuel United Church, 156 High St. in downtown Portland. Call 780-5555.

‘A Celtic Family Christmas’

Two top Canadian fiddlers, each with a stellar career as a solo artist, marry and produce a musical family. Then the whole lot of them go on tour.

That’s the story behind “A Celtic Family Christmas,” which stars Cape Breton fiddle wiz Natalie MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy, who hails from the Irish tradition. Together with their six kids – the youngest is 3 – they’re touring in support of their 2016 best-selling Christmas CD of the same title.

MacMaster’s fiddling style evolved from Scottish traditions, and she has copped two Juno Awards – the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys – over her stellar career, performing solo and in multiple ensembles. Her husband is the leader of Leahy, an eight-sibling Ontario-based traditional Irish band that goes by the family name. Leahy, too, has a pair of Junos on the mantlepiece.

Portland Ovations presents “A Celtic Family Christmas” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Lyric Music Theater presents a Broadway-style musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 3 in South Portland.

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