Out & About: Top picks: ‘Lord of the Dance’ in Portland, ‘Lady Day’ in Freeport

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Two of the most compelling figures in performing arts are represented on southern Maine stages this weekend.

Chicago-born Irish dancing champion Michael Flatley is the creator of “Lord of the Dance,” a global terpsichorean sensation for more than a decade. Although he no longer dances the title role, which he created for himself, Flatley is now the producer of a worldwide perpetual touring company that visits Portland on Friday.

The second compelling figure died more than half a century ago: Jazz singer Billie Holiday is the central figure in the biographical stage musical titled “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which runs through April 14 in Freeport.

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards will play One Longfellow Square in Portland. He’s best known for “Sunshine,” a 1971 hit that still powers his career. One Longfellow Square also has an important fund-raising concert next week.

‘Lord of the Dance’

Southern Maine’s recent string of terpsichorean spectaculars – three straight weeks with major ballet productions – continues on April 6 with two performances of an international dance phenomenon that’s been going strong since the mid-1990s.

“Lord of the Dance” is a terpsichorean extravaganza with original music composed by Ronan Hardiman and nearly two hours of spectacular dancing choreographed by Michael Flatley. For more than a decade a pair of professional dance troupes have been touring the world; one of them visits Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Friday.

The plot follows a fascinating version of an ancient story. Sometime in the misty past there’s a handsome hero – the Lord of the Dance – who confronts an evil villain and they battle for the soul of Ireland. Plus there’s a romantic sub-plot: The hero is attracted to a fair colleen, but there’s a temptress who temporarily diverts his attention.

You won’t hold your breath awaiting the fairly obvious outcome of these struggles, but the story unfolds in successive waves of stunning dance numbers that are truly breathtaking, augmented by pyrotechnics and other special effects. The thrilling choreography was created by Chicago-born Flatley, who won successive World Irish Dance Championships and twice held the Guinness world record for high-speed tap-dancing.

“Lord of the Dance” visits Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for two performances: 4 and 8 p.m. on April 6. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’

Billie Holiday was America’s preeminent jazz vocalist of the 1930s through 1950s, a woman whose choice of material and innovations in tempo and phrasing helped redefine the genre and exerted a lasting influence on pop music of all kinds.

An African-American who lived from 1915 to 1959, Holiday led a difficult and tempestuous life, which began with a broken family and was later checkered with stints as a prostitute, jail sentences and long-term addiction to drugs.

Often called “Lady Day,” Holiday’s turbulent life and much of her best-remembered music is recalled in a stage show written by Lanie Robertson. Titled “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” the play is a one-woman tour de force that engages and entertains. Freeport Factory Stage is currently running a fine professional production of this show through April 14.

The title role is played by Mardra Thomas, herself a professional jazz singer of some considerable repute. Thomas’ stellar performance captures the singer’s alternate states of happiness and sadness, success and failure. She’s ably accompanied on piano by Flash Allen, who also has a tiny acting role. Director is Julie George-Carlson.

Holiday’s two signature songs, “God Bless the Child,” which she wrote, and “Strange Fruit,” about lynching in the South, are in the show. Eleven other well-known numbers include “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “Gimme a Pig Foot,” “What a Little Moonlight Will Do” and “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness.”

Freeport Factory Stage, 5 Depot St., presents “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” through April 14 with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday through Saturday plus 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 865-5505.

Jonathan Edwards

It’s probably unfair to label Jonathan Edwards as a “one-hit wonder.” Over his long career as a singer-songwriter, Edwards has covered a lot of artistic ground in multiple genres, ranging from blues and country to live theater and children’s tunes. And many other musicians have covered the songs he’s written. Plus he’s worked several movies and numerous TV gigs.

But to the general public, Edwards is mostly remembered for one song. “Sunshine,” a breezy tune with an infectious melody and a bright, optimistic lyric that topped the pop charts in 1971. The song brought him instant fame and remains the mainstay of his career. It’s still a staple of Triple-A radio.

Edwards was born in Minnesota and spent some years on the Boston music scene before settling in New Hampshire and now Maine. His career detoured into blues and rock before realizing he was hooked on folk music. During his long career he has recorded 15 albums, performed throughout North America and Europe, and collaborated with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, Maura O’Connell, Christine Lavin and Cheryl Wheeler.

Edwards visits One Longfellow Square in Portland (corner of Congress and State) this Friday for an 8 p.m. concert. Call 761-1757.

OLS All-Star Revue

Portland’s top small venue for singer-songwriters and roots musicians is One Longfellow Square, which transformed itself into a non-profit performing arts center last year. Like most of its genre, income from ticket sales is insufficient to cover its modest costs.

Hence the need for periodic fund-raising activities. On April 11, the OLS All-Star String Band Revue, which worked so well this past February, will return for a reprise benefit performance. Six musicians, all connected with OLS, will combine into a local roots-oriented supergroup. All will be donating their time and talent.

Here’s the lineup: Mandolinist Joe Walsh plays with the Gibson Brothers and Crow Molly, banjoist Wes Corbett plays with Joy Kills Sorrow, fiddler Darol Anger plays with Yulegrass and Republic of Strings, fiddler Brittany Haas plays with Crooked Still and Republic of Strings, guitarist Courtney Hartman plays with Della Mae, and bassist Amanda Kowalski also plays with Della Mae.

I’ve been attending OLS events for years, and deeply appreciate the fact that this very intimate venue brings in national touring acts – primarily singer-songwriters and small ensembles specializing in roots and Americana – and strongly supports southern Maine musicians of all stripes, ranging from bluegrass to classical.

This benefit concert is slated for One Longfellow Square (corner of State and Congress in Portland) at 8 p.m. April 11. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Irish step-dancers provide the artistic power that drives “Lord of the Dance,” a worldwide terpsichorean sensation that visits Portland on Friday.