Out and About: Falling for a trio of great musicals

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As the weather cools down, southern Maine’s arts and entertainment schedule is heating up. As of early October, many of the region’s theater companies have started their 2015-2016 seasons, and a trio of great musicals opened this past weekend.

Most intriguing is “No Biz Like Show Biz,” an original musical revue that showcases Broadway’s golden age and the pair of actresses who epitomized that wonderful period: Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. Catch “No Biz” at Portland’s Good Theater.

Portland Players opened a good community production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the classic musicals of Broadway’s golden age. “Fiddler” is happening in South Portland.

Ogunquit Playhouse is wrapping up its 2015 season with “Saturday Night Fever,” a red-hot Broadway adaptation of the 1978 hit film that features disco music by the Bee Gees.

‘No Biz Like Show Biz’

What do the following have in common: Sally Adams, Irving Berlin, Betty Comden, Ensign Nellie Forbush, Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin, Adolph Green, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerry Herman, Tom Jones, Dolly Levi, Frank Loesser, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Ogden Nash, Annie Oakley, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Mama Rose, Harvey Schmidt, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Reno Sweeney, Maria von Trapp, Kurt Weill and Dolly Winslow?

The answer is that they’re all present in one form or another in “No Biz Like Show Biz,” a new musical revue that opens the 2015-2016 season at Good Theater. The list above includes characters, actresses, composers and lyricists for some of the most popular Broadway shows in the period between the 1930s and 1960s.

Created by Good Theater co-founder and artistic director Brian Allen, “No Biz” recalls those golden years of Broadway through an interesting lens. All songs in “No Biz” were performed by one (occasionally both) of the reigning doyennes of American musical theater: Mary Martin and Ethel Merman.

In effect, it’s an all-star, best-of-the-best format. For example, “My Favorite Things” was sung by the character Maria von Trapp (“The Sound of Music”) with music by Rodgers and lyric by Hammerstein. Or “I Put My Hand in Here” was sung by Dolly Levi (“Hello Dolly!”) by Jerry Herman.

Allen has collected about 40 songs from about 30 different shows. They’re sung by a trio of local professional actresses: Marie Dittmer, Lynne McGhee and Jen Means. Victoria Stubbs, the longtime Good Theater music director, created numerous unique and intriguing musical arrangements, rather than trying to recreate specific performances. Perhaps her best effort is the medley of songs of Ensign Nellie Forbush (“South Pacific”) by Rodgers and Hammersein.

Like Allen, I’m a huge fan of classical Broadway musicals, and I thoroughly enjoyed “No Biz.” The three actresses have fine voices and stage presences, and the songs of course represent the apex of the Broadway canon.

Good Theater presents “No Biz Like Show Biz” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland, through Oct. 11 with 7 p.m. performances Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 885-5883.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’

In the best-of-the-best category, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1964 classic Broadway musical ranks among that elite handful of shows that excel in so many different facets. With book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler on the Roof” has stood the test of time and remains one of the most frequently produced musicals. The original production won 10 Tony Awards and was for years the longest-running show in Broadway history. “Fiddler on the Roof” has been revived four times on Broadway; a fifth revival is slated for this December.

To open its 2015-2016 season, Portland Players is running a large and generally good community production of this classic, directed by Michael Donovan and Donna Emma.

The plot follows a devout Jewish family in a village in czarist Russia in 1905. As persecution against Jews builds in the years prior to the Russian Revolution, Tevye, a poor dairyman with his wife and five daughters must contend with the changes and challenges that confront his family.

The large cast of 34 is led by Mark Dils, playing the poor dairyman, one of the most celebrated characters ever created for the American stage. Dils is outstanding in this larger-than-life role and he carries the show.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Rd. in South Portland, presents “Fiddler on the Roof” through Oct. 11 with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.

‘Saturday Night Fever’

Ogunquit Playhouse is wrapping up its long 2015 season with a recent Broadway musical that exemplifies two trends in contemporary theater. First, most new musicals are stage adaptations of popular films. Second, a high percentage of new shows are jukebox musicals.

“Saturday Night Fever” epitomizes both trends. It is a stage version of the 1978 film of the same name that starred John Travolta. The score is a compilation of songs written and/or performed by the Bee Gees, a British-Australian pop trio comprising brothers Andy, Barry and Robin Gibb. (Bee Gees is shorthand for “Brothers Gibb.”)

The plot concerns Tony Manero, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, who works in a dead-end job and hangs around with four dead-end pals. But on Saturday nights, Tony’s life totally transforms at the local disco, where he is king of the dance floor. Considered a shoo-in for a $500 prize offered in a disco contest, Tony needs to choose between a pair of possible dance partners, and a classic romantic triangle results.

Luke Hamilton is mesmerizing as Tony, boasting a fine voice and exceptional dance moves. I also liked his two supporting actresses: Haley Hannah as an aggressive wannabe girlfriend and Jenny Florkowski as his hard-to-get love interest.

Keith Andrews skilfully manages a very large and outstanding cast of 24 professional actors, who sing and dance through 18 classic Bee Gees songs such as “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman” and “What Kind of Fool.”

I was also impressed by the large, flexible and aesthetically agile set, designed by Adam Koch. It’s an interesting amalgam of chain-link fence, corrugated steel and disco mirror balls that undergoes frequent transformations between scenes. Lighting design, by Richard Latta, is another high point in the technical department.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1, presents “Saturday Night Fever” through Oct. 25. Call 646-5511 or visit ogunquitplayhouse.org for the performance schedule.

From left, Lynne McGhee, Marie Dittmer and Jen Means perform dozens of classic Broadway songs in “No Biz Like Show Biz,” a new musical revue opening the 2015-2016 season at Good Theater in Portland.