Out and About: 'The Wiz' closes in Brunswick

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Fields of yellow goldenrod and white Queen Anne’s lace herald the end of the summer season, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Brunswick and Portland.

In the former, Maine State Music Theatre opened its final show of 2011 last weekend: “The Wiz,” the seven-time Tony Award-winner of 1975, is a re-telling of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in an African-American cultural context.

In the latter, the Portland Chamber Music Festival wraps up its 18th season with concerts on Thursday and Saturday.

Arundel Barn Playhouse has a fine jukebox music running through this weekend: “A Taffeta Wedding” is a continuation of a long-running series that showcases pop music of the 1950s and 1960s.

‘The Wiz’

The iconic story of Dorothy’s adventures in the imaginary Land of Oz has been dramatized on stage and film for more than a century, beginning with author L. Frank Baum himself. The best-known adaptation was “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 MGM film extravaganza starring Judy Garland.

One of the most innovative and imaginative of those re-tellings appeared on Broadway in 1975: “The Wiz” had a book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Their unique contribution was re-imagining the story in the context of African-American culture with an all-black cast. “The Wiz” won seven Tony Awards — including Best Musical and Best Original Score — and ran for four years and nearly 1,700 performances.

Maine State Music Theatre is closing its 2011 season with a fully professional (Equity contract) production of “The Wiz” with a cast that includes a slew of Broadway veterans.

Smalls’ score combines soul, rock and gospel music, and Brown’s book emphasizes the themes of finding oneself and finding the way back home — both of which resonate powerfully in both the original tale and the 1975 Broadway version. “Home,” “Ease on Down the Road,” “Believe in Yourself” and “Brand New Day” are among the most powerful songs.

MSMT’s cast, directed by Donna Drake, stars LaQuet Sharnell as the little girl from Kansas who is transported to Oz by a tornado. On her long and tortuous way back home she’s helped by three friends she meets in Oz: a straw-stuffed scarecrow, tin timber cutter and cowardly lion (Eric B. Anthony, E. Clayton Cornelious and Nikkieli DeMone) plus two good witches (Gwen Stewart and Gayle Turner). Before returning to Kansas Dorothy confronts the Wiz himself (Bobby Daye) and has to kill the Wicked Witch of the West (Stewart doubling).

I loved MST’s production of “The Wiz,” which pulses musical and dramatic energy and excitement from curtain up to denouement.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “The Wiz” through Aug. 27 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College Campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit www.msmt.org.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

“After 18 years, I’m still totally invigorated by the festival,” says Jenny Elowitch, artistic and executive director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. It certainly showed last Saturday, when 300-plus people flocked to the second of the festival’s four concerts. I’ve been attending PCMF for all 18 years, and it was one of the largest crowds I’ve ever seen.

Two concerts remain, and both exhibit Elowitch’s penchant for mixing masterworks of the classical canon with modern pieces by currently active composers. All the players are world-class musicians with years of playing at the highest professional level, and several hold first chairs with major orchestras.

The new work on the Aug. 18 concert is a short piece by Melinda Wagner, who won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Scored for oboe plus string quartet, this 2010 bit of musical joviality was inspired by Wagner’s cat and bears the onomatopoetic title of “Scritch.”

Elowitch notes: “This is really light-hearted, short, humorous — and immediately likable. It’s a fun piece that’s also a vehicle for virtuosic oboe playing.”

“Scritch” is sandwiched between two long-established masterpieces: a string trio by Ludwig van Beethoven and a sextet for winds and strings by Francois Poulenc.

The festival concludes on Aug. 20 with a lyrical piece for clarinet, flute and strings by Osvaldo Golijov, a modern American composer who was born in Argentina and has absorbed influences from Europe and Israel. Elowitch has programmed works by Golijov several times before, and the composer himself attended the festival in 1995. The 18th season wraps up with Franz Schubert’s octet for winds and strings, performed for only the second time in the festival’s history.

All concerts take place at 8 p.m. at the Abromson Community Education Center, 88 Bedford St. on the University of Maine Portland campus. Visit www.pcmf.org.

‘A Taffeta Wedding’

Every summer theater has a jukebox musical on its schedule nowadays, and Arundel Barn’s current offering of “A Taffeta Wedding” is an archetype of the genre. Times two.

Typically these shows revolve around a period musical ensemble, in this case the Taffetas, a female foursome from the 1950s and 1960s. The moniker comes from the costuming; their dresses are constructed from lustrous taffeta that was so popular at the time.

For this show — fourth in a series that began more than a decade ago — the Taffetas are joined in holy matrimony by the Cardigans, four fraternity brothers who sing close harmony. And the four weddings take place in front of a national television audience.

“A Taffeta Wedding” is textbook model of a jukebox musical, showcasing about two dozen hit songs, centered around eight stereotypical characters and connected by the flimsiest plot imaginable.

The music, representing the apogee of Tin Pan Alley, is first and foremost. Songs include “Mister Sandman,” “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” “Goin’ To the Chapel,” “The End of the World,” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and “It’s In His Kiss.” (The latter is perhaps better known as the “Shoop Song.”) Many of these wonderful tunes have become part and parcel of American pop culture.

The cast comprises college students of musical theater and recent graduates of these programs. They’re all appealing fresh faces who lend fresh energy to these golden oldies.

Although I liked “A Taffeta Wedding” very much, I was disappointed in the overall homogeneity of Lewis’ vocal arrangements — most of them created specifically for this show — which allowed precious few opportunities for individual characters and voices to stand out.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, 53 Old Post Rd. (just off Rt. 1) presents “A Taffeta Wedding” through Aug. 20. Call 985-5552 or visit www.arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

Sidebar Elements

Two good witches are among the cast of characters that Dorothy encounters in the Land of Oz in “The Wiz,” the seven-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of 1975. It’s the final 2011 production of Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick.