MusicWatch Weekly: stagy sounds

From opera to musicals to concerts influenced by musical theater, this week’s Oregon stages teem with music written for dramatic productions.

This year’s PAMTA Awards may be history, Cabaret has closed and Les Miz and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s United States of Broadway don’t arrive till next week, but this week still offers abundant opportunities to hear music that originated in musicals, opera and other dramatic productions. 

 “Portland Opera’s brewing up a deal with the devil with its latest production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, opening June 8, and it’s likely to attract sizable audiences,” ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, who apparently traded his soul for extensive knowledge of visual art, theater and music, told subscribers to our newsletter last week. “Something about this legend’s been fascinating readers and theater- and music-lovers for centuries. The thirst for knowledge, the overwhelming desire for pleasure and experience, the human who would be more than a god, the man with the ambition and arrogance to believe he can outwit the devil, or who just cares about winning right now so much that he doesn’t quite believe the future price he’s agreed to pay. The ripples of the story are everywhere, from politics to business to people’s love lives: win now, and damn the consequences.

Portland Opera’s ‘Faust’ opens this weekend. Photo: Corey Weaver.

“Portland Opera’s new Faust – a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, where it premiered in March – is based visually on a world created by sculptor and artist John Frame. But the story he interprets is ageless. Gounod’s opera is based mostly on Part 1 of Goethe’s famous version of a legend that stretches back to a real person from the 15th and 16th centuries, Johann Georg Faust (and various other medieval/Renaissance folk characters) and forward to, well, at least now. Christopher Marlowe famously dropped in for a visit, as did traveling puppeteers who used Faust and Mephistopheles as sort of stock Punch-and-Judy characters. Turgenev and Thomas Mann tackled the subject. So did Berlioz and Wagner and Mahler and Liszt. Stephen Vincent Benét had fun with it in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for musical greatness (practice and innate talent no doubt had more to do with it). In István Szabó’s great 1981 movie Mephisto, based on Klaus Mann’s novel, a German actor essentially sells his soul to the Nazis in exchange for prestige and success.

“So, here comes Gounod’s Faust again. Our advice? Give the devil his due. But lend the opera your eyes and ears.” Our kissin’ cousin Artslandia’s new Toi Toi Toi magazine for Portland Opera has interviews with production designer Frame and star soprano Angel Blue. Stay tuned for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review. And ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley will soon have the scoop on a couple of other musical theater productions onstage, Portland Center Stage’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Mocks Crest’s The Light in the Piazza.

When it appeared in 1970s, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was, er, crucified by some who disapproved of the great American composer/conductor transforming sacred music into show tunes, or, even worse, rock and/or roll. Bernstein, whose centenary this year has occasioned numerous performances of his always dramatic music, just couldn’t keep theater out of even his non-Broadway compositions. He even called his Mass “a theater piece.”

Directed by Jon Kretzu and conducted by Justin Smith, Stumptown Stages’ new production Saturday and Sunday at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne Chapel stars stalwart baritone Douglas Webster as the Celebrant (a role he pretty much owns) plus the terrific Julianne Johnson, Katie Harman and Broadway veteran Kirk Mouser, experienced local soloists, Marylhurst Choral Union, Women’s Chorale and Pacific Youth Choir. Co-created by Marylhurst University’s music department, it’s an example of the loss to Oregon arts caused by the school’s impending closure.

In his typical expansive fashion, the composer of West Side Story, Candide and so many other classics threw in two choirs, children’s chorus, orchestra, rock band, blues band and a Last Supper’s worth of soloists, singing music that ranged from rock to show tunes, gospel to blues to classical. Not all of it works, but it seldom ceases to dazzle, and some moments reach near the pinnacles of 20th century American theater music. I still fondly recall Bernstein protege Marin Alsop’s spectacular performance in her swan song as Eugene Symphony music director way back when.

‘Roberta’ opens at The Shedd this weekend.

Jerome Kern’s 1933 Roberta wasn’t as important or as lucrative as the composer’s earlier Showboat, but it scored several hit ballads, including the immortal “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The Shedd’s thoughtful revival, which opens this weekend, includes a couple of big Kern songs (“Lovely To Look At,” “I Won’t Dance”) added to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film two years later. Lyricist/book writer Otto Harbach’s zany excuse for a plot involves a vengeful socialite (also popular as Depression relief), a fratty American college footballer who winds up owning a Parisian dress shop, a clandestine Russian princess, and more. Directed by Peg Major, the Shedd’s production, which runs June 8-17, stars Dylan Stasack and Caitlin Christopher (who also choreographs) as the central couple.

Great show tunes don’t stay confined to the shows that spawned them. Tony Bennett’s Wednesday show at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall offers a chance to see one of the great living crooners of show tunes. On Thursday at Eugene’s WOW Hall and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, Nellie McKay sings American Songbook standards from her intimate new album, Sister Orchid. She may be half a century younger than the immortal Tony B, but the multitalented singer/ actor/ songwriter/ activist has appeared on and off Broadway (the latter in an original musical); created musical tributes to Rachel Carson, Doris Day, Joan Rivers and gender-bending jazz pioneer Billy Tipton; performed in and written music for films; appeared on shows from Mountain Stage to Piano Jazz to Letterman; written for The Onion and the New York Times; and won awards from PETA and others for her animal rights activism. (She also advocates for human rights, universal health and child care, living wages, and other civilized notions.)

Like everything the inventive McKay touches, her nocturnal new album is more than just a retro reverence, nor merely archly ironic either. Playing all the instruments (piano, ukulele, harmonica, cello and more), she slips her own gently whimsical stamp on standards (“Lazybones,” “Where or When,” “The Nearness of You” et al) and a few obscurities — what McKay calls “music to be played at the bar at the end of the world.”

As you can tell by its title, Satori Men’s Chorus’s Anything Goes concert Saturday at Portland’s Central Lutheran Church sports its share of show tunes, including that cheeky Cole Porter classic. But also includes other songbook standards, country music and more. And on Sunday afternoon at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ, Beaverton Community Band’s spring concert, Dances and Fantasies, salutes famous Broadway and film composers, including music from Bernstein’s Fancy Free and some Gerswhin, whose An American in Paris highlights Willamette Falls Symphony’s Sunday afternoon concert at Oregon City United Methodist Church. That all-American program includes Howard Hanson’s famous Symphony #2 and a couple of stirring works by longtime Seattle-area composer Alan Hovhaness and the criminally underplayed contemporary Pennsylvania composer Nancy Galbraith.

Of course, composers are still writing new music for the stage, and you can hear a couple new compositions in Eugene this week. Elsewhere Ensemble’s Colin Pip Dixon created a new score for Oscar Wilde’s poignant fairy tale The Happy Prince, which you can hear them play tomorrow with narrator and Broadway vet MacIntyre Dixon at the University of Oregon’s Berwick Hall, along with Dixon’s settings of poetry by cummings, Whitman, Bukowski and more. And Captain, a new chamber opera by UO graduate student Susanna Payne-Passmore premieres Saturday at the UO’s Aasen-Hull Hall.

Got more musical recommendations, theatrical and otherwise? Put ’em onstage in the comments section below.

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