eric nordin

MusicWatch Holidays: Naughty and nice

Unwrapping Portland’s spiritual duality with holiday concerts for choirs, circuses, dancers, and drag queens

Ho ho ho! Oregon First Winter is fully upon us: the snow and ice and seasonal depression haven’t hit in full force yet, but it’s finally cold and rainy enough to talk about holiday music. Let’s get started with an old favorite:

Our wishlist of worthy concerts is twenty-plus items long this week (not counting the mezzanine), so we’re only going to talk about a select few–but we’ll leave the whole list for you at the end, dear reader, so you can decide for yourself who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Choral joys, classical comforts

Nothing goes together like choirs and holiday music. Portland and environs may be known for a certain sassy grouchiness, but we’re also known for having more choral ensembles than Santa has ununionized elves. Almost all of them are celebrating the holiday season one way or another in the next few weeks, and although our darling Resonance Ensemble is off duty until early spring, the rest of the Oregon choir tribe is gearing up for year-end banquets of sparkly yuletide music.

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Once more, into the thicket

Broadway Rose makes musical magic with the tragedy and song of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

What if the prince who Cinderella married turned out to be a philanderer? What if Jack’s war on giants didn’t end after he came down the beanstalk? What if Rapunzel suffered from PTSD and couldn’t enjoy her happily ever after? Those are some of the seductively perverse questions explored in Stephen Sondheim’s justly legendary 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which has been brought to poignant, vibrant life in a new production by the Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Into the Woods is a daunting play. It calls for a cast and crew able to make sense of its disparate narrative elements (twisted romance, morbid comedy, haunting tragedy) and get audiences through a few bland songs (“A Very Nice Prince,” “It Takes Two”) that lack the clarity and force of the play’s most iconic musical numbers (“Agony,” “You Are Not Alone”). Those challenges are managed seamlessly by director Jessica Wallenfels and her actors, who have journeyed into the maze of Sondheim’s music (and James Lapine’s book) and emerged with a production that is beautiful, freewheeling, and whole.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose’s Into the Woods. Photo: Liz Wade

Like all enduring works of art, Into the Woods is a vast canvas upon which multiple ideas have been projected. While the play can be taken simply as a cheeky-sad reboot of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, some viewers have deemed it a metaphor for the AIDS crisis—not a stretch, given that its second act revolves around an unstoppable force that kills indiscriminately (in one case, almost immediately after sex).

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More than a feeling of “Ordinary Days”

Subtle emotions bloom in the Broadway Rose production of the touching Adam Gwon musical about city dwellers seeking connection.

Feelings can be sneaky things.

For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.

Ordinary Dayswhich plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.

Moving and touching: “Ordinary Days” features Benjamin Tissell (left) as Jason and Kailey Rhodes as Claire, a young couple trying to unpack what’s in the way of a better connection. Photo: Sam Ortega.

That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

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Hughes Heaven

Staged!'s teen musical "John Hughes High" is pure '80s gold

There’s a moment in Staged!’s new musical John Hughes High when a teenage girl realizes she’s falling in love. Yet the object of her affection is not one person—it’s a school packed with loners, leaders, artists, athletes, and plenty of kids who haven’t quite figured out what they are.

Nerd City: Aidan Tappert, Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez in “John Hughes High.” Photo: David Kinder

That moment is proof that the creators of John Hughes High, Mark LaPierre and Eric Nordin, understand that while Hughes had a sense of humor about high-school heartaches (who doesn’t laugh when Jon Cryer gets chucked into the girls’ bathroom in Pretty in Pink?), he did his young characters the honor of taking their emotions and desires seriously. John Hughes High (which is enjoying its world premiere on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep) does the same, and as a result, the rapidly beating heart of its heroine briefly becomes yours.

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