portland center stage

Ready or not, live shows on the way

ArtsWatch Weekly: As Oregon begins to open up, live performances get ready to join the crowd, indoors and out

… AND THIS WEEK, THE GATES BEGAN TO CREAK OPEN. On Tuesday, days after the Portland Trail Blazers began to allow small crowds to see their home games at the Moda Center (they were among the last teams in the National Basketball Association to let fans return) Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that she would largely open the state up once 70 percent of its citizens 16 and older had received at least one coronavirus vaccination. She expected that to happen, she added, sometime in June. The order would include, as Aimee Green reported in The Oregonian/Oregon Live, “the lifting of capacity limits on restaurants, bars, stores, gyms, sporting venues, movie theaters and limitations on the number of people who can gather indoors or out for events such as road races and festivals.” While many experts consider that level of vaccination too low for a full reopening – as Green notes, “70 percent of Oregonians 16 and older partially vaccinated will probably translate to less than 50 percent of the overall population fully vaccinated” – all sorts of places are making plans.

Artist rendering of The Lot at Zidell Yards, a socially distanced performance venue with stage, large movie screen, food carts, and a series of seating pods. Capacity will be 300, but may expand.

That includes the relatively new outdoor venue The Lot at Zidell Yards, an open entertainment complex on Portland’s South Waterfront, on the west side of the Ross Island Bridge. On the same day that Gov. Brown announced the state’s reopening plans, The Lot announced a summer season of concerts and movie screenings beginning in late May, with distanced seating pods, food and drink carts, and an audience capacity of 300, which could expand if state regulations relax even further. Concerts range from popular acts such as the Dandy Warhols and Jenny Don’t & the Spurs to a show from members of the Oregon Symphony’s brass sections and, on the July 4 weekend, a scaled-back version of the Waterfront Blues Festival. Big-screen movies, produced in partnership with the Hollywood Theatre, range from Crazy Rich Asians to Rear Window and Thelma and Louise.

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Stage moms storm the gates

ArtsWatch Weekly: Storm Large and 3 Leg Torso make a movie, Chamber Music NW goes live, the Joy of words, news & views

SUNDAY IS MOTHER’S DAY, AND IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS someone in the Pacific Northwest would be producing a streaming version of the great show-biz musical Gypsy, which features that most outrageous stage mom of all time, Mama Rose. So far as we can tell, that isn’t happening – but it’s worth noting that this not-quite-docudrama has Northwest roots. Rose’s daughter Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated ecdysiast on whose memoir the musical is based, was born in Seattle. Her sister, Baby June – the actress June Havoc – was born in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Storm Large is Mom, carpooling the boys in the movie “M Is for Mischief,” a musical comedy with 3 Leg Torso.

Ah, but who could be a more Mama Rose-size figure for Mother’s Day than Storm Large, the Portland rocker, musical memoirist, and stage and concert star whose triumphs range from Cabaret to Pink Martini tours to singing Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins at Carnegie Hall to writing and starring in her own musical play, Crazy Enough? And what better sidekicks than the brilliantly eclectic Portland band 3 Leg Torso? Large stars as Mother Torso, an overworked mom of four boys, in the new film M Is for Mischief, which is produced by 3 Leg Torso and Lakewood Center for the Arts (where it was filmed), and co-stars those wry and effervescent boys in the band. It premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday: Ticket details here, and a short film trailer here. In what sounds a bit like a Mom’s Day twist on the movie 9 to 5, Ms. Torso, it seems, has raised good boys: “The brothers secretly use their special musical powers to prank her wretched boss, who learns the hard way that it’s not nice to fool with Mother Torso.”

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Theater: 5 years, 1 mural, 1 wag

Broadway Rose streams "The Last Five Years," Daren Todd paints a James Baldwin mural for Center Stage; the Bard endures the Plague

For decades Portland has been a hotbed of musical theater, with eager performers and enthusiastic audiences flocking to such centers of the great American popular art form as the old Portland Civic Theatre and The Musical Company, and suburban companies such as Lakewood and Clackamas Rep. Portland Opera hasn’t been immune to the pleasures and box-office jingle of a good musical, and during Chris Coleman’s long tenure as artistic director, large-scale musicals became eagerly anticipated annual events at Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company. Other theaters in town have dipped into the musical waters, too, and musicals, many of them original, have been regular visitors to the stages of the city’s two biggest children’s theaters, Northwest Children’s Theatre and Oregon Children’s Theatre.

But sometime in the almost 30 years since Broadway Rose set up shop, the center of Portland’s musical-theater gravity shifted a few miles south to the close-in suburb of Tigard, where the company founded by New York refugees Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy produces musicals, musicals, and nothing but musicals. Some hit the sweet spot, a few miss the mark, but big or small, shows almost always have high production values, a selling point for its loyal audiences.

Jeff Rosick and Kailey Rhodes in rehearsal for “The Last Five Years.” Photo: Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, Broadway Rose’s current show – it streams through May 16 – is no exception. Like a few other productions since pandemic shutdowns began, it was taped under careful conditions on Broadway Rose’s stage, and its staging is simple but effective, with shifting cameras and effective lighting providing at least a semblance of live-theater vérité on your home screen. With just two performers, it’s a smart choice for video adaptation in socially distanced times – and with just two performers, it also lacks some of the kick-up-your-heels exuberance that’s one of the golden-age American musical’s biggest attractions.

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Ross McKeen, beloved arts leader, dies

McKeen, who helped lead Oregon Children's Theatre to national prominence and helped launch the Oregon Cultural Trust, dies of pancreatic cancer

THE PORTLAND ARTS SCENE LOST A MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR AND A GREAT FRIEND on Tuesday when Ross McKeen, the longtime managing director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, died. “My beloved husband and best friend, Ross McKeen, passed away yesterday morning, six months after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer,” his wife, Robin Remmick, wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “He was a cherished son, father, brother, and uncle, and he was the kindest, gentlest, smartest and funniest person I have ever known. I can’t even begin to fathom how much I will miss him. He died with his best dog Kid by his side, with a serene and full heart.”

Ross McKeen, who died Tuesday of cancer. Photo: Rebekah Johnson, via Facebook

McKeen, in partnership with recently retired artistic director Stan Foote, built OCT to national prominence, and was known in Oregon arts circles as a smart and capable administrator, an excellent and generous mentor, and a man of keen humor. Before joining OCT in 2008 he had spent several years as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for several Portland arts organizations, served a year as the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, and spent three years as general manager of Portland Center Stage. Ross understood the artistic side of the business (he was also a musician in a “swell cowboy band” called Bourbon Jockey), which helped him greatly as an administrator. He was a writer of great wit and erudition, as he revealed a dozen or so years ago, during the heyday of blogging, on the sites Mighty Toy Cannon and Culture Shock. McKeen and Oregon Children’s Theatre controversially parted ways last November. The company has not announced a replacement for him.

No news like good news

ArtsWatch Weekly: I Am MORE, Broadway Rose's 'Story of My Life,' PDX Jazz Fest, art around Oregon.

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO MY FRIEND (AND OCCASIONAL ARTSWATCH CONTRIBUTOR) STEPHEN RUTLEDGE, who writes the Born This Day column and other stories for The WOW Report, sent along a YouTube link to an old clip of Sam Cooke singing Good News on American Bandstand. Along with the link he sent high praise for the recent movie One Night in Miami, a fictional imagining of an actual meeting in a Miami hotel in 1964 of Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football star Jim Brown to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight-championship victory over Sonny Liston. Rutledge’s note reminded me that, yes, even in traumatic times there is good news, it’s worth singing about, and its triumphs so often are the result of hard creative work and leaps of the imagination.
 

S. Renee Mitchell (left) and, from left, Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani of I Am MORE.

In Building Resiliency with the Arts, the latest chapter in our occasional series The Art of Learning, Brett Campbell relates another story of Good News, one with deep Portland roots. The poet, activist, and former Oregonian newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell, he writes, “had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students.”

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Fertile, Grounded, Virtual & Here

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland's festival of new performance goes online; finding the humans in the frame; fresh flicks; new theater & more

RIGHT ABOUT NOW EVERY YEAR FOR THE PAST ELEVEN YEARS before 2021 the hustle and bustle’s hit performance spaces large and small in Portland and environs – an energetic outpouring of new work at just about every stage of development, from first reading to workshop to staged reading to full-blown premiere production. In an ordinary year the Fertile Ground festival of new works presents more than 100 pieces of theater, dance, film, and other performance, by Oregon artists, from first-timers and unknowns to projects from the biggest performance companies in town. It’s been a creative free-for-all, predictable in its unpredictability, a sprawling mega-event in which you never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s a very big part of the fun.
 

Scene from Myhraliza Aaza’s “Oh Myh Dating Hell,” debuting at 9 p.m. opening night – Thursday, Jan. 28 – in this year’s online Fertile Ground festival of new works.

This year, of course, is far from ordinary – and so, Fertile Ground 2021 is far from ordinary, too. You might say it’s breaking new ground, which might be as fertile as the old, but in very different ways. Fertile Ground opens today – Thursday, Feb. 28 – and continues through Feb. 7 entirely online, with a lineup that’s both curated and vastly reduced: thirty-six projects, all created to be streamed online, making their debuts over the run of the festival and available to view on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels through Feb. 15. Streaming the shows is free, although the festival is happy to accept donations.

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Mixed art signals amid the turmoil

ArtsWatch Weekly: Tumbling toward Inauguration; Carrie Mae Weems' billboard campaign; opera in full voice; new faces; Zoomy theater

AS WE TUMBLE TOWARD INAUGURATION DAY, fear and uncertainty fill the air like a chemical cloud. Will another attack take place? If so, will it be more damaging than the first, from which five people died – six, if you count the police officer who took his own life after dealing with the mob in the Capitol Building? What of President Trump, now impeached for a second time, this time charged with “incitement of insurrection“? Will he stand down, or once again ramp things up? What will happen in the capitals of the fifty states, whose centers of government right-wing radicals have vowed to occupy? How and when will the impeachment trial play out in the Senate? Will it aid or harm the process of actually governing during perilous times? What of the coronavirus vaccines? When will they become available to the mass of American citizens? Who will or won’t agree to be inoculated, let alone, at a time when even basic public health has been turned into a radically politicized subject, simply wear a mask?

Above all: How did we reach such a state, and how do we extract ourselves from it? 

Such questions both override our cultural lives and define them. The arts are a reflection of their culture and their times, sometimes underlining the flow of world events and sometimes reacting against them. They can no more exist in a vacuum than a demagogue can exist without a ready and willing audience. 
 

From the Five Oaks thread: “A far-right extremist wearing animal furs and holding a plastic shield and a wooden walking stick sits beneath an oil painting of Charles Sumner by portrait artist Walter Ingalls. Charles Sumner was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights for African Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. He was once severely injured and nearly killed when Representative Preston Brooks beat him with a walking cane on the Senate floor after Sumner made an anti-slavery speech. A small object label is located under the painting.”

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