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The Bard deserves our backing

Tradition. The word carries the long history of humanity around it's neck. Tradition. A World out of control, we take comfort in that word. z-theater-withee

Tradition. Within the sphere of theater, a word that is the sole foundation of an ancient craft.

Tradition. Answering the hunger of belonging, understanding.

Tradition. The transfer of cultural wisdom.

Tradition. Explanation of the proliferation of Shakespearean performances throughout the Globe, as well as here in the State of Maine.

Yes, Shakespeare is good here. Theater at Monmouth has been around for decades, offering the Bard nestled within the Lakes Region. Free park performances are being offered in Kennebunk, Bath, and, of course, Deering Oaks here in Portland. The words have been spoken hundreds of thousands of times over the years, yet each generation seems eager to hear them again, laden with insight of why we are who we are.

Theater voices have been silent since the wonderful week of Fringe here in downtown Portland. Fenix Theatre Company fills the Summer void once again with an imaginative production of AS YOU LIKE IT. I'm not writing a review about the show, simply because I have yet to see it with my work schedule. I wanted to spread the news, though, that the place to be is Deering Oaks, to share the tradition of Free Shakespeare in the Park right here in the heart of Forest City.8-1-14-HW-fenix-in-park

Fenix brings together the best talent in Greater Portland, mining from all the companies in town and truly showing a united front of theater professionals interpreting the greatest words ever written for the stage. I have to admit, I enjoy local talent weaving their energy and vision throughout the many companies instead of the insular attitude of exclusivity.

Peter Brown is the Director, using Deering Oaks to simulate the Forest of Arden, central to the storyline. Changing scenes involves moving the audience through the park's tidal basin. Mr. Brown has become a top director in Portland and an affiliate artist with Portland Stage Company. Twenty years ago I was directed by Mr. Brown when he was an intern at Portland Stage Company in a Tennessee Williams one-act. I've enjoyed this Maine boy's growth and contribution to our theater energy. He is truly one of this town's pillar in forwarding the gift of live theater.

Rosalind is being portrayed by another actor I have a soft spot in my heart for, Kat Moraros. Ms. Moraros is an able, intelligent performer, attacking material from a center of confidence. When I first moved back from Boston I was part of the Freeport Shakespeare Festival and the general manager for the Freeport Factory Stage. I stepped into a role that was vacated because of illness one week before the opening. Ms. Moraros was the anchor I could safely attach myself to, solid on lines and interpretation. This past season I was proud to see her on the boards at Portland Stage. Portland Stage would benefit with more inclusion of Portland talent, Union and Non-Union, in building bridges with the local community.

Rob Cameron is the Artistic Director of the Fenix Theatre and works tirelessly behind the scenes to mount this free production. His handsome face is also in front of the audience in this production, I hear something about an enjoyable wrestler. Abigail Killeen is also in this cast and, I must admit, has given me the most pleasure from watching an actor over the past couple of seasons. Ms. Killeen's work in Portland Stage's LOVE/SICK alone has made me a fan and is always worth my investment of time. Portland's best talent coupled with theater's most beloved author is a perfect way to spend an evening outside as the sun wanes.

Let me inject a bit of rambling here. Free Shakespeare in the Park is, of course, far from free. Theater survives through the financial support of donors and local business. Support the business that supports theater and tell them you appreciate them buying advertisement or ponying up the bucks to be a show sponsor. The circle can't be broken. The arts are an important economic force in a vibrant downtown economy, and those who realize this should be rewarded. How we spend our money directly creates the world we live in, spend wisely and always with the knowledge of how you are molding our community.

I'm known for being blunt, so here goes. This company does a great job with casting, interpretation, costumes; and how can one get a better set than the natural beauty that is Deering Oaks? The shows are at 6:30 so no lights have to be used, although, like me, that is early at times to get to from work. Also, the sound isn't always the best with the outside world intruding with motorcycles, trucks and people playing sports within the Park. It is time for these top-rate productions to be supported by microphones at least. Technical support takes money. I know damn well someone is reading this who can help. I've said it before, I have no problem being successful in our society, but money needs to be spread around to enrich. I'll proclaim you a hero right here on this page. Let's work together to keep Portland the magnificent theater town it is becoming and open some check books. You'll feel better about your legacy in the world. Tradition. A word from a Broadway Musical.

AS YOU LIKE IT is being performed free in Deering Oaks through Aug. 9.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

Last Updated on Friday, 01 August 2014 01:43

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The Delta Generators delve deep into the blues

The Delta Generators opened for Miner at One Longfellow Square Saturday night, but the hard-rocking blues band was really the main attraction. Miner is a band from Los Angeles that's been getting some airplay lately, and the DG's didn't mind the earlier set.7-25-14-TG-review-Delta

The O'Neal brothers comprise half of the Delta Generators, and they wanted to visit their father, who lives in Old Orchard Beach. Rick O'Neal plays bass guitar. Charlie O'Neal plays guitar. Craig Rawding sings and writes lyrics, and Jeff Armstrong is on drums.

The band name came about in 2008, when the guys were looking to generate some extra money from their various side projects and pulled together a new group.

They had planned to call themselves The Generators, but a punk rock band from California already had the name, so they prefixed Delta to their moniker to convey the source and inspiration for their sound.

The band members are all from the Massachusetts area, but their musical roots are in the Mississippi Delta, and playing the blues brings them joy. One of their first songs on Saturday was "Home of the Rustling Chain," which is a "depressing song," according to Rawding. "But depressing songs make me feel good."

The band first met years ago, at a Massachusetts record shop. Rick and Charlie were teaching lessons at Music Unlimited when they met Jeff. The trio started a funk-jazz fusion band called Tizzy, but it fizzled out before long.

Their manager, however, also worked with Benjamin Orr from the Cars, who was looking for a couple of new musicians. Charlie, then 21 years old, got a gig touring with Orr's new band for two years. Rick joined them as well; Orr was the bassist but was looking for someone to replace him as he focused on vocals. Charlie later played with Must, a London band with each member from another country. They toured with Aerosmith, the Stone Temple Pilots, and Kid Rock.

Next up, Charlie joined for Joshua Tree, a U2 tribute band with Rawding and John Perkins, the Delta Generators founder and first drummer who left after just a few songs to start a family in 2008. That connection led to the decision to start the Generators, and Armstrong stepped in for Perkins on percussion.

Regarding their songwriting process, Rawding pens the lyrics, but the band has a four way split for rights. Rawding has performed with Heavy Metal Horns, a national touring band with funk, soul, and jazz roots.

When he creates new songs, he sometimes will be playing guitar and his band mates will take the riff and build on it. Other times, the lyrics come first, and they drop some music on top of them.

"Sometimes, the words and the music come at the same time," Rawding said.

They have played in Portland before, at The Venue on Forest Avenue, as well as OLS two years ago, "on the hottest day of the year," Rick said. "Not a big audience."

The O'Neal brothers got an early start in their song lives when Ken Reback, their step-father, took them to bluegrass festivals and gave them their first guitars — Rick at age seven and Charlie at 12.

The Delta Generators have come a long way since 2008. They won the Boston Blues Society's Blues challenge that year, which earned them a spot in the International Blues Challenge held in Memphis in 2009. The band finished as a Top 10 Finalist out of more than a hundred bands. Their debut album, "Devil in the Rhythm," won an Independent Music Award for Best Blues Album in 2009.

Their second album, "Hard River to Row," was selected by the Blues Foundation as a Top 5 Finalist in the Best Self-Produced CD competition at the International Blues Challenge in 2011.

Their third release "Get on the Horse," which is out now, was mixed by Grammy-winning producer David Z. and then mastered by Dave McNair, who has worked with David Bowie and Bob Dylan. The songs from "Get on the Horse" range from roots rock to slow blues, Americana to funky soul, and the compilation is a finalist for Best Blues Album of the Year.
In the last couple of years, the Delta Generators have shared the stage with such acts as Robert Cray, Three Dog Night, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Winter, and John Lee Hooker Jr. Despite all their success and big-name stage-sharing, they know the musical road can be a long one. On Saturday night, they blasted through several hits like, "The More I Find Out, the Less I Want to Know" and "Canebrake." Before launching into "It's Been Hard," Rawding predicted that the song would be their "beer commercial, if we have one."

Last Updated on Friday, 25 July 2014 00:05

Hits: 282

In 'Seven Brides,' MSMT perfects art of dance

A theme is emerging for me this summer as I attend the many summer options for theater goers in our Arts abundant state. Dance is the word and Maine State Music Theatre’s production of 7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS is jaw-dropping explosive athleticism.7-22-14-HW-Brides-1
Every show has a star, a standout and hands down, this show belongs to Director/ Choreographer Patti Colombo and her choreography. Ms. Colombo has taken this classic American Musical about the opening up of the Oregon Territory (this show is not about political correctness) and presents it with a cartoonish quality of style and gritty realism of animal magnetism (doesn’t every young women want to be abducted by sculpted mountain men in the middle of the night who they have lusted after since a dance and be trapped with them until the spring snow melt?). You now know the plot, but honestly, this plot is only there to fill time between the extraordinary dance numbers.
The technical attributes are also off the charts and I’m proud to say the first set I walked onto at college was also designed by Charles S. Kading. I loved this set and very much enjoyed the intricate dance the stage pieces performed to create the wonderful images of the Northwest. The pictures were always changing and the action never came to a halt to move the story into another location. The forest was brilliant, effectively simulating the movement through the wooded mountains as characters are lost, found and hunted down. I mentioned earlier the wonderful cartoon quality to the overall feel of this production’s set, giving the events on stage a magical lift by supporting the extraction of humor through the naive initial mingling of young men and young women. Lighting Designer Dan Efros also is a superstar with his illumination. The effects are spectacular and I especially appreciated the sun setting against the backdrop of magnificent mountains. Costume & Wig Designer Kurt Alger adds the third leg of this impressive triumvirate of creative design. Mr. Alger certainly provides attractive garments with the consideration of how they would look and wear during the gruelling dance numbers. I also found the color coordination with the couples a cute gesture, weaving the design firmly within the bosom of the storytelling.
The good news is this cast is not swallowed up by the set, dynamically projecting this show’s infectious energy. Director Patti Colombo presents a fast-paced production, squeezing all the extraneous air into extinction. “Hold on to your hat” has real meaning as this attractive young cast attacks the material. Heidi Kettenring takes the lead role as Milly Bradon. Ms. Kettenring brings the right touch of Disney Princess, Annie Oakley, Nurturer and wide-eyed optimist. She commands the stage, at ease yet confident with all that is asked of her. This whole cast can act, sing and dance with impressive ease. Jarid Faubel portrays Adam Pontipee, Milly’s love interest and the leader of the brood of mountain boy brothers needing the rough edges smoothed. Mr. Faubel does an outstanding job breathing life into a character with modern questionable attributes, yet presenting a likable individual. Mr. Faubel is a towering presence on stage with a powerful singing voice.
Ladies, this show was directed with you in mind. The 7 brothers comprise very toned and muscular young men who move well and often with few garments covering the goods. Eric Sciotto played Frank and provided one of the few complaints I had in the show. His acting, singing and dancing are superb, but by the end of the evening his performance had become about keeping his hair out of his eyes. I was getting whiplash watching. Each brother needs a woman and the bevy of beauties won’t disappoint the male members of the audience either. Sarah Marie Jenkins was simply delightful as Alice, mining the script for every laugh. I also wish to mention Shanna Heverly and Merrill West for the sheer force of presence and talent they bring to the stage. As the old saying goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.” This show is sexy and vibrant, steaming full speed ahead without breaking gear.
University of Southern Maine faculty member Edward Reichert from the School of Music is the Music Director. The music perfectly supported the vocals without ever drowning out the lyrics. The delivery from the singers is also well supported with breath and strong diction. I also wish to compliment Maine State Music Theatre for using Maine-based talent on and off the stage.
7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS will be performed at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, Maine on the Bowdoin campus through Aug. 2. For tickets and information please call the box-office at 207-725-8769 or www.msmt.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors’ Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)
(Photo by Jenny Sharp)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 02:36

Hits: 324

'Billy Elliot' resounds with masculine fury

BILLY ELLIOT is now on stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse where the political turmoil of Margaret Thatcher's Britain collides with a young boy's awakening of his natural talent for dance.7-15-14-HW-OP Billy-Elliot Noah-Parets Stephen-Hanna photo-by-Gary-Ng

I remember the 1970s of political and economic upheaval. A decade in which the once great world power of Britain had become the economic backwater of Europe. Britain's longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century came to power in 1979 and began the dismantling of government owned and subsidized entities, culminating in the bitter miners strike of 1984. Breaking the Miners Union caused divided families and communities, bloody violence and a resetting of the British economy, moving it away from socialism. Take a deep breath and relax, that backdrop gives this story great power, insight and, in the end, an incredible journey of uplifting optimism.

The production values at Ogunquit Playhouse are the same as seeing a show on Broadway, creating an engaging world of the gritty mining villages in the heart of England. Campbell Baird's Set Design is theatrical in style, yet cleverly simplistic and unencumbered. The action never has to stop for a scene change, as the stage is always in a state of adjustment, creating an enticing dance of its own accord. Lighting Designer Jack Mehler provides texture to the emotional tapestry, draping the action in gloomy illumination. Dustin Cross is credited with Costume Design and the two created chilling effects with the helmet-mounted mine lights. Under the direction of BT McNicholl, the many facets and pieces of this production harmoniously meld, drawing the audience deep within the bosom of his vision. The only technical glitch was the sound levels of the pit orchestra at times. Under the direction of Ana Flavia Zuim, the music was flawless, yet, at times, overpowered the vocals. Microphones are used in this production, leaving me to believe the issue is the sound board operator. Hearing the words is important in moving the plot forward, I want to hear them.

Above everything, BILLY ELLIOT is a show about self discovery, courage, conviction and, of course, mesmerizing dance. The weight of this production is set squarely upon the shoulders of the young gentlemen playing the lead role of Billy. The role is shared between Sam Faulkner and Noah Parets with Mr. Faulkner taking the stage the evening I attended. This young teen had no issues equaling the veteran Broadway cast that supported him. I have worked with young people in the theater my whole career and always I'm amazed at the sponge-like ability to quickly absorb large amounts of material, attacking with no fear. Mr. Faulkner is a triple threat with a good voice, acting chops to create a complex, emotional soul and, of course, one hell of a phenomenal dancer. This is a Professional, Union production and with that I must admit the only weak delivery occurred with the screams during the dance ending Act one, "Angry Dance." I wanted more pain, release from emotional bondage, uncontrolled from the gut. The vocals were a screech from the throat and didn't convey the inner explosion to match the mind-blowing talent of this kid's feet. I wanted to be brought to tears by this dance and he didn't get me there. I may be asking to much, but from every other moment of his presence on stage, I think not.

Theater on this level provides a cast with no weak links and I could write about all of these performers, all giving jaw-dropping performances. I will mention a few in the space provided me. I would like to see more bios at Ogunquit with Maine-based actors represented (yes, they exist) but, having spent 10 privileged years working within the Boston theater scene, I'll give credit for searching for New England talent at least. Alec Shiman is a Boston talent I have seen in the last couple of years and this kid explodes with the ability to inhabit his characters completely with mature internal interpretation and a great hoofer to boot.

This is a very masculine show, a story about men who labor underground, black from soot. The show is laden with masculine expectations being challenged in an increasingly changing world. Anastasia Barzee portrays Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance instructor, tiny in stature, yet a tenacious warrior fearlessly battling into the darkness against the masculine stereotype. Ms. Barzee is a force on stage, chain smoking her way into my heart. We have all had a teacher who not only opened the world up for us, but fought to give us a place in it.

The other dominant female presence on stage is Billy's Grandmother, played by Dale Soules. Her solo, "We'd go Dancing," is loaded with the female viewpoint of a women trapped in societies image of dutiful wife. The song was humorous, yet intensely sad, crediting the immense depth Ms. Soules brings to the stage. Lastly, an ensemble shout out to Chris Woods, who was just fun to watch.

Adam Pelty is the Choreographer who created the visual feast these dance numbers are. Many different styles of dance, not just ballet, explode off the stage. The ballet duet with Billy and his older self is spectacular and the dance with the whole cast on stage, with chairs, telling multiple viewpoints simultaneously, was a goose pimple moment of movement. "Electricity" was also outstanding, bringing the show to a standstill as Mr. Faulkner garnered his accolades. The applause rolled on as I overheard an elderly gentleman lean to his wife and whisper, well, he sure as hell earned it. Human self awareness seems to grow through adversity, challenged by loss and hard times. BILLY ELLIOT leaves you with the assurance the human experience is worthwhile, always worth the pursuit of self acceptance.

BILLY ELLIOT is on stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse for another two weeks, through July 26. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday, including matinees. For more information, please contact the theater box-office at 207-646-5511 or www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

Photo courtesy of Gary Ng

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 02:29

Hits: 460

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