We’re still more than a week away from the “official” start of summer, but southern Maine’s arts and entertainment organizations aren’t waiting for the solstice. For them, summer is already here.

Maine State Music Theatre, one of the pillars of our summer cultural scene, opened its 2009 season with an extraordinarily moving production of “The Light in the Piazza,” a six-time Tony Award-winner. It’s a Maine premiere, and definitely one of the summer’s must-see shows.

Two of the state’s smallest summer music festivals are coming up. First is the Ogunquit Chamber Music Festival, a four-concert series that runs through June 14. The Portland String Quartet opens its four-day Maine Festival of American Music on June 24 with featured pianist Virginia Eskin as the featured guest.

‘The Light in the Piazza’

In the past quarter-century, quite a number of major musicals have blurred the boundary between Broadway and opera. Among the best and most recent is “The Light in the Piazza,” an American original that is set in Italy. “The Light in the Piazza” ran 15 months on Broadway, beginning in 2005. It garnered 11 Tony Award nominations and won six.

Maine State Music Theatre opened the regional premiere of this wonderful show last week. It’s also the first of the season’s must-see shows.

The script is by Craig Lucas, based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer. Music and lyrics were penned by Adam Guettel, grandson of Broadway icon Richard Rodgers. Guettel won the Tony statuette for “Best Original Score.”

It is a bittersweet romance that revolves around flawed characters coping with challenging situations and overcoming their own faults and limitations.

The central figure is Clara, a beautiful blond 20-something woman who surprises the audience by her sometimes childish behavior. We later learn that Clara suffered a traumatic brain injury at her 11th birthday party when a pony kicked her in the head. Clara is on a tour of Italy with Margaret, her highly protective mother, but mom can’t prevent daughter from falling in love with Fabrizio, a handsome Italian she meets by chance in the piazza in Florence.

At first Margaret tries to separate the pair, but that stratagem fails to break off the romance. Finally Margaret is forced to deal with the truth – and confront her own demons.

Over the course of the evening, we learn about Margaret’s disintegrating marriage and two others that are on the rocks. By the final scene, we’re hopeful – but not certain – that all eight characters involved in these four romantic pairings can surmount their challenges.

Top acting honors go to Broadway veteran Lynne Wintersteller in the role of the protective mother, a conflicted role that demands a delicate balance between strength and sympathy. I also liked Jennifer Blood as the brain-injured ingenue and Ben Jacoby as her ardent suitor. And by the way, Broadway veteran and longtime MSMT favorite Mark Jacoby, Ben’s real-life father, plays the fictional father in this show. Ben is a graduate of MSMT’s intern program, and he’s obviously headed for high places in the show-biz world.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “The Light in the Piazza” through June 20 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit msmt.org on the Internet.

Ogunquit Chamber Music Festival

Like delicious fried clams and salty sea breezes, classical music festivals are part and parcel of the summer scene along the Maine coast. First up on this year’s calendar is the Ogunquit Chamber Music Festival. This modest festival – one of the smallest in New England – is in its 15th season, which runs through June 14.

Four concerts are scheduled for two venues in the heart of Ogunquit Village. Three members of the 27-year-old Boston Chamber Music Society will perform a varied program on Friday, June 12. In some configuration of instrumentalists, the Boston Chamber Music Society has been part of the festival since its inception.

The final concert of the festival will feature the Ogunquit debut of the Boston-based Amaryllis Chamber Ensemble, which formed in 2000. Four instruments are represented: flute, violin, cello and harp. The group’s programs are constructed around this unusual combination, and include traditional repertoire and new compositions.

The New York-based Ambrosia Trio – piano, violin and cello – open the festival June 11. The DaPonte String Quartet, based in Mid-Coast Maine, will perform on Saturday. The DaPontes will repeat the music they performed this past weekend, which is an outstanding program comprising string quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Claude Debussy and contemporary British composer Thomas Ades.

Concerts are held in two venues in Ogunquit Village: The Barn Gallery artists’ collaborative on Shore Road, and the Dunaway Center, which is part of town hall on School Street. Call 646-7236; there’s no Web site.

Maine Festival of American Music

Since its formation in 1969, the Portland String Quartet has been promoting and performing American music in Maine and elsewhere. A few years ago, the Maine Festival of American Music was started as a natural extension of the foursome’s interest. Held in the historic 1794 Shaker Meeting House on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, this four-day festival presents American music in the broader context of the world’s great chamber music.

This year’s schedule runs June 24-27. Virginia Eskin, a Boston pianist, and Steven Ledbetter, formerly the program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will collaborate with the Portland String Quartet and members of Maine’s Shaker community in a celebration of America’s unique musical heritage.

Eskin, who has played with the quartet for many years, specializes in American music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ragtime will be featured in the festival’s June 24 opening concert – Eskin’s “Fluffy Ruffle Girls” is a CD entirely devoted to women associated with ragtime – while the June 27 finale will include an important chamber work by George Whitefield Chadwick.

Chadwick, who spans the 19th and 20th centuries, was a pivotal figure in the development of America’s musical voice. Although Chadwick was a composer of considerable talent – his “Jubilee” has been played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra several times – he is better known to cultural historians as the longtime director of the New England Conservatory. During his tenure, NEC evolved from a struggling local music school into a world-class institution.

The Maine Festival of American Music runs June 24-27 at the historic Shaker Village on old Route 26 in New Gloucester. Call 926-4597 or visit shaker.lib.me.us.

Sidebar Elements

pnms-outabout-061009.jpgA beautiful American tourist finds a handsome Italian suitor in “The Light in the Piazza,” the opening show of Maine State Music Theatre’s 2009 season.
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