Similar but different — and good

In a fortuitous pairing of coincidences, audiences can see a Wild West musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" on the Elizabethan Stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and head down the road apiece to Oregon Stage Works and catch the new Wild West musical "Tales of Fannie Keenan, Better Known as Dora Hand."

One is based on an old fictional story full of mistaken identities and silliness. The other is based on the true stories of people who actually lived and worked in Dodge City when the West was being won. The show at the festival runs until Oct. 12. The show at Oregon Stage Works closes on Sept. 29.

Both shows feature new music and somewhat contemporary takes on an era that is full of stereotypes. Penny Metropulos and her cast take their liberties with the Bard, but it's all in fun — it is, after all, a comedy. In the process they manage to tell Shakespeare's story fairly faithfully — if not fancifully — while the dance hall piano player stoically plays on.

In "Fannie Keenan," there also is a piano player, and he, too, plays on. In this play, however, much of the dialogue is sung, almost like an operetta. Not something you hear or see every day. "Les Miserables" was the last one in my memory.

Alas, Fannie's story is not a comedy, but it certainly has its bright comedic moments. In the end, the story comes to a redemptive resolution, even in an era when guns often brought about tragic resolutions.

In another interesting artistic juxtaposition, African-American performers are singing "A Brief History of White Music" over at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, while at Camelot Theatre Company, white performers are presenting a "Spotlight on the Blues," a brief history of music originally written and performed predominantly by African-Americans.

"A Brief History of White Music" recently opened and will play until Nov. 2. "Spotlight on the Blues" closes Sept. 28.

"A Brief History of White Music" adds a rich rhythm and blues aesthetic to songs that were meant to be listened to on the radio or danced to. The three Broadway-caliber performers deliver the new re-arranged songs to audiences who perhaps hear them carefully for the first time.

And that's what happens to audiences hearing the three performers in "Spotlight on the Blues." Given a bit of background from the show's narrator, the songs take on much more meaning musically and humanly.

The show leads audiences back to the blistering fields of the Mississippi Delta after the Civil War. We hear field hollers, work chants, spirituals and railroad songs and listen as they spawn a new kind of musical expression: the blues.

As "Spotlight on The Blues" so wonderfully demonstrates, the blues continued to evolve as it moved from the fields to the cities and from the South to Chicago, Kansas City and the West Coast. With each new influence, the deceptively simple musical structure of the blues transformed into a differently nuanced sound. But it remained faithful to its origins. It's still the blues.

Each of the performers bring something of those different nuances to the show. Doug Warner provides much of the old-timey raw blues on bottleneck, finger-pick acoustic guitar and dobro. He sings with the sensibilities of legends such as Robert Johnson who have left an indelible mark on the development of the blues.

Priscilla Quinby takes the blues into its more sophisticated mode, gracefully serving up songs by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday as we move toward swing. Karen Lovely captures Bessie Smith's soulful and raucous style. Her voice and body language come right out of that old-school style of blues that is hard to find these days.

The spotlight shines on more contemporary sounds, too, paying tribute to B.B. King and T-Bone Walker on the way. Electric guitar replaces the acoustic. Drums are introduced and before you know it, we're inching toward the rhythm and blues sound now playing at the Cabaret.

For the blues show, Michael Vannice, who plays everything from alto, tenor and baritone saxophone to blues harp and piano, is joined by stand-up bass player David Miller, keyboardist Allen Crutcher and percussionist Steve Sutfin.

And that, too, is a fortuitous artistic juxtaposition.

Share This Story