Venue dons nouveau chapeau
By Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Known most nights a week for bass-pounding club music or live local bands, the Venue tried out a different sound last Saturday – dinner and musical theater with a distinctively French flavor.
“Chanson: If we only have love” is a tribute to the lives and music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, French singers whose own tragic lives can be traced through their lyrics. The musical revue was written by Gar Roper, co-owner of the Venue, and was performed by the Freeport Players. A longtime fan of music as well as a restaurateur, this is the first time Roper has fused the two. The theater side of the Venue was packed, but the pub side had its fair share of Saturday night regulars, and Roper was doing his level best to handle the challenge.
“Where’s the green room?” Betsy Roper asked her husband.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said.
Although a relative novice, he was able to juggle all of these jobs with aplomb, demonstrated as he went in search of a coat rack and stopped at the bar to make sure the pub-food sports bar patrons felt comfortable in this foreign surrounding. They were in to watch college men’s basketball Elite’s Eight, and they were a bit bemused by the dinner-theater crowd. A writer from New England Biker News stopped by to talk. She was looking to have the Venue as a stop on an upcoming motorcycle run.
The Venue waitstaff were caught in a culture clash, as well, as they seemed dressed more for the club than French music. “This night really is the biggest challenge for them. They’re young… ” Roper said, “But the single-style club runs only as a fad, and then fades. We’re in for a longer experience of food and entertainment.” To make room for the packed house of theater-goers, the Venue had to shift a moveable wall towards the pub crowd, and the fusion was complete.
“This is our first foray into dinner-theater. We’re thinking of doing it Sunday nights,” said Roper, a novelist and poet, whose main business is as an independent market research consultant.
The restaurant was retrofitted for the evening, the stage set up with cafe tables, wine bottles, and glasses in a continuation of the audience, who dined before the show. Draperies to one side were from another event, but Roper kept them up. “They look Parisian, like Gertrude Stein’s parlor,” he said.
Even though the career paths of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel were about fifteen years apart – and they never sang together – in many ways, their music can be coupled, “celebrating the triumph and tragedy of Paris and her people,” Roper said. This was an encore performance. It had more of the joys of a celebration than the jitters of opening night. “The stars have had extra months to prepare and practice.”
When introducing the meal, Roper joked with his guests that they were offering the best in French food – “porcupine, armadillo, sting ray.”
The menu consisted of a three-course meal, featuring first a salad. “Just a little Italian dressing, and let it work its way for everyone,” Roper advised the head chef, Paul Mataraice. Next came a choice of prime rib, baked stuffed haddock, or vegetable lasagna with white cream sauce. One would have a Bordeaux, if following Betsy’s advice for a wine with the meal, a Sea Glass Chardonnay if one followed Gar’s lead. For dessert, folks enjoyed cannoli and coffee or tea.
The show opened with a series of images from Paris in the 1920’s, projected on a back screen, initially positive with piano music.Then the bombs come, and familiar architecture becomes a scene of ruin. The screen darkens and lights come up on five characters in black.
Jane Bradley is a singer and keyboard player in the local band “Not too Shaap.” Ellen Ebert has been involved in theater in Freeport for nearly twenty-five years. Daric Ebert started his career as a “stage dad” for his daughter Emily who was in “Hold on Molly,” the first production of the group that became Freeport Players. Marc Brann narrated the show and sang a couple songs. Elizabeth Guffey was central of the five performers, literally at the middle mic for the first number, and as managing/artistic director of Freeport Players. She sang the Edith Piaf pieces and was particularly powerful in “L’hymme a l’amour,” a declaration of unbounded love.
The audience was treated during intermission to a special guest singer. Marie-Claire Owens, a nine-year-old songstress, belted out “Caresse sur l’ocean” from “Les Choristes.” Even though she was tuckered out from a 9 am basketball game, she still roused the crowd with her version of the French song.
“Chanson” is the fourth play that Roper has written. He also has a comedy with the characters Tom Lehrer, Shelly Burman, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby. He wrote a musical tribute to the American protest music of the 1960’s, and he’s got a spoken-word piece that features poets T.S. Eliot and Maine’s own E.A. Robinson. “But this is the first time we’ve been able to mount one of the plays,” he said.
“I’d like to see the arts expand across all of Portland. This should be seen as the northern terminus of art and culture in New England, like a Nashville of the north,” said Roper, who channels these thoughts into OMNI, his think-tank company which stands for Open Minds, New Ideas.
The Ropers have been married for 47 years, and they have seen their share of varied professions. From 1989 to 2007, they owned and operated a summer camp in Poland Springs. Once Camp Pesquasawasis, run by the Diocese of Portland, the site next became the Samantha Smith World Peace Camp, named for the Maine youth who wrote to Yuri Andropov, then Soviet Premier, telling of her fears of a nuclear war between their countries. By then, the Ropers were involved. Their daughter, Jane, visited the Soviet Union in 1988, and the following year twenty-six Soviet campers came here. Their son, Kevin, is in a band called “The Project” and is beginning to teach music. He’s trained in the Suzuki method and will be likewise showing his students how to play by ear. Betsy says she is supposed to be retired, but she stays busy with family, activities, some of the accounting, photography, and genealogy.
A couple of younger kids who attended the dinner-theater were asked what they thought of it. “There were some familiar melodies,” Ryan said. “I liked the way their stories were weaved in,” said Natalie.
Sunday – jazz luncheon
Monday – sports/wing night
Tuesday – Best of Portland (local bands, open mic)
Wednesday – Blues Jam
Thursday – 18+ club night
Friday – 207 DJ light show
Saturday – live bands