Roll Jimmy Kimmel, Elvis Presley and Jim Carrey into a single explosive entity and you might come close to Eddie Cantor’s impact on American entertainment.
Rising from an impoverished Russian Jewish immigrant New York family, the little, bug-eyed and singing waiter parlayed his broad talents and irrepressible personality to Vaudeville before doing a decade on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Follies, eventually becoming one of the dominant figures on American radio in the 1930s and ’40s.
Chart topping singer, author (more or less) of seven books, a recurring Looney Tunes character and namesake for a Parker Brothers game, Cantor also starred in the then-new medium of television, hosting his own comedy show and becoming the first star to be censored on TV — where he’s lately returned, six decades after his death, as a character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
What made Cantor a movie star was the 1930 film version of Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s Broadway hit, Whoopee!, whose original 1928 musical version opens Friday, July 31, at The Shedd and runs through Aug. 9. The typically breathless story — essentially one big chase scene — involves a mean, jilted sheriff; the dizzy young beauty he intends to marry but who loves her childhood sweetheart (the son of Pueblo Indians); a hypochondriac; a wealthy one-percenter and his crazy kids; and a gaggle of other characters.
But you don’t see these Jazz Age musicals for the zany plot — it’s the songs that make them memorable, and Whoopee! packs some doozies: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby” and, of course, the then-naughty title tune “Makin’ Whoopee.” The Shedd will bring us as close to the Flo Ziegfeld original as possible (including tap dancing) in this fresh staging directed by Peg Major and a squadron of Shedd regulars, including music director Robert Ashens.
Whoopee! is part of one of Oregon’s most valuable musical institutions, the Shedd’s annual Oregon Festival of American Music, which this summer spans nine concerts, films, talks and more. This year’s theme is the Jazz Age, the 1920s and early ’30s period that starred everything from Cantor to Louis Armstrong to the Gershwins to Eubie Blake to Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington.
No one in Oregon knows how to present that music in historical context more entertainingly than OFAM, especially with this summer’s excellent musician lineup: reedman Jesse Cloninger, pianist Ted Rosenthal, trumpeters Byron Stripling and Tim Clarke, singers Siri Vik, Evynne Hollens, Ian Whitcomb, Shirley Andress and many other veteran Shedd performers.
A convenient kickoff moment for the era: George Gerwshin’s immortal Rhapsody in Blue, a dazzling romantic liaison between jazz and classical music that highlighted famous bandleader Paul Whiteman’s (in)famous 1924 concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall called “An Experiment in Modern Music.” OFAM’s Aug. 11 opening gala features excerpts from that historic show, including Gershwin’s piano-powered tone poem and other jazzy ’20s classics by Ellington, Armstrong and more.
The Aug. 12 concert ignites a celebration of so-called “hot jazz” by stars like Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Red Nichols and more, including songs by one of the era’s greatest songwriters, Hoagy Carmichael. The rest of the fest looks just as spiffy, as we’ll explain in our next installment.
While OFAM specializes in playing old music as originally intended, Portland’s electrifying amplified chamber ensemble ARCO-PDX does the opposite: brilliantly deploying rock ’n’ roll amplification, lighting effects and a visceral, dramatic approach to the music (played from memory) to bring the excitement of a rock show to classical music. On Aug. 8 at Cozmic, ARCO plays 20th and 21st century music by long time Oregonian Ernest Bloch, the great West Coast ultramodernist and world music pioneer Henry Cowell, Arvo Pärt, Dmitri Shostakovich and Polish composer Henryk Górecki — but not his famous third symphony. Instead, it’s his Harpsichord Concerto, played on electric keyboard here. The show also features a U.S. premiere by Russian composer Andrei Eshpai and opening performer John Berendzen.