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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 6, 2017

Venue review: Merrill Auditorium

Written by: Bob Keyes

 

Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops! Classic Rock concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops! Classic Rock concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Section 2, Row J, Seat 8.

Subjectively speaking, that’s the best seat in Merrill Auditorium. It’s near the middle of the floor section closest to the stage, where the sight lines and acoustics are just about perfect.

When you’re sitting in that seat, there’s no better vantage in Portland to experience an orchestral performance, an opera or dance recital. It’s also a terrific place for a rock ’n’ roll show or a musical, or even a poetry reading. Anything, really. It’s classically elegant, with comfortable seats, mostly warm acoustics and visually pleasing sight lines.

Merrill is Portland’s everyman theater, built originally in 1911 in City Hall, and renovated beautifully in 1997. It’s where our kids go to graduate, and is home to the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the historic Kotzschmar Organ. PORTopera presents its summer performance there, and it’s the primary home of Portland Ovations.

The audience is partially illuminated during the Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops! Classic Rock concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

The audience is partially illuminated during the Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops! Classic Rock concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

We’re so used to Merrill, it’s easy to take it for granted, and that would be a mistake. Merrill is a jewel, and Portland is lucky to have it as a primary theater. It provides an appropriate setting for events that demand something more than a cement seating bowl. And at 1,900 seats, it’s small enough to still feel intimate.

It’s elegant without being ostentatious, and musicians love performing there. Lyle Lovett, who planned to return to Merrill with his Texas singing partner Robert Earl Keen on Sept. 30, has long sung the praises of the building because of how it feels and how it sounds.

When musicians are happy, concerts are better. It’s not perfect. The rows are tight, and if you’re stuck in a terrace seat under the grand tier – that’s the first balcony – the acoustics are muddy. And sometimes, because of the horseshoe shape of the auditorium, the sight lines are iffy. It’s a long walk up to the top, and the bathrooms, especially for women, are a nightmare.

And since we’re complaining, the flow of people into and out of the theater, from the lobbies, is awful. But we nitpick. When you’re in the hall with a good seat and there’s magic happening on stage, there’s no better place to enjoy a performance.


MERRILL AUDITORIUM

LOCATION: 20 Myrtle St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: porttix.com or 207-842-0800
CAPACITY: 1,900
SEATING STYLE: Fixed seating with three tiers. Almost all shows are reserved.
REFRESHMENTS: Beer, wine and snacks in the lobby
PARKING: On street and nearby surface lots
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
OTHER: Prepare to pay. Service charges vary by show, but Merrill adds facility fees – to pay for the theater – and ticket fees, to pay for the handling of tickets through the in-house ticket service PortTix. They add up. You can save some fees by buying tickets in person at the box office.

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