When public transportation was scarce and power sources were living, every city worth mentioning had its own theater. The locals needed to be entertained, whether by music or by play, and the city theater was the place.
Until transportation and the highway system drove a change to this approach, it worked just fine for entertainment over the years. Movie theaters were distributed the same way, town by town, until the era of the multiplex took over. And some could argue that, with the popularity of home theater systems, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.
But while a two-thousand-inch TV and eight or ten speakers in a circle might replicate the movie theater experience at home, it can never bring live entertainment to the downstairs living room.
Fortunately for us, a good number of those old theaters-in-every-city still stand today. Most have been lovingly restored, updated with modern conveniences but retaining the elegant, ornate design cues of yesteryear.
My first brush with one was Troy, New York’s acoustically-perfect-in-every-way Troy Music Hall. The qualifier was mentioned so often it may as well have been the presenting sponsor. Yet it was, indeed, built to a measure of acoustic precision, whether you were attending a show or performing on stage.
Since my college days, I’ve experienced the handful of theaters closer to home: Manchester’s Palace Theatre or Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts, or even Keene’s Colonial Theatre. But only in recent years have I become more familiar with Portsmouth’s hat-in-the-ring, The Music Hall.
The Music Hall is tucked on a side street, Chestnut Street, just out of the hustle and bustle of downtown Portsmouth’s Congress Street. Turn the corner, though, and the theater proudly announces its presence with a brightly-lit neon marquée, a recent addition styled like the prominent lighted signs outside similar theaters. Here, barely off the beaten path, Chestnut Street becomes a gathering place for visitors just before they enter the main doors.
The Music Hall’s main lobby is a sight to behold, with a spacious gathering area anchored by a bar at the rear. Flanking the bar are two ornately-decorated restrooms, the tile and masonry work evoking images of an underground labyrinth. The entrances to the theater are two staircases above and far more traditional, though an upstairs bar provides additional refreshment for theatergoers.
The theater itself is, more or less, what one comes to expect from such a venue. The lower-level orchestra seats are red fabric and fan out from the stage, two aisles cleaving the seats into left, middle and right sections. There are a couple support columns to break up the view, with the result of a number of seats being presented as “obstructed view,” but the columns are no big disturbance. A balcony wraps the upper tier of the theater in a horseshoe from wall to wall, with theater seating all the way around. The balcony aisles are less structured by necessity and the seats can feel claustrophobic at times, but the view of the stage below is still stellar.
Despite its name, the Music Hall welcomes all manner of entertainment. My first visit to the venue was barely entertaining at all; a local program called Digital Portsmouth was using the Music Hall space to gather a crowd for a demonstration and discussion on cryptocurrency. That’s right: the first time I sat in those red-upholstered seats, I was there for a lecture on Bitcoin. The next time, I was perched in a balcony seat two years ago for a performance by blue-eyed soul legend Michael McDonald. This weekend, my friends and I filed into left-orchestra seats for the latest round of performances by parody songsmith “Weird Al” Yankovic. Embarking on this year’s “Ill-Advised Vanity Tour,” Al and his band exchanged the usual stage theatrics and costume changes for an “MTV Unplugged” aesthetic, favoring the band’s style parodies and original songs from the last thirty-someodd years.
Opening for “Weird Al” was comedian Emo Philips, part of a unique comedian-musician double-bill. Philips enjoyed a small role in Al’s cult classic film “UHF” and has been somewhat associated with Yankovic ever since. Emo took a moment to embrace the beauty of the theater himself, saying that “I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven. Though I always assumed that would be a positive experience.”
The Music Hall has a sister venue around the corner, the Music Hall Loft, that deserves a mention as well. As the name suggests, the Music Hall Loft is a more modern performance space, the traditional architecture traded for a more industrial look. It’s more college lecture hall than historic theater, but for certain performances and presentations, it’s the right look for the right time.
There’s a lot to be said about the power of live music and large groups. Some acts just demand that environment. There are others that can trade on the value of intimacy. And as the acts I enjoy start to find that they, too, would rather trade on intimacy, it’s all too convenient that we’re surrounded by great small venues like the Music Hall.