Theaters think carefully about the shows that open their seasons. Many start with a comedy or a musical. The crowds, it's assumed, might return for more or even become season subscribers. That could mean the CINCINNATI PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK is on its way to a strong 2005-06 season by opening with Stephen Sondheim's A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (Thursday-Oct. 7). While the show is more than four decades old (and based on much older Roman comedies), it's a funny, timeless piece about scoundrels and lovers with a happy ending and great tunes ("Comedy Tonight" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"). Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove wrote a script full of colorful characters, amusing situations and great jokes.
My personal favorite is Miles Gloriosus, a puffed-up centurion who warns everyone: "Stand aside! I take large steps!" If you like one Sondheim, you might be even happier with two: The Playhouse has officially locked down the rights to stage COMPANY (March 14-April 14, 2006), with direction by John Doyle. He'll no doubt build a big following this fall with his revival of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on Broadway featuring Tony winners Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris (it opens Nov. 3). In fact, I suspect the buzz around Sweeney means lots of people will come to Cincinnati to see Company. It wouldn't surprise me if the production sells out before it opens. It's enough to make you decide to by a subscription. To get one: 513-421-3888.
... Another solid concept for a season-opener is a classic. The Playhouse has offered Shakespeare in several seasons, but that doesn't attract much notice if you're the CINCINNATI SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL (CSF). So they've pulled one from the bag of American classics: Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner OUR TOWN. It explores the most elemental issues of humanity -- love and death -- but in the setting of a very ordinary place, Grover's Corners, N.H. CSF founder and former artistic director NICK ROSE plays the Stage Manager who guides us through the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families; ROB JANSEN (who starred in Know Theatre's Corpus Christi two years ago) is back for his second CSF season, as young George Gibbs. Director Brian Phillips has shown a flourish for American work (his staging of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won a recent 2005 Cincinnati Entertain-ment Awards for outstanding play), so put this one on your must-see list. Tickets: 513-381-2273. ...
Local actor and director DREW FRACHER has had a banner week: On Aug. 26 he won a CEA for best supporting actor for his work at Ensemble Theatre in Sight Unseen. On Aug. 29, his Memphis production of Of Mice and Men for Playhouse on the Square won best play and four other Ostrander Awards (the Memphis version of the CEAs), including best director. Cincinnati will see his work as a director this season at ETC (Moonlight and Magnolias, March 8-26, 2006) and at CSF (A Streetcar Named Desire, March 30-April 23, 2006). Right now he's rehearsing a role in Intimate Apparel at ETC, opening Wednesday. (See To Do Lead, page 28.) ...
And speaking of someone else who's collected a few CEAs over the years, MARNI PENNING, another CSF co-founder, won't return this season as planned (she was set to perform in CSF's Titus Andronicus this fall) because she's been contracted for six months of work in Washington, D.C. -- she'll play the title role in the recent award-winning play After Ashley (which premiered in 2003 at the Humana Festival in Louisville) for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Sept. 5-Oct. 9), then back to her classical roots at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where she'll be Luciana in Comedy of Errors (November-January). She sends her regrets via e-mail, noting what a tough decision it was: "No Graeter's or Skyline Chili for a while for me, sadly. I miss you all."