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Theater Answers Human Need For Stories

By Rick Pender · August 17th, 2010 · Curtain Call
I recently traveled to New York City where I saw six Broadway shows. If you read my column occasionally, you’ve heard me extol the virtues of Cincinnati’s theater scene, so you might ask why I need to travel to one of America’s most expensive cities, where tickets for shows in Manhattan’s theater district routinely top $100. There are several reasons I’d like to share.

We get a local taste of Broadway professionalism a half-dozen times annually at the Aronoff Center when touring productions are presented by Broadway Across America. On my recent trip I saw two that will be here this fall: The revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center and the Arena Rock extravaganza, Rock of Ages. They could not be more different: South Pacific looks nostalgically to Broadway’s Golden Age (Rogers and Hammerstein’s show originated in 1949), while Rock of Ages celebrates pop culture from the mid-1980s with music that sustained MTV.

Both shows pleased New York audiences and I expect that this fall’s touring shows will do the same for Cincinnati — although the shows’ demographics hardly overlap. South Pacific will appeal to people over 50 who love familiar melodies of tunes like “Bali H’ai” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” songs written to tell a romantic love story (although the show also takes a hard look at racism in the mid-20th century).

Rock of Ages connects with people in their forties who partied to tunes by Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi and REO Speedwagon. They’re not likely to be regular theatergoers, but they’ll have an evening of great entertainment — just like those who enjoy South Pacific.

One thing I liked about these shows on Broadway is that they did not rely heavily on stars. For reasons related more to marketing than to professionalism, Broadway shows and their touring offspring today lean heavily on actors who have become familiar from their work on TV or in movies. On my trip I saw Kelsey Grammer, TV’s Frasier, in La Cage aux Folles, and Dennis Haysbert, who played 24’s African-American president, in Race. That’s how tickets are sold, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into talent.

I also saw Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. While they both have film and TV credits, their careers were established and sustained by theater. And it showed. While film star Catherine Zeta-Jones won a Tony playing Desirée Armfeldt, Peters’ take on the role showed much more depth of character and a profound sense of theatricality.

So how do such observations relate to Cincinnati? We have lots of talented actors — check out the list of nominees for this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (to be handed out on Aug. 29) — who make their careers locally with performances that show as much talent and creativity as any I saw on Broadway. Our theaters need to sell tickets, too — I hope you’ve subscribed to several of them for the coming season — but they can depend more on a reputation for great work than chasing after the public appetite for stars.

People still love to see theater for moving stories told in an inventive way. Most of the performances I attended in New York filled the seats (during a heat wave in early August), which tells me that our human need to watch stories told in a communal and artful way will always find audiences. That’s what we have on a regular basis here in Cincinnati, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to see such work regularly.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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