I like to write about the excitement of new works and regional premieres, which are important in sustaining theater as an art form. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect the classics. In its prior 16 seasons, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company presented all but five of the Bard’s 37 plays. They’ve checked another one off the list with the current production of King John and they plan to complete the canon during their 20th season (in 2014-2015) by offering one of the remaining works for the next four years.
Cincinnati Shakespeare hasn’t cornered the market on classics. By most standards, Neil Simon is in the pantheon of playwrights who have created astounding bodies of theatrical work. His 34 plays since 1961 come close to Shakespeare’s total, and the prolific writer has also created a similar number of screenplays.
Simon was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for humor in 2006. His creativity has pleased many audiences, and two of his finest works are presently onstage locally: His semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) is at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts until Sunday, while his classic and oft-performed comedy The Odd Couple (on Broadway in 1965, followed by a popular movie in 1968 and a TV series that ran from 1970-1975) has been revived at Covington’s Carnegie Center, running through Feb.
The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has shown a remarkable commitment to new works (brand-new shows made up half of its 50th anniversary season a year ago), but it, too, relies on classics to balance seasons and attract theatergoers. This season offered a pleasant revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s warmhearted comedy You Can’t Take It With You, winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize. Last spring’s charming production of The Fantasticks, a work that premiered in New York City in 1960 — the same year the Playhouse was founded — was named the year’s outstanding musical by the 2010 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
The attraction of nostalgia also lends a classic air to other shows, such as the Playhouse’s current production of Over the Tavern, set in 1959. Tom Dudzick’s 1994 script was a big hit for the Playhouse in 1999, and its sequel, King o’ the Moon, also attracted audiences during the 2001-2002 season. The Playhouse will revive another hit from the past in April and May when it presents Beehive: The ’60s Musical, replete with girl groups and female vocalists. This time it will be offered on the theater’s big Marx main stage; in 1994 it was a best-selling holiday hit in the smaller Shelterhouse. Is there any doubt that the target demographic for such shows is Baby Boomers who now have the time and budget for such entertainment?
Those motivations explain why many Broadway shows these days are either revivals (we’ll see a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, the 1965 Tony winner, at the Aronoff Center later this month), works based on popular movies (the Dolly Parton vehicle 9 to 5 is now touring after a brief Broadway run; it’s at Dayton’s Schuster Center this week) or musicals built around tried and true Pop music, such as Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) and Mamma Mia (ABBA).
Familiarity might breed contempt, but it also sells tickets, and that’s what keeps theaters bringing back the plays and musicals we recognize.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org