Things didn’t work out quite as planned: The erratically conceived Acclaims are no more, and the League of Cincinnati Theatres plans to launch a new program for the 2011-2012 season that will not be connected with any media organization. We wish the new, yet-to-be-named program the best, but it seemed a shame to let the 2010-2011 season fade to black with the haphazard citations dispensed by the Acclaims in a brief May 23 ceremony as the only evaluation of what was great onstage.
What follows is my own personal “Best of Cincinnati Theater” for the 2010-2011 season. In roughly chronological order, I’ve ranged across nine producing organizations and identified a dozen or so outstanding shows. Along the way I touch on several others worth seeing. My purpose is to offer a reminder that excellent theater can happen on every stage in town: Just pay attention — and be willing to take a few chances.
The first top-notch show came right at the top of the season: Covington’s Carnegie Center presented the musical version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Big River(Aug. 20-Sept. 4). The Carnegie is a newcomer in staging its own productions with local talent. Theater Hall of Famers Ed Cohen and Dee Anne Bryll put this one together using an excellent cast of students, several from the College-Conservatory of Music. Zack Steele played the ebullient Huck and Deondra Means was excellent as Jim, his slave friend. (Carnegie’s spring production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel featured some wonderful singers, but it lacked the focused, coherent ensemble that truly brought Big River to life.)
Picking the outstanding production at Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati was tough, because every one of its 2011-2012 shows was worth seeing: a profile of Thurgood Marshall was stirring; the touching Next Fall dealt with contemporary gay issues; the zany End Days focused on religious faith; and 25: The Musical celebrated ETC’s quarter-century of theater in Over-the-Rhine. But my pick for the season’s best at ETC is Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories(Sept. 8-26), the story of a successful writer and her ambitious protégé. Outstanding local professional actors Amy Warner and Corinne Mohlenhoff paired wonderfully in this roller-coaster tale of teacher and student; director D. Lynn Meyers inspired believable, engaging performances from both.
Know Theatre had a very mixed season, but its opener was one I’ll remember for a long time. Drew Fracher, who excels at directing with local companies and has particular expertise in stage combat, put together a visceral and moving production of Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight (Oct. 9-30). The lyrical love story, both a lifetime and the blink of an eye, traced the passions of a relationship — including heart-rending emotional and gripping physical combat between a man and a woman — holding audiences rapt attention for 90 minutes. Performances by local performer Beth Harris and visiting actor Jens Rasmussen were among the best onstage anywhere this season.
The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) has programs in musical theater and drama that share facilities but operate rather independently, so it makes sense to consider them separately. The drama program offered solid mainstage productions of two American classics (The Matchmaker and Our Town) and Red Light Winter, a powerful and disturbing three-person script by Adam Rapp. But the one that remains with me is Diane Kvapil’s staging of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (Nov. 4-6): It requires a big cast and involves lots of complex interrelationships between adult siblings, spouses and friends, and the CCM cast carried it off beautifully in the small Cohen Family Studio Theater.
The Studio Theater was also the venue that offered my pick for the season’s best CCM musical theater production, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music (Feb. 3-5). Not to take anything away from fine productions of accomplished mainstage productions of Evita and Rent or an inventively choreographed studio piece by Diane Lala, Under Construction2, but the Sondheim show, staged by faculty member Steven Goldstein, brought forward the show’s complexity using a cast of students
We are seeing more and more good theater at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts on Cincinnati’s West Side, managed by Landmark Productions (which also produces shows on the Showboat Majestic). I heard great things about Annie Get Your Gun in April, but I missed seeing it personally. The Covedale show that impressed me was Neil Simon’s nostalgic Brighton Beach Memoirs (Jan. 20-Feb. 6): It featured a solid cast of age-appropriate actors in a story played with wit and feeling about a Jewish family crowded into a single-family house in 1937. Young Max Meyers played Eugene, the show’s youthful narrator, with dry wit and understanding.
The Cincinnati area’s other solid collegiate theater program is based at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), where students are trained to perform in plays and musicals. I missed the well-received fall opener, Joe Orton’s dark farce Loot, but I appreciated NKU’s riotously imaginative staging of The Rocky Horror Show. However, the most satisfying show was a family-friendly production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical rendition of Cinderella(Feb. 17-27), with a lot of choreography, colorful costumes and comic performances. NKU should also be commended for staging another biennial Y.E.S. Festival, presenting three premieres of new plays in a 10-day repertory event. That’s a lot of work, and a great experience for students.
Curiously, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) offered several productions of Shakespearean plays with modernized settings — Much Ado About Nothing from the swinging 1960s, Merry Wives of Windsor from the hipster 1950s and a 1970s Disco-era Two Gentlemen of Verona. It also tried (unsuccessfully in my opinion) to “feminize” Julius Caesar by having women play all the men’s roles. High marks to CSC for wedging in a new script by local writer Joe Stollenwerk based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a one-woman work about a frightening future that featured a strong performance by veteran Corinne Mohlenhoff.
The big hit of CSC’s season — with audiences and critics — was a rendition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Feb. 18-March 13) that added numerous performances to satisfy audience demand. Guest directed by Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers, the production was highlighted by Sara Clark’s engaging portrait of Austen’s beloved heroine, the spirited, independent Elizabeth Bennet. Her frustrated chemistry with Ian Bond’s Mr. Darcy was especially fun to watch.
Of course, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park gave us a season full of fine professional productions, including two heartfelt mainstage shows about humorous and eccentric but loving families (You Can’t Take It with You and Over the Tavern), as well as excellent work on the smaller Shelterhouse stage with Cincinnati playwright Theresa Rebeck’s widely produced comedy about a theater production, The Understudy, as well as The Pavilion, a sweetly nostalgic play by Craig Wright about troubled love and reunions — also directed by Lynn Meyers.
The Shelterhouse set a new long-running record with the comedy revue Pride & Porkopolis: Second City Does Cincinnati presented from early November through mid-January by members of the famed Chicago improv troupe.
My pick for the best Marx Theatre production is Gee’s Bend(March 17-April 9), the story of a family of quilters in an isolated Alabama river community that manages to portray the path of many African Americans during the 20th century. A sterling cast included Bakesta King as the plain-spoken central character and Nikkole Salter as her tart-tongued sister. Director Derrick Sanders’ use of Gospel hymns sung with harmonic beauty by the cast during scene transitions made the show resonate in a profoundly emotional manner.
The Shelterhouse stage’s world premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s Behind the Eye (April 7-May 1) was perhaps the season’s most astonishingly theatrical work, one of the best I’ve seen at the always admirable Playhouse in several seasons. The story of Lee Miller, a feisty fashion model who became a World War II combat photographer, went far beyond a portrait of a fascinating modern woman. It traced a swath of history and dug into how myths are created and lives shaped in a manner that will remain for many years with those who saw it.
Late in the 2010-2011 season New Edgecliff Theatre offered a brilliant local premiere of an unusual small-cast musical with an amusingly generic name of [title of show](April 14-30). This humorous but insightful show is about a composer and a lyricist who decide to enter a musical theater competition by writing a show about, well, themselves. The self-referential numbers are clever explorations of the creative process, and director Greg Procaccino’s NKU grads Tim Hein (as the geeky writer) and Brad Frost (as the perfectionist composer), with Danielle Muething (as their sardonic but faithful friend) and Lori Valentine (as an actress with modest Broadway experience), were a standout ensemble. It should also be noted that NET, which performs in the Columbia Performance Center in Columbia-Tusculum, dusted off a faded holiday hit, David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries, with a fresh new performance by Joshua Steele that made it feel like a new work.
I also have a added recognitions. Ensemble Theatre’s producing artistic director, D. Lynn Meyers staged four of ETC’s six productions, which is ambitious. But beyond that, she found the time — and the energy — to make her first-ever contribution to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company by directing Pride & Prejudice and then returned to the Cincinnati Playhouse, where she began her professional career, to stage The Pavilion. That gives her all-star status in my book.
Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company teamed with Wright State University to produce the regional premiere of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of family rivalry, strife and frustration, August: Osage County (Sept. 23-Oct. 10), on the university’s campus. The production successfully blended performances by professionals with students. It was co-directed by Scott Stoney, who also played the cranky patriarch of the quirky Weston family, and Marsha Hanna. Sadly, it was Hanna’s final production. She died in early January after a battle with cancer, and her work will be sadly missed in Dayton and beyond.
While I don’t have time to see much community theater, I made a special effort to attend Cincinnati Music Theatre’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone (May 6-14), one of my favorite “new” musicals. Van Ackerman completely embodied the charming, geeky fan of old musicals, “Man in Chair.” Ackerman, a one-time professional who now handles publicity for the Cincinnati Arts Association, had not been onstage in 16 years, but he was delightful amid a cast of talented volunteer performers who brought this daffy, creative and tuneful show to life — especially Katie Eichler and Brandon Fox as Janet and Roger, a love-besotted pair about to be wed, Dianna Davis as the title character and Wayne Wright as Adolpho, a goofy, self-centered Lothario.
The 2011 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, the eighth in our city’s annual dose of push-the-envelope theater, delivered some fine out-of-town performers in June. I wholly endorse the “Critic’s Pick of the Fringe” (it certainly got my vote) for the imaginative Miss Magnolia Beaumont Goes to Provincetown. My personal vote for the best local production goes to Sarah Ruhl’s amusing but thoughtful (dare I say magical) Melancholy Play (June 3-5), staged by local theater professional Regina Pugh using the acting intern company at Ensemble Theatre.
Every Cincinnati theater can produce memorable work. If you go regularly, you know that. And if you don’t, well, what are you waiting for? There’s a theater out there that you’ll enjoy — and they’re eager to sell you some tickets.
Click here to view a photo gallery of Rick Pender’s favorite local theater productions of 2010-2011.