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Excellence Is Its Own Award

Even without award shows to celebrate it, 2011 offered plenty of good theater

By Rick Pender · December 28th, 2011 · Onstage
art2_godofcarnage_photo_sandy_underwoodGod of Carnage - Photo by Sandy Underwood
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Identifying the year’s best theater productions is a more idiosyncratic task this year because of the disappearance of two long-established awards programs. CityBeat’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards had their final iteration in August 2010, with the plan to merge them into the Acclaim Awards, launched by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2005. That program fell victim to disagreement among its volunteer leaders and held its final recognition event in May 2011. The League of Cincinnati Theatres continues to send judging panels to evaluate shows, but they are handing out awards rather than nominations, so the relative quality of productions is anybody’s guess.

That being said, Cincinnati’s theaters continue to present shows that please audiences. The final round of Acclaim recognition singled out Carson Kreitzer’s Behind the Eye, a wonderfully acted and imaginatively staged world premiere on the Playhouse in the Park’s Shelterhouse stage. The show, an interpretation of the life of fashion model and combat photographer Lee Miller, was an astonishing and most memorable work that I’ll remember for many years.

The Playhouse’s final season under Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern has offered rousing productions of God of Carnage (September), Yasmina Reza’s tale of battling parents; Red (October), John Logan’s passionate script about painter Mark Rothko; and a sweet rendition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (October), Stern’s final work as a director for the theater he’s led for two decades.

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati resurrected the “Marvelous Wonderettes” in a holiday sequel to the show that sold thousands of tickets in 2010: Winter Wonderettes, presented in June and July, was a clever, tuneful romp, featuring the same four actresses from the earlier production. ETC kicked off its current season in September with one of the first regional stagings of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s powerful Next to Normal, a Rock musical that plumbs the depths of mental illness.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company did well in February with an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Ensemble Theatre’s D.

Lynn Meyers. (Austen returns in 2012 when CSC offers Sense and Sensibility.) Bruce Cromer, one of the area’s best actors, portrayed Sir Thomas More for a strong season opener for CSC, A Man for All Seasons. There’s still a chance to see an avalanche of verbal wit in CSC’s current production, Love’s Labour’s Lost (through Dec. 31).

The Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, operated by Cincinnati Landmark Productions (they also manage the Showboat Majestic), has found the formula for presenting solidly entertaining mainstream shows to audiences on Cincinnati’s West Side. They offered a hilarious staging of Michael Frayn’s backstage farce Noises Off in September, followed by a tuneful revue of Irving Berlin tunes, I Love a Piano, in October. Their holiday production offered more Irving Berlin melodies with White Christmas (just closed), which was among my favorites this season.

Covington’s Carnegie Center has charted a collaborative course with area university talent to produce several well-received shows. Their August staging of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 hit, Pippin, used a lot of energetic talent from Northern Kentucky University. And theater producer Joshua Steele teamed with Richard Hess, who heads the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, to present the local premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s provocative play, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).

Musicals, as always, were well done at CCM. I singled out a February studio production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as one of my favorites of the past season. And the expansive November production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma!, directed and wonderfully choreographed by Diane Lala, was an excellent reminder of why that 1943 show established new directions in the world of musical theater.

Northern Kentucky University’s program showed its range with a charming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella back in February, and then a very thoughtful drama, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, presented in October, exploring issues of race in a largely forgotten play from 1955.

In April New Edgecliff Theatre, which produced shows in a converted church in Columbia-Tusculum, did a fine job with the local premiere of a very creative musical called [title of show]. I hope they find more works like this to offer. 

Know Theatre continues to present two weeks of annual creativity with the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in June; I wish the company would choose its seasonal productions with an eye toward thoughtfulness rather than outrageousness, but that’s a risk when you constantly push the envelope, as Know Theatre does. 

It was good to see Queen City Theater (formerly known as Queen City Off Broadway) back with some productions late in the summer using the attractive facilities at the new School for Creative and Performing Arts. 

The year offered lots of fine theater. And I’m looking forward to the year ahead. ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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