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Déjà Vu, All Over Again

By Rick Pender · May 9th, 2012 · Curtain Call
If you’re paying attention to local theater currently, you might feel you’ve jumped into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is in Springfield again for Life Could Be A Dream, where teens from the 1950s fret about love and the future by singing tunes that Baby Boomers know by heart. At the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park a musical that was a hit on the Marx Stage in 1999, Thunder Knocking on the Door, has returned, and the comedians from Chicago’s Second City are back with Less Pride, More Pork, poking fun at local behavior, traditions and politicians — as they did in 2010.

In the world of theater it’s necessary to balance innovation and creativity with entertainment and the box office. That’s what drives sequels and revivals. In 2010, ETC hit a gold mine with Roger Bean’s The Marvelous Wonderettes, a musical about four teenagers in 1958 who are awash in adolescent angst in Act I and then advanced a decade for “what came next” in their lives. That heartfelt show broke ticket sales records for ETC, so last summer ETC presented Winter Wonderettes, with the same girls (played by the same actresses) performing at a holiday party for the employees of a hardware store where one of them worked. It was a novel idea for ETC to celebrate Christmas in July, and audiences responded again. For the 2012-2013 season, ETC will offer another reunion of the Wonderettes, Caps and Gowns (May-June 2013). And if you can’t wait that long, another iteration of the formula is onstage now, Life Could Be A Dream. 

ETC has clearly hitched its wagon to a popular franchise, and audiences are having a good time.

The theater spends most of the year presenting regional premieres of excellent new dramas and comedies, so there’s nothing wrong with a little frivolity that supplements the budget. But forgive me for saying it — as much as I like tunes from my own high school days — I’m a bit weary of Bean’s formulaic shows. 

That’s not to take anything away from the polished production, staged by D. Lynn Meyers with energetic choreography by Patti James. Dream features five fresh young performers who have soaked up the style of the era and present it vivaciously. Nick Laughlin and Lee Slobotkin are star-struck kids seeking fame via a radio-sponsored singing contest; Cassie Levine plays Lois, whose dad’s car dealership might sponsor their group; all three are CCM products with great voices. James Oblak, a student at Wright State looks the part of a kind of nice-guy bad boy from the auto shop, and he sings romantic numbers with great feeling. Will Selnick, a Northwestern grad who interned at ETC, has an astonishing vocal range and has fun with his klutzy, earnest character. But there’s nothing new about this story: The girls have been swapped out for the boys, The Wonderettes for the Crooning Crabcakes, but the shtick, the emotion, the conflict — and the outcome — are pretty much the same. 

The Playhouse has done a fine job of reviving Thunder, using special effects and design elements not available 13 years ago. The music is the same, but a lengthy interval has passed, and the Blues tunes seem fresh, delivered by a cast almost completely new to the material. Meanwhile, the Second City team on the Shelterhouse stage has assembled a whole new collection of tomfoolery that feels fresh although the intention is the same. 

The 2010 incarnation of this revue used several components simply made local by inserting Cincinnati references. That approach is repeated, but there’s less of it, and everything feels fresher and more connected to life in the Queen City. What particularly keeps Less Pride, More Pork engaging is improv; each act has one or two segments that engage the audience and requires the performers to wing it. For instance, Cody Dove plays a hardboiled writer who knocks out a detective story with the central character played by someone recruited from a nearby seat. The lively cast of five, always in the moment, keeps it spirited, so it’s different every night. The Second City troupe of five continually freshens the show, which runs until July 1 (maybe longer), so seeing it more than once could mean new material and new directions.

There’s nothing wrong with sequels. We like seeing things we’re familiar with. ETC and the Playhouse have found ways to please audiences with entertaining performances — even if we’ve seen them before.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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