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Encore! Encore!

Looking back on another top-notch Cincinnati theater season

By Rick Pender · July 25th, 2012 · Cover Story
bloody'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' at Know Theatre

If you want to know the “best” shows in New York City, you need only check which Broadway productions are nominated annually for Tony Awards. In fact, the Big Apple has tons of awards to recognize and honor theatrical work. Not so in Cincinnati. From 1997 to 2010, CityBeat nominated and celebrated locally produced theater with the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEA), and from 2006 to 2011, the Acclaim Awards, supported by The Cincinnati Enquirer, also offered recognition. The financial difficulties affecting most newspapers caused these programs to wither and, despite efforts by volunteers from the League of Cincinnati Theatres (LCT) to keep them going, there’s been precious little consistent assessment of excellence on local stages for more than a year. 

LCT evaluated shows during 2011-2012, but publicity for their citations was erratic. CityBeat offered periodic reports on its arts blog; the Enquirer pretty much ignored the effort. An awards event in May was modestly attended. Unfortunately, some good shows were ignored, while others of lesser quality were praised. LCT plans to try again for 2012-2013 although organizational challenges have not been resolved. The awards are well-intended, but like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if no one hears about them, does it really matter?

I do my best to help CityBeat readers make informed choices about investing their entertainment dollars. When I see a show worth attending, I award it a “Critic’s Pick,” a designation you can find in print and online. Most productions have aspects worth praising, to be sure; no theater company sets out to do a poor job of putting on a show. But some succeed more fully — and predictably — than others. 

In 2011, I offered a mid-summer retrospective that singled out worthy productions that should have been nominated if there was still a coherent awards program. I decided to repeat the effort this year. I hope that my thoughts might help you decide if there’s a theater you should subscribe to or follow more closely.

You really can’t go wrong with the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, one of America’s best regional theaters. The 2011-2012 season was the 20th and final one guided by Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern. He had an uncanny ability to select 10 shows — five for the Marx mainstage and five for the smaller Shelterhouse — that audiences would appreciate. Produced using nationally respected directors, actors and designers at the top of their professions, Playhouse shows are always worth seeing. This year Stern selected shows he personally loved and that he felt certain audiences would appreciate. He brought back Thunder Knocking on the Door, Keith Glover’s musical about a mythical guitar-cutting contest between Blues musicians. It was the top show of 1998-1999 (winning that year’s CEA as the season’s outstanding production), and it was good to see it again, although it seemed less vibrant this time around.

Stern brought back director John Doyle, whose 2006 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company transferred to Broadway where it won a Tony Award. This time Doyle took on a lesser-known Sondheim show, Merrily We Roll Along, and produced it with Broadway talent, using an imaginative scenic design and applying his signature filter, actors who played musical instruments. The story of failed friendships and artistic ambition didn’t do as well as Company (a brief revival of Merrily in New York just before the Playhouse’s March production overshadowed it), but in my book it was the most interesting production on the Playhouse’s mainstage.

However, the best overall Playhouse production, one that will stick with me for many years, was co-directed by Stern and Associate Artistic Director Michael Evan Haney: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It featured 17 actors who had performed here over the past two decades, and it was imaginatively presented on the Shelterhouse’s intimate stage. Wonderfully designed by veteran Joe Tilford, with quirky comic performances and clearly conceived story telling, the production distilled the play’s warmth and good will better than any production I’ve ever seen. It was a fine farewell from a director who will be missed. (In fact, he returns to stage a show at Ensemble Theatre this fall.) 

Speaking of the theater we commonly call “ETC,” this season it tweaked its name from Ensemble Theater “of” Cincinnati to Ensemble Theater Cincinnati. There was, however, no change in ETC’s steady stream of excellent productions. The six shows the theater presents annually are mostly new to local audiences; ETC characterizes itself as a “premiere theater.” It’s become a favored spot where playwrights receive subsequent productions of shows that have had noteworthy early outings elsewhere. When I’m asked which local theater is a must-subscribe choice, my answer is usually ETC where D. Lynn Meyers’ play selection is intriguing (many patrons re-subscribe even before Meyers announces the shows she plans to produce), and the execution is predictably good. 

The Over-the-Rhine theater, now finding itself in the midst of urban revival, staged a coup this year with its season-opener, the 2010 Tony Award-winner next to normal, a Rock musical about a schizophrenic woman whose affliction affects her entire family.

Set to a rip-roaring score, this show was a big challenge for the theater, and Meyers made it one of the season’s best. In fact, its strong box office last September caused ETC to bring the show back for two more weeks in June. All but one member of cast returned. Jessica Hendy, a CCM product with significant Broadway experience, built on her powerhouse performance as the disturbed mom. She anchored the moving show with a solid cast behind her firing on all cylinders. It gets my vote for the season’s best musical.

But ETC didn’t stop there. It produced Matthew Lopez’s recent play, The Whipping Man, a fascinating drama set in 1865 at the end of the Civil War and at the moment of Passover and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Slaves raised as Jews celebrate the religious event with the son of the family who owned them, noting parallels about slavery past and present. Meyers directed this one, too, and brought out moving performances from a cast led by local actor Ken Early, who has never been better. Meyers hit a trifecta with her production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, a moving drama about recovering from war and personal trauma. Her excellent cast made this story powerful and immediate.

Ensemble Theatre benefits from the longstanding work of scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring. ETC is an unusual physical space for theatrical design: The steeply raked seating means that most audience members are above the acting space, looking down on the stage. But Mehring meets the challenge show after show with ingenious creativity, seldom repeating his concepts. His designs in past seasons were routinely nominated for CEAs. For next to normal his stylized house, outlined in fluorescent blue tubes and hot incandescent bulbs, facilitated switches between Diana’s manic states; the decrepit, demolished Richmond, Va., mansion he created for The Whipping Man oozed the deterioration of the South and the uncertainty that the future held for the characters.

Cincinnati is lucky to have a theater company dedicated to producing classic work. The quality of what’s onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) has many followers who enjoy seeing multiple productions across a season utilizing the same actors in various roles. CSC does a fine job with each production, but for the second year I felt that their staging of non-Shakespearean plays excelled their work in their expected repertoire. CSC opened with a solid staging of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons featuring veteran actor Bruce Cromer as Sir Thomas More, at odds with King Henry VIII over issues of morality, faith and belief. CSC had great success with another Jane Austen adaptation by Jon Jory, Sense and Sensibility, full of wit and sentiment. (During the 2010-2011 season, Jory’s rendition of Pride and Prejudice was a runaway hit.) 

But the show that demonstrated the strength and depth of the acting company was Frank Galati’s theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Artistic Director Brian Phillips. Using actors from the ensemble with musical and vocal skills, Phillips’ production evoked Depression-era America with believable texture and emotional impact. Led by Justin McCombs as earnest Tom Joad, CSC founder and veteran actor Nick Rose as folksy Jim Casy and past CEA winner Sherman Fracher as steadfast Ma Joad, the cast personified a generation of Americans fading from memory, although their stories remain pertinent today in a world of economic collapse and paranoia about people different from the rest of us.

Know Theater of Cincinnati gets my regular vote of thanks for its annual shot of creativity, the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. For the eighth consecutive year, we were treated to two weeks of oddball, offbeat performances that routinely expand the horizons of what theater can be. 

While none of Know’s season productions was an unqualified hit, two were worthy of note. Inspired by a disaster in Minnesota when a highway bridge failed, Allison Moore’s Collapse used the event as a metaphor for personal lives collapsing and people struggling to recover. Actress Annie Fitzpatrick, a regular on several local stages, made her Know debut as Hannah, a woman on the brink. She played the role with assurance and accuracy; her voice and facial expressions conveyed her profound frustration. Brian Phillips, CSC’s artistic director, believably portrayed her damaged-goods husband, trying to rebuild his fractured life.

The closest thing to a 2012 hit for Know was its springtime production of the Rock musical inspired by our seventh president, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. CCM grad Kellen York didn’t really have the voice to sing the role, but he looked the part of the charismatic “man of the people” (characterized as a Rock star in this raucous show), and he was surrounded by a cast of energetic singers who put the pop in “Populism, Yeah Yeah.” This is the kind of show that Know excels at staging.

Cincinnati Landmark Productions, operator of the Showboat Majestic and the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, more predictably produces high-quality shows. Holiday productions tend to be mere money-generators for most theaters, but Covedale’s December staging of White Christmas, based on the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, was beautifully produced and an artistic and box-office success — fine singing, excellent choreography and just the right touch for multiple generations to enjoy. I don’t usually think of holiday shows as likely candidates for awards, but White Christmas was worthy.

Another local producer coming into its own is the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, which often creates shows by partnering with other organizations with positive results. Last fall it offered the area premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s award-winning script In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play with CCM’s drama program, directed by Ed Cohen, a respected local director who came up through the community theater ranks and now works more frequently with university programs. This spring, the Carnegie collaborated with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra for a satisfying concert presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. However, my choice for the Carnegie’s best show of 2011-2012 was its own production of the down-home Pump Boys and Dinettes, a stage full of singers and musicians portraying folks who are just having a good ol’ time. Jared Doren directed it; Steve Goers provided music direction (and turned in a fine onstage performance personally) with able assistance from Brad Myers, lead guitarist with Ray’s Music Exchange.

The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music can always be counted on for memorable performances. The drama program’s chair, Richard Hess, staged a monumental production of Helen Edmundson’s sweeping historical play, Coram Boy, requiring a large cast and a big perspective. The musical theater program offered two beautiful mainstage productions: In the fall, director and choreographer Diane Lala assembled an excellent rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! with several outstanding student performances, especially John Riddle as Curly. But the production that had everyone talking was Sondheim’s Into the Woods, gloriously staged by Aubrey Berg, who previously directed the work 20 years ago just after his arrival to chair the musical theater program. Reba Senske created spectacular costumes for the big-cast show full of fairytale characters intersecting with one another, and the ensemble portrayed every role with humor and polish. Senior Katie Johannigman played Cinderella as a spunky klutz, and Lawson Young, a freshman, showed lots of promise as a mouthy Little Red Riding Hood.

Northern Kentucky University’s theater program staged an ambitious production of Alice Childress’s seldom-produced Trouble in Mind, a prickly 1955 script about race relations and the theater. It was naturalistically assembled by faculty member Mark Hardy, who’s departing for a new teaching appointment at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He’s been a valuable contributor to the growing program at NKU. I missed seeing Ken Jones’s production of the musical My Favorite Year, but I heard good things about it.

Several smaller companies did work worthy of note, including the new Clifton Performance Theater with the local premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts. Queen City Theater presented an imported version of Samm-Art Williams’ 1980 Tony-nominated Home with three Chicago actors and a one-woman piece, Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project. However, since that late-summer burst of activity the on-again, off-again QCT has been silent. New Edgecliff Theatre, performing in the Columbia Performance Center in the East End, presented Neal LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty; the misogynistic writer is not one of my favorites, but NET’s production featured several strong performances, especially a thoroughly dislikable boor played by Justin Baldwin.

If I had my own Hall of Fame, my nominee for 2011-2012 would be local professional Bruce Cromer. A theater professor at Wright State University, he finds time to perform on many Cincinnati stages. Audiences know him best as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse, a role he assumed in 2005 after a long run as Bob Cratchit. This year he demonstrated tremendous versatility. He was CSC’s earnest and upright Sir Thomas More. He played several characters in the Playhouse’s production of the complicated Speaking in Tongues (one of the roles was an obsessive and menacing stalker) and then a likable editor and friend to the central character in Time Stands Still at ETC. As if that weren’t enough, he stepped in to play Dan, the beleaguered husband in ETC’s revival of next to normal, replacing Mark Hardy, who was not available. We don’t really have to look to New York for talent when we have performers like Cromer in our midst. They make for award-winning seasons.

 
 
 
 

 

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