All right, you’re going to have to forgive me — I am a theater critic and a theater lover. Those terms are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if you’re not someone who looks forward to every time the lights go down as a performance begins, then you should get out of the criticism game.
Most critics I know love to write reviews because they are always on the lookout for great theater experiences to share with others. Accordingly, it’s a given that my recommendations for gift giving will be focused on theater. I break the likely recipients into two categories: theater enthusiasts and worthy prospects.
Let’s start with those already bitten by the theater bug. There are lots of ways to please them during the holiday season. If it’s musicals that get them humming, original cast recordings are safe bets. In fact, one just released is highly appropriate for the season. This year the classic 1983 holiday film, A Christmas Story, became a Broadway musical about Ralphie yearning for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Ranger BB gun. I haven’t seen the show, but fans of musicals have been raving about the cast recording with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics.
Other recent Broadway shows that have been documented with well-received recordings include the lovely, lyrical Tony Award winner Once (based on the 2006 film) about aspiring musicians in an Irish pub and the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s legendary Follies with a star-studded cast that featured Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Elaine Page as one-time Broadway stars, past their prime and yearning for the good old days.
Another consideration is a box set: The one I’ve heard the most about this season offers a dozen cast recordings of shows by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II: It has all their big hits — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music — but also lesser known works such as State Fair, Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream
Of course, everyone isn’t a fan of musicals, so scripts of plays might be the ticket for those who prefer the literary side of theater. One of the great playwrights of the 20th century, August Wilson, wrote a series of memorable scripts that reflected African-American life covering 10 decades. From the Theatre Communications Group (www.tcg.org) you can order The August Wilson Century Cycle Box Set ($200) with scripts stretching from The Gem of the Ocean set in 1904 to Radio Golf, set in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood in 1997. (Both of these shows had excellent productions by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in recent years.) If your theater lover doesn’t have a complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays, well, that’s an easy choice and a gift that will provide reading material for years to come. (In 19th-century America, every home had a copy of the Bible and a collection of Shakespeare’s plays.)
As for the prospective theater lovers, my suggestion is to do one of two things: Either buy them tickets (guest passes, flex passes or coupons) for something you think they’ll enjoy or invite them to be your guest to a theater you’ve learned to love. If it’s the classics they gravitate to, you should introduce them to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. If their taste runs more to provocative contemporary dramas, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is the best choice. You’ll find the best blend of great acting, top-notch production and a mix of contemporary and classic works at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where shows with broader audience appeal are on the Marx Stage, and more adventurous works are staged at the Thompson Shelterhouse. If you think your friends will like work that’s truly unpredictable, buy them a pass to the Cincinnati Fringe Festival (this June will be the 10th annual event) with two weeks of inventive, off-the-wall productions at unusual venues throughout the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Don’t forget our many other fine companies — Covington’s Carnegie Center, New Edgecliff Theatre, the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts and the Showboat Majestic. And there’s also university theaters and community theaters, probably one or two not too far from where you live — in fact, Greater Cincinnati has so many opportunities for onstage entertainment you can really pick subject matter and price point for most any taste. Inviting someone to join you at the theater is the best gift of all. I highly recommend it. Happy holidays!
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org