Throughout the year I assign “Critic’s Picks” to noteworthy theatrical productions. As 2012 draws to a close, it seems like a good time to take a look back at some shows that made the grade. Back in January the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park staged the world premiere of Dead Accounts by Cincinnati native Theresa Rebeck. Now there’s a production of the show on Broadway earning positive reviews. Part of the appeal locally was a ton of references to food products. Jack is running away from some banking shenanigans in Manhattan, N.Y., so he’s returned to his hometown, where he’s gorging on Graeter’s ice cream, cheese coneys from Skyline and LaRosa’s pizza. Hiding out at his parents’ home with an understanding but beleaguered sister (still living with mom and dad), his recent past begins to catch up. The characters are easily recognized local stereotypes, and Rebeck’s script comes down on the side of Midwestern values, even while evoking a lot of friendly laughter at our expense. The show wasn’t all that profound, but it was surely entertaining.
Toward the end of January, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (which deleted “of” from its name later in the season) offered Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. This is the kind of show that needs powerful acting. ETC’s Lynn Meyers staged the story of three men at the end of the Civil War, two slaves and the son of their former owner, returning to a destroyed mansion in Richmond, Va. The central character is Simon, a former slave who served the Jewish family with devotion but is now eager to live as a free man. Under Meyers’ firm direction, actor Ken Early portrayed Simon with quiet but powerful dignity, reverence and emotion. Simon is illiterate, but he has memorized the words of the Passover service in Hebrew and English. It’s about escaping slavery in an earlier millennium.
Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical, Into the Woods, was presented in February at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, marking the 20th anniversary of Patricia Corbett’s endowment of a chair in musical theater. (She was an investor in the show’s original Broadway production in 1987.) Woods requires a big cast, and CCM had plenty of talent to fill the roles, ably shaped by director and professor Aubrey Berg, who has held the Corbett chair since it was established. The show is a mash-up of familiar stories — Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood — and a new tale about a baker and his wife who yearn for a child denied to them by a jealous witch. Act I tells the familiar “happily ever after” stories; Act II looks at what happens next, events that are not always so happy. Woods is Sondheim’s most frequently produced musical, and many who attended CCM’s production described it as the best they’d ever seen. Victoria Cook, who played the Witch, graduated in June and soon thereafter found herself in a small role in a much-publicized professional production of Woods in New York City’s Central Park in August.
Another show by Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along, was produced at the Cincinnati Playhouse in March. John Doyle directed; his 2006 Cincinnati production of Sondheim’s Company went on to win a Tony Award on Broadway. As with Company, Doyle staged it with actors who played musical instruments. Doyle gave the show a thoughtful, insightful staging of the rare Sondheim flop from 1981. Merrily, with one of Sondheim’s most admired scores, was the eighth show by the composer and lyricist produced during Ed Stern’s two-decade tenure as the Playhouse’s artistic director. Merrily’s central character is a composer, so music permeated the environment of Doyle’s production, performed on a set stacked with piles of scores, backed by a wall papered with sheet music. A young actor played the composer’s son but also became his alter ego, often poring over the music as if trying to solve a code to make sense of the characters’ off-track lives.
Merrily was not a big hit for the Playhouse, but it was a fascinating rendition of the difficult work.
In late March, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company produced an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s great American novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the Joad family’s arduous trek to California after their lives on the prairie were destroyed by the Dust Bowl and unfeeling banks. The tale resonated with our own economically depressed era. CSC brought it to life with an excellent ensemble of 20 CSC regulars and others who stepped outside their usual Shakespearean roles to play down-and-out, thoroughly American characters who had to “keep on keepin’ on” despite devastating conditions and personal tragedies. The production was augmented by folksy musical interludes performed by some of the actors.
Not many musicals begin with the cast flipping the bird at the audience, but then not many musicals are like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the brash show given its regional premiere by Know Theatre in March and April. It’s about America’s brash seventh president, portraying him as a Rock star. (The “orchestra” for the production was the local band The Dukes Are Dead.) The show, directed by Eric Vosmeier, had a rabid, tongue-in-cheek tone from start to finish, and its youthful mix of political commentary, driving Rock performances, history, humor and sober observations on the will of the people was just what we have come to expect from Know.
In mid-April, Covington’s Carnegie Center presented Pump Boys & Dinettes, a musical with the fundamental philosophy that “work won’t kill you, but worry will.” The production worked hard to appear effortless, and its effervescent cast chased away any worries audiences might have brought to the Otto M. Budig Theatre with spirited Country-flavored tunes. Guitarist Jim Myers (also the lead guitarist with local band Ray’s Music Exchange) played tunes and provided bits of narration. Staged by Jared Doren, the show had inventive visual flourishes (including a shrine to Dolly Parton), and choreographer Patti James kept things moving. Pump Boys & Dinettes had no drama; it was just a stage full of singers and musicians having a good ol’ time.
Good theater is usually pretty scarce in Cincinnati during the summer months. However, Cincinnati Shakespeare put together an engaging production of The Hound of the Baskervilles in late July that translated clichés from the famed Sherlock Holmes tale into high humor. This is not an easy task: Don’t take the humor far enough and it feels lame, push it too hard and the results seem stupid. But Cincy Shakes’ tongue-in-cheek production, staged by Michael Evan Haney (the first time the Playhouse’s associate artistic director has staged a show there), got the balance right. The company added Saturday matinees to accommodate the demand for tickets and will revive the show at the end of the current season, June 7-30.
Alan Patrick Kenny, founder of New Stage Collective, came back to town in August to stage Xanadu, a bounty of fizzy fun, at the Carnegie Center. Based on a cheesy film from 1980 that’s become a cult favorite, the musical benefited from Kenny’s inventive theatricality. It’s a story about an ancient muse (played in the movie by Olivia Newton-John) who mistakenly lands in Venice, Calif., where she inspires a no-talent artist to establish a roller disco. Kenny met the show’s many challenges head-on and made most of them work. The finale featured the entire cast on roller skates, decked out in glittering sequins and silver lamé, with a disco ball sending glints of light across the auditorium.
Ensemble Theatre opened its 2012-2013 season in September with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, about a tough-talking working woman from downtrodden South Boston who loses her job and has a hard time figuring out what to do next. Actress Annie Fitzpatrick stepped away from the refined characters she’s previously played to play Margie, brash and uncomplicated but desperate and vulnerable. Her gossip-filled scenes with her foul-mouthed friend Jean (Kate Wilford) and her self-centered landlady Dottie (Deb G. Girdler) were especially memorable. Despite many challenges Margie faced, her spirit was not crushed, and Fitzpatrick made her real and human.
Cincinnati Shakespeare presented another stage adaptation of a great American novel in September, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Actor Bruce Cromer (currently finishing his eighth year as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Cincinnati Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol) played Atticus Finch. His presence and the well-known title spelled box office success. On opening night, CSC had only 50 tickets remaining for the show’s three-week run, so more performances were added and more seats were sold. Sara Clark directed the tale about the value of tolerance and understanding, doing an especially good job with three young actors playing Finch’s children and a friend.
The Showboat Majestic finished its 2012 summer season with a thoroughly enjoyable production of The Music Man in mid-September, staged by Ed Cohen and Dee Ann Bryll. Despite the Showboat’s tiny stage, they stuffed the production with lots of suitable choreography (Jane Green helped out, too). Dan Doerger has the requisite charm to play Harold Hill, the charming musical instrument salesman who convinces River City that it needs a boys’ band, and Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers evolved from the chilly “Marian the Librarian” to a true believer. The totally endearing Owen Gunderman was Marian’s shy kid brother Winthrop who overcomes his anxiety-induced lisp.
Daniel Beaty’s one-man-show, Through the Night, opened the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse season in late September. An electrifying theatrical examination of fatherhood, family and faith, it was an evening of delightful storytelling, using poetry, personalities and music. Beaty, a native of Dayton, Ohio, played six African-American men, ages 10 to 60, whose stories were interwoven. Despite divergent lives, each character had arrived at a precipice — becoming a father, beating addiction or closing a much-beloved shop. In one particularly dark night, each has to decide to give up or keep on. Beaty’s performance blended artistry and athleticism. Alone onstage for 100 minutes, he never left the space or even changed his clothes. To become a new person, his body simply changed to assume the posture of a particular and recognizable character.
For the first time ever, a play by Neil Simon, one of the most frequently produced and honored playwrights of the 20th century, showed up at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park — in a production of Simon’s 1983 Tony Award winner, Brighton Beach Memoirs. Laced with Simon’s tried-and-true situational humor, this honest and heartfelt memory play rooted in the playwright’s own adolescence in a tumultuous family household, circa 1937, charmed Playhouse audiences. Ryan DeLuca delightfully captured 15-year-old Eugene’s innocence as well as his a wry sense of humor as an aspiring writer who chronicles the ups and downs of life in the Jerome household.
As they say: It was a very good year.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org