Last Sunday I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Carnegie in Covington watching an old theatrical chestnut, Mary Chase’s Harvey. It’s a beloved show from long ago, winner of the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, best remembered today as a 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, an affable man whose family and friends fret about his eccentric behavior, especially his best friend, a “pooka,” a white rabbit more than 6 feet tall that only Elwood sees. The efforts of others to get him committed to an asylum result in a riot of misunderstanding among his sister, her daughter, two doctors, a nurse, an asylum attendant, a judge and some snooty neighbors.
The show is an old-fashioned comedy in three acts (with a 15-minute intermission and a five-minute interval; it takes two hours and 45 minutes), and the Carnegie production felt a little slow and disjointed to me. But the audience enjoyed the performances immensely: Nathan Neorr’s sweet, gentle Elwood is charming. Regina Pugh as his nervous, status-conscious sister and Lisa DeRoberts as her awkward, silly daughter wangling for a beau are amusing, as are Leah Strasser and Carter Bratton as a sexy nurse and a handsome young doctor who don’t quite know they have the hots for each other. The always-amusing Michael G. Bath is the chief psychiatrist in a very funny “don’t-let-them-see-that-I’m-nuts” performance. The show doesn’t hang together completely, but it was just what the Carnegie audience wanted.
Harvey was directed by Buz Davis, who staged shows for several groups at the Carnegie in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was a wreck with a condemned balcony, a leaking roof, temporary seats and no air-conditioning.
(It was briefly the home for Fahrenheit Theater Company, the ancestor of today’s Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.) Fast-forward 25 years: A $2.5 million renovation turned the theater — now the Otto M. Budig Theater, with 447 seats — into a fine venue. Davis, now a mainstay of the Clifton Players, says the old place was a space where a lot of creativity was required. “Now,” he observes, “the challenges are different. The holes are gone and it’s very comfortable. It’s a pleasure to come home to the Carnegie and direct Harvey.”
You won’t find cutting-edge material onstage at the Carnegie. The theater’s managing director Joshua Steele has mastered two elements: He collaborates with a wide array of local theater artists and companies, and he produces works that are, by and large, familiar fare. The 2013-14 season included Kander and Ebb’s Chicago in an excellent production last August, a November staging of Marc Camoletti’s 1962 farce Boeing Boeing by the drama program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, a “lightly staged” rendition in January of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great hit The Sound of Music and the current production of Harvey. Speaking from the stage on Sunday, Steele mentioned that this season the Carnegie doubled its theater subscriber base and offered two of the venue’s best-selling shows since the renovation. Although his 2014-15 season is still being assembled, Steele shared the news that it will begin in August with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical drama, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That announcement elicited gasps of pleasure from the audience.
Between the theatrical presentations, Steele offers an “in concert” season. Events for 2013-14 have included “Swing Canaries, Sister Harmonies and Folk Divas” last October featuring the local vocal trio Raison D’Etre; the presentation of the 1944 Technicolor film classic Cover Girl, starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, in February with live music; and the “Queen City Choral Champions” last month. Still on the docket is a tribute to Carmon DeLeone, “Birdie to Brice,” marking his 50 years of work conducting for local orchestras, ballet companies and theaters (set for May 22) and a June 12 program featuring Nancy James, a favorite vocalist from the locally televised Bob Braun Show in the 1960s and ’70s. These programs are lovingly remembered commodities from days gone by, works and personalities that Steele carefully programs to appeal to audiences who keep coming back for more.
In Harvey, Elwood Dowd remembers that his mother repeatedly advised him, “‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me.” So I will. Elwood’s mother’s formula is working very well, thank you, for the Carnegie. It’s a very pleasant place to be entertained. If you’d like to know more, go to thecarnegie.com.
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