Since I write about theater for CityBeat, I see lots of productions around town, mostly by our fine professional and semiprofessional companies. I don’t have the bandwidth nor does CityBeat have enough space to write often about community theaters — groups of volunteers who produce and perform in shows, often for audiences in a specific neighborhood — but that’s not because they don’t do a good job.
Last Saturday, I attended Cincinnati Music Theater’s production of Peter Pan. CMT, one of our most ambitious community theaters, has performed at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater since 1995. Its history goes back all the way to the early 1960s. I often try to see CMT’s shows because they have a track record for excellent work. (I live downtown, so it’s easy to catch a performance.)
That was certainly true of Peter Pan, a 1954 musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, which remains onstage through Saturday evening: sets, costumes, choreography, a sizeable orchestra and wonderfully executed flying effects. I sat next to a family from Pittsburgh who were in town for a visit and decided on the spur of the moment to attend the show. They were astonished when I explained that this was an “amateur” production. I think everyone attending would agree.
Veteran director Skip Fenker cast the roles of Peter and Captain Hook with two superior actors. Joshua Steele (who manages the theater at Covington’s Carnegie) made me forget all the women who have played Peter, from Mary Martin in the original production to Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby, who has been at it for 40 years (she’s 61 but, like Peter, refuses to grow up).
Steele, an excellent singer, strikes jaunty poses as he embodies the cocky, joyous kid who revels in youth and freedom. Wayne Wright, a veteran of many local theaters, was perfect as the archly comic and villainous pirate, decked out in ruffles and festooned with a mop of dark curls, a wicked mustache and, of course, an ornate hook replacing the right hand he lost to Peter — who fed it to a hungry crocodile that yearns for more.
Everything about CMT’s Peter Pan was satisfying, from the Darling family to the friendly Indians and the scurrilous pirates. It’s a deliriously funny show, and Fenker employed every possible humorous nuance, playing each moment for full value without belaboring anything. The kids at the matinee I attended were eating it up, and the adults came right along.
“I’ve Gotta Crow,” a familiar song from Peter Pan, made me think I should crow a bit about good community theater to be found all over town. ACT-Cincinnati, the local association of community theaters, has 20 members found just about everywhere, from Hamilton and Middletown to Fort Thomas and Newport, from Cheviot and Westwood to Mariemont and Milford. This weekend alone, in addition to Peter Pan, there are productions of the fairytale Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods (Lebanon Theater Company) and the musicalized version of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 (Footlighters Inc.); comedies including the hilarious backstage tales of Lend Me a Tenor (Beechmont Players) and Suite Surrender (The Drama Workshop); a farce around wedding preparations, Dearly Beloved (Stagecrafters); the tongue-in-cheek spoof of an Alfred Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps (Sunset Players); and the thriller Murder by the Book (Mariemont Players).
For a taste of what community theaters offer, consider attending the Southwest Regional OCTA Fest and ACT of Greater Cincinnati Convention June 26-28 at Parrish Auditorium at Miami University’s Hamilton campus. OCTA, the Ohio Community Theater Association, sponsors this annual competition for groups to present 30-minute excerpts from their seasons. It’s open to the public; a pass for all performances is $19. Info: tinyurl.com/kddykuy.
These showcases are presented on Friday evening, all day Saturday and sometimes on Thursday evening if there are enough submissions. Three judges critique each performance and select several for a statewide festival later in the summer. OCTA Fest is a representation of the seriousness with which people involved in community theater approach their craft as well as the camaraderie they enjoy by working together on productions. Of course, some groups with long histories and ambitious producers — such as CMT — shine predictably. But others frequently offer surprisingly good shows that might have entertained people from a specific neighborhood but not beyond.
An essential element of Cincinnati’s thriving theater scene is the broad engagement of area residents in community theaters. They learn what it takes to make good theater and introduce area residents to affordable performances — and that whets everyone’s appetite for more.
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