Typically, Cincinnati’s theaters kick off right after Labor Day, although several have already started. The Carnegie in Covington is nearly finished with its initial production — Stephen Sondheim’s creepy masterpiece musical Sweeney Todd, the story of a “demon barber” serial killer who provides contents for meat pies — which wraps up this weekend. The Carnegie has jump-started recent seasons of tried-and-true works with blockbuster musicals; last season’s Chicago was one of the best musicals on any local stage, laying a foundation for a season of strong attendance.
Know Theatre, with a new artistic director Andrew Hungerford, is also out of the gate early, presenting Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief. The off-kilter time-travel adventure involves changing some history around abolitionist Harriet Tubman; it’s onstage through Aug. 30. This is the kind of show from left-field that is Know’s stock-in-trade (the company presents the Cincinnati Fringe Festival annually), and it comes with several adventurous new business practices, including free Wednesday performances enticing people to sample the fare at the Over-the-Rhine venue.
D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, is rehearsing her opening production, Hands on a Hardbody (Sept. 2-21), a musical fresh from Broadway.
“This is a season about quests,” she says, filled with shows about people finding their way and exploring things about themselves.
Hardbody is based on a 1997 documentary about blue-collar Texans in a town where a new pickup truck symbolizes needs and dreams. They’re contending to win one by being the person who keeps at least one hand on a the brand new vehicle the longest. Meyers fought hard to get the rights to do the first regional production of this show, and this isn’t the first time. Playwright Doug Wright entrusts his works to her — she did great regional premieres of his scripts for I Am My Own Wife in 2005 and Grey Gardens in 2008. Composer Trey Anastasio, best known as the frontman of the band Phish, composed Hardbody’s score with Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll and Country tunes.
Meyers has assembled an all-star cast of locals to play the contestants — including Sara Mackie, Brooke Rucidlo Steele and Denise Devlin from ETC’s hit productions of The Marvelous Wonderettes.
“The characters in this show are real people, not caricatures,” Meyers says.
She’s certain these “folks from a broken and beaten working middle class” will win audiences’ hearts as they sing and dance, sharing the stage with the actual Nissan truck imported from the Broadway production.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company launched its season in July with the laugh-out-loud Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but it gets down to serious work in September with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Sept. 5-Oct. 4). Artistic director Brian Phillips is directing.
“The play is new,” he says of Simon Levy’s adaptation, “but the material is absolutely classic. Not only is the novel Fitzgerald’s best, but it’s also one of the rare books that earns its ‘great American novel’ classification.”
Cincy Shakes reaches beyond Shakespeare to stage classics from British and American literature.
“Gatsby’s journey,” Phillips says, “epitomizes the American Dream and the tragedy of it. On the surface it’s about a guy trying to get the girl that got away. But the play is about money, the lure and the lie of it. We tend to measure success by wealth, and we think we can buy our way into happiness. This novel and this fantastic adaptation show the fallacy of that and demand that we look in the mirror of these characters to examine our own definition of success.”
Phillips says the show will use a “memory landscape” on its intimate stage. “This is a character-driven piece, and audiences will feel as if they are guests at the party,” he adds.
A different sort of party happens at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park on the Marx stage with Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club (Sept. 6-Oct. 4). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the character in the 1880s, but this show offers an unfamiliar story.
“Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has fashioned a new Sherlock tale for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective by drawing on events from a collection of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson,” artistic director Blake Robison says. “For Sherlock fans, you actually won’t know ‘whodunit’ until you see the show.”
Sherlock exemplifies Robison’s Playhouse goal to stage works that will attract multiple generations. It doesn’t hurt that the legendary detective is high profile these days — portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch on PBS, Robert Downey Jr. in several recent movies, and in a new way in Elementary on network TV.
“This gets back to a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery,” Robison says, “but it’s written in a way that will appeal to all ages. It’s very fast-paced and fun.”
The Playhouse’s second stage, the intimate Shelterhouse, offers a different party with I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti (Sept. 27-Nov. 2). Robison calls it “a clever and unique evening in the theater.” Based on Giulia Melucci’s best-selling foodie memoir — “I bet lots of fans have this one shoved between the cookbooks on their bookshelf,” Robison says — the show features one actress in a gourmet kitchen, preparing a three-course Italian dinner (and serving it to a few lucky people in the audience), while dishing about bad dates and lousy boyfriends. Robison calls it “a perfect girls’ night out, an evening of fun for a book club or a bunch of friends who like restaurants.”
Elsewhere, The Covedale Center for the Performing Arts presents Tennessee Williams’ great American drama A Streetcar Named Desire (Sept. 11-Oct. 5) and New Edgecliff Theatre offers the local premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s 2006 comedy The Little Dog Laughed in late September.
Make plans now to get your own theater season underway!
For information on these shows and more, visit thecarnegie.com/theatre.php, knowtheatre.com, ensemblecincinnati.org, cincyshakes.com, cincyplay.com and cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.