As I wrote in my column in the current issue of CityBeat, there's a lot of good holiday theater available on Cincinnati stages right now. The Playhouse's production of A Christmas Carol, now in its 22nd year, is best in class — a well-told traditional tale with some of the best professional actors in town onstage, from Bruce Cromer as Scrooge and Dale Hodges as the Ghost of Christmas past. There are a few new faces, too, playing the Cratchits. And speaking of new faces, I feel comfortable recommending New Edgecliff Theatre's one-woman show, The 12 Dates of Christmas, which is being engagingly performed by Annie Kalahurka. It's paired with David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries, which feels a little shopworn to me, but you can catch the double-bill downtown at the Arnonff's Fifth Third Bank Theater — and maybe go for drinks at Arnold's before or after the show.
If you're looking for something kind of different, try The Naughty List (review here), a holiday-themed improv show (presented in Arnold's courtyard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings) by Know Theatre. Five quick-witted comics who constitute OTR Improv are doing routines that use audience suggestions (and occasional audience participants) for nearly two hours of entertainment. It's a different show every night.
Have kids you want to take to the theater and give them a taste of what fun it can be? Two good bets are Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati for one of its musical fairytales with a moral (this year the show is a colorful, cartoonish rendition of Alice in Wonderland) and Covedale Center, where Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is singing and dancing its way through another familiar story the kids will know. The prince is handsome, Cinderella is sweet and the nasty Stepmother is played by a guy.
As far as familiar stories go, you've probably seen Frank Capra's classic holiday film It's a Wonderful Life a few times during the holidays. But I bet you haven't experienced in the unique way that Falcon Theater offers it up at Newport's Monmouth Theatre: The script frames the story as an old-time radio drama, and you get to watch behind-the-scenes as a handful of actors play all the roles and a few others create the necessary sound effects. It opens this weekend and runs for a week. I haven't seen this year's edition, but I've enjoyed past incarnations, and I suspect this one will be entertaining as well.
8 is the real-life story about two loving same-sex couples
living in California who want to get married but can't because in 2008 Proposition 8
took away the right for LGBT couples to marry in California.
Just like these couples, gay-rights
activists have been fighting for same-sex marriages across America for more than a
decade. Some progress has been made as gay marriage is now legal in nine states
and the District of Columbia, but many California residents feel left
out and are eager to resume same-sex marriage in their state.
After being engrossed with all the drama of the courtroom and seeing
how the case affects the plaintiffs in 8, tune back into
reality as the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to announce a decision about
Proposition 8 today.
So Thanksgiving was early this year, and that means that not only
retailers but all of our local theaters have fired their starting guns
earlier than usual with family-friendly holiday shows. That began with
Ensemble Theatre's opening of Alice in Wonderland on Nov. 28, and
Cinderella at the Covedale, A Christmas Carol at the Playhouse and New Edgecliff's Santaland Diaries (newly paired with The 12 Dates of Christmas) using a new venue, the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater.
But before you start wearing your Christmas sweaters and holiday socks, I have a few non-seasonal but highly entertaining productions you should consider:
Let's start with Cincinnati Shakespeare's staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a classic comedy from 1895 by Oscar Wilde, but don't think there's anything old and musty about it. The production of this witty, romantic tale of harmless manipulation bubbles with laughter and sprightly performances. I gave it a Critic's Pick here and I suspect it will be another sold-out run for Cincy Shakes, which has assembled a gangbuster season. You should note that it's only onstage through Dec. 16, so if you want to see it, don't wait too long. (As of the 16th it will be supplanted by Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some), Cincy Shakes' holiday offering.) Box office: 513-381-2273 x.1.
And if smiles without holiday trimming are something you seek, I highly recommend the touring production of Jersey Boys. This is the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Pop stars from the 1960s, and the show is stuffed full of their memorable, tuneful hits. The four leading actors faithfully recreate the group's close harmonies and Valli's soaring falsetto tenor — he's one of the great Pop vocalists of all time, and Nick Cosgrove nails the role. Although the history of these four singers has its ups and downs, the story is told with a sense of wry humor (and numerous F-bombs) that keeps things light and entertaining. Audiences have been clamoring for Broadway in Cincinnati to bring this show back since it appeared at the Aronoff back in 2008, and tickets are selling fast. Box office: 800-982-2787.
Don't forget Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Playhouse's Shelterhouse stage. (Review here.) It's another genuine reincarnation of a singer who made an indelible mark on the world of Pop music. Box office: 513-421-3888.
For the holidays, they'll produce The Naughty List, hosted by Ronda Androski and her great staff at Arnold's Bar & Grill downtown and featuring the talent of OTR Improv, one of the groups Know has nurtured with its Jackson Street Market. They'll take holiday memories from those in attendance as they recreate holiday movies and tell you how your life would have been different if you had received that special gift you yearned for. The fun will be happeing in Arnold's courtyard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings from Dec. 2 to 30. Tickets will be $15 in advance and $18 at the door.
Know will also offer The Apocalypse Show! for two nights on its home stage at 1120 Jackson St.. Since the world is scheduled to come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar), Know will produce a variety show to end all variety shows on Dec. 20 and 21. There will be sketch comedy, predictions, guest appearances, "gratuitous drinking and answers to all of your apocalypse FAQs." Dec. 20 will be a fundraiser (tickets: $50), despite the funny come-on that you should bring all your money, since it will be worth nothing the next day! (If you come to the performance on Dec. 21, you only need to scrape together $15 in advance or $18 at the door.)
Assuming that the world really isn't ending on Dec. 21, Know will co-host its annual New Year's Eve event with CityBeat, the Speakeasy Party from 8 p.m. on Dec. 31 (to 1 a.m.). Know typically attracts 300 well-dressed guests for this event, and everyone has fun with casino games, food, dancing to a DJ and a live band, martinis and a champagne toast at midnight.
After all this fun stuff, Know will get down to some serious theater — presenting Andrew Bovell's "best new play of 2010," When the Rain Stops Falling (Feb. 8-March 16, 2013). It's another partnership, with the production being staged by Brian Isaac Phillips, artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. (Bovell's Speaking in Tongues had a great production at the Cincinnati Playhouse last season.) The show uses an intricate fabric of overlapping connections, moving between several generations between 1959 and 2039 and between London and Australia. Acts and sins of the past are connected to three generations that follow.
More will be following, including an unnamed production running from April 5 to May 12. Sometime in late April (date TBA), just in advance of the tenth annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival (May 28-June 8, 2013), Know will host the 2013 United States Association of Fringe Festivals Conference. "We're honored to have been selected to host this year's conference," says Know's Producing Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier. "It's an amazing opportunity to work on ideas and issues at the core of all Fringe Festivals. Every time I have been to a conference, the Cincinnati Fringe is better for it. We can't wait to show off our city to festival producers from all over the United States."
One more note: Know is selling its version of a subscription, Flex Passes. But these have evolved: You can purchase six flex passes for $90. Valid for most Know productions, they do not expire. (If a show ticket has a higher price than the pass, you can use your pass and just pay the difference.) Know's website will designate: "Flex passes are valid for this event." When you run out of tickets (and you surely will), you simply need to buy another pass.
Know's Fringe Festival has promoted itself with the slogan "Weird, like us." And they're living up to that mantra in a way that should appeal to its supporters and more.
If you can tear yourself way from TV ads for the
presidential election this weekend, you'll find plenty of good theater
to distract you, starting with a production at Covington's Carnegie
Center opening Friday night. It's Under a Red Moon, a
world premiere co-production with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company.
Michael Slade's taut psychological thriller just spent nearly a month
onstage at the Loft Theatre in Dayton, so it's already a seasoned
production. A dramatized psychological interview in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs,
it’s based on the chilling true story of England’s notorious “Acid Bath
Murderer” from a half-century ago. The play features Broadway actors
Bradford Cover as the criminal and Dee Pelletier as the psychologist
trying to get inside his head. Box office: 859-957-1940.
A different set of thrills are available from Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is staging Shakespeare's bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. This show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat, blood and gore — presented by CSC with ghastly zeal. Just as creepy tales like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween have chilled film audiences in recent years, this kind of play was all the rage in the early 1590s. (CSC director Jeremy Dubin calls it “a snuff film in blank verse.”) It's especially fun to watch veteran Nick Rose as a Roman general who gets into a grotesque battle of wills with the amoral Queen of the Goths, played by Miranda McGee. The awful things they they do to one another's families make for some delicious, hair-raising storytelling. Also onstage at Cincy Shakes is Romeo & Juliet, with the central characters played as hormonal, irrational teens. Sara Clark is especially good as Juliet. Both productions tell their tale through more contemporary visual filters — R&J's characters wear contemporary clothing and are surrounded with music of the here and now, while Titus gets a "Steampunk" treatment that presumes that the Victorian ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells extended its steam-driven, mechanical technology to the present. Both approaches give new vitality to the shows. (Review here.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
Also worth seeing is a funny, touching tale of growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Cincinnati Playhouse (513-381-3888)). (Review here.) It's the first time that the Playhouse has staged a work by Simon, one of America's most prolific playwrights of the 20th century. Box office: 513-421-3888
You'll have to pick and choose this weekend because
there's so much theater onstage. In addition to our professional
theaters, it's worth checking out production at universities: Tonight
through Sunday, CCM's esteemed musical theater program is offering the
cult favorite Chess, with music by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus
and Benny Andersson. The story is set in Bangkok and Budapest during a
mid-1970s world chess championship — and it's driven by gamesmanship
between nations, between lovers and, of course, between chess players. I
saw the opening on Thursday, and it's a BIG show with a gigantic cast.
Several leading roles are double cast (with more juniors than seniors,
in fact, which bodes well for CCM productions for this season and next).
In particular, Matthew Paul Hill, playing the Russian grand master
Anatoly, lifted the roof of Corbett Auditorium with his powerful
baritone voice singing the stirring "Anthem," the Act 1 finale. Tickets
($30) Box office: 513-556-4183. At Northern Kentucky University you'll a production of Royal Gambit
by German playwright Hermann Gressieker (translated into English in the
late 1950s). The subject is King Henry VIII and his six wives, and this
looks to be a beautifully costumed show, featuring senior Seth Wallen
in the leading role. Tickets ($14). Box office: 859-572-5464.
Neil Simon's funny and endearing Brighton Beach Memoirs is onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse. I gave it a Critic's Pick (review here), and I'm sure audiences will love this sweet portrait of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, where a loving but fractious family copes with hard times. It's told from the perspective of Eugene, a precocious adolescent (he's really Simon as a 15-year-old), who takes notes on his family's behavior. Well acted and beautifully staged. Box office: 513-421-3888l.
My schedule hasn't permitted me to see several shows that are getting good notices, including recognition from the folks evaluating productions for the League of Cincinnati Theatres. I'm catching up this evening with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is offering two shows this month. Romeo & Juliet is its mainstage show, and Sara Clark is getting high marks for her portrait of romantic but tragic young love. Brian Phillips' staging picked up an LCT nod, and the show received an overall recommendation from LCT. On the evenings when R&J is not onstage, there's another Shakespeare work for thrill seekers, specially selected and staged for the Halloween season: the bloody, gory tale of revenge, Titus Andronicus. Veteran actor Nick Rose plays a crazed Roman general, and just about everyone I've heard from says his performance is memorable. (It earned him an LCT nomination, too.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
This weekend is the final one for Mrs. Mannerly at Ensemble Theatre. When Harper Lee reviewed this one for CityBeat (review here), she gave it a Critic's Pick, and I agree wholeheartedly. (LCT named it a recommended production, too.) CEA Hall of Fame actress Dale Hodges is great fun to watch as a strict etiquette teacher in 1967, and Raymond McAnally plays all the other characters — a bunch of kids who are learning how to behave in a "mannerly" way. It's funny from start to finish, but there's a heart-warming message within the story. Definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3555.
At Clifton Performance Theatre, Clifton Players are staging A Bright New Boise, which also picked up an LCT recommendation. I haven't seen it, but the show won an Obie Award (that's for outstanding off-Broadway plays) in 2011, and it has a strong cast. This is a newish venue that's specializing in "storefront theater." Should be worth supporting. Tickets ($20): 513-861-7469.