Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews
and feature stories here.
REVIEWED BY COLE HANKINS, Loveland High School
Amidst a fearsome gang war, two lovers are forever torn apart by the pull of a pistol’s trigger. And as a girl mourns her horrible loss, she extends two hands, one to each side. In the left hand, a Jet; in the right, a Shark, two groups sworn enemies, now holding hands united under common loss. It is with this heart-wrenching image of solidarity that Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s production of West Side Story leaves its audience, and with this image that its excellence finally hits home.
An American theatrical classic, West Side Story takes place in New York City, where two local teenage gangs — the Caucasian “Jets” and Puerto Rican “Sharks” — are amidst a territorial dispute. Jets leader Riff plans to challenge the Sharks and leader Bernardo to a rumble in order to settle the issue. However, the plot thickens when fellow Jet Tony meets Bernardo’s sister Maria, and the two quickly fall in love. The result is ultimately a situation spun far out of control, a vengeful gunshot separating the lovers forever, and grave consequences to a merciless feud.
Fittingly, CHCA’s production started with a bang in “Prologue,” where the Jets’ and Sharks’ choreographic and combat execution splendidly set the tone for the action to come. The Jets were particularly sharp in songs such as “Jet Song” and the lighthearted character number “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Other show highlights included the upbeat, toe-tapping song “America,” and “Tonight,” where both Jets and Sharks alike came together for a powerful prelude to the action-packed “The Rumble.”
As headliner Tony, actor Will Ellis’s performance was defined by pristine tenor vocals and a captivating vibrato, mastering his character’s higher range. In solo songs like “Maria,” Ellis never shied away from the spotlight, boldly owning critical character moments. Opposite of Ellis, Allie Kuroff’s operatic soprano was equally impressive as the lovely Maria, clearly acting her finest in the show’s riveting finale. Both Ellis and Kuroff played their roles with a unique tenderness, providing an interesting presentation of two classic characters.
Likewise, actress Merrie Drees brought a thrilling flair to the flashy, spunky Anita. Drees’s powerfully sassy vocals proved phenomenal, and her ability to balance great comedic timing in earlier scenes with compelling emotion later on was marvelous, a dynamic lacking in other characters. As the charismatic Riff, Gabe Hoyer also crafted an extraordinary performance. Hoyer featured a mesmerizing gravity to his presence that added an unmistakable charm to Riff, making his Act I death one of the musical’s most tragic moments.
Tasked with a very challenging musical score, the CHCA Orchestra played fabulously. Despite drowning out certain vocalists at times, the pit kept accompaniment clean, crisp, and well polished throughout. Equally crisp and well polished was manager Kaitlyn Nickol’s stage crew, making scene changes promptly and effortlessly and contributing to the show’s timely pacing.
Doing justice to one of the most beloved musicals of all time is undoubtedly a daunting task. Yet as the lights faded on that aforementioned scene of unity, the cast of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s recent production of West Side Story had accomplished exactly this. In a wildly successful effort, these talented performers honored not only the endearing charm of this theatrical legend, but also its strikingly poignant message.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Larry A. Ryle High School
REVIEWED BY ELEANOR CONNIFF, Highlands High School
Although written nearly 400 years ago, the works of William Shakespeare are still revered today as some of the most influential in all of Western literature. The Bard's plays are usually an essential component of any English course. The classic tales are still performed often by actors and theatre companies alike. It is difficult to imagine something as old as the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio in 1623 continuing to remain relevant and entertaining to audiences. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by Larry A. Ryle High School, students brought life to the timeless classic and gave a performance that stayed true to the tradition of Shakespeare with unique and original twists.
The story of A Midsummer Night's Dream centers around a love triangle, or rather, rectangle, between Hermia and Lysander, two star-crossed lovers; Demetrius, who loves Hermia, although unrequited; and Helena, who loves Demetrius. When Puck, a mischievous fairy from the woods, accidentally casts a spell on the two young men, he reverses their affections, causing both to fall in love with Helena. Chaos ensues as Puck attempts to reverse the mistaken spell and keep peace within both the fairy and the lovers' world.
In Larry A. Ryle's production of this classic story, the students met the challenge of Shakespeare with eagerness and understanding of the style, far beyond the years of most high school students. The production also paired the original Shakespearean text with 1950s style costumes, props, and characters in order to portray a commentary on the time period's stratified nature and to modernize the theme of unrequited love.
Under the pressures of a four-way love triangle, Willow Davis's portrayal of Helena stood out among the leading roles of the show as her characterization and poise set her apart. Helena’s nagging but endearing nature allowed the audience to laugh at her melodramatic soliloquies while also sympathizing with her broken heart. Samuel Greenhill stood out in his portrayal of Demetrius as well, creating a character that was both likable and antagonistic and keeping him true to the attitudes of the time period.
Of course, it is impossible to forget Macy Bates’s performance as the mischievous Puck. The youthful energy that she brought to the role was extremely refreshing and played well into her comedic timing, keeping the audience laughing again and again.
From a technical aspect, the show was extremely fine-tuned. Albert Harris's lighting was absolutely stunning, with a purposeful contrast in the lighting of the fairy world versus that of the real world. This choice, while subtle, was extremely impactful, as the set's minimalist style made the setting of the story extremely ambiguous and versatile, with the shift in lighting as the main indicator of shifting worlds.
Love and mischief are the same now as they were in the 1950s, and the same in the 1950s as they were in Shakespeare's time. Larry A. Ryle High School's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream portrayed these themes in a fresh and unique way, while also paying homage to the tradition of William Shakespeare.
Beauty and the Beast at McAuley High School
REVIEWED BY SAMANTHA TIMMERS, Scott High School
It’s not every day you see a humanoid clock charging at foes with a silver fork. Nor is it every day that an audience finds themselves yet again floored by a performance they've seen on the screen a hundred times before. Yet in this heartwarming rendition of Beauty and the Beast, McAuley High School charmed both adult and child once again through their humor and talent.
This stage rendition, written by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Linda Wolverton, is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. The Oscar-winning movie version with which the world is familiar came out in 1991, the inspiration stemming from the 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In this third version, a beautiful and bookish Belle becomes the only hope for a long-forgotten castle staff and Prince, who are slowly becoming inanimate objects as a result of a spell caused by the Prince’s vanity. But can Belle learn to love a Beast who can barely learn to love anyone else?
Overall, McAuley created a magnificent performance that was filled with magic and surprises. The cast was bouncing with energy from start to finish, and their vocal quality was solid amongst all actors. The technical crew skillfully created a lively atmosphere that resonated with audience members, phenomenally recreating classic scenes. With glittering costumes and whimsical choreography, Beauty and the Beast did not disappoint.
Danielle Mouch was extraordinary in her performance as Belle. Her vocal quality was pristine and clear, effortlessly reaching every note as well as maintaining her character’s spunky yet thoughtful personality. Gregory Miller, a well-established actor in Cincinnati high school theater, outdid expectations in his performance as the Beast. Though he might have had hair and tusks masking his face, his powerful yet perfectly controlled voice said more than facial expressions ever could.
Audience favorites included the actors playing Lumière and Cogsworth. AJ Keith’s (Cogsworth) dry humor was expertly delivered and well received, his deadpans flawless and his mannerisms appropriate for the endearing yet bossy character. Benjamin Burton seemed to be made for the role of Lumière: his French accent was spot-on (and maintained throughout the length of the show), and his eye for comedy was terrific—all it took was a few suggestive hip movements to send the audience into uncontrollable laughter.
The crew provided dazzling effects for the show. The lighting was of almost professional quality, with a highlight being the mystical, Northern Lights-sequel brilliance that occurred during the Beast’s transformation. While the costumes seemed to closely follow the movie adaptation, they were of high quality and were well constructed and designed. The choreography flowed seamlessly, from the Mob’s parade around the auditorium to the Wolves’ deathly yet entrancing dance. Overall, McAuley’s crew was a force to be reckoned with, achieving seemingly magical transitions and mirages.
In this tale as old as time, McAuley High School enchanted youth and elderly alike with its whimsy personality and spellbinding characters, reminding everyone not to be deceived by appearances; there “may be something there that wasn't there before.”
The Mourner’s Bench at the School for Creative and Performing Arts
REVIEWED BY SARAH MORGAN, Mariemont High School
A single gunshot can end a life, create irreversible emotional damage, and shatter even the closest of relationships in an instant. The School for Creative and Performing Arts’ dark, poignant, and haunting performance of The Mourners’ Bench explored the crippling emotional aftermath of a deplorable tragedy.
The first act opened up to an intense argument between siblings Bobby (Bradley Mingo) and Melissa (Nina Walker). Twenty years after they witnessed their father shoot their mother, Evelyn, in a murder-suicide, Bobby and Melissa have still not healed. While Melissa has attempted to move on with her life, marrying a nice man and bearing two children, Bobby is trapped in a state of perpetual dependency, turning to alcohol and eventually buying the childhood house in which the tragedy occurred. Mingo and Walker perfectly captured the essence of a tumultuous sibling relationship, from emotionally depleting shouting matches to interrupting one another mid-sentence. The two were able to adroitly deal with dark themes, including murder, rape, and suicide, by presenting an air of deep gravity and maturity to their lines.
Act Two, set immediately after Evelyn’s funeral, featured her sisters Caroline (Mallory Kraus) and Wilma (Danielle Brockmann) bickering about the future of their niece and nephew. Kraus and Brockmann both give performances rife with emotion, utilizing familiar body language to heighten the intimacy of their conversation. The timing of their dialogue was natural and seemed completely organic, inviting the viewer into their quarrel. Brockmann approached her role as Wilma with a gentle softness, providing a foil for Kraus’s seemingly callous, unemotional Caroline. The scene ended touchingly, with Kraus playing the piano while Brockmann watched, a testament to the boundless power of redemption.
Act Three centered around elderly, married couple Joe (Cameron Baker) and Sarah (Maggie Hoffecker). They moved into Bobby and Melissa’s childhood home immediately after the tragedy and become inextricably tangled in the history of the house they have purchased. The tenderness between Hoffecker and Baker truly reflected that of a couple on the brink of death; while just sitting next to each other on a couch, they seem comfortable and at ease, with no trace of awkwardness. By the end of the scene, sniffling could be heard throughout the theater as the pair gazed out of a window, contemplating life’s transience.
SCPA’s theater was a room with seating on all four sides, providing an intimate view of the stage and connecting the audience to the characters. The set was sparse: a living room furnished with an unadorned couch and a dilapidated piano. The simpleness of the set allowed the raw emotion of the actors to shine through, creating a memorable performance.
All in all, SCPA’s production of The Mourners’ Bench was an evocative and haunting testament to the power of loss, recovery, and redemption.
Sweeney Todd at Taylor High School
REVIEWED BY MADISON LUKEN, St. Ursula Academy
A trip to the barber never seemed so dangerous than in Taylor High School’s production of Sweeney Todd, where deceit leads to a menagerie of questionable pies, ineffective Italian barbers and a tempest of revenge, violence and tragedy.
An ordinary barber, husband and young father, Benjamin Barker has his world turned upside down when he is thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge that costs him his wife and daughter. Escaping prison, Barker renames himself Sweeney Todd and moves back into his shop on Fleet Street when he discovers the suicide of his wife Lucy. Out for blood, he teams up with the pie baker below his flat, Mrs. Lovett, to take revenge on the ones responsible — Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. Leaving a trail of deception, misery and gore in his wake, Sweeney Todd becomes the demon barber of Fleet Street in this haunting musical thriller.
From the smoke that billowed from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop to the synchronization of the company in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” the unwavering commitment of both the cast and crew of this show did not go unnoticed in both details and central events. Every aspect of the show came together to create a product of suspense, drama, and overall beauty as an elaborate set, apt lighting and emotional vocals blended with the energy of everyone on and off stage.
Despite the incredible amount of music and its difficulty, the leads of the show, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, performed by Antonio Ortiz and Annie Gerth respectively, conquered the tumultuous trials of Steven Sondheim almost flawlessly. In addition to this vocal aptitude, Gerth was able to portray the comedic elements of Lovett through her accent and equally strong acting propensity. Reciprocated by Ortiz, the two radiated a brilliant, psychotic chemistry that was always present, especially in songs such as “A Little Priest.”
A buttress to the leading couple, the ensemble floated eerily onto the stage relentlessly, booming out “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “City on Fire” without wavering. Additionally appearing repeatedly, the Beggar Woman, played by Eliana Batsakis, brought further skill to light both vocally and in her physical acting as she drifted across the stage, crawling in the shadows of London, cackling manically and uttering desperate warnings until she met her demise.
Behind the scenes, this show demanded both sets and costumes reflective of the dark, dirty setting of 19th-century London. In both areas, demands were met, as buildings faded into darkness under a smoky pall and windows appeared cracked in places like Fogg’s Asylum while their inhabitants skulked about in ripped clothes with faces scorched with the grime of the streets. The crew was also able to create credible deaths with their use of stage blood.
Altogether, Taylor’s production was consistent and energetic in every scene of the show, creating a thrilling and gripping story through its performers and behind-the-scenes crew. It was ultimately well deserving of the standing ovation it received.
Once Upon a Mattress at Ursuline Academy
REVIEWED BY CARISSA SAFFIRO, Cincinnati Christian Schools
From childhood one is taught that princesses are the immaculately beautiful creatures that epitomize all that is grace and beauty. Who could imagine that the next princess of a medieval land would be an uncouth and unruly woman from the swamps? Ursuline Academy’s recent production of Once Upon a Mattress explores what happens when an ill-mannered yet charming woman steps — or rather swims — into court looking for a prince.
Written in the 1950s, Once Upon a Mattress is a musical comedy adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” The musical was written by Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer, and Dean Fuller with lyrics and music by Marshall Barer and Mary Rodgers, respectively. The show features Princess Winnifred of the swamplands who comes to marry Dauntless the Drab, despite all the women before her who have been turned down by his tyrannical mother. Following the classic tale, the queen puts a pea under twenty mattresses to determine whether Winnifred is a true princess.
With intricate music and challenging characters, the leads of Once Upon a Mattress certainly had their work cut out for them. The ludicrously uncouth yet lovable Princess Winnifred was played by Kennedy Carstens. From the moment she stepped on the stage the audience was in the palm of her hand and her vocal performance was unequalled by any cast member in the show. CJ Allen had the challenge of playing the role of Dauntless the Drab and chose to play this arguably flat character with a charming and comedic twist. The audience’s narrator and another lead actor in the show was the Minstrel, played by Arjun Sheth. Sheth not only brought the audience through the show with a confidence and charisma, but also had the vocal range required for the role.
King Sextimus the Silent, played by Michael Viox, was another leading force in the show, although because of an old curse he was unable to speak for most of the musical. However, his inability to communicate with words in no way inhibited his connection with the audience or his stage presence. His counterpart and friend, the Jester, played by Claire Westover, played alongside Viox with excellent chemistry but also showed a deeper side of her character as well as impressive tapping ability in her song “Very Soft Shoes.” Carmen Carigan must also be commended for her performance as the Wizard. Although in a smaller part, Carigan has the ability to leave the audience clapping and laughing hysterically every time she stepped off stage.
The most unique thing about Ursuline, however, is the wealth of talent in their dancers. The dancing chorus was always together whether they were doing ballet or tap. With dancers such as Keely Wissel on point and other incredible soloists such as Caroline Nymberg, the dancers stood out as one of the highlights of the show.
The technical aspects of the show seemed to move effortlessly. There were few to no microphone errors, although the cast was working with fifteen wireless mikes, and the lighting was flawless. Arguably the most unique and ingenious part of the show was the costuming. Almost completely student-made, the costumes were imaginative and well put together. In the chorus, each lady’s costume had a corresponding knight’s costume, just one example of the color and brightness of the show.
The costumes, actors, and dancers certainly mirrored the fun, bright, and slightly unconventional style of this production and brought the audience for an enjoyable ride.
If you debating which show you might go see this weekend, my strong recommendation is Ensemble Theatre's Outside Mullingar (ETC, 5/6-24). It's a great script by John Patrick Shanley (who wrote the award-winning play Doubt and the award-winning screenplay Moonstruck). It's set in Ireland, so the characters are overflowing with dry wit. And the actors playing them are a quartet of the performers who Cincinnati audiences love: Joneal Joplin (Scrooge for many years at the Playhouse) is a crusty old man who might not pass the family farm on to his more sensitive son, played by Cincinnati Shakespeare's artistic director Brian Phillips. Dale Hodges, a respected local stage veteran, plays Aiofe, the owner of an adjacent farm; Jenn Joplin (Joneal's daughter) is Aoife's grumpy, opinionated daughter. This is a tale of parents and children, but there's a lovely, stumbling love story at the heart of the play, and it's that's emotionally satisfying. The production was staged by Ed Stern, now retired as the Cincinnati Playhouse's artistic director. It's onstage through May 24. Tickets: 513-421-3555.
Brian Phillips did double-duty recently rehearsing to perform inOutside Mullingar while staging Henry V at Cincy Shakes. As the title suggests, this is one of the Bard's history plays, and it's a chest-thumping one about warfare and England's claim to power. The company is midway through a multi-year project to stage all of Shakespeare's tales of the kings of England in chronological order. That might sound a tad stodgy, but this one is full of fighting and bluster, and there's a thread of comic relief, too. Let's call it the Shakespearean equivalent of an action movie. It's onstage throughMay 30. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
You'll find two plays worth seeing at the Cincinnati Playhouse this weekend. One just opened last night (I haven't seen it yet): It's Annie Baker's award-winner, Circle Mirror Transformation, about some folks taking an acting class at a community center. Their lessons about performing expand to be come life lessons. It's a warm, thoughtful play in the Shelterhouse. On the Marx mainstage, you'll find the very funny Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, inspired by Chekhov but from the zany perspective of Christopher Durang, you don't need any theater history to be laughing out loud as three adult siblings from a dysfunctional family try to keep their balance. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
If you're eagerly awaiting the start of the Cincinnati Fringe (it kicks off on May 26), you should stop by Know Theatre for the American premiere of the Bane Trilogy with performances this weekend and next. It's three monologues about a guy who shoots first and doesn't ask questions in a one-musician film noir comic trilogy. You can experience them sequentially or out of order. Performer Joe Bone is the Guinness world record holder for the most characters portrayed by one actor in a performance; he's accompanied musically by Ben Roe. This show has a heavy-duty buzz: People were telling me about it weeks ago, so I'm sharing the news with you — although I haven't fit it into my schedule yet. It's running for two more weeks. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
James Crump, the Cincinnati Art Museum's chief curator/photography curator who was a key figure in the planning and programming of the first FotoFocus festival in 2012 and then resigned from the museum in early 2013, has re-emerged as the director of a new documentary, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art.
It tells the story, with plenty of archival footage, of three restless New York artists in the who — as part of the 1960s/1970s rebellion against materialistic values sweeping American culture — sought to create epic art that was one with the outdoor environment, especially in the open and hard-to-access spaces of the west. That, they thought, would make it hard to buy and own.
Robert Smithson created "Spiral Jetty" in Utah, Walter De Maria made New Mexico's "Lightning Field," and Michael Heizer did "Double Negative" in Utah and is still working on "City." (The other two are deceased.)
Other artists featured in the film are Nancy Holt (who has an environmental artwork at Miami University), Dennis Oppenheim, Carl Andre and Vito Acconci.
In an exchange of emails with CityBeat, Crump said he is hoping for the film to show at festivals and then get a limited theatrical release in fall, followed by availability on other distribution platforms. He also said his sales agent, Submarine Entertainment, represented Citizenfour and Finding Vivien Maier.
Before coming to Cincinnati, Crump made a documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe's relationship to Sam Wagstaff, Black White + Gray.
He has provided CityBeat with a link to Troublemakers' trailer:
If you're feeling nostalgic, Cincinnati stages have several offerings for you to enjoy. Let's start with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It's set in the present, but Vanya, one of three angsty siblings, thinks that contemporary life is missing the point, and he yearns for things he loved during his childhood in the 1950s. He love them to the point that he's spurred to a 10-minute rant (by a feckless actor who pays more attention to texting than the people in the room with him) about all that life is lacking today. It's a very funny moment in Christopher Durang's award winning play. I gave it a Critic's Pick in my CityBeat review. Tickets: 513-421-3888
The production of Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike wraps up with the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun." If you'd like a whole evening of Beatles tunes, you need to be at the Aronoff Center in Downtown Cincinnati on Monday evening for RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles. It's more than two hours of music, covering the progression from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "I Am the Walrus," with more than 30 numbers being authentically performed. The live, multi-media spectacle covers the entire career of the band and its four famous musicians. These guys pay attention to details in recreating the music and the mood. Tickets: 513-621-2787
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati just opened a production of John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar that will make anyone who's Irish long to head to the Emerald Isle. It's about generational differences and the possibility of love between two unlikely souls. What will make this one good is the cast: Joneal Joplin (Scrooge for many years at the Playhouse) plays a crusty old man, and Dale Hodges, one of Cincinnati's best professional actresses, is his outspoken neighbor. Jen Joplin (Joneal's daughter in real life) plays Hodges' daughter in the show; and the old man's son is brought to life by Brian Isaac Phillips from Cincinnati Shakespeare. It's being staged by Ed Stern, former artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse. With that many theater veterans working on it, the show is sure to be worth watching. Lots of people must think so, since ETC has already announced an extension of the show to May 30. Tickets: 513-421-3555
Cincinnati Music Theater can always be depended on to do a good job with a big musical. Our city's most ambitious community theater takes on the lighthearted Gershwin tuner, Crazy for You, which will be staged at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. It's onstage for two weekends, through May 16.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will make a $50,000 grant to Contemporary Arts Center to help mount a survey exhibition of Korean-American artist Do Ho Suh in 2016. The CAC will also produce a catalog on the artist.
In a press release, CAC Director Raphaela Platow said, “We are delighted to have received this recognition from the NEA, it is a true vote of confidence to the quality of our curatorial program and the continued strength of this institution, as one of the oldest non-collecting contemporary art institutions in the country.”
Do Ho Suh: Passage, curated by the CAC's Steven Matijcio, is set for Feb. 12 to Sept. 11 of next year. Suh, who moved to the U.S. in 1993, makes life-size fabric replicas of his homes. The CAC expects that, in Passage, his work will imaginatively complement Zaha Hadid's bold architecture.
While other Cincinnati theaters hustle to get their seasons announced in order to ramp up subscription sales, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati has built enough faith with its audiences that they'll start signing up sight unseen. Artistic Director Lynn Meyers tells regulars that they'll be pleased, and they take her at her word; she adds that if they aren't happy with the shows she picks, they can have their money back. No one asks for it.
Of course, ETC presents shows that haven't appeared elsewhere in our region yet, typically premieres that have only recently been onstage in New York City. And they're given productions with great acting and beautiful design so well assembled that many shows have extended runs. (That's happening with the show concluding the current season, John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, which opens on Wednesday with a stellar cast that includes local stage veteran Dale Hodges and Cincy Shakes Artistic Director Brian Phillips. ETC has announced it will run a week longer than initially indicated, now closing on May 30.)
For its 30th season, ETC has assembled three regional premieres and a revival of a musical it staged to great acclaim in 1999, with a TBA slot (March 22-April 10, 2016) that's likely to bring another show that's been a recent Broadway or off-Broadway hit. Here's the lineup announced over the weekend:
Luna Gale (Sept. 8-27, 2015) by Rebecca Gilman: The show recently received the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, and it was considered by many to be a strong contender for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. It portrays the moral dilemma facing a social worker with a crushing caseload and personal baggage. She must decide whether to leave a child with neglectful drug addict parents or place her with a grandmother who is a religious zealot. It's a complex and disturbing work about faith and forgiveness that doesn't offer easy answers for the lifelong after-effects of abuse. Its first production was in January 2014 at the Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It's slated for productions at Cleveland Playhouse and Actors Theatre of Louisville in the coming season, but ETC's happens first.
Buyer and Cellar (Oct. 13-Nov. 1, 2015) by Jonathan Tollins: The one-many comedy was a big New York hit in 2013, telling the story of an out-of-work actor who takes on the odd job of playing shopkeeper for Barbra Streisand in the basement of her lavish Malibu estate. It's a fanciful imagining of what one does with decades of memories and acres of memorabilia. Performing the piece will be Nick Cearley, a Cincinnati native who has appeared at ETC in next to normal and The Great American Trailer Park Musical.
Cinderella (Dec. 2-Jan. 3, 2016) by Joe McDonough, David Kisor and Fitz Patton: ETC's holiday show is a remount of its contemporary take on the classic fairy tale that demonstrates that being smart can be truly beautiful.
Grounded (Jan. 26-Feb. 14, 2016) by George Brant: It's another solo show, described by one critic as "ardently humane," about a woman who's an ace pilot reassigned to operate a remote-controlled drone from a windowless trailer near Las Vegas. It's a hit at New York City's Public Theater right now featuring Anne Hathaway in a production directed by Julie Taymor. Hunting terrorists by day and returning to her family at night, the boundaries begin to blur between the desert where she lives and the one she patrols half a world away in Iraq.
Violet (May 3-22, 2016). Jeanine Tesori's musical won the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Award for best musical when it premiered off-Broadway in 1997. It was a local award winner, too, but not seen by many who have come to love ETC's offerings. The score features American Roots tunes as well as Folk and Gospel styles. Violet's story is set in the 1960s; she is a young woman disfigured in a childhood accident who dreams of a miraculous transformation through the power of faith provided by a televangelist. It was one of ETC's best early productions, and it's a great choice to cap off a celebration of three decades of fine theater.
Subscriptions are currently available. Call 513-421-3555 for information.
Christopher Durang's witty comedy Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike opened last night at the Cincinnati Playhouse. If that title makes you think of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, well, that's part of the playwright's comic plan. But his script reassembles some of those wry comic elements with a few modern twists. The three characters with Chekhovian names are siblings with wildly divergent perspectives; "Spike" stirs things up by being more physical than intellectual. You don't have to know any theater history to have a good time with this play, especially when Vanya launches into a 10-minute rant about what's wrong with the modern world — referencing everything from postage stamps and technology to global warming and a lot of TV from the 1950s. It's hilarious. This show is being staged at theaters all over America this season. For more about Durang, read my Curtain Call column. Through May 23. Tickets: 513-421-3888
The Covedale Center has carved our a meaningful niche in the local theater scene with staging Golden Age musicals, and they're opening one of the best this weekend, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. It was the final show by the pair who created Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I. Thanks to the movie featuring Julie Andrews, I don't really have to tell you what it's about. But I should mention that the stage version has a bit more of a socio-political edge to it: Two of my favorite numbers (that didn't make it into the film) are "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive?" — pay attention to them for some sassy songwriting. The show is onstage at the West Side theater through May 24; tickets: 513-241-6550
Several worthwhile productions are finishing their runs this weekend with Sunday performances. That includes the searing psychological and political drama Death and the Maiden by Diogenes Theatre Company, featuring Annie Fitzpatrick, Michael G. Bath and Giles Davies at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Tickets: 513-621-2787 … Cincinnati Shakespeare is winding up its staging of the great comedy of love and combat, The Taming of the Shrew. (Read my review here). Tickets: 513-381-2273 … And if you've ever struggled to connect with a play by the Bard, you might enjoy John Murrell's Taking Shakespeare at Dayton's Human Race Theater Company. The latter is about a disillusioned college professor asked to tutor her dean's son through a freshman class in Shakespeare. The subject is Othello, and their wrangling helps them learn more about one another. It's some fine acting, with Jon Kovach, seen frequently on Cincinnati stages, as the opinionated but drifting young man. Tickets: 937-228-3630
Documentaries about photographers have the difficulty of making still photographs hold our interest in a medium that is about — obviously — moving pictures. The contemplation and meditation that successful still photographs elicit tend to get lost when your eyes and brain are trying to keep up with something traveling at 35 frames per second. It's like trying to admire an elegant home from a speeding train.
A recent (and very good) film about a photographer, Finding Vivian Maier, solved that problem by turning the story of why she was so overlooked in her lifetime into a mystery.
The current film The Salt of the Earth, about the questing, humanistic Brazilian-born photographer Sebastiao Salgado and directed by Wim Wenders with Salgado's son, Juliano, may be the best documentary about a photographer ever.
Salgado deserves it, too — his years-long, book-length projects chronicling the hardships humans endure in their search for work (Workers) and safety from war and famine (Migrations), as well as his elegiac images of the earth itself (Genesis), mark him as one of history's most important photographers. And he's still active at age 71.
Mariemont Theatre has just announced the film will be held over for a second week, starting tomorrow (Friday).
The Salt of the Earth accomplishes its profundity by beautifully melding the best traits of film — tracking shots, close-ups, essayist commentary and interviews presented as monologues, color cinematography, music — with deep feeling for the subject and his work. Wenders presents Salgado's monumental black-and-white photographs superbly. He slowly shifts between them and his own filmmaking. It deserved the recent Academy Award nomination it received.
Wenders is the German director of some classic narrative films (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas) who, with his documentaries Pina and Buena Vista Social Club, showed he could find inventive and life-affirming ways to depict on film the work of other artists he respects.
Wenders in The Salt of the Earth can be solemn when it's called for — Salgado's work at times makes you wonder if the human race is doomed to cruelty to hardship. But it's also optimistic, as when chronicling how Salgado has restored to health his parched, dying family farm in Brazil.
We're fortunate that the Mariemont has elected to hold this film for a second week. I saw it last Monday and the crowd was small, so many of its intended audience might not yet be aware of it. It really deserves to be seen on a big screen. and it's rewarding for all those who take film and photography seriously.
Know Theatre of Cincinnati
Andrew Hungerford, Know Theatre’s artistic director, has pointed out that the coming season is the company’s 18th, and that at years of age, “We’re ready to do everything that entails: step into a wider world, fall in love, confront loss, get a crazy summer job, have a history lesson, party with some college kids, give up our childhood toys, obsess over Star Wars again, rail against poverty and injustice, engage in civic discourse, major in the sciences and then, maybe, take a trip to the beach.” Know is planning a lot of shows including works that are entertaining and socially conscious and that offer lots of opportunities for local artists.
“As we near the 10th anniversary of moving into our home at 1120 Jackson St., I think we’re getting ever closer to the vision that Know Theatre’s leadership has always had for this space,” says Producing Artistic Andrew Hungerford. “From our mainstage to Serials to Fringe, there is so much happening on our stages. It really is a theatrical playground here. And seeing the Underground filled with an audience eager to be a part of the next crazy thing we make reminds me exactly why I took this job.” Hungerford is completing his first season of artistic leadership. Here’s what’s in store for his second:
Serials 3: Roundhouse (Late June) will be another stab at short-form theater. This time out there will be five playwrights involved in creating five episodic plays. Each week they’ll trade who’s writing which story.
One-Minute Play Festival (July 10-12, 2015) This event will invite writers to consider the world around them, their cities and communities and the ways they view the world, then write topical moments that say something about what’s happening here and now. The results, probably 70 to 90 of them, will be put together into three evenings of performance.
Hundred Days (July 24-Aug. 22, 2015). This is a show conceived by the Bengsons, a singer-musician couple who have been Cincinnati Fringe festival favorites, and they workshopped it here in 2011. It’s about a couple whose time together is cut short by a fatal illness. They decide to live the 100 days left as if it were the 60 years they had hoped for.
The Hunchback of Seville by Charise Castro Smith (Oct. 9-24, 2015) with CCM drama students, will be staged by CCM drama faculty member Brant Russell. Set in 1504 in Spain, it’s an irreverent comedy that turns historical atrocities on their heads.
Andy’s House of [blank] by Paul Strickland and Trey Tatum (Oct. 30-Nov. 14, 2015). This will be a fully staged version of the show that was presented in 15-minute increments across the five evenings of Serials 2: Thunderdome. (It’s the only show that made it through five weeks.) It’s a small-town, mystery-spot, time travel musical about an unusual man who runs a store that’s an every changing emporium of oddities. Strickland and Tatum are Fringe Festival veterans.
All Childish Things by Joseph Zettelmaier (Nov. 20-Dec. 19, 2015) is about three guys who still have Star Wars on the brain, despite being 30 years old. It’s set in Norwood, and the fact that Kenner, designer of Star Wars toys was headquartered in Cincinnati, is important to this story. This production happens right around the time that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens will be in movie theaters. The playwright has been recognized several times by the American Theatre Critics Association, including this play in 2006.
The Naughty List by OTR Improv at Arnold’s Bar & Grill (December 2015) picks up on the Star Wars theme, too. This holiday iteration is subtitled, “The Jolly Awakens.”
Serials 4! (January 2016). Another round of episodic storytelling.
BlackTop Sky by Christina Anderson (Jan. 29-Feb. 20, 2016) is a story about love, violence, community, mental illness and the line between poverty and true homelessness. Kimberly Faith Hickman, the New York City-based director who staged Know’s thought-provoking production of The Twentieth-Century Way in April 2014, will stage it.
Beertown by dog & pony DC (March 2-19, 2016) is another crossover by a Fringe Festival act: dog & Pony performed A Killing Game here in 2013. For this show, they’ll present alternative tales about our town’s history and we get to choose which version we like — a mash-up of choose your own adventure and maybe a murder mystery dinner party. Every performance begins with a dessert potluck; audiences are encouraged to bring a dessert to share.
Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson (April 15-May 14, 2016), one of America’s hottest young playwrights. Know presented her Macbeth-themed script, Toil and Trouble back in 2014, and the Cincinnati Playhouse is giving her new play The Revolutionists its world premiere in February 2016. Silent Sky is the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and a group of revolutionary women who found a way to measure the universe.
The thirteenth annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival happens in late May and early June 2016. Followed by one more (June 24-July 16, 2016) show that’s still TBA (June 24-July 16), but Hungerford hints that it could be by Steve Yockey, whose surreal Pluto was staged by Know early in 2014.
New Edgecliff Theatre
New Edgecliff Theatre has announced three shows for its 2015-2016 season, planned for a new Northside venue at St. Patrick’s Church. “These are plays that challenge the way the characters view their lives and the circumstances they find themselves in,” says Producing Artistic Director Jim Stump. “They are stories of how much can change when you change how you look at things.”
Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune by Terrence McNally (Sept. 17-Oct. 3, 2015). Jared Doren staged an excellent production of William Inge’s Bus Stop for NET in 2013, and he’ll be back to put together this show about a pair of lonely, middle-aged people whose first date ends with their tumbling into bed. Things head in different directions from there. This show, which debuted in 1987, had a sterling production at the Cincinnati Playhouse back in 1989; the Playhouse presents a new play by McNally, Mothers and Sons, in the spring of 2016.
The Santaland Diaries (Dec. 3-19, 2015) is a reprise of David Sedaris’s very funny monologue about working as an elf in Macy’s Santaland in New York City. This holiday staple has been missing from local stages for two seasons; it will be fun to see it again.
The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute (April 14-30, 2016). Former NET artistic director Elizabeth Harris will direct LaBute’s 2001 play about a man who thinks a woman is romantically interested in him when she’s actually using him as the subject of her MFA thesis project.
Under the management of new artistic director Maggie Perrino, Covington’s Carnegie will present four productions of well-known theater titles in the Otto M. Budig Theater.
Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (Aug. 15-30, 2015) is about a single man and his married friends. The show, which won a dozen Tony Awards in 1971, has some of Sondheim’s greatest musical numbers, including “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Getting Married Today” and “Being Alive.”
Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer (Nov. 7-22, 2015) is about playing games, but in this tale, the games are deadly serious. Veteran director Greg Procaccino will stage this famous Tony Award winner, a whodunit that will keep audiences guessing from start to finish.
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (Jan. 21-31, 2016) will be the Carnegie’s “lightly staged” musical for the coming season — a production that puts music and storytelling over physical staging. The production will feature the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, led by J. R. Cassidy, performing all the tunes from the classic 1939 movie.
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown (April 9-24, 2016) is an excellent contemporary musical (from 2001) about Jamie and Cathy, a young couple going through a divorce. His story and hers travel in opposite directions through time. Brown is one of the best of Broadway’s next generation of composers.
Commonwealth Dinner Theater
This company offers professional productions with dinner at Northern Kentucky University during the summer months. Productions are often sold out, so be sure to call early to reserve tickets (859-572-5464). This summer’s shows have characters from opposite ends of the age spectrum.
The Sunshine Boys (June 3-21, 2015) is Neil Simon’s 1971 comedy about two aging vaudevillian comics who have grown to hate each other after 40 years of working together. They’re reuniting for a special about the history of comedy, but keeping them on the same page is no easy task.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin (July 8-26, 2015) is about a contest featuring six quirky adolescents, overseen by three oddball adults. Its 2005 Broadway production was a surprise winner of several Tony Awards. Brush up on your spelling and you could be one of several audience members invited onstage to test your skills against the “kids.”
In its second year as a degree program, Xavier University Theatre is undertaking an ambitious season that features two Broadway musicals, a world premiere and a contemporary drama, staged by former Cincinnati Playhouse artistic director Ed Stern.
The undergraduate actors at Xavier will give Cincinnati audiences a second chance to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Oct. 22-24, 2015).
Stern will direct Kenney Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth (Dec. 3-6, 2015), the story of three wayward young people navigating New York in 1982 as they try to thread their way into adulthood.
In an especially challenging endeavor, the theatre program will present three plays in repertory during a two-week stretch (Feb. 17-28, 2016): Miss Julie by August Strindberg will be staged by veteran actress Torie Wiggins; Betrayal by Harold Pinter will be staged by another stage veteran, Bruce Cromer; and a new play by student playwright Tatum Hunter, Eve, will be staged by Bridget Leak.
Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent (April 21-24, 2016) will round out the season. It’s another Tony Award winner — and it landed a Pulitzer Prize, not often bestowed on a musical. Set in New York’s East Village, it follows a story about bohemian artists struggling to get by, inspired by Puccini’s opera, La Bohème.
Actors Theatre of Louisville
In 2016 the Humana Festival of New American Plays marks its 40th anniversary at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The theater has commissioned Sarah Ruhl, one of America’s most respected current playwrights, to create a new work, Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, for the occasion. The play, a moving look at growing up and growing old within a family, will be presented from March 10 to April 10, 2016. Ruhl’s works have been offered by many of Cincinnati’s theatres — The Clean House by the Cincinnati Playhouse, Eurydice by Know Theatre, Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Ensemble Theatre and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by CCM Drama at the Carnegie in Covington.