February is Black History Month, a period when the arts traditionally wake up and pay attention to African-American stories and artists.
I'm always a bit troubled by this segmenting, so I want to commend both
the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
for presenting two fine productions of shows featuring African Americans
in engaging stories — in the middle of March. They represent two of this weekend's best choices.
At ETC, Black Pearl Sings! features two outstanding local actresses. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Susannah Mullally, a folk music researcher in the 1930s; Torie Wiggins is Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, a prisoner (for a violent but probably justified crime) who has a remarkable recollection of songs she learned as a child from her family. They form an uneasy alliance that turns into a guarded friendship, and Fitzpatrick and Wiggins have a delightful interplay and chemistry. I heard that this might be the 40th production Fitzpatrick has done at ETC; she's a versatile actress, and she convincingly creates the uptight but driven Susannah. Wiggins, who graduated from the drama program at CCM, earns her Equity card on this production: Chronologically, she's probably a tad young for the role, but she so wholly embodies Pearl's feisty character that it makes no difference. Hers is a tour-de-force rendition, musically and theatrically. This one is a definite must-see. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Let's give the Playhouse — and new artistic director Blake Robison — props for finally getting around to staging a show by Horton Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92. He was a prolific dramatist and screenwriter (he wrote screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies) for years, and his play A Trip to Bountiful is a lovely, emotional paean to the notion that "there's no place like home." Foote wrote the play about an elderly Texas wido pining to return to her hometown in 1953 (as a play for television, in fact) and it was an award-winning 1985 movie with a white cast. For the Playhouse, Timothy Douglas has changed up the story by overlaying an African-American filter over the story and casting veteran actress Lizann Mitchell as Carrie Watts. She's a dream of an actress, portraying a tiny Texas cyclone of energy with a wry sense of humor. The story is nothing too innovative — she runs away from a cramped apartment where she lives with her son and his demanding wife to return to her girlhood home, which has all but disappeared — but the truth and dignity of the tale (and Mitchell's performance) make this show worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Finally, I need to mention Clifton Players production of A Behanding in Spokane by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. He's the writer of dark tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, as well as the even darker film In Bruges. Clifton Players perform at Clifton Performance Theatre, a tiny, intimate storefront space on Ludlow Avenue. I've heard lots of positive remarks about this production. Be prepared to be shocked and entertained by the show's comic violence. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
The holiday weekend is not when most people think about theater-going, but I can recommend a good choice or two if you prefer being indoors to celebrating the kick-off of summer: The Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Marry Me a Little is a quick entertainment (only a bit more than an hour long), a good choice if you're busy with other things like Taste of Cincinnati.
The clash of good and evil seems to be on the mind of most of our local theaters this week as numerous openings bring plenty of offerings for you to choose from.
Abigail/1702 at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a kind of sequel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. This new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (it's actually a world premiere) takes the character of Abigail Williams, the villainous and spiteful catalyst for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and moves her 10 years beyond. She's living in Boston, an outcast caring for people afflicted with the "pox" — and haunted by her past. She knows her actions in Salem were evil, perhaps inspired by the Devil himself. How she copes with the current events of her life is very much dictated by her actions from the past. This is a fascinating variation on a familiar character, told with an air of supernatural events and eerie sights and sounds. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Freud's Last Session at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati puts a debate about the existence of God front and center, with the distance between good and evil or right and wrong as the battleground. Psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud is dying of oral cancer; he invites to his London flat a young academic and newly converted Christian, C. S. Lewis (who later wrote the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia). On the September day in 1939 when England declares war on Germany — perhaps another clash of good and evil — they meet for a conversation. The play is almost all talking and very little action, but the clash of ideas is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. That's made especially true by two fine actors: Bruce Cromer (the Playhouse's longstanding Ebenezer Scrooge and Cincinnati Shakespeare's recent Atticus Finch) as the earnest Lewis, and Barry Mulholland (a local newcomer, but a veteran actor) as the skeptical Freud. This one will make you think. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Camelot at Covington's Carnegie Center offers a distilled version of the Broadway hit from 1960. It's presented as a concert, singers backed up by members of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, led by its maestro Mischa Santora. The story of King Arthur's court, a place of goodness and justice brought down by an illicit love affair, is another glimpse of the good and evil affect history — even if it's mythic history. Former NKU professor Mark Hardy is back in town to play Arthur. Through Feb. 3. Box office: 859-957-1940.
The evils of racial injustice are at the heart and soul of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Memphis, which has a touring production at the Aronoff through Feb. 3. Set in the 1950s, it's about a white radio DJ who digs black music long before it became mainstream. His love of the music leads him to a romance with a talented singer, and that causes complications in a town where black and white don't mingle without serious repercussions. Of course, it's a musical, so this doesn't dig too deeply into the issues, but it's definitely a reminder of a time and place that feels very foreign to us today — even if some attitudes persist. Ultimately, it's about the power of music to bridge difficult boundaries, and that's a good message. Box: 800-987-2787.
The 2010 Cincy Fringe Festival has three days/nights left, and tickets are going fast for the final performances of the more critically-acclaimed shows. CityBeat's review crew has now posted reviews of 27 of Fringe's 29 productions, with the final two coming later today on our Fringe micro-site.
It's funny how one or two words can convey many different meanings. Take the word Mauritius. If you know your geography, it's an island in the Indian Ocean east of Africa. If you're a stamp collector, it's one of the first places in the world where postage stamps were issued — and it's where some of the rarest stamps originated, today worth millions of dollars.
If you're Cincinnati-born playwright Theresa Rebeck, it's an inspiration for an edgy comic drama about two half-sisters and some eager stamp experts fighting over a stamp collection. And if you're a theatergoer, Mauritius, the title of Rebeck's play, means you'll be lining up to see Ensemble Theatre's latest production. It's a great script, profane and funny, yet also insightful and sad about how human nature works — or doesn't.
Well, the erratic LCT awards got this one right — even if the announcement arrives almost two weeks after the brief run of Oklahoma! at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. (Nov. 17-20). Three performers and the show’s director and choreographer have been cited by a judging panel from the League of Cincinnati Theatres. The recreation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s trend-setting musical from 1943 is certainly one of the best productions I’ve seen all season. It marshaled the forces of 35 and an orchestra of more than 40 musicians. It’s not likely that you’ll see such a production anywhere but at a school like CCM
Professor of Musical Theatre Diana Lala, the show’s director and choreographer, was recognized with an LCT award for the show’s outstanding choreography. LCT panelists praised the quality and quantity of dancing, based on Agnes DeMille’s legendary work for the original 1943 Broadway production, as well as its “flawless” execution.
Three student performers were cited for their contributions to the show. Senior John Riddle from Vermillion, Ohio, was awarded for his performance as a leading actor, playing the cowboy Curly McLain. Senior Julia Johanos from Louisville, Colorado, was similarly recognized as a leading actress in a musical for playing Laurey Williams, the object of Curly’s romantic attention. One LCT judge said the leads “knocked this one out of the park with depth, musical talent and romantic chemistry.” Senior Eric Huffman from Lenexa, Kansas, played cowboy Will Parker, a featured role for which LCT recognized him as a “confident dancer, good singer and truly gifted actor.”
More information about the League can be found at www.leagueofcincytheatres.info.
I've been away for two weeks — including seeing some great theater in Denver — but it's good to be back in Cincinnati. There's lots of great theater going on for you to see. This is the final weekend for Ensemble Theatre's well-received production of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. (Read my review here.) A performance was added earlier this week to meet audience demand, but I suspect tickets are still scarce.
If you can get a ticket this weekend for Hair at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, that's the show to see this weekend. It's an intentional trip down memory lane — if your memory goes back 40 years. (The show that turned the world of Broadway upside down in the late 1960s is being presented as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of CCM's musical theater program.) If not, and you want a taste of what all the shouting was about in 1969, Corbett Auditorium is the place to be.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
The Whipping Man is drawing big audiences for Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. In fact, they’ve added several performances extending the closing date from Feb. 12 to Feb. 18. It’s the story of Simon, a dedicated former slave who remains in a ruined mansion in 1865 Richmond in the days just after the Civil War. Caleb, the wounded son of his former master, stumbles in (desperately needing some horrendous surgery) and then does John, another former slave, a young man raised side by side with Caleb. The slave-owning family was Jewish, and it’s almost time for Passover, which they must celebrate with limited means. It’s a powerful show about freedom and responsibility with a plot that will keep you guessing. As I noted recently in this week's Curtain Call column, director D. Lynn Meyers gets the most from her cast, especially Ken Early as Simon. This one is a must-see. Box office: 513-421-3555
Last night The Cincinnati Enquirer presented for the fourth year its "me-too" theater awards, the Acclaims. (CityBeat's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards will mark their 13th year in August.) It was as quirky as ever, with no real explanation of how or who awards are decided on. I will grudgingly admit that any recognition for Cincinnati's theater scene is worthwhile, and the Acclaims made some fine choices, but there were just as many that left me scratching my head, especially several of the "best of the best" choices.