A lot of Stephen Sondheim’s shows are kind of heady, but Into the Woods — a bunch of fairytales put through a blender — is perhaps his most approachable. Given the delightful treatment, overflowing with talent you’ll find in this production at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, tickets might be in short supply but try — it’s a longer run than usual. Act I is about “happily every after,” while Act II explores what comes next. CCM has a remarkably skilled crop of seniors this year (they’ll be on Broadway before long), and professor and director Aubrey Berg, who heads the program in musical theater, has used them to full advantage in a wildly clever staging. There are many featured performances and songs — the characters include Cinderella and her evil stepsisters, Jack (from the beanstalk story) with a very funny pet cow, a handsome but empty-headed prince, a precocious Little Red Riding Hood and a lascivious Wolf — but this is way more than a tale for kids. In fact, Into the Woods is one of the best theater productions I’ve seen all season. Read my review (a Critic’s Pick), and then go to see it. Tickets: 513-556-4183.
A year ago Cincinnati Shakespeare had a big hit with Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. They’ve done it again with another adaptation, Sense & Sensibility. This time it’s two sisters, one rational and one emotional, wonderfully portrayed by Kelly Mengelkoch (as the reserved, reasonable Elinor) and Sara Clark (as willful, romantic Marianne). They’re surrounded by droll supporting characters — and a story of romance and domestic intrigue. I gave the production a Critic’s Pick. It’s onstage for two more weeks, but many performances have sold out, so don’t dally. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
This is the final weekend for two more excellent productions. Know Theatre’s “comedy of anxiety” by Allison Moore, Collapse, about all kinds of things falling down — a highway bridge, the economy, relationships — winds up on Saturday evening. Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, a complicated noir-ish tale of marital deceit and cryptic crime, finishes its run at Cincinnati Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theater on Sunday. Both earned Critic’s Picks.
In addition to Into the Woods, there are more shows by Sondheim on local stages. You’ll find the touring production of West Side Story at the Aronoff through March 11. It’s a show Sondheim wrote the lyrics for when he was 26 (he’ll soon be 82). Tickets: 800-982-2787. ... This weekend the Cincinnati Playhouse begins previews of Merrily We Roll Along, a Sondheim show from 1981 that was a flop at first, but now is praised as one of his greatest musical accomplishments. Tony Award winner John Doyle is directing; he makes things interesting by having his actors play musical instruments, too. (He did that at the Playhouse in 2007 with Sondheim’s Company, a production that transferred to Broadway.) Merrily opens next Thursday on the Marx Stage, but previews are the most affordable tickets, so think about catching it this weekend. Through March 31. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
The Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) manages the Aronoff Center — that means they run our downtown performing arts center on Walnut Street, but it also means they work to fill the facility with occasional performances to supplement the big shows brought to town by Broadway Across America.
The first of those opens tonight, when CAA presents Late Nite Catechism for a two-week run (Oct. 7-19) at the Jarson-Kaplan Theater. This funny one-woman show about a nun preparing adults for the rigors of the Roman Catholic Church has a built-in local appeal, what with the large number of local residents who went to parochial schools where various teachings and behaviors were drilled into them.
When this played in Cincinnati several years ago for a one-week run, people flocked to see it — laughing from start to finish as audience members were chastised, scolded and gently (or firmly) reminded of tenets of belief and proper behavior. There’s lots of audience participation (including rewards in the form of glow-in-the-dark rosaries and other nifty prizes like trading cards depicting various saints); every performance takes on a life of its own because actress Kimberly Richards as “Sister” plays off those present and responds to moments in the theater that are seldom predictable. Get tickets and more info here.
CAA recently announced an extensive lineup of other performances in the next two weeks:
1. Christian musicians Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman will offer a one-night program on Oct. 10 in the Procter & Gamble Hall.
2. NBC’s Last Comic Standing Live Tour will provide some laughs from the comedians you saw recently on TV on Oct. 16 in the Procter & Gamble Hall.
More good things are also booked for 2009:
• Lily Tomlin will offer a program of her classic routines on Feb. 6, 2009.
• Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway will offer music from a century of Broadway shows, and is likely to include some musical theater performers with Cincinnati connections. This one is planned for Feb. 20, 2009.
• DrumLine Live! happens on March 16, 2009, featuring thunderous entertainment from the African-American marching band tradition.
• The Afro-Cuban All Stars will show up on March 22, 2009. You might know some of these performers from the wonderful film The Buena Vista Social Club.
• Actor Hal Holbrook has been playing 19th-century American writer Mark Twain for more than 50 years. He’ll bring his act to the Aronoff on May 14, 2009. Holbrook has more than 16 hours of material he’s developed, and he tailors each performance to the moment, often offering comment on current events drawn from Twain’s observations. He’s a treasure of the American theater.
For more information about CAA’s offerings: www.cincinnatiarts.org
— Rick Pender
Right now most theaters are readying shows that will be onstage in early September, so there's not a lot to see around town. But if you're looking for some dramatic entertainment on Sunday evening that will keep you outdoors, I suggest you head to the lawn at the Harry Whiting Brown Community Center in Glendale where Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's "Shakespeare in the Park" makes a stop at 7 p.m. –––
They're offering a stripped-down version of the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, using just eight actors (which means several performers play more than one role). You'll see some fine acting and a couple of well-staged fights. It might feel like a "back-to-school" special, what with the poetry and all, but even teens should enjoy the action and big emotions. Best of all, it's free (although your donation to the cause will be appreciated.)
Get details on the CSC web site.
It's taken 17 years for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company to get around to staging King John. With only four more beyond this one to complete the cycle of producing all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, CSC is headed to a position that few theater companies can boast about.
Know Theatre of Cincinnati has called Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine home for several years, but it's been easy to miss them, tucked away behind the Gateway Garage on a short block between Central Parkway and 12th Street. That's being remedied right now with the construction of a marquee that should be highly visible from both north and south of the theater, especially from busy Central Parkway.
Sometimes there are just too many theater events in town to feature every one of them in print. But let me bring to your attention one that's happening for just three days, Oct 23-25.
Showbiz Players, which usually offers larger musical theater productions is undertaking a piece that's more like a musical cabaret, A … My Name Is Alice, a work conceived in 1983 by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. This show combines the talents of numerous composers, lyricists and writers to create a work with 20 songs and sketches performed by five women who represent a broad spectrum of femininity.
If you're looking to get revved up for Halloween, I can think of no better choice than heading to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company this weekend for Giles Davies' first performance of Poe, a compilation of creepy stories from the master of the macabre.
Sondheim created the tale of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with the notion that he wanted it to scare people, and it’s done just that for three decades. It’s a great show in the run-up to Halloween — what with Sweeney’s collaboration with Mrs. Lovett to turn his victims into meat pies — and that’s surely what Footlighters, Inc., had in mind when they scheduled it. (It opens tonight and continues through Oct. 24.)
The Showboat Majestic is a venue that floats along every summer with solid entertainment. Right now you can come on board for a classic piece of comedy by Neil Simon, The Odd Couple. It's a hit from 1965 in a production featuring a couple of great local actors: Joshua Steele as the prissy Felix and Mike Hall as the messy Oscar. They're a pair who know their way around a funny script, so it's a fine show for a summer's laugh. Tickets: 513-241-6550
Maybe you thought Sesame Street was funny when you were a kid. How'd you like to see some raunchy puppet behavior? Avenue Q is onstage in Dayton at the Human Race Theatre. The 2004 Tony Award-winning musical offers laugh-out-loud musical mayhem. But leave the kids at home: This one is aimed at those who are twentysomething and up, offering answers to a simple question: What happens to the kids who were raised on Sesame Street when they grow up? You'll find the answers — in songs like "It Sucks to Be Me" and "The Internet Is for Porn" — at the Loft Theatre, 126 North Main St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets: 937-228-3630
Last Sunday evening I gave a lecture prior to the Cincinnati Playhouse performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I stuck around to see the show again (I attended the opening on March 8 in order to review it for CityBeat). I gave the show a Critic’s Pick, but empty seats on Sunday reminded me that a theater critic’s opinion is not necessarily the only endorsement needed for a show to sell tickets. Although this is a fine production, several reasons come to mind: The show is not well known; if people do know it, they’ve heard it was a flop when it had a brief Broadway run in 1981. John Doyle’s production shows little evidence of the latter and demonstrates amply that there’s much to be appreciated. But there’s not been much buzz around Merrily at the Playhouse, despite the work of Doyle and his excellent cast. The upshot is tickets are still available for most performances, through March 31. Doyle inventively staged Sondheim’s Company in 2006 at the Playhouse, a production that moved to Broadway and earned a Tony Award. This production uses the same approach: actors provide their own musical accompaniment. It’s a showbiz tale about chasing success at the expense of happiness. We start at the demise of a bond between three former friends who wonder what happened to the “good thing going” they once had. We trace back to their earliest, optimistic moments via great music, brilliant design and excellent performances. If you love musicals, you should see Merrily We Roll Along. I’ve talked with several people who have returned the Playhouse production. (Merrily is not likely to transfer to New York as Company did in 2006. The show was presented by Encores! at New York’s City Center in February, so theater critics have not paid attention to the Cincinnati production as they did with Company in 2006, right after Doyle staged Sweeney Todd on Broadway.) Box office: 513-421-3888
You can’t go wrong with Donald Margulies’ very much in-the-moment drama Time Stands Still at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. It’s the story of two journalists who have been addicted to the adrenalin rush of covering wars. He’s now running away and hiding in film reviews (there’s a touch of post-traumatic stress, it seems, because he’s watching classic horror films all the time), and she’s recovering from injuries that resulted from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq. What’s next for them? Well, that’s what the play is about — a return for more or settling for a calmer, safer life, represented by a happy if unlikely couple who visit them, the photographer’s editor and mentor and his naïve young girlfriend. Four intriguing character studies add up to an evening of thoughtful drama. I gave it a Critic’s Pick; here’s a link to my review. Through April 1. Tickets: 513-421-3555
Northern Kentucky University just opened a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. It’s about people sent off to a penal colony in Australia in the 1780s. The governor decides to impose order on the criminals by having them put on a play. It’s not an easy undertaking — but it changes the lives of everyone involved. It’s a play about the power of the arts to humanize people and transform them into something new and better. The show’s original Broadway production in 1991 was nominated for six Tony Awards. It’s one of my favorite scripts, a fine choice for NKU’s drama program, where it’s being staged by Daryl Harris. Through April 1. Tickets: 859-572-5464
Finally, if you’d like to instill some interest in the theater in a couple of kids, take them to one of this weekend’s performances of Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale, presented by The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. It’s a world premiere musical created by composer Janet Vogt and writer Mark Friedman, who wrote How I Became a Pirate, a hit from last season. Performances happen at the nicely renovated Taft Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (as well as March 31). Tickets: 513-569-8080, x13.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.