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.
Let's give credit where credit is due. The League of Cincinnati Theatres award process moved quickly (if incompletely) on recognizing the Cincinnati Playhouse production of Always … Patsy Cline, which opened just a week ago today. The judging panel singled out costume designer Gordon DeVinney for his work. A panel member commented, “If you look at images of Pasty online, these ‘looks’ are incredibly authentic and evoke her persona in a startling and effective combination of era and personality.” DeVinney is the Playhouse’s costume shop manager; he has designed more than 30 productions for the Playhouse.
If you're waffling between whether to go to the theater or
do something else this weekend, let me help you decide: You should get a
ticket to see When the Rain Stops Falling at Know Theatre. It's running through March 16, but it's going to be an in-demand ticket soon: I gave it a Critic's Pick in CityBeat (review here),
the League of Cincinnati Theatres bestowed eight nominations on it (I
believe that's the most they've given to any production this season),
and everyone I've talked to has been breathless in their praise of the
script, the cast, the design — well, the entire production.
Bovell's play bounces around in time between 1959 and 2039 and between
the histories of four generations of two families. That might sound a
bit complicated or confusing, but it's not: There are parallels and
intersections that slowly make sense, and the play uses language and
imagery to bring the stories together into a coherent narrative by
Two characters are played by two different actresses, representing younger and older incarnations of these unusual women: One is an intellectual in her early years, but becomes emotionally distant due to a personal trauma; the other is a free-spirited young woman whose life turns dramatically and becomes an older woman with fragmented memories and a tenuous grip on the present. The stories are about fathers and sons, parents and children, and how actions by one generation reverberate down the line. Bovell's script reinforces these echoes with lines and artifacts that recur in different contexts. It's a brilliant piece of writing, and director Brian Phillips (he's artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare) uses movement and scene intersections to tell the story with nine actors (four from his Cincy Shakes company). The LCT recognition singled out three performers, but I'd suggest that the show is powerful because the entire ensemble is operating in a powerful, parallel manner. You don't want to miss this one. Box office: 513-300-5669
On Thursday evening I attended Leveling Up at the Cincinnati Playhouse, a world premiere by Deborah Zoe Laufer. It's an insightful slice of contemporary life, three
young men and a girlfriend who are obsessed with video gaming, stalled
in their post-college lives. They spend 20 hours a day online, and their
social skills (if they had them previously) have deteriorated amid the
rubble of a basement game room in Las Vegas.
Laufer's script will leave you feeling like you've eavesdropped on real life (in fact, they're already playing when you enter the Shelterhouse Theatre — although the "screen" they watch is the theater's invisible fourth wall: They are staring forward at the central audience section and their attention never wavers, even when they're having distracted conversations about life. The divide between their world and being "IRL" ("in real life" as they shorthand it) increasingly and distressingly — and sometimes comically — blurs. Laufer's metaphor about "leveling up" in games and its parallel to stepping up to levels of maturity gives the show meaning and depth. The young cast are entertaining and convincing. I know this show will appeal to young audiences, but I heard many in the audience after the 90-minute performance who were impressed with the story and what it tells us about society today. It's worth noting that this weekend the Cincinnati Playhouse has two world premieres on its stages, which Abigail/1702 (review here) on its mainstage. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Opening tonight is a production of Dangerous Liaisons at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It's Christopher Hampton's stage play that inspired the 1988 film many will recall featuring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as manipulative French nobility who play games with young innocents (including Michelle Pfeiffer). For CSC, the cast includes two popular performers from the past: Giles Davies as the Vicomte de Valmont and Corinne Mohlenhoff as the Marquise de Merteuil, the scheming pair who put devious plots in motion. This promises to be a delicious drama. Box office: 513-381-2273 x1.
Eric Vosmeier says he’s stoked by a show he’s just added to Know Theatre’s production schedule for the summer. He’s set to direct a modern take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth called Toil and Trouble. Lauren Gunderson’s play had its world premiere at Impact Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., last November; Know is giving the show its second production, opening July 26 and running through August 24.
Landing it, Vosmeier says, is “another victory for our new schedule model by securing the rights for the first production of this show following its world premiere. We’ve been looking for a strong comedy for quite some time, and I think this fits the bill perfectly. This contemporary retelling of Macbeth is spot on, but with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Toil and Trouble is the story of two ambitious guys and a badass lady who decide to fight the recession with dictatorial dreams. Instead of going to grad school like everyone else they know, Adam, Matt and Beth are Bay Area thirtysomethings with too much education and not enough employment. They’re overqualified to work at Borders, and Adam is brimming with ideas — but most of them involve robots.
Thanks to three fortune cookies with some creepy fortunes (remember, Toil and Trouble this is based on Macbeth, which commences with three witches predicting Macbeth’s rise to power), the trio settles for taking over a small island nation off the coast of Chile. The show throws baseball, investors, Wikipedia, hypothetical sex and real violence into one bubbling cauldron. The overlay of Macbeth brings hipster malaise and ridiculous modernity into the mix, demonstrating that hubris, greed, power and passion never go out of style.
Vosmeier has cast Breona Conrad as Beth, Joshua Murphy as Matt and Chris Wesselman as Adam. Conrad and Murphy have been touring for several seasons in Know’s production of the Fringe hit Calculus: The Musical. Vosmeier says, “I’m thrilled to have one more chance to work with Josh and Breona before they leave Cincinnati.”
You can purchase tickets in advance for $15; they’ll be $20 the week of performance, beginning Mondays at noon. (Your best deal is to purchase one of Know’s flex-passes, six tickets for $90. You can use some for Toil and Trouble, and save the rest for future shows.) Info: 513-300-5669.
When you see a show like Emma, the Jane Austen musical recently presented at the Cincinnati Playhouse (pictured), do you ever wonder where it came from? If you paid attention to some of the Playhouse’s publicity, you might know it premiered at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., where it was a big box-office hit. In fact, the theater’s artistic director Robert Kelley, who staged the original, and several cast members from the original production came together again in Cincinnati for the Playhouse production.
Halloween seems on its way to being celebrated as a classic holiday, so perhaps it's appropriate that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has not one but two productions that specifically the give-me-goosebumps crowd.
On Thursday evening I was that the Cincinnati Playhouse for the opening of Speaking in Tongues. If you like heady, noir-ish drama with flashes of sardonic humor, this is the show for you. Andrew Bovell’s 1996 script uses four actors to play nine characters whose lives intersect and diverge and reconnect in ways that you have to pay attention to if you want to get the story. This is not a sit-back-and-relax kind of play, but rather one you’ll be trying to follow the narratives, which are neither linear nor chronological. But they are certainly fascinating. The cast includes two of Cincinnati’s best local professional actors, Bruce Cromer and Amy Warner, and two others who have delivered memorable Playhouse performances, R. Ward Duffy and Henny Russell (who happen to be husband and wife). In fact, Warner is married to director Michael Evan Haney, so this show about deceitful relationships and the importance of trust and faith must have made for an intriguing rehearsal process. Be prepared to think hard if you go to see this one on the Shelterhouse stage. 513-421-3888.
Check out CityBeat's extensive coverage of the 2009 Cincy Fringe Festival. As of noon Saturday we've posted reviews of 21 productions, with more coming every day until all 31 shows have been reviewed.
My schedule hasn't afforded me the time to see the production of Don't Cross the Streams: The Cease and Desist Musical, a show that began its life in the Cincinnati Fringe Festival back in June. (It also was a festival highlight at the IndyFringe in Indianapolis in August.) But the very tongue-in-cheek piece inspired by the film Ghostbusters (but not allowed to say that) has now been expanded into a full-fledged
musical that's onstage at Newport's Monmouth Theatre, presented by
Falcon Theatre and Hugo West Theatricals. The League of Cincinnati
Theatres has termed the show a "recommended production," so it's evident
that their judging panel enjoyed it. One panelist called
it "a lively, enthusiastic spoof," and another said that the show is
"an evening of theater that doesn't take itself too seriously. The show just had a two-weekend run, so it's final performance is Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: 513-479-6783.
Ensemble Theatre's production of Black Pearl Sings! features one of the finest performances by a local actor that I've seen this season. Torie Wiggins plays a woman in the 1930s who translates her memory of songs from her African ancestors into a ticket out of prison and to some notoriety in New York City. Wiggins nuanced performance is complemented by veteran Annie Fitzpatrick as the folk music researcher who sees Pearl as her own ticket to success. Their tentative relationship becomes a delicately balanced friendship, while both explore issues of racism, sexism and getting ahead. Definitely worth seeing. Through March 31. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Lizan Mitchell is at the other end of the career spectrum from Wiggins, but she too plays Carrie Watts, a sprightly, elderly African-Amerian woman whose powerful sense of home takes her on an impromptu journey back to her roots in A Trip to Bountiful at the Cincinnati Playhouse.
It's laced with sadness, since what she remembers no longer exists, but
her memories and her joyful take on life make it all worthwhile, not
only for her but for others in her life, including her browbeaten son and his selfish wife as well as a sweet young woman who is Carrie's companion on a long bus ride. Through April 7. Box office: 513-421-3888.
This weekend Cincinnati Shakespeare is opening a production of the much-loved Shakespearean romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's been transported to 1940s America and set in a Jazz-inspired magical forest, with original musica composed by resident sound designer Doug Borntrager; there's also original choreography by Brittany Kugler. The production is staged by Jeremy Dubin, and features veteran actor Nick Rose in the role of Nick Bottom the Weaver, the guy who makes an ass of himself — literally. It's a tangled, funny story that all works out perfectly in the end. A great show to kick off springtime. Through April 21. Box office: 513-381-2273 x1.