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.
During several of the years I spent at CityBeat as arts and entertainment editor, I sat just a few feet away from Kathy Y. Wilson. She was an indisputable force of nature: When she arrived in the office, the otherwise quiet room full of writers exploded with her raucous laughter, challenging dialogue and outspoken presence.
I had the singular privilege of editing her "Your Negro Tour Guide" column for quite a bit of that time, giving me a regular dose of her wit and profound insights about an aspect of American life that some readers loved and others hated. No one was take-it-or-leave-it about Kathy and what she had to say in her writing.
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.
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.
Before heading to South Pacific, I took a Friday morning excursion to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (better known today as BAM) and toured some of their historic facilities, including an old theater repurposed by dividing it into four small cinema spaces and a nearby building, dubbed The Harvey (for administrator Harvey Lichtenstein, who ran BAM for more than three decades), which was once a vaudeville theater.
The best theatrical entertainment onstage this weekend is
The Foreigner, presented by the Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern
Kentucky University. I saw it a week ago (review here) and it's a winner — a
very funny play with a marvelously inventive performance by Roderick
Justice in the title role. He plays a painfully shy man who tries to
avoid social contact by posing as someone who doesn't speak English,
even though he's quite literate. The concept doesn't quite work out as
planned when his "cover" means that people have all kinds of revealing
conversations around him. The plot is hilarious, but it's Justice's
performance that makes it run like clockwork. It's part of a dinner
theater package — dinner at 6:30 most nights, show at 8:00 p.m. Tickets:
There's not a lot of theater right now, but if you're looking for great onstage entertainment right now, the World Choir Games have plenty to offer. I've been blogging about it for the past week, and you can read more here. Events and performances through Saturday evening. www.2012worldchoirgames.com.
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.
I'm quick to admit that suspense mysteries are not my favorite form of onstage entertainment: They always feel a bit contrived to me. But I know I'm in the minority, and if anyone is going to do a good job with one of them, it's certainly the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and its associate artistic director, Michael Evan Haney.
The current production of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth is fun to watch as two men find themselves on a seesaw of accusation, humiliation and vengeance. There are special effects and some surprising twists and turns that actors Munson Hicks and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend make both lively and chilling. And then there's a set by CEA Hall of Fame designer Paul Shortt — full of tricks and surprises, too.
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.