The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, model trains, zoo lights, skating on Fountain Square - do you ever wonder if Cincinnati is capable of creativity around the holidays? Beyond the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati - an institution that actually takes some risks - the others stick with the same old script with the only news being who will play Scrooge for the next 25 years..
If you could pick the Holiday line up for 2009, what would it look like?
I was at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music last evening to see this weekend’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I love this densely intellectual script that’s awash in math and physics theory as well as conflicting perspectives deriving from the Romantic movement and the Age of Enlightenment. The play alternates between 1809 and 1993, with characters in the more recent era speculating about actions and motives of people, including the poet Lord Byron, from nearly two centuries earlier. It’s a fascinating conceit, but it’s also three hours of dialogue that require close attention — and a lot of the CCM audience took off at intermission. The challenge is exacerbated by a lot of fast-talking using British accents and amplification (the actors wear body mics) that sounds blurry. That’s too bad, because the production looks great, is nicely costumed and has some fine performances, and Stoppard’s script is one of the great plays of the past 30 years. But unless you’ve seen it or read it, you might find this production a challenge. Box office: 513-556-4183
Pump Boys & Dinettes at the Covington’s Carnegie Center is something like an off-Broadway classic (it had a brief Broadway run) from the early 1980s. Set in a filling station that’s also a diner — where you can “Eat and Get Gas” — it’s a jaunty framework for downhome Country tunes and cornpone humor. It opens a three-weekend run a week ago, and I found it to be a delightfully entertaining production. Read my review here. Box office: 859-957-1940
More musical froth is available this weekend, including My Favorite Year, through Sunday at Northern Kentucky University (859-572-5464), and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat through May 13 at the Covedale Center (513-241-6550). The former is a story about backstage shenanigans in the early days of television; the latter is an early show by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on a familiar biblical story. Neither is profound, but both should fun to watch.
For a musical with some sharper edge, you might check out Know Theatre’s production of the recent off-Broadway and Broadway Rock musical hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show is a youthful mix of political commentary, driving Rock performances, history, humor and sober observations on the will of the people — just what we’ve come expect from Know Theatre. (The “orchestra” for the production is the local band The Dukes Are Dead.) The show has a cast of strong musical theater performers, and they make this sassy political satire a Critic’s Pick. This is Bloody Bloody’s first professional regional production, and it will surely be the big hit of Know’s season. (Through May 12.) Box office: 513-300-5669.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of The Grapes of Wrath (running through April 29) is a powerful theatrical interpretation of John Steinbeck’s grim tale about a Depression-era family of Oklahoma sharecroppers driven to homelessness by ecological and economic disasters. It’s a portrait of the desperate life wrought by the Depression in the 1930s and a powerful reminder that life hasn’t improved for many Americans 80 years later. CSC’s production is made all the more relevant by folksy musical interludes performed live by some of the actors. A downer of a story, but definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-381-2273, x1.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
You might think that Dead City is a play about Cincinnati, especially after our second snowstorm in a week. But it's actually the next production coming to New Stage Collective, one of the "Gems of the Neighborhood," those hardy theaters that are, in fact, bringing new life to Over-the-Rhine, as described in CityBeat's cover story this week.
Dead City was supposed to open on Thursday this week, but with all the bad weather in the past seven days rehearsal time has been held to a minimum. So NSC's Alan Patrick Kenny has decided to push his opening night to Friday.
Cincinnati Art Museum did well at this week's announcement of MacArthur Foundation $500,000 "genius grants" — one of the most prestigious in the world. Among the 24 recipients were artist Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford (pictured), who creates large-scale map-like collages out of everyday material and whose show Maps & Manifests was featured at Cincinnati Art Museum in 2008.
It was quite the spectacle and in a good way. As I, along with other members of MUSE, approached Great American Ballpark around 4 p.m., there were already hundreds of World Choir Games participants thronging the entrance, and despite the stifling temperature, the excitement was palpable. All the hype about this being an international event was no hype at all. For the first time I can remember, Cincinnati looked like an international city.
Choirs from West Chester, Loveland and Pleasant Ridge chatted with groups from Japan, Colombia, Canada and Australia. Cheers erupted from all parts of the plaza, spontaneous singing and dancing were everywhere. The plaza was a riot of color: the Colombians in vivid red, orange, and yellow; Japanese women in blue and pink kimonos; the Nigerian choir in bright green dashikis and caps; and the Costa Rican women's choir in flowing white dresses embroidered in bright red.
With no signage but a multitude of helpful volunteers, 5,000 of us were mustered into holding areas before marching over to U.S. Bank Arena. Bottled water and mist sprayers relieved the heat, and when the water ran out, there plenty of ice cubes — putting them down my back never felt better.
We found ourselves in a shaded area along with a youth choir from Erie, Pa. Suddenly they started chanting, "Sing! Sing! Sing!" As we launched in the South African Xhosa song "Bambelela," their eyes lit up in recognition and suddenly we were one big chorus. They answered us with "The Storm is Passing Over," and this time, our eyes lit up. Same arrangement we do. They sang a beautiful arrangement of "As I Went Down to the River to Pray." When we sang Bernice Johnson Reagon's "I'm Gon' Stand," with Lois Shegog belting out the solo, they were riveted.
Once inside the arena, more cheering as groups saw themselves on the JumboTrons. The soundtrack took in The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Gloria Estafan, The Monkees, and I think Neil Diamond was in there somewhere. The Aussies sitting below us started a beach ball toss that would have gone on longer if an arena-wide wave hadn't taken over. I didn't see many empty seats.
WCPO's Clyde Gray and Carol Williams were affable emcees and the opening remarks by Mayor Mallory and Interkultur head Gunther Titsch were mercifully brief (Titsch spoke in heavily accented English and then reverted to his native German. That was fine — I'd rather look at his translator any day. Williams read greetings from President Obama — the letter was projected on the video screens to the accompaniment of hundreds of camera flashes. Rob Portman didn't applaud. But he recovered to declare the games open.
Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell paid tribute to the late Erich Kunzel, who was the driving force behind bringing the WCG to Cincinnati. And it was his vision to include the traditional July 4th concert as part of the opening ceremony. I think he would have been delighted and not at all surprised at the power of singing to bring people together. Choruses rose with pride as their nation's flag was announced, but they also cheered on their peers. I'll never forget the group from Namibia turning to cheer South Africa.
As we left, I couldn't help singing India Arie's "There's Hope." MUSE sang that, too.
The beginning of this week was a slower pace for the World
Choir Games in Cincinnati. At the halfway point, choirs visiting for
the first week departed and new ones arrived, so there was very little
activity on Monday. A festive, rambunctious parade from the Convention
Center to Fountain Square too place 6 p.m. Tuesday, with dozens of
choirs, many in traditional dress from their home countries and others
in matching T-shirts that designated their team, nation and so on. Each
choir was preceded by a WCG volunteer bearing their national flag, and
the crowd — lined up five-to-six people deep along both sides of Fifth
Street — cheered for each choir as strolled by. There were as many
cameras in the parade as well among those watching: Everyone wanted to
capture the fun to share later.
On Wednesday evening at the Aronoff Center, I went to the "Music of the World" Celebration Concert. Since two of the four performing groups were from the U.S., I guess this title referred more to the music than their origins, but each had something to offer. The opening set was by the Collegiate Honor Choir from regional universities near or in Cincinnati: CCM at UC, Xavier, Capital University (Columbus), Wright State (Dayton), Miami and NKU. They sang as a large ensemble at first, conducted by Earl Rivers from CCM (also one of the WCG's artistic directors) and then several groups were broken out for specific numbers, led by their own director. The most interesting number was "The Storm is Passing Over" by the singers from NKU: Amid some angsty singing, several performers spoke out lines of dismay about contemporary life or laughed maniacally. After several minutes of that, once a few singers collapsed from exhaustion, a spiritually inspired passage resolved the piece on an air of hope for the future. This segment also included a brief film tribute to esteemed American composer Morten Lauridsen (the full film is on view at various times at the Downtown Public Library during the WCG) and then a performance of two of his pieces, "Dirait-on" and "Sure on this Shining Morning," with Lauridsen accompanying the singers on the piano.
Up next was the University of Newcastle (Australia) Chamber Choir with 40 singers, male and female. I especially enjoyed their second number, "Birds," based on three traditional Australian Bush songs. It was full of whistles and shrieks, as well as choreographed hand motions that simulated the movements of various kinds of birds. It was an unusually delightful piece. More delight came from the Gema Sangkakala Choir from Manado, Indonesia. Another mixed group of approximately 40, its men were attired in black jackets with symmetrical yellow patterns (eight leaves about the size of a human hand is my best guess since my seat was far back from the stage) and the women wearing beautiful sparkling traditional dresses accented with scarves of primary colors tied around their waists. The group sang four numbers with lots of dance motion; in fact, each number concluded with a held pose — arms upraised, for instance — that became the initial pose of the following song. Their very coherent program was full of humor: One song appeared to be a flirtatious exchange between the men and the women, while another was a tongue-twisting piece full of what were probably nonsense works (my notes say "packa-packa-dum-dee-dum," a phrase and others like it were repeated at high speed). Neither the program, the emcees nor the directors offer any insights about the songs, so audiences are left to figure them out — I wish I'd known more about the substance of this Indonesian group's performance, but it was delightful from start to finish.
The final group was the Indianapolis Children's Choir, about 100 young adolescent girls and boys. They were wonderfully trained, and their program was a perfect selection of material for young performers, not too challenging but very appropriate for youngsters full of energy and expression. "Tell My Ma" (accompanied by an adult playing the spoons!) was a clever song about competition between groups of boys and girls; "Happy Together" (a Pop tune from the 1960s by the Turtles) was a great number for the kids to cut loose with their own swaying body and hand motions, not synchronized but each doing something that expressed their joy at young love. That approach typified this group's performance — carefully chosen numbers that fit the youthful nature of the performers. Everyone left the Aronoff smiling!
I have a "day pass" for Thursday, so I'll be wandering in and out of activities all over downtown. I'll report on that on Friday morning. There's only a few days left — WCG ends on Saturday evening. If you haven't attended anything yet, there's still time.
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.
If the last gasps of winter still have you shivering, you can warm up this weekend with some frothy musical theater at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, where Two Gentlemen of Verona is dancing its heart out. With a silly story (thanks to Shakespeare) and an eclectic score (from the guy who wrote the music for Hair), this 1971 show doesn't get staged very often. But you'll wonder why if you find yourself in Patricia Corbett Theater: Thanks to CCM 1995 grad Andrew Palermo, who's returned to direct and choreograph the show, the cast never stops dancing.
Don't fret about the story — changing affections, disguises, villains and heroes — just watch as the tale takes you from the university town of Verona to the urban Milano. The costumes (preppy white shirts and ties in the former, metropolitan chic black and Hip Hop in the latter) will tell you where you are. And the performers are all shining stars from CCM's musical theater program, several of them ready to move along to Broadway. This is the CCM musical people will continue to talk when the current season is over. Two Gentlemen runs longer than usual for a CCM show — two weekends (final performance is March 8) — but don't dally to get your tickets: By next weekend they'll all be claimed. Box office: 513-556-4183.
In what sounds like an innovative way to bring its art to the people, a mobile printmaking studio known as Drive By Press will be parked at the plaza outside the student union at Northern Kentucky University on Thursday to show the contemporary graphic art its creators have collected driving across the country.
Actually, the exhibition will be in the Fine Arts Building for that day; Drive By's Gregory Nanney and Joseph Velasquez will be making and selling (for about $20) fine-art T-shirts derived from their woodcuts. They'll also be doing a lecture in the Fine Arts Building at noon. Nanney and Velasquez, in their travels, have collected 1,200 contemporary prints from around the country. Their journey is self-funded through T-shirt sales and honoraria from universities and museums.
You can learn more about them at www.Drivebypress.org.
As I wrote in my column in the current issue of CityBeat, there's a lot of good holiday theater available on Cincinnati stages right now. The Playhouse's production of A Christmas Carol, now in its 22nd year, is best in class — a well-told traditional tale with some of the best professional actors in town onstage, from Bruce Cromer as Scrooge and Dale Hodges as the Ghost of Christmas past. There are a few new faces, too, playing the Cratchits. And speaking of new faces, I feel comfortable recommending New Edgecliff Theatre's one-woman show, The 12 Dates of Christmas, which is being engagingly performed by Annie Kalahurka. It's paired with David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries, which feels a little shopworn to me, but you can catch the double-bill downtown at the Arnonff's Fifth Third Bank Theater — and maybe go for drinks at Arnold's before or after the show.
If you're looking for something kind of different, try The Naughty List (review here), a holiday-themed improv show (presented in Arnold's courtyard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings) by Know Theatre. Five quick-witted comics who constitute OTR Improv are doing routines that use audience suggestions (and occasional audience participants) for nearly two hours of entertainment. It's a different show every night.
Have kids you want to take to the theater and give them a taste of what fun it can be? Two good bets are Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati for one of its musical fairytales with a moral (this year the show is a colorful, cartoonish rendition of Alice in Wonderland) and Covedale Center, where Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is singing and dancing its way through another familiar story the kids will know. The prince is handsome, Cinderella is sweet and the nasty Stepmother is played by a guy.
As far as familiar stories go, you've probably seen Frank Capra's classic holiday film It's a Wonderful Life a few times during the holidays. But I bet you haven't experienced in the unique way that Falcon Theater offers it up at Newport's Monmouth Theatre: The script frames the story as an old-time radio drama, and you get to watch behind-the-scenes as a handful of actors play all the roles and a few others create the necessary sound effects. It opens this weekend and runs for a week. I haven't seen this year's edition, but I've enjoyed past incarnations, and I suspect this one will be entertaining as well.