Marsha Hanna, artistic director of Dayton's Human Race Theatre Company, died on Monday. I was saddened to learn of her passing — especially at age 59 — because she was a passionate advocate for theater, not just in Dayton but throughout the region.
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.
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.
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 late, great Cincinnati artist Charley Harper lives on this month via a new coloring book, the aptly titled Charley Harper Coloring Book of Birds.
Ammo Books — a crafty, discerning California-based publisher that previously put out the authoritative Harper tome, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life — sent me a copy this week, and I can confirm that it's a unique (and challenging, given Harper's sharp-angled style) gift option for the coloring-crazy nephew on your Christmas list.
Audience response can be a good indicator of which holiday shows are hitting the mark. While I found the humor in Know Theatre's Sideways Stories from Wayside School to be a tad forced (you can read my full review here), the theater’s box office phone (513-300-5669) has been ringing steadily, so they've added a performance this weekend on Saturday at 3 p.m., and also on Dec. 27, the final day end of the run.
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?
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.