Theater slows down this time of year as most local companies are readying to launch their 2015-2016 seasons in September. You’ll find two newish productions on local stages — Company at The Carnegie in Covington and 9 to 5 at the Incline in East Price Hill. Stephen Sondheim’s Company is a solid production with a nice turn by Zachary Huffman in the central role of Robert. There are lots of well-performed tunes by a young cast and some able musicians. Here’s my review. I’m not so enthusiastic about the third show of the Incline’s inaugural season: 9 to 5 is a weak offering after the successes of The Producers and 1776. That’s largely due to a script that’s pretty stale and silly, as I mentioned in my review. It’s based on a 1980 movie about a chauvinistic boss and three women who give him his comeuppance. Dolly Parton played a feisty secretary in the movie and had a hit with its title song. When the movie became a 2009 stage musical, she wrote the songs. They don’t add much. Cincinnati Landmark must have pulled out all the stops for the first two shows this summer; this one looks like they cut some corners. These two productions continue through Aug. 30.
This is the final weekend for Hundred Days at Know Theatre. This Rock opera has been an unqualified hit for the 18-year-old Over-the-Rhine venue. I gave it a Critic’s Pick and I’ve talked with several friends who have gone back to see it a second time. Abigail and Shaun Bengson sing their way through a tragic love affair — a marriage cut short by a terminal disease — that ends up feeling pretty joyous since they choose to celebrate their “100 days” as if it was the 60-year marriage they had hoped for. Great concept, great execution. Get a ticket if you can: 513-300-5669
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Know Theatre’s Hundred Days is not running for 100 days. In fact, it has only seven more performances, so I urge you to get your tickets now if you haven’t seen it yet. (I say this in part because I’ve now heard from three acquaintances that they liked the show so much they’ve purchased tickets to go back to watch a devoted couple deal with a marriage that’s foreshortened by illness. So I’m sure some performances are getting very full.) David Lyman gave it a good review in the Enquirer, and I attached a Critic’s Pick to my CityBeat commentary, so we agree — and I suspect you might, too. Abigail and Shawn Bengson, the performers and creators of Hundred Days, are full of energy and passion, and their backup musicians are infected with the same spirit. Next Wednesday (July 19) is a free admission performance, which is likely to be very full. Tickets ($25 in advance): 513-300-5669
This is the final weekend for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s very funny show, The Complete History of America (Abridged), featuring three very funny performers — Amanda McGee, Justin McCombs and Geoffrey Barnes. I don’t think you’ll leave the theater knowing more about American history, but you’ll understand our willingness to poke fun at ourselves and others. It has some moments that fall flat, but that’s to be expected in two hours of non-stop efforts at hilarity. When they hit it, the show is a laugh-out-loud riot. Final performance is Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets: 513-381-2273
Cincy Shakes’ FREE Shakespeare in the Park continues this weekend with performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Dunham Arts Center in West Price Hill (this one is actually an indoor performance) on Saturday at 2 p.m. and at Covington’s Linden Grove Cemetery on Sunday at 7 p.m. (Not that you want or need to drive to Portsmouth, Ohio, to see a performance, but the troupe is there tonight — showing just how far they’re willing to go to advance the cause of Shakespeare.)
I wish I could tell you that 9 to 5, the third musical in the inaugural season at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, is as entertaining or well done as its predecessors, The Producers and 1776. But it isn’t. Nevertheless, based on the strength of the season so far and the novelty of going to a brand-new theater most of the tickets for this lightweight musical have already been snatched up. It’s based on a movie from the 1980s that featured Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Parton’s countrified tunes, written for the musical not the movie (which did feature her hit song of the same title), are mildly entertaining, but the story is full of clichéd stereotypes about “working girls” who struggle to work with a chauvinistic boss. The real Parton makes a video appearance, but it’s not quite enough. Through Aug. 30. Tickets: 513-241-6550
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Hundred Days, a Folk Rock Opera onstage at Know Theatre, continues to be the go-to show of the summer. The story of a marriage that gets short-circuited by a fatal illness turns into a joyous 75-minute concert music written and performed by the dynamic duo of Abigail and Shaun Bengson, with five musicians and singers behind them. Rather than wallow in grief about having only 100 days, they celebrate their love by condensing what they imagine 60 years of life might have held. It’s a lovely story, told in an imaginative, contemporary way. Read my CityBeat review, which gave it a “Critic’s Pick.” Tickets: 513-300-5669
Cincinnati Shakespeare has three excellent comic actors onstage at the moment who know how to wring every possible laugh out of a satiric script. Geoffrey Barnes, Justin McCombs and Amanda McGee are performing The Complete History of America (Abridged), another script by the zany trio who wrote The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). I think this one tries a little too hard to be hilarious, so a few moments feel kind of lame, but these three players manage to pick things up, make a little fun of themselves and move right on with more gags, jokes, pratfalls, spit takes and costume changes. It’s an evening of hilarity. Here’s my CityBeat review. Through Aug. 15. Tickets: 513-381-2273
Cincy Shakes’ FREE Shakespeare in the Park tour continues this weekend with a 7 p.m. performances of Romeo and Juliet at Cottell Park in Deerfield (Friday) and the Community Park Pavilion in Milford (Sunday) as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream — at the Community Pavilion in Glenwood Gardens, a Hamilton County Park.
Finally, if you’re willing to drive to Dayton for the Human Race Theatre Company’s first-ever Festival of New Works. The weekend offers a collection of readings of five scripts — three plays and two musicals — by local, national and international writers. The lineup includes full readings of Have You Ever Played, Dayton?, a play by Robb Willoughby, and Mann … and Wife, a musical by Douglas J. Cohen and Dan Elish based on the latter’s novel Nine Wives. There will also be three 30-minute “snapshot” readings: Karen Righter’s play, The Day After Epiphany; Central Park Tango, a musical by Nicky Phillips and Robert Gontier; and Scott Stoney’s adaptation of Some Self-Evident Truths, a play based on the journals of Lucille Wheat and Lois Davies. Open talkbacks with the creative teams follow the readings. The “snapshots” (Saturday at 8 p.m.) are presented and ticketed as a group. Readings will be held in the 60-seat Caryl D. Philips Creativity Center of The Human Race and The 212-seat Loft Theatre in downtown Dayton. Info: 937-228-3630 or humanracetheatre.org
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
On Wednesday evening I took a bunch of kids (four elementary-school-age nieces and a nephew in town for a visit) to see a bunch of kids (high schoolers, average age 16) in Hairspray, this summers’ Cincinnati Young People’s Theatre production at the Covedale Center. The verdict: “We loved it.” One of them said, “They did more singing than talking.” (A good thing, in her opinion.) And one even got the message of black and white teens breaking color barriers and just being teens. So the story from 1962 still makes some sense. The CYPT performers come from 33 schools across Greater Cincinnati. It’s a big undertaking to get that so many performers (I counted 70 in the program) working together, plus several more backstage. Tim Perrino has been doing this for 34 years, so he knows how to get the best out of teen performers, and there are some standouts in this cast — especially Julie Deye and Gabe Schenker as the ebullient but fair-minded plus-sized teen and her lumpy mom. The kids are all right! Performances continue through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: 513-241-6550
The most dazzling show onstage right now is Hundred Days, a Folk Rock Opera, at Know Theatre. It’s 75 minutes of great music written and performed by the dynamic duo of Abigail and Shaun Bengson, backed by five talented musicians and singers. But it’s also a fine piece of theater — a love affair cut short by a fatal illness that’s met head-on with clarity and joy to celebrate what might have been 60 wonderful years in just “100 days.” Great concept, great execution. I gave it a Critic’s Pick in my CityBeat review.
You’ll get a lot of laughs out of Cincinnati Shakespeare’s performance of The Complete History of America (Abridged), largely thanks to the comic talents of actors Justin McCombs, Miranda McGee and Geoffrey Barnes. Even if the script — by the comic trio who originated The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) — strains a little too hard to be hilarious, playing fast and loose with America’s past, these three know how to turn every scene into a good laugh. Things occasionally fall flat and a few elements are borderline tasteless, but before you know it they’re off and running again with another gag, joke, pratfall, misunderstanding or just tossing a bucket of water. All in good fun; it’s not very profound nor is it intended to be. Here’s my CityBeat review. Through Aug. 15. Tickets: 513-381-2273
If you like your Shakespeare a bit more traditional — but perhaps just a little funny — some of Cincy Shakes' troupe begins their FREE Shakespeare in the Park tour this weekend. Throughout August they’ll be offering performances in parks across Greater Cincinnati and beyond using a handful of young actors handling multiple roles in two-hour reductions of plays by Shakespeare. This weekend you have three chances to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream — at Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion on Friday at 7 p.m., at the Harry Whiting Brown Lawn in Glendale on Saturday at 7 p.m. and in Washington Park on Sunday at 6 p.m.
If you haven’t tuned in yet for the third iteration of Serials! at Know Theatre, you might want to show up on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. Each of five plays will have the third of five 15-minute installments; the trick this time out is that the playwrights trade places with each biweekly event, so stories definitely veer off in unexpected and unplanned directions. Don’t worry about catching up — there’s a quick preview as each piece starts. But even more, these are just zany stories, made all the zanier by the format. You’ll have fun watching even if you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Tickets: 513-300-5669
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Did you attend the Cincy Fringe back in 2011? If so, maybe you saw Abigail and Shaun Bengson perform a musical work in progress then called “Songs from the Proof.” They came back in 2012 to present a one-night concert of some of the songs. The work evolved into a show called Hundred Days, which had a staging in San Francisco in early 2014. It’s continued to evolve — and its next incarnation will be onstage at Know Theatre for the next month, opening on Friday and running through Aug. 22. It’s about a young couple who fall in love, only to have their time together cut short by a fatal illness. They decide to live the 100 days they have left as though it were 60 years they had hoped for. Lots of music and creativity have gone into this one, and it promises to be a powerful performance with some great tunes. (Read more in my Curtain Call column in this week’s edition of CityBeat.) Tickets: $25 in advance; rush tickets at the door ($10, if available). Free performances on Wednesdays, but reservations required: 513-300-5669.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s 2015-2016 season is beginning as it has for several years with a light-hearted abridgement — but this time it’s The Complete History of America (abridged), opening Friday night and continuing through Aug. 15. The show is the creation of the same nuts responsible for the hilarious Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). It’s the same format: Veteran comic actors Miranda McGee and Justin McCombs, along with newcomer Geoffrey Barnes, will take audiences on a whirlwind tour that sends up America’s greatest hits … and misses. It’s the kind of delirious summer entertainment we’ve come to expect the from our often-more-serious classical theater folks. Tickets ($22-$35): 513-381-2273Last weekend I went to Stanberry Park in Mt. Washington to see The Complete Tom: 3. Abroad, presented by Queen City Flash, Cincinnati’s flash-mob theater company. It’s the third installment of its four-part play cycle of Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave. It was charmingly performed by Dave Powell, Rico Reid and Trey Tatum — plus some amusing puppets (aka wooden spoons) and a few sheets for ghost stories. This charming episode features the threesome on a trans-Atlantic voyage in a Jules Verne-like airship, meeting a number of interesting characters along the way — played in quick-change manner by the three actors. Free performances begin at 8 p.m. but don’t go to Stanberry Park — they’ll be elsewhere this weekend. In fact, the outdoor locations remain secret until 4 p.m. the day of performance when an email is sent to ticket holders with a map and parking instructions. The show is a lot of fun and great entertainment for kids, and part of the adventure is figuring out where you’re headed. Take a chance! Tickets — no charge — can be reserved at QueenCityFlash.com
Every year, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati brings together a
group of young professionals who spend a season at the Over-the-Rhine
theater understudying roles, working backstage, helping build sets and
run lights and sound — learning the ins and outs of professional
theater. Many of them stick around town continuing their lives in the
theater. Several of them will come together at
Washington Park on Sunday evening at 6 p.m. for a free performance of Still Life with Iris,
a play by Steven Dietz. The 1996 script is an adventure about a little
girl’s search for the simplest of things: home. She lives with her mom
on a magical island where by night workers make things seen in the world
by day. The rulers are determined to have the best of everything on
their island, so they kidnap Iris and bring her to be their daughter,
leaving her with no memory of her home or family. She joins with friends
she meets on her journey as she embarks on a quest to return home. The
family-friendly play, written in 1998, was the first to receive the
Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays Award. The cast is
comprised entirely of former ETC interns, including: Jared D. Doren
(1996), Sara Mackie and Burgess Byrd (2000), Daniel Winters (2005), Lisa
DeRoberts (2011), Ben Raanan and Jared Earland (2014), and Molly Israel
and Patrick Phillips (2015).
The summer theater company, Stone on a Rock, is back for the second production of its second season with a new version of Aristophanes’ ancient comedy Lysistrata. The company focuses on productions that are “short, sweet and cheap.” This one is a time-tested farce about the women of Greece giving their husbands an ultimatum: Stop waging war or no more sex. Maybe they can next bring their strategy to bear on Greece’s current financial crisis? Performances are at Simple Space, 16 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine. Tickets ($10) can be purchased at the door.
Another summer company is presenting the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime at Highlands High School’s Performing Arts Center (2400 Memorial Parkway in Ft. Thomas). The Commonwealth Artists Summer Theatre (C.A.S.T.) is led by theatre instructor Jason Burgess; his cast includes students from Anderson, Walnut Hills, Newport Central Catholic, Cincinnati Country Day, Seven Hills, Highlands, Scott High Schools and more. Ragtime is a remarkable show with great music (composed by Stephen Flaherty, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music). Set at the dawn of the 20th century, it’s a time of change and possibility in the volatile melting pot New York City. The show tells three interwoven stories — a stifled upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant and a daring young Harlem musician — united by courage, compassion and belief in the promise of the future. It’s being presented for two weekends, opening tonight and continuing through a matinee on July 26. Tickets ($10) can be reserved at http://www.showtix4u.com. (Remaining unreserved seats may be purchased at the door one hour prior to each performance.)
Queen City Flash, Cincinnati’s flash-mob theater company, is up to the third installment of its four-part play cycle of Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer. This part, The Complete Tom: 3. Abroad, is performed by three actors and an array of puppets. For this episode, the characters of Tom, Huck Finn and Jim the runaway slave are on a trans-Atlantic voyage in a Jules Verne-like airship. Free performances begin at 8 p.m. but the outdoor locations remain secret until 4 p.m. when an email is sent to ticket holders with a map and parking instructions. (The fourth installment is set to happen in August.) Tickets — no charge — can be reserved at http://www.QueenCityFlash.com
You can stay at home on Saturday evening, if you prefer, and enjoy a radio theater production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac by LA Theatre Works, broadcast on WVXU-FM 91.7 at 8 p.m. The story of the brash 17th-century soldier-poet with an oversized nose is also a tale of love and longing. The audio production features Hamish Linklater, Jason Ritter, Devon Sovari and Gregory Itzin. This is your chance to get prepared for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s season opening production (Sept. 11-Oct. 13).
Of course, everyone is focused on baseball this weekend, leading up to Tuesday’s All-Star Game right in our own backyard — and that’s great for Cincinnati. But if you’re looking for theatrical entertainment, it’s here, too.
I had a chance to see the musical 1776 at Cincinnati Landmark’s new Warsaw Federal Incline Theater on Wednesday. It’s just the second show to be staged there, but it’s a fine one from just about every angle. The 1969 show — as much a play about American history as a musical (it has a stretch of 30 minutes in which no music happens) — is seldom produced in part because it requires nearly two-dozen strong singing male actors. This production found them, and they do a fine job: Especially noteworthy is Rodger Pille as the feisty John Adams, as well as his colleagues Ben Franklin (played by Bob Brunner )and Thomas Jefferson (taken on by Matt Krieg). But numerous others have their “historical” moments, as do Allison Muennich as Adams’ understanding wife Abigail and Lindsey Franxman as Jefferson’s lovely wife Martha. The show is both entertaining and inspiring, even if it takes a lot of liberties with real events. It won the 1969 Tony Award for best musical, and it’s a delight to see. It’s onstage at the Incline through July 26. Tickets: 513-241-6550
After 10 years, the musical about adolescents vying for honors in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has become pretty familiar. But it’s still a lot of fun to watch, and I suspect anyone who goes to the Commonwealth Theatre Company’s dinner theater production on campus at Northern Kentucky University will be having a good time — maybe even becoming a volunteer speller to join the contest. For 8 p.m. shows in the Stauss Theatre, there’s dinner at 6:30 p.m. in the Corbett Lobby. Through July 26. Tickets: 859-572-5464
If you want something a little more off the beaten path, you’ll find it at Know Theatre on Saturday and Sunday when the One-Minute Play Festival has three performances. Part community-convening, part social action and part play festival, the program investigates who we are and how we relate to our community through a series of 60 moments of storytelling by local writers and actors. If you’ve enjoyed the annual Fringe Festival, you should show up for this one. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
In a similar vein — and just a block away from Know Theatre’s Over-the-Rhine location — you’ll find a show by the GoodPeople Theatre Company, Is This Really Happening Right Now? It’s some vignettes by two local writers exploring friendships and relationships — on a blind date, in a coffee shop, in a Laundromat and over Tinder. Tickets ($15) at the door at Simple Space (16 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine).
And if you still need more, remember that Monday will be the second round of Serials! at Know Theatre, with five plays started by local writers pick up for another 15-minute episode, but now penned by a different playwright. This time around the theme is “Round House,” and it’s sure to generate some zany stuff.
With the Fourth of July falling on a weekend, most theaters will be dark, and all the hubbub around the All-Star Game means that most of them will wait until the dust settles at Great American Ball Park before they crank things up again. But if you’re jonesing for some good summer theater and you haven’t seen Cincinnati Shakespeare’s hilarious One Man, Two Guvnors, it has performances on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Be forewarned that both are sold out, but if you want to try your luck with the regional premiere of this excellent situation comedy about a hapless guy with two bosses, show up at the theater 719 Race St., Downtown 30 minutes before the performance and ask to join the waiting list. Box Office: 513-381-2273
While you’re waiting for the fireworks on Saturday, you might consider what theater you’ll see over the next week or so. Of particular interest is The 1st Cincinnati One-Minute Play Festival that will be presented at Know Theater at 8 p.m. on July 11 and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on July 12. It’s a collaboration between Know and One-Minute Play Festival (aka #1MPF). In nearly 20 cities #1MPF partners with local companies to present brief works by local writers. They are given a prompt that asks them to consider the world around them, their community and all the ways in which they view and engage with the world, and to write and submit moments that could only happen at this time and in this place. It’s a great chance to check out local talent in the form of brand-new one-minute plays by Linnea Bond, John Bromels, Michael Burnham, Nick Carmine, Kevin Crowley, Bekka Eaton, Kate Fine, Brian Griffin, Mike Hall, Becca Howell, Alan Jozwiak, David Loehr, Robert Macke, Erica MacDonald, Joe McDonough, Eric Pfeffinger, Maggie Lou Rader, Alison Rampa, Brant Russell, Paul Shortt, Stacy Sims, Andy Simpson, Nathan Singer, Jim Stark, Paul Strickland, Trey Tatum, Eileen Tull, Chris Wesselman, Torie Wiggins and Alison Vodnoy Wolf. It’s also a showcase for local directors including Michael Burnham, Ed Cohen, Katie Lupica, Regina Pugh, Brant Russell, Carrington Rowe and Torie Wiggins. Tickets ($20): 513-300-5669. Part of the proceeds will benefit new play development at Know Theatre.
In the mood for more locally generated material? Check out the premiere of Is This Really Happening Right Now? – A Series of Vignettes, developed and presented by Good People Theatre on July 9, 10 and 11 at 8 p.m.. They’re performing at Simple Space, located in Over-the-Rhine at 16 E. 13th St., just a block or so north of Know Theatre. Four original pieces by Mollie J. Amburgey and Will Bonfiglio are about friendships and relationships — one takes place on a blind date, one in a coffee shop, one via Tinder and one in a Laundromat. Tickets $20: http://goodpeopletheatre.ticketleap.com/CincyPremiere
Need a good laugh this weekend? Cincinnati Shakespeare has the show you want to see: One Man Two Guvnors, based on an 18th-century comedy, The Servant of Two Masters. It’s a riot of slapstick, fart jokes, pratfalls, lewd innuendo and more. Francis Henshaw (Matthew Lewis Johnson) is the hapless hero, trapped between jealous bosses and a crew of comic types, each one funnier than the last. The show was an award winner London and on Broadway, where James Corden played the manic guy who can barely keep all the plates spinning. I gave this one a Critic’s Pick. Read my full review here. Tickets: 513-381-2273.In 1916, Margaret Sanger founded the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood. She was a fearless protester for women’s rights and an ardent crusader for birth control when it was a hush-hush topic. She was often arrested for speaking frankly about sexuality. Cincinnati native Pamela Daly this weekend is presenting a one-woman show that she personally commissioned; it’s onstage at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Sanger uses the militant firebrand’s own words to dig into issues that remain inflammatory today: abortion, birth control, sex education and the plight of women. Performances on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets: 513-621-2787.
There’s not too much theater going on as summer moves in with full heat. But there are enough laughs at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for several shows with the production of the great 2011 British farce, One Man Two Guvnors. It’s based on a play from the 18th century called The Servant of Two Masters, but don’t think that because it’s a classic it will be over your head. This show has slapstick, fart jokes, silly antics, sly innuendo and just about anything else that might induce laughter. Matthew Lewis Johnson is a comedy machine as the irrepressibly hungry (and hopelessly confused) Francis Henshaw, and he’s not the only one. At least a half-dozen of Cincy Shakes regulars dive into the hilarity headfirst. There’s also a great band playing tunes that sound like Pop numbers from the early 1960s; the story had been updated to the British seaside town of Brighton, where scandalous behavior was apparently the norm. Signing on to work for two bosses who have cross-purposes and connections that Francis doesn’t know about, he’s in for a raucous 24 hours as he tries to keep a lot of plates spinning — almost literally. Demand for tickets was strong from the opening last week (this show won awards in London’s West End as well as on Broadway in 2012, where James Corden played the manic Henshaw), so you’ll find two added performances to the announced schedule — this Saturday and next at 2 p.m. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Tickets are even scarcer, apparently for The Producers at Cincinnati Landmark Productions new Incline Theater. That zany musical about trying to make money on a Broadway flop has been a big success, heavily subscribed from start to finish. You might try for the waiting list (513-241-6550), but don’t get your hopes up. Same goes for Commonwealth Theater Company’s production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at Northern Kentucky University, (859-572-5464) also in its final weekend. It’s a dinner theater production, and it looks like most of the seats at that table are taken, too.
Since you can’t get into either of those, how about a free interpretation of the movie Footloose on Saturday evening? The dance troupe Pones Inc. and Gorilla Cinema have joined up to present the film in a parking lot in Covington (at West Seventh and Washington streets) starting at 8 p.m. All the inspired dance scenes from the 1984 film about teens in a town where dancing is discouraged will be performed live, and you’re welcome to join in! No charge for admission; snacks and suds available for purchase. Check out the trailer:
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey met with great success when they created next to normal, winning several Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. They didn’t strike gold with their next show, If/Then, onstage locally for just a week in a touring production — but I found it to be a very satisfying, if complex work. (Read my Curtain Call interview with Kitt and Yorkey here.) Elizabeth is recently divorced and trying to decide what path to take next. She asks herself musically “What If” she takes this path or that — and this show lets us follow her down two divergent threads, one toward a successful professional career as a city planner in New York, the other in a happy marriage with kids that doesn’t quite turn out as she imagined. Her stories are presented in overlapping narratives, since some moments and events are quite close. It requires paying close attention, but it’s definitely worth the effort. It’s made all the easier by a very strong cast — including Jackie Burns in the leading role, Broadway veteran Anthony Rapp as Lucas, one of her close friends (he originated the role on Broadway Lucas and played videographer Mark in the original cast of Rent back in 1996) and Tamyra Gray as Kate, who pushes Elizabeth in a different direction. The show’s inventive staging, using video and fluidly moving set pieces, is also a fine example of contemporary theater design. Definitely worth seeing. Onstage through Sunday.
In BlackTop Sky at Know Theatre, Ida’s view from an asphalt-paved courtyard surrounded by the housing project where she lives isn’t pretty. The 18-year-old yearns to escape, but her avenues are limited. The safe, predictable route is with Wynn, her boyfriend, a hardworking auto mechanic. Then there’s Klass, an all-but-inarticulate homeless man who settle on two park benches. Ida is caught between these two poles. This is a show about lives that are pretty dead-end. Nevertheless, Christina Anderson’s script has its moments, especially with Kimberly Faith Hickman’s purposeful staging of 34 distinct scenes, several of them entirely wordless. Anderson writes with occasional lyricism and feeling, but desperation underlies these sad stories. That being said, the telling holds out a promise of change. That’s an important if not altogether entertaining message. Onstage through Feb. 20.
Also at Know, the fourth outing of Serials gets under way on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. They’ve dubbed this one Thunderdome 2 – Beyond Thunder, meaning that each evening two of the five shows will be voted out by the audience, to be replaced by two new shows at the following session. Serials 4 features some writers and directors who entertained audiences in previous iterations of Serials. But several new talents have entered the fray, and the Know staff tells me, “There are some seriously strong story pitches this round!” They feel that the “gentle competition” of Thunderdome leads to stronger writing and a better audience experience. Writers who take the challenge must leap quickly into their narratives; if they lag behind, they’ll be struck by a thunderclap and end up in the audience at the next round. Subsequent episodes are set for Feb. 22, March 7 and 21 and April 4.
Finally: If you’re tuned in to the Super Bowl on Sunday evening, keep an eye out for a 30-second commercial for Gold Star Chili. It was shot locally, featuring 15 Cincinnati actors at several Gold Star locations. Ensemble Theatre’s Lynn Meyers did the casting for it, so you’ll see some familiar faces often featured on local stages.
There are so many things happening on local stages it’s a bit of a challenge make recommendations. But every one of these productions has some sort of conflict at its heart.
Grounded opened Wednesday night Ensemble
Theatre Cincinnati. George Brant’s a one-woman script is about a
fearless fighter pilot whose career is cut short by an unexpected
pregnancy, marriage and parenthood. Her new job is to fly military
drones from a trailer outside Las Vegas; but she goes home to her family
every night — and before long, she has trouble sorting out the
boundaries between her two worlds. Kathleen Wise makes her ETC debut
with this challenging performance, a woman who knows her way “in the
blue” as a pilot, but must navigate new paths when she’s relegated to
the “chair force,” wandering remotely “in the gray,” targeting
“personality strikes.” Michael Haney is back in town to stage this one,
and he always succeeds with making solo shows a powerful experience. Grounded
is a pressure-filled, cautionary tale, gripping but not easy to watch.
Nevertheless, it’s compelling theater. Through Feb. 14. Tickets:
Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, a world premiere, opened at the Cincinnati Playhouse last evening. Her Book Club Play was a Playhouse hit in 2013; this time around the subject is a tad more serious, but it’s handled with deft humor as neighbors battle over styles of gardening — formal vs. natural — and choices driven by cultural differences. New neighbors Pablo and Tania are of Hispanic descent, moving in next door to Frank and Virginia, who are as waspy as can be. You can imagine where that goes: Straight down the road to audience gasps as the couples insult one another when boundaries are crossed. The 80-minute show wraps up neatly — maybe a little too much so. But there’s no denying this is a show that has lots of comic appeal involving circumstances many people will recognize. Through Feb. 21. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Tonight is the opening for Black Top Sky at Know Theatre. Christina Anderson, a resident playwright with New York City’s New Dramatists, makes her Cincinnati debut with this show about the residents of a housing project. Ida, 18, befriends Klass, an unpredictable young homeless man. Their friendship forces Idea to make a choice: Embrace the struggle for justice or embrace a life with her successful boyfriend. Kimberly Faith Hickman, who staged 2014’s The Twentieth-Century Way for Know, is back from New York to direct. Andrew Hungerford, Know’s artistic director, chose this show because he was “struck by the poetry of the language, the visual poetry of the stage directions and the gut-wrenching timelessness of the story.” He adds, “It flips from humor to heaviness at the speed of light.” Onstage through Feb. 20. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
Shakespeare’s chronicling of King Henry VI took three plays back in the 16th-century; Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has rearranged them into two productions, one onstage now and another coming next season. This portion details the roots of the War of the Roses, with relatives vying for power — it’s truly a historic “game of thrones.” It’s also is a predecessor of today’s action movies, with lots of combat — and the fiery presence of Joan of Arc (played with zest by Caitlin McWethy), as England’s zeal for dominance in France runs a parallel track to the jockeying for position among royal relatives back home. Through Feb. 13. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is staging the original “game of thrones” — England’s Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) as retold by the Bard’s history plays — eight shows being presented in chronological order across five theater seasons. (Cincy Shakes is only the second theater company in the U.S. to present the history cycle in Chronological order.) We’ve already seen Richard II, Henry IV: Part 1 and 2 and Henry V. Now it’s time for the reign of Henry VI, which Shakespeare covered with three plays. This week starts the production of Henry VI, Part I, the story of Henry V’s only son who, in 1421, inherited the throne before his first birthday, after his father’s untimely death. A child on the throne opened the door to the dynastic struggles of the War of the Roses. (The cycle concludes next season with the bloody tragedy of Richard III.) Darnell Pierre Benjamin plays Henry, an unusual choice. Here’s what he says about taking on this role: “I’m a black male from St. Martinville, Louisiana. Despite how much I’ve always fixated my interests on the classics, I never thought that I’d have the honor of representing one of Shakespeare’s history kings.” He says he hopes “to open people’s minds and hearts to seeing the core of this story — a young man coming into his own as he learns that there are forces, both good and bad, that can alter his perception of himself.” Through Feb. 13. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
The Covedale Center just opened Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, a play about a widowed writer trying to start over while still grieving for his late wife. The story is rooted in Simon’s own experience, and the playwright’s famous one-liners are still there, but woven into the show’s humor is a story about coming to terms with death and moving on. Through Feb. 14. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
In Covington, The Carnegie is offering what sounds like an interesting production of The Wizard of Oz that opened last night. With musical accompaniment by the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, it’s a “lightly-staged” rendition with Harold Arlen’s famous score from the 1939 movie. Of particular interest is the scenic design by local artist Pam Kravetz, a unique take on the iconic landscapes of Oz, including Munchkin Land and the Emerald City. Just to remind folks passing by on Scott Avenue, you’ll see a giant pair of legs with striped stockings and ruby slippers to remind you that one wicked witch is dead. Through Jan. 31. Tickets: 859-957-1940.
For something completely different, consider The Realistic Joneses by Clifton Players, at Clifton Performance Theater on Ludlow Avenue. It’s about two couples named Jones, next-door neighbors who get to know one another despite fear and loneliness. Will Eno’s unusual play — part comedy, part drama — digs into secrets that aren’t often spoken aloud. It’s being staged by local theater veteran Dale Hodges with a cast that includes Carter Bratton, Mindy Siebert, Miranda McGee and Phil Fiorini. It’s onstage through Feb. 7. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
Next week there will be even more theater on local stages: Grounded, a one-woman show about a fighter pilot assigned to making drone strikes (Ensemble Theatre, Jan. 27-Feb. 14, 513-421-3555), BlackTop Sky, a tale of homelessness and friendship (Know Theatre, Jan. 29-Feb. 20, 513-300-5669) and Prelude to a Kiss, a sweet love story about changing places and understanding different perspectives (Falcon Theater in Newport, Jan. 29-Feb. 13, 513-479-6783).
Even though we’ve just passed the halfway point of the 2015-2016 theater season, the over-achievers at Cincinnati Landmark Productions just announced plans for future productions at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts and the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater for 2016-2017.
Tim Perrino, CLP’s executive artistic director, says, “With our two venues, Cincinnati Landmark Productions has two great platforms to create exciting theater and palpable neighborhood vitality. We set a course for success with a summer of sellouts at the Incline in 2015, and we’re chomping at the bit to bring these just-announced shows to life in 2016 and 2017.”
The Covedale’s offerings are designed for mainstream audiences, while the Incline offers two distinct seasons — “Summer Classics” presents shows with broad appeal; the “District Series” produces more adult fare, both musicals and dramas.
The Covedale Center’s “Marquee Series” for 2016-2017 will offer:
The Incline’s “District Series” plans to produce starting next fall:
Still in the pipeline for the Covedale’s current season are productions of Neil Simon’s warm-hearted comedy Chapter Two (Jan. 21-Feb. 14) and two classic musicals, She Loves Me (March 1-April 3) and Brigadoon (April 28-May 22).
Queued up at the Incline for the balance of this season are the satiric musical Avenue Q (Feb. 18-March 6) and David Mamet’s hard-as-nails real-estate drama Glengarry Glen Ross (April 6-24). Those will be followed by the previously announced “Summer Classics” season for 2016, featuring three likeable musicals Anything Goes (June 1-26), Baby (July 6-31) and Chicago (Aug. 10-Sept. 4). The Incline’s summer season in 2015 completely sold out three productions — The Producers, 1776 and 9 to 5.
Right now we’re about equidistant from the 2015 and the
2016 Fringe festivals. So let’s thanks the folks at Know Theatre, who are
presenting a double-bill of “Fringe Encores” to keep us stoked. This
weekend actually offers one encore plus a graduate from Know’s Serials! series. Occupational Hazards
is about an office fling that becomes the subject of fan-fiction with
wildly divergent storylines.
The piece by Ben Dudley was a 2015 Fringe
show. He’s also the writer of Cinderblock, about a guy
(played by Dudley) whose windshield is smashed by a cult member. This
mystery passes through an office party.
The shows are being performed this weekend at Clifton Performance Theatre (404 Ludlow Ave., Gaslight Clifton): performances of Occupational Hazards are Friday at 8:45 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Cinderblock, which, originally presented in five 15-minute episodes, has been pieced into a full-length version that will be presented on Friday evening at 7:30 and Saturday at 8:45. You can sit in on one piece for $15 or pay $25 for the pair either evening. Tickets: knowtheatre.com
Mariemont Players, one of Cincinnati’s fine community theater groups, is presenting D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls through Jan. 24. It’s inspired by a true story about women who painted radium numerals on glow-in-the-dark watches, unaware of the dangers of radioactivity. The play, described as being “written with warmth and humor,” is being presented at the Walton Creek Theater (4101 Walton Creek Rd., just east of Mariemont). Tickets ($20): 513-684-1236 or mariemontplayers.com
One more weekend at the Aronoff Center for the highly entertaining touring production of Kinky Boots (through Sunday). A struggling shoe factory in Northampton, England, retools to avoid bankruptcy and unemployment. Rather than continuing to manufacture stodgy men’s shoes, they turn to high-fashion footwear for drag queens, promoted as “kinky boots.” It’s an unlikely tale that happens to be true, and it’s the vehicle for some outrageous humor, especially from Lola, an extrovert of a diva and her spectacularly clad and built “Angels,” a half-dozen drag queens who back up her act. Kinky Boots offers a meaningful message about tolerance and finding your own path, fleshed out with some entertaining dancing and fine singing. Tickets: 513-621-2787
The local theater scene picks up momentum next week when three shows open on Thursday and another on Friday. That evening the Covedale Center opens Neil Simon’s Chapter Two (through Feb. 14), a warm-hearted comedy about getting back into the dating game; Covington’s Carnegie offers a “lightly-staged” concert adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (through Jan. 31) with accompaniment by the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra; and Clifton Players stages The Realistic Joneses (through Feb. 7 at Clifton Performance Theatre), a comedy-drama about the secrets of next-door neighbors directed by local stage veteran Dale Hodges. On Friday evening, Cincinnati Shakespeare continues its five-year, chronological presentation of Shakespeare’s eight-play history cycle with Henry VI, Part I (through Feb. 13), the story of a young king who must rule after his father’s untimely death; Joan of Arc is a key character in this tale.
Life in the big city: Lots of choices.
If you turn up at the Aronoff Center for the touring production of Kinky Boots (it’s onstage through Jan. 17), you might think you’ve landed in Over-the-Rhine. That’s how much the show’s opening vista of a factory in Northampton, England, resembles our own historic neighborhood. It’s the Victorian brick façade of a shoe factory that’s struggling in the 21st century because it’s still manufacturing old-fashioned men’s shoes. Even if they’re “the most beautiful thing in the world” (the theme of the show’s opening song), not so many people want to buy them today. As a last-ditch effort to keep the company from closing, the fourth-generation heir to the business, Charlie Price, decides to make “kinky boots,” high-fashion footwear for drag queens whose male frames are too much for standard female shoe heels. His customer No. 1 is Lola, an extrovert of a diva who — not unlike Charlie — has struggled with living up to his dad’s expectations. There’s a lot of fun and frippery along the way: Lola has a half-dozen “Angels” — drag queens who back up her act — and they’re spectacularly clad and built. A perky factory worker, Lauren, keeps giving Charlie advice (while falling for him despite his imminent fiancée in London). Another employee, Don, a hardcore male chauvinist, wants nothing to do with Lola. Watching events unfold is the fun of this show, even if you know where it’s all headed. Kinky Boots offers a meaningful message about tolerance and finding your own path, and there’s a lot of fancy dancing and fine singing along the way. Tickets: 513-621-2787
Whether or not your New Year’s resolution had to do with losing weight, you still have to eat. So the topic this quarter’s True Theatre, True Food, should be of interest. These are true personal narratives, sometimes confessional, often humorous, told by everyday people. Monday night’s stories are about what a homeless woman did when she had access to a kitchen, a man who ate the wrong thing at the wrong time, another man reconsidering his family’s “roots” and two guys who eat like there’s no tomorrow, day in and day out. What happens when a foodie and a picky eater cross paths? You can find out on Monday when folks crowd into Know Theatre’s Underground Bar (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine) to get the dish on these stories. Call for tickets ($18); these events are often sold out.
This weekend is your final chance to see several December productions, including Low Down Dirty Blues (Cincinnati Playhouse), All Childish Things (Know Theatre) and Rent (Incline Theater). A few shows stick around after Dec. 25 — A Christmas Carol (Playhouse) continues through Dec. 30 and Ensemble Theatre’s staging of its jaunty rendition of Cinderella remains onstage until Jan. 3. I would find it odd to watch Ebenezer Scrooge getting scared into a “Merry Christmas” a few days after the holiday, but ETC’s contemporary rendition of a beloved fairytale might be just the thing to entertain bored kids after they’ve tried out all the new toys. Tickets for the latter: 513-421-3555.
I checked out opening night of the tenth anniversary presentation of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some) at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and it’s as silly and funny as ever — especially with some clever pokes at people and events from 2015. The annual gags about fruitcakes take on a whole new dimension this time around by having some fun with Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and her intransigence about issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Every Christmas Story trots out just about every “BHC” (Beloved Holiday Classic) you might recall and puts it through a humorous filter. It’s fun from start to finish, but there is a moment — after recreating A Charlie Brown Christmas, complete with a woebegone tree — when Justin McCombs steps into a pool of light as Linus with his security blanket and recites the New Testament passage from the Gospel of Luke about an angel speaking to the shepherds. It’s a somber and wholly lovely scene, so far removed from very tongue-in-cheek, sometimes off-color humor typical of the show that it sticks with audience members. The antic McCombs also plays a true believer who refuses to be be convinced that Santa’s existence is impossible: His enthusiasm for all the miraculous things the Jolly Old Elf can accomplish is so childlike that you’ll wish you could return to that innocent age yourself. Even if you’ve seen Every Christmas Story before, it’s a blast to go back. In fact, I’d say it’s become a BHC in its own right. Onstage through Dec. 27. Tickets (if they’re still available): 513-381-2273.
There’s also some great holiday laughs to be had compliments of OTRImprov, presenting its annual show The Naughty List in the Courtyard at Arnold’s Bar & Grill in Downtown Cincinnati. The 90-minute show — unscripted and building off suggestions from the audience — happens Sunday-Tuesday, Dec. 20-22 and Dec. 27-29. It’s a laugh-a-minute way to have fun right before or after Christmas. To make an evening of it, show up at Arnolds (201 East 8th St.) between 6 and 6:30 p.m., get seated and place your dinner order. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. The rotating cast includes OTRImprov’s quick-witted regulars Mike Hall, Kirk Keevert, Sean Mette, Dave Powell, Charlie Roetting, Dylan Shelton and Kat Smith. Tickets (order before 4:30 on the day of the show): 513-300-5669.
Most of the theater onstage right now is holiday-themed — or at least family-friendly. If you want to take kids to see something, your best bet is Cinderella at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, a contemporary take on the familiar fairytale — the heroine is a bookworm who prefers to sneakers to glass slippers. There’s lots of humor, especially from the loudmouthed and crass stepsisters in this telling, plus some fine musical moments. This show will be around until Jan. 3. Tickets: 513-421-3555 … Another good choice for kids is A Charlie Brown Christmas, presented at the Taft Theatre by Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. You know the story, I’m sure (this year is the 50th anniversary of the TV special) but it’s a good bet that Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati is putting a version onstage that will let kids have a good time. Performances are at 2 and 5 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets: 800-745-3000 … Want to start a family tradition? There’s no better choice than Cincinnati Playhouse’s glittering, well-acted production of A Christmas Carol. It’s fast-moving and often funny (Bruce Cromer gives Ebenezer the full range of emotion, from crabby “Bah, humbug” to a joyous “Merry Christmas.”) It’s onstage through Dec. 30. Tickets: 513-421-3888 … The Covedale Center’s production of Mary Poppins isn’t their best work (it feels a tad long for youngsters), but it has great tunes and some memorable special effects — Mary flies and Bert walks up and down the sides of the proscenium — that audiences will enjoy. Through Dec. 27. Tickets: 513-241-6550
The Rock musical Rent, onstage at the Incline Theatre in Price Hill doesn’t exactly qualify as holiday or family entertainment, although its story does start and finish at Christmas (with “525,600 Minutes” in between). But this is an energetically acted and sung production for mature audiences. Through Dec. 20. Tickets: 513-241-6550 … If you can’t quite wait for The Force Awakens to open, you can get a small dose of Star Wars energy from All Childish Things at Know Theatre. It’s a comedy about some slackers trying to steal collectibles from a warehouse — they don’t succeed, but they learn a lesson about heroism that’s akin to the movie. Through Dec. 19. Tickets: 513-300-5669 … This weekend is your final opportunity to see As You Like It at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It’s a delightful production of one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, but it’s wrapping up on Saturday. (Next week CSC opens Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some) on Wednesday.) Tickets: 513-381-2273 …The most entertaining non-holiday show this season has to be Low Down Dirty Blues on the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage. It’s pretty much what the title says: Three singers getting a little raunchy and having a lot of fun with some tunes about being up and down. Great performances and a really good time for grown-ups. Through Dec. 20. Tickets: 513-421-3888
Finally, if you a performance that’s simply feel-good, I heartily recommend going to Ensemble Theatre on Monday evening at 7 p.m. for their one-night-only annual presentation of Expectations of Christmas. It’s a round-up of holiday traditions, origins, music, facts and back-stories — presented by performers who frequent ETC’s stage. Admission is just $10 and all the proceeds go to Tender Mercies (an Over-the-Rhine agency right around the corner from ETC that provides permanent and transitional housing for the homeless with histories of chronic mental illness). Tickets: 513-421-3555 … or walk in on Monday and you’ll likely get in.
December is full of shows for your holiday viewing pleasure:
Every five years or so, Ensemble Theatre rolls out a new production of its holiday rendition of Cinderella. This one just opened on Wednesday, and while it’s the same material that was presented in 2005 and 2010, it’s been freshened with a new set and colorful costumes — and especially a vibrant cast with great voices for the tunes with lyrics by David Kisor and melodies by Fitz Patton. Brooke Steele is picture-perfect as the golly-gee title character who prefers reading to going to a ball. But Kate Wilford as “Gwendolyn the Well Wisher” (“I give good advice and then wish you well,” she tells everyone with a sweep of her hand to musical accompaniment) encourages her to go so she can meet Prince Frederick (Warren Bryson), who happens to be another bookworm. They’re a lovely couple who overcome the modest barriers thrown their way (she loses a pink sneaker that helps him locate her later), but the show’s real energy comes from Sara Mackie and Torie Wiggins as Cinderella’s crass stepsisters. They’re loudmouthed losers, spewing malapropisms and ridiculous self-aggrandizement (Wiggins’ Clarissa bellows competitively, “My patheticism outshines all others”) — constantly mugging and fawning and arguing. Deb G. Girdler as their manipulative mother Brunhilda is also great fun to watch as she tries to control events to her own advantage. As is always the case with ETC’s holiday musicals with scripts by local playwright Joe McDonough, there’s a timely moral: “The essence of true beauty lies … beyond what’s seen by normal eyes.” Oh, Cinderella and Frederick wear glasses — but they see love pretty clearly. Through Jan. 3. Tickets: 513-421-3555
I’ve been attending A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse for 25 years, as long as they have produced it. The script — Howard Dallin excellent adaptation of Dickens’ classic story — is top-notch and doesn’t need to be tinkered, but with actors coming and going, it’s always fun to see how things shake out from one year to the next. Greg Procaccino is the only actor to be in the show every year, playing Marley’s regretful ghost and slimy junk buyer Old Joe; the always-watchable Bruce Cromer holds the longevity record playing Scrooge (11 years, after 8 as Bob Cratchit). Kathleen Wise brings a light, bemused touch to Christmas Past in her first year; returning performers include Ryan Gilreath as nervous, angular Cratchit and Kelly Mengelkoch as the patient, loving Mrs. Cratchit, as well as Douglas Rees as the ebullient Fezziwig and Annie Fitzpatrick as his playful wife. There’s a new Tiny Tim for 2015, Henry Charles Weghorst, the tiniest ever, I believe (he needs two pillows to sit at the dining table), and truly adorable. This Playhouse production continues to be a joy to watch, a glorious, glittering set and costumes that deliver you to the mid-19th century. Pay attention to the David Smith’s sound design and recorded music, which set the emotional tone for virtually every scene. A Christmas Carol is a welcome Cincinnati holiday tradition. Through Dec. 30. Tickets 513-421-3888
Cincinnati Landmark Productions is offering shows at both of its venues this month; neither is holiday per se, although the musical Rent (at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre in Price Hill through Dec. 20) begins and ends with Christmas, celebrating a year of the “seasons of love” experienced by a clutch of impoverished young artists in New York’s East Village. This is a high-quality production, a great choice for fans of contemporary Rock music. Rent is almost 20 years old, but it has stood the test of time, especially as performed by the Incline’s committed, diverse cast of excellent, energetic singers. Tyler Kuhlman as the depressed guitarist Roger has the looks and the vocal chops for the role, and Lisa Glover is a fine match as Mimi, the sexy club dancer and drug addict who makes a lot of bad choices. Kelcey Steele provides the necessary connective tissue as videographer Mark, and RJ Caldwell ably portrays Tom Collins, an anarchist professor and street activist with AIDS. But the production’s most memorable performances come from Aiden Sims as Maureen, the brassy performance artist, and especially charismatic Christopher Carter as the transgender drag queen Angel: His high-flying rendition of “Today 4 U” is a show-stopper. The ensemble shines when presenting of Rent’s iconic numbers, particularly “La Vie Bohème and “Seasons of Love.” This production is a bold choice for the new venue, seeking audiences in search of more ambitious, adult fare — there were empty seats on opening night. Rent offers strong evidence that the Incline is up to the challenge. I give this one a Critic’s Pick. … I was part of a very full house for Mary Poppins last Sunday (at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, also finished on Dec. 20); this production is clearly intended as holiday fare for families. I wish it were a bit more joyous. Mary (Alyssa Hostetler, who’s a fine singer) is a rather starchy character who’s not very loveable. The uptight Banks family she convinces to reconnect and have fun has an initially irritable dad (Dave Wilson, another excellent voice) and a mom who’s a budding feminist (Sarah Viola, who sings very well, too) — these aren’t characters that children can instantly love. Even the two Banks kids (Lili Shires and Peter Godsey, who work hard at being coy) are kind of obnoxious. The production felt long, with numerous labored scene changes. On the other hand, the audience had a great time — the songs (familiar from the 1964 movie) are beloved, and everyone seems to know them. That’s fun. Tickets: 513-241-6550
The touring production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas wraps up its engagement on Sunday. It’s a fine cast of singers and dancers, a production full of familiar tunes that’s worth seeing if you have the scratch for seats at the Aronoff Center. Tickets: 513-621-2787
If you prefer something not holiday-oriented, Xavier University’s theater program is staging Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. It’s a three-character play from the 1990s (set in the early 1980s) about young people struggling with the transition to adulthood. Guest director Ed Stern, the Playhouse’s retired artistic director, told me it was a great opportunity to work with actors who are exactly the right age to play these roles. Read more from Stern in my recent Curtain Call column. Performances are this weekend only, including a Sunday matinee. Xavier Box Office: 513-745-3939
Several of our local theaters produce shows this time of year that are a kind of antidote to the usual fare of A Christmas Carol and other happy, merry tales. Three get under way this weekend:
I went to a rockin’ party earlier this week, and you can, too — if you turn up for the Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Low Down Dirty Blues, through Dec. 20. That’s right, a whole month of good times and sad in the intimate Shelterhouse Theater, doubling as Big Mama’s after-hours Blues bar. Every year around this time the Playhouse puts on a show as an alternate holiday choice to A Christmas Carol (which gets underway next week). This year it’s a warm-hearted good time featuring three excellent singers and a couple of very accomplished Jazz musicians (especially local Jazz pianist Steve Schmidt) performing off-color tunes, full of double-entendres and scandalous joking. The first half of the two-hour performance is mostly about lusty interaction via tunes like “Rough and Ready Man,” “I Got My Mojo Workin’ ” and “You Bring Out the Boogie in Me.” After intermission the party continues briefly (including some cute audience interaction to the tune of “I’m Not That Kind of Girl” — but then the tone darkens with passionate songs of grief (“Death Letter”), mourning (“Good Morning Heartache”) and then hope (“Change is ’Gonna Come”). Felicia P. Fields, a Broadway veteran who played a major role in the original staging of The Color Purple, anchors (and I use that word quite literally) the banter and the singing, but she is ably matched by Caron “Sugaray” Rayford, a massive force of energy, perspiration and rhythm. Chic Street Man sings and plays several guitars (especially a steel number with a gorgeous ring), and his sly, sinuous presence is a perfect complement to Fields’ and Rayford’s more ebullient performances. Don’t go if you’re offended by sexual innuendo, but if you’re looking for a “low down dirty” time, call now for a ticket: 513-421-3888
One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, As You Like It, is the first step of holiday happiness at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. The story of tomfoolery and romance in the Forest of Arden kicks off tonight; it’s around until Dec. 12, when it’s followed by the tenth annual staging of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some). In case you missed it, Cincy Shakes announced this week that by mid-2017 it moves to its own spectacular new space in Washington Park, the Otto M. Budig Theatre, with nearly 100 more seats than its Race Street facility. (Read my story in this week's issue for more.) Until then, you need to line up for tickets, since many of the company’s performances sell out quickly. Tickets: 513-381-2273
Another “kind of” holiday show getting started is Know Theatre’s production of All Childish Things, opening tonight and onstage through Dec. 19. In a story set right here in Cincinnati (Norwood, in fact), it’s 2006 and two guys are still yearning for the galactic adventures promised by Star Wars when they were kids. One guy lives in his mom’s basement; the other has a girlfriend who could care less about The Force. They think their big break might be residing in a warehouse full of collectible Star Wars memorabilia. Zany shows rooted in childhood have become a holiday staple at Know Theatre, and this is right up that weird, happy alley. Tickets: 513-300-5669
And if you’re really longing to get the holidays under way, you have the perfect opportunity with a tour stop by a production of White Christmas at the Aronoff (next Tuesday through Dec. 6). It’s a stage version of the popular film; the tour features stage Cincinnati and Broadway veteran Pamela Myers in a cute, outspoken role. She performs a number titled “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” a perfect summary of her illustrious career. Tickets: 513-621-2787