So Thanksgiving was early this year, and that means that not only
retailers but all of our local theaters have fired their starting guns
earlier than usual with family-friendly holiday shows. That began with
Ensemble Theatre's opening of Alice in Wonderland on Nov. 28, and
Cinderella at the Covedale, A Christmas Carol at the Playhouse and New Edgecliff's Santaland Diaries (newly paired with The 12 Dates of Christmas) using a new venue, the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater.
But before you start wearing your Christmas sweaters and holiday socks, I have a few non-seasonal but highly entertaining productions you should consider:
Let's start with Cincinnati Shakespeare's staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a classic comedy from 1895 by Oscar Wilde, but don't think there's anything old and musty about it. The production of this witty, romantic tale of harmless manipulation bubbles with laughter and sprightly performances. I gave it a Critic's Pick here and I suspect it will be another sold-out run for Cincy Shakes, which has assembled a gangbuster season. You should note that it's only onstage through Dec. 16, so if you want to see it, don't wait too long. (As of the 16th it will be supplanted by Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some), Cincy Shakes' holiday offering.) Box office: 513-381-2273 x.1.
And if smiles without holiday trimming are something you seek, I highly recommend the touring production of Jersey Boys. This is the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Pop stars from the 1960s, and the show is stuffed full of their memorable, tuneful hits. The four leading actors faithfully recreate the group's close harmonies and Valli's soaring falsetto tenor — he's one of the great Pop vocalists of all time, and Nick Cosgrove nails the role. Although the history of these four singers has its ups and downs, the story is told with a sense of wry humor (and numerous F-bombs) that keeps things light and entertaining. Audiences have been clamoring for Broadway in Cincinnati to bring this show back since it appeared at the Aronoff back in 2008, and tickets are selling fast. Box office: 800-982-2787.
Don't forget Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Playhouse's Shelterhouse stage. (Review here.) It's another genuine reincarnation of a singer who made an indelible mark on the world of Pop music. Box office: 513-421-3888.
For the holidays, they'll produce The Naughty List, hosted by Ronda Androski and her great staff at Arnold's Bar & Grill downtown and featuring the talent of OTR Improv, one of the groups Know has nurtured with its Jackson Street Market. They'll take holiday memories from those in attendance as they recreate holiday movies and tell you how your life would have been different if you had received that special gift you yearned for. The fun will be happeing in Arnold's courtyard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings from Dec. 2 to 30. Tickets will be $15 in advance and $18 at the door.
Know will also offer The Apocalypse Show! for two nights on its home stage at 1120 Jackson St.. Since the world is scheduled to come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar), Know will produce a variety show to end all variety shows on Dec. 20 and 21. There will be sketch comedy, predictions, guest appearances, "gratuitous drinking and answers to all of your apocalypse FAQs." Dec. 20 will be a fundraiser (tickets: $50), despite the funny come-on that you should bring all your money, since it will be worth nothing the next day! (If you come to the performance on Dec. 21, you only need to scrape together $15 in advance or $18 at the door.)
Assuming that the world really isn't ending on Dec. 21, Know will co-host its annual New Year's Eve event with CityBeat, the Speakeasy Party from 8 p.m. on Dec. 31 (to 1 a.m.). Know typically attracts 300 well-dressed guests for this event, and everyone has fun with casino games, food, dancing to a DJ and a live band, martinis and a champagne toast at midnight.
After all this fun stuff, Know will get down to some serious theater — presenting Andrew Bovell's "best new play of 2010," When the Rain Stops Falling (Feb. 8-March 16, 2013). It's another partnership, with the production being staged by Brian Isaac Phillips, artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. (Bovell's Speaking in Tongues had a great production at the Cincinnati Playhouse last season.) The show uses an intricate fabric of overlapping connections, moving between several generations between 1959 and 2039 and between London and Australia. Acts and sins of the past are connected to three generations that follow.
More will be following, including an unnamed production running from April 5 to May 12. Sometime in late April (date TBA), just in advance of the tenth annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival (May 28-June 8, 2013), Know will host the 2013 United States Association of Fringe Festivals Conference. "We're honored to have been selected to host this year's conference," says Know's Producing Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier. "It's an amazing opportunity to work on ideas and issues at the core of all Fringe Festivals. Every time I have been to a conference, the Cincinnati Fringe is better for it. We can't wait to show off our city to festival producers from all over the United States."
One more note: Know is selling its version of a subscription, Flex Passes. But these have evolved: You can purchase six flex passes for $90. Valid for most Know productions, they do not expire. (If a show ticket has a higher price than the pass, you can use your pass and just pay the difference.) Know's website will designate: "Flex passes are valid for this event." When you run out of tickets (and you surely will), you simply need to buy another pass.
Know's Fringe Festival has promoted itself with the slogan "Weird, like us." And they're living up to that mantra in a way that should appeal to its supporters and more.
If you can tear yourself way from TV ads for the
presidential election this weekend, you'll find plenty of good theater
to distract you, starting with a production at Covington's Carnegie
Center opening Friday night. It's Under a Red Moon, a
world premiere co-production with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company.
Michael Slade's taut psychological thriller just spent nearly a month
onstage at the Loft Theatre in Dayton, so it's already a seasoned
production. A dramatized psychological interview in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs,
it’s based on the chilling true story of England’s notorious “Acid Bath
Murderer” from a half-century ago. The play features Broadway actors
Bradford Cover as the criminal and Dee Pelletier as the psychologist
trying to get inside his head. Box office: 859-957-1940.
A different set of thrills are available from Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is staging Shakespeare's bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. This show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat, blood and gore — presented by CSC with ghastly zeal. Just as creepy tales like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween have chilled film audiences in recent years, this kind of play was all the rage in the early 1590s. (CSC director Jeremy Dubin calls it “a snuff film in blank verse.”) It's especially fun to watch veteran Nick Rose as a Roman general who gets into a grotesque battle of wills with the amoral Queen of the Goths, played by Miranda McGee. The awful things they they do to one another's families make for some delicious, hair-raising storytelling. Also onstage at Cincy Shakes is Romeo & Juliet, with the central characters played as hormonal, irrational teens. Sara Clark is especially good as Juliet. Both productions tell their tale through more contemporary visual filters — R&J's characters wear contemporary clothing and are surrounded with music of the here and now, while Titus gets a "Steampunk" treatment that presumes that the Victorian ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells extended its steam-driven, mechanical technology to the present. Both approaches give new vitality to the shows. (Review here.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
Also worth seeing is a funny, touching tale of growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Cincinnati Playhouse (513-381-3888)). (Review here.) It's the first time that the Playhouse has staged a work by Simon, one of America's most prolific playwrights of the 20th century. Box office: 513-421-3888
You'll have to pick and choose this weekend because
there's so much theater onstage. In addition to our professional
theaters, it's worth checking out production at universities: Tonight
through Sunday, CCM's esteemed musical theater program is offering the
cult favorite Chess, with music by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus
and Benny Andersson. The story is set in Bangkok and Budapest during a
mid-1970s world chess championship — and it's driven by gamesmanship
between nations, between lovers and, of course, between chess players. I
saw the opening on Thursday, and it's a BIG show with a gigantic cast.
Several leading roles are double cast (with more juniors than seniors,
in fact, which bodes well for CCM productions for this season and next).
In particular, Matthew Paul Hill, playing the Russian grand master
Anatoly, lifted the roof of Corbett Auditorium with his powerful
baritone voice singing the stirring "Anthem," the Act 1 finale. Tickets
($30) Box office: 513-556-4183. At Northern Kentucky University you'll a production of Royal Gambit
by German playwright Hermann Gressieker (translated into English in the
late 1950s). The subject is King Henry VIII and his six wives, and this
looks to be a beautifully costumed show, featuring senior Seth Wallen
in the leading role. Tickets ($14). Box office: 859-572-5464.
Neil Simon's funny and endearing Brighton Beach Memoirs is onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse. I gave it a Critic's Pick (review here), and I'm sure audiences will love this sweet portrait of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, where a loving but fractious family copes with hard times. It's told from the perspective of Eugene, a precocious adolescent (he's really Simon as a 15-year-old), who takes notes on his family's behavior. Well acted and beautifully staged. Box office: 513-421-3888l.
My schedule hasn't permitted me to see several shows that are getting good notices, including recognition from the folks evaluating productions for the League of Cincinnati Theatres. I'm catching up this evening with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is offering two shows this month. Romeo & Juliet is its mainstage show, and Sara Clark is getting high marks for her portrait of romantic but tragic young love. Brian Phillips' staging picked up an LCT nod, and the show received an overall recommendation from LCT. On the evenings when R&J is not onstage, there's another Shakespeare work for thrill seekers, specially selected and staged for the Halloween season: the bloody, gory tale of revenge, Titus Andronicus. Veteran actor Nick Rose plays a crazed Roman general, and just about everyone I've heard from says his performance is memorable. (It earned him an LCT nomination, too.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
This weekend is the final one for Mrs. Mannerly at Ensemble Theatre. When Harper Lee reviewed this one for CityBeat (review here), she gave it a Critic's Pick, and I agree wholeheartedly. (LCT named it a recommended production, too.) CEA Hall of Fame actress Dale Hodges is great fun to watch as a strict etiquette teacher in 1967, and Raymond McAnally plays all the other characters — a bunch of kids who are learning how to behave in a "mannerly" way. It's funny from start to finish, but there's a heart-warming message within the story. Definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3555.
At Clifton Performance Theatre, Clifton Players are staging A Bright New Boise, which also picked up an LCT recommendation. I haven't seen it, but the show won an Obie Award (that's for outstanding off-Broadway plays) in 2011, and it has a strong cast. This is a newish venue that's specializing in "storefront theater." Should be worth supporting. Tickets ($20): 513-861-7469.
My first and foremost recommendation for the weekend is Blue Man Group.
(Review here.) It's a performance experience unlike much of anything else you've
probably ever experienced in a theater — raucous music, zany humor,
eye-popping technology and infectiously fun engagement with the
audience. Amazingly, it's done without spoken words — the guys mime
(well, kind of, it's actually more like they're mute in the style of
Harpo Marx, with a lot of staring and double-takes), although they're
backed up by awesome video that does offer some instruction (and laughs)
for the literate. As I've said before, it's hard to describe but easy
to enjoy. This is Blue Man Group's first time in Cincinnati, presented
by Broadway Across America; the Aronoff Center might never be the same.
(Through Oct. 28) Box office: 800-982-2787.
Last night I enjoyed opening night for the thoroughly authentic and charming production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. It's the story of a Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1930s, but thanks to Simon's witty, heartfelt recollections of his own youth, it has a feeling of universality. The narrator is Eugene Morris Jerome (who's a stand-in for Simon himself), and actor Ryan DeLuca conveys the joys and pangs of adolescence and puberty with feeling and hilarity. He frequently addresses the audience about his interactions with his grouchy parents and his woebegon aunt, his worldly brother, his pampered cousins — he's documenting them for something he'll write when he's older, a novel or perhaps a play! And that play is the one onstage at the Playhouse, the first Neil Simon script ever presented there in more than 50 seasons. (Through Nov. 10.) Box office: 513-421-3888.
Continuing productions of the comedy Mrs. Mannerly at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (513-421-3555) and Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo & Juliet at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (513-381-2273, x1) have been positively reviewed and appreciated by audiences. This weekend also marks the opening of Cincy Shakes' staging of Shakespeare's bloody history of the Roman emperor Titus Andronicus, staged with tongue in cheek (and in a pie) for the Halloween season. It happens on the nights when the R&J cast takes a breather.
You might also consider two special events: New Edgecliff Theatre's annual one-night fundraiser, Sweet Suspense Theatre, a presentation in the style of a radio play, happens on Saturday evening. This year the production, a new adaptation of Oscar Wilde's story of The Canterville Ghost, is being presented at the Cincinnati Art Museum — and includes an extended intermission with lots of goodies from local bakeries and restaurants. (Tickets: 888-588-0177). You might also want to check in with the Playhouse about ticket availability for Post Secret on Monday evening; the one-night presentation of a piece based on an anonymous "true confessions" website is rumored to be sold out, but there might be a waiting list if you call the box office. (513-421-3888)
You have no excuse for complaining that there's not enough
theater in the days ahead. In fact, you'll have a hard time fitting it
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's regional premiere of Mrs. Mannerly opened a few days ago: It's a comedy about growing up in small-town Ohio under the watchful (perhaps oppressive) eye of a strict etiquette teacher. Jeffrey Hatcher's play (largely based on his own experience in 1967) features one of Cincinnati's best actresses, Dale Hodges, in the title role. And the production has been staged by Ed Stern, recently retired after 20 years as producing artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Box Office: 513-421-3555.
Cincinnati Shakespeare is producing Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo & Juliet, featuring a pair of actors — Sara Clark and Ian Bond — who had great chemistry in recent productions of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. They will bring new life a familiar work, I'm sure. The production opens Friday; bear in mind that Cincy Shakes has been selling out its productions this season, so catching this one before it catches on with the larger audience might be a good idea. Box Office: 513-381-2273 x1.
For entertainment of an entirely different stripe, I suggest you check out The Beggar's Carnivale on Friday and Saturday evenings (9 p.m.) at Know Theatre. This variety show has been described as "Cirque du Soleil on a whiskey bender." It includes elements of traiditonal circus arts, gypsy folk and Rock & Roll. You'll witness a fast-paced spectacle with several acts linked by interludes in the style of silent film. There's live music, too, by their house band The Royal We and the Carnivale's personal DJ. Sounds like an evening of unusual entertainment. Box Office: 513-300-5669.
For the stay-at-homes, you might sample Lost in Yonkers on WVXU's broadcast of L.A. Theatre Works, Saturday evening at 8 p.m. on FM 91.7. This great nostalgic play by Neil Simon is part of an autobiographical trilogy; the Cincinnati Playhouse is producing Brighton Beach Memoirs, another from this set, a few weeks from now. On Sunday evening at 8 p.m. WVXU will air The Moth, a collection of monologues by everyday people, sharing anecdotes of things that actually happened to them. It's the inspiration for our local company True Theatre, which opens its third season on Monday evening (7:30 p.m.) with trueLearning at Know Theatre.
Finally, to keep you occupied next week, CCM Drama is offering a week of free, unticketed readings of gay-themed plays. On Monday it's Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985); Tuesday and Wednesday offer Tony Kushner's 1993 award-winning Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika. Thursday evening it's Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet (2011). All readings are at 7 p.m. in the Corbett Center's Room 4755 at the University of Cincinnati. On Friday evening, Dr. Richard Coons will moderate a conversation about "Storytellers, History Makers and Revolutionaries: The LGBT Story." A clinical psychologist, Coons is a CCM Drama grad; in 1998 and 1999 he played the central role of Prior Walter in CCM's local premiere of Kushner's Angels in America. (Also free, this event will be in Patricia Corbett Theatre on the UC campus.)
Your best bet for theater this weekend, based on several
enthusiastic recommendations, seems to be Daniel Beaty's one-man
performance at the Cincinnati Playhouse in Through the Night. Harper Lee gave it a Critic's Pick in her CityBeat
review this week, and the League of Cincinnati Theatres panel described
Beaty as a "brilliant showman and interpreter” whose “beautifully and
powerfully acted” performance “weaved in, out and through real people —
multifaceted people.” The show was praised as “moving and full of hope —
an evening of pure joy, celebration and a mournful reminder as well.” Through the Night
“shatters the stereotypes of the ‘African American’ plight and shows
beautifully that these predicaments and life choices are ‘human’ ones." I
caught a performance this week and found Beaty's ability to shift from
character to character quite astonishing — he plays six men and boys, as
well as numerous other figures in their lives, each well defined and
believable. It's a tour de force performance in the Shelterhouse,
presented simply with some projected images and nothing more, not even
costume changes. Box office: 513-421-3888.
College theater has good choices for you at both UC's College-Conservatory of Music and Northern Kentucky University. Each is presenting a classic, although from very different eras. NKU continues its run of You Can't Take It With You (through Sunday), a classic comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1937. It's about a wacky family that marches to the beat of several different drummers and how their "normal" daughter and her boyfriend (the product of truly straitlaced parents) try to figure out how to make a relationship work in the midst of a lot of craziness. At CCM there's another form of craziness in Michael Burnham's staging of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a tale of mistaken lovers and magical transformations. In both cases, there's a happy ending and most of the right people end up with suitable partners. Both shows are sure to offer offer a lot of laughs, as well as plenty of opportunities for young actors to take on entertaining roles. Either show should make for a fun outing that doesn't require much serious thought. CCM Box Office: 513-556-4183; NKU Box Office: 859-572-5464.
Finally, on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. you have a very
special opportunity to see a brand-new musical as a work-in-progress at
the Carnegie Center in Covington. It's a one-night-only presentation of The Sandman, a creepy musical created by Cincinnati native and Cirque du Soleil
maestro Richard Oberacker and his creative partner Robert Taylor. Using
a wildly imaginative story by E.T.A. Hoffmann (the guy who wrote the
wildly imaginative story of battling mice and toys coming to life that
became The Nutcracker), Oberacker and Taylor have crafted a show
that's getting a workshop locally with some serious star power. Narrated
by Van Ackerman (who turned in a great performance as the Man in the
Chair in CMT's recent production of The Drowsy Chaperone), the
performance will feature Tony nominee (and early CCM grad) Pamela Myers,
always watchable Bruce Cromer (fresh off his powerful turn as Atticus
Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at Cincy Shakes), Charlie Clark
and Sara Mackie. While it's a "reading," it will have sound effects and
some slide projections to set the eerie scene. You can call 859-957-1940 for tickets, or order them online at www.thecarnegie.com. General admission is $25 (theater professionals and students can get in for $15). Sounds like a don't miss event.