It's easy to spend time writing about exciting new developments in our local theater scene. But who got things started?
It could be argued that F. Paul Rutledge was the guy who laid the foundation. He passed away a week ago at the age of 91. Rutledge was a theater pioneer in Cincinnati, and many people who shaped what we have today were inspired by him.
I spent two-and-a-half hours watching the Acclaim Awards last night — 150 minutes with no intermission. Thanks to affable hosts Charlie Clarke and Mark Hardy (the well-dressed “scoundrels” of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels last September at The Carnegie), there was a lot of humor, but I put an emphasis on “a lot” as in “maybe too much.”
As I’ve written previously, the Acclaims offer some solid recognition of many of the things that constitute our local theater scene. But the awards program itself lacks discipline: If this had been a stage production at one of our local theaters, I wouldn't be the only critic saying, “Nice work, but it needs a lot of trimming.” And some thoughtfulness.
The best choice, for my money, is Keith Glover’s Thunder Knocking on the Door at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a revival of sorts from 1999 — but thoroughly and creatively reimagined for the final mainstage production of Ed Stern’s final season leading the Tony Award-winning theater. It’s a musical about the Blues and it features an emotional Blues score, mostly by Keb’ Mo’, to tell the story of the power of love and music — and blues guitar players. It’s presented with panache, including technology and design that are all about 2012. Through May 20. Box office: 513-421-3888.
If you loved the Doo-Wop silliness of The Marvelous Wonderettes, a hit from 2010 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, then you’re likely to have a good time at Life Could Be A Dream, Roger Bean’s sequel to the story of some bubbly girls who bond around teen hits from the ’50s and ’60s. This time is boys, and that’s most of the difference. As in the two Wonderette shows, Dream is shot through with adolescent angst, in this case around a local radio station contest that could “make them famous.” It’s an excuse for more than two dozen tunes from the same era that are shaped to the story. So it’s a familiar formula, but ETC has a talented cast who make it a lot of fun. (Through May 20.) Box office: 513-421-3555.
Another show that totally mastered the art of wedging familiar tunes into an implausible story is Mamma Mia, and you can catch a touring production of that one at the Aronoff Center through Sunday. The cast of this tour has a lot of youthful energy and several mature characters who have fun reminiscing about their disco days. Box office: 800-982-2787.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will have its final performance on May 12. If you haven’t yet seen this youthful mix of political commentary, driving Rock, history, humor and sober observations about the will of the people, you’d better go this weekend. (The longer you wait the less likely you are to get a ticket — the final weekend is selling fast.) Not many musicals begin with the cast flipping the bird at the audience, but then not many musicals are like this one, spinning a tale of America’s seventh president to in-your-face Indie Rock tunes. This is Bloody Bloody’s first professional regional production. I gave it a Critic’s Pick. Box office: 513-300-5669.
You have plenty of time to see The Second City 2: Less Pride – More Pork, since the Cincinnati Playhouse plans to keep it on the Shelterhouse Stage until July 1 (at least), but I predict you’ll enjoy it whenever you go. It’s a notch up from the first iteration of the show that set box-office records for the Mount Adams theater a year-and-a-half ago. Lots of hilarious fun-poking at … us. And the clever cast uniquely tailors every performance to the audience that shows up. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Know Theatre’s production of the recent off-Broadway and Broadway Rock musical hit, I was thoroughly entertained by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last week at the Covedale. It has a cast of strong singers who do a fine job with the amusing score, stuffed with musical parodies — Calypso, Blues, County, Bubblegum Pop and more — and they’re having an infectious good time. Keep an eye out for the Pharaoh; he’s really the King! Through May 13. Box office: 513-241-6550.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
Some people yearn for sunshine this time of year and find their way to a beach to recharge their batteries. Theater fans who are impatient for the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which doesn’t roll around until June, were reminded this past weekend of the kind of creativity that makes those two weeks in early summer so stimulating. Thanks to the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), theater fans were offered a jolt of onstage vitality that just might be enough to sustain us for a few months. It was a festival called Transmigration.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Carnegie Center in Covington has been producing some ambitious theater and following a course that others haven’t tried: It’s called collaboration. Joshua Steele, the managing director of theater for the arts center in a one-time Carnegie Library, has amplified his results by working with other arts institutions in the region — especially, but not limited to, the fine theater programs at area universities. Steele will announce his 2012-2013 this week, and it’s evident that he’s continuing this commendable course working with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company for the first time and building on a productive relationship with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. He’s also engaged some top-notch freelance talent to ensure that productions will be memorable.
Steele, who previously co-founded the meteoric New Stage Collective with his friend Alan Patrick Kenny, is bringing the remarkable director back to town for his first return since NSC closed in April 2010. Kenny, who has been earning an M.F.A. in California and staging theater on the West Coast, will direct the regional premiere of the musical Xanadu (Aug. 11-26, 2012). This campy, tongue-in-cheek show, based on the 1980 move that featured Olivia Newton-John, is right up Kenny’s inventive alley, and should be a refreshing dash of onstage energy at summer’s end. (Auditions for this show will take place on May 22, 7-10 p.m. at the Carnegie. Actors interested in auditioning should contact Adrianne Eby, email@example.com)
The Human Race collaboration will be next. The Dayton
company, which performs regularly at the Loft Theater in that city’s downtown,
is premiering a new play by Michael Slade, Under a Red Moon, in late October.
The production will then move to the Carnegie for a three-weekend run (Nov.
2-18, 2012). Set in 1949, it’s a taut psychological thriller telling the story
of John George Haigh, Britain’s infamous “Acid Bath Killer.”
For the third consecutive year, Steele has lined up a joint, in-concert presentation of a well known musical with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. After successful outings with the CCO for Carousel and The King and I, the late January 2013 production will be Camelot, the story of chivalry and the love triangle of King Arthur, Queen Guenevere and the knight Sir Lancelot. The lush Lerner and Loewe score will be conducted by the CCO’s music director Mischa Santora onstage with musicians from the orchestra.
Steele wraps up his four-production season with Jason Robert
Brown’s powerful musical Parade (April 5-21, 2013), staged by
local director-choreographer team Ed Cohen and Dee Anne Bryll, who will be
joined by music director Steve Goers (currently appearing in the Carnegie’s
production of Pump Boys & Dinettes).
Set in Atlanta in 1913, it’s about the intolerance and misunderstanding
swirling around the trial of a Jewish factory manager accused of murdering a
young girl in his employ. Cohen and Bryll staged an excellent community theater
production of the show with Footlighters Inc. in 2007, winning that season’s
outstanding community theater award. They also staged the Huck Finn musical Big River for the Carnegie with great
results in 2010.
It’s a great line-up, and I suspect audiences will be lining up in Covington for these productions.
Sure signs of springtime in Cincinnati: The Reds are playing (and
winning), trees in Over-the-Rhine are covered with white blossoms — and
Know Theatre has announced the lineup for the upcoming Cincinnati Fringe
Festival. 2013 is a significant year for the Fringe: It's marking the 10th anniversary of the annual celebration of weird creativity. Last
evening a big crowd gathered at Know Theatre's Jackson Street facility
to hear what's in store for the May 28-June 8 festival.
Know's producing artistic director, shared the news that, building on a
decade of success, the Fringe received a
record number of applicants for 2013, with 70 percent of the
applications coming from brand-new producers. That's one of the best
parts of the Fringe, the fact that a new jolt of energy arrives annually
from performers that haven't been seen locally. Sixty-three percent of the 2013
applications were from out of town, including several from
international producers. There will be 35 productions in all, by 17
local groups and 18 from out of town. There will be 19 plays, seven solo
shows, two dance pieces, two musicals, and five multimedia/variety
Vosmeier said that it was no easy task for the Fringe selection committee to assemble this lineup. The group was made up of theater professionals from Greater Cincinnati: Heather Britt, Michael Haney, Dave Levy, Miranda McGee, D. Lynn Meyers and Torie Wiggins. “The quality of applications continues to get stronger and larger each year," he said. "I'm so happy to have these amazing leaders of the local theatre community as a part of our jury, and we're grateful for their time in deciding the 2013 lineup.”
The official CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party takes place Tuesday, May 28, at Know Theatre. This year's event will also be a 10th birthday celebration, with many of the festival's founders in attendance. The evening, which kicks off at 6 p.m., will feature Indie rock group Bethesda and food from a half-dozen local eateries. The evening (suggested donation: $5) is an opportunity to meet Fringe artists, staff, volunteers and other audience members.
full Fringe schedule will be published in CityBeat's May 15 edition,
but you can get some information at the refreshed website: www.cincyfringe.com.
I'm looking forward to return visits by Wonderheads (from Portland,
Ore., who did some amazing work with masks in last year's Grim and Fischer; their new piece is titled LOON), Four Humors Theatre (from Minneapolis, whose always creative troupe will be staging Lolita: A Three Man Show) and Tanya O'Debra (from New York City; whose Radio Star was a much admired work in 2012; this time she's in a two-person piece, Shut UP, Emily Dickinson).
Performance Gallery, based here in Cincinnati and a regular annual
presence every year is staging Mater Facit, "an absurd look at
motherhood, nationalism, war, sex and sacrifice." Tangled Leaves
Theatrical Collective, another Cincinnati-based group popular with local
audiences, will produce Vortex of the Great Unknown.
Of course, the real fun of Fringe is being surprised by new material and performers, and this year's lineup offers plenty of that: Poe and Mathews: A Misadventure in the Middle of Nowhere (Los Angeles); Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity (Bloomington, Ind.); The Bubble and Other Displays of Moral Turpitude (from Cincinnati-based North American New Opera Workshop); The Elephant in My Closet (New York City); and a production of Cincinnati playwright Catie O'Keefe's The Space Between my Head and my Body (by Shark Eat Muffin Theatre Company). I could go on and on — Know's announcement news release is 20 pages! Based on a decade of Fringing, I like to say that the festival is "theater roulette": You never know what's going to happen when you show up for a performance, and serendipity is the only predictable element. That's what makes it fun. I don't want to wish away springtime, but is it May 28 yet?
Quite a few local theaters are opening new productions this week, but if I were to point you to just one for this weekend, it would be Next Fall, a new play by Geoffrey Nauffts, at Ensemble Theatre.
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.
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.
CityBeat hosted the 14th annual and final Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for Theater Sunday night at Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine, and as always the local theater community enjoyed the opportunity to catch up after summer breaks and celebrate before the new season gets underway. Awards were handed out in 27 categories, some voted on by the public and some determined by a "critical achievement" panel of local critics. Find a list of all the nominees and winners here.