There are several good theater choices south of the Ohio River this weekend.
The theater (and dance) program at Northern Kentucky University presents a truly varied array of programming — this season has included a play by Orson Welles, the legendary musical South Pacific, Shakespeare's As You Like It and more. The academic year's final production Monty Python's Spamalot, opened last evening, and it seems to be a perfect vehicle for a lot of onstage clowning. (In case you haven't been tuned in, the show is subtitled "A musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and many of the show's most hilarious moments are reproduced wholesale onstage.) But clowning can be serious work, and if you catch NKU's production, pay attention to the choreography (the work of NKU grad Roderick Justice) which is complex, amusing and very well executed by the cast of 25. Director Ken Jones keeps things moving; the actors get into the tomfoolery from start to finish, especially Kat Moser as the diva who's the Lady of the Lake and Bradley Goren as long-suffering Patsy (he's the one who clicks the coconut shells to simulate King Arthur riding on horseback, among other amusing moments). The show is a fine entertainment, if you're a fan of the low but articulate humor of the Python troupe. Through April 27. Tickets ($8-$14): 859-572-5464.
Comedy of an entirely different sort is available at another Kentucky venue, the Carnegie in Covington, where Mary Chase's 1945 Pulitzer Prize winner Harvey is available through April 27. This is a piece of gentle humor from the past, about a slightly off-kilter guy who sees a six-foot-plus rabbit — he calls it a "pooka" — named Harvey, much to the dismay of several family members who are embarrassed by his behavior. Their efforts to get him committed to a local asylum go awry to much merriment and a message about being, well, gentle and sweet. This is good, old-fashioned fun. Tickets: 859-957-1940.
If you prefer a well-written contemporary drama, this weekend is your last chance to see A Delicate Ship at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Anna Ziegler's new show (this is its world premiere) is a memory play that explores an unexpected chain of events triggered by a love triangle. It's beautifully staged by Michael Evan Haney with a cast of three actors who are just right for each of their roles. I gave this one a Critic's Pick when it opened; it's as good as anything I saw recently at the much-respected Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Tickets ($30-$80): 513-421-3888.
This evening at its Jackson Street headquarters in Over-the-Rhine, Know Theatre of Cincinnati revealed the lineup for the 11th annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival to a crowd of nearly 100 enthusiastic supporters and performers. The two-week festival begins Tuesday, May 27, with the CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party; it winds up 12 days later on Saturday, June 7, having presented 32 productions — 17 plays, two musicals, seven solo performers, and six dance presentations. In addition, there will be four FringeNext productions (selected from 11 applicants — a record number), featuring original material produced and performed by local students from the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Newport Central Catholic High School, St. Xavier High School and Highlands High School.
Performance Gallery is kind of the alpha and omega of the Cincinnati Fringe: They’ve been in all 11 festivals, including the 2008 hit show fricative. Producer Eric Vosmeier calls them the inspiration for much of what the Fringe is about: They were doing “fringe-like” work before the festival began, and they’ve returned annually with work that pushes the envelope. This time they’ll offer Heist, about three crooks of questionable ability. Vosmeier also cited Pones Inc., the dance-based company that returns for the seventh time with Traffick, a piece of audience engagement that explores issues of human trafficking. Vosmeier says, “This is the kind of work the Fringe was built to exhibit.”
“We had a great mix of new producers and returning favorites in the applicant pool,” Vosmeier says. “The word continues to spread about our Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which has a national reputation for being the most artist-friendly festival. We’ve worked very hard on this over the years, and I believe that we’ve created something special for our artists and for our region.”
The Cincinnati Fringe differs from festivals elsewhere in that productions are screened and handpicked by a committee of local theater artists. Drawing from a large pool of applicants, comparable to last year’s record-breaking number, this yielded a balanced mix of local vs. out-of-town producers: 15 from Greater Cincinnati and 18 from beyond. The latter number includes three international shows, the most ever for the festival: Around Dark Matter, a Holocaust memory piece by Mica Dvir, is from Tel Aviv, Israel; A Brief History of Beer by Wish Experience from London, a company that has performed at festivals from Edinburgh to Adelaide; and Prefer Not to Say, an interactive piece by blueDragonfly Productions, another U.K. group, the presenter of And All the Rest is Junk Mail a year ago.
For Wednesday evening’s announcement event, members of the Fringe staff mentioned the shows they were most looking forward to. They named:
· An Unauthorized Autobiography of Benny Hill by Four Humors Theater (Minneapolis), the creative minds behind such past Festival favorites as Lolita: A Three Man Show, Bombus and Berylline and Harold. This will be their sixth consecutive Cincinnati Fringe appearance.
· Blogging Behind Bars by Unity Productions, creators of two past Fringe hits, The Wave and Nothing. This time it’s a true story about a young, nonviolent criminal who wrote a blog while incarcerated in a maximum-security prison.
· Papa Squat’s Store of Sorts by solo artist Paul Strickland from Indianapolis, whose Ain’t True and Uncle False was a “Pick of the Fringe” last year. His new show is a music-filled memorial for a guy who “once filled the emptiness in Big-Fib Cul-de-sac with his insightful songs.”
· Something Something New Vagina by Rebecca Kling, a transgender artist and educator from Chicago with a follow-up show to her 2012 production, Beneath Her Skin.
· The Ultimate Stimulus by Felipe Ossa, a Brooklyn-based playwright and a new artist to the Cincy Fringe, is presented in the form of a TED Talk that argues for concubinage as a way to address the problem of income inequality.
The festival is also a chance for Cincinnati’s local theater companies to show off. Clifton Performance Theatre will present Sarge, a piece by Kevin Crowley about the wife of discredited Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Untethered Theatre has prepared Where Edward Went, a new play by Ben Dudley and Adam Sievering about a screenwriter’s effort to make a documentary about Edward, the late fiancé of Elyse, a painter. They don’t quite agree about the portrait. New Edgecliff Theatre will offer TRAGEDY: a tragedy, described as “one of the funniest apocalypses of our time.” And Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s intern company always offers a fine showcase of young talent. This year it’s two one-act plays: Sheila Callaghan’s Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) and Itamar Moses’s Authorial Intent.
In addition to the productions offered nightly, artists, audience members, staff and volunteers flock nightly at Know Theatre’s Underground and headquarters for the Fringe Bar Series, with a reasonably priced bar, some free food inside and offerings for purchase from food wagons on Jackson Street. Each evening after the Channel Fringe Hard Hitting Action News Update, everyone has a chance to be a performer with activities such as the Fringe Olympics, Fringe-A-Oke, Fringe Prom, Segway Night and the Night Without Technology. This year the Bar Series night adds Fringetoberfest, an evening of German-inspired food and brews from local craft beer creators.
Vosmeier expects the festival to attract more than 8,000 visitors this year. If you’re someone who tries to see as much as possible, your best bet is a “Full Frontal” Fringe pass ($200) providing access to every event in the festival. Know also offers “Voyeur” passes ($60) good for six shows of your choice. If you can only make it once, a “One Night Stand” pass ($25) is available — admission to any two performances in an evening plus one drink at Know’s Underground bar. Single tickets to Fringe shows continue to be priced at $12; they’ll go on sale in mid-May.
There will be lots more — and the lineup can change. Hey, it’s the Fringe, so be ready for anything. You’ll find details on all these shows and more at cincyfringe.com.
“We had a great mix of new producers and returning favorites in the applicant pool,” says Producing Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier. “The word continues to spread about our Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which has a national reputation for being the most artist-friendly festival. We’ve worked very hard on this over the years, and I believe that we’ve created something special for our artists and for our region.”
The pool of applicants, comparable to last year’s record-breaking number, has yielded a mix of local vs. out-of-town producers: 15 from Greater Cincinnati, including the return of Performance Gallery for the 11th consecutive year (it’s the only group that’s been in every Fringe) with a new piece, Heist, about three crooks of questionable ability. There will be 18 productions from beyond Cincinnati, including three international shows.
Vosmeier expects the festival to attract more than 8,000 visitors for 2014. If you’re one of those people who tries to see as much as possible, your best bet is a “Full Frontal” Fringe pass ($200) that gives you access to every event in the festival. Know also offers “Voyeur” passes ($60) good for six shows of your choice. If you can be there for one evening, a “One Night Stand” pass ($25) is available, offering access to any two performances in an evening and one drink at Know Theatre’s Underground bar. Individual tickets to Fringe Festival shows continue to be priced at $12; they’ll go on sale in mid-May.
Look for more information at CityBeat.com after the 7 p.m. announcement tonight. More info: cincyfringe.com.
If you follow music coverage in CityBeat (hey, isn't that really why you pick up the paper?), you're certainly aware of Green Day's 2004 recording American Idiot.
But since you're reading my weekend theater previews, you must be
interested in other kinds of performance, so here's a tip: For two nights
only, Green Day's American Idiot, a stage version of the powerful Punk score, will be onstage at the Aronoff. That's right — Friday and Saturday
only, just three performances, much shorter that Broadway in
Cincinnati's two-week presentation of touring Broadway musicals. I can
vouch for this one, since I saw it a year ago during a similar tour stop
It's the story of three disaffected guys who take different downward spirals when confronted with the numbing boredom of everyday life — "alien nation" — as they sing in the opening number. The recording was conceived as a "Punk Rock Opera" and turned into a Tony Award-nominated Broadway show in 2010, with a lot of involvement by Green Day's lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong (who actually appeared onstage in New York at various performances; that's not happening here in Cincinnati). There's a day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets; you need to show up two-and-a-half hours before the performance you're hoping to see (8 p.m. Friday, and 5 and 8 p.m. on Saturday) with a valid photo ID. Complete an entry form and wait 30 minutes to find out if you're a winner. If you prefer to just go ahead and buy your seats ($38-$91), you can call the Aronoff box office: 513-621-2787.
Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival is indeed a launching pad for exciting new works. That makes its final weekend the perfect moment for the American Theatre Critics Association to recognize a set of outstanding plays produced at regional theaters during 2013. None of the 2013 Humana Festival shows was nominated, but one of the three works to win a significant cash prize ($7,500) was Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, given its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park last fall. The play blends magical realism and political issues in an affecting tale examining if forgiveness is truly possible. Set in a Central American nation ravaged by civil war, lust, plague and a consuming need for vengeance, it’s about a widowed doctor in a small village and a newly-married soldier charged with subduing dissent. Their journeys towards redemption converge in some painful ways.
The top prize ($25,000) went to Lauren Gunderson for her play I and You, about a cranky high school student who needs a liver transplant. A smart, athletic classmate recruits her to help him finish a school project focused on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As their unlikely relationship evolves, they explore the meaning of life and death without a shred of condescension or pretentiousness. I and You was staged last October at Marin Theatre Company in California, where Jasson Minadakis, who founded Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, is now artistic director and nurtured the development of Gunderson’s script. Her play Toil & Trouble was presented locally last summer by Know Theatre.
The three-week run of the tour of Wicked wraps up this Sunday at the Aronoff Center. It's a faithful reproduction of the Broadway hit, with performers who can give you the experience of seeing the original, a kind of prequel to The Wizard of Oz. (Tickets, $38-$188: 513-621-2787, but each performance has a pre-show lottery; if your name is pulled, you can buy a ticket for $25). If you've already seen this one, I suggest you check out one of the great new productions on local stages.
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati has offered another powerhouse season this year, but I'll venture to say that The Mountaintop is aptly named: It's at the peak. It's an imagined story about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before he was assassinated. I'll venture to say that you've never seen him in quite this altogether human light, as portrayed — dare I say wholly embodied — by Gavin Lawrence. And then he's visited by Camae, a sassy maid who evolves into something so much more as he contemplates the meaning of his life. The always watchable Torie Wiggins takes on this role, and it might be one of her best performances yet at ETC. The Mountaintop won London's Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2011, and in my opinion, it's one of the best productions we'll see here in Cincinnati this theater season. Through April 6. (Tickets, $25-$43: 513-421-3555).
I caught up with the Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Pride and Prejudice at the Playhouse earlier this week. (It opened a week ago, but I was out of town.) It's a faithful rendition of Jane Austen's beloved novel, gorgeously staged and costumed. It has a big cast, so all the characters, quirky and memorable, are present and accounted for — a few actors need to play more than one role. If you're an Austen fan, I suspect you'll like this one; if not, you might find it kind of uneven, since some characters come across as cartoons (especially Elizabeth Bennet's meddlesome, garrulous mother and the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh) while others are more naturalistic. Kate Cook's Lizzie has all the right notes (she ought to, as she's played the role several times elsewhere) and Loren Dunn's Mr. Darcy, while a bit slow out of the gate, eventually captures the character's aloof charm. Director Blake Robison has done a good job with an interesting adaptation that has scenes that flow swiftly one into the next, sometimes with overlapping elements that recall past moments. Through April 5. (Tickets, $30-$80: 513-421-3888).
Back in the early 1980s, the musical A … My Name is Alice had a long run at New York City's The Village Gate. Northern Kentucky University is producing its version of this collection of songs focused on the paradoxes women face — beauty, strength and heart. The show, created by an array of comedians, lyricists and composers, has 20 songs. It's being staged by Corrie Daniely, the newest faculty member in NKU's theater and dance department. Through April 30. (Tickets, $8-$14: 859-572-5464).
I had a glimpse of Broadway's future last night on campus at UC. I attended Not Yet Famous, the 22nd edition of CCM's musical theater showcase, featuring the about-to-graduate senior class. The 19 vibrant performers presented a 45-minute program that they'll take to New York City on April 7 to present to casting agents, producers and others. It's how they begin to land contracts and establish relationships that will give them solid professional careers. With accompanist Julie Spangler at the piano, the singers worked as a large ensemble and smaller sets, but each one had multiple chances to show off her or his strengths as a singer, dancer and actor — they're all trained to be "triple threats" with a polished arsenal of vocal and movement skills. They were warmly received by the Friends of CCM, the support group that helps keep various programs at the conservatory going; the evening was a benefit. You have a chance to see the showcase for free if you act quickly: There will be performances on Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m. at Patricia Corbett Theater. No charge, but you need to call CCM's box office to reserve a seat (limit of two per order). I suspect tickets will be snapped up, so call right away: 513-556-4183.
Wicked is in the midst of its three-week run at the Aronoff Center. This is one of the most popular Broadway shows of the 21st century (it's been running for a decade, as well as spawning productions around the world plus two national tours, one of which is in our midst). It's here through April 23, but tickets are expensive (cheap seats are $38 and anything else is more), so you might want to try your chances in the daily lottery for a $25 orchestra seats. Grab your valid ID and show up in person 2.5 hours before the curtain time to enter; if your name is chosen, you can purchase one or two tickets. Of course, if you're flush you can guarantee seats by buying what you need at 513-621-2787.
The Playhouse just opened Pride and Prejudice, a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen's most popular 200-year-old novel. I won't see it until next week (busy schedule), but if you're a fan — and it seems that everyone loves her novels of manners and romance — you probably need to line up to see this one. Director Blake Robison calls his production "epic," adding, "The story is a satire of the marriage market and an exploration of true love. What could be more fun than that?" It's onstage through April 5. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
What with St. Patrick’s Day coming on Monday, this might be the perfect weekend to see Clifton Players’ production of The Irish Curse (at Clifton Performance Theatre, 404 Ludlow Ave.). Lots of folks have told me they enjoyed this tale about a group of Irish-American men who meet weekly in a self-help group in a Catholic church basement to discuss a sad “shortcoming” — let’s call it “small equipment,” a curse they believe has ruined their lives. It gets its final performance on Sunday, right before you line up for your first green beer. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
Can you imagine Les Misérables without a turntable or the immense barricades lumbering down from the wings? Aubrey Berg, head of the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music’s renowned musical theater program, has dramatically re-imagined the legendary show for a run at UC, using a largely bare stage backed by a wall of ladders, staircases, shelves and recessed ledges. Berg's simplified physical production earned my Critic's Pick with its sharper focus on characters, action and music. Les Mis has a remarkable cast of 40 or so with soaring vocal talent for solo numbers and breathtaking choral power when they combine forces in iconic numbers such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.” It's a spectacular production, onstage through Sunday. Tickets: 513-556-4183.
Wicked just opened a three-week run at the Aronoff (it's the third time the show has been here, and it's set box office records every time). Tickets can be expensive (the cheap seats start at $38 and go up quickly from there), so keep in mind there's lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats for each performance. You need to show up in person 2.5 hours before the curtain time (with a valid photo ID) to submit your name; if it's pulled you can purchase one or two tickets. It's worth a shot. Otherwise, you can purchase tickets by calling 513-621-2787.
If you're a Tony Bennett fan, you might consider heading to the West Side for I Left My Heart at the Covedale Center, a salute to the legendary crooner. You'll get to hear 40 standards that he's known for — "Because of You," "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life" and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Tom Highley, Deondra Kamau Means and Brian Wylie will be singing, with Mark Magistrelli at the piano. Through March 23. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
Here's an item worth considering for Monday evening: The Educational Theatre Association, a national organization for high school kids involved in theater, is headquartered here in Cincinnati. (They're the folks behind the National Thespian Society.) They're partnering with the School for Creative and Performing Arts on Monday at 7 p.m. for Making Magic, Defying Gravity. Presented at SCPA's Corbett Theatre (108 Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine), the evening offers a program of music and conversation featuring members of the touring cast of Wicked (as noted above) and performances by high school students from the area. You'll hear from Jason Daunter, Wicked's production stage manager, and Matt Conover, VP with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. They'll talk about how their high school dreams led to careers in the theater. Tickets are $10 in advance; 15 at the door (going on sale at 5:45 p.m.). Proceeds from this event will benefit the Friends of SCPA Scholarship Fund and the Educational Theatre Association's Scholarship Fund, both of which will help develop talent for the future of the theater.
In a recent conversation, Artistic Director Blake Robison described his program priorities and told me the Playhouse takes them seriously. “Variety is one of our hallmarks. We’re always going to make sure there are new works and culturally diverse works and that there are family-friendly or multigenerational things. We will find ways to continue to support and entertain the traditional audience while reaching out in various directions to new audiences. It’s our responsibility to bring the best theatrical material both old and new to our community.”
I’d say Robison’s third season sticks to his priorities.
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
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
I’m in New York City this week to check out some Broadway shows, so I’m missing the opening night of the Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Low Down Dirty Blues. It’s the holiday “alternative” to A Christmas Carol, and alternative it is. It’s set in a nameless Blues club on Chicago’s South Side that’s closing for the night. But that’s just when the party heats up as a group of musicians assembles for an after-hours jam session to swap stories and perform favorite tunes, especially numbers from the bawdier side of the Blues, tunes by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton and more. “It is a spicier kind of Blues, specifically one that has two sides to it," says Dan Wheetman, the production’s co-creator and music director. "On one hand, it is a more intimate look, it is a smaller group and a smaller palate… It’s a story about the people, these people in this club and their stories, which includes the music but it is more of a personal talk about what brought them to where they are.” I’m eager to see it. Onstage through Dec. 20. Tickets: 513-421-3555
It’s that time of year when families begin thinking about going to the theater together. Getting an early start are musical productions for the entire family. Once choice is Seussical, based on the works of Dr. Seuss, at Northern Kentucky University. It opened on Thursday and continues through Nov. 22. Tickets: 859-572-5464 … The other is a production of the musical Mary Poppins by Cincinnati Music Theatre at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. This is perhaps the city’s most ambitious community theater company, typically undertaking big musicals and doing a good job with them. It opens tonight and continues through Nov. 21. Tickets: 513-621-2787 … If you miss the latter, you’ll have a chance to see a different production: The Covedale Center will be presenting it Nov. 27-Dec. 27.
Continuing and finishing: A keep-’em-guessing murder mystery with just two characters, Sleuth, continues its run at the Carnegie through Nov. 22. (Tickets: 859-957-1940)… This is the final weekend for Mad River Rising at the Cincinnati Playhouse (final performance is Saturday; tickets: 513-421-3888); Andy’s House of [BLANK], an original musical at Know Theater (also winding up on Saturday; tickets: 513-300-5669); and an old-fashioned farce, Fox on the Fairway, at the Covedale (Sunday’s matinee is your last chance; tickets: 513-241-6550).
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
“Florala.” That’s where you are when you head down the ramp to see Know Theatre’s production of Andy’s House of [Blank]. It’s set on the state line between Florida and Alabama, but it’s recreated in two-dimensional cardboard props (telephones and ice cream cones) and decorations (comically taxidermied animals, including the backside of a dog) imaginatively designed and executed by Sarah Beth Hall. The tale is filtered through the often-divergent memories of two guys who were 16 in 1998, holding down their first jobs in roadside oddity shop and museum of “unmailed love letters.” The “guys” are Paul Strickland and Trey Tatum (truly from Florida and Alabama). They serve as the narrators — or perhaps the “recollectors” — of the oddball musical tale of Andy (Christopher Michael Richardson), the proprietor, and Sadie (Erika Kate MacDonald), the girl he had a crush on as a kid. The show was a well-received entry in Know’s “Serials” earlier this year, a story told in five 15-minute episodes. Strickland and Tatum have stitched those pieces together, and director Bridget Leak has given the piece continuity and flow. Their ebullient enthusiasm is obvious from start to finish — Tatum pounds away on an electric keyboard, Strickland (who composed the 20 or so songs) plays guitar and sings almost operatically, and Richardson and MacDonald (both with gorgeous voices) affectingly play two people caught in a looping time warp. In fact, all four characters are living out the theme repeatedly spoken and sung: “Every day is just a variation on a theme.” The music is great, and there are lots of laughs along the way, but the story is a serious, poignant rumination about love, longing and how to move forward by looking back. At two-plus hours (including an intermission) it feels a tad long, but every moment is a treat to watch. Onstage through Nov. 14. Tickets: 513-300-5669
Opening this week: Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth, a humorous but taut murder mystery is at The Carnegie in Covington. It’s a two-man show about a famous mystery writer who’s out to murder a man having an affair with his wife. There are a lot of twists and turns in this tale, so it’s fun to watch if you pay close attention. Through Nov. 14. Tickets: 859-957-1840 … Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa fascinated Cincinnati Playhouse audiences back in 2013 with his “sequel” to The Crucible, Abigail/1702. Falcon Theatre is offering two related one-acts by him, The Mystery Plays, inspired by the tradition of medieval theater that dealt with the imponderables of death, the afterlife, religion, faith and forgiveness — but from a thoroughly American perspective. In the first piece, a horror film director survives a train wreck only to be haunted by someone who didn’t make it; in the second, a woman travels to a rural Oregon town to make peace with the man who murdered her parents and her sister: He’s her older brother. Through Nov. 21 at the Monmouth Theatre in Newport. Tickets: 513-479-6783
Continuing: Cincinnati Shakespeare’s excellent production of Arthur Miller’s classic drama Death of a Salesman has its final performance on Saturday evening. It’s worth seeing, but tickets might be scarce. Tickets: 513-381-2273 … Mad River Rising at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a compelling study of place and aging, an old man trying to forestall the sale of his family farm. It continues through Nov. 14. Tickets: 513-421-3888 … Covedale Center’s staging of the comedy Fox on the Fairway, a tribute to cinematic farces from the 1930s and 1940s, is onstage until Nov. 15. Tickets: 513-241-6550
Tune in to WVXU (FM 91.7) on Saturday evening at 8 p.m. to catch LA Theater Works’ production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. This show, about a young Jewish Confederate soldier marking Passover 1865 with his family’s newly freed slaves in a crumbling mansion in Richmond, Va., at the end of the Civil War, is a powerful work. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati staged this show very effectively in 2012.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
There are almost too many good shows for you to enjoy this weekend, but depending on what you like, you’ll probably find it somewhere.
Cincy Shakes production of Death of a Salesman doesn’t open until tonight, but all sings point to a strong production, headlined by one of our region’s best actors, Bruce Cromer, as beaten-down Willie Loman, who I interviewed for my CityBeat column this week. He’s matched with another fine local stage performer Annie Fitzpatrick as Willie’s faithful but worried wife; two of the Shakespeare team’s excellent company of actors, Jared Joplin and Justin McCombs, play Willie’s sons who can’t quite bear up to the weight of his expectations. Arthur Miller’s play is one of the greatest, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. So if it’s serious drama, get tickets for this one, onstage through Nov. 7: 513-381-2273.
Want something more frivolous and entertaining, but still a great performance? Show up at Ensemble Theatre for Buyer and Cellar, a one-man show about a guy pretending to be a shopkeeper in a vast basement treasure trove of acquisitions on Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate. It’s 90 minutes of non-stop storytelling, rooted in a real place — but with a fantasized chain of events. Actor Nick Cearley is a comic gem, performing in a smartly written script that requires him to conjure up not just Alex, the actor hired to wait on Barbra, “the customer” (one and only), but the singer herself and a handful of others. Great fun to watch. Here’s my review. Through Nov. 1. Tickets: 513-421-3555.
If you love a good Broadway musical, you need to show up at the Aronoff and score a seat for the touring production of Pippin. (CityBeat review here.) It’s a show from 40 years ago (by Stephen Schwartz, the creator of Wicked more recently), but this version of an award-winning Broadway revival from two years ago is full of Cirque du Soleil-styled acrobatics, as well as some great songs and performers. It’s a sort of fairytale embroidered from a real historical character from the 9th century, the son of the monarch who launched the Holy Roman Empire. It’s about the young Pippin’s arduous search for a meaningful life. The “Leading Player,” a kind of emcee/storyteller, is Gabrielle McClinton, who handled the role on Broadway for part of its two-year run there, and Charlemagne, Pippin’s father, is played by veteran actor John Rubinstein — who originated the title role back in 1972. (He’s 68 now, but still an energetic, animated performer.) Tickets: 513-621-2787.
Shows previous opened that are also worth seeing include the very serious drama Extremities at the Incline Theater in E. Price Hill (tickets: 513-241-6550), onstage through Sunday; and Sex with Strangers, a very modern romance about writers who envy one another’s careers and lust after one another’s bodies, has another week and a half at the Cincinnati Playhouse (tickets: 513-421-3888).
Sex is pretty much a constant presence in life as we know
it, and it’s often a driving force in plays, taking on many shapes and
outcomes. That’s particularly the case with two shows that just opened
locally, Laura Eason’s new play, Sex with Strangers, at the Cincinnati Playhouse on its Shelterhouse stage through Oct. 25, and William Mastrisimone’s 1982 script, Extremities, at Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Incline Theatre, through Oct. 18.
Eason’s script is about two writers who seem as opposite as can be — he’s an arrogant 28-year-old blogger (Nicholas Carrière as the charming and ebullient Ethan) whose writing about sexual conquests has been turned into a best-selling book, while she’s a serious, introspective novelist, 39, (Nancy Lemenager as introverted and self-conscious Olivia) who’s given up because of bad reviews and weak sales of her first book more than a decade earlier. But they end up together in a Michigan B&B due to a snowstorm (and some serious interest on his part in meeting her) and they discover a powerful mutual attraction that’s also driven by aspiration and envy of one another’s careers. Eason writes great contemporary dialogue, and director KJ Sanchez keeps things hurtling along down a road of desire and tentative trust. It seems evident that things could go off the tracks, but when they do there’s some more interesting sparks — and a lot of conversation about the state of writing and literature today. While the show’s title is titillating and they are strangers who steam things up — repeatedly — it’s really the title of his blog, and a past that he might or might not want to move beyond. There’s both humor and real emotion to be appreciated in this finely crafted production. Tickets: 513-421-3888
Mastrisimone’s off-Broadway script from three decades ago (Extremities also became a 1986 movie starring Farrah Fawcett) comes at issues of sex and attraction from a far more serious and brutal angle. It’s a significant a departure for Cincinnati Landmark, best known as a producer of safer, more mainstream fare, musicals and classical comedies. Raul (Will Reed) has been stalking three young women who share a house. He bursts in on Marjorie (Eileen Earnest), who we meet lounging around in a state of undress; he overpowers her, knowing her roommates won’t be back for hours. But she turns the tables on him, and when Terry (Katey Blood) and Patricia (Rachel Mock) return, they find Marjorie menacing and torturing her foul-mouthed attacker, hogtied and imprisoned in a large fireplace. They are shocked by her violent turn, and their perspectives — Terry is shocked and fearful, while Patricia is pragmatic and overly analytical — provide various takes on the situation and its potential resolution. Their four-cornered battle unfolds in harsh, often unhinged arguments about motives, likely outcomes and fears. Some of these feel a tad dated in 2015, but that does not diminish the story’s power. Earnest’s searing performance as Marjorie and Reed’s manipulative portrait of an intelligent, twisted man she insists on calling “The Animal” fuel the pounding pulse of this production of Extremities, staged by Tim Perrino. You’re never sure how the battle will end, and that makes for good theater. Tickets: 513-241-6550
CCM Drama head Richard Hess calls David Edgar’s Pentecost the British equivalent of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both are big-cast plays, stuffed full of language and contending philosophies. The discovery of a 13th-century mural in an Eastern European church threatens to upset the world of art history, but it also lights the match on conflicts that go well beyond — to geopolitics, religion, history and more. It’s a heady script, with 26 roles speaking multiple languages, utterances that audiences have to intuit, just as the characters need to try to grasp one another’s motives. Read more about Pentecost in my recent Curtain Call column. Like most CCM productions, this one (at UC’s Patricia Corbett Theater) has a short weekend run; the final performance is a matinee on Sunday. Pentecost is an important play, an essential experience for serious theatergoers. Tickets: 513-556-4183
One more interesting piece of theater this weekend, inspired by Titus Kaphar’s Vesper Project at the Contemporary Arts Center, a multi-part installation in which paintings are woven into the walls of a 19th-century American house in New England, the home of a mixed-race family. His exhibit there involves a true/false backstory and familiar/unfamiliar environments. The massive exhibit invites conversation, and that’s what writer (and occasional CityBeat contributor) Stacy Sims has created after several discussions with the artist. She invited five local actors to work with her to respond to the piece, and the result, RETRACED: A theatrical conversation with the Vesper Project, will be performed three times this weekend at the CAC on Sixth Street in downtown Cincinnati, at noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday and at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Sims says, “While I have a strong idea of how the actors will move in and out of the space and intersect with each other, each of their individual stories will be deeply informed by their own personal narratives of race, power, privilege and home.” Performances are free with gallery admission.
This weekend is your last chance to see the Cincinnati Playhouse’s beautiful production of The Secret Garden, NKU’s rendition of the comedy Moon Over Buffalo and New Edgecliff Theatre’s well-acted staging of Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune.
New Edgecliff Theatre’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is under way a week later than initially announced following some issues with its not-quite-ready new home in Northside. So it’s been moved to the Essex Studio (2511 Essex Place, Walnut Hills), in a performance space routinely used by Cincinnati Actors Studio & Academy, a training group for teens. It was bit of hustle and strain to move a half-built set from Northside to Walnut Hills, but it fits nicely into CASA’s black box. Rather than rattling around in a big old church sanctuary (Northside’s work-in-progress Urban Artifact), NET’s staging of Terrence McNally’s 1987 romantic dramedy works beautifully in this more intimate space. But I suspect no matter where it was staged, the two-character show would be well received thanks to actors Sara Mackie and Dylan Shelton, smartly put through their paces by director Jared Doren. As lonely co-workers in a New York greasy spoon diner, they’ve finally connected — at least for a night. They’re both kind of needy although in very different ways. Frankie, a sweet waitress, has been bruised by bad relationships and seems happy with her own insular existence; Johnny, the motor-mouthed short-order cook who can quote Shakespeare, is driven by angst and passion — filled with desperation that he doesn’t have any more chances for romances. This naturally frightens Frankie, and their navigation through this minefield, full of passion and snark, makes audiences laugh and love them both. It’s definitely worth seeing. Because of the move, it’s a short run, just through Oct. 3. Tickets: 888-528-7311
The folks who run Falcon Theater, performing in Newport at the Monmouth Theatre (636 Monmouth St.) have staked a claim on comic musical satires — they’ve produced Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, Poseidon: The Upside-Down Musical, Evil Dead: The Musical and several more. So they worked really hard to get the rights to Silence: The Musical, based on The Silence of the Lambs, the creepy 1991 movie about “Hannibal the Cannibal” starring Anthony Hopkins as a manipulative serial killer and Jodie Foster as the young FBI cadet who needs him to solve another serial murder. The musical version was a big hit at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival and over the past decade it's become a cult favorite. It opens tonight and continues on weekends through Oct. 10. Tickets: 513-479-6783
The first production of the season at Northern Kentucky University, Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo, is a comedy about a pair of fading actors from the 1950s on tour in Buffalo. Their marriage is coming apart, but a famous movie director is coming to see their matinee and just might cast them in an upcoming feature. But everything goes wrong when they start confusing the two shows they’re performing — Noël Coward’s Private Lives and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Tickets: 859-572-5464
Speaking of Cyrano, there’s a fine production of it (not to be confused with anything else …) at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, with an excellent performance by company veteran Jeremy Dubin in the title role. It’s onstage through Oct. 3. 513-381-2273. • Also closing on Oct. 3 is the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s beautiful production of The Secret Garden, a musical based on a cherished novel from a century ago. This is one of the Playhouse’s “family-friendly” productions — like A Christmas Carol — suitable for multiple generations. It looks great, and the talent onstage — much of it from Broadway — is top-notch. Tickets: 513-421-3888
If you haven’t seen Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, you really should try to get there this weekend for one of its final showings. This new play hat will make you uncomfortable because it’s about a tough conflict with no obvious right or wrong — a custody fight over a baby between her irresponsible parents and her religiously conservative grandmother, refereed by an over-burdened social worker. The cast (including three former ETC apprentices who do a great job) is led by Annie Fitzpatrick as the weary social worker. She’s especially good in this role, a woman trying to do the right thing who’s thwarted at every turn. Final performance is 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 513-421-3555
Actors are a big reason we go to see specific performances, and there are a couple of excellent choices onstage right now as several theaters are kicking off their 2015-2016 seasons. Of particular note is Annie Fitzpatrick, a familiar performer to audiences frequenting productions at Ensemble Theatre. She’s playing Caroline, an over-burdened social worker in Luna Gale. Her character is caught in a custody tug of war involving a baby, the title character. Her immature parents are on one side, caught up in drugs and angry behavior; on the other side is Luna Gale’s well-intentioned grandmother who’s religiously conservative. Fitzpatrick portrays a beleaguered woman trying to do what’s right, but constantly thwarted by the system in which she works. You feel this desperation deep down inside Caroline’s character, in her physical presence, in her exasperated stares and sighs. Fitzpatrick is a marvel to watch. She’s a major factor in my giving this production a Critic’s Pick. (Note for the future: She’ll be onstage next at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Oct. 16-Nov. 7, playing Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman.) Luna Gale continues through Sept. 27. Tickets: 512-421-3555
Another veteran actor is shining at Cincinnati Shakespeare this month. Jeremy Dubin, a member of CSC’s acting company for 16 seasons, is playing the swashbuckling poet Cyrano de Bergerac. The show is sometimes called a heroic comedy, and Dubin handles both parts of that phrase with aplomb. He makes Cyrano larger than life in his generosity and faithfulness, but he plays him with the requisite sense of humor — especially in scenes involving Cyrano’s oversized nose, a convincing prosthetic created for Dubin’s performance. He has excelled in roles both comic and serious; Cyrano draws on both. Read more about this play and Cincy Shakes’ production in my recent column. Tickets: 513-621
One more excellent acting performance worth catching: Caitlin Cohn as 10-year-old Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden at the Cincinnati Playhouse. She’s actually a college student (New York University), but the petite actress is wholly convincing as the ornery, bright and eventually loving orphan who finds the warmth of nature and shares it with her grieving uncle. Cohn is doing an audacious job with a challenging role. Tickets: 513-421-3888
If you were planning to see New Edgecliff Theatre’s production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune this weekend, you need to put it in neutral. Due to some technical delays with NET’s new home at Urban Artifact (1622 Blue Rock Road, Northside) the company is moving the production to a different venue and delaying performances for a week. It’s not scheduled to be presented at Essex Studios (2511 Essex Place, Walnut Hills) opening Sept. 24 and continuing through Oct. 3. NET is contacting people who already had reservations. If you don’t have tickets yet, call now: 888-421-7311
A few quick notes: Showbiz Players, a dependable community theater company that likes satirical shows, is presenting The Rocky Horror Show at the Carnegie in Covington, through Sept. 26. Tickets: 859-957-1940 … Performance Gallery, an avant-garde troupe of performers that’s been a steady contributor to the Cincinnati Fringe, is reprising its production from the 2015 Fringe, Shirtzencockle, at Know Theatre on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. It’s a surreal, magical, ridiculous blind of folk and fairy tales. Tickets: 513-300-5669 … Kate Tombaugh, who studied opera at UC’s CCM (and trained in numerous other places) is presenting her one-woman show, It Just Takes One. It portrays the roller-coaster story of a young woman in her 20s seeking a career in opera while struggling to find a social life. A benefit for the Charitable Care Fund at Children’s Hospital, it’s being presented at St. Thomas Episcopal Church (100 Miami Ave., Terrace Park) on Friday evening at 8 p.m. and in 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
The fall theater season is fully under way. I’ve seen several productions that I can recommend, starting with Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s staging of Luna Gale. The story focuses on a weary social worker caught on the horns of a horrible dilemma — a custody battle between teen parents with drug issues and a zealously religious grandmother — with veteran actress Annie Fitzpatrick turning in another outstanding acting performance. The production is also an impressive reminder of the fine work ETC has been doing for 30 years since three actors in Luna Gale were ETC apprentices a year ago. The award-winning Luna Gale is being produced at many theaters across America this season, but I can’t imagine that any of those productions will be better than the one we have right here in Cincinnati. I gave it a Critic’s Pick. Through Sept. 27. Tickets: 513-421-3555
Last night I was at the Playhouse for The Secret Garden opening its 56th season. While this is a story about a 10-year-old girl, it’s quite serious and thoughtful. Orphaned and seemingly headed for unhappiness, she finds redemption in nature and friendship, bringing others along on her path to a better place through abandoned garden that comes back to life. In my review, I suggest that this production might be a bit too complex and impressionistic for kids, but the show is physically beautiful and gorgeous musically. Caitlin Cohn’s performance as Mary Lennox is impressive; she’s a student at New York University, but quite convincing as a young girl. The cast features two CCM musical theater grads, Adam Monley and Carlyn Connolly, and a raft of polished New York veterans. Through Oct. 3. Tickets: 513-241-3888
If you’re a fan of the music of the ’60s and ’70s, you’re likely to love the touring production of Motown: The Musical currently rattling the rafters at the Aronoff Center (through Sept. 20). The hardworking cast does a great job of recreating the sounds of Motown — The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, and many more. The play in which this is presented, however, is not so stimulating — Motown founder Barry Gordy’s story was written by (you guessed it) Barry Gordy, and it all feels pretty self-serving. But the music is great, and it comes at you hot and heavy — nearly 60 songs, although many are in medleys or shortened versions. Nevertheless, it’s a great reminder of the Pop tunes that kept American singing and dancing several decades ago. Tickets: 513-621-2787
The Covedale Center is offering an ambitious staging of a great musical, A Chorus Line, with some fine dancing in its own right. This is a very moving show about people who put themselves “on the line” to do something they love. It’s still powerful after 40 years, and Cincinnati Landmark Productions has done a fine job with this one. (Through Sept. 27. Tickets: 513-241-6550
There’s a lot of laughter at Know Theatre this weekend where the Cincinnati Improv Festival is underway. I understand that there aren’t many tickets left, but if you’re a fan of this branch of comedy, you should call to see if you can get in. Shows tonight and Saturday. Tickets: 513-300-5669
There’s a lot more coming next week, once we get past Labor Day, but right now there’s just one theater locally with a production onstage. That’s the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts. Artistic Director Tim Perrino has been reminding everyone that just because Cincinnati Landmark Productions has opened the Incline Theatre, don’t think that the Covedale has shut down. In fact, it has an ambitious line-up of shows, and the opening production is already under way, A Chorus Line. I haven’t seen this production of it yet, but I will tell you that it’s a show that really lit my interest in musical theater. It was a Broadway hit back in 1975, and I saw a touring production of it in Cleveland in 1978. I had next to no income at the time — and tickets for subsequent performances were pretty well sold out anyway — but I told several friends that in a perfect world, I would have gone back to see it again. I had to wait a few years for that to happen, but this story of aspiring performers grabs me every time I see it. It’s the story of eager young dancers trying to get into the chorus of an upcoming Broadway production. The group is narrowed to 17, but the ultimate goal is four men and four women. The songs are rooted in each dancer’s personal story: Some are amusing, some are heart wrenching — all are painfully true. At the end, they all coalesce into “One (Singular Sensation),” a stunning finale that has all the individuals we’ve met together, dancing as one. It’s a wonderful metaphor about the passion to perform and to be part of a larger whole. A Chorus Line at the Covedale has performances this weekend and continues through Sept. 27. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
Last evening I drove to Louisville where Actors Theatre is opening its 2015-2016 season with a superb production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, one of his “Century Cycle” plays chronicling African-American life in Pittsburgh across the decades of the 20th century. This one, set in the late 1940s, swirls around a promising young Blues singer, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who has been offered a recording contract just after his release from a 90-day stint in jail. The play opens with his funeral then circles back through scenes reminiscing about his life and six vividly different people who were close to him — three women and three men. The cast is powerful, and the minutely detailed setting, a desolate backyard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (inspired by the art of African-American painter and collagist Romare Bearden) is a sight to behold. Seven Guitars blends humor, lyricism and tragedy. Although several of Wilson’s remarkable plays have been stage in Cincinnati, Seven Guitars — winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play in 1996 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award — has not been produced locally. So you might want to make a run down I-71 to Louisville between now and Sept. 20 to see this. This production is definitely worth the trip. Tickets: 502-584-1205.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.