Since the 2011 Cincinnati Fringe Festival kicked off on June 1, a panel of three dedicated theater experts have been evaluating performances for recognition through the Acclaim Awards. These awards are in the process of being renamed, but for the sake of clarity and brevity, I’m going to call them by their soon-to-be-former name. The panelists are veterans of the Acclaims; neither Jackie Demaline of The Cincinnati Enquirer nor I are members of the panel or involved in this process.
Around noon on Monday, the Cincinnati Playhouse will announcement its 2012-2013 season, the first mapped out by someone other than Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern in 20 years. Blake Robison takes over for the retiring Stern on July 1, so he’s had the daunting task of following in those big (and very successful) footsteps. Stern liked to present work by up-and-coming playwrights, and Robison has the same inclination, although as someone a generation younger than Stern, he has his own connections and ideas. He’s landed a world premiere by one of the most intriguing young playwrights in the United States, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The show is called Abigail/1702, and we’ll see it early in 2013 (Jan. 19-Feb. 17).
It’s Aguirre-Sacasa’s imaginative exploration of what became of Abigail Williams, the young girl who sets in motion the Salem witch trials portrayed in Arthur Miller’s classic play from 1952, The Crucible. The new work, set a decade after Abigail accused many people of witchcraft, portrays her in her late 20s, struggling to atone for her sins, the ones portrayed in that memorable play — as well as darker ones that live in her heart. As she cares for a young sailor on the brink of death, a stranger from her past finds her and sets her on a quest for redemption.
Robison, who will direct the production, staged another work by Aguirre-Sacasa, his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that proved to be a bit hit at the Roundhouse Theatre in Maryland, where Robison served as artistic director. “When I found out that I was coming to the Playhouse, one of the first calls I made was to Roberto because I value his voice as an artist so much. I told him, ‘Send me whatever you’re working on right now.’ He sent me this play and I read it. I texted him and said, ‘You wrote an awesome play! I want to do it.’”
Robison admires the writer’s breadth of work: He’s written for Marvel Comics (Marvel Knights, Spider-Man and The Stand), for television (as a staff writer for HBO’s Big Love and the hit Fox series Glee) as well as nearly a dozen plays. “One of the fun things for me as the incoming artistic director,” Robison told me recently, “is to bring new voices to the community and to introduce some writers who I have a wonderful relationship with who haven’t been seen yet in Cincinnati.”
Robison loves Aguirre-Sacasa’s new script. “He has a gift for dialogue, and a highly visual sense to his writing. This play is quite unlike any of his other plays, quite unlike anything I’ve seen onstage before. To go back into our collective consciousness and pluck this famous figure from the dramatic canon and imagine what her life must be like 10 years down the line is a wonderfully creative act.”
Not to mention a great way for Robison to define his own artistic tastes for Cincinnati audiences. Keep an eye on CityBeat’s Arts Blog tomorrow for more news of the Playhouse’s upcoming season.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s 2010-11 season has a distinct difference between the plays it will present on its Robert S. Marx main stage and the shows slotted for its smaller Thompson Shelterhouse. With a few significant exceptions, it’s a divide between the 20th and 21st centuries.
All of the coming season’s Shelterhouse shows have originated since 2000, four of five in the past three years. On the main stage, the average age of shows is more than 20 years. (It stretches out a lot further if you use the original publication date of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, dating back to 1843, rather than the 1991 adaptation by Howard Dallin that the Playhouse produces annually.)
John Morris Russell has been named the new conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, succeeding the orchestra’s founder and long-time conductor Erich Kunzel, who passed away in September 2009. Russell will officially begin his tenure on Sept. 1, 2011, but he’s a familiar face around Music Hall because he served as associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2006. In a midday news conference at Music Hall, Russell indicated that he will make his home in Cincinnati. He presently lives in Windsor, Ontario, where he is music director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, a post he's held for 10 years and intends to keep.
Abandon ship! Well, that's not exactly true. In fact, Cincinnati Landmark Productions has done a remarkable and loving job of sustaining the ship — in the form of the Showboat Majestic, which it has operated for 23 years in the face of at least 10 floods and countless repairs (including a leaky hull). But with its lease running out later this month, the company has decided not to return for the 2014 season.
Cincinnati Landmark will focus its endeavors on the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, the converted West Side movie theater where it will offer a "Summer Classics Season" in a vein similar to mainstream fare of classic comedies and musicals that has long drawn audiences to the Majestic. There have been 170 productions on board since 1991, attracting more than 350,000 patrons to the last floating theater in the United States. Cincinnati Landmark is also embarking on a new voyage with a performing arts center to be built in the Incline District in East Price Hill, a venue anticipated to be up and running as early as 2015.
Tim Perrino, executive artistic director at Cincinnati Landmark, says, "It's time to say goodbye. Our organization enjoyed a prolific chapter in the Majestic's grand history, painstakingly caring for the old boat" — launched in 1923 — "and producing seasons that paid tribute to her heritage."
Opening this week on Wednesday, Showboat Follies will be Cincinnati Landmark's final production on the Majestic. An annual tradition, it's a compilation of musical showstoppers, comic sketches, audience interaction and a return of the "Queen City Toast," a longtime staple of season-closing shows. "This show has become our love letter to the Majestic," Perrino says, adding that it's "a thank-you to our subscribers, longtime supporters and the many artists who helped make our time on the Showboat so special." Showboat Follies runs through Sept. 29.
During the summer of 2014, Cincinnati Landmark will present four productions at the Covedale: Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! (May 22-June 1); Neil Simon's comedy, The Sunshine Boys (June 19-29); Footloose (July 24-Aug. 3), the 2014 Cincinnati Young People's Theater production, a summer favorite using local high school talent; and a spectacular song-and-dance show, The Will Rogers Follies (Aug. 21-31).
In 1989, the Showboat Majestic was named a National Historic Landmark. No word from the City of Cincinnati, which has owned the Majestic since 1967, as to what might be next. The Majestic was operated with summertime shows by the University of Cincinnati for many years, and it served as a popular venue during several of the Tall Stacks festivals over the years.
I had a trip around the world on Sunday afternoon, thanks
to the World Choir Games. It includes stops in South Africa, the
Netherlands, Venezuela, Switzerland, and the Chinese cities of
Guangdong, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hangzhou. The program, playing to a
completely sold-out house at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble
Hall, was a chance for eight choirs, each champions in one or more
categories, to briefly showcase a few selections. Singer, performer and
Cincinnati native Drew Lachey hosted the afternoon program.
In order, we were treated to performances by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Girls Choir (Female Choirs champion); the Diocesan Boys' School Choir from Hong Kong (Young Male Chorus champion); Männerstimmen Basel from Switzerland (Male Choirs Champion); the "8 Seconds" Mixed Chorus fa Hangzhou Normal University (Mixed Youth Choir champion); the Children's Choir of the Orchestra of Laraand Camerata Singonica Larense from Venezuela (Folklore champion); Guangdong Experimental Middle School (Youth Choir of Equal Voices champion); Stellenbosch University Choir from South Africa (a double champion for Musica Sacra and Mixed Chorus); and Dekoor Close Harmony from the Netherlands (another double champion, for Popular Choral Music and Jazz).
That's too many to offer song-by-song details from the two hour program, but I want to share some memorable highlights. Perhaps most powerful was the "African Prayer," sung by the Stellenbsoch choir, following a remark from the group;s director about how much they appreciated Cincinnati's hospitality. I head this group sing the same number on Thursday evening's celebration concert, and it was equally powerful — driven by full-voiced female singing, rhythmic clapping and building enthusiasm. What's more, the director sat down and let the choir proceed under its own steam. Demonstrating their varied repertoire, the same group also did a quirky rendition of Queen's "Seaside Rendezvous," playing kazoos for part of the number.
The Chinese choruses showed tremendous discipline, carefully following their directors and, especially in the case of the group from Shanghai, creating a pure, crystalline sound that was virtually one voice. Each of those choirs were also stylishly dressed in matching costumes. (I found myself wondering how transportation was handled for these choirs, not just for the singers but for their gowns and other attire. No one seemed to have left anything behind!)
The group from Basel looked more like a scruffy Euro band, about 30 men, some with beards, others with wooly heads of hair. Many of them wore knee-length pants and suspenders. But their singing was strong and well-rehearsed. The Venezuelans were in costumes that had a Latin flair, especially the women in white, knee-length dresses with traditional, multicolored ruffles on their hems and necklines. This latter group had a fine sense of humor, especially for its tongue-twisting final number that involved singing faster and faster, then concluding in a sort of faux collapse of exhaustion.
Most unlike other choirs I've heard, Dekoor from the Netherlands, which sang in colloquial American English offered three numbers from the Pop repertoire. The group of 30, evenly divided between men and women, opened with "We Are Young," a song about friendship, youth and trust — all qualities represented by their stances and interactions (a repeated lyric: "We are young/So let's the set the world on fire/We can burn brighter/Than the sun"). They moved next to James Taylor's paean to frustration, "Damn This Traffic Jam," and as an encore rendered a funky version of George Michael's "Freedom." Quite a switch from beautifully executed but not so stirring sacred numbers.
For my second concert of the day, I was back at the Aronoff for the Energy of Youth" Celebration Concert featuring three groups. The frist was local, the Cincinnati Children's Choir, mostly junior high and high school youths. They were augmented for the second half of their program with a specially formed "Cincinnati Public Schools Honor Choir," a pair of singers selected from each of the CPS elementary schools. They concluded with two numbers commissioned for the event and conducted by composer Rollo Dillworth; the finale, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," had a clapping rhythm that engaged the entire audience. What this group lacked in polish (they had only three rehearsals) they more than made up for in enthusiasm.
The next group was the Farnham Youth Choir from Great Britain. Forty singers, mostly girls (there were three boys with voices not yet changed) offered a varied set that combined some sacred numbers with some folk-inspired pieces (The Piper o'Dundee" and ""Iona Boat Song"). Most interesting was a number titled "Aglepta," that began with a single member reciting this text: "To leave a enemy without an answer, say this words to him: Aglaria Pidhol garia Ananus Qepta" and blow in his direction; then he will not know which way he is headed and cannot answer you." What followed was a strange collection of sighs, whistles, squeals, shrieks, clapping and other odd noises, an odd showcase of discipline that was a long way from the more traditional numbers. It was a bit fearful, and completely captivating.
The program concluded with a set by the Guangdong Experimental Middle School Choir that was as much choreography and tradition as it was a choral performance. Native costumes, a Mongolia throat singer, drums, bells, wild dancing — this performance made me think about how little we know about other parts of the world ... and how much an event like the World Choir Games opens us to learning about other cultures.
Quite a day.
I don't often write about community theater. It's really a matter of time and space; we have so much good theater here in Cincinnati and not so much space in CityBeat, so I have to make some choices. I also don't have enough time to catch every community theater production — trust me, there are a lot of them. But over the weekend I felt compelled to see The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Cincinnati Music Theatre at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.