Sunday, July 02, 2000

All the summer's a stage

Hot-weather theater rolls in with a string of high-quality productions

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Fourth of July marks only the beginning of summer-long local fireworks. Most of the rest will be happening on Tristate stages for the next two months.

        This week, the two most significant events of the summer season will make simultaneous debuts, promising record audience turn-out during what had been — until last year — a traditionally sleepy theater season:

        Playhouse in the Park gets back into the straw hat business with a pair of hot entries in its PNC Summer Playhouse season.

• Aronoff Center for the Arts (Downtown Theatre Classics, Ovation Theatre, Sturdy Black Bridges), 241-7469
• Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 381-2273
• Hot Summer Nights, 556-4183
• IF Theatre Collaborative, 961-7434
• Kincaid Regional Theatre, Falmouth, (606) 654-2636
• Know Theatre Tribe, 871-1429
• Miami University Summer Theatre, Oxford, (513) 529-3200
• Northern Kentucky University Summer Dinner Theatre, Highland Heights, (859) 572-5464
• Ohio Indiana Northern Kentucky Productions, Aurora, (513) 312-6694 or (812) 926-2997
• Playhouse in the Park, 421-3888
• Saw Theatre, 541-0872
• Showboat Majestic, 241-6550
        Bewitching Molly Andrews, who enchanted Playhouse audiences last year in Appalachian Strings, returns to sing the sweet dreams of a country legend in Always...Patsy Cline starting Wednesday . The production has played two summers at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It gets a two-week run here.

        The Flying Karamazov Brothers follow with L'Universe, which combines time, space, juggling and silliness starting July 19. It marks their first return to the Playhouse in 10 years.

        • Opening against Patsy Cline will be the annual trio of shows from Hot Summer Nights on the University of Cincinnati campus. Last year, Hot Summer Nights took an audience survey. This year, the series opens with A Chorus Line, the overwhelming winner in the “want to see” category.

        The Hot Summer Nights season also includes Oliver! and the revue All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

        Twenty-six shows will open in the region between July 4 and Labor Day, half of them (12) the musicals we've come to expect in the good old summertime. The rest are an even split of comedies and dramas, all a result of the burgeoning small theater scene.

        “The theater-going, the arts-going population has boomed,” theorizes Ensemble Theatre producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers, who won't have an entry in the summer sweepstakes. ETC's Off-Center series closed at the end of June, and the 2000-2001 season begins after Labor Day.

        “The thinking is, the audience is there, do the shows. Theater used to be a seasonal thing here. You'd be done by Memorial Day and go back after Labor Day,” she says. “But there's been such an infusion of energy — and there's great value in maintaining a relationship with the audience over the summer.”

        Ms. Meyers is already planning to take her own advice in 2001 with a summer presence for ETC, details to be announced.

        Playhouse in the Park's producing artistic director Ed Stern echoes Ms. Meyers. “There's enough of an audience during the year to flow into summer,” he says. And “we have air-conditioning!”

        He saw opportunities to “fill a niche not being done elsewhere” with the pair of national names. Playhouse has a three-year commitment from sponsor PNC Bank. If this first season on the main stage is judged successful, a Shelterhouse presence may be added in 2001, if the right project can be found.

        “Big, big, big,” is how Hot Summer Nights producer Richard Hess defines the entertainment planned for the Patricia Corbett Theater stage. Chorus Line is big enough that the College-Conservatory of Music cast has been supplemented with students from other campuses, including Wright State and Indiana University.

        After years of shows with small casts in the mid- and late '90s, what makes a return to large-cast summer shows possible, says Mr. Hess, is the ever-improving CCM student body.

        The ensemble always has been primarily musical theater majors. Now there are more drama students who can sing and dance “and a number of freshmen come in ready to work” unlike past years when Hot Summer Nights had to rely solely on upper classmen and graduating seniors.

        Mr. Hess wants to see the 2000 series, already breaking box office records before the curtain has gone up, set the scene for Hot Summer Night's 20th anniversary next year.

        A few other things to watch for in July:

        • Arts Consortium executive director Dhana Bradley-Morton is taking her show on the road. Ms. Morton and Priscilla Hancock Cooper have expanded their brief poetry concert Sturdy Black Bridges into a full-length evening that they will test Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

        The show's title comes from a poem by Carolyn Rodgers (“ mother...a sturdy black bridge I crossed ovah on!”). The show is about “isms,” Ms. Morton says. “Sexism, ageism, racism and all the other "isms' ” and the strength of African-American women. The words are by African-American women writers including Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker.

        The Big Mouth Women Vocal Ensemble will provide back-up. “These women can sing,” Ms. Morton says.

        • The venerable Showboat Majestic, anchored as a summer venue for more than a decade at the Public Landing, is demonstrating its will to become one of Cincinnati's professional theaters.

        It has signed its first Equity contract to showcase La Comedia and Downtown Theatre Classics veteran Ty Yadzinski (It's a Wonderful Life, 1776). Mr. Yadzinski plays rascally J. Pierpont Finch, who climbs from mail room to boardroom in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which continues through next Sunday.

        Later this season Greg Procaccino, one of the most respected members of the local acting community, will take on directorial duties for Same Time, Next Year.

        • Ovation Theatre, which has been getting better and better, has a happy circumstance in scheduling. It will present Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, a near-magical meditation on the artist in society, even as the great South African playwright has been announced for a September visit to the University of Cincinnati. It should provide a wonderful opportunity to re-acquaint admirers with his work. Popular local actress Ellie Shepherd stars July 14-22 at the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater.

        The influx of new, small companies that decided to take a chance on the lazy, hazy days of August last year and mined box office gold are back in 2000.

        “All the major companies are taking short breaks,” points out Know Theatre Tribe artistic director Jay Kalagayan. “Small theaters do pretty well.”

        Know and IF Theatre Collaborative, based, respectively, in Over-the-Rhine and Clifton, will do their own mini-Craig Lucas festival, choosing two of the playwright's most popular works, Prelude to a Kiss and Blue Window.

        Prelude is a fairytale gone wrong, with a beautiful bride being taken over by a particularly nasty spirit. Blue Window is a smart, contemporary salute to film noir.

        “When he wrote Prelude it was a metaphor for living with AIDS and HIV,” notes Mr. Kalagayan, “and I like how it's outlived that. Now you can relate it to (change) in any couple, and ask, "Is this the same person I fell in love with?' It's an important subject, and it's the first romantic tale Know has told.”

        Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival has been using August to offer sneak previews of its educational touring shows.

        This summer's schedule is Romeo and Juliet on Fridays and Othello on Saturdays.

        It's a good chance for fans to be introduced to this year's seven-member acting company, including returnees Giles Davies (who'll do a gender-bending turn as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet), Jeremy Dubin, Sylvester Little, Brian Phillips and Nicholas Rose. New to the company are New Yorkers Amy Hutchins and Anne Schilling.

        Another sneak peek worth watching for on the August calendar will be Saw Theater's revised Account Me Puppet.

        Following warm-up performances at the puppet theater's Camp Washington studio, Saw has early autumn dates at a collection of prestigious addresses: the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and Theatre for the New City in New York (where Saw will create its own fringe to an international puppetry fest.)

        Saw will also be part of a new puppetry and performance art festival at Detroit Institute of Art.

        Backstage drama combined with onstage entertainment may add up to August's most intriguing entry. When Little Shop of Horrors opens Aug. 25 on the Jarson-Kaplan stage, it will be the town's first chance to get a look at Downtown Theatre Classics' third incarnation in four years.

        Will third time be the charm for DTC? Initially conceived as a summer theater that would combine professional and community talent, DTC has evolved (on paper) into an Equity company with a $1.2 million budget, the second highest in Cincinnati.

        DTC promises upcoming shows directed by longtime College-Conservatory of Music and Playhouse in the Park veteran Worth Gardner, but for now the theater's new, young (24) artistic director Anton Shilov will direct a re-considered Little Shop, which he has described as being “darker” than envisioned by its off-Broadway creators.

Best of summer theater

Tristate riding genome wave
    Genome's already changing education
Booth pushes for 4-year terms
Chalking it up, with experience
Dr. Willke stands by his beliefs
WILKINSON: Scare Tactics
Bell's campaign all politics
Fish will monitor pollutants
Fort Mitchell shares plans for new park
Keeping the riverfront green
BRONSON: Bengals stadium
CROWLEY: Managers for Lucas, Bell offer a study in contrasts
Actress 'Crazy' about legendary Patsy Cline
- All the summer's a stage
DAUGHTERTY: Cincinnati mold is something to sneeze at
Concert review
Harry Potter will be in Braille fast
Jazz Bowl finds home in Cleveland
Opera review
Pops' real show behind the scenes
'Professional' weaver's exhibit first since '60s
The man behind the Playhouse curtain
Pig Parade: MerSOWdes
Tristate A.M. Report