Sunday, September 03, 2000

Theatre season a packed house

As audiences grow, new troupes appear and established ones think outside the box

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dozens of Cincinnati premieres. A scintillating schedule from Playhouse in the Park. New directions for Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. Musical coups from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Jerry Springer and Rocky Horror.

        The birth of a new professional theater in Middletown. The re-birth of Downtown Theatre Classics promising the return of Worth Gardner, one-time enfant terrible of the College-Conservatory of Music and the Playhouse.

[photo] The King Stag at the Wexner Center
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        With the 2000-2001 season, Cincinnati theaters at last coalesce into a theater scene.

        Cincinnati Shakespeare's Jasson Minadakis, who calls the season staggering, says it “reflects the diversity of Cincinnati theater patrons and the scope of the metro region.

        “Cincinnati has made a very strong request with its support of seven days a week, 52 weeks a year vibrant theater. Many of the new smaller theaters aren't just surviving, they're growing.

        “The productions wouldn't be there if people weren't going.”

        The season officially opens Thursday with Inherit the Wind at the Playhouseand The Merchant of Venice at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival.

        Then the curtain will go up on more than 100 professional, semi-professional and university professional track productions this year. That's almost double five years ago. There will be more than 50 regional premieres, pointing to a new confidence for midsized and small companies.

[photo] Inherit the Wind at Playhouse in the Park
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Significant breakthroughs


        There are two significant breakthroughs this season:

        • Diverse voices will be strongly heard for the first time.

        Commitment from Richard Hess at UC and Paul Jackson at Miami University provide a solid foundation. Playhouse in the Park contributes two contemporary African-American titles, one a world premiere.

        Cincinnati Arts Association, the management group that operates the Aronoff, Music Hall and Memorial Hall, has a small but smart and sophisticated schedule with cultural scope and family appeal.

        Know Theatre Tribe, a scrappy newcomer based in Over-the-Rhine, has a far-reaching schedule. A global-themed play-reading series will be housed at Ensemble starting this month.

        Audiences will be able to sample work by African-American, Appalachian, Hispanic and Asian-American playwrights, as well as plays from further afield, including India, Nigeria and Japan.

[photo] Everything's Ducky at Playhouse in the Park.
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        • Smaller theater companies are discovering neighborhoods and outlying cities to be fine alternatives to downtown.

        Clifton, Oakley, Covington and Over-the-Rhine have embryonic companies.

        Actors Repertory, a professional company with its own theater, will debut in Middletown next month. Fitton Center for Creative Arts in Hamilton will be pumping up its theatrical presence with the newly dubbed Mad Anthony Players.

"Harder to stay home'
               The producing directors who have designed the upcoming season credit the recent stunning growth to their audiences.

        Playhouse's Ed Stern suggests this season means Cincinnati theater is growing up. “We've been cautious” he says, in growing the local audience. Audiences eager for a wider theatrical experience are responsible for the range of plays.

        Mr. Minadakis credits Mr. Stern's almost decade-long leadership. “This season the Playhouse will do two major African-American works in a single season. One is a world premiere on the main stage of a commissioned play (Dark Paradise).That's saying something.”

        “It's going to be harder for people to stay home this year,” agrees Ensemble's producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers.

        She's persuaded the 2000-2001 season isn't a fluke but “the first year of what it's going to be from now on.”

  Here's an alphabetical breakdown by category, including the not-easily defined:


  Avenue X, Playhouse in the Park
  Everything's Ducky, Playhouse
  Forbidden Broadway (national tour), Downtown Theatre Classics (DTC)
  Fosse (national tour), Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series
  Hey, Big Spender!, DTC
  I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Playhouse
  The Last Session, Ensemble
  Love, Janis, Ensemble
  Myths and Hymns, CCM
  The Pirate's Blitz! (an adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance), Downtown Theatre Classics
  *Saturday Night, CCM
  The Scarlet Pimpernel (national tour), Broadway Series
  Sleeping Beauty, Ensemble
  **Songs for a New World, Actor's Rep, IF Theatre Collaborative
  ***Weird Romance, Footlighters
  (* — tentative); (** — local professional theater premiere); (*** — community theater group)

  Art, Playhouse in the Park
  Bash, Ensemble
  Blues for an Alabama Sky, CCM
  Closer, Playhouse
  The Countess, Ensemble
  Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, Ensemble
  The Minerva Project, Janus Project
  Oleanna, Janus Project
  The Redwood Curtain, Know Theatre Tribe
  A Sense of Place, Ensemble
  Six Degrees of Separation, CCM
  Three Days of Rain, Ensemble
  The Weir, Cincinnati Shakespeare


  Christmas on Mars, NETPlay
  Miss Something, Ensemble
  Naked by the River, New Edgecliff
  Somewhere in Between, Ovation
  Southern Discomfort, New Edgecliff
  Tent Meeting, Xavier Players

Culturally diverse
  The King Stag, Cincinnati Arts Association
  Marisol, CCM
  Naga Mandala (Play with a Cobra), Miami University
  Polaroid Stories, Know Theatre Tribe
  Promise of a Love Song, Cincinnati Arts Association
  Windows on the World play reading series, Theatre of the Mind, Ensemble

Local playwrights
  Alexander the Great: Part II, a history play by Nicholas Korn, Stage First
  A Chance of Lightning, a comedy by Joe McDonough, Cincinnati Shakespeare
  Sleeping Beauty, holiday musical by Joe McDonough and David Kisor, Ensemble Theatre
  Track and Field, a comedy by Kevin Barry, Know Theatre Tribe
  Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative monthly reading series, Aronoff Center

Something completely different
  Dark Paradise: The Legend of the Five Pointed Star, Playhouse
  Hamletmachine, NETPlay
  Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ETC
  Lovers and Executioners, Cincinnati Shakespeare
  Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Broadway Series
  Shakespeare's R&J, Playhouse
  Turgid Tales, Cincinnati Shakespeare
  The Vietnam Project, CCM
  Y.E.S. Festival of New Plays, Northern Kentucky University

        Here's a stage-by-stage breakdown of what's new this season.

Professional theaters

               Playhouse in the Park: Ed Stern took over Playhouse a little more than eight years ago at a low ebb. Subscriptions were down. The deficit was up. He spent most of a decade building trust between the theater and the community.

        Seasons have been incrementally more adventurous, and subscriptions are up (21,000 compared to Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series' 18,000) and the $1 million deficit has disappeared.

        For 2000-2001, prepare yourself for a thrill ride.

        On the Marx mainstage, two titles are complete unknowns, which is risky for a professional regional theater. They'll probably also be among the season's hottest tickets.

        Everything's Ducky (Oct. 17-Nov. 17) is a hip family musical based on “The Ugly Duckling.” It comes with Broadway credits and buzz. (Dreamgirls and Side Show are among the creators' credits.)

        This season's Rosenthal New Play Prize winner will move to the Marx stage for the first time. Dark Paradise: The Legend of the Five Pointed Star (Jan. 28-March 2) is by Keith Glover. Winner of the 1997 Rosenthal Prize in for In Walks Ed, hereturns with an Old West tale of cowboys and vampires. Watch for major special effects.

        Pushing the envelope on the Shelterhouse stage will be London hit and Broadway import Closer, a brutal look at contemporary relationships.

        The biggest names on the schedule belong to longtime collaborators (and theater legends) playwright Lanford Wilson and director Marshall Mason, who will come to Cincinnati in May to stage the 20th anniversary production of Talley's Folly.

        An informal tribute to Mr. Wilson is growing around the production of Talley's Folly. At least five other theaters, including ETC, Ovation and Know Theatre Tribe, are scheduling companion work during the Playhouse run. There will be one-acts, readings and full productions of some of his best work from the past three decades.

        Playhouse will debut a 10-part, Monday night coffeehouse-style series next year. It's targeted to the under-35 young adult crowd, although all hip-at-heart are welcome. Programs will take place on the plaza and run 75 to 90 minutes, favoring acts such as monologuists, new magic and other cabaret-friendly performers. Watch for the schedule to be announced in late fall.

        Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati: How did ETC nail the first full production of Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, the new work from Warren Leight, 1999 Tony Award winner for best play?

        Hehad such a good experience when the drama had its first regional play at ETC a year ago that he was happy to hand over the follow-up, another family drama set to a jazz theme. It opens Sept. 13 at the Over-the-Rhine theater.

        ETC will give Cincinnati its first look at the work of playwright Richard Greenburg. And ETC will give The Countess, still playing off-Broadway, its first production outside New York.

        Provocative off-Broadway hit Bash will anchor ETC's annual Off-Center/On-Stage miniseries of riskier titles. It's by Neil LaBute, best known for his indie movie scripts like In the Company of Men. ETC's Ms. Meyers defines this season's four Off-Center entries as “contemporary and cinematic in nature.”

        The audience she's looking for, she says, “are the people who are standing in line at the Esquire on a Friday night when a new movie opens.” Those folks will probably be the first in line for cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

        Also new for ETC: Play-reading series Theatre of the Mind moves in for six monthly Mondays with fare from around the world. It includes work by three Nobel Laureates and globe-trots from South Africa to the West Indies to Japan to Nigeria. The series begins Sept. 18 with Playland by Athol Fugard of South Africa.

        Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival: What's new? Everything, except the Bard. The curtain goes up Thursday with The Merry Wives of Windsor and a streamlined seven-member ensemble, down from 12. The festival will experiment with some Sunday-Wednesday shows, including Harold Pinter's Betrayal as alternative holiday fare for grown-ups.

        Its first new play commission, local author Joe McDonough's A Chance of Lightning, will premiere in June to close the season.

        The festival will experiment with developing scripts and ideas in three “lab weeks” scattered through the season. Mr. Minadakis is perusing about 20 proposals, most from out of town. The first, scheduled for October, will be selected soon.

        Telling ghost stories in the regional premiere of The Weir (Oct. 12-Nov. 5) will be some of the town's best actors, including UC faculty member Michael Burnham, returning to acting for the first time in years, and New Edgecliff artistic director Michael Shooner.

        Some of the best new plays being written take their inspiration, and even their form and subject matter, from classic theater.

        Expect to see about one a season at the festival, starting with Lovers and Executioners, set in 17th-century France and written in rhymed couplets but enjoying a 20th-century sensibility. Washington, D.C., audiences loved it when it debuted there in 1999.

        Downtown Theatre Classics: Two words: Worth Gardner.

        Mr. Gardner took over UC's musical theater program in 1973, and in the '80s moved on to head Playhouse in the Park until he was ousted in 1991.

        Longtime theatergoers will tell you those were the best of times, those were the worst of times, but those were never dull times.

        Mr. Gardner's forte was the high-concept musical. Slated for the holidays (Dec. 8-31 at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater) is a Pirates of Penzance set during the London Blitz and involving an itinerant Spanish orchestra. He's also scheduled to close the season with a revival of a decades-old production of Rocky Horror Show (May 11-27).

        Two more words: Jerry Springer. Way back when the one-time Cincinnati mayor and current shout show host narrated Rocky Horror for Worth Gardner. He'll do it again, on video, same as the first time.

        Ambitious DTC (under its third new management in four years) has set a $1.2 million budget. Plans include a visit from the delightful Forbidden Broadway (on tour) and a world premiere revue of songs by Broadway vet Cy Coleman.

        Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series: It's not new to New York, but it's new to Cincinnati: The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

        Camels will be onstage at the Aronoff in December, along with a lot of high-kicking Rockettes.

        The Broadway Series keeps to a formula that works year after year for its satisfied audiences.

        New titles touring this season are opener Fosse (Sept. 26-Oct. 8) and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Rounding out the season are musical revivals starring celebs with a high recognition factor among television viewers: Ann-Margret as a singing brothel owner (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas),Corbin Bernsen as Captain Von Trapp (The Sound of Music), and, in a great piece of counter-typecasting,Eartha Kitt as a fairy godmother (Cinderella).

        Actor's Repertory Theatre: The new Middletown company will burst onto the scene in October with its own theater and two series. It will have a rep company drawn from throughout Ohio and a staff of mostly Wright State grads.

        Pam Myers, who started her pro career on Broadway in Company (and scored a Tony nomination) and was sublime as Sweeney Todd sidekick Mrs. Lovett at Playhouse a couple of years ago, returns to the work of Stephen Sondheim for Actor's Rep. She'll play the Witch in season opener Into the Woods. Another Cincinnati fave, Carmen DeLeone, is music director.

        World War II-themed holiday entertainment For The Boys has already sold out four matinees with bus tours coming from as far as Lexington and Cleveland.

               UC Musical Theater: Fans can start lining up now for the College-Conservatory of Music's studio series. Myths and Hymns by hot-and-now Floyd Collins composer Adam Guittel gets a rare staging.

        The esoteric subject matter is ancient gods (myths) and man's relationship to God (hymns).

        Tentatively scheduled (and expected to be a solid booking by later this month) will be Stephen Sondheim's early musical Saturday Night, “rediscovered” last season and making a major splash ever since.

        The two mainstage shows are Tommy Tune hits. He starred in My One and Only, he directed Grand Hotel.

        Xavier University: While Xavier Players awaits its spiffy, state-of-the-art theater to be completed in the Charles P. Gallagher Center, the troupe will take its act all over campus, including the gallery and armory.

        Xavier Players starts a partnership with New Edgecliff Theatre for two productions at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater under the producing title NETPlay. That combines the names and, says Xavier's Cathy Springfield, reflects the intended style, “up close and personal, like in tennis.”

        NETPlay will be playing their game on the edge, with a pair of over-the-edge local premieres, Christmas on Mars and Hamletmachine.

        Northern Kentucky University: NKU will present its 10th biennial YES (Year End Series) Festival of New Plays. The festival, April 19-29, will give full productions to three plays chosen from among hundreds of national entries. There are usually a few staged readings surrounding the main event. Titles to be announced.

Small companies

               • Downtown: Small companies can still mean big news.

        Three of them will call the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater home this season.

        New Edgecliff will venture off from its NETPlay local premieres with Xavier Players to offer a pair of regional premieres of its own. Yes, it's nerve-wracking to produce not just local premieres, but local premieres of plays nobody's ever heard of, says artistic director Michael Shooner, “but it's exciting, too.”

        Mr. Shooner discovered Michael Folie, playwright of Naked by the River, on the Web. Tim (Home Improvement) Allen has discovered Mr. Folie, too, and just finished a Los Angeles workshop of the contemporary Tracy-Hepburn-style comedy with Dana (China Beach) Delaney.

        The great thing, Mr. Shooner says, is that if audiences never have heard of work “they have no preconceived notions.” Those audiences will be rewarded, he says, with plays that “each come from an unexpected place.”

        Ovation will sport an ensemble company of eight in a mix of classic, new work, contemporary (Lanford Wilson) and musical (Stephen Sondheim) presented once a quarter.

        We'll get a look at four of the company in season opener Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Oct. 6-14.) The preview of every production will be a “pay what you can” night. Trading a can of food for a ticket is an option.

    Don't look for professional theater in Kentucky this season. Covington's Carnegie Theater at long last has the financing in place to make its adjacent buildings disabled accessible, but the nine-month project (start-up date TBA but expected in late fall) will keep the theater virtually empty in 2000-2001.
    The Carnegie wants to embark on concert performances of rarely produced musicals. If grants come through (word will come later this month) there will be a sing-through (with orchestra) of Bells Are Ringing or The Boys from Syracuse in January before the walls come down.

        Stage First will continue its theme of world classics and open its season Sept. 14 with the premiere of the second part of its Alexander the Great trilogy by artistic director Nicholas Korn.

        Cincinnati Public Theatre, which had three producing seasons in the Fifth Third including The Kentucky Cycle and Love! Valor! Compassion!, is taking the year off to re-group.

        • Alternatives to downtown: A new crop of small companies are sprouting outside downtown, in neighborhoods, suburbs and outlying cities.

        Know Theatre Tribe in Over-the-Rhine and IF Theatre Collective in Clifton, operating on a show-by-show basis, are announcing plans for seasons.

        Know, committed to cultural diversity, will feature the regional premiere of Humana Festival winner Polaroid Stories by Asian-American writer Naomi Iizuka and Track and Field, a new world premiere by local playwright Kevin Barry, whose In Rebel Country was a hit for Know last spring.

        Both Know and IF will participate in the Lanford Wilson “festival” in May with productions of, respectively, Redwood Curtain and Burn This.

        IF's Benjamin Mosse is committed to site-specific work, so while current production Blue Window is playing in the gothic splendor of the University YMCA (270 Calhoun) through Saturday, he's in search of appropriate locations for 2000-2001 selections including Songs for a New World in December. “I'd like a cabaret setting,” he says. He's also planning a seven-piece orchestra for the show.

        Nor does he pale at braving the crowded holiday schedule. “I love being an underdog in Cincinnati theater,” he laughs. “Everybody roots for us.”

        The Janus Project will expand beyond children's theater in Oakley to include two adult productions in Columbia Tusculum, including a “Minerva Project” driven by women theater artists and scheduled for Mother's Day production. Proposals are being accepted, the selected project will be announced later this autumn.

        In nearby Hamilton, Fitton Center for Creative Arts is taking a hard look at its under-used black box theater. Henry Cepluch will be artistic director of The Mad Anthony Players.

        He intends to heighten the sense of professionalism by offering contracts and stipends. Mr. Cepluch says he sees the coming season as a transition from what has been to what will be.

        Mad Anthony will introduce itself with local celebs performing Love Letters later this fall, the Fitton's national one-act contest will become a readers' theater event in spring. More details to come.
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