Sunday, September 10, 2000

The Arts

'Alexander II' opening anticipated

        When Alexander the Great, Part I came to a close at Stage First last season, the young and hunky, if ancient, conqueror was standing at a threshhold.

        He had gotten out from under his kingly father's shadow (thanks to a convenient assassination) and was ready to astound the world as the greatest military leader in history.

[photo] Alexander the Great, Part II marches Thursday into The Aronoff Center.
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        Audiences bought enough tickets that artistic director/Alexander playwright Nicholas Korn went to work fleshing out Part II — The Fall of Persia. It opens the Stage First 2000-2001 season on Thursday with Northern Kentucky University grad Dan Cooley returning in the title role.

        In this center section of his trilogy, Mr. Korn sees Alexander as “moving from being a novice with a lot of talent and energy to someone to be reckoned with.”

        He could as easily be describing himself as his hero. Mr. Korn scored another hit for Stage First late last season with his breezily clever adaptation of Lysistrata. People noticed. His admirable adaptations of the classics aren't flukes.

        Mary Lenning, who runs the drama program at Miami University's Hamilton campus, directs.

        “I wanted to come downtown and do more professional work,” says Ms. Lenning, who will also direct for Ovation this season. “I want that balance of educational and professional work.”

        The script sold her on Stage First. While the action is about the outnumbered Macedonians' conquering of Persia, she sees a play about relationships and is “concentrating on the psychology of the characters.”

        “My philosophy of theater,” she says, “is that it's a journey for the audience as well as the artist. So how do we get the audience to stay with us on the journey?”

        Her first and only request of Mr. Korn, after she read his draft was for “more triangles between several characters.”

        Mr. Korn delivered.

        He's played with the actual sequence of events “to get five or six years of tumultuous conquest” into 2 1/2 hours and to serve the play's dramatic arc.

        This season Stage First extends performances to three-week runs. Every Thursday evening will feature $5 tickets for teachers with students and include post-performance discussions. Call 581-1330 for details.

        Now that Alexander has conquered Persia, what's next?

        “A lot of people are already asking when's Part III,” says Mr. Korn. He's a fast writer, usually taking no more than four to six weeks for a project, but he has writing assignments stacked up.

        “There's a Moliere that has to be finished up,” he notes (that's Stage First's next entry, in October) “and I'll probably try to do something similar for (Aristophanes comedy) The Clouds (scheduled for spring) that I did for Lysistrata.”

        There are more original projects on his mind, too, but “next time it's going to be a one-parter,” he laughs.

        Watch for the end of Alexander, who, like all the best legends, lived fast and died young, in 2001-2002.

        Alexander Part II plays Thursday-Oct. 1 at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater. Box office: 241-7469.

        Early "Broadway' run: Forbidden Broadway will tour to Cincinnati five months ahead of schedule, which is great news for audiences and good and bad news for tour sponsor Downtown Theatre Classics.

        Forbidden Broadway, which has been running forever in Manhattan, does turnaway business with its smart spoofs of Broadway's best and worst. It's a perfect companion piece to the Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series,which plays next door in the Aronoff Center. Fosse, which plays overlapping dates, is one of the big-name shows that takes a licking from the scrappy cabaret.

        Downtown Theatre Classics, where there's never a dull moment on-stage or off-, had originally booked the show for a late February opening. Now it's taking the Sept. 29-Oct. 15 slot originally slated for the original Cy Coleman revue, Hey, Big Spender!

        The good news for DTC is that Forbidden Broadway comes with a track record and should deliver speedy word of mouth.

        The bad news is that it doesn't take a genius to guess that the schedule switch arises from a cash flow problem.

        The theater wraps Little Shop of Horrors, its first production as an Equity company,with 2 and 7 p.m. performances today. Little Shop didn't make its projected box office numbers, and spending on Spender would have included paying a 14-member company for three weeks of rehearsals. Forbidden Broadway just moves in and previews the same night.

        “We need a hit,” DTC artistic director Anton Shilov acknowledges.

        More bad news for DTC: Regional actors are yelling “bad faith!” and not for the first time. Spender cast members weren't given notice of the change until an hour before rehearsals were set to begin. Non-Equity performers had signed contracts, and had passed on paying work here and in Dayton for the seven weeks promised by DTC.

        “I couldn't say anything until after an emergency board meeting, and that was the night before,” Mr. Shilov says.

        Meanwhile, the fate of Big Spender is in the air. While Downtown Theatre Classics is calling the scheduling change “trading places,” the show's creator Melvin Tunstall had only committed to staying in Cincinnati through the show's mid-October run.

        A standout University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music grad from a couple of years back, he had summer auditions for The Lion King national company and also nailed an audition for Broadway's upcoming Golden Boy (being revised by Playhouse fave Keith (Thunder Knocking on the Door) Glover.

        Mr. Shilov hopes audiences will just concentrate on the two upcoming shows, Forbidden Broadway and a holiday return for Worth Gardner with a London Blitz rendition of The Pirates of Penzance.

        Ruby Dee at the dais: “There are as many ways to be an artist as there are ways to be a human being,” Ruby Dee wrote in her autobiography. “I act and write as an African-American, as a woman, as a member of the species.”

        Ms. Dee, an almost five-decade veteran of film, Broadway and television, will talk about her life and career in a free program at 7 p.m. Monday at Miami University's Hall Auditorium. Her appearance is part of Miami's Presidential Millennium Series for the Arts sponsored by Covington's Jim and Fran Allen.

        Tickets are required and seating will be limited. Call the Shriver Center box office at (513) 529-3200.

        Jackie Demaline is The Enquirer's theater critic and roving arts reporter. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202; fax, 768-8330.


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