Sunday, January 07, 2001

'Songs' hits right note

        The coming week was almost marked by a double opening of Jason Robert Brown's revue Songs for a New World. Middletown's Actor's Rep canceled its plans for a second stage production just before the new year, leaving IF Theatre Collective to give the show its local semi-professional debut.

        What is Songs' attraction for edgy, young directors? It strikes a chord, says Benjamin Mosse, 24, IF's artistic director.

        “It's his thoughts and feelings about coming to New York at 21 and not knowing anybody, just having a dream.

        “It's about moments in the lives of young adults who embark on the discovery, understanding and reconciliation of a strange, sometimes daunting new world.

        “It's about those moments of change in life, and surviving them and moving on stronger. These are things that happen to everyone, and the message is essentially that it's going to be fine. Bear with life as it happens, and it's going to come out fine.”

        Life certainly isn't turning out badly for Mr. Brown, who won a Tony Award for Parade and has a string of new projects.

        Songs, Mr. Mosse says, may be a musical, but it's also exactly the kind of show IF wants to do. “We want to get inside people's heads and tell their stories.”

        Eric Bricking, Shannon Kramer, Melissa Manni and Isaac Turner are the players. University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music piano major Jonathan Kelly is music director, leading a small combo of CCM students.

        IF has more or less taken up residence in the ballroom at the University YMCA (270 Calhoun St.). As with the city's other budding theater companies, the biggest challenge has been getting on audience's radar screens when productions are now-and-again.

        IF will be beefing up its presence this spring. Following the Jan. 11-19 production of Songs, the troupe is planning an intriguing March double bill and a late spring production ofmodern masterpiece Burn This as part of local theater's salute to Lanford Wilson (surrounding the 20th anniversary production of Talley's Folly at Playhouse in the Park).

        IF looks to be developing an unofficial “rep” company. Among its regulars are Cincinnati Shakespeare alums Matthew Pyle and Lisa Penning, already at work on a double bill of Yellow Wallpaper (Ms. Penning) andpast Humana Festival winner Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Mr. Pyle with Jessica Morgan.) Mr. Pyle is also signed on for Burn This.

        IF box office: 961-7434.

        Changes in Middletown: When Actor's Repertory Theatre announced its debut season, it was ambitious. It opened with a Stephen Sondheim musical and included an original holiday entertainment. Still to come are works by William Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill and Tom Stoppard.

        There were also plans for a second-stage series starting in January with Songs for a New World. Did I mention the theater company was also renovating a building?

        The cash has been flowing in from mainstage ticket sales, Actor's Rep artistic director Michael Coyan says, but corporate support has been only a trickle. With no track record, there's been a drought of grant money.

        Meanwhile, the cash has been flowing out. “The emphasis has been on getting the building in shape,” Mr. Coyan says.

        When local musical fave Ty Yadzinski, male lead in Songs, strained his voice in a holiday gig at La Comedia Dinner Theatre (he's under doctor's orders to stay mum), Mr. Coyan saw the light.

        He put plans for a second-stage series on hold, although Mr. Coyan would still like to see a new play festival in March. Details to come.

        Next up for Actor's Rep is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Feb. 15-25. Information: (513) 727-9361.

        Comedy at Humana: Humana laughs! Is it the infusion of new blood at the top (Marc Masterson replacing Jon Jory) or merely serendipity?

        Whatever it is, Actor's Theatre of Louisville has announced the best lineup in years (at least on paper) for the 25th anniversary of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

        Gone from the mainstage (at last!) are twentysomething navel-gazers. The six full-length entries, mostly comedies, are all by proven talents:

        Wonderful World is by king of twisted comedy and festival favorite Richard Dresser. (His work still goes unknown in Cincinnati, quite a mystery considering what an audience-pleaser he is.)

        Eduardo Machado draws his inspiration for When the Sea Drowns in Sand from the Elian Gonzalez real-life drama in what's billed as a post-Cold War comedy about political standoffs and personal hardships.

        In Quake, a young woman follows the curve of the world as she searches for love. Playwright Melanie Marnich first tried her hand at playwriting in Cincinnati in the mid-'90s (she worked for a local ad agency). She's a break-out talent this year, with an April off-Broadway premiere for Blur at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club. She's still doing commissions for the Children's Theatre. The latest is Beethoven by Heart in March.

        It wouldn't be Humana without Jane Martin and/or Jon Jory. “They” return as playwright/director of Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage: A “B” Western Horror Flick for the Stage. Talk about coincidence, Flaming Guns sounds like a cousin to Dark Paradise: Legend of the Five-Pointed Star opening later this month at Playhouse in the Park. Both pit the forces of good against evil in the old West.

        Charles Mee, author of last year's hit Big Love, returns to collaborate with director Anne Bogart on bobrauschenbergamerica, a road trip through the last half of the century as the artist might have envisioned. Look for theater outside the box with this one.

        Mac Wellman, one of the most original voices in contemporary theater, debuts Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS about a family who has to do the 20th century over again.

        Tired old Humana tricks are looking refreshed: the 10-minute plays have been turned over to master Arthur Kopit (Wings, Y2K, Road to Nirvana) who has created the serial Chad Curtiss, Lost Again.

        Even the anthology (performed by the apprentice company) looks like a don't-miss. Heaven and Hell (On Earth): A Divine Comedy puts a contemporary spin on eternal obsession. Among the 16 playwrights contributing are so-hot Rebecca Gilman, Keith Glover, Jane Martin, William Mastrosimone and Elizabeth Wong.

        Tickets go on sale Feb. 8. Tourist ticket packages are available for weekends in March. For information call (502) 584-1205 or (800) 428-5849 or visit

        Pulling strings: Obie Award-winning monologist David Cale may just have more business than alteractive when he's in Cincinnati for his one-night stand at Playhouse in the Park (7 p.m. Monday, call 421-3888).

        Mr. Cale and Cincinnati's puppetry arts master Mark Fox have been in an “ongoing” conversation about collaboration ever since the two met two years ago at Headlands, an artist residency program in northern California.

        “I'm so stirred by what he does,” Mr. Cale says. “It's so very beautiful. I don't think in visual terms and what he does is out of my reach — I like the idea of putting myself in his visual world.”

        Busy Mr. Cale sighed. “It's my fault. I keep getting sidetracked.” His voice firms. “But I want to do that. We just have to start.”
        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; e-mail,


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