Sunday, July 01, 2001

Standards on summer stages

Area theaters favor productions with 'broad appeal'

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Summertime and the livin' is easy — unless you happen to be a local theater fan. In that case, you're sweating out which of this month's 20 openings to catch.

        It's a summery list of choices — lots of older musicals and comedies.

        Even newer shows, like Ensemble Theatre's Last Session, have an old-fashioned feeling. Even the smaller downtown theaters that did edgier plays during June, July and August are sauntering in their summer cottons toward the middle of the road.

        “I think summer is a good time to be doing lighter fare,” Ovation artistic director Joe Stollenwerk says. He directs You're Gonna Love Tomorrow, a Stephen Sondheim revue from 1983, opening Friday at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Theater.

    Antioch Area Theater, Antioch College Amphitheater, Yellow Springs, free. (937) 769-1030. July 19-28, Medea.
    Blue Jacket, through Sept. 2, Stringtown Road, Xenia. (877) 465-2583.
    Cincinnati Opera, Music Hall. (513) 241-2742. July 12, 14 and 20, The Magic Flute; July 19 and 21, Nabucco.
    Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St. 381-2273. Previews 2001-02 educational touring shows. Aug. 2-5, Julius Caesar; Aug. 9-26, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
    Ensemble Theatre, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. 421-3555. July 11-15, The Last Session.
    Hot Summer Nights, Patricia Corbett Theater, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. (513) 556-4183. Playing in rep: July 5-Aug. 19, Once Upon a Mattress; July 6-Aug. 17, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; July 7-Aug. 12, Hello, Dolly!
    Kincaid Regional Theatre, Falmouth, Ky. (859) 654-2636. July 5-15, Sylvia; July 26-Aug. 10, Pump Boys & Dinettes; Aug. 11, Best of KRT
    Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore at Liberty, Over-the-Rhine. 871-1429. Aug. 10-25, A Girl's Guide to Chaos.
    Miami University Summer Theatre, Gates-Abegglen Theatre, Center for Performing Arts, accessible from Patterson Avenue (U.S. 27) or Maple Street. (513) 529-3200. Playing in rep: July 12-29, State Fair; July 14-27, Picnic.
    Northern Kentucky University Summer Dinner Theatre, Black Box Theatre, NKU Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights. (859) 572-5464. Closing today, Same Time, Next Year; July 12-22, Nuncrackers; July 26-Aug. 5, Arsenic and Old Lace.
    Ohio Indiana Northern Kentucky Regional Productions, South Dearborn High School, Aurora, Ind. (812) 926-3531 or (513) 312-6694. July 27-Aug. 5, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
    Ovation Theatre Company, Fifth Third Bank Theater, Aronoff Center. 241-7469. July 6-13, You're Gonna Love Tomorrow.
    PNC Advisors Summer Playhouse Season, Playhouse in the Park, Eden Park. 421-3888 or (800) 582-3208. July 5-Aug. 5, Smoke on the Mountain; July 19-29, Avner the Eccentric.
    Showboat Majestic, Public Landing. 241-6550. Closing today, The Baker's Wife. July 18-Aug. 5, Shenandoah; Aug. 8-26, Barefoot in the Park; Sept. 12-30, Forever Plaid.
    Women's Theatre Initiative, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St. 381-2273. July 25-29, One Flea Spare.
        “Broad appeal” is this summer's byword. Of more than a dozen musicals and half a dozen comedies, it's the rare entry that's less than 20 years old.

20 years of hot nights

        Hot Summer Nights at University of Cincinnati is making a Big Deal out of its 20th anniversary, clearly intending to break box office records.

        Among the stops being pulled out will be Pam Myers, Broadway veteran, star of Sweeney Todd and the upcoming Gypsy at Playhouse in the Park. Ms. Myers takes the title role of Hello, Dolly!

        This season “was chosen to appeal to the widest audience possible,” artistic director Richard Hess says, “to encourage full houses for our celebratory anniversary season.

        “A family can happily subscribe knowing there are no titles or situations with adult themes.”

        The trio of sure-fire family pleasers — Once Upon a Mattress, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Hello, Dolly! — open in rep later this week.

        “Filling a theater is not a bad thing,” Mr. Hess notes, adding that a strong subscription base should make it possible in future summer seasons “to sneak one in” from off the beaten track.

        Lucky Stiff, an early work by CCM grad Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens (Ragtime, Seussical), a sort of musical precursor to Weekend with Bernie, had a studio production earlier this year. “That would be a perfect summer show.”

Bold choices

        There will be some bold, audacious theater.

        Cincinnati Opera, under the artistic direction of Nicholas Muni, annually provides the region with some of its most memorable theater, and it has been rewarded with burgeoning attendance.

        Opera is the fastest growing art form among younger adult audiences, because at its best it embraces all art forms — music, theater, movement, the color, light, and sculptural structures of design — and it uses them to tell really big stories.

        The big story not to miss on the Music Hall stage is season closer Nabucco, commemorating the Verdi centennial. It features Lauren Flanigan and the American debut of baritone Lado Ataneli. It is directed by Mr. Muni, whose previous work here has induced near-rapture (Jenufa) and near-fisticuffs (Pelleas et Melisande) as fans debated the production.

        If you can't love it or hate it, what's the point?

Women's project

        Also worthy of interest should be the debut of the Women's Theatre Initiative later this month.

        Originally an undertaking of the Janus Project, the initiative is under the wing of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. It will introduce itself to local audiences with the Cincinnati premiere of One Flea Spare by acclaimed native Kentucky playwright Naomi Wallace. Her work never has been seen in our region.

        “There are a lot of great contemporary American women playwrights whose work is still not being seen in Cincinnati,” says Rebecca Bowman, festival education director who is producing the drama.

        “It's fascinating. It's a period piece — set during the plague — but it tackles contemporary issues, including health and how that defines us, it can even define our sense of feminine self.

        “My generation knew about AIDS before we knew about sex — it's thought-provoking.”

        The entire production team is female, including director Mary Tensing who helmed a staged reading last fall.

Traditional recipes

        College-Conservatory of Music and Hot Summer Nights may be the biggest collegiate summer theater program, but straw-hat — fancifully named for those pre-air-conditioned days when gentlemen wore boaters and ladies protected their complexion with parasols — is available on most Tristate campuses.

        Northern Kentucky University serves up its summer fare as dinner theater, and the menu favors traditional recipes like Same Time, Next Year and Arsenic and Old Lace.

        Miami University theater department chairman Paul Jackson says the summer season specifically focuses on Middle America. Choices State Fair and Picnic were hits in the middle of the last century, but both feature strong directors, Bill Brewer and Mark Seamon, respectively.

        A bit further afield, Antioch continues its tradition of free Shakespeare Under the Stars in Yellow Springs. This year's classic is Euripides' tragedy Medea. Louise Smith, respected actress and performance artist and head of Antioch's theater program, will take the title role. Tony Dallas adapts and directs.

Small-town setting

        Traditional straw-hat theater has a small town setting, and the region has that, too.

        Ohio Indiana Northern Kentucky Regional Productions is heading into its third season in Dearborn, Ind. With an acronym like OINK, artistic director Steven Hedges says, laughing, you have to be good. “You're laying yourself open if you're not.”

        Thanks to those riverboat casinos docked in Lawrenceburg and Rising Sun, Cincinnati audiences are starting to realize that southwest Indiana “isn't a Conestoga wagon trip,” Mr. Hedges says. Also thanks to the money pouring in from those casinos, OINK can do great big musicals with a full orchestra.

        This year's is the boisterous Seven Brides for Seven Brothers starring two of Cincinnati's most talented musical performers, Ty Yadzinski and Becky Rogers.

        The annual musical may be just the beginning. With casino money filling county coffers, a lot of movers and shakers are thinking cultural tourism, Mr. Hedges says. And pondering whether the 19th-century opera houses along the river can be put back into use.

        In Falmouth, Ky., Kincaid Regional Theatre puts as much emphasis on community as theater.

        “This isn't a place for new or innovative work,” artistic director Gina Kleesattel notes. “We choose popular, family fare. I discovered my first year that religious topics are somewhat dangerous — there was quite a bit of controversy over Cotton Patch Gospel.

        “A good percentage of our audience has never seen live theater — so even Sound of Musiconstage — does stretch our audience.”

        There are theater classes for kids as well, and one production of The Sound of Music had an audience sing-along performance.

        Admission to the opening night cast party for Sylvia, about a personable pup, is a donation to AVOC's PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) program. Pump Boys & Dinettes' opening night party will ask for donations for the Falmouth senior center.

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