Sunday, December 29, 2002

Look Back at 2002 in Theater

A tough, eventful act to follow on stages

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The 2002 theater calendar began on New Year's Day with a touring production of The Vagina Monologues. It virtually sold out the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

It wasn't a harbinger of things to come.

In no time, local theaters were battening down the hatches against a perfect storm of circumstances: the national economy, the downtown boycott, young adults who don't buy subscriptions, and a tidal wave of museum activity that's captured the attention of backers and the imagination of the public.

In a showy display of corporate avarice, intimate Vagina Monologues was re-booked for a July engagement in the Aronoff's cavernous Procter & Gamble Hall. When only 10 percent of tickets sold, the show moved back to the 440-seat Jarson-Kaplan, where the numbers were good enough for another successful run.

It's too easy to say people are afraid to come downtown. We learned with September's multimillion-dollar sale of The Lion King (coming to the Aronoff March 21) that people will put their reluctance aside if the incentive is strong enough.

For everything that lies in Lion King's shadow, it's been a jungle out there.

Here's my list of the year's theater events with greatest impact:

1. Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival reorganization. In mid-November, 9-year old Cincinnati Shakespeare announced the departure of founding artistic director Jasson Minadakis, a budget cut of $260,000 (about 30 percent) and a new schedule for the second half of the 2002-03 season starting in January.

While administrative issues played a central role in the festival's backstage drama of mission and box office, CSF's story is a cautionary tale about the fragility of the small theater scene.

In early 2003, the festival will return to its roots with a pair of surefire, family-friendly Shakespearean hits, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The reins of leadership are in the hands of popular founding festival member Nick Rose, who's working closely with equally talented festival vets Rebecca Bowman and Brian Isaac Phillips. All three remain committed to the festival mission of presenting classic and new work.

A long, heartfelt standing ovation to Mr. Minadakis, who spent the better part of a decade showing what can be accomplished by somebody feisty, determined and gifted.

His mantra might have been "If you don't take the risk and make passionate art, what's the point?"

His last two seasons, which included Chagrin Falls, Fuddy Meers, Arcadia, The Beard of Avon and more, were the classiest titles in town. His gift for putting together actor and role resulted in the blossoming of hugely talented Sherman Fracher and ensemble members including Mr. Rose and Mr. Phillips. He created a showcase for the marvelous Giles Davies. They and out-of-towners such as John Alcott made for drop-dead excitement.

He has a gift for ferreting out scripts and connecting with playwrights, most memorably with Chicago writer Mia McCullough.

Mr. Minadakis did nothing less than create a foundation in downtown Cincinnati for the kind of exciting theater scene dreamed about by everyone who loves theater.

The moral of this story is: The theater scene is fragile. Don't assume that somebody else is taking care of supporting it. I don't mean writing big checks. I mean going to a local theater within two miles of Fountain Square a couple of times a month and taking friends. It can't exist without you. Be there in 2003.

2. Theater beachheads in the suburbs. A national trend takes hold. For the first time in 2002, efforts to establish theater venues beyond downtown look permanent. Covedale Performing Arts Center transformed a former cinema into a home for Cincinnati Young People's Theatre and a winter stage for Showboat Majestic; Xavier University unveiled a 350-seat theater in the splendid new Gallagher Student Center;

The Performance Gallery debuted in the East End; Raymond Walters College unveiled plans to renovate its auditorium in Blue Ash, making it suitable for small touring groups (local and beyond); and the City of Fairfield announced its intention to build a small theater as part of a community center complex.

At the same time, the Children's Theatre experimented with a campus tour to Xavier (selling out school performances) and College of Mount St. Joseph. Lyle Benjamin (artistic director of Queen City Off-Broadway) flirted with the idea of theater in Sharonville with historical re-enactment in Sharon Woods.

What does it mean? No hassle arts experiences away from downtown. Small performing companies that want to survive will have to think even harder about how to build a better mousetrap. Or join Children's Theatre on the road.

3. Incoming artistic directors. Proving that optimism is eternal in the arts, the Performance Gallery was born, with Brian Robertson leading a collective of artists; IF Theatre Collective tentatively returned to life in November under the direction of Ed Cohen;

Matthew Pyle was named artistic director of Know Theatre Tribe last summer; and, still in the birthing stage is a new Irish rep. Karen Vanover and Maureen Kennedy are mothers to the infant New Gate.

4. My favorite premiere. Chagrin Falls by Chicago playwright Mia McCullough, directed by Jasson Minadakis for Cincinnati Shakespeare. A moody piece about capital punishment, it included great work from Sherman Fracher, as a good woman getting through life in a dead-end town, leading a first-rate ensemble cast.

Ms. McCullough, who already has won one major award for Chagrin Falls, makes her Steppenwolf debut this season. I'll be happy to remember that I knew her when.

5. Thank God for CCM musical theater. It's more than a month since the curtain went down on My Favorite Musical of 2002, The Boys from Syracuse, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and I'm still grinning from ear to ear. It just doesn't get better than this.

Director Aubrey Berg put the pieces together for a show that's going to be talked about forever. Betsy Wolfe, already a polished comedian with a deliciously warm voice, may be the next Faith Prince (catch her next in The Wild Party). Her "Sing for Your Supper" trio with Ashley Brown and Angel Reda was musical comedy heaven.

The design work led by Paul Shortt and Reba Senske was delirious, and I hereby declare Roger Grodsky "Musical Man of the Year" for his swoony orchestrations for the hit-filled Rodgers and Hart score. (He looked mighty fine in his Roman accoutrement as he led the Philharmonia Orchestra.)

During the course of 2002, CCM musical theater treated me to a spellbinding Nine, a world premiere of a musical Dracula written by alums, and the rarely-produced Promenade, a '60s cult gotta-see.

It's a national treasure in the heart of University of Cincinnati.

6. Best CCM grad making good: Justin Bohon. Michelle Pawk may be looking at a Tony nomination in 2003, and CCM musical theater grads populate almost every musical on Broadway. But in 2002, Mr. Bohon was the man. The 2001 grad picked up several supporting actor nominations for his first Broadway role, as Will Parker in Susan Stroman's revival of Oklahoma! He capped last season by winning the prestigious Astaire Award - and being caricatured in The New Yorker.

7. Best touring musical: The Producers. Lewis Stadlen and Don Stephenson were a Bialystock and Bloom who dimmed the memory of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. And I say va-va-voom to both Northern Kentucky native cast members, Lee Roy Reams as no-talent cross-dressing director Roger DeBris, and Angie Schworer as bombshell Ulla.

Beautifully cast and superbly realized, it sets the standard for quality that can be achieved by caring producers in a touring musical.

8. Best big city experience in our downtown. More kudos to Mr. Minadakis and Brian Isaac Phillips for bringing the audience on stage for intimate solo show Nocturne, about a book-loving lost soul. By the time I left the theater, I was surprised to be on Race Street. They'd persuaded me I was in Manhattan on Theatre Row.

9. Best noble effort. The Midwest Regional Black Theatre Festival presented by the start-up Cincinnati Black Theatre Company. Plagued by troubles that ranged from facing the early days of the boycott to being novices at fund-raising, they soldiered on under the leadership of Don Sherman and a lot of behind-the-scenes help from folks who willed them to succeed.

10. Best moment. Ah, Wilderness! In the closing moment, a young man stands silhouetted on an old-fashioned, New England front porch gazing at a huge full moon floating in a sky filled with an eternity of stars.

It's a moment about hope and optimism and every definition of love.

In a year when all of us have been mentally and emotionally jarred by downward spiraling 401K's, job cuts, the reality of terrorism and the threat of war, great art continues to tell us that all things are possible.

If that's not worth my time, I don't know what is.


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