Thursday, February 6, 2003

Summer theater picture is bleak

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati's 2003 summer theater season is virtually over as the economy brings down the curtain on the region's biggest summer theater franchises.

Hot Summer Nights, a fixture on the campus of University of Cincinnati for 22 years, has been canceled for this year. Playhouse in the Park announced in late October that it would take a break from its 3-year-old summer series.

This news comes as Cincinnati prepares to show off for cultural visitors this summer, many of whom will be looking for evening entertainment.

Victims of declining economy, unfamiliar programming and lack of buzz - or all of those things - Playhouse and Hot Summer Nights produced three shows each in 2002 and saw declining audiences and red ink.

"Buzz is very important," acknowledges College-Conservatory of Music Dean Doug Lowry. "I can't deny it. It's a big issue."

Neither Playhouse nor CCM is calling 2003 the end of the run for either theater series.

Lowry says he's looking at the hiatus as "a huge opportunity." CCM will look at its audience, at how it's changed since Hot Summer Nights debuted in 1980 (founded by theater whiz Worth Gardner), and at the audience it wants to have.

Potential reformatting could be a combination of a cabaret, musical and drama, Lowry suggests, "or something else entirely. Everything's open."

A key consideration is the series' mission. Hot Summer Nights was conceived to help musical theater seniors find professional work.

Two decades later, CCM musical theater is the top program in the nation. Upperclassmen spend summers at the most highly regarded summer stock companies, including Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, North Shore Musical Theatre near Boston and Pittsburgh Light Opera. They earn Actors' Equity points so they can move to New York as union members.

For all of these reasons, this seemed like the right time to reassess, says Lowry. A decision won't be made for several months.

"These are bad times," says Ed Stern, producing artistic director for Playhouse in the Park. He expects it to be "probably another couple of years" before summer theater returns to the Playhouse.

One bit of good news is that Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, which defined summertime buzz with Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2001, is planning a summer stint.

Ideally, says ETC producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers, "Triple Espresso will extend for a couple of weeks," into the end of May "and we'll do something fun and hip and cool in June."

That could be Betty Rules, a good-naturedly rockin' evening fresh from New York, which Ms. Meyers checked out on a recent visit

The summer's arts marketing campaign, Festival of the New, had proclaimed the theme of "On Stage Cincinnati" for the weekend of Aug. 1-3. But now stages will be dark.

The theme will change, says project director Kathy DeLaura.

"Naturally we'd have liked to have the theatrical arts as part of the festival this summer," she says, promising "a potpourri (of events) is coming together," to be announced in April. "People will have things to do of a cultural nature at night."


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