Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Gotta-see shows on next theater schedule

Adventuresome and sophisticated productions promise strong season for savvy audiences

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Come September, Cincinnati will be front and center with "event" theater, as Playhouse in the Park and Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati deliver gotta-see shows, including Metamorphoses, Urinetown and Movin' Out.

The Playhouse, in particular, is bucking a national trend toward conservative programming in not-for-profit regional theaters.

Broadway in Cincinnati
Playhouse in the Park
"Being adventuresome is breaking the formula," says Alan Yaffe, director of the Graduate Program in Arts Administration at University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music and a national arts management consultant.

With the economic downturn and political conservatism, "there's been a tremendous homogenization of product in every art form," he says.

Arts programming in general has been in retreat since September 2002, says Louise Stevens, consultant with the national firm ArtsMarket, "which has only resulted in organizations digging themselves in deeper."

Stevens says she's starting to see "a new resolve that we've gotta turn this thing around" and bring back audiences who have retreated into movie theaters and home entertainment options as they wait out a bad economy, fears of domestic terrorism and looming war with Iraq.

The Playhouse's bold gamble combined with a strong Broadway touring series means a sophisticated 2003-04 season for Cincinnati audiences.

Metamorphoses, the re-imagination of Ovid that dazzled post-Sept. 11 Broadway audiences, will be the must-see next season, regionally as well as locally.

The Playhouse will re-create the shimmering production that won MacArthur "genius" grant winner Mary Zimmerman a Tony Award for directing last year.

The Playhouse lineup also features three world premieres, including two with strong Cincinnati ties. Joseph McDonough will be the first local playwright to win a Playhouse slot in 16 years with the trio of funny and haunting monologues One. Karen Hartman, named in 2002 by American Theatre magazine a rising playwright to watch on the national scene, uses the story of her grandfather Harry Hartman, the 1930s voice of the Cincinnati Reds, in Going Gone, a study of family and assimilation.

Creative Class

This is exactly the programming, Yaffe notes, to attract the Creative Class, which has become a byword among Cincinnati politicians and new urbanists since economist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, visited Cincinnati almost a year ago.

Playhouse producing artistic director Ed Stern makes no claim to be specifically targeting the demographic of a high-wage, educated work force that gravitates to cities with diverse communities and plenty of nightlife.

The season, says Stern, is about breaking molds. "It's crucial," he says. "We have a responsibility to open people's eyes.

"What's the point of a new season if the titles are just retreads of old ideas?"

By accident or design, Yaffe notes, Stern's choices, combined with Broadway in Cincinnati's schedule, should appeal to Creatives, "audiences who want a little more, who want what they think of as an adventure.

"They want to feel they're on the cutting edge, they want to see the latest stuff."

That latest stuff also will anchor Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati, thanks to the city's strong position on the national touring map. Three of the shows in the series - Urinetown, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Movin' Out - are still playing in New York.

"Cincinnati has shown a really spectacular reaction to what we do," says Brad Broecker, who's been promoted from overseeing the local series to senior vice-president of strategic marketing for Clear Channel Entertainment's theatrical division, owner of Broadway in Cincinnati. "So we throw everything we have into the market as fast as we possibly can."

With a subscriber base that rose 33 percent from 2001-02 to 24,000 this season powered by The Lion King, which opens March 22, Cincinnati is regarded by Clear Channel Theatrical as being among a handful of significant touring cities.

The list includes Houston and Philadelphia, cities with vastly larger populations, but it's box office that earns VIP (very important place) treatment. Cincinnati's box office numbers are annually among the highest in the nation.

Seven shows

The 2003-04 season will increase from six to seven offerings and includes current Broadway shows like critics' darling Urinetown (which opens its tour in June in San Francisco), box office smash Thoroughly Modern Millie, Billy Joel's Movin' Out (a sure contender in this year's Tony Awards) and A Night with Dame Edna.

Cincinnati, Broecker adds, is also a city that is "on the radar screen of the shows. Musicals like The Lion King and The Producers pick where they want to go. We can try to influence them, but they choose their own routes."

Next year's young-feeling season is a very deliberate choice in the wake of The Lion King, says Broecker, particularly because across the country subscription numbers are stalling. The solution has been picking the most tempting, balanced by increased single ticket sales.

Watch for new marketing strategies, including full-color e-mail (instead of snail mail) brochures to reach out to a younger, computer-savvy theater consumer.

Broecker is hoping this year's numbers hold for next season "although reality tells me we'll have to market pretty heavily" to sustain the momentum.

He is adamant that record-setting sales continue to be possible. "We've proven the number exists."

E-mail jdemaline@enquirer.com

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Playhouse in the Park schedule

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