Sunday, June 1, 2003

Cincinnati theater on upswing

Despite a rocky year of anxiety

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The big news on the arts scene this week? What else but the party-hearty opening Saturday of the new Zaha Hadid-designed Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.

Even as the action at Sixth and Walnut, downtown, is revving up, the local theater scene is pulling down the curtain on an eventful 2002-03 season - as eventful off-stage as on.

The good news: There's still a theater scene, despite a faltering economy, a war, suburbanites staying far away from downtown and entertainment options to gorge on 24/7.

In September, Ensemble remembered 9/11 with The Guys, introducing regional audiences to the terrific Amy Warner. I wish we'd seen more of her this season.

Cincinnati Shakespeare made a bold season debut with an interracial (and gender-bending) Romeo & Juliet set in a contemporary urban anywhere (that bore a marked resemblance to Over-the-Rhine). Search for Common Ground filmed a performance, using it as a jumping-off point for conversation about Cincinnati's ongoing racial issues. It was a great example of how theater can participate in community issues, but box office was a long way from boffo.

That wasn't the case when single tickets for The Lion King went on sale at the end of September. Crowds lined up predawn and by sunrise were around the block of the Aronoff Center. The Lion King would go on to set attendance records and power Broadway in Cincinnati to a subscription record of more than 24,000.

In October, The Producers brought a Broadway-quality show to Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati. Lewis Stadlen and Don Stephenson were knockouts as amiable crooks Bialystock and Bloom. You now can catch their act on Broadway, worthy successors to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Trouble in 'Paradise'

By the end of the month, economic storm warnings went up when Playhouse in the Park announced there wouldn't be a summer season. It didn't bode well for evening options during a period when cultural tourists were expected to fill the city, thanks to the heralded opening of the new Center for Contemporary Art.

In November, College-Conservatory of Music delivered a gloriously giddy revival of The Boys from Syracuse, but the big impact was the sudden resignation of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's founding artistic director Jasson Minadakis. Nick Rose, also a founding member of the company, stepped in for a smooth transition and serious belt-tightening.

The second half of the Festival's challenging season (which would have included gay-themed Bent and a new work by Mia McCullough, author of last year's haunting Chagrin Falls) was replaced by family friendly fare, and the plan worked. The festival has pulled itself out of debt, and will be here to celebrate its 10th season in 2003-04.

By January, Playhouse in the Park was under fire for its planned student touring production Paradise, which addressed the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. What started with strenuous objections from members of the Muslim community spiraled into larger institutional issues.

The project was "suspended," giving Playhouse 15 minutes of the kind of fame Cincinnati never needs. Playwright Glyn O'Malley protested that he had been "fatwa'ed" and national media zeroed in.

In mid-February, a public reading brought a solid but less than SRO crowd to Playhouse.

That was about the time that the first of what became a deluge of postcards started arriving, part of an ongoing campaign by Pennsylvania-based America Needs Fatima. That organization charged blasphemy against Know Theatre Tribe's upcoming production of Corpus Christi. (The play opens June 12 at Gabriel's Corner in Over-the-Rhine.)

CCM Dean Douglas Lowry already had announced a retrenching. After 22 seasons, Hot Summer Nights would spend summer 2003 on hiatus - a blow not only to fans (which have been diminishing over the last few seasons) but also to summer's anticipated cultural tourist boom.

By the end of the month, Stage First, one of the first small companies to move into the Aronoff's Fifth Third Theater, announced it was ending its run of almost five years. (Ovation is now the only long-term theater company hanging on in the Fifth Third.)

In mid-March, a production of The Vagina Monologues, which has played Cincinnati several times, including twice at the Aronoff Center, was cancelled by Xavier University President Michael J. Graham after coming under fire from the Virginia-based Cardinal Newman Society.

It has been the season of High Anxiety, compounded by the ever-increasing national trend away from subscriptions (unless it's absolutely the only way to get good seats for a phenomenon like The Lion King) and to last-minute ticket sales.

The year's successes

Even so, there have been some terrific nights at the theater this year.

As well as the productions mentioned above, there was this year's dazzling Rosenthal New Play Prize winner The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Copenhagen at Ensemble.

There's been the pleasure of watching Taylore Mahogany Scott's work at Cincinnati Shakespeare, in shows including The Gimmick.

CCM musical theater had a great year with shows including Promenade and The Wild Party.

There was an emotional rush to March 3 readings of Greek antiwar classic Lysistrata throughout the region, with dozens of local performing artists voicing their democratic right to object to U.S. policy and the war in Iraq.

Spring brought glimmers of fresh growth. As other small companies flee the expenses of downtown (and still search for audiences), the new Clear Stage announced its intention of trying its luck with a two-show season at the Aronoff in 2003-04.

There will be pockets of theater this summer. Summer series will continue at Northern Kentucky University and Miami University. Know Tribe, which has built a small but loyal following, will produce all summer.

New Gate will try its luck at Walton Creek Theatre next weekend. Ensemble will revive Hedwig and the Angry Inch later this month. Women's Theatre Initiative will present its annual show in July, and the independent "popera" blueS alleY caT will debut in July at School for Creative and Performing Arts.

If this season proved anything, it's that art isn't easy.

And somehow the people who love making art keep on keepin' on.


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