A Winning Season

Cincinnati theater is off and running

Aug 31, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati’s Riverfest fireworks once fired the starting gun for local theater, but already several theaters have shows onstage. This week Cincinnati’s major theaters open their first productions of 2011-2012, launching a fall offering an unusual number of award-winning shows.

The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park cranks things up on the Marx Theatre stage with a 2009 Tony Award winner, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (Sept. 8-Oct. 1). It’s a serio-comic piece about two sets of parents who come together to try to has out the aftermath of a playground fight between their sons. It escalates into a battle of wills and words, making for an evening of visceral theater. As if one Tony winner weren’t enough, the Playhouse’s second Marx production is the 2010 best play, John Logan’s Red (Oct. 20-Nov. 12). It’s another form of combat, although this time more cerebral and aesthetic, imagining an encounter in 1958-1959 between avant-garde painter Mark Rothko and a precocious assistant. The play is both thoughtful and thrilling.

Also noteworthy at the Playhouse will be Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Oct. 6-Nov. 6) in the Shelterhouse. The play has been a beloved comedy for four centuries, and Ed Stern, retiring at the end of the current season, has chosen it for his final production. Stern had great success with Othello in the Shelterhouse in 2007, and I expect this one (co-directed with Michael Evan Haney) will be another up-close adventure with a classic.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s stock in trade is, of course, classics. But they practice that concept liberally, often picking more recent works that connect to their season. CSC commences with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (Sept. 9-Oct. 2), in fact, the 1962 Tony-winning best play. It’s about the struggle between willful King Henry VIII and his principled chancellor Sir Thomas More prompted by Henry’s impetuous desire to divorce and remarry, despite the prohibition of the Roman Catholic Church. (Early in 2012, CSC stages Shakespeare’s seldom seen Henry VIII: All Is True, featuring many of the same characters.) The company offers Macbeth (Oct. 14-Nov. 20), serving up the bloody, ghostly tragedy just before and after Halloween.

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati has pulled off a significant coup by obtaining the rights to produce Next to Normal (Sept. 7-25), winner of several 2009 Tony Awards — as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. ETC’s production of the Rock musical about a woman with bipolar disorder will be one of the first outside of New York City. D. Lynn Meyers and a cast of outstanding local professionals should deliver the kind of hard-hitting show about contemporary issues that ETC does so well. In the weeks just before Halloween, ETC will present Michael Hollinger’s Ghost-Writer (Oct. 12-30). His script Opus was a hit for the Over-the-Rhine theater in 2007, nominated as a best play by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and winning a citation from the American Theatre Critics Association. Ghost-Writer, Hollinger’s newest script, is about a writer and his devoted secretary who seems to continue his work after his death.

And that’s not the end of award-worthy shows around Cincinnati. This month (Sept. 7-24) the Showboat Majestic stages The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005 Tony nominee for best musical), a sweet, funny show about smart, sensitive adolescents in a contest. Landmark Productions, which operates the Showboat and the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, is also offering the hilarious backstage comedy, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (through Sept. 25) at the West Side venue. It was nominated for best-play recognition in the 1984 Tonys.

The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) has several shows with great lineages, too, perhaps the most noteworthy being Oklahoma! (Nov. 17-20). The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic debuted in the 1940s before the Tonys were around, but it ran for five years and in 1993 picked up a special Tony recognizing its impact on Broadway. CCM’s drama program is staging Helen Edmundson’s Coram Boy (Oct. 27-30), a 2007 Tony nominee for best play. It uses a cast of 50 to portray an epic adventure involving orphans in the 18th century. CCM drama is also partnering with Covington’s Carnegie Center to present Sarah Ruhl’s fascinating and provocative 2009 script, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (Nov. 4-20). The finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize is about sexuality in the Victorian era.

Over at Northern Kentucky University, you’ll find Trouble in Mind (Oct. 27-Nov. 6) by Alice Childress. The 1955 show, about the challenges faced by a production of a fictional, anti-lynching Broadway play, made Childress the first African-American woman to win an Obie Award. NKU is also staging Little Women (Sept. 29-Oct. 9), the musical based on Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic 1868-1869 novel.

If you want to add one more Tony winner to your must-see list, Cincinnati Music TheatreHairspray (Nov. 4-12) at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. CMT is one of our city’s most reliable and ambitious community theaters, doing outstanding work on most productions. will offer the 2003 Tony-winning musical comedy

And since we’re talking about award-winners, here’s an interesting fact: Stephen Schwartz’s 2004 mega-hit musical Wicked (still running on Broadway and returning to the Aronoff Center for the third time, Nov. 2-26) did not win the Tony Award for best musical. It was nominated, but lost in a surprise upset by the saucy puppet musical Avenue Q.