Cincinnati Theater Companies Are Cultivating Young Audiences

Playhouse in the Park’s production of "Treasure Island," a family favorite, opens Thursday; watch for "Bye Bye Birdie," "The Music Man" and more

click to enlarge Promotional poster for Treasure Island - Photo: Tony Arrasmith // Arrasmith & Associates
Photo: Tony Arrasmith // Arrasmith & Associates
Promotional poster for Treasure Island

The first full-fledged theater production I ever attended was a community theater staging of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, the story of a magical town in Scotland that appears from the mists just once each century. My grandfather, a British immigrant, took me to see the show in a school auditorium in my northeast Ohio hometown. I was 6 years old, and I loved it. (During high school, I played roles in several productions in that same auditorium.)

Taking a kid to a theater performance can have a profound effect on them, often instilling an enthusiasm that continues through adulthood. Since 1924, the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati has presented shows that afford kids a taste of live performance. Busloads of youngsters regularly fill the 2,200-seat Taft Theatre on outings to downtown Cincinnati for shows with professional performers in productions that are about 70 minutes long, designed to fit the attention spans of young audiences. The company’s recent production of Mary Poppins JR. had 10 school performances, some of which were signed for the hearing impaired or adjusted to be sensory friendly for children on the autism spectrum. The show also presented seven weekend performances open to the public — each season the Children’s Theatre strives to reach 200,000 people in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region.

Although this show has passed, more are on the horizon, including the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of Treasure Island (Thursday-May 19). “It’s been a priority for me that the Playhouse offer some multigenerational fare every season, in addition to A Christmas Carol,” says Artistic Director Blake Robison. “Bringing these stories to life onstage allows families to enjoy the theatrical experience together. When a kid is 8, 9 or 10 years old and able to sit through a full-length play, we want to provide that opportunity.”

The show has been adapted for the stage by veteran playwright Ken Ludwig. (His scripts have been presented during several recent Playhouse seasons, including The Three Musketeers in 2012 and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery in 2017.) Treasure Island features all the memorable events and colorful characters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 novel about young Jim Hawkins and his adventure with pirate captain Long John Silver.

Robison adds that the swashbuckling Treasure Island, which he’s directing on the Playhouse’s Marx mainstage, is “a story of a young boy growing up and finding his moral beacon. These are things we want for all our children. Jim does them under extraordinary circumstances.” Robison also promises “funny dialogue and awesome sword fights.”

If you’re looking for additional family-friendly shows, keep your eye on Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts (Oklahoma! wraps up there this weekend) and the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre. The latter’s family-friendly Summer Classics Season opens with a production of the 1960 Elvis-inspired show Bye Bye Birdie (May 2-27). It’s followed in June by the more recent musical, Once on This Island, about a peasant girl on a tropical island who uses the power of love to bring people of different social classes together. (Its composer, Stephen Flaherty, is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.)

The Covedale is also the venue for Cincinnati Young People’s Theatre, which has staged shows for 36 years with teenaged actors and stagehands. This summer’s show is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (July 26-Aug. 5), a classic hit about a boys’ band in River City, Iowa. The show is a great choice for all members of the family — raucous, amusing and tuneful.

Another option for kids are some of the touring productions presented by Broadway in Cincinnati. I recently attended the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, a show that entertained numerous kids with the story about children in 19th-century Siam “getting to know you.” Disney’s Aladdin, the 2014 stage musical based on the 1992 animated film, will be at the Aronoff from May 29-June 10. Next fall, a good choice would be Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Oct. 23-Nov. 4, also at the Aronoff.

Finally, keep an eye out for community theater and high school productions near where you live. They’re just the ticket for affordable outings that kids, parents and grandparents are sure to enjoy.

Contact Rick Pender: [email protected]

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