CityBeat theater critic Rick Pender picks his most eagerly awaited fall productions

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Cincinnati King," "Fly by Night" and "Next to Normal" among those on his list

Matthew Lewis Johnson as Pseudolus in "Forum" - PHOTO: Mikki Schaffner Photography
PHOTO: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Matthew Lewis Johnson as Pseudolus in "Forum"

As the fall theater season gets cranked up, here are some local productions I’m eager to see.

Fly By Night (Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, through Sept. 29) — ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers knows which shows her audiences will love, even when they’re not familiar titles. Her season kicks off with this darkly comic Rock musical launched by New York City’s Playwrights Horizons in 2014. The life of a melancholy sandwich maker changes dramatically when he meets a pair of sisters during the Northeast blackout of 1965. They set off on a star-crossed journey of love and connection told with a catchy score and inventive storytelling.

Misery (Playhouse in the Park, through Sept. 29) — Stephen King knows how to scare people. His creepy novel about a writer held hostage became a 1990 screen thriller with James Caan and Kathy Bates. Screenwriter William Goldman adapted it for the stage, and it’s the season opener for Cincinnati’s Tony Award-winning regional theater. Rescued from a car crash, the writer’s salvation by his “number one fan” takes a nightmarish turn that becomes a spine-tingling cat-and-mouse game. With a veteran Broadway team for stage combat and effects, the story will unfold in a gripping (but not gruesome) way.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Sept. 7-29) — Beginning its 25th season, the classic theater company presents something “new” for them: a classic musical — Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 Tony Award winner. Inspired by humorous plays from ancient Rome, it’s about wily, scheming slave Pseudolus and it uses the infectious energy of vaudeville, complete with shenanigans, hijinks and tomfoolery, to tell its story. With desperate lovers, scheming neighbors and scandalous secrets, it’s one of the all-time funniest Broadway musicals.

Mr. Burns (Xavier University, Sept. 7-9) — Anne Washburn’s “post-electric play” explores how pop culture from one era could evolve into mythology for another. After the collapse of civilization, survivors piece together the plot of an episode of The Simpsons from memory. That becomes the live entertainment of a post-apocalyptic society that yearns to hold onto its past. After 75 years, the stories morph into myths and legends from which new forms of performance are created. A tribute to live theater — and to the resilience of Bart Simpson.

Next to Normal (Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, Oct. 4-21) — The 2009 Tony Award-winning musical portrays a suburban family coping with crisis and mental illness. Dad’s an architect; Mom packs lunches  and pours cereal; the daughter and son are angsty, wisecracking teens. But Mom has fought manic depression for 16 years, and their lives are anything but normal. This powerful show about profound grief, devastating loss, bewildering psychiatry and the challenges of modern life is an audacious choice for the West Side theater.

Guys and Dolls (University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, Oct. 19-27) — For 50 years, CCM has trained Broadway stars. This 1950 show about gamblers in rough-and-tumble New York City in the 1930s will be the centerpiece of an anniversary celebration. (Oct. 20 is a special performance and gala.) Comic gangsters and their girls face complications, and hard-boiled Sky Masterson tries to win over straitlaced missionary Sarah Brown. No need to roll the dice: With CCM choreographer Diane Lala staging the show, it’s a safe bet for entertainment.

Cincinnati King (Playhouse in the Park, Nov. 3-Dec. 23) — Celebrate local music history in this world-premiere musical about Cincinnati’s revolutionary King Records. Based on interviews, the story traces the rise of music pioneer Syd Nathan and shares behind-the-scenes stories about the singers and musicians who played the tunes. Lots of hits including “The Twist,” “Blues Stay Away From Me,” “Fever” and “Need Your Love So Bad.”

Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride (Know Theatre, Nov. 24-Dec. 26) — Playwright Reina Hardy is a rising star; this is the first local production of one of her plays. The Society of Lady Detectives consists of proper Victorian women who love swordplay. But a member might be Isabelle Fontaine-Kite’s missing husband, so Swayne is investigating. The swashbuckling adventure uses cross-dressing, double-crosses, opium and topless fencing for this tale of identity and ambition within the social constraints of Victorian society.  

Contact Rick Pender: [email protected]

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