Fall Arts Preview: Theater

Music, madness and CEA winners everywhere

Many theaters presume a strong season must begin with a bang — or at least with music. So you'll find musical theater productions on four of Cincinnati's most visible stages in the near future.

The Cincinnati Playhouse gets things rolling with Emma (Sept. 2-Oct. 3), a musicalized version of Jane Austen's best-seller from 1817. It's an almost brand-new work by Paul Gordon, receiving its second production. The premiere was a year ago at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., where it broke every box-office record in the company's 38-year history. We'll see the same production about the matchmaking Emma whose meddling gets her in trouble (Austen's novel inspired the popular film Clueless, too), directed by Robert Kelley and featuring several award-winning cast members from his original California production.

I'm especially eager to see Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's staging of Grey Gardens (Sept. 10-28), the quirky musical that earned 10 Tony Award nominations in 2006. Based on a documentary about an oddball mother and daughter, reclusive relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Grey Gardens is a great showcase for two performers. On Broadway, Tony Awards went to Christine Ebersole (as Edith in Act One, set in 1941, and "Little Edie" in Act Two, set in 1973) and to Mary Louise Wilson (as senile Edith in Act Two). At ETC, Neva Rae Powers (a 2007 CEA winner for her portrait of a dotty wannabe opera singer in Souvenir) plays the dual role and CEA Hall of Fame actress Dale Hodges is the elderly Edith.

Know Theatre kicks off with a raucous contemporary cult show, Reefer Madness: The Musical (Sept. 20-Nov. 14), based on the 1936 film designed to scare people away from marijuana. Know has more up its sleeve: Reefer Madness has a long run, alternating performances with another show opening later — the world premiere of Militant Language: A Play with Sand (Oct. 11-Nov. 16). And here's great news: Know's tickets this season will cost a lot less, thanks to a substantial grant from the Carolyn Ann and Ralph V. Haile/US Bank Foundation. All seats for all shows have been reduced to $12; tickets were previously $20.

Even Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has found a way to kick off the season with some music and madness, offering Amadeus (Sept. 5-28), Peter Shaffer's 1979 drama about the rivalry between brash young Mozart and the established but less creative composer Antonio Salieri. This will be fun to watch because of two actors recently recognized by the 2008 CEAs: Chris Guthrie, playing Mozart, literally burned his way into audiences memories in Bug at New Stage Collective last April; Bruce Cromer (Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse) will be Salieri — he won a 2008 CEA as the mad King Lear last season.

The University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) is always a good bet for musicals. This fall you'll find a mainstage production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Nov. 20-23) and the irreverent and satirical Urinetown (Oct. 23-25) in the Cohen Family Studio Theater. I also suggest checking out CCM's Spring Awakening (Oct. 29-Nov. 2), but pay attention: This is the 1891 non-musical play about adolescent sexuality that inspired the Broadway hit. Across the river at Northern Kentucky University, plan to see Once On This Island (Oct. 30-Nov. 9), which happens to feature marvelous melodies by CCM grad Stephen Flaherty.

Last year versatile community theater director Ed Cohen spread his wings by directing shows at NKU and CCM. This year he's been recruited as a guest director by New Stage Collective for Conor McPherson's Shining City (Sept. 4-21), a psychological mystery about a Dublin therapist treating a man haunted by the ghost of his wife. It was named one of the 10 outstanding plays of 2007-08 by The Best Plays Theater Yearbook. Cohen also directs Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman (Oct. 9-25) for New Edgecliff Theatre.

Three more dramas you should plan to see include the Playhouse offers Durango (Sept. 20-Oct. 19), Julia Cho's tale of conflict between generations of Asian Americans. ETC presents another play by the prolific Conor McPherson, The Seafarer (Oct. 15-Nov. 2). Selected for the 2007-08 edition of The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, this tale about playing cards with the devil will be worth watching at ETC with New York actor Dennis Parlato in the central role. Seafarer competes with another award-winning work, Alan Bennett's The History Boys (New Stage Collective, Oct. 23-Nov. 16), the 2006 Tony Award winning play about rambunctious students and a maverick teacher.

The Cincinnati Arts Association presents a two-week run of the hilarious one-woman show Late Nite Catechism (Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Oct. 7-19). Cincinnati audiences loved "Sister" and her lessons four years ago, and given the number of practicing and former Catholics in town this is sure to be a hot ticket.

One more production worth noting is the landmark musical Show Boat (Sept. 10-28) on the most logical of venues — the Showboat Majestic, marking the boat's 85th anniversary.

Finally, circle Oct. 16 on your calendar when the League of Cincinnati Theatres presents its annual Free Night of Theater. It's pretty much what the name says: a chance to see a great show for free. Watch for details and make the call as soon as you can: Last year every ticket was claimed for shows at seven theaters in just a few hours.

That's how good our local theaters are — everybody wants to go!

For a comprehensive list of local theatrical productions, see the Fall Arts Calendar here.
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