Impactful Shows From Cincinnati Stages in 2018

Our theater critic Rick Pender reflects on his most memorable moments seeing Cincinnati theater this year.

Barbara Chisholm (left) as Annie Wilkes and David Whalen as Paul Sheldon. - Mikki Schaffner Photography
Mikki Schaffner Photography
Barbara Chisholm (left) as Annie Wilkes and David Whalen as Paul Sheldon.
Lots of great theater happened on Cincinnati stages during 2018, making it tough to single out the “best” shows of 2018. So I’m simply offering my opinions regarding the shows that I’m still thinking about as the year draws to a close.

At the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the mainstage production that keeps coming back to me is the 2018-2019 season-opener, a theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. Truth to tell, there’s not a lot of opportunity for suspense in this tale, since it was a best-selling novel as well as a much remembered 1990 movie (for which Kathy Bates won an Academy Award). But the Playhouse production was a showcase for actors, with Barbara Chisholm playing the psychopathic “No. 1 Fan” Annie Wilkes, and David Whalen as the unfortunate novelist who falls into her clutches after a car accident. Even while some theatergoers remembered Chisholm as funny, pragmatic Erma Bombeck from a prior season, she brought Annie to creepy, demented life and kept everyone on the edge of their seats.

The Playhouse’s Shelterhouse is where new plays are frequently staged and this year the lineup was again all by female playwrights. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Be Here Now, about an unexpected love affair, and Allyson Currin’s Sooner/Later, about coincidences and unsuccessful dates, were both excellent. But KJ Sanchez’s Cincinnati King, chronicling the ups and downs of Cincinnati’s own King Records from the 1940s to the 1960s, will stick with me. It’s a great piece of local entertainment history.

The cast of "Cincinnati King." - Mikki Schaffner Photography
Mikki Schaffner Photography
The cast of "Cincinnati King."

Fine acting has become the hallmark of productions by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, and it was a rare treat to have Todd Almond back in town for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he starred in back in 2001 and 2003. But my vote for the most memorable performance goes to Torie Wiggins, who brought legendary singer Ethel Waters to life in His Eye Is on the Sparrow this spring. With simple piano accompaniment by Scot Woolley, Wiggins’ captivating rendition of Jazz, Pop and Gospel classics — while recreating the trials and tribulations of Waters’ never-easy life — was one to admire.

Settling into its new Over-the-Rhine theater, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company had the chance to show off with productions that could never have happened on its former stage. Of course, works by Shakespeare were well done, but the frightening video projections for the October stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 are surely seared into my brain in a production that felt startlingly timely in 2018. The collaboration with Brave Berlin, the creative organization that produced the BLINK art and light festival in 2017, was a stroke of genius.

In addition to the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, Know Theatre keeps audiences entertained with shows by lesser known playwrights and stories that dance around the edges of our imagination. Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Man-Beast in October told a two-character werewolf tale with some surprising twists and turns. Set in 18th-century France, it caught audiences unaware more than once. Jim Hopkins and Jennifer Joplin, regulars with Cincy Shakes, turned in physically demanding and gripping performances.

click to enlarge Cincy Shake's production of "1984." - Mikki Schaffner Photography
Mikki Schaffner Photography
Cincy Shake's production of "1984."

A few other theater productions that I’ll remember kicked off with a January tour stop by Waitress at the Aronoff Center. It’s the rare Broadway production (this show is still running in New York, in fact) that tells a heartfelt story about characters who create magic in everyday life — through baking, in this case. In August The Carnegie in Covington staged the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, about the rise, fall and rise of a Pop trio resembling The Supremes. Directed by Torie Wiggins (not long after playing Ethel Waters at ETC), the production featured a cast of talented, diverse performers, several of whom would be great to see more frequently. Tiny Falcon Theatre (at its own 100-seat venue in Newport) gave a powerful rendering of Martin McDonough’s harrowing The Pillowman, set in a nameless police state where a man is abusively interrogated about some violent child murders that he may or may not have committed.

Cincinnati theater lovers are lucky to have so many choices presented with such professionalism.

A Look Ahead to 2019:

It’s no secret that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s megahit Hamilton is finally touring, making a three-week tour stop here, Feb. 19-March 10 at the Aronoff Center. The score uses Hip Hop, Jazz, Blues, Rap, R&B and Broadway melodies to tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became a hero during the American Revolution and the shaper of the young nation. Despite the length of the run, tickets are scarce, but there will be daily lotteries for a few seats if you care to try your luck.

Hamilton wasn’t Miranda’s first hit: That would be In the Heights, the 2008 Tony Award winner about life in New York City’s Hispanic-American community, Washington Heights, a musical stew of Latin energy. The Playhouse in the Park is producing this one, Jan. 19-Feb. 17, a savvy move in close proximity to Hamilton’s upcoming presentation.

As a longtime fan of Cuban Pop singer Gloria Estefan and the infectious Latin rhythms of the Miami Sound Machine, I’m eager to catch a performance of On Your Feet during its tour stop at the Aronoff Center, March 19-24. How she and her husband Emilio became a crossover Pop sensation is an inspiring tale, with lots of memorable music.

Prefer some drama? Check out a pair of plays by America’s great African-American playwright, August Wilson: Fences at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (Jan. 25-Feb. 16) and Two Trains Running at the Playhouse in the Park (March 7-30). And don’t miss Ensemble Theatre’s hat trick of award-winning new works, a trio of regional premieres: Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (March 2-30), Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew (April 13-May 11) and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (June 1-29). All three are among the most produced shows on American stages this season.

About The Author

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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