Here are 10 things I’ll remember about Greater Cincinnati theater during 2009:
1. Rather than host other theater groups, Covington’s Carnegie Center now produces its own shows. Results have been uneven, but the August-September staging of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with local professionals Mark Hardy and Charlie Clark did a great job of showing the potential of the Otto M. Budig Theater.
2. The Cincinnati Playhouse presented David Harrower’s Blackbird back in February, staged by Associate Artistic Director Michael Evan Haney. The tough play about child molestation — totally lacking in clichés — was the most powerful work onstage in 2009. It was cited by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards as the season’s best play.
3. The Cincinnati Playhouse marked (and will continue marking) its 50th anniversary by reprising a few past hits and staging several interesting new works, including the world premiere of Michele Lowe’s Victoria Musica. The show that came with great credentials and high expectations, however, fell flat: Tony Award-winning director John Doyle staged a new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with a Broadway-caliber cast and designers, but audiences found it too esoteric, many departing at intermission. The box office flop was surely a disappointment to Playhouse leaders.
4. Many people thought Ensemble Theatre’s 2008-09 season was its best ever. Grey Gardens, The Seafarer, Gem of the Ocean, Mauritius and the premiere of the musical Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over (a 2007 Fringe Festival hit) all did well at the box office. But the 2009-10 season so far has offered further evidence of Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers’ unerring judgment with sterling productions of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations and Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone.
5. The University of Cincinnati’s College- Conservatory of Music marked 40 years of its groundbreaking (and incredibly successful) musical theater program with an anniversary production of Hair, a show that was a hit when CCM was getting started. It was a lively reminder of the potency of the program that puts grads onstage in New York and elsewhere; the November anniversary celebration concluded with an emotional cabaret performance featuring grads who have gone on to successful careers.
6. The most versatile actor around is surely Bruce Cromer. For five years he’s been adding depth to the Christmas Carol role of Scrooge at the Cincinnati Playhouse (he played an antic Bob Cratchit for eight years before that). But we also saw him last spring as the wry attorney Fredrik in New Stage Collective’s final production, A Little Night Music. This fall he was the beleaguered King Henry in Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Lion in Winter. The year before he was King Lear and composer Antonio Salieri (both at Cincy Shakespeare). He’s a frequent award winner and always worth watching.
7. Playwright Sarah Ruhl is one of the hottest talents on American stages these days, with lots of attention given to her new work, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), her Broadway debut. But not even New York City could boast three productions of her works this season. That happened here in Cincinnati with Know Theatre’s staging of Eurydice, ETC’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone and the Playhouse premiere of her adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
8. The sixth annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival in late May and early June was another success, with a new attendance record and a good mix of out-of-town shows and ones produced by local theater artists. The audience favorite was Gravesongs by Cincinnati playwright Sarah Underwood and performed by Ensemble Theatre’s intern company; the Producers’ Pick was by a group from London, while the critics’ choice went to 7(x1) Samurai, an accurate but funny one-man rendition of Kurosawa’s classic film.
9. Over the summer, one of the city’s most adventurous companies, Know Theatre (the producer of the Fringe Festival), lost founder Jay Kalagayan to the Cincinnati Ballet and Artistic Director Jason Bruffy to Utah’s Salt Lake Acting Company. They left Know in good shape, however, with affordable tickets ($12, thanks to a generous grant from the Haile Foundation) and a season of guest-directed productions to entice audiences until a new set of leaders are in place.
10. The saddest moment of 2009 surely was the failure of New Stage Collective last April and the subsequent departure from town of young theater firebrand Alan Patrick Kenny. NSC’s final production, A Little Night Music, minimally staged at Know Theatre’s facility after the company abandoned its Main Street space, was a brief hit, although not directed by Kenny. He reminded local audiences of his remarkable skills as a director with a hilarious September production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at The Carnegie followed by the riveting drama Equus in October for New Edgecliff Theatre. Let’s hope that Kenny, a Cincinnati native, finds his way back to town occasionally, at least as a guest director.