lan Patrick Kenny and his ambitious theater company, New Stage Collective (NSC), blazed across three Cincinnati seasons between 2007 and 2009. Economic pressures interfered, forcing Kenny on to other ventures. Now the Cincinnati native, fresh from graduate studies and a nearly completed master’s degree from UCLA, is back in town to stage the campy musical Xanadu at Covington’s Carnegie Center. It opens on Saturday for an eight-performance run, through Aug. 26. But it’s just a pressure-packed layover before he begins the next stage of his career — in academia.
He and his high school friend Joshua Steele (now the Carnegie’s theater producer) launched NSC in 2003. Following Kenny’s 2005 graduation from New York University, he music directed two hits for Know Theatre, tick, tick … BOOM! (2005) and See What I Wanna See (2006). But he was eager to spread his own wings.
In April 2007 Kenny rented space on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine to give NSC a permanent home. He undertook an audacious schedule of musicals and serious dramatic works, beginning with the local premiere of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, winner of the 2007 Cincinnati Entertainment Award for the year’s outstanding play. In his second season, Kenny staged Caroline, or Change, a dramatic musical about race relations in the Civil Rights Era. In the summer of 2008, Jerry Springer: The Opera continued his string of hits and CEA recognition.
But the economic downturn crushed NSC. Ticket sales weren’t enough to support the company, and Kenny could not find enough donors to sustain operations. In April 2009, he announced the theater would close after staging Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a production that earned several more CEAs. Kenny left town that fall to spend several months doing music on a cruise ship. By the middle of 2010, he was ready to enroll at UCLA. He completed the three-year program in two years. Now, having just turned 30, he’s landed a tenure-track appointment teaching theater at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, a 9,500-student campus with enviable theatrical facilities.
He heads to Wisconsin in a few weeks, once he gets Xanadu on its feet in Covington. In fact, staging the frothy musical, based on a cult-film stinker from 1980, is his master’s thesis. His faculty advisors will be in town so they can sign off on his degree and certify his readiness to be a college professor. It’s the kind of path that only an artist with Kenny’s talent and supreme confidence could pull off.
After knocking around possible shows with Steele, Kenny half-jokingly proposed Xanadu. He’d seen the Broadway production in 2008 after a marathon of New York theatergoing. “It’s based on one of the worst films ever made,” he says of the movie featuring Olivia Newton-John. “I completely stand by that. It’s one of the most misguided musicals ever! It was a disaster.” But he loved its new incarnation, remade by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, preserving a few old tunes — including “Have You Never Been Mellow?” — and incorporating some new music and more coherent dramatic concepts. It had 512 performances on Broadway.
Kenny admits that, despite his precocious Cincinnati production history that included 32 shows and 22 regional premieres, he’s learned some valuable lessons in grad school. “I had to step back into the incubator, and that’s not an easy process,” he confesses. “But the biggest thing I’ve learned is an understanding of dramaturgy and the function of moments within a realistic core. I can approach something as silly as Xanadu from a place of truth and find its core. This show has the potential to be so terrible and so annoying.” Had he staged this show during his NSC days, he admits, it would have been a lot sillier.
“But my bullshit meter is pretty high now,” he explains. “I’m ready to say, ‘That’s not truthful. In fact, that’s ridiculous.’ I want to have fun and go hard. But if I can make this show have some truth, get to its core, then I’ve accomplished something.” Xanadu’s story is about a Muse who journeys from Mt. Olympus to Venice Beach, Calif., to inspire a struggling chalk artist to create an unlikely work of art … a roller disco. Piercing through that tissue-thin premise, Kenny says, “The play is about internal transformation and external transformation. My metaphor is that this transformation is about uncovering the natural beauty already there, as opposed to putting something on it.” Ultimately, he adds, “It’s about trying to create something beautiful and having fun while we’re doing it.”
That notion is necessary to make a lot of aspects of Xanadu work in the Otto M. Budig Theatre, which presents numerous design challenges with its shallow stage and no-way-to-fly scenery. Performers will be roller-skating in the aisles, and a climb up Mt. Olympus must be accomplished with minimal special effects.
Kenny’s two years in Los Angeles broadened his horizons. Among numerous projects there he inventively staged a Monteverdi opera (from 1624), learned a lot about Greek theater and assisted renowned director Robert Falls on the premiere of Beth Henley’s new play The Jacksonian. For a directing class project, he interpreted Shakespeare’s The Tempest through the filter of Baywatch, set to songs from Xanadu. What he calls “45 minutes of ridiculousness” was another piece of his inspiration for his thesis project.
“Xanadu is my first show coming out of grad school,” he says, already looking toward his new job in Wisconsin that will not only allow him to work in sophisticated facilities and with talented young performers, but will afford him the chance to direct elsewhere several months every year.
“Who knows where I’m going to be in a couple of years?” he speculates, eying Chicago and the Twin Cities. “But I’ll tell you, I’m approaching things from a much smarter place.” Stop by the Carnegie over the next week and check on Alan Kenny’s progress. I’m sure we’ll hear more about him before long.
XANADUopens Saturday and runs through Aug. 26 at The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, 849-491-2030, www.thecarnegie.com .