Onstage: Now Playing

Fall theater in Cincinnati features lots of tunes and some serious drama

Aug 30, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Joan Marcus

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens at the Aronoff on Nov. 14 as part of Broadway in Cincinnati's fall season.

If musical theater is your thing, you've got a busy fall ahead of you. If you're looking for plays, you have to be a bit choosier, but there's still plenty to keep you occupied. Here's my chronological listing of must-see shows for the fall.

MACK AND MABEL (Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, Sept. 13-Oct. 1) is about the love affair between 1920s silent filmmaker Mack Sennett (who created the Keystone Cops) and actress Mabel Normand. Jerry Herman composed the 1974 musical, and D. Lynn Meyers is reinventing it in a concert version with actor Gary Sandy, remembered by many for his role in the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati.

ON THE TOWN (Northern Kentucky University, Sept. 28-Oct. 8) is about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. Leonard Bernstein's joyful score is a classic, and the show has plenty of humor and opportunity to showcase dancers. Faculty member Mark Hardy will direct; he's put in his time as a musical theater performer, so this should be worth seeing.

DREAMGIRLS (Jersey Productions, Oct. 6-15) will be better known at the end of the year when a new film featuring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles and Eddie Murphy is released, but this is your chance to see the stage version of the backstage drama of the rise to stardom of a '60s group like The Supremes. Jersey is our area's newest theater company, presenting shows in the Carnegie's renovated theater in Covington.

They've demonstrated a knack for strong casting, so this could be a treat.

SEE WHAT I MEAN (Know Theatre, Oct. 12-Nov. 4) is a new musical by John Michael LaChiusa. In fact, Know is giving the work only its second production. (It premiered last fall at New York City's Public Theater.) It's an exploration of faith, love, trust and perception across three eras — the 1951 rape of a lounge singer and the murder of her husband in Central Park; a secret plot by two lovers to kill one another in medieval Japan; and a miracle that's really a practical joke perpetrated by a priest whose faith has been shaken by 9/11. Know staged its first musical (Jonathan Larsen's Tick, tick ... Boom!) a year ago with great result; this could be a repeat of that success. www.knowtheatre.com

ACE (Cincinnati Playhouse, Oct. 19-Nov. 17) is the winner of the Playhouse's 2006 Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize. Created by Cincinnati native and CCM grad Richard Oberacker, it's a coming-of-age story about a troubled boy in the 1950s searching for a sense of family. A model airplane opens a fantastic new world where a mysterious fighter pilot takes him on a series of heroic adventures that result in a new sense of understanding. Oberacker's compositions are earning increasing recognition, so lots of attention will be given to his new work.

THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM (UC's College-Conservatory of Music, Nov. 2-4) is based on a comic novel by Eudora Welty about a charming rogue, a plantation owner's daughter, a devilish stepmother and a talking head in a box. The score features music with a Bluegrass flavor. This one is in CCM's intimate Cohen Family Studio Theater, which means it's free (but reservations are required).

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (Cincinnati Music Theatre, Nov. 3-11) is the fall's second dose of Jerry Herman's tunes (see Mack and Mabel above; CMT stages the legendary Hello, Dolly! next spring). The show is about the troubled love affair between Georges, who runs a drag nightclub in St. Tropez, and Albin, his star. In 1983 it was scandalous, but today it's simply a testament to the pleasures of entertainment.

THE PAJAMA GAME (UC's College-Conservatory of Music, Nov. 16-19) is a 50-year-old musical; its revival just won a Tony. It's about a fiery female union leader and a handsome new foreman at a pajama factory whose workplace romance collides with an imminent employee strike. Aubrey Berg, who heads CCM's musical theater program, will stage this in a big-budget, flashy production at Corbett Auditorium.

25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (Broadway in Cincinnati, Nov. 14-26) is one of several good shows coming to the Aronoff this season, like Light in the Piazza, which opens next week. Spelling Bee is my favorite, though: Six young people in the throes of puberty learn that winning isn't everything. This charming show cleverly uses audience participants.

Two other events this fall for Broadway fans: On Sept. 9, MARIN MAZZIE, a three-time Tony nominee (Ragtime, Kiss Me, Kate and Passion) will perform at the Carnegie in a benefit for Jersey Productions. Mazzie's fellow Tony nominee from Ragtime, AUDRA MCDONALD, will be in town Nov. 4 for Cincinnati Opera's annual gala. She's earned Tony Awards for Master Class, Carousel, Ragtime and A Raisin in the Sun.

For plays without music this fall, I have three tips:

IN THE CONTINUUM (Cincinnati Playhouse, Oct. 5-29) was written and is performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter. They portray two women with HIV, one a teenaged African-American and the other a newsreader for Zimbabwe Broadcasting. The play covers a 48-hour period when both women learn they've been infected by the men in their lives. The play recently toured to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Edinburgh, Scotland. The New York Times named it one of the 10 best plays of 2005.

MACBETH (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Oct. 19-Nov. 19) continues a recent custom of using Shakespeare's darker works for Halloween thrills and chills. Macbeth is haunted enough that actors are superstitious about mentioning the title in a theater (they call it "the Scottish play"), but CSC is likely to use several buckets of stage blood as the king and his ambitious wife undertake a reign of terror.

AN EVENING IN DURANG(O) (New Edgecliff Theatre, Nov. 2-18) is a set of three plays by zany Christopher Durang. In The Actor's Nightmare, an accountant navigates leading roles in several classic plays he knows little about. In 'Dentity Crisis, a girl diagnosed as mentally ill is surrounded by even more deranged family members. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls is a parody of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. ©