When the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park kicks off its 50th anniversary season this fall, Ed Stern will be in his 18th year as producing artistic director. He wanted to put together a year of shows that not only reflected what the Playhouse has become since its founding in 1960 but also made a contribution to theater in the future.
“I wanted it to be a spectacular season,” Stern says, "not necessarily bigger casts or bigger sets.”
Given the economy, Stern knew that didn’t make sense.
“Many theaters want to do a retrospective, and I certainly didn’t want to deny that,” he says. “But if it’s all about looking to the past, well, that’s a death knell. Next year, half our season is brand-new — more new works than have ever been presented at this theater in one season. Period.”
Stern, whose 18 seasons constitute a remarkably long tenure as a theater leader, has an uncanny knack for offering tried-and-true classics alongside works by rising playwrights. He’s amplified that for 2009-10 with a season he calls “the best I’ve ever assembled.”
[See the full season lineup at the bottom of this page. Read about Stern's March 23 season announcement event for Playhouse staff, board members and sponsors here.]
Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern announces the 50th anniversary season on March 23.
Since Stern’s arrival, the Playhouse has twice earned Tony Awards, in 2004 as an outstanding regional theater and in 2007 for its re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a production that moved to Broadway and earned a Tony for the season’s best revival. The 50th season is evidence that Stern isn't done yet.
Six shows for the season are world premieres or newly created pieces. Stern has engaged top-notch theater talent, and it’s clear he’s gunning for recognition beyond Cincinnati with several shows.
The prime example is the fall production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (Oct. 29-Nov. 21). He's recruited ultra-hot playwright Sarah Ruhl to write a new adaptation of the classic play and given her an A-list of production support. (Ruhl’s The Clean House was a local and national hit and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005; her Eurydice is presently onstage at Know Theatre.)
John Doyle, the British director who captured Broadway’s attention with his 2005 actor/musician production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, will stage The Three Sisters. He followed Sweeney Todd with the 2006 Company that put the Playhouse in the spotlight.
The Three Sisters will mark Doyle’s first non-musical in the U.S. His production team includes two Tony Award-winners, scenic designer Scott Pask (Urinetown and The Coast of Utopia) and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward (Beauty and the Beast, plus the Playhouse’s Company).
But Stern’s eggs aren't all in one basket: The main stage season will offer a second world premiere with Walter Mosely’s first play, The Fall of Heaven (Jan. 28-Feb. 20). Mosely is a best-selling author, known for his hard-boiled Easy Rawlins mysteries (especially Devil in a Blue Dress, made into a popular 1995 film) and more recently stories of Tempest Landry, a street-smart guy from Harlem.
Mosely’s play sees Landry gunned-down early on, then brings him back to Earth through a loophole with an angel in tow to keep an eye on him. Stern says the play is “about being human, about sin, and sin as it’s applied differently for blacks and whites.”
The Three Sisters and Fall of Heaven are undoubtedly the season’s headliners, but they're not the end of Stern’s array of new shows. The Playhouse will present a “rolling premiere” (starting at TheatreWorks in California’s Bay Area) of a new musical, Daddy-Long-Legs (March 18-April 10, 2010 on the Marx stage), based on a romantic Hollywood film from 1955 that starred Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. It teams composer Paul Gordon (his Emma opened the Playhouse’s current season last September) and John Caird, whose directing credits include Les Misérables. David Farley, creator of the digital design for the recent Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park With George, provides the scenic design.
Additionally, Stern has selected three new works for the intimate Thompson Shelterhouse. He's commissioned a world premiere by Michele Lowe, Victoria Musica (Oct. 1-25), a suspenseful play about a deceased cellist whose mysterious, perhaps fabricated career is questioned by a contemporary journalist. The Smell of the Kill, a comedy by Lowe, was a Playhouse hit in 2003, and her String of Pearls was a high point for Ensemble Theatre in 2006.
Her recent work has become more serious, with Inana (recently premiered by the Denver Center Theatre Company), the story of a museum curator from Baghdad, and now this newly commissioned work for the Playhouse. Stern will direct the show.
The Shelterhouse’s second world premiere is The History of Invulnerability by David Bar Katz (April 8-May 12, 2010). It’s about Superman and his creator, Jerry Siegel, a Jewish boy from Cleveland who in the late 1930s imagined a hero for a world teetering on the brink of tragic events. Describing the play as “tough and impactful,” Stern says it’s about “how people lived in the 20th century.”
The final new work for Shelterhouse audiences is a solo work by NPR humorist Kevin Kling, How? How? Why? Why? Why? (Feb. 18-March 14, 2010). He performs the monologue recounting events after a debilitating motorcycle accident, examining how tragedy can positively define a person’s life. The show had its first run at the Seattle Repertory Theatre exactly a year ago.
With all these new works, Stern has not neglected the Playhouse’s past. His season includes four works (five if you count A Christmas Carol, back for its 19th iteration in December) that have pleased audiences over the years. The main stage season opens with Anthony Shaffer’s classic mystery plot-twister, Sleuth (Sept. 10-Oct. 3), and wraps up with the rollicking Fats Waller tribute, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (May 20-June 20, 2010), the show that concluded Stern’s first season in 1993.
Kathy Wade, who appeared in Ain't Misbehavin' in 1993, sang the title song at the Playhouse's March 23 season announcement.
The show will be revived in May 2010.
Shelterhouse audiences will see some familiar characters, too. For the holidays, the Playhouse revives Sanders Family Christmas: More Smoke on the Mountain (Nov. 12-Dec. 31). The folksy musical comedy was a big hit with Playhouse audiences in 2000.
To close the Shelterhouse season, Stern has selected the longest running musical in history, The Fantasticks (May 20-June 20, 2010). The charming musical about young love and parental interference was presented at the Playhouse six times between 1963 and 1974.
I saw Lowe’s new play Inana in Denver in February, which led to a recent phone conversation.
“I think it’s fantastic that Ed Stern is doing new work in this anniversary season,” she tells me, grateful that her Victoria Musica is one of the plays selected. “Much of my work is about the past, the present and the future, so I love that I’m part of this season.”
In particular, Lowe praises Stern for not just marking past achievements. He’s thinking about the future, too.
“Someone like me really wants an educated theater audience willing to go to something new," she says. "Ed Stern is fueling theater in America. That’s what he’s doing, and God love him!”
Whether or not God is involved, audiences have felt blessed by Stern’s seasons since 1992-93, and it seems likely they’ll enjoy his 18th. There’s also a good chance many of the shows getting their start here will eventually please audiences beyond Cincinnati.
That’s a big deal.
• Michele Lowe’s suspenseful new play, Victoria Musica (Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre, Oct. 1-25)
• A new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters by Sarah Ruhl (Robert S. Marx Theatre, Oct. 29-Nov. 21)
• Walter Mosely’s first play, The Fall of Heaven (Marx, Jan. 28-Feb. 20, 2010)
• NPR humorist Kevin Kling’s new solo show, How? How? Why? Why? Why? (Shelterhouse, Feb. 18-March 14, 2010)
• A new musical, Daddy-Long-Legs (Marx, March 18-April 10, 2010)
• David Bar Katz’s new drama about Superman and his creator, The History of Invulnerability (Shelterhouse, April 8-May 12, 2010)
• The hit murder mystery Sleuth (Marx, Sept. 10-Oct. 3)
• The folksy musical comedy, Sanders Family Christmas: More Smoke on the Mountain (Shelterhouse, Nov. 12-Dec. 31)
• The 19th year of A Christmas Carol (Marx, Dec. 4-30)
• The rollicking Fats Waller tribute, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marx, May 20-June 20, 2010)
• The world’s longest-running Broadway musical, The Fantasticks (Shelterhouse, May 20-June 20, 2010)