ED STERN, producing artistic director at the CINCINNATI PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK, is still wrapped up in his 2003-2004 season (I called him in St. Louis, where he's directing a production of Mr. Roberts, which opens in Cincinnati in a month or so). "If I start talking about the revival of Titus Andronicus, stop me," he jokes. In truth, he's been carefully mapping out shows for his 14th season in Cincinnati, assembling another collection of old and new that's become his trademark. Stern avoids themes or overarching motifs, opting instead for appealing plays and attractive productions. He knows local audiences well, and they seem to trust his judgment: The Playhouse has one of the strongest subscriber bases of any regional theater in the United States. Stern sees a ton of theater annually in New York, London and elsewhere, and he listens attentively to recommendations from others, creators and theater fans. Annually he culls 10 works for a season that typically has many more hits than misses. He'll kick off 2004-2005 in the Playhouse's large Marx Theatre by personally directing one of Shakespeare's loveliest romantic comedies, TWELFTH NIGHT (Sept. 9-Oct. 8), a show Stern says, "has whimsy and rollicking comedy and a bittersweet Chekhovian air." Up next will be Arthur Miller's classic drama, THE CRUCIBLE (Oct. 21-Nov. 19), overtly about witch trials in Salem, Mass., but really inspired by the anti-Communist furor of the 1950s. The balance of the Marx season will offer three less familiar titles: a beguiling one-actress piece about relationships, BAD DATES, by former Cincinnatian (and Ursuline Academy grad) Theresa Rebeck (Jan. 27-Feb. 25, 2005), which broke records in a 900-seat theater earlier this year in Boston; William Nicholson's Broadway drama, THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW, a moving account of a crumbling British marriage (March 24-April 15, 2005), which is likely to feature local actress (and a CEA award-winner), DALE HODGES; and Regina Taylor's CROWNS (April 28-May 27, 2005), a show about African-American women, their church hats and Gospel songs; it's been a hit in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago, and is likely to find a strong and diverse audience in Cincinnati.
Stern thinks Crowns will be an "event" much like Thunder Knocking on the Door was in 1999. Stern can take a few more chances on the intimate Shelterhouse stage, which seats only 220. He'll open that season with only the second staging of Jeffrey Hatcher's A PICASSO (Sept. 29-Oct. 24), about an encounter between the artist and a beautiful Gestapo interrogator, a work Stern calls "smart and wily" that's also "remarkably funny when you least expect it." Playhouse audiences will remember Hatcher's adaptation of The Turn of the Screw and his award-winning Scotland Road, which premiered here in 1993. The theater often finds a crowd-pleaser for the holidays in addition to A Christmas Carol (Dec. 1-30), which is not part of the season subscription package: This year it's Stuart Ross' PLAID TIDINGS (Nov. 11-Dec. 31), combining Forever Plaid's tale of a '50s singing group with an overlay of Christmas tunes. Stern has no candidate in the pipeline for the Playhouse's annual new play prize (Feb. 17-March 13, 2005), but he's committed to continuing despite the withdrawal of longstanding sponsorship; new funders are being sought). That will be followed on the Shelterhouse stage by Steve Martin's hilarious adaptation of a classic German comedy by Carl Sternheim, THE UNDERPANTS (April 7-May 1, 2005). The small theater finishes its season with another piece about a disintegrating relationship, this one by rising musical theater creator Jason Robert Brown, THE LAST FIVE YEARS (May 19-June 12, 2005). Brown wrote a Tony-nominated Broadway show, Parade, a few years back, and his Songs for a New World is a cult favorite that another theater in town should stage in conjunction with the Playhouse production. Info: 513-421-3888. ...
If you're intrigued by up-and-coming creators, don't overlook GETTING TO KNOW YOU, getting its world premiere at Dayton's HUMAN RACE THEATRE COMPANY starting Thursday (through April 11; tickets: 888-228-3630). It's a new comedy-drama by Thomas P. Carr that pays homage to the musical actresses of Broadway and summer stock. HRTC is using the production as a hook for a Wednesday event recognizing veteran summer stock producer JOHN KENLEY, now 98 years old. His Kenley Players productions, covering four decades starting in the mid-1950s in Dayton and elsewhere around Ohio, introduced many of us to musicals. And by the way, HRTC's January production of Convenience has been moved on good reviews in Sacramento, Calif., where one reviewer called the show by Greg Coffin, directed by HRTC's KEVIN MOORE, "a smartly appealing new musical."
CINCINNATI PLAYHOUSE's Blue explores generational conflict in a well-heeled South Carolina family, in 1978 and then 15 years later. Samuel Clark (Peter Jay Fernandez) runs a successful African-American funeral home. His straight-talking mother, Tillie (Brenda Thomas), and his pretentious wife, Peggy (Denise Burse), don't get along. Their two sons struggle to find their own ways. Weaving through the action is Jazz singer Blue Williams (Kevyn Morrow), Peggy's favorite. When she plays one of his songs, he appears on a balcony or in a doorway to sing. This tale is too melodramatic for my taste, but Blue does present a warm, human — and flawed — family, one we might call "true blue." Grade: B