Playing Favorites

Two weeks ago, I spoke to a group of high school kids about being a theater critic. One asked, “What’s your all-time favorite show?” I was stumped.

Jan 22, 2014 at 9:58 am

Two weeks ago, I spoke to a group of high school kids about being a theater critic. One asked, “What’s your all-time favorite show?” I was stumped. Even if I’d answered at that moment, a week or a month later I’d have a new and different choice. Lately I’ve been obsessed with The Book of Mormon, which I wrote a CityBeat cover story about earlier this month and had the chance to see twice during its current tour stop in Cincinnati. Its tunes are stuck in my head, but will it remain among my all-time favorites? Maybe not.

But it could. I do love musicals, and they always rank high among my favorites. But there’s no way I could single out one. In addition to writing for CityBeat, I edit The Sondheim Review, a quarterly magazine about musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He’s had a hand creating 18 musicals, and most of them are shows I’ve seen and written about repeatedly — but don’t ask me to pick a favorite. It’s likely to be the one I’ve just seen. 

That would be Mariemont Players’ nicely done community theater production of A Little Night Music (through Sunday, Jan. 26). The 1973 show, based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, is an adult romance with waltz-time score, a witty story and colorful characters. (If tickets are still available, you should go.) 

In the spring, Covedale Center stages Gypsy (April 10-May 4), a show a young Sondheim wrote the lyrics for in 1959. The central character, Rose, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s over-the-top stage mother, is one of the greatest musical theater roles ever. Serious musical theater fans should see “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in context at least once. The Covedale follows up Gypsy with another classic, Hello, Dolly! (May 22-June 1), Jerry Herman’s 1964 hit. This will be the first of a set of shows similar to those Covedale’s Cincinnati Landmark Productions formerly staged on the Showboat Majestic.

As a teenager, Sondheim was tutored about writing for musical theater by Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist half of the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits, The Sound of Music (1959), is onstage at The Carnegie in Covington, Ky. through Sunday, Jan. 26. It’s a story about a singing family in Austria on the brink of World War II. I was in a high school production of this one when it was only a few years old, so it has a place close to my heart.

I also have a lot of affection for Peter Pan (1954), a show with tunes by Jule Styne (among others), who also wrote the score for Gypsy. My first experience of musicals was a live telecast of this show with Mary Martin playing the title character, the same actress who later originated the role of Maria in The Sound of Music. Peter Pan, with flying kids and pirates and Indians, will be staged locally by another top-notch community group, Cincinnati Music Theatre, at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater this spring (May 9-17).

So some of my musical favorites will be onstage in the weeks and months ahead. But I also love new plays, presented routinely by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, our steadiest local source for regional premieres of Broadway and off-Broadway hits. (Up next is Nina Raine’s Tribes, opening Jan. 29.) And over the next four weeks — starting Jan. 27 and continuing through Feb. 17 — you will have another opportunity to catch new material in a different setting when the Cincinnati Playhouse presents readings of scripts by writers with local roots. On four consecutive Mondays at 7 p.m. the Playhouse will offer free readings during their “play reading series.” (Space is limited, so advance registration is required: 513-421-3888.)

Up first is Robert O’Hara’s The Etiquette of Vigilance (Jan. 27), inspired by A Raisin in the Sun (which also stands behind the Playhouse’s current production of Clybourne Park). O’Hara is a graduate of Walnut Hills High School. The second production will be The Lightning Touch (Feb. 3) by Joseph McDonough, set in 1969 during the Apollo moon landing. Several works by McDonough have been presented at the Playhouse and Ensemble Theatre. The series continues with Safe House (Feb. 10) by Keith Josef Adkins, a graduate of Wright State University and a one-time Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art. The series finishes with Better (Feb. 17) by Northern Kentucky native Jessica Cohen, who recently earned her M.F.A. in playwriting in New York City. Details:

Check out a few of these and perhaps you’ll find something that you’ll be able to say is your all-time favorite. I’m always on the lookout for my next list-topper!

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]