Best Of 2016

2016 Arts & Nightlife Staff Picks: Cincinnati's best arts and nightlife as selected by CityBeat staff.

'Turandot'

BEST ENTERTAINMENT SPECTACLE

What makes grand opera grand? Cincinnati Opera showed us with an opulent staging of Puccini’s Turandot. The spectacular production featured equally spectacular singing from soprano Marcy Stonikas, as the ice princess Turandot, and the long-awaited Cincinnati debut of French soprano Norah Amsellem, whose plangent, haunting voice and dramatic presence as the servant Liu stole the show.

Turandot also gave the chorus a major role, and Cincinnati Opera’s choral ensemble outdid themselves. Director and choreographer

Renaud Doucet achieved the impossible, with staging that was both intimate and extravagant. Cincinnati Opera, cincinnatiopera.org.

BEST GROWN-UP GROUP COLORING SESSION

Adult coloring books are a major trend that emerged in 2015, and if you enjoy a therapeutic crafting session, check out Drink and Draw at the Contemporary Arts Center. On the first Thursday of each month, local artist Lindsay Nehls hosts informal, free drawing nights. There’s usually a loose theme — February’s event featured valentine-making — and ample provided art supplies, but people are encouraged to bring their own sketchbook or project to work on, too. You don’t have to consider yourself an “artist type” to attend — just show up, grab a drink at Collective CAC and draw! Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-345-8400, contemporaryartscenter.org.

BEST EXAMPLE OF LOCAL COLLABORATION OUTDOING NEW YORK

Just days before concert:nova, Elementz’s Studio Kre8v and The Millennium Robots performed John Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” it was presented in New York. The New York Times blasted it, calling the choreography “flimsy and poorly constructed.” The paper should have been here, especially since this was the first time Hip Hop was paired with Adams’ music. Thanks to the compelling work by choreographers Derrek Burbridge and Julius Jenkins, every movement seemed to flow organically from Adams’ whimsical, spiky score for string quartet and prepared piano, performed with characteristic brio by members of concert:nova’s ensemble. Hopefully Adams got to see it. concertnova.com; elementz.org; facebook.com/themillenniumrobots.

BEST HOLIDAY SHOW ADULTS CAN ENJOY EVEN WITHOUT KIDS

Ensemble Theatre’s production of Cinderella was pure delight from start to finish, and the adults in the audience were just as enchanted as the kids. It was part of ETC’s annual cycle of fractured fairytale fare for the holidays, and this version clearly had been tweaked — there was a sneaker instead of a glass slipper — all in an enthralling manner. Joe McDonough’s book, David Kisor’s lyrics and Fitz Patton’s lively score sparkled with wit. A terrific cast, D. Lynn Meyers’ clever staging and unsung costume genius Reba Senske’s amazing costumes rendered the classic tale’s updating truly delightful and endearing. Ensemble Theatre, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-3555, ensemblecincinnati.org.

BEST ARTS EVOLUTION

Back in 1998, CityBeat fantasized about an “arts corridor” north of downtown. A lot more than our endorsement went into it, but that’s precisely what has evolved in Over-the-Rhine today. Thanks to the new School for Creative and Performing Arts, the upgrade of Washington Park and the renovation of Music Hall, there really is an arts district, stretching from Elm Street east to 12th. Memorial Hall is being modernized, Wash Park Art Gallery has opened, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will build a new complex, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is expanding and Know Theatre continues to draw crowds. And don’t forget the Art Academy, which bravely moved from the green pastures of Eden Park to OTR in 2005 before it was trendy.

BEST REASON TO INVENT “THIRSTY TUESDAY”

So many bars in Over-the-Rhine offer weekday happy hours, but the year-old Sundry and Vice offers happy hour all night on Tuesdays, meaning from open (4 p.m.) to close (2 a.m.), you can partake in $5 beers and $6 draft cocktails — a steal considering their cocktail prices usually hover around $10 or more. On draft, try an Old Fashioned, a Vieux Carre or whatever’s seasonally available. And remember to come back Wednesday through Friday for their regular 4-7 p.m. happy hour and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for boozy milkshakes, which are a work of liquored art. Sundry and Vice, 18 W. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-721-VICE, sundryandvice.com.
MUSE director Rhonda Juliano - Photo: Phil Groshong

BEST VOCAL RELOCATION

After more than 25 years based at St. John’s Unitarian Church in Clifton, MUSE, Cincinnati’s award-winning women’s choir, moved to the Community Matters campus in Lower Price Hill. Community Matters was founded in 2011 to engage Lower Price Hill residents in creating new opportunities for education, entrepreneurship and housing. Its mission clearly resonates with MUSE’s mission of musical excellence and social justice. The choir has already presented a free concert of Appalachian music for the Lower Price Hill community, and in April MUSE performs with MYCincinnati, the phenomenal after-school music program also based in Lower Price Hill. MUSE, Community Matters, 2014 Saint Michael St., Lower Price Hill, musechoir.org.

BEST WEST SIDE THEATER NEWS

The folks at Cincinnati Landmark Productions jettisoned the Showboat Majestic in 2013 and announced plans for a second stage in Price Hill to complement the popular Covedale Center. They made good on that promise by launching the brand-new, 229-seat, state-of-the-art Incline Theater in June. Just to prove how savvy they are, their blockbuster summer season of musicals (The Producers, 1776 and 9 to 5) sold every last seat. More adult fare is offered for the balance of the year; family-friendly musicals return in the summer. Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, East Price Hill, 513-241-6550, cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/incline.

BEST CHURCH SERVICE FOR HEATHENS

Back in the 19th century, many devout churchgoers lived in Over-the-Rhine. The physical evidence remains in the sanctuaries they built, many of which, 100 years later, sat deserted and crumbling. Perhaps we should say a prayer of thanks to the brewers and party planners who have turned several of those churches into new bars and brewhouses, including Taft’s Ale House (1429 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, taftsalehouse.com), Urban Artifact (1660 Blue Rock Road, Northside, artifactbeer.com) and The Transept (1205 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, thetransept.com). People are returning to these beautiful buildings to joyously celebrate life by imbibing another one of Cincinnati’s historical traditions: good beer.

The Cincinnati Observatory’s 1904 refracting telescope - Photo: Jesse Fox


BEST DATE NIGHT UNDER THE STARS

Nestled in a quiet cul-de-sac in Mount Lookout, the beautiful and historic 19th-century Cincinnati Observatory promotes both heritage and 21st-century science through outreach, educational programming and really unique one-night events, where the galaxy is literally at your fingertips. Have a “wow” moment with your significant other while having a “wow” moment with the universe at Late Night Date Night, an after-hours, behind-the-scenes, adults-only preview of planets and stars; a Celestial Wine Tasting; or a Starlit Picnic — grab a blanket, pack a picnic and watch the moon come up as astronomers guide a star viewing. It’s romantic. Cincinnati Observatory, 3489 Observatory Place, Mount Lookout, 513-321-5186, cincinnatiobservatory.org.

BEST SHAKEN-AND-STIRRED COMEDY NIGHT

As the website says, Bye Bye Liver: The Cincinnati Drinking Play is “two parts comedy, one part social games, mixed and served.” A clever cocktail recipe for a night out. This hour-and-a-half sketch comedy and improv theater exposes the common and embarrassing social follies that can happen while you’re sauced, but also features interactive audience games. It’s got pratfalls and character actors, community and comedy. And it’s in a bar, so you can drink while you watch. The rule of humans: People get funnier the more vodka you have. 8 p.m. Saturdays. $15; $18 door. The Cabaret at Below Zero Lounge, 1122 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, byebyeliver.com/cincinnati.

BEST EXCUSE TO GET NAKED IN PUBLIC

Last spring, before the warm weather really kicked in, the city was abuzz with rumors that naked people were appearing around various local establishments and landmarks — and a guy was capturing it all on camera. Ann Arbor, Mich. photographer Harvey Drouillard has been taking pictures of nudes in public places for more than 20 years. His models are all volunteers — regular folks — found mostly by word of mouth. Briefly trained in the art of disrobing quickly and discreetly (if that’s possible), these locals posed in front of Music Hall, the Contemporary Arts Center, Great American Ball Park and other spots. After about a week, Harvey was gone — off to capture more nudes in Boston — but not before hosting a one-night gallery show that raked in thousands of dollars. It was a weird week for Cincinnati. Harvey Drouillard, harveyphotos.co.

BEST LOCAL “IDOL”

Cincinnati has had a few local artists appear on one of the popular TV singing competition shows. But few have shown the potential to truly build their career off of the appearance more than American Idol finalist Jess Lamb. The singer wasn’t just a karaoke singer lucking her way into an audition; Lamb was well established in the Cincinnati club scene and seemed destined for bigger things with or without Idol. The versatile Lamb (who won the Cincinnati Entertainment Award for Artist of the Year at the start of 2016) has also shown dedication to control her sound and image instead of being molded into something she’s not. You can catch Lamb around town regularly performing Soul songs on a piano, rocking out with her AltRock trio The Factory or singing with Cincy Electronic duo Black Signal. Jess Lamb, jesslamb.com.

BEST LOCAL MUSIC YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM

Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” came out in September 2014, but it took off in a huge way throughout 2015, making it one of the hardest Pop songs in the world to avoid. Besides total radio domination (and breaking the Billboard record for most weeks atop the Hot Rock Songs chart), the band played it on every TV show possible (including The Voice and the American Music Awards broadcast), and the song was in regular rotation as bumper music during sports broadcasts and TV morning shows. “Shut Up” also became such a part of popular culture that Jane Lynch opened the People’s Choice Awards with a cringe-worth parody (“Shut up and choose with me”?) and it even got the cover treatment on a Kidz Bop album. The song is one “Weird Al” Yankovic rendition away from being an immortal classic. Walk the Moon, walkthemoonband.com.

BEST RADIO UPGRADE

There was nothing “wrong” with Northern Kentucky’s WNKU (89.7 FM), but the station got even better in 2015, moving away from some of its Adult Alternative/Americana programming in favor of a more eclectic playlist of Modern Rock. It reminded some local listeners of the old WOXY, which made it all the more fitting when former 97X DJ Matt Sledge returned to the airwaves to host shifts. The station also doubled down on its support of homegrown music, playing a local act at least once every hour, spotlighting a different Greater Cincinnati artist every month and giving local musician Freekbass a Friday evening Funk radio show. WNKU, wnku.org.

BEST WAY TO HELP HYDE PARK GET HYPED

The big summertime riverfront Bunbury Music Festival had a great first year under the new ownership of PromoWest Productions. It was good for the city’s economy, and several neighborhoods got an extra bump... of bass, thanks to the closing-night headlining set by Snoop Dogg. Police said they received noise complaints from as far away as Hyde Park, which is about five miles from the concert site at Sawyer Point. Bunbury Music Festival, 705 E. Pete Rose Way, Downtown, bunburyfestival.com.

BEST USE OF 1970s ORANGE LEATHER IN A BAR

Most restaurants in OTR do not take reservations, and on a Friday or Saturday night, waits can be as long as two hours. While you impatiently pace and grow hungrier by the minute, it’s best to multitask by visiting a local watering hole. Located below yoga studio The Yoga Bar and next door to Salazar — one of the restaurants at which you’ll be waiting for a table — 4EG’s Low Spark offers a chill atmosphere at its square-shaped, theater-in-the-round bar, featuring an aquarium in the center and a slew of comfy button-tufted orange leather bowling-alley-ish chairs. They have everything from $3 Bud to local beers on draft and a fine cocktail list that includes a Tropic Thunder (rum, coconut water, fruit juices, blue stuff), a Rye Summer (whiskey, bitters, Amaro, flamed orange peel) and a classic ’70s Harvey Wallbanger. Low Spark, 15 W. 14th St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-371-5722, lowsparkbar.com.

BEST REASON TO CRANE YOUR NECK

The Weston Art Gallery engaged in some inspired self-censorship while hosting the Punk-themed Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie exhibit curated by Todd Pavlisko. Under director Dennis Harrington’s guidance, “Too Drunk To Fuck,” a neon installation celebrating the Dead Kennedys’ song of the same name, glowed from inside the lower gallery’s ceiling, possibly making more of an impact than it would have unobscured on a wall. As it celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016, the Weston hasn’t lost its ability to challenge visitors. Weston Art Gallery, 650 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-977-4165, westonartgallery.com.

BEST COOL MUSIC IDEA FOR AUGUST

For four decades, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra did the predictable three or four concerts annually. But it was always a scheduling challenge for the small orchestra’s 32 musicians, members of the Cincinnati Symphony and ensembles in Dayton, Columbus and Lexington. So the CCO decided to do something more compact and contemporary. They called it Summermusik, a three-week festival in August offering three different kinds of concerts — several traditional shows, three casual Sunday matinees and four “Chamber Crawls” at popular bars. Sold-out events resulted, and CCO will be at it again this summer. Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, 4046 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-723-1182, ccocincinnati.org.

Mita’s specializes in Latin-inspired cocktails, like the Dos Cominos, Mezcal Manhattan and Caipirinha. - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST CURATED COCKTAIL PROGRAM

Chef Jose Salazar’s downtown eatery Mita’s is an homage to both his Latin American heritage as well as his beloved Colombian grandmother, Mita. The soul of Spain, South America and the old world are reflected in the farm-inspired menu, with Basque cheeses and Serrano ham, sharable tapas, citrus ceviches and a beautiful, giant Paella Valenciana. But the spirit is also reflected in the spirits. The drink menu specializes in big and bold reds — peppery Garnachas and robust Tempranillos — and a curated selection of classic Latin cocktails, including authentic sangrias. There is no other cocktail list in the city that features a caipirinha (cachaça, lime and sugar), margarita and a Papa Doble (Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban-inspired daiquiri) on one page. The cachaça alone is interesting enough — a specialized sugarcane spirit, like the bourbon of Brazil — but Mita’s also offers mezcal, the hip cousin of tequila, in cocktails like the Mezcal Manhattan (sweet vermouth, orange molé bitters and maraschino). Mita’s, 501 Race St., Downtown, 513-421-6482, mitas.co.

BEST WAY TO BREWERY HOP

They city has truly embraced its history as a beer-brewing mecca, with new breweries popping up in most neighborhoods over the past few years. Craft Connection Brewery Tours offers bus tours stopping at three to four local breweries including Rhinegeist, Listermann, MadTree and several more. Just select one of the public tours (available on weekends and most week nights) or customize the experience with a private group tour. Beer samples at each stop are included in the price ($50-$60 per person). Buses come equipped with water, snacks, tasting cups and a cooler for any growlers you fill. Craft Connection Brewery Tours, craftconnectiontours.com.

BEST THEATRICAL ENCORE

Know Theatre’s Serials! has a devoted following. This “episodic theater party” offers five 15-minute scripts by five local playwrights, spread over five Monday evenings across a 10-week run. Shows start, get recapped and wind up — unless they’re voted off via the “Thunderdome” ballot box. Paul Strickland and Trey Tatum’s Andy’s House of [blank] from a previous series became a full-fledged show at Know last fall, so it’s also a lab for writers, directors and actors. Besides that, audiences have a damn good time. Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-300-5669, knowtheatre.com.

BEST PLACE TO INSPIRE KIDS TO LOVE ART

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s Rosenthal Education Center is 2,300 square feet of space devoted to educating kids about art while simultaneously entertaining them. One wall doubles as a projection screen; light boxes demonstrate shapes and colors; the one-time museum library’s windows now frame reproductions of famous art, each one dominated by a color of the rainbow; and education staff members are always around to help with hands-on activities for kids and parents. If the CAM is open, so is the Rosenthal Education Center, no charge. (By the way, there’s no dropping the kids off — adult accompaniment is required.) Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams, 513-721-2787, cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

Nation Kitchen & Bar offers a brunch entrée, like breakfast tots, and bottomless mimosas for $25 - Photo: Hailey Bollinger 

BEST DRINKABLE HANGOVER CURE

Common folklore shares limitless panaceas for hangovers: cold showers, hot coffee, greasy food and a little hair of the dog. Pair them all — except the shower — at Nation Kitchen & Bar. Grab some hot and crunchy breakfast tots, topped with cheddar cheese, sausage gravy and a fried egg for breakfast. Then indulge in bottomless mimosas, screwdrivers or Bloody Carries: Bloody Marys named for hatchet-wielding temperance warrior Carrie Nation. All until 2 p.m. and all for only $28; cheaper than last night’s bar tab. Nation Kitchen & Bar, 1200 Broadway St., Pendleton, 513-381-3794, nationkitchenandbar.com.

BEST (PROVERBIAL) MIDDLE FINGER TO THE ART MARKET EXHIBITION

Robert Inhuman’s 1111 “a flyerstorm to purify” retrospective-like exhibition on view at the Ice Cream Factory space was compiled entirely of his photocopy-based Punk Rock event flyers made in the years since his 2009 return to Cincinnati. Inhuman voluntarily manages the monthly Cincinnati DIY calendar, ran an all-ages community space in the West End until new owners recently purchased the building and has toured extensively with various music and art projects since 2004. Curated by artist Paul Coors, the work was exhibited in both poster and large-scale wheat pasted prints and included stacks of free copies for visitors to take home with them. Ice Cream Factory, 2133 Central Ave., Brighton.
Chase Public’s Mike Fleisch and Scott Holzman promote “empathy through creative practice.” - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST REGULAR, SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS PROGRAMMING IN A FREE, PUBLIC FORUM

Collaborative art space Chase Public has been hosting weekly (if not bi-weekly) public events, encouraging discourse, collaborative art-making, radical workshops and poetry readings for several years, but its response to socio-political matters of both national and colloquial relevance seemed to pick up over the past year, a reaction to the public need for a forum on these kinds of topics. Typical events include discussion groups about what constitutes a “safe space” for marginalized groups, artistic “responses” to the music of Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and ongoing screenings of films tackling the history of racism in America. Chase Public, 1569 Chase Ave., Suite 4, Northside, chasepublic.com.

BEST MUSIC-RELATED MEMORIAL

It took more than 35 years, but the city finally erected a permanent memorial outside of the former Riverfront Coliseum (now U.S. Bank Arena) to pay tribute to the 11 fans who lost their lives in the rush to get into the venue to experience The Who in concert. The Who concert memorial is, most importantly, a way to remember those young people who were simply out for a night of fun in 1979, but it’s also a reminder of a moment that was pivotal in improving concert security worldwide.

BEST REASON TO GET HIGH AND DRINK

No. We’re not talking about Buddie the marijuana mascot. We’re talking about the new deck Rhinegeist built on top of the brewery’s roof. With enough space for 200 imbibers, a 24-foot draft bar (with beer and cocktails on tap) and picnic tables, it’s an excellent addition to the city’s rooftop bar scene. Climb on up for views of the historic Jackson Brewery building, downtown and the future Elm Street streetcar line. Nominated as one of the top 10 best bars in the country by USA Today, Rhinegeist also recently expanded its reach to include distribution in more nearby cities and Boston. Rhinegeist, 1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1367, rhinegeist.com.

BEST ARCADE BAR A CAR RAN INTO

When an elderly man crashed his car into the side of Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition’s building in September, local media took the opportunity to make several “game over” and “hit restart” jokes. But it only took the new “barcade” a few days to clean up the mess and reopen what has become a popular Northside hangout. The sister location of the original, all-ages Arcade Legacy inside Forest Park’s Cincinnati Mall, “Bar Edition” has a full bar and a pub grub menu offering things like fancy hot dogs and local gourmet cookies. And, of course, it’s equipped with the coolest arcade games of yesteryear, which are all free as long as you’re buying food or drinks, plus 50-cent pinball machines. Perhaps the most authentic aspect of all: There’s a couch console area where you can relive that time you stole your parents’ booze and played Nintendo all night. Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition, 3929 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-429-3180, arcadelegacyohio.com.

MOST AMBITIOUS ALTERNATIVE ART SPACE

Maybe because it’s a nonprofit organization run by two dedicated artists — Geoffrey and Calcagno Cullen — Camp Washington’s Wave Pool has been able to establish the kind of community presence that eludes so many alternative spaces, keeping regular hours and launching well-promoted shows. It launched or hosted so much impressive work in 2015 that it’s become one of the city’s most reliably interesting art spaces. Featured last year were artists-in-residence Erin Colleen Johnson and Stairwell’s, and the Thing-stead artist books by Chris Reeves and Aaron Walker. Wave Pool, 2940 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, wavepoolgallery.org.

BEST LONGEVITY IN THEATER

When Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati got its start in Over-the-Rhine 30 years ago, it was long before the neighborhood north of downtown was a trendy destination. But ETC stuck it out, thanks in large part to Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, who steadfastly refused to consider relocation back in the late 1990s, when crime and desolation were the theater’s neighbors, and kept staging great dramas and comedies that attracted audiences despite the challenges. Now celebrating its 30th season, ETC is a thriving survivor in a vibrant part of town with an eye on expansion. We are grateful for the artists who led the way and stayed the course. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-3555, ensemblecincinnati.org.

BEST WAY TO EAT BAR SNACKS WITHOUT SPREADING GERMS

The recently opened Vestry bar inside stately remodeled church/private event space The Transept doesn’t serve food, but they do have bowls of bar snacks containing Chex Mix, pretzels and peanuts. Most communal bar snack bowls are gross — just think about all those hands touching the pretzel chunks. But Vestry has figured out a way for everyone to enjoy the snacks and not spread germs. Each bowl comes with a spoon and a small plastic cup, so you just scoop the contents into the container and go to town. Of course, some idiot will probably do it the wrong way and taint the bowl, which is the point at which you’ll offer them a dollop of your purse-Purell. The Transept, 1205 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-667-5822, thetransept.com.

BEST REPURPOSING OF AN OLD MASONIC TEMPLE FOR A MULTI-USE ART CENTER

Dayton, Ky.’s Board of Adjustments approved Scott Beseler’s application for a conditional use change for his multi-purpose venue, The Lodge, late last year. Beseler’s large ex-Masonic Temple was granted assembly usage, allowing the photographer (who has worked with and for both local and national artists like Walk the Moon and James Leg) to host art shows, concerts and lectures in the space he’s been slowly fixing up for more than five years now. The Lodge, 231 Sixth Ave., Dayton, Ky., thelodgeky.com.  

BEST NEWS FOR THE VISUAL ARTS

Northside’s long-in-planning PAR-Projects art space had a great year in 2015. It received 501(c)3 status, found a permanent space and is hoping to soon start the conversion of its two shipping containers already on site into a home. Meanwhile, the Light Strikes exhibit that PAR-Projects and Kennedy Heights Art Center put on was an imaginative exploration of light and space with some great art. Stay tuned for 2016 developments. PAR-Projects, parprojects.com.

Native Gardens at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park - Photo: Mikki Schaffner

BEST NEWS FOR WOMEN IN THEATER

The world of theater is playing catch up to create equity for women playwrights, long and unfairly underrepresented on American stages. The Cincinnati Playhouse has done its part this season, with half of its shows written by women — as well as many featuring female directors and actors. Of particular note: 2016 began with two top-notch, world-premiere comedies by women, Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, about feuding neighbors, and Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, with an all-badass female cast. Both were audience-pleasers. Vive les femmes! Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mount Adams Circle, Eden Park, Mount Adams, 513-421-3888, cincyplay.com.

BEST EVENT FURTHERING THE

MYSTIQUE OF CINCINNATI’S STRANGEST MUSEUM

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a new avant-garde theater work, The Ventriloquists Convention, based on the annual event sponsored by Fort Mitchell’s Vent Haven ventriloquism museum. According to the MCA, “the piece imagines meetings among the convention delegates and their dummies, who each maintain distinct voices and identities.” It was a project of European director/choreographer Gisèle Vienne, American novelist Dennis Cooper and the German puppet-theater company Puppentheater Halle. No word yet if it will be coming here — maybe to Vent Haven? Vent Haven, 33 W. Maple Ave., Fort Mitchell, Ky., 859-341-0461, venthavenmuseum.com.

BEST HISTORICAL EXHIBIT THAT MADE YOU FEEL LIKE A KID AGAIN

Brian Powers of downtown’s main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, whose meticulous research has already yielded fine exhibits and symposia dedicated to Cincinnati musicians and record labels, turned his attention to our dearly departed toy makers with two fine shows: Just in Time for the Holidays: Kenner Toys and Beloved Toys. Kenner has a rich local history, founded and launched in Cincinnati circa 1947. (Fun fact: It was one of the first toy companies to utilize nation-wide television advertising.) Although it sadly ceased operations in 2000, the brand remains near and dear to many. Powers also organized a symposium at which former Kenner employees recalled the glory days of creating early Star Wars figures, Easy Bake Ovens and much more. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Main Branch, 800 Vine St., Downtown, 513-369-6900, cincinnatilibrary.org.
Mark Mothersbaugh - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST MOST ENTERTAINING ART SHOW OPENING

For the jam-packed opening night of his terrific retrospective Myopia, Mark Mothersbaugh (artist, composer and Devo frontman) entertained the throngs at Contemporary Arts Center by playing his fantastical musical sculptural installations known as “orchestrions” to the delight of everyone present. It was like being invited into a mad scientist’s home for a party and discovering that scientist could really make some hip music. Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-345-8400, contemporaryartscenter.org.

BEST REMEMBRANCE OF THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE’S CAC SHOW

FotoFocus, proving it’s much more than an (admittedly great) biennial photography festival, used its off-year to produce with the Contemporary Arts Center the Mapplethorpe 25 symposium that brought to town a wealth of museum curators, scholars, artists and those who knew the late photographer to talk about his life and legacy. It was a proud moment in the city’s cultural history and showed that the late artist is becoming a saint in the city that once prosecuted (some would say persecuted) those who dared to show his work. 

BEST CHANCE TO CATCH A RISING ARTIST ON THE WAY UP

Ato Ribeiro, a student at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, decided to grace Cincinnati by loaning his monumental-sized drawing of his great-grandmother, “Edith Motte Young, Forever,” made through a charcoal-erasing process on brown paper, to the Brick 939 Pop-Up Holiday Market in Walnut Hills. Not sure how many people had a chance to see it, but those who did won’t soon forget it… or him. atoribeiroart.com.

BEST LOCAL MUSIC ALL STAR

The 2015 MLB All-Star Game gave baseball fans from across the country an excuse to experience the sites of Cincinnati. Thanks to the Reds DJ, WNKU’s Aaron Sharpe, fans got to hear a lot of the local sounds, too. During the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, Sharpe assembled an amazing playlist that featured Ohio and Cincinnati-related music, including local artists like Bad Veins, The Tillers, Honey & Houston, Multimagic, The Raisins and Walk the Moon (whose members also sang the national anthem before the ASG). 

BEST ART SHOW FOR FASHION PLATES

Rudi Gernreich, the radically visionary late fashion designer who tried to free the world of high-fashion snobbery in the 1960s and 1970s with his topless bathing suit, animal-inspired ensembles and more, was feted royally by the traveling retrospective The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton, which came to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2015. Moffitt was Gernreich’s muse and model; Claxton was Moffitt’s husband and photographer. The show made the gallery swing for a few months in spring. Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams, 513-721-2787, cincinnatiartmuseum.org.
C. Jacqueline Wood received a $15,000 People’s Liberty Globe Grant to install the microcinema. - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST ATTEMPT TO USE CORPORATE FOUNDATION MONEY TO PAY AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKERS

With her $15,000 from People’s Liberty, filmmaker C. Jacqueline Wood’s ambitious Mini Microcinema project paid more than 140 artists working in experimental film, film installation and poster art. Wood programmed the Globe Gallery in Over-the-Rhine with 28 screenings over eight weeks and (with the help of arts volunteers committed to her cause) spent every last penny of said grant, paying each filmmaker, artist, curator and otherwise for their time and work. The Microcinema will be back in action at The Carnegie in Kentucky in 2016, with screenings through April 22. The Mini Microcinema, mini-cinema.org.

BEST WINE BASEMENT

Oakley Wines started as a boutique bottle shop just off the main drag in Oakley. With lovely pine floors, a nicely curated wine selection (for all price points; their slogan is “approachable & affordable”) and fun graphic elements — they have a quippy “free drinking lessons” text poster over the upstairs bar — it became a neighborhood hang and hotspot for Friday-night wine tastings. And then it became more than a neighborhood hang when upward of 100 people started stopping in every week. So, expanding with demand, owner Zach Eidson revamped the basement and turned it into The Cellar bar. With brick walls, black leather banquettes, repurposed wine bottle light fixtures and a converted incinerator-turned-fireplace, it’s industrial yet cozy. The subterranean bar features a full drink list, with wine and beer on tap, and upscale snacks. Oakley Wines, 4011 Allston St., Oakley, 513-531-1400, oakleywines.com.

BEST CONTEMPORARY RECORDS TO COME FROM MUSIC HALL

Over-the-Rhine’s 138-year-old Music Hall was the recording site for a pair of nationally released albums in the past year. The Cincinnati Pops were featured on the American Originals album, taken from the symphony’s concerts of the same name, which featured performances by Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Henry, Dom Flemons, Over the Rhine, Comet Bluegrass All-Stars and many others. Meanwhile, Bryce Dessner of The National released a compilation of some of the best performances from his annual MusicNOW concerts in celebration of its 10th anniversary. MusicNOW: 10 Years featured performances (some from Music Hall’s neighbor, Memorial Hall) by Will Oldham, Andrew Bird, Sharon Van Etten and Sufjan Stevens. cincinnatisymphony.org; musicnowfestival.org.
Bromwell's HÄRTH Lounge - Photo: Jesse Fox 

BEST HISTORIC FIREPLACE SHOP TO OPEN ITS OWN LOUNGE

Opened in 1819, Bromwell’s is the oldest business in Cincinnati, continuously operated for 195 years by only three families. What started as a pioneering household goods operation by Jacob Bromwell in the early 1800s (animal traps, cheese graters, buckets, popcorn poppers, etc.) now specializes in fireplaces, fine art and select home furnishings. They also specialize in opening their own next door bars. The recently launched Bromwell’s HÄRTH Lounge is a lovely and comfortable piano bar, open to the public Wednesday through Saturday (available other days for private rentals), featuring live Jazz and handcrafted cocktails. It’s a decidedly adult experience — as in grown-up — with local draft beer, vintage drinks like an Old Fashioned and French 75 and classy furnishings — fireplaces, contemporary art, velvet couches and low lighting. Bromwell’s HÄRTH Lounge, 125 W. Fourth St., Downtown, 513-621-FIRE, bromwellsharthlounge.com.

BEST PROOF THAT MAINSTREAM COUNTRY AND MODERN ROCK DON’T ALWAYS MIX

Area fans who enjoy multi-day music festivals were probably excited when the NiFi Music Fest was announced for this summer at the Kentucky Speedway racetrack in Sparta, Ky. Well, many were at least half-excited. The fest boasted an ambitiously impressive lineup, but, while certain Country and Rock acts have crossover appeal, NiFi was counting on fans paying $199 for a three-day pass to see artists as far apart as Hank Williams Jr., Miranda Lambert and Trace Adkins, along with Weezer, Built to Spill and Black Lips. The August fest was ultimately cancelled, with organizers citing lack of advanced ticket sales.

BEST TRUE STORIES

Six years ago, inspired by the success of New York City’s storytelling movement begun by The Moth, Dave Levy and Jeff Groh launched the local incarnation, calling it True Theatre. It’s a quarterly gathering at Know Theatre’s Underground bar space. They pick a theme — this year they’ve already done “trueGAMBLE” and “trueFOOD” (with “trueGAY” and “trueANIMAL” to come). Each time, five storytellers have 15 minutes to share a real experience, with no props or notes. It makes for evenings that are entertaining and often moving. Other storytelling events happen around town, but True Theatre is really making it work. True Theatre presented at Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine; 513-300-5669, truetheatre.com.

BEST ONE-MAN SHOW

Nick Cearley grew up in Hamilton; today he’s a busy stage professional in New York City. But he came back to Ohio to perform the one-man show Buyer and Cellar at Ensemble Theatre. Cearley never felt like the only person onstage. He was Alex More, the narrator and “store manager” for Barbra Streisand’s vast basement collection of memorabilia, but he brought to life Alex’s neurotic boyfriend, the tough-talking estate manager and, of course, Barbra herself. Convincing and entertaining from start to finish, Cearley gave a bravura performance. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-3555, ensemblecincinnati.org.

BEST PREEMPTIVE MUSIC TRIBUTE

Last summer, Cincinnati Rock legends The Tigerlilies released a single and music video titled “Bowie” that served as a heartfelt musical thank-you note to the Rock icon, with lyrics like, “David Bowie, you don’t know us/But you can forgive us, for wanting to be like you.” Featured on the band’s 123456 EP, the song, of course, became all the more moving when Bowie passed away at the beginning of 2016. facebook.com/thetigerliliesusa.

BEST OPPORTUNITY TO SING OUT

Apparently, locals who sang in high school and college choruses wanted to keep it up. When KellyAnn Nelson invited a few folks to come together for Christmas caroling a few years back, she was surprised when 40 people showed up. So she organized the Young Professionals Choral Collective. Today YPCC numbers more than 600, with 110-130 of the singers signing up for six-week cycles to rehearse (and decompress at downtown watering holes), then present a concert, often collaborating with other musical and arts groups. Great fun, great singing. ypccsing.org.

BEST REASON TO GO TO SCHOOL

Final Fridays have been Over-the-Rhine gallery events for years, but the territory has spread as the neighborhood has gained more and more attractions. Of particular note: There are monthly gallery shows at the Art Academy featuring works by students and faculty as well as performances and exhibitions at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Wander beyond Main Street and you’ll see how arts training leads to great results. Art Academy, 1212 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-562-6262, artacademy.edu; SCPA, 108 W. Central Parkway, Over-the-Rhine, 513-363-8000, scpa-cps-k12.org.

BEST PLACE TO LEGALLY RACE AN 8-YEAR-OLD

Video games, go-karts, laser tag, bowling and minigolf. If these activities sound like kids’ stuff to you, you’re right. But they’re all awesome anyway, and Scene75 Entertainment Center puts them all under one roof. When you add in two bars and a restaurant, the median age for the venue continues to rise. And we dare you to name a previously mentioned activity that isn’t improved by beer. So grab your nieces and nephews, load up a card for them and set those rascals loose. Then they won’t bother you while you try to beat your high score on Time Crisis. Scene75 Entertainment Center, 876 State Route 28, Milford, 513-965-4050, scene75.com.

BEST MUSICAL GENRE SHOW OF STRENGTH

Cincinnati will always have a strong Jazz scene, thanks to the amazing artists headquartered here and the talented students and teachers who flock to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s renowned Jazz program. But 2015 felt like one of the best years for Cincinnati Jazz in a while. There were some stunning recordings released, particularly from the scene’s “young lions,” including Brad Myers’ Prime Numbers, Dan Karlsberg’s The ’Nati Six and the progressive Art & Science’s debut, Drift. Local Jazz fans also gained a new live outlet, as Urban Artifact brewery in Northside has featured a steady diet of eclectic Jazz offerings (among other musical styles), including the legendary Blue Wisp Big Band, on a regular basis. Urban Artifact, 1660 Blue Rock St., Northside, artifactbeer.com.

Macklemore and Eric Nally - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST WAY TO SAVE A MACKLEMORE SONG

When Macklemore played his song “Downtown” on TV for the first time (during the 2015 MTV Video Awards), many fans of great, late Cincinnati band Foxy Shazam got a surprise that probably felt like a weird dream or pleasant acid trip. During the elaborate stage routine, Foxy singer Eric Nally burst onto the stage to deliver the soaring chorus hook (as he does on the recording and at many Macklemore tour dates). Nally’s introduction to mainstream music fans should be a nice running-start when he launches his solo career in the near future. Eric Nally, ericnally.com.

BEST WINE GAME TO WIN (OR LOSE)

Things that are great: cost-effective and heavily poured wine flights. And 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab ups the ante on this little life pleasure by also adding a game. Curated by Daniel Souder, sommelier and wine director, each $15 wine flight from 1215 comes with three generous pours — a selection of sparkling, white, red, mixed or well-sourced regionals — and each of the glasses comes with a hand-written number on the foot — 1, 2 or 3. A notecard lists which wine is which, but keep it flipped over and savor the attributes of each glass to guess what you’re drinking. A biodynamic sangiovese? An acidic and mossy Greek white? Use the menu for tasting tips. You don’t win anything if you’re right, but you do get to keep drinking your wine. 1215 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-429, 5745, 1215vine.com.

BEST BAR INVESTING IN NORTHSIDE

The Littlefield has been a welcome addition to the Northside bar scene since opening in 2014. Hand-crafted cocktails with a focus on bourbon, a chef-driven menu, lots of local art — what’s not to love? But the bar serves more than just food and drinks — it also serves the community. Every month, The Littlefield features a cocktail that benefits a nonprofit in Northside or other nearby neighborhoods. One dollar from each drink served goes directly to an organization; The Littlefield has donated more than $8,000 to nonprofits so far, including Happen, Inc., PAR-Projects and the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. The Littlefield, 3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-386-7570, littlefieldns.com.

BEST PLACE TO WRITE THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL

As any good writer knows, sometimes the best way to get the creative juices flowing is to add a bit of lubrication before, during and after the writing process. And that’s what makes The Overlook Lodge such an exciting addition to Cincinnati’s bar scene. This The Shining-themed bar features rustic cocktails like The Hatchet and The Writer’s Block that can help guarantee some much-needed play after a hard day’s work. Combine the cozy atmosphere and weekend Bluegrass performances and you’ve got a recipe for a terrifyingly addicting watering hole. The Overlook Lodge, 6083 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, 513-351-0035, theoverlooklodgecincinnati.com.

BEST NEWS TO MAKE YOU HOPE FOR A NEVER-ENDING SUPPLY OF GOOD BEER

In December of last year, MadTree Brewing Company announced plans for an $18 million expansion and move to a new brewery and manufacturing site in Oakley. After only three years in business, the craft-can brewer outgrew its current facility and taproom on Kennedy Avenue. MadTree will remodel the former RockTenn paper manufacturing company on Madison Avenue to house 50,000-square-feet of brew and taproom space, plus a 10,000-square-foot beer garden — that’s a big-ass beer garden. That will triple the size of MadTree and quadruple production rates — up to 35,000 barrels of beer per year. They also plan to expand their barrel-aged offerings, the Catch-A-Fire Pizza café space and the amount of bathroom space. Bur for now, keep drinking and eating pizza at the current location — they plan to have the new space done late this year. MadTree Brewing Company, 5164 Kennedy Ave., Columbia Township, 513-836-8733, madtreebrewing.com.

BEST WAY TO INTRODUCE COSPLAY INTO YOUR DATING VOCABULARY

Do you think bow ties are cool? Are you unafraid of wearing a fez in public or using the word “frak” as an expletive? Perhaps you’re looking for someone to share your pod bed and you’re not meeting enough babes at D&D night or binge-watching old X-Files episodes. The Pandora Society has a solution. The local steampunk/sci-fi collective hosts Talk Nerdy to Me, a single’s mix and mingle party where you can meet and greet other glorious geeks. Head to the third floor of Molly Malone’s in Covington for the monthly Geek Club meeting — a sort of mini-con featuring a collection of different fandom and gaming tables, plus guest vendors — and then stay for a drink. It’s not speed dating or anything complicated; you just socialize with whoever happens to be there. Every explosion has to start with a spark, and no Doctor ever met a companion just lounging around the TARDIS… well, except that one time. 11 p.m. third Wednesdays. Free. Molly Malone’s, 112 E. Fourth St., Covington, Ky., thepandorasociety.com.

BEST MUSIC EDUCATION ON THE RADIO

For two years, lawyer Bob Hust and writer/editor Bill Thompson have delivered Americana, Roots, Blues, AltCountry music and whatever else they feel like playing on Blue Snakes & Banjos at all-volunteer radio station WAIF (88.3 FM). Former colleagues from the hosts’ time at The Cincinnati Enquirer also drop by occasionally to share accounts of events such as The Who concert tragedy and the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These baby boomers aren’t stuck on nostalgia, though. Hust and Thompson constantly share new and local music, while giving authoritative opinions about what to add to your MP3 player. 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays. WAIF (88.3 FM), waif883.org; facebook.com/bluesnakesandbanjos.
Northside Yacht Club's Flaming Punch - Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST BARWARE

When a couple of Rock & Roll dudes/Molly Wellmann-trained bartenders like Jon Weiner and Stuart MacKenzie open a bar, something magical happens: You get a high-quality fresh-squeezed cocktail menu in a casual setting with a great music lineup and fun bar food (e.g. short rib grilled cheese and duck fat poutine). You also get super-cool barware. Clever and kitschy gastropub Northside Yacht Club — with its own rope ceiling, lifeguard chair and porthole — not only slings slightly thematic cocktails, like a Navy Grog, Yacht Toddy or the USS Cincinnati, they also have adorable, slightly thematic cups. Get a sneakily strong and fruity rum cocktail served in a ceramic mug that looks like a coconut or a tiki totem, or a local craft beer poured in a branded pint glass with the NSYC’s latitude and longitude. Or grab a couple of straws and down a flaming volcano of Bacardi 151, burning in a bowl of punch decorated by hula dancers in coconut bras and palm trees. Life’s a beach. Northside Yacht Club, 4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-541-0528, northsideyachtclub.com.

BEST BOOZY BOOK CLUB

Let’s be real: Most book clubs are about drinking alcohol and sometimes reading books (or pretending to read books). Braxton Brewing Company understands: Their Books on Tap event series features smart, interesting people, great conversation and craft beer. This monthly get-together is for those who like to drink and read or drink and/or read. The books are chosen by the Kenton County Public Library staff, and Braxton provides the conversation location for, what they expertly call, “literary merriment.” Check their Facebook page for book selection updates (facebook.com/braxtonbrewingcompany) as well as event info. Or just start showing up to the brewery with random books and lift several beers to life. Braxton Brewing Company, 27 W. Seventh St., 859-261-5600, braxtonbrewing.com.

BEST HIP HOP DYNAMIC DUO

Can a supergroup be just two people? In the case of Space Invadaz, heck yes. Two of Cincinnati’s all-time finest Hip Hop artists — Donte the Gr8 (from groundbreaking Cincy group MOOD) and contemporary great Buggs Tha Rocka — teamed up for the project and are working with Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media. After several live dates, the duo’s track “Gun Show” (a brilliant survey of America’s gun culture) was released to well-deserved praise, with a mixtape promised later this year and a full-length album in the works. With the MCs’ impeccable skills and collaborators like Kweli, M1 of dead prez and producer Hi Tek reportedly in the mix, the sky’s the limit for Space Invadaz. spaceinvadaz.com.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD HANG IN A CENTURY-OLD FARMHOUSE

Columbia Tusculum, rich in history and architecture, now has a bar that stands as a testament to both. Pearl’s is a new drinking establishment located in a 100-year-old house, the last standing family residence in what became a commercially zoned area. Owner and developer John Tieman, who purchased the property in 2010 and used it as a personal business space, ultimately reconceptualized it to create a neighborhood hangout in what was a neighborhood home. From the bricks to the paneling to the wood floors and windows, everything structurally salvageable was reused to bring authenticity to the space. The bar also honors its history through its name: The moniker is taken from the first name of the last owner of the home, Pearl. Pearl’s, 3520 Eastern Ave., Columbia Tusculum, 513-832-0485, pearls-cincy.com.

BEST COVINGTON DIVE

With a welcoming, dog-friendly atmosphere, Gypsy’s is perhaps most well known for their fully stocked bar and large craft beer selection on draft or in bottles and cans — you can find a drink special for under $4 any day of the week (including $2 Jameson and $3 drafts). Watch your favorite game on one of several TVs or enjoy their back patio equipped with fire pits and giant Jenga. Karaoke every Wednesday and live music every Thursday and Friday night. Gypsy’s, 641 Main St., Covington, Ky., 859-261-0272, facebook.com/pub641.

BEST INTERACTIVE THEATER EXPERIENCE

These days, movie theaters are always running pre-show commercials telling people to shut up and turn off their phones — if you’re paying $15 to see a film, it’s common courtesy to put that shit on silent and stop slurping your Coke. But the Esquire Theatre in Clifton has another plan of attack — be loud, real loud, and come in costume. Along with playing host to the quintessential indie cinema Rocky Horror Picture Show experience every other Saturday night, they also screen a series of cult classics and contemporary hits. Recently, after the death of David Bowie, they’ve been doing tribute runs of 1986’s Labyrinth — he played the Goblin King in the film, in case you don’t remember his codpiece, hair or excellent eyebrow game — with costume contests, prizes and special Q&As. They also do frequent sing-alongs to films like White Christmas during the holidays, or Broadway hits like Jesus Christ Superstar. Check their events tab for upcoming interactive shows. Also worth noting —they have an in-house bar to guzzle some liquid courage before cinema karaoke. Esquire Theatre, 320 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, 513-281-8750, esquiretheatre.com.