For another week or so you can catch holiday productions at area theaters — some wrap up this weekend, while a few others continue until the end of the month. Cincinnati theatergoers were cheered this season by several new shows (Cincinnati Shakespeare's Every Christmas Story Ever Told is a comic delight; it wraps up its run on Dec. 20), plus a shuffled cast in the tried and true staging of A Christmas Carol for its 16th season at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Here's a run-down of what's still playing and abbreviated commentaries on the productions. You can read the full-length reviews at citybeat.com.
You've probably seen Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life more than once. It became a ubiquitous holiday fixture on TV in the mid-1970s, although it was a box office flop 60 years ago. Now it's considered a classic. If you know the film, then THIS WONDERFUL LIFE at the Cincinnati Playhouse's Shelterhouse Theatre won't hold any surprises. The real wonder of this production is that actor Harry Bouvy presents the whole story, playing every part, imitating the actors in the original movie. He offers a dead-on Jimmy Stewart, from the hesitant drawl and the slightly odd pauses to the shambling posture.
He's equally good as Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell (crackpot Uncle Billy) and Lionel Barrymore (the evil, grasping banker Mr. Potter). There's not much analysis of the story's appeal, but Bouvy doesn't hesitate to point out occasionally flimsy plot elements. This Wonderful Life is really about top-notch storytelling, and this production is a perfect show for the holidays. Through Saturday. (Rick Pender) Grade: A
For 16 years the Cincinnati Playhouse has made itself an integral part of the holiday season with its full-fledged production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. This isn't just a staging thrown together to take financial advantage of people's desire for a retelling of Charles Dickens' classic story of Scrooge. It's a beautiful staging of a script by Howard Dallin that leans heavily on Dickens' original language. The production is also a showcase for local professional actors, include performers regularly recognized by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards like Bruce Cromer, now in his second year as Scrooge after eight as Bob Cratchit, and Dale Hodges, who does a bit of everything, playing a ghost (Christmas Past), a dotty party guest and Mrs. Peake, Scrooge's nervous housekeeper. It's also fun to see how director Michael Evan Haney, who has staged the piece annually for 14 years (he spent the first two as Cratchit), tweaks a bit here and there. If you think you know all the tricks played on unsuspecting audiences, you'll be fooled this year. This production is an annual treasure. Through Dec. 30. (RP) Grade: A-
If you've seen A Christmas Carol in any of its many incarnations this time of year, you might think one more is hardly necessary. But Know Theatre of Cincinnati's premiere of CHRISTMAS YET TO COME (written and directed by Artistic Director Jason Bruffy) takes Dickens' familiar narrative about an ill-tempered man with no holiday spirit and contemporizes it with music and dance. Most of the familiar characters are present, although they've evolved into distinctly 2006 versions of Scrooge's "teachers" — Christmas Past is a 9-year-old girl; Christmas Present is a sassy, brassy drag queen; Christmas Future is a dancer in white rags. Dancing, in fact, is a major component of this production, staged by Know Theatre in collaboration with Exhale Dance Tribe, a company of 10 or so performers who perform to 11 songs — by Coldplay, Postal Service, My Chemical Romance and Christina Aguilera. There is a youthful vitality to this production. Through Saturday. (RP) Grade: B
The story of the Ugly Duckling is a slender thread on which to hang a two-act musical, but that's what Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is offering with UGLY DUCK, which has been transformed into a fable of self-discovery. What we see for most of the stage time, however, is an aggregate of animals that compete like humans, squabbling and expressing an overwhelming greed for money and power. The musical is never childlike, fantastical or even very engaging. All the animals are invested with human characteristics, which could be fun — but few of them are employed in furthering the plot or even imparting some kernels of wisdom from the animal kingdom. This production wanders for 90 minutes in search of focus and purpose, scurrying around without asking where it's going and whom it's for. Although there's plenty of movement, it doesn't add up to much — even for children. Through Dec. 31. (Mark Sterner) Grade: C
Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST isn't a holiday play at all, but it's a lot of fun — and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is presenting it through Dec. 31. For my money it's one of the wittiest plays every written. It has some wonderful characters, clever plotting, memorable comic confrontations, and lots of lines you'll remember and quote — that's Wilde's stock in trade. It's a whirlwind of confusion — two guys who like to play games with responsibility fall in love with two very different women, but who both want to love a man named "Ernest." Unfortunately, neither Algernon (Jeremy Dubin) nor Jack (Giles Davies) have that advantage. To complicate matters, there's the domineering Lady Bracknell, portrayed by Matt Johnson, in drag, well over 6 feet tall, with singular comic effect, striking a perfect balance of dominance and absurdity. This production is a fine example of why Cincinnati benefits from having a year-round classical theater company. (RP) Grade: B
contact rick Pender: rpender(at)citybeat.com