Assembling a season for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is no easy task. Artistic Director Blake Robison has concocted his seventh season balancing the interests of many diverse audiences — veteran theatergoers and newbies, lovers of the classics, people who yearn for new works, families seeking multi-generational entertainment and more.
In particular, Robison continues to champion women playwrights. Of the nine productions so far announced for the 2018-19 subscription season (a 10th has not yet been set), five-and-a-half of them are scripts by women, including two world premieres. That high percentage has Robison feeling proud. “It’s important that we’re telling everybody’s stories,” he says.
One of those, a production in the Shelterhouse, will be the world premiere of Cincinnati King (Nov. 3-Dec. 23) by KJ Sanchez, a Playhouse associate artist who has staged numerous productions over the past several seasons. She will direct the show she’s assembled, culled from hundreds of interviews about Cincinnati’s revolutionary music label King Records and its hard-driving owner Syd Nathan. The show shares stories about the studio’s many hits, including “The Twist,” “Blues Stay Away from Me,” “Fever” and “Need Your Love So Bad.”
In 2013, Sanchez began work on this project — conducting interviews with people connected to King Records. There was a public reading of an early draft in August of that year. A stage concert reading was performed in Washington Park in May 2015, in connection with Cincinnati’s Fringe Festival and 3CDC’s OTR Performs series. Most recently, the Playhouse held a workshop of the play in New York City in September 2017.
Among the other female playwrights who will have scripts produced at the Playhouse is Lauren Gunderson. For the 2017-18 season, she was the most frequently produced playwright (other than Shakespeare) at American theaters. She already has a track record at the Playhouse, debuting The Revolutionists in 2016. The prolific writer recently partnered with Margot Melcon to create Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Oct. 13-Nov. 10). The production will be staged by director Eleanor Holdridge, who also oversaw Gunderson's The Revolutionists. Robison calls this one "a leap of imagination." It’s the story of studious Mary Bennet, one of four sisters of the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet. Mary is the dutiful middle daughter, but in this sequel she dreams of a new path, beyond the company of books and her piano. It’s a romantic comedy that will appeal to Austen fans and more.
Actually, all of the announced shows on the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage next season will be works by women, starting with Jen Silverman’s The Roommate (Sept. 21-Oct. 21). Her play All the Roads Home premiered at the Playhouse in 2017; The Roommate was launched at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville in 2015. It’s a wickedly funny comedy about a recent divorcée who fills her empty home with an intriguing and perhaps dangerous woman with a lot of secrets.
Audrey Cefaly’s The Last Wide Open (Feb. 9-March 10, 2019) is another world premiere at the Shelterhouse. This up-and-coming writer from Washington, D.C. has spun a story about a romance between a waitress and an Italian immigrant. Robison will stage the new work, still in development. He says Cefaly has “an empathy for characters from the other side of the tracks or who have made it through the school of hard knocks.”
The Shelterhouse will be the venue for the Playhouse’s first production by a Native American writer. Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (March 23-April 21) is a satirical comedy about liberal artists trying to devise a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving play for elementary schools. It turns into an amusing send-up of over-zealous PC behavior.
In the female tally, Robison counts a “half” because the season includes the mainstage production of the musical In the Heights (Jan. 19-Feb. 17, 2019) with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. It was a 2008 Tony Award winner. Her better-known writing partner was Lin-Manuel Miranda. He conceived, composed and wrote lyrics for In the Heights before Hamilton (its national tour lands in Cincinnati just a few days after the Playhouse production closes). In the Heights’ Hip Hop, Latin-flavored score, with lots of high-energy choreography, portrays the lives and stories of people in the vibrant, tight-knit Hispanic-American New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. “The Playhouse can bring this sort of national-level Latino talent that otherwise you’d have to go to New York to see,” says Robison.
Another musical — on a very different subject — will finish the Marx season: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (April 20-May 18, 2019), which brings the Peanuts comic-strip gang to life onstage. The production will use actors doubling as musicians, including Nick Cearley (Seymour in the 2017 Playhouse production of Little Shop of Horrors) as Linus.
The Marx mainstage season opener, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (Sept. 1-29), will feature Barbara Chisholm as the nightmarish “Number One Fan” who holds a romance novelist hostage. It will be quite a change of pace for the actress who portrayed down-to-earth newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck at the Playhouse in 2017.
Last but far from least, the Playhouse will present August Wilson’s Two Trains Running (March 2-30, 2019), one of the 10 plays in the legendary writer’s American Century Cycle, this one set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1969 against the backdrop of urban renewal and the civil rights movement. This isn’t the show’s local premiere (Know Theatre presented it in an Over-the-Rhine church basement in 2004), but with Timothy Douglas directing, it’s sure to be memorable. He’s one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s plays; Playhouse audiences appreciated his excellent production of Jitney in 2016. (It’s worth noting that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will present Wilson’s Fences early in 2019.)
Two more “extras” complete the Playhouse’s 59th season: the 28th presentation of A Christmas Carol (Nov. 21-Dec. 29) and a limited engagement from Chicago’s Second City, It’s Not You, It’s Me (Jan. 10-27, 2019).