There’s lots happening on Cincinnati stages this weekend — including excellent productions of Circle Mirror Transformation at the Cincinnati Playhouse and Outside Mullingar at Ensemble Theatre. The Cincinnati Fringe Festival is right around the corner. But I want to use this week’s Stage Door to highlight a glimpse of the future. Tonight the CAPPIE AWARDS will celebrate productions and performers from area high schools with a festive event at the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall.
Among the students being recognized are critics. That’s right: As part of the Cappies, teens from high schools visit other schools to critique performances. I have the privilege of handing out awards to the outstanding team of students from one particular high school. Starting last year, another recognition was added, sponsored by CityBeat, identifying the outstanding single critique written over the course of the year.
I received a half-dozen essays deemed by Cappies organizers to be the best pieces written during the 2014-2015 school year. (I did not know the names of the critics or their high schools when I was picking the winner.) At tonight’s ceremony, I’ll announce one I believe to be the best. You can read all of the reviews I considered in today’s blog, below. In addition to taking home a dandy trophy, the winner is invited to review a FringeNext show, one of three high school productions presented at the Cincy Fringe next week.
I urge you to read what these insightful young people have written about productions at other schools. It’s possible that someday one of these promising writers will be writing about shows and helping theater fans decide what to see onstage in Greater Cincinnati.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
West Side Story at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy
REVIEWED BY COLE HANKINS, Loveland High School
Amidst a fearsome gang war, two lovers are forever torn apart by the pull of a pistol’s trigger. And as a girl mourns her horrible loss, she extends two hands, one to each side. In the left hand, a Jet; in the right, a Shark, two groups sworn enemies, now holding hands united under common loss. It is with this heart-wrenching image of solidarity that Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s production of West Side Story leaves its audience, and with this image that its excellence finally hits home.
An American theatrical classic, West Side Story takes place in New York City, where two local teenage gangs — the Caucasian “Jets” and Puerto Rican “Sharks” — are amidst a territorial dispute. Jets leader Riff plans to challenge the Sharks and leader Bernardo to a rumble in order to settle the issue. However, the plot thickens when fellow Jet Tony meets Bernardo’s sister Maria, and the two quickly fall in love. The result is ultimately a situation spun far out of control, a vengeful gunshot separating the lovers forever, and grave consequences to a merciless feud.
Fittingly, CHCA’s production started with a bang in “Prologue,” where the Jets’ and Sharks’ choreographic and combat execution splendidly set the tone for the action to come. The Jets were particularly sharp in songs such as “Jet Song” and the lighthearted character number “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Other show highlights included the upbeat, toe-tapping song “America,” and “Tonight,” where both Jets and Sharks alike came together for a powerful prelude to the action-packed “The Rumble.”
As headliner Tony, actor Will Ellis’s performance was defined by pristine tenor vocals and a captivating vibrato, mastering his character’s higher range. In solo songs like “Maria,” Ellis never shied away from the spotlight, boldly owning critical character moments. Opposite of Ellis, Allie Kuroff’s operatic soprano was equally impressive as the lovely Maria, clearly acting her finest in the show’s riveting finale. Both Ellis and Kuroff played their roles with a unique tenderness, providing an interesting presentation of two classic characters.
Likewise, actress Merrie Drees brought a thrilling flair to the flashy, spunky Anita. Drees’s powerfully sassy vocals proved phenomenal, and her ability to balance great comedic timing in earlier scenes with compelling emotion later on was marvelous, a dynamic lacking in other characters. As the charismatic Riff, Gabe Hoyer also crafted an extraordinary performance. Hoyer featured a mesmerizing gravity to his presence that added an unmistakable charm to Riff, making his Act I death one of the musical’s most tragic moments.
Tasked with a very challenging musical score, the CHCA Orchestra played fabulously. Despite drowning out certain vocalists at times, the pit kept accompaniment clean, crisp, and well polished throughout. Equally crisp and well polished was manager Kaitlyn Nickol’s stage crew, making scene changes promptly and effortlessly and contributing to the show’s timely pacing.
Doing justice to one of the most beloved musicals of all time is undoubtedly a daunting task. Yet as the lights faded on that aforementioned scene of unity, the cast of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s recent production of West Side Story had accomplished exactly this. In a wildly successful effort, these talented performers honored not only the endearing charm of this theatrical legend, but also its strikingly poignant message.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Larry A. Ryle High School
REVIEWED BY ELEANOR CONNIFF, Highlands High School
Although written nearly 400 years ago, the works of William Shakespeare are still revered today as some of the most influential in all of Western literature. The Bard's plays are usually an essential component of any English course. The classic tales are still performed often by actors and theatre companies alike. It is difficult to imagine something as old as the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio in 1623 continuing to remain relevant and entertaining to audiences. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by Larry A. Ryle High School, students brought life to the timeless classic and gave a performance that stayed true to the tradition of Shakespeare with unique and original twists.
The story of A Midsummer Night's Dream centers around a love triangle, or rather, rectangle, between Hermia and Lysander, two star-crossed lovers; Demetrius, who loves Hermia, although unrequited; and Helena, who loves Demetrius. When Puck, a mischievous fairy from the woods, accidentally casts a spell on the two young men, he reverses their affections, causing both to fall in love with Helena. Chaos ensues as Puck attempts to reverse the mistaken spell and keep peace within both the fairy and the lovers' world.
In Larry A. Ryle's production of this classic story, the students met the challenge of Shakespeare with eagerness and understanding of the style, far beyond the years of most high school students. The production also paired the original Shakespearean text with 1950s style costumes, props, and characters in order to portray a commentary on the time period's stratified nature and to modernize the theme of unrequited love.
Under the pressures of a four-way love triangle, Willow Davis's portrayal of Helena stood out among the leading roles of the show as her characterization and poise set her apart. Helena’s nagging but endearing nature allowed the audience to laugh at her melodramatic soliloquies while also sympathizing with her broken heart. Samuel Greenhill stood out in his portrayal of Demetrius as well, creating a character that was both likable and antagonistic and keeping him true to the attitudes of the time period.
Of course, it is impossible to forget Macy Bates’s performance as the mischievous Puck. The youthful energy that she brought to the role was extremely refreshing and played well into her comedic timing, keeping the audience laughing again and again.
From a technical aspect, the show was extremely fine-tuned. Albert Harris's lighting was absolutely stunning, with a purposeful contrast in the lighting of the fairy world versus that of the real world. This choice, while subtle, was extremely impactful, as the set's minimalist style made the setting of the story extremely ambiguous and versatile, with the shift in lighting as the main indicator of shifting worlds.
Love and mischief are the same now as they were in the 1950s, and the same in the 1950s as they were in Shakespeare's time. Larry A. Ryle High School's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream portrayed these themes in a fresh and unique way, while also paying homage to the tradition of William Shakespeare.
Beauty and the Beast at McAuley High School
REVIEWED BY SAMANTHA TIMMERS, Scott High School
It’s not every day you see a humanoid clock charging at foes with a silver fork. Nor is it every day that an audience finds themselves yet again floored by a performance they've seen on the screen a hundred times before. Yet in this heartwarming rendition of Beauty and the Beast, McAuley High School charmed both adult and child once again through their humor and talent.
This stage rendition, written by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Linda Wolverton, is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. The Oscar-winning movie version with which the world is familiar came out in 1991, the inspiration stemming from the 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In this third version, a beautiful and bookish Belle becomes the only hope for a long-forgotten castle staff and Prince, who are slowly becoming inanimate objects as a result of a spell caused by the Prince’s vanity. But can Belle learn to love a Beast who can barely learn to love anyone else?
Overall, McAuley created a magnificent performance that was filled with magic and surprises. The cast was bouncing with energy from start to finish, and their vocal quality was solid amongst all actors. The technical crew skillfully created a lively atmosphere that resonated with audience members, phenomenally recreating classic scenes. With glittering costumes and whimsical choreography, Beauty and the Beast did not disappoint.
Danielle Mouch was extraordinary in her performance as Belle. Her vocal quality was pristine and clear, effortlessly reaching every note as well as maintaining her character’s spunky yet thoughtful personality. Gregory Miller, a well-established actor in Cincinnati high school theater, outdid expectations in his performance as the Beast. Though he might have had hair and tusks masking his face, his powerful yet perfectly controlled voice said more than facial expressions ever could.
Audience favorites included the actors playing Lumière and Cogsworth. AJ Keith’s (Cogsworth) dry humor was expertly delivered and well received, his deadpans flawless and his mannerisms appropriate for the endearing yet bossy character. Benjamin Burton seemed to be made for the role of Lumière: his French accent was spot-on (and maintained throughout the length of the show), and his eye for comedy was terrific—all it took was a few suggestive hip movements to send the audience into uncontrollable laughter.
The crew provided dazzling effects for the show. The lighting was of almost professional quality, with a highlight being the mystical, Northern Lights-sequel brilliance that occurred during the Beast’s transformation. While the costumes seemed to closely follow the movie adaptation, they were of high quality and were well constructed and designed. The choreography flowed seamlessly, from the Mob’s parade around the auditorium to the Wolves’ deathly yet entrancing dance. Overall, McAuley’s crew was a force to be reckoned with, achieving seemingly magical transitions and mirages.
In this tale as old as time, McAuley High School enchanted youth and elderly alike with its whimsy personality and spellbinding characters, reminding everyone not to be deceived by appearances; there “may be something there that wasn't there before.”
The Mourner’s Bench at the School for Creative and Performing Arts
REVIEWED BY SARAH MORGAN, Mariemont High School
A single gunshot can end a life, create irreversible emotional damage, and shatter even the closest of relationships in an instant. The School for Creative and Performing Arts’ dark, poignant, and haunting performance of The Mourners’ Bench explored the crippling emotional aftermath of a deplorable tragedy.
The first act opened up to an intense argument between siblings Bobby (Bradley Mingo) and Melissa (Nina Walker). Twenty years after they witnessed their father shoot their mother, Evelyn, in a murder-suicide, Bobby and Melissa have still not healed. While Melissa has attempted to move on with her life, marrying a nice man and bearing two children, Bobby is trapped in a state of perpetual dependency, turning to alcohol and eventually buying the childhood house in which the tragedy occurred. Mingo and Walker perfectly captured the essence of a tumultuous sibling relationship, from emotionally depleting shouting matches to interrupting one another mid-sentence. The two were able to adroitly deal with dark themes, including murder, rape, and suicide, by presenting an air of deep gravity and maturity to their lines.
Act Two, set immediately after Evelyn’s funeral, featured her sisters Caroline (Mallory Kraus) and Wilma (Danielle Brockmann) bickering about the future of their niece and nephew. Kraus and Brockmann both give performances rife with emotion, utilizing familiar body language to heighten the intimacy of their conversation. The timing of their dialogue was natural and seemed completely organic, inviting the viewer into their quarrel. Brockmann approached her role as Wilma with a gentle softness, providing a foil for Kraus’s seemingly callous, unemotional Caroline. The scene ended touchingly, with Kraus playing the piano while Brockmann watched, a testament to the boundless power of redemption.
Act Three centered around elderly, married couple Joe (Cameron Baker) and Sarah (Maggie Hoffecker). They moved into Bobby and Melissa’s childhood home immediately after the tragedy and become inextricably tangled in the history of the house they have purchased. The tenderness between Hoffecker and Baker truly reflected that of a couple on the brink of death; while just sitting next to each other on a couch, they seem comfortable and at ease, with no trace of awkwardness. By the end of the scene, sniffling could be heard throughout the theater as the pair gazed out of a window, contemplating life’s transience.
SCPA’s theater was a room with seating on all four sides, providing an intimate view of the stage and connecting the audience to the characters. The set was sparse: a living room furnished with an unadorned couch and a dilapidated piano. The simpleness of the set allowed the raw emotion of the actors to shine through, creating a memorable performance.
All in all, SCPA’s production of The Mourners’ Bench was an evocative and haunting testament to the power of loss, recovery, and redemption.
Sweeney Todd at Taylor High School
REVIEWED BY MADISON LUKEN, St. Ursula Academy
A trip to the barber never seemed so dangerous than in Taylor High School’s production of Sweeney Todd, where deceit leads to a menagerie of questionable pies, ineffective Italian barbers and a tempest of revenge, violence and tragedy.
An ordinary barber, husband and young father, Benjamin Barker has his world turned upside down when he is thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge that costs him his wife and daughter. Escaping prison, Barker renames himself Sweeney Todd and moves back into his shop on Fleet Street when he discovers the suicide of his wife Lucy. Out for blood, he teams up with the pie baker below his flat, Mrs. Lovett, to take revenge on the ones responsible — Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. Leaving a trail of deception, misery and gore in his wake, Sweeney Todd becomes the demon barber of Fleet Street in this haunting musical thriller.
From the smoke that billowed from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop to the synchronization of the company in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” the unwavering commitment of both the cast and crew of this show did not go unnoticed in both details and central events. Every aspect of the show came together to create a product of suspense, drama, and overall beauty as an elaborate set, apt lighting and emotional vocals blended with the energy of everyone on and off stage.
Despite the incredible amount of music and its difficulty, the leads of the show, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, performed by Antonio Ortiz and Annie Gerth respectively, conquered the tumultuous trials of Steven Sondheim almost flawlessly. In addition to this vocal aptitude, Gerth was able to portray the comedic elements of Lovett through her accent and equally strong acting propensity. Reciprocated by Ortiz, the two radiated a brilliant, psychotic chemistry that was always present, especially in songs such as “A Little Priest.”
A buttress to the leading couple, the ensemble floated eerily onto the stage relentlessly, booming out “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “City on Fire” without wavering. Additionally appearing repeatedly, the Beggar Woman, played by Eliana Batsakis, brought further skill to light both vocally and in her physical acting as she drifted across the stage, crawling in the shadows of London, cackling manically and uttering desperate warnings until she met her demise.
Behind the scenes, this show demanded both sets and costumes reflective of the dark, dirty setting of 19th-century London. In both areas, demands were met, as buildings faded into darkness under a smoky pall and windows appeared cracked in places like Fogg’s Asylum while their inhabitants skulked about in ripped clothes with faces scorched with the grime of the streets. The crew was also able to create credible deaths with their use of stage blood.
Altogether, Taylor’s production was consistent and energetic in every scene of the show, creating a thrilling and gripping story through its performers and behind-the-scenes crew. It was ultimately well deserving of the standing ovation it received.
Once Upon a Mattress at Ursuline Academy
REVIEWED BY CARISSA SAFFIRO, Cincinnati Christian Schools
From childhood one is taught that princesses are the immaculately beautiful creatures that epitomize all that is grace and beauty. Who could imagine that the next princess of a medieval land would be an uncouth and unruly woman from the swamps? Ursuline Academy’s recent production of Once Upon a Mattress explores what happens when an ill-mannered yet charming woman steps — or rather swims — into court looking for a prince.
Written in the 1950s, Once Upon a Mattress is a musical comedy adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” The musical was written by Jay Thompson, Marshall Barer, and Dean Fuller with lyrics and music by Marshall Barer and Mary Rodgers, respectively. The show features Princess Winnifred of the swamplands who comes to marry Dauntless the Drab, despite all the women before her who have been turned down by his tyrannical mother. Following the classic tale, the queen puts a pea under twenty mattresses to determine whether Winnifred is a true princess.
With intricate music and challenging characters, the leads of Once Upon a Mattress certainly had their work cut out for them. The ludicrously uncouth yet lovable Princess Winnifred was played by Kennedy Carstens. From the moment she stepped on the stage the audience was in the palm of her hand and her vocal performance was unequalled by any cast member in the show. CJ Allen had the challenge of playing the role of Dauntless the Drab and chose to play this arguably flat character with a charming and comedic twist. The audience’s narrator and another lead actor in the show was the Minstrel, played by Arjun Sheth. Sheth not only brought the audience through the show with a confidence and charisma, but also had the vocal range required for the role.
King Sextimus the Silent, played by Michael Viox, was another leading force in the show, although because of an old curse he was unable to speak for most of the musical. However, his inability to communicate with words in no way inhibited his connection with the audience or his stage presence. His counterpart and friend, the Jester, played by Claire Westover, played alongside Viox with excellent chemistry but also showed a deeper side of her character as well as impressive tapping ability in her song “Very Soft Shoes.” Carmen Carigan must also be commended for her performance as the Wizard. Although in a smaller part, Carigan has the ability to leave the audience clapping and laughing hysterically every time she stepped off stage.
The most unique thing about Ursuline, however, is the wealth of talent in their dancers. The dancing chorus was always together whether they were doing ballet or tap. With dancers such as Keely Wissel on point and other incredible soloists such as Caroline Nymberg, the dancers stood out as one of the highlights of the show.
The technical aspects of the show seemed to move effortlessly. There were few to no microphone errors, although the cast was working with fifteen wireless mikes, and the lighting was flawless. Arguably the most unique and ingenious part of the show was the costuming. Almost completely student-made, the costumes were imaginative and well put together. In the chorus, each lady’s costume had a corresponding knight’s costume, just one example of the color and brightness of the show.
The costumes, actors, and dancers certainly mirrored the fun, bright, and slightly unconventional style of this production and brought the audience for an enjoyable ride.