Theater season means the sound of (familiar) music across Cincinnati stages

Most companies rely on tried-and-true classics

CINCINNATI -- Tim Perrino’s title is artistic director. He could also label himself an astronomer, of sorts.

Every year, when programming a season of theater at The Covedale Center for Performing Arts, Perrino scans the galaxy of available plays, takes note of other Tri-State Area explorers who’ve recently visited bright or distant stars, then maps a constellation designed to satisfy his actors and audiences.

“I’m very aware of who’s just produced a show or if we’ll be the first to produce a show in a long time,” he said. “I’m constantly reading everybody else’s seasons and also noting what was a success and what wasn’t, and you have to determine whether you can do something differently.”

While a few companies—Playhouse in the Park, Ensemble Theatre and Know Theatre—have missions and budgets to seek new and experimental fare, virtually every other year-round theater company in and around Cincinnati sticks to the tried and true.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opens “The Great Gatsby” on Sept. 5 in a season that also features three often-performed Shakespeare works—“The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Henry V.”

The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati, which uses mostly adult performers in productions tailored to youth, this season is staging hour-long versions of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” along with the December 2014 premiere of the company-commissioned and “Frozen”-inspired “The Snow Queen.”

And what theater season would be complete without some nearby productions of “West Side Story” (The Carnegie), “The Glass Menagerie” (Mariemont Players) or “The Sound of Music” (Covedale Center)?

Audiences Expect Classics

The local versions range from by-the-book representations to uniquely interpretive and, by extension, risky.

“We all have to occupy a certain niche,” Perrino said. “I think (the classics are) what we do well, what I do well, what our audience loves and what we’ve built an audience for.”

“I’m always looking for the idea of a banquet for the audience, so a mix classics and new work is important,” said Brian Isaac Phillips, in his 12 years as producing artistic director for Cincinnati Shakespeare.

Anchored by its namesake playwright and the 38 plays in Shakespeare’s canon, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company often couches its signature in imaginative staging. Directors are setting “The Comedy of Errors” in a “1930s carnival sort of world,” Phillips said, while “The Taming of the Shrew” will see an Elizabethan backdrop. “Romeo & Juliet” arguably the best known and most often-produced Shakespearean works, has seen scores of contemporary interpretations.

“With Shakespeare, there are no stage directions other than perhaps the pursuit of a bear, so that leaves a lot for the director,” he said. “As long as your concept is working to support the play rather than the play supporting your concept, Shakespeare can be timeless.”

The Carnegie’s season is grounded in classics. Beyond “West Side Story,” the theater’s current season also includes “Sweeney Todd,” which recently closed its run, and “Driving Miss Daisy” (opening Nov. 1). This focus in programming came after the theater’s renovation in 2006. After programming a variety of performing arts and films, audience surveys showed a strong lean toward musical theater. Directors took that cue as an opportunity collaborate with area orchestras, dance companies and university theater departments.

“The shows that tend to sell well here are the light, more entertainment-oriented fare, so doing something a little grittier is tough,” said Joshua Steele, in his sixth season as The Carnegie’s managing director for theater.

Last season, in collaboration with Human Race Theater of Dayton, The Carnegie commissioned and premiered “Under Red Moon,” which Steele described as “an awesome production that didn’t sell well.”

“There’s no sin in producing ‘Chicago’ and ‘West Side Story’ that can draw more audiences,” he said. “By feeding that digestible diet, hopefully you can introduce some shows that push the menu a little more.”

Turning Disney Into Children's Theater Shows

There’s perhaps no safer bet in theater—or more expensive licensing fee—than the “junior” children’s shows born from Disney animations—entire movies whittled to hour-long stage shows. For this, its 90th season, the Children’s Theater of Cincinnati is piling on the three expected Disney blockbusters with a version of “School House Rock.”

“Obviously, with ‘Frozen’ in vogue, ‘Snow Queen’ was a no-brainer,” said Angela Powell Walker, in her fourth season as artistic director.

“We always try to adapt a show to make it great, but Disney shows don’t get messed with,” she said. “You’re not allowed to change any dialogue or music, and marketing is a little tough because they don’t allow us to take our characters out for public appearances. But that’s not necessarily a hindrance because once you put the name Disney on there, it’ll draw.”

If only that equation were so simple for all companies. The Mariemont Players elect an all-volunteer artistic committee to handle programming—a job handled at most companies by a sole artistic director—and that’s led to annual debates and skirmishes over the mix of shows on each season’s calendar.

For a while, Mariemont committee members selected directors and invite them into the process of selecting shows. That often led to plays that, while pet favorites of the directors, often didn’t go over well with audiences. Now prospective directors are asked for a wish-list of plays, and committee members use those as starting points for their selections.

Like others on Mariemont’s artistic committee, Arny Stoller has little background in the arts—he’s a career pharmacist—but a quarter-century of involvement with community theater has taught him there’s more to theater than meets the stage.

“If there aren’t any perfect medicines for a disease, you’ll have a bunch of different ways of treating that disease, and that’s true in many facets of life,” Stoller said. “One of them is selecting plays. I don’t believe there’s any one perfect way of doing it. There are five on this committee and five ideas of what we should do, and there’s a lot of talking but not a lot of listening.”

In the end, Stoller said, audiences will dictate Mariemont’s course if it is to remain relevant in its community. Audiences have already shown an appreciation for classic comedies, Stoller said, and an aversion to Shakespeare.

“We’ve had plays we put into our season that weren’t well liked and, boy, we see it the next season when we lose subscriptions,” he said. “We were considering a play with incest and really horrible language, and we could imagine people being really upset by it, so we ruled it out. We can make people very upset with plays that are way too edgy. We try to get somewhat to the edge.”

With the exception of Children’s Theater, these companies will grapple in the decades to come with the continued relevance of today’s theatrical classics. It’s not as if directors of the nation’s community theaters will replace “Hello Dolly” with “The Book of Mormon” or “Hedwig" and the Angry Inch.”

“There will be a slight fade due to generational movement, but humans are humans and there are big ideas people still want to see musicalized,” said Perrino of the Covedale Center. “Whether it’s set in 1949 South Pacific and a message of racial intolerance, it still rings true. As long as it’s energetic or emotion-provoking and done well, these classics are always going to have some presence.” 

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