The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park announced its 2008-09 season today. While it lacks a well-known show like the current staging of Doubt, it's another year of varied and intriguing theater likely to please subscribers and attract serious theatergoers. It's the 17th season for Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern, who has an uncanny knack for picking theatrical works that audiences respond to.
His choices for 2008-09 include theatrical versions of two classic novels on the Playhouse’s Marx Theatre stage: a musical version of Jane Austen’s popular Emma and a new (non-musical) interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Jeffrey Hatcher. Stern is bringing back a classic comedy, Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, which Playhouse audiences enjoyed in 1986.
On the smaller Shelterhouse stage, Stern has picked several shows that audiences might recognize, including two musicals, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (a hit in 2000) and Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little, another returnee from 1986, before Stern arrived. But many of Stern’s choices are adventurous and new, dramas and comedies that represent the kind of broad array of shows that a regional theater like the Playhouse ought to offer.
Here’s the rundown:
JANE AUSTEN’S EMMA (Sept. 4–Oct. 3), a new musical by Paul Gordon, should ride on the crest of the current wave of popularity for Austen’s novels, fueled particularly by a multi-episode programming on PBS’s Masterpiece this winter and spring. Gordon, who was nominated for a 2000 Tony Award for his musical adaptation of another literary work, Jane Eyre, is author, lyricist and composer of Emma. (The novel, in case you didn’t know, inspired the 1995 film Clueless, which starred Alicia Silverstone in her breakthrough role.) Gordon’s musical had its world premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., in April 2006; that theater’s artistic director, Robert Kelley, staged the premiere, which garnered the company’s best box office ever, and he’s been hired by the Playhouse to stage this production.
LOVE SONG (Oct. 23-Nov. 21) by John Kolvenbach had its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in March 2006 and moved quickly to a London production in December of that year. It’s described as a quirky comedy about the power of love, featuring a man who steadfastly avoids it — until something new happens. It will be directed by Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Michael Evan Haney.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Dec. 5-30) returns for its 18th year. Nothing new here — and that’s the way audiences love it.
THE TRAVELS OF ANGELICA (Jan. 22-Feb. 20, 2009), recipient of the Playhouse’s 2009 Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize, is playwright Joe McDonough’s third script produced by the Playhouse. The Cincinnati writer’s other productions have been One in 2003 and Stone My Heart in 2006, both in the Shelterhouse. This is the first time McDonough’s work has appeared on the Playhouse’s larger stage. Two linked, parallel stories present a writer who escapes England and a treason charge in 1657 and a pair of literary researches in 2008 trying to learn more about him. Stern will direct the production.
THE FOREIGNER (March 12-April 10, 2009) by Larry Shue was a popular production at many theaters in the mid-1980s, including at the Playhouse. It’s a very funny story about a shy Englishman who finds himself in rural Georgia. To avoid social contact, he pretends to be a “foreigner” who speaks no English. Of course, this leads to considerable confusion. The production will be directed by Ken Albers, who staged the Playhouse’s 2005 production of Steve Martin’s delightful comedy, The Underpants; Albers played a key role in the world premiere of The Foreigner in 1983 at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (April 23-May 22, 2009) by Jeffrey
Hatcher is a new retelling of Stevenson’s classic 1886 novel. Hatcher
reinvented Henry James’ Turn of the Screw for the stage in a production that riveted Playhouse audiences in 1996. (Hatcher’s Murderers
was onstage in the Playhouse’s 2006-07 season.) In this new script,
which just premiered in Arizona in January, it’s not just one actor
playing both sides of the doppelganger. Instead, Hatcher’s ingenious
approach has various actors stepping into the role of Hyde, as if the
monster is within each of them. It should be a fascinating way to tell
the story, and with Ed Stern directing, it’s likely to be a compelling
DURANGO (Sept.25-Oct. 19) by Julia Cho is another new play; it premiered at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in late 2006. Stern says the script reminds him of a contemporary version of Death of a Salesman, a play about the American dream going off the tracks. Durango is about a Korean immigrant who has recently lost his job. He is taking his American-born teenage sons on a road trip to Colorado. Along the way, the differences in generations and upbringing prove to be tough to bridge.
I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE (Nov. 6-Dec. 31) by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts is currently the longest-running show Off-Broadway, closing in on 12 years. (It has a way to go to catch The Fantasticks, which ran for 42 years, but second place is nothing to sneeze at.) In fact, this musical has already had one well-received production at the Playhouse back in 2000. The first act is about dating and mating; the second act explores the results of marriage. This will be the Playhouse’s “alternative” show for the holidays, and I suspect it will be a popular choice for wedding proposals during its seven-week run. Dennis Courtney, who directed it in 2000, returns to stage it again.
BLACKBIRD (Feb. 12-March 8, 2009) by David Harrower offers another all-but-brand-new script, the winner of the 2007 Olivier Award in London for best new play. Its run at Manhattan Theatre Club in April 2007 starred Jeff Daniels. It’s a two-actor show about a man who had an affair with an adolescent girl when he was 40. It’s 15 years later and she hunts him down for a confrontation. The New York Times called it “the most powerful drama of the season,” and with Michael Evan Haney directing it, their clash should be an intense encounter.
LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC (April 2-26, 2009) by Arlene Hutton is an old-fashioned love story set during World War II, although it was written in 2000. A young woman who dreams of doing missionary work is on a cross-country train ride. She meets a young soldier who aspires to be a writer. Romance ensues, with a few complications.
MARRY ME A LITTLE (May 14-June 14, 2009) uses songs by Stephen Sondheim written for but discarded from other shows. Craig Lucas and Norman René assembled them to tell two parallel stories about a lonely man and woman on a Saturday night in separate apartments in Manhattan; they never meet, but they travel similar, bittersweet paths. The Playhouse has had tons of luck with Sondheim shows in recent years, including its Tony Award-winning Company in 2006. This show is actually the first Sondheim material ever offered at the Playhouse, in a Shelterhouse staging 22 years ago. This time around it will be directed by Stafford Arima, who staged two larger-scale works, Ace and Altar Boyz, during the past two seasons.
— Rick Pender
Photos: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (top) courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company and "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" by Sandy Underwood.