Sunday, December 30, 2001


Variety took center stage in 2001

        Because the theatrical calendar runs from September through August, picking the best productions and performances of the 2000-01 “year” happened a few months ago.

        But to my mind, 2001 did rate some bests:

        Best of show: 2001: Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung, the Robert LePage double bill by Cincinnati Opera. Opera at its best can be the pinnacle of the theatrical experience, embracing all art forms under its very large umbrella. This decade-old revival (seen for the first time in Cincinnati) was a spellbinder — dangerous, erotic, modern.

        Just as potent as the work onstage was the message at the box office. While the double bill didn't sell like an Aida, it brought several thousand people to Music Hall. A few blocks away, Hedwig and the Angry Inch played to sell-out crowds at Ensemble Theatre. The Vagina Monologues will be the first show of 2002; about 90 percent of tickets are sold.

        All of this carries a wonderful message: We can embrace risk here. There's an audience waiting in the wings for smart, thought-provoking work.

        Personal best: Arts lover and College-Conservatory of Music supporter John Harrison did a wonderful thing in 2001 that you'll hear more about in 2002. He has established The Harmony Fund at the University of Cincinnati. Work on the mission statement is under way, but the fund will support arts that address and embrace social issues. (Invitations to contribute will go out in mid-January.)

        The first likely performance to benefit from the fund will be The Laramie Project (in April), a docudrama that explores the aftermath of the headline-making death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.

        Best happy ending: In mid-November, Pam Myers was having a Frustrating Moment. She was wrapping up a triumphant run as Mama Rose in Gypsy at Playhouse in the Park, but her agent had called with a much-desired New York audition for the planned Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

        Ms. Myers has been chafing to get back on Broadway now that her son is looking toward college, but she had to pass on the audition and finish the Playhouse run.

        The work of Mr. Sondheim has been a recurring presence in Ms. Myers' career. Her first Broadway role was in his Company (she won a Tony Award nomination); he was, of course, a collaborator on Gypsy and on her last memorable Playhouse appearance, the meat pie-baking Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

        Here comes the happy ending: The Gypsy run ended, Ms. Myers made it to New York for the final audition and “it all happened so fast,” she marvels. In five days she'd gotten word that she would play a collection of roles, including a granny and stepmother and understudy Jack's Mother (of Beanstalk fame.)

        “I can't believe it,” she reported happily from New York earlier this month, where the show was in rehearsal. She and the company go to Los Angeles for two months in mid-January for a pre-Broadway run and open in New York in April.

        Best man: In 2001, role for role, the best utility player in Cincinnati theater was Cincinnati Shakespeare's Nick Rose. He spent a lot of time quietly defining “supporting” actor — notably lovelorn in Lovers and Executioners, creepy as a suburban crazy in Fuddy Meers, looking into the darkest dark as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and finally taking center stage and riveting in the title role of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol.

        Best of all possible worlds: Candide wasn't merely a stellar effort for CCM. This rare revival of the Leonard Bernstein masterpiece (based on Voltaire's masterpiece of social satire) can hold its own anywhere. The brief production was monumental, including a cast of 40, CCM's Philharmonia Orchestra and unforgettable work by director Nick Mangano and designers, particularly Paul Shortt (set) and Reba Senske (costumes). Keep your eyes on sophomore Ashley Brown (the gay and glittering Cunegonde). Talk about a rising star.

        Best reason to go out on a cold Monday in January: Playhouse in the Park introduced alteractive a year ago with the Cincinnati debut of nationally acclaimed performance artist David Cale. For 10 winter Mondays we kept our hands warm by clapping hard and sometimes stomping our feet for a series of national and local out-of-the-mainstream acts. It didn't cost much, either — $8.

        It starts again Jan. 14 with another nationally acclaimed performance artist, Tim Miller. This year the ticket goes up to $10 (still $6 for students). At that price, you can't afford to miss it.

        Best forgotten: TV celeb Pamela Sue Martin imported to star in Dinner with Friends for Ensemble.

        Best western: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas. We haven't seen the rambunctious musical take on Shakespeare here in years, but it's just one of several shows that spent development time at Playhouse in the Park to burst into renewed life in 2001.

        Past Rosenthal New Play Prize winner The Dead-Eye Boy was seen off-Broadway, Everything's Ducky fluffed its feathers in Chicago and talk was renewed of New York appearances for both Merry Wives and Keith Glover's Thunder Knocking on the Door.

        Best of luck: Two tiny new companies made notable first bows downtown in 2001. Women's Theatre Initiative boldly debuted last summer at Cincinnati Shakespeare with a psychological drama about the Plague, One Flea Spare. In fall, Queen City Off Broadway moved Upstairs at Carol's with a commitment to theater that bites back.

        The best of times: The Producers was the best time I had as an audience member in 2001, both in the pre-Broadway run in Chicago, then in New York.

        I'm not talking about the show, although what's not to love? Nathan Lane gives one of those talk-about-forever Broadway turns as low-life Broadway producer Max Bialystock, perfectly mated by Matthew Broderick as blubbering accountant and wannabe song-and-dance man Leo Bloom. The production doesn't stop, and neither did the Tony Awards last June.

        What I'll always remember is the communal nature of the experience. The audience wanted to be there. Every time. In fact there was no place else they'd rather be.

        The palpable excitement started on the street outside the theater, carried into the lobby and turned into something electric as the theater filled. The explosion of emotion starts when the lights go down — long before Mr. Lane's big opening number.

        Being part of that is one of the best feelings in the world — and a rare and wonderful reward for excellence. I wish every theatermaker in Cincinnati could earn that kind of response every night of the year.


- DEMALINE: Theater
GELFAND: Classical music
MCGURK: Best movies of 2001
NAGER: Pop music
Anime artist to speak at CAC
Warm reward for those who brave cold
KENDRICK: Alive and well
Rhino's baby steps are huge
Tuned in to Taz
New year puts new wines on my palate
No-frills steak old hat at Maury's, F&N
The Best Tastes of 2001
Get to it