Sunday, June 02, 2002

Best and worst of theater season

        Broadway theater celebrates the close of its season tonight with the annual Tony Awards (8 p.m. Channels 48, 16, continuing at 9 p.m. on Channels 12, 7.). While theaters are still playing the numbers game (some shows still running, others still to open) we'll look back at 2001-02 as a year that was stronger at the box office than it was artistically.

        With Cincinnati now a year-round theater town, my annual list of favorite performances and productions runs just before the start of the new season, to include summer shows. But there is much to remark on in an eventful theatrical year.

        Here's an awards show-style 2001-02 recap:

        Commemorating 9-11: In the aftermath of a national tragedy, the entire theatrical community responded. Theaters collected on behalf of 9-11 charities and, after the first awful shock, audiences returned to the theater, because it provides the rare opportunity for people to join together as a community.

        Gutsy Choice Award (Play): King Lear, Playhouse. Director Ed Stern's post-apocalyptic vision only worked part of the time but it was infinitely bold.

        Best Season: Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival easily takes the trophy for quantity and quality of challenging material.

        Did it always work? No. But give them a standing ovation for ambition with entries including Tom Stoppard's sublime Arcadia; Adam Rapp's involving contemporary monologue Nocturne; the delightfully strange and scary Fuddy Meers; the hilarious and stimulating The Beard of Avon (final performance 2 p.m. today); the still-to-open exploration of the death penalty Chagrin Falls.

        Bonus points: they were all regional premieres.

        Best Show Nobody Saw: Fuddy Meers, Cincinnati Shakespeare. Powerful competition, the 9-11 aftermath and a title that didn't make sense all worked against David Lindsay-Abaire's tragic farce about a woman with traumatic amnesia. It was one of those shows that deserved a better fate.

        Crowd-Pleaser: The one show that pulled Cincinnati audiences into the act from first minute to last was Blast!, touring here as part of Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati.

        Diversity Award: John Harrison and friends, who established The Harmony Fund at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music this year. Its purpose is to support work that addresses social issues.

        A round of applause goes to the CCM drama department and Know Theatre Tribe for scheduling and minority casting.

        CCM addressed gay issues in The Laramie Project and Stop Kiss. Know's schedule ranged from disabled issues (The History of Bowling) to a classic from the militant black era (The Dutchman).

        Otherwise, minorities — including Latino, women, elder issues — were barely represented on larger area stages in 2001-02. (No points for doing African-American themed work only in Black History Month.)

        Mainstage productions didn't venture far from the white middle-class comfort zone.

        Among the alternative schedule, Love Child brought hundreds of African-Americans to Ensemble Theatre for the first time.

        We've got a way to go, but next season looks like a step forward.

        Exiting the Comfort Zone: I Stand Before You Naked, New Edgecliff's collection of dark monologues about women on the periphery, was in-your-face in the tiny Artery Theater in Newport.

        Better Late Than Never: Vagina Monologues opened the 2002 theater year on Jan. 1. The billboards were the talk of the town, and its Jarson-Kaplan run sold out in a blink, sending a strong message to squeamish producers that there is an audience for edgy, invigorating work.

        The Little Engine That Almost Could Award: The Midwest Regional Black Theatre Festival wasn't Midwest, and was only marginally regional, but Don Sherman and his colleagues manage to reach a little higher with every biannual fest.

        Best New Venture: A tie. The Cappies, which pay tribute to the kids who participate in high school theater, made an ambitious start this year with 10 high schools. The mid-May awards show drew cheers that rivaled any Friday night football game. Congratulations to Susan Grubbs and the many volunteers devoted to making the year-round program a reality.

        Queen City Off-Broadway started producing Upstairs at Carol's with artistic director Lyle Benjamin choosing an array of edgy (and coincidentally) numerical works, from hostage drama Two Rooms to courtroom drama 12 Angry Men to The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a black comedy for the holidays.

        Busted by the Boycott Award: Boycott organizers have concentrated on big names, which have left the theater, dance and classical music scene largely untouched.

        Because of the “complicated social issues that continue to plague our city,” Cincinnati Arts Association decided to postpone the community-based initiative The Color Line Project, which would use a “story circle” to collect oral histories about the Civil Rights movement in Cincinnati.

        Color Line would have been announced in May with the presentation of Don't Start Me Talking... by John O'Neal.

        Best New Venue: The intimate, 350-seat Xavier Theater in the new Gallagher Student Center on the Xavier University campus.

        Outstanding Young Company Artists: Playhouse, Ensemble and Cincinnati Shakespeare all have young acting companies.

        Angela Groeschen and Chris Guthrie, Cincinnati Shakespeare. Ms. Groeschen shown in Arcadia and As You Like It, Mr. Guthrie was invaluable in a number of roles, including that of sound designer.

        Busting the Glass Ceiling Award: The women got to play all the adult roles in Stage First's Medea, a fun conceit.

        But take one step back. Women's Theatre Initiative canceled its summer production.

        Outstanding Broadway appearance by a CCM grad: Nominees are Jessica Boevers, Oklahoma!; Justin Bohon, Oklahoma!; Pam Myers, Into the Woods; Faith Prince, Noises Off; Eric Sciotto, Sweet Smell of Success

        Winner: Justin Bohon, who's been lassoing attention in his Broadway debut as Will Parker in Oklahoma!, including the TDF/Astaire Award for Best Male Dancer on Broadway.

        Wish They Would Retire Graciously from Touring Musicals Award: Robert Goulet, who headlined an awful South Pacific at Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati. I'd rather remember him as Lancelot — or even King Arthur.

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