“I love great stories,” says Blake Robison.
It’s the sort of comment that could easily slip by unnoticed. But Robison is the artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. And looking back on his past four seasons as the theater’s leader, you wonder why he didn’t just set that goal as the theater’s mission statement.
Some theaters fill their season with glitz or spectacle, but not Playhouse. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 2016-2017 Playhouse season Robison announced Monday night is filled with “great stories.”
They wear many different faces, everything from brash musicals and edgy new plays to literary adaptations and domestic comedies. But at the heart of those productions are great stories: love stories, coming-of-age stories, suspense stories and comic stories.
“It doesn’t really matter to me what type of show it is,” says Robison. “But at the end of the evening, I want people to be able to say that they’ve experienced a great story with great acting and great directing. There are other ways to experience stories. But theater is entirely different. I know I’m biased, but to me, theater is the best possible way to experience a great story.”
Playhouse’s much-loved production of “A Christmas Carol” will come back for its 26th consecutive season, though it is not a part of the subscription season. Director Michael Evan Haney will direct again, with Bruce Cromer returning for his 12th time around as Ebenezer Scrooge. The show runs Nov. 23-Dec. 31.
Let’s take a look at what else Robison & Co. have in store for Playhouse audiences next season.
In the Robert S. Marx Theatre
“A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Sept. 3-Oct. 1: “This is one of the great contemporary stories by one of our great American authors,” says Robison. Indeed, John Irving’s 1989 novel, from which this play was adapted, remains his most popular work, more than a quarter of a century since its publication. Like the movie it inspired, “Simon Birch,” Irving’s novel revolves around the convoluted lives of two young men who have remained unlikely friends since their childhoods. Robison, who will direct this production, staged it at his former theater – the Round House Theatre – in 2006. “It’s pretty challenging,” says Robison. “But to this day, that is the production of mine that people in the theater community there still talk about.”
August Wilson’s “Jitney,” Oct. 15-Nov. 12: It has been more than 25 years since the Playhouse has staged a play by August Wilson. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was one of modern America’s most influential African-American playwrights. And his mammoth, 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” is a decade-by-decade reflection of the 20th-century African-American experience. “Jitney” was the first play of the cycle to be written and tells the story of the unlicensed cab drivers who offered service to Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood when licensed cabs refused to go there. Playhouse associate artist Timothy Duncan will direct the production.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Jan. 21-Feb. 19, 2017: A plant that eats people, a nerdy florist and a doomed love story, all accompanied by a musical score that has one foot in Motown and the other in Disney animation. (Remember, this features music by Alan Menken, who would go on to strike Hollywood gold with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”) The show is just silly enough to work for kids and just sentimental enough to appeal to adults. It was last performed at the Playhouse during the 1986-1987 season, when Worth Gardner was artistic director. First-time Playhouse guest director Bill Fennelly will direct the production, which Portland (Ore.) Center Stage will co-produce.
“Jane Eyre,” March 11-April 8, 2017: Charlotte Brontë’s mid-19th century classic gave us a proto-feminist protagonist long before we imagined such a thing possible. Jane, who refused to define herself by marriage or the men around her, was fiercely independent. Like Jane Austen before her, Brontë wrote about everyday life. But in doing so, she gave her readers – and us – a real-world portrait of class and gender issues in a much-earlier era. Associate artist KJ Sanchez is scheduled to direct.
Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” April 22-May 20, 2017: “I think the best description for this would be a Sherlock Homes mashup,” says Robison. “When you get a seasoned comedy writer like Ken Ludwig and set him loose on Conan Doyle, you not only get a classic story, but a lot of zaniness, too.” It’s not exactly a telling of Holmes’ “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” At least, not in the way that Arthur Conan Doyle depicted it. Robison promises there will be plenty of gloom and fog and a soundscape filled with eerie, inexplicable sounds. Brendon Fox, who staged the Playhouse’s 2013 production of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” is scheduled to direct.
In the Thompson Shelterhouse
“Disgraced,” Sept. 24-Oct. 23: Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama with this script. The leading character is a high-flying attorney who has spent much of his post-9/11 professional life trying to distance himself from his orthodox Muslim upbringing. But at the same time, his artist wife is finding increasing inspiration in her own Muslim faith. It all comes to a head when the couple hosts a dinner party that becomes embroiled in a conversation ranging from racial profiling to comparisons between the Talmud and the Koran. Lisa Portes, head of the MFA directing program at DePaul University, makes her Playhouse debut.
Second City’s “Holidazed & Confused Revue,” Nov. 5-Dec. 31: Yes, it’s a show by that Second City troupe. And yes, this is every bit as much of a spoof as you might expect. It’s sketch comedy that takes on every manner of holiday tradition from every religion, every belief system. Nothing is out of bounds. “Second City is a different kind of holiday show,” says Robison. “This is not what you want to bring the kids and grandkids to.” This, he says, is a show for when “you’ve got mall burnout and can’t look at one more piece of holly or hear another Christmas song.”
“Summerland,” Feb. 4-March 5, 2017: Arlitia Jones’ fascinating play recalls the true story of William H. Mumler, a so-called “spirit photographer” whose portraits captured the ghost-like images of people who were dead. His very-much-alive clients were deeply moved by his work. But eventually, he was taken to court and charged with fraud. He was found not guilty, leaving society to wonder whether he was a clever swindler or if, indeed, he had found a way to reach beyond the grave. Associate artist and longtime Playhouse presence Michael Evan Haney is scheduled to direct.
“All the Roads Home,” March 25-April 23, 2017: It’s a world premiere written by Jen Silverman, a two-time MacDowell fellow and one of the busiest young playwrights in American theater. The list of theaters she has written for is formidable, from Yale Repertory Theatre and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville to the Royal Court Theatre in London. This play chronicles three generations of women and their flights from home to find more inspiring futures. Lee Sunday Evans, who won a 2015 OBIE Award for “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes,” will direct in her Playhouse debut.
“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” May 6-June 4, 2017: Erma Bombeck, the Dayton-based domestic humorist with an international influence, died nearly 20 years ago. But there is something about her way of seeing life that is every bit as relevant today as it was when she was alive. Thanks to some savvy writing by journalists Allison Engel and Margaret Engel and a cheeky performance by Barbara Chisholm, it is almost as if Bombeck has returned to life to entertain us. David Esbjornson directs.
Subscription packages range from $157.50 to $391.50 for either the five-show Marx Theatre series or the five-show Shelterhouse series. Subscriptions for a full 10-show season are $280-$696. There are other packages, as well, where patrons can pick the shows they want to see. For more information, go to the Playhouse’s web site, www.cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888.