It's been hot the past couple of days so when Neil and Eric said they were going to Ensemble Theatre for the evening, I decided to stay in the house where it's cool.
Ensemble Theatre (ETC) is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Over-The-Rhine, which is a tough ass, crime ridden neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati that has been experiencing a new infusion of economic and cultural vitality due, in no small part, to the patience and guts of ETC and its mesmerizing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers – one of the great citizens of Cincinnati. Gentrification is a double-edged sword: new businesses and wealthier residents can create new and safer legal opportunities for a neighborhood, but driving out original residents over time also dulls the character and details of what made the area interesting in the first place.
ETC has been billed as “your premiere theatre” because Lynn Meyers has brought so many regional and first out of the gate shows (within a few months of their New York premiere) to Cincinnati that she’s disproved Mark Twain’s dictum wrong (“I want to be in Cincinnati at the end of the world because it’s ten years behind the times”) with every season. David Kisor’s annual pantomimes have been charming and progressive with genuinely lovely songs. Lynn Meyers’ direction has been clear and elegant.
Okay, that being said, 25 The Musical doesn’t work as a show. The high points are Brian c. Mehring’s set and lighting and Scot Woolley’s musical direction and piano playing during the performance. The five ensemble members, while each individually talented, never gel as a performing unit. A couple of times I wondered if they even liked each other since there were those awful, pasted on grins while they watched each others’ solos. Neil even caught one of the performers cringing at a colleague during the encore. The songs originated in some brilliant shows from ETC’s past, but there was very little reason to their order and there were few emotionally authentic moments. I felt that the head microphones were superfluous, but that the show was aimed at a space the size of Procter & Gamble Hall (over 2,700 seats) versus ETC, which seats about 200.
The audience surrounding us behaved like members of a performance art group. There was the senior couple that reminisced about seeing the original shows while watching this one, pointing at the super-titles where the shows’ titles were named, clearing their throats, etc., (even the husband’s stomach rumbled. Thankfully, he didn’t fart, though he asked me halfway if there would be an intermission. The program, the lobby, and even the show’s greeter announced that there was not one). In front of us sat three young women (college students? secondary school students?), who chatted about the show during it, texted a number of people, looked up some facts – those iphones are very useful – and may have been writing papers (reviews? journal entries? love letters?) as well. One of them had lovely legs that she shared by sticking them over the empty seats in front of her. ETC has a very steep – practically vertigo-inducing – grade where audience members in one row can see practically into the laps of the audience members in the row immediately in front of them.
Please, make a date to go to ETC and see one of their shows. This is the minor exception that doesn’t work, while the majority of their productions do.