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Comedy, Drama and Music Arrive from Broadway to Cleveland's Playhouse Square

Playhouse Square
Playhouse Square Executive Producer Gina Vernaci provides a preview of the Key Bank Broadway Series

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but they’re shining along Euclid Avenue, too, as the curtain lifts this weekend on “Broadway in Cleveland.”

In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman sits down with Playhouse Square’s executive producer for a preview.

Six musicals and one drama are headed to downtown Cleveland. And Playhouse Square’s Gina Vernaci says all the singing, dancing and dialogue starts with a bang this weekend, with the launch of the national tour of the Tony-Award-winning musical “Fun Home.” 

fun home
Credit JOAN MARCUS / Playhouse Square
"Fun Home" is based on a graphic novel by an Oberlin College graduate.

The show opens at the Connor Palace Theater this Sunday.

“It’s a wonderful distinction,” says Vernaci, “for Playhouse Square and Cleveland.” 

The Cavs, the Tribe the RNC, and now this. Vernaci attributes the honor in part to the region’s loyal theater-goers: “32,000, as of right now, season ticket-holders at Playhouse Square. That’s the largest for touring Broadway in the country.”

Local tie
Another reason the “Fun Home” tour is starting in Cleveland could be the local connection. The musical is based on the graphic memoir of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It’s about finding out while she was a student at Oberlin College that her father was a closeted homosexual, dealing with his suicide, and coming out as a lesbian.

Vernaci says the themes of “Fun Home” are universal. “She reaches back into her memories to figure out the mysteries of her childhood. So it’s really the chance to see parents through adult eyes.”

“Fun Home” closes Oct. 22nd, to be followed by a story about never growing up. “Finding Neverland,” inspired by the 2004 movie, is the prequel to Peter Pan.

Prior to Peter
“We meet the writer J. M. Barrie as he is struggling with what to do next in his life,” says Vernaci. “And he comes upon a widow and her children who are playing in Kensington Gardens. They recently lost their father. So he thinks they’re too young to have to grow up.” 

finding neverland
Credit CAROL ROSEGG / Playhouse Square
"Finding Neverland" is based on the 2004 film.

“Finding Neverland” closed in August after 17 months on Broadway. It’ll play the Connor Palace for three weeks in November.

An adult fairy tale with another local connection opens in January. Mansfield, Ohio’s own James Lapine collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on “Into the Woods.” Vernaci says, “Many would consider this to be their masterpiece, ... and I would agree.”

Minimalist staging
The original production of “Into the Woods” opened on Broadway in 1987. The revival leaves New York in November to go on tour, and Cleveland will be the fourth stop.

It’s a minimalist production of the classic musical, and Vernaci says that gives theater-goers a rare opportunity.

“The chance for you to really dig into the lyrics, and hear the music and the dialogue in ways that you don’t when it is produced with large sets and large costumes.” 

But that kind of Broadway spectacle is coming here, too.

“Sweeping costumes, a score that everyone will know. And it’s that beautiful story about Anna and her romance with the King of Siam.”  In February, “The King and I” arrives in Cleveland for a three-week run.

It’ll be followed in March by the only show in Playhouse Square’s Broadway series that is not a musical. “This is the event that everyone doesn’t know that they need to see,” says Vernaci.

One without singing

curious incident
Credit JOAN MARCUS / Playhouse Square
The only play in this season's Key Bank Broadway series that is not a musical is "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

There are no songs, just Adrian Sutton’s hypnotic soundtrack in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Vernaci says the British import features inventive staging with a 15-year-old autistic math whiz as narrator.

“This intriguing way for us to see inside the mind of this young boy Christopher as he solves this mystery.”  “Curious Incident” debuted in 2012 at London’s Royal National Theater.

And something just as British follows next on the Connor Palace stage. “Something Rotten” is a farce about the world’s first musical.  “It’s a send-up, actually, to every Broadway musical ever written,” says Vernaci. 

Set in 1595, “Something Rotten” is about two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who want to write a hit play. Following the advice of a soothsayer they make it a musical.

“Their nemesis," says Vernaci, “is Shakespeare, who they think is getting all of the glorious headlines. And so they’re trying to come up with the next big idea.” Modern Broadway meets Renaissance England in the smash hit. Time Out NEW YORK called it “the funniest musical comedy in at least 400 years.” And it lands at Playhouse Square in April.

From Paris and Broadway
In June, George and Ira Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” comes to Playhouse Square. Gene Kelly’s 1951 movie inspired the musical play.  It debuted in Paris last year before coming to Broadway, and Vernaci says it’s pure romance.

“A fellow has fallen in love with a mysterious woman, and he discovers that his friend has also fallen in love with the same person.” 

The number of season ticket-holders has dramatically increased in the last five years so this season's series will have 56 additional performances.

The Broadway production closes this month, and Cleveland will be one of the last stops on the national tour. “Cleveland has actually been a great stop for touring musicals, literally for decades,” says Vernaci.

With the number of season-ticket holders having more than doubled in the last five years, Playhouse Square decided to add 56 performances of Broadway shows this season. Each will play for three weeks instead of the typical two-week run.

There’s plenty of excitement, too, at Playhouse Square about the 2017-18 Key Bank Broadway series. The date is not yet set, but the national tour of “Hamilton,” the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, will be coming to Cleveland.