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A New Day for the Taft

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 13, 2011 - 11:52:08 PM in news_2011

Opening night at the Taft Theatre, September 12, 2011

Well hello, Taft Theatre.

That’s what it felt like Monday evening as a capacity crowd turned out for the reopening of the Taft Theatre on East Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati.

The historic venue, built in 1928 by the Scottish Rite Masons and named for Charles Phelps Taft, reopened to the tune of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra led by conductor John Morris Russell and a wholly private, $3 million renovation, funded by Edyth and Carl Lindner and a group of core supporters.  (It was only fitting, Russell noted, since the CSO under music director Fritz Reiner performed at the dedication ceremony 83 years ago.)

murals above proscenium

The theatre, neo-classic/art deco in design, with Ionic pilasters and Pompeian style murals, was magnificently outfitted for the occasion, with new, larger seats, new carpeting, fresh paint, expanded restroom facilities (doubled for men, tripled for women) and a new electrical system that will facilitate air conditioning.  The warm chocolate, green and red color scheme gave a cozy, welcoming aspect to the interior of the theatre, which now seats 2,261 (down from 2,500), all with unobstructed sight lines.

The Taft, which is host to a wide range of musical and theatrical events, will be managed by Music and Event Management, Inc. a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra subsidiary that runs Riverbend Music Center, the PNC Pavilion and events such as Tall Stacks and the Cincy-Cinco Latino Festival.  As with Riverbend, the Taft will be a source of income for the CSO.  The CSO and Pops will perform at the Taft during the 2013-14 season, when Music Hall will be closed for its own revitalization.

The project came in fully funded, “under budget” and “on time” (three months), said CSO president Trey Devey, as the Pops logo, a red ball with a pair of white stars framing the word “Pops,” shone behind the orchestra.  Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laurie Quinlivan, chair of the Quality of Life Committee, read a proclamation honoring the event.

Russell – or JMR as he is familiarly known – makes his official debut as Cincinnati Pops conductor Sept. 16-18 at Music Hall, so it was kind of a sneak preview, too, of the new Pops era.  The program, a little over an hour with no intermission, was all cinematic, with music by Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, John Barry, Paul McCartney, Max Steiner and John Williams.  The sound was amplified, so there was no way to judge the theatre's natural acoustics.  That will have to wait until the CSO installs a shell for the orchestra and makes other acoustical adjustments. 

As it was, with a new sound system underwritten by the Lindners, the result was live, distinct and true to the music.  Russell and the Pops were true to the music, too, and rarely have I heard them play with such pizzazz so early in the season.  The “Magnificent Seven” soared (Bernstein).  The finale from “Victor/Victoria” (Mancini) was hot, with a prime lick by clarinetist Ben Freimuth (husband of principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth).  “Moon River” was sweet (Mancini), the theme from “Goldfinger” (Barry) brash and brassy. 

Sir Paul’s “Live and Let Die” (more James Bond fare) was propulsive and held on until the last wisps of harp, while “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone with the Wind” (Steiner) occasioned an unsolicited “Welcome home, John” from a listener in the audience.  Roderick Justice, Jen Scott and Deondra Means of Cincinnati Children’s Theater (which performs at the Taft), joined Russell and the Pops in an electrifying performance of John Williams’ “The Patriot,” delivering lines from The Declaration of Independence (Jasmine Choi’s nimble piccolo was pretty impressive, too).

Fittingly, the finale, a medley of John Williams favorites, was arranged by former Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel (who died in September, 2009).  Classy it was, too (as Yoda would say), from the sepulchral rumble of “Jaws” to the blazing theme from “Star Wars.”

The encore was another treat, “Dueling Banjos” from “Deliverance,” with Timothy Behrens on guitar and Paul Patterson on banjo.  And there was another.  What else but “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a huge American flag behind the orchestra, three piccolos (standing), a clutch of brass (standing), occasional vocalization by the orchestra and hand-clapping by the audience.

During the concert, Russell announced that the Cincinnati Pops has been designated Host City Orchestra of the World Choir Games, to take place in Cincinnati next summer.  As such, the Pops, along with the May Festival Chorus, will participate in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the games.

Bookings at the Taft are up, said CSO president Devey (with more events scheduled so far this season than all of last season up until the renovation).  Coming up are R & B star Brian McKnight, soul crooner Al Jarreau, Celtic Thunder, pop singer Cyndi Lauper and comedienne Lily Tomlin, among others.  For further information, visit www.tafttheatre.org