There was a time when the concept of "summer theater" brought to mind inoffensive little musicals and plenty of Shakespeare in the open air.
And while the latter part of that formula is still happily in evidence across Northeast Ohio, some of the mindless musical froth has given way to some invigorating and even off-color creations.
It all starts with Beck Center, which kicks off the summer season this weekend with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (now through July 1), a biographical journey studded with emo music and featuring a punk-rock President Jackson. With the title role played by Dan Folino, who can belt with the best of them, this promises to be a perverse and edgy delight.
Beck follows bloody with blonde, as in Legally Blonde The Musical (July 6-August 12). It's the story of how Elle Woods, a supposedly empty-headed sorority gal, follows her main squeeze to Harvard Law School and finds herself a brain and a career.
Also existing out on the risk-taking border is Avenue Q (June 15-July 1), which opens at Cain Park's Alma Theatre. A satirical romp set to music, this show is a Sesame Street for grown-ups; it plays with the expectations we all had as children, but not in a particularly gentle or politically correct manner.
Even though there are puppets in profusion, your kids had better be teenagers — or at least really worldly and jaded — for them to take part with you. With toe-tapping tunes such as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet Is for Porn," and a character named Miss Thistletwat, a lot of sensitive issues are tagged — but with a laugh-out-loud comic sensibility.
"This kind of show is a bit risky, admits director Russ Borski. "It's essentially a coming-of-age Muppet musical with adult themes. At its heart, it looks at our hopes and dreams and says, 'Don't put it off — do it today.'"
More unexpected summer offerings will crop up at Convergence-Continuum, where they don't take the warm months off. Their regular season continues with Grace (June 29-July 21), in which a young couple recently relocated to Florida encounter unexpected challenges, and MilkMilkLemonade (August 17-September 8), a gender-identity exploration into the mind of an 11-year-old boy with a fixation on ribbon dancing.
Old Will Shakespeare, the most successful dead playwright ever, will once again be well represented. The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival will travel to various outdoor sites to present The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth (June 15-August 4) and As You Like It (June 22-August 5). And the best news: all the CleveShakes performances are free! Just bring your own blanket or a lawn chair and enjoy.
Out at Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival will unleash its exquisite Shakespearean chops on two lagoon-side productions. A Midsummer Night's Dream (July 5-22) and The Merchant of Venice (August 2-19) should keep everyone entertained amid the trees, soft breezes, and croaking bullfrogs.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with standard Broadway musical fare — particularly when it's done with style and wit. Terri Kent, the artistic director of Porthouse Theatre at Blossom Music Center, knows how to stage American musicals as well as anyone in the area.
"This year, we're producing three musicals instead of just two," Kent says of the summer slate. "We think this will be a very popular lineup with our faithful friends as well as newcomers. We're calling it 'See a little heaven and raise a little hell.'"
Porthouse starts with Damn Yankees (June 14-30), starring Porthouse stalwarts Eric van Baars as Applegate (the Devil) and MaryAnn Black as tempting Lola. They wrap their three-show season with another all-time favorite: Maria and all the von Trapp kiddies in The Sound of Music (July 26-August 12).
In between, the Porthouse young professional company will be featured in a mash-up of hit tunes by John Kander and Fred Ebb (they wrote the Broadway blockbusters Chicago and Cabaret, among others). It's called The World Goes 'Round (July 5-21).
A couple other well-known shows will be mounted by Mercury Summer Stock under the direction of co-founders Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall. This young but often exceptionally talented company, now situated in South Euclid, opens with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats (June 15-30) followed by Once Upon a Mattress (July 6-21). Then they conclude their summer festivities with the story of a small-town romance fueled by the Elvis Presley songbook in All Shook Up (August 3-18).
If you tire of the beach or backyard pina coladas and feel like a jaunt downtown, PlayhouseSquare is an option. While Jacques Brel Returns has been cancelled, the ever-popular Mamma Mia comes back to give ABBA fanatics another fix (July 13-22).
In short, there's a wealth of theater this summer, whether you like stretching the envelope or just stretching back and enjoying the familiar stuff.