Playhouse Square Expects Broadway Shows To Play To Full Houses This Fall

A trial scene from writer Aaron Sorkin's re-interpretation of the novel and film versions "To Kill a Mockingbird," which is part of Playhouse Square's five-show season.
Writer Aaron Sorkin's re-interpretation of the novel and book "To Kill a Mockingbird" is part of Playhouse Square's five-show season. [Julieta Cervantes]

This fall, theatergoers in downtown Cleveland may get a taste of pre-pandemic days – shows playing to full houses. Playhouse Square announced Wednesday night a new season of musicals and drama with capacity seating.

The same week that Gov. Mike Dewine eased capacity restrictions for outdoor venues, Playhouse Square shared plans to host full capacity shows for its Broadway season, starting in November. Right now, Ohio will only allow 25% of indoor seating to be used.

Playhouse Square President and CEO Gina Vernaci [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

“We're talking about an event that's occurring six months from now,” said Playhouse Square CEO Gina Vernaci, noting that the state makes rules for today. “They aren't soothsayer's about what's coming tomorrow. We will always operate under the guidance of what is the prevailing knowledge at the time and will adjust accordingly”

Playhouse Square aims to fill those seats with a season of established crowd-pleasers.

Four of the five productions scheduled for this coming season are based on popular films: “The Prom,” “Pretty Woman,” “Frozen,” and “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which originally was a best-selling novel by Harper Lee. Rounding out the theatrical slate is “Ain’t Too Proud,” focusing on the history and the hits of Motown favorites, the Temptations. The goal is to take theater off of TV screens and put it back on stage.

Cast of "Ain't Too Proud" [Matthew Murphy]

“We're all eager. We need to be still cautious, but we're eager to get back to some semblance of our lives,” Venaci said. “But the thing that we do know is that we are reopening the theaters, coming out of the exact situation that had occurred when the theaters were built one hundred years ago, when we were coming out of a global pandemic, a world war on top of it, a financial collapse on top of that. And people were lined up around the block to get back together.”

But, that was then. Vernaci said her organization has spent the past year refurbishing the physical plant of the century-old theaters and developing reopening plans based on the advice of University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.

We have updated our HVAC systems. We are enhancing our cleaning protocols and hand sanitizer. Presently, there is a mask mandate in place that will be strictly enforced,” she said. 

In addition to her perspective as a show presenter in Northeast Ohio, Vernaci helps plan national strategies for the theater industry as road vice chair of the Broadway League. She said the touring industry is feeling confident about the trends in vaccinations. At the same time, the mounting of any show is complex and requires a great deal of lead time.

“You are negotiating with 14 different unions in order to make that happen,” she said. "That isn't saying that's a bad thing. That's just a fact of life. And so now, you need to do that with every show. Every show is starting back from square one.”

That includes auditions, rehearsals and the building of sets and costumes.

“And that's happening around the world,” Vernaci said. “It will happen. It just can't all happen at one time. It's amazing that there is a relatively small group of people who actually specialize in this work. And it will take a little bit of time to just get everything back up and running. But it will.”

"The Prom" is due to kick-off Playhouse Square's new season, this fall. [The Prom]

There are only five shows being offered this coming season, because there are less available due to the pandemic’s disruption of the show-making process.

“The supply chain has been interrupted. It will just take a while for Broadway to get up and running and to be producing the shows that are going to go out on the road,” said Vernaci. “What you don't want to do is, is start out with seven shows and find out that you have burned through all the titles in a season.”

That meant pushing back planned stagings of such shows as “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” “My Fair Lady” and “Hamilton.”

“The question that I do often get asked is, will "Hamilton" return? The answer is it will be coming back for the rest of our lives. So, the opportunity to see "Hamilton" again at Playhouse Square, of course, is going to occur,” Vernaci said. “We're just putting that all back in the schedule again, strategically, about how we run a center, how we help create audiences and critical mass for downtown. All of that as a part of our nonprofit mission as well.”

Vernaci acknowledges that all of this could change, but her choice is to move forward.

“We really do see light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We know that there may be some adjustments that we need to make along the way. But for a long time, the light wasn't there. Now, it actually is.”

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