Making of a Modern Folk Hero, The
Chicago Dramatists

You wonder how cults are born, swelling from small enclaves to encompass tribal sects worldwide. In The Making of a Modern Folk Hero, Martin Zimmerman offers a cautionary fable of a massive messianic movement whose origins lie in an actor of pudgy physique and modest talents, a cheap Halloween mask-and-cape costume and a populace desperate for a prophet to lead them out of their oppression.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Desperate Measures
York Theater

With a dash of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the York Theater Company opens its 2017-2018 season with delicious dish of mercy and virtue spiced with Old West country-western-folk music. A spirited musical, it is not called “Desperate Measures” for nothing.

Lyricist Peter Kellogg’s slick book features rhyming couplets and a score of 18 catchy tunes by David Friedman (Scandalous) matched to Kellogg's (Anna Karenina) lyrics.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Tiny Beautiful Things
Public Theater - Newman Theater

Today, when confusion, fear and pessimism intrude daily into our lives, the profound humanity of Tiny Beautiful Things moves beyond the natural catastrophes and possible terrors of tomorrow. What it offers is permission to be “happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified.”

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Red Sand
Santa Monica Playhouse

Red Sand, a recital by Serena Dolinsky and her small physical-theater company, was produced by Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie, co-artistic directors of the Santa Monica Playhouse, one of the country’s most respected intimate theatrical centers. Since 1973, the Playhouse has been honored with over 250 awards and has presented 600 classic, contemporary and original productions. The educational wing of the Playhouse has also thrived over the years, touching the lives of nearly a million theatre students through its on-site and public-school classes.

Willard Manus
Mack the Knife
Florida Studio Theater - Court Cabaret

There’s an amazing amount of variety in exploration at Florida Studio Theater’s Court Cabaret of the music of Bobby Darin, who became a major star at 25 and died at 37. This holds true also of the performances by two energetic guys telling Darin’s story and singing songs he wrote and others he was famous for stamping with his style.

Marie J. Kilker
Captain Greedy's Carnival
The Actors' Gang Theater

Captain Greedy’s Carnival is an agit-prop musical, a full-out assault on savage capitalism (which is how the French describe our economic system). Now in a world premiere at Actors’ Gang, the musical uses a carnival sideshow as its m.o., replete with barkers, animal acts, games of chance, puppets and freak shows. A 17-person cast brings the satirical proceedings to life, belting out 23 songs by Jack Pinter and Roger Eno, a couple of Brits who gleefully take the mickey out of free enterprise.

Willard Manus
Rent
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

More than 20 years ago, Rent opened Off-Broadway, and forever changed the direction of American musical theater. The show was created over a span of many years by Jonathan Larson, who worked as a waiter to pay the bills during its creation. Larson died on the night before Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview.

Anne Siegel
Taming of the Shrew, The
Navy Pier

Yes, it's Shakespeare and, yes, its text includes the male-female repartee we find so sexy, but there's no disguising a plot that revolves around a bunch of men bullying a lone woman. That's not the way we do things nowadays, so how do you make this repugnant behavior funny in 2017?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Legend of Georgia McBride, The
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

There was a time once, when men who did drag were regarded as specialty performers, a cult fraternity schooled in arcane skills forbidden to ordinary actors. Times have changed, of course, and now it is not only commonplace to see drag divas out of uniform (so to speak), but also for their craft to be embraced by all males pursuing a career in the theater. Playwright Matthew Lopez now takes another stiletto-heeled step toward the demystification of drag in a comedy proposing an all-American het boy who becomes a better man after donning lipstick and wig.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Silent Sky
Next Act Theater

Audiences don’t need a degree in astronomy to get the full impact of a turn-of-the-century woman who virtually changed the way we look at the universe. Milwaukee’s Next Act Theater offers a near-perfect production of Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson.

Anne Siegel
Breathing Hole, The
Stratford Festival - Studio Theater

I doubt that this ultimately moving and enlightening new play will continue to be shaped, trimmed, and revised after the long, elaborate development it has received before Stratford’s brilliant world premiere. But that’s a sad conclusion, because it’s still too long and diffuse and uneven, yet promises to be an important original Canadian contribution to world drama. Hardly anyone leaves a performance of Stratford’s The Breathing Hole unaffected.

Herbert M. Simpson
Head of Passes
Mark Taper Forum

Lawdy, lawdy what a bad play. Head of Passes (the awful title should have been a warning of things to come) is a retelling of the Book of Job set in a Black household where “the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.” There Shelah (the valiant Phylicia Rashad) rules over a family beset by enough problems to fill a chapter in the Old Testament. For starters, Shelah is ill (you know she isn’t long for this world when she gives her first wheezing cough).

Willard Manus
Small Things
Boulevard Theater

One of the rare delights of Milwaukee’s fall theater season is the scope of its productions. One finds locally staged, extravagant musical productions with full orchestras and large casts, as well as chamber pieces such as Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s new play, Small Things. Its US premiere is being produced by Milwaukee’s Boulevard Theater in its temporary home, a church located on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Anne Siegel
Julius Caesar
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Publicity has it that “Julius Caesar endures as a provocative examination of personal responsibility against the backdrop of great political consequences.” That may be true of Shakespeare’s play, but Tyler Dobrowsky’s adaptation for FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s touring production is mainly a story of a murder to gain the kind of power sought on Wall Street in the 1980s.

Marie J. Kilker
Who and the What, The
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stiemke Studio

In the pivotal opening scene of Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What, two grown sisters are calmly chatting in a kitchen. The audience can tell that these Pakistani-Americans are thoroughly Americanized, from how they dress to how they talk (in slang). At one point the sisters agree that their loving, ultra-conservative father can be difficult to live with, tied as he is to Muslim traditions.

Anne Siegel
Guys and Dolls
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse

One of the most cherished musicals in the American theater canon, Guys and Dolls, is currently being revived at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It would be difficult to rise above the high standard set by last season’s musical, Man of La Mancha and, frankly, this year’s show doesn’t come up to the bar.

Anne Siegel
View from the Bridge, A
Goodman Theater

Arthur Miller made no secret of his desire to write plays exhibiting the gravity and grandeur of classical tragedy, nor his disappointment at having to convey—and in his eyes, diminish—those qualities in contexts easily comprehended by mid-20th-century North American patrons.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Sylvester
Lifeline Theater

Regency Romances, preferably adapted for the stage by Christina Calvit, never fail to delight Lifeline audiences, who could happily revel in ladies wearing long dresses and gentlemen clad in tight breeches for as many seasons as Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer et al. are able to provide material. Every so often, however, the company (celebrating its 35th anniversary) departs from conventional historical accuracy to impose an innovative visual metaphor on its literary universe.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune
Broadway Theater Center - Studio Theater

Playwright Terrence McNally is a funny guy with a keen ear for conversation. These talents come together in one of his best plays, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. Happily, Milwaukee Chamber Theater pairs two terrific Equity actors, Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning, in a performance that brings out the complexities in these seemingly ordinary folks.

Frankie is a waitress and Johnny a cook who slings hash; they both work at the same restaurant. They spend monotonous days serving comfort food and wondering how they ever got to this place in their lives.

Anne Siegel
Br'er Cotton
Theater Planners

A play that’s been made painfully relevant by recent headlines, Br’er Cotton deals with racism in America, particularly the kind directed at black folks. Written by a young, promising playwright, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, the play centers on Ruffrino Witherspoon (Omete Anassi), a 14-year-old kid seething with rage against white people, especially those who have systematically exploited and murdered African-Americans.

Willard Manus
Dance of Death, The
Odyssey Theater

August Strindberg died in 1912. One hundred years later, a small theater in London mounts Conor McPherson’s version of The Dance of Death, which the Swedish playwright had written in 1900. Now the Odyssey has produced McPherson’s rewrite of Dance, which one British theatre critic has described as “flintily sharp, caustically comic.”

McPherson hasn’t changed the play all that much, just pared it down by eliminating one character (the servant), dropping the dream sequences and the impact of a violent storm.

Willard Manus
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday
Playwrights Horizons

When did you finally grow up? When you got married? When you graduated from college? After the birth of your child? Yet aren’t there times when you wish you were a kid again?

Despite some darker themes, James Barrie’s classic character Peter Pan is the epitome of perpetual youth. Playwright Sarah Ruhl uses the boy “who wouldn’t grow up” to explore the themes of aging and death in her latest play, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday.

Elyse Trevers
In the Heights
Geva Theater - Mainstage

The only misgiving that Geva’s artistic director Mark Cuddy might have about this superb new production of the crowd-pleasing In the Heights is that at the beginning of a crowded season, it has no space available to extend its virtually sold-out run. Were it scheduled at the season’s end, it would surely add a number of performances before closing. On opening night, everyone in the theater – from old, expected attendees to first-time youngsters – seemed involved and excited throughout.

Herbert M. Simpson
Big Night
Kirk Douglas Theter

In Big Night, Paul (I Hate Hamlet) Rudnick’s latest comedy now in a world premiere at the Kirk Douglas, a gay actor faces a test of conscience. The actor, Michael (Brian Hutchison), has an excellent chance of winning an Oscar. His conscience, prodded by Eddie (Tom Phelan), his  militant transgender nephew, tells him he should make a strong statement on behalf of gay rights. His agent, however, thinks such a public act would be foolhardy. As Cary (Max Jenkins) points out, the Star Wars franchise wants to sign him to a multi-million-dollar contract.

Willard Manus
Prince of Broadway
Samuel J. Friedman Theater

One might think that after winning a record 21 Tonys for producing or directing (and sometimes both at the same time) many of Broadway’s most popular and critically acclaimed musicals like West Side Story (1957), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1971), Sweeney Todd (1979), Evita (1979), and The Phantom of the Opera (1986), the latter still up and running after 30 years – that the return of Hal Prince’s to The Great White Way with his latest venture, Prince of Broadway, a compendium of songs fr

Edward Rubin
Annie Get Your Gun
Westchester Broadway Theater

Like Taming of the Shrew, the premise of Annie Get Your Gun may be uncomfortable for modern audiences to embrace. After all, don’t we know now that if the only way to get a man is to pretend you’re not as good as he is, maybe he’s not worth getting? There are also some pretty insensitive comments about Native Americans. Our modern-day enlightenment has to be pushed to one side so we can enjoy this legendary show.

Michall Jeffers
Vino Veritas
Reuben Cordova Theater

It’s no secret that people who drink too much will lose all restraint and say some pretty rude things to each other. Playwright David MacGregor, a member of Jeff Daniels’s Purple Rose Theater in Michigan, has fashioned a play out of that notion, Vino Veritas, now in a West Coast premiere at Theater 40.

Willard Manus
Terms of My Surrender, The
Belasco Theater

Except for one small thing, sitting in the Belasco Theater watching Michael Moore's lively, informative call-and-response discourse, is probably somewhat like a Trump campaign rally. That one small thing here, of course, is that there is no Donald Trump but there is a lively vibe to this audience which is definitely the "choir" to whom Moore is preaching.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, The
The Factory

Sorry, Wonder Woman, but your long-lost older sister is back to resume her place in superherstory. Scarlet O’Neal, Russell Stamm's comic strip focusing on the adventures of a scientist's daughter turned crime-fighter after a laboratory mishap renders her the power of invisibility, made its debut on June 3, 1940, in the Chicago Times—a full year before the arrival of an immigrant princess out of Greek myth.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Heavens are Hung in Black, The
Theater Wit

The year is 1862.

Mary Shen Barnidge
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday
Playwrights Horizons - Mainstage

Why do we want to grow up? Who wants the responsibility, the financial burden, the all-pervasive diligence and worry of having a house, a spouse, kids? Of course, when you come right down to it, what choice do we have in a life that’s full of choices, good and bad?

Michall Jeffers
Souvenir
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stackner Cabaret

Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who gave opera recitals in the 1930s and ‘40s, couldn’t hold a note if she pinned it down with a hammer. Still, Jenkins found a following. She made records and even gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. The wealthy woman proved that money doesn’t only talk, it sings.

Anne Siegel
Bonnie and Clyde
Theater Wit

"Dying ain't so bad/not if you both go together/a short and loving life/that ain't so bad " croons our heroine. "I won't get to heaven/so why not raise some hell?" declares her paramour. Later they both proclaim, "This world will remember us."

Poets and playwrights nowadays may be wary of saying as much, but these are probably the most romantic words lovers can utter. In history, legend and literature, the most undeniable proof of devotion, allegiance conferring immortality on those professing loyalty thereto, is dying, young, in the arms of your beloved.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Daytona
Met Theater

Oliver Cotton’s Daytona is a play about three different things: the need for vengeance and justice, the role of memory in people’s lives, and a psychological portrait of some traumatized human beings.

Willard Manus
Night in Alachua County, A
The Den

All fiction begins with the question "What if," but what separates the basement/dorm-room scribblers from the inspired storytellers is that the former abandon their inquiry as the initial excitement wanes, while the latter forge ahead until all possibilities have been addressed.

Not only does playwright Jennifer Rumberger trust her audience to stay the course all the way to a satisfactory conclusion, however, but to apprehend every step in a narrative operating on several different levels.

Mary Shen Barnidge
One Thousand Words
Theater Wit

Michael Braud and Curran Latas have written a musical containing everything a romantic story could want. To start, it's a memory play, with all the hindsight guilt and regret engendered thereby. Its framing device is that of an up-and-coming journalist assigned to write a thousand-word story on the once-prosperous, but now economically depressed, town of Winslow, located deep in the mountains of coal country.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, A
The Den

Halley Feiffer's play, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City may not hold the record for the longest play title of the last half-century—that honor goes to the German play usually abbreviated Marat/Sade — but it bespeaks a playwright not lacking in chutzpah. When your father is Jules Feiffer, chronicler of button-down malaise in the Eisenhower years, and your play purports to be a romantic comedy, is set in a cancer ward and conducted under the semi-comatose chaperonage of two formid

Mary Shen Barnidge
Iphigenia in Aulis
Getty Villa - Barbara & Lawrence Fleischman Theater

Chicago’s Court Theatre has brought its 2014 production of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis to the Getty Villa, with excellent results. The Villa’s outdoor Fleischman Theater was inspired by ancient prototypes and has been the setting for plays by Aristophanes, Plautus, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Now Iphigenia in Aulis has taken center stage in the amphitheater, in a vigorous production that is also surprisingly relevant, considering that the play was first done in 405 BC (one year after Euripides’s death).

Willard Manus
Somewhere in the Middle
Crown City Theater

In Somewhere in the Middle, Gary Lamb’s new play now premiering at Crown City, a mid-west family’s liberal values are put to the test by their rebellious daughter. Sarah (Julie Lanctot) is a college student who shocks her folks when she comes home with a fiancé in tow. Jamal (Luke King), you see, is not only black but Muslim.

Willard Manus

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