Big Fish
Marcus Center - Todd Wehr Theater

Ask any seven-year-old what kind of characters should be in a play, and you might get the following answer: a circus performer, a giant, a witch, a mermaid and a cowboy. Believe it or not, all of these characters appear in a world-premiere version of the Broadway musical, Big Fish. This remarkable production was created by John August for Milwaukee’s First Stage.

Anne Siegel
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Geva Theater Center

Whatever little criticisms I may apply to it, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a Tony Award-winning “Best New Play” in a handsome co-production by two top regional theaters, Cleveland Playhouse and Geva Theatre Center. It has an attractive, able cast, directed by a master of stage hilarity. So it is pretty much guaranteed to provide a laugh-filled, enjoyable evening.

Herbert M. Simpson
Little By Little
Tenth Street Theater

There’s much to like in the musical Little by Little, a show of modest proportions and ambitions. Three characters – who are identified only by their genders (Man, Woman #1 and Woman #2) – go through the “pains” of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood together. As they sing in one of the songs, the show is about the “trouble of mixing friendship and love.” And do make note that singing is all they do; the show has no dialogue.

Anne Siegel
City of Angels
Village Church Arts

Milwaukee’s Windfall Theater closes its current season with a stunning production of the musical, City of Angels. Surprisingly, this is the first time the decades-old musical has had a local production.

City of Angels opened on Broadway in 1989 at the Virginia Theater. It was nominated for 10 1990 Tony Awards, and won six of them, including the award for Best Musical. The original cast included Gregg Edelman (1776, Into the Woods) as a detective novelist and James Naughton (Chicago, Our Town) as his onscreen alter ego.

Anne Siegel
Luck Be a Lady
Asolo Repertory Theater

It has the music and lyrics of a true American poet-composer of theater and film. It has a cast of Broadway-quality actor-singers-dancers. It has a spirited band plus conductor doing music that’s often arranged with originality, always with verve. What it doesn’t have is the continuity and class of a Frank Loesser show.

Marie J. Kilker
Lips Together, Teeth Apart
The Athenaeum

Sensitive artist Sally is married to blue-collar Sam. Sam's amateur-actress sister Chloe is married to preppy academic John. John and Sally are sleeping together and think their spouses don't know. The two couples are spending their Fourth of July weekend together at the beach house that Sally inherited from her now-deceased brother. Oh, and by the way, the beach is on Fire Island, and the late owner of the vacation home died of AIDS.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Sounds So Sweet
Black Ensemble Theater

Weddings, funerals and class reunions have supplied authors with opportunities for dramatic conflict since the advent of lineage-based fiction. In Sounds So Sweet, the occasion precipitating the reunion of the Harrison clan in Ellisville, Mississippi, is the death of its beloved matriarch—but don't arrive expecting the sniffling, sobbing and keening associated with such ceremonies. The departed, it seems, was adamant in instructing her surviving kin to remember her, not with a gloomy memorial service but a "Going to Heaven" celebration—and since the descendents of Mrs.

Mary Shen Barnidge
King and I, The
Vivian Beaumont Theater

A hush comes over the house. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, and we’re not disappointed. In the middle of the friendly dance, the King tells Mrs. Anna that holding two hands is not how the dance is done. She agrees, and as he places his hand firmly around her waist, there’s a slight gasp from the audience. This is where the respect, friction, and friendship of two people from vastly different worlds reveals the sexual attraction beneath the surface.

Michall Jeffers
Verizon Hall

When Leonard Bernstein unveiled Mass, a “Theatere Piece for Singers, Players & Dancers” in 1971, many critics derided its amalgamation of the diverse forms of Broadway, gospel music, symphony, ballet and rock ‘n’ roll. Lenny already was known for juggling careers as conductor, TV host, serious composer and Broadway songwriter.

Steve Cohen
Pompie's Place
Don't Tell Mama

The new Pompie’s Place, part of the show center at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th St. gives us first-class musical entertainment and first-class food--a great combo. The three talented, accomplished singers, Hilary Gardner, Brianna Thomas and Lezlie Harrison, take us on a thrilling jazz/blues trip from St. Louis to Creole-land to Broadway. When Ms. Harrison sang “Ten Cents a Dance,” I really wanted to dance with her.

Richmond Shepard
All About That Face
The Triad

All About That Facegives us four talented, lively and beautiful women: Amelia Hart, Courtney Cheatham, Eva Richards and Roxy Reynolds, singing love songs and patter songs and throwing in sketches. Wow! A contemporary group of young women with well-trained voices and a comic flair. Solos for each, duets, ensembles, all well written, staged and coordinated.

Richmond Shepard
Go to Sleep, Goddamnit!
The Tank

Go to Sleep, Goddamnit!, by The Krumple Theater Company at The Tank Theater, is a rare theatrical spectacle: Mask Theater which communicates with grotesque masks blowing up human features (you’ve never in your life seen less attractive faces), and one terrific dog, plus body language, comic walks, no spoken words, music punctuating everything, sound effects, noisy props, bells and whistles. It’s silent acting by a physically-trained, flexible troupe, but not really Mime— Mime uses no real props—we mime them.

Richmond Shepard
Something Rotten
St. James Theater

I admit to being pleasantly surprised by Something Rotten. It sounded so sophomoric, and since I’m in the select minority of people who loathed The Book of Mormon,I wasn’t wild about seeing another production involving choreographer/co-director Casey Nicholaw. And while I could have done without the excrement jokes, the oft-repeated codpiece yuks, and the faux peeing on stage, this was nowhere near as cheesy as I’d feared. It is, however, much too long, and the with the exception of a rousing production number, the second act falls flat.

Michall Jeffers
Westcoast Black Theater Troupe Theater

It isn’t your usual musical theater. It’s three slices of life as lived in the 1920s-’30s in a small African-American town in central Florida with a side trip to Harlem. And its characters talk the talk of time and places.

Exploring relationships between the sexes, all come to us via Guitar Man, a guru who strums up a storm or more subtly suggests how we should think and feel. Blues Speak Woman often helps him or joins five other actors in narrating to commenting on to propelling the action.

Marie J. Kilker
Plymouth Church

With baseball season in full swing, Milwaukee’s Boulevard Theatre hits a home run with its production of Kate Fodor’s comedy, Rx. The play has got a bit of romance, a hint of suspense and -- most surprisingly, some hard-hitting humor aimed at big pharmaceutical companies.

Rx, one of several plays written by Kate Fodor, got its Off-Broadway debut at Primary Stages in 2012. Fodor is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow and is the resident playwright at New Dramatists in New York.

Anne Siegel
Peter and the Starcatcher
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse Theater

“Collaboration” seems to be the watchword for The Milwaukee Repertory Theater this season. No sooner had it closed Five Presidents, a joint production with a Cleveland theatre, than it launched yet another joint project with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The result? Peter and the Starcatcher.

Without dwelling on long explanations of why such regional theater collaborations make sense – both financially and theatrically – lets hone in on Peter, the Tony Award-winning musical that contains elements to delight both young and seasoned viewers.

Anne Siegel
Sunset Baby
Odyssey Theater

Gangsta lingo juxtaposed with Black Power polemics give Sunset Baby, the provocative new drama by Dominique Morisseau, its special flavor. The play, now in its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey, revels in language while an African-American father and daughter butt heads with each other in ferocious fashion.

Willard Manus
Finding Neverland
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Finding Neverland is this season’s Lion King; it’s the new go-to show for kids. I saw it at a Wednesday matinee; the house was filled with children and their parents, and everyone had a fine time. This musical avatar of the story is based on the Johnny Depp movie of the same name, and on a play called The Man Who Was Peter Pan.

Michall Jeffers
Living on Love
Longacre Theater

I had an interesting experience with Living On Love. The running time was variously listed as two hours or two hours and fifteen minutes. In fact, it was quite a bit shorter, which has never happened before. Productions very often do run longer than the stated time. This led me to wonder if the play had been severely cut in an effort to make it more palatable. Sadly, as it is, this is pretty much a dud; a comedy that’s not funny is not long for this world, and I’m curious to see if the run will actually reach the stated closing date.

Michall Jeffers
Between You, Me and the Lampshade
The Biograph - Richard Christensen Theater

The premise of Raul Castillo's Between You, Me and the Lampshade—a fugitive seeking sanctuary among strangers encounters unexpected hospitality—has provided laughs since antiquity. Its characters are likewise generic: the feisty widow Jesse and her meek teenage son Woody, handsome-but-dumb officer Max and adventure-hungry tourist Kristen. The plot proposes not one, but two, "drunk scenes" obligatory to 1950s farce.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Herd, The
Steppenwolf Theater

The household upheaval inspired by the introduction of a baby therein generally diminishes after three or four years, while that of an elderly baby—a cognitively regressive parent, perhaps—still carries with its obligations an expectation of eventual cessation.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Thirty-Nine Steps, The
Union Square Theater

The 39 Steps is a bodacious Alfred Hitchcock mix of comedy and romance driven by foreign espionage, currently playing at off-Broadway’s Union Square Theater. With shrewd use of scanty scenery, a few well-chosen props and creative tweaks, four actors flawlessly switch between countless characters. Playwright Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken keep this screwball conceit racing at a sleek pace with wink-wink seriousness.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Hairy Ape, The
The Latvian Society

The mission of the company called EgoPo is to convey theatrical emotion through body movement. Lane Savadove, the troupe’s founder and artistic director, had this in mind when he selected the name by combining the idea of self, or ego, with the French word for skin, peau, re-spelled.

Steve Cohen
Because of Winn-Dixie
Delaware Theater

If you ignore this play because it seems to be a children’s show, or because a prominent cast member is a dog, you’d be making a big mistake. This is pleasurable, heart-warming entertainment.

Because of Winn-Dixie, named for a supermarket chain in the Deep South, is based on a kids’ book. But remember You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown? That seemed childlike and it too had a dog (though played by a human), and it became an enduring theater classic.

Steve Cohen
Midnight City, The
Steppenwolf Garate

"Tony has lived only in Chicago" Stan Klein tells us. The "Tony" of whom he speaks is Tony Fitzpatrick—artist, poet, and raconteur in the tradition of Ben Hecht, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Rick Kogan. After 55 years, though, this son of the Big Shoulders has announced his departure from his Ukrainian Village quarters for New Orleans, where he will "be warm, draw birds and find decent food." In this coda performance to his “Nickel History” trilogy, he bids his city and its people goodbye.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Downpour, The
The Greenhouse

In olden days, they were called "family insanities"—mental disorders seemingly handed down through generations like physical characteristics. Nowadays such fears are no longer as prevalent, but if your mother suffered postpartum psychosis so severe as to compel her to inflict harm upon herself and her progeny, wouldn't you think twice before deciding to have a child? And if you were the sister of the optimistic mommy-to-be, wouldn't you keep a watchful eye for signs of erratic behavior?

Mary Shen Barnidge
King Lear
Navy Pier

Of all Shakespeare's plays, his ranting-in-the-rain scene in King Lear is unsurpassed for sheer Wagnerian spectacle, so nobody can blame Chicago Shakespeare Theater's for deciding to open their 2014 season with flourish and fanfare. The title role also constitutes an irresistible star turn for mature actors, so who can argue with the casting of Larry Yando—whose credits include both Scrooge and Scar—as western literature's most abusive Dad?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Jeeves Takes a Bow
Broadway Theater center - Cabot Theater

Milwaukee Chamber Theater closes its current season with the third installment of its play series based on the writings of PG Wodehouse. Jeeves Takes a Bow brings back many of the actors who have appeared in its previous productions. For instance, Matt Daniels does an especially fine job of reprising his role as Jeeves, the brainy English butler who always manages to get his employer, a wealthy bachelor, out of a jam. His charge is Bertie Wooster (played again by Chris Klopatek).

Anne Siegel
Women on Time
Working Stage Theater

Femme power takes center stage in Women in Time, a bill of seven short plays produced, written, acted and directed by women. All the one-acts deal, naturally, with women’s issues. The same three actresses, Joanna Miles, Julie Janney and Kimberly Alexander, appear in each of the plays, taking on different characters in a variety of settings. Their skillful, tour de force performances are a joy to behold.

Willard Manus
American in Paris, An
Palace Theater

If you see only one Broadway musical this season, let it be An American In Paris. This show is as close to perfection as even the most ardent aficionado can imagine. The entire production is put together like a fine timepiece; every tiny section is meticulously staged. Every moment is filled with ever changing visuals, and with shapes and colors to dazzle the eye. There’s 1945 Paris, of course, complete with Eiffel Tower, in all her shabbiness and all her glory right after the war. There’s the ocean, complete with little row boats.

Michall Jeffers
Florida Studio Theater - Gompertz Theater

Lively, long-divorced Betty, aide to a rich recluse named Peg, lives alone with 19 companion cats. Lonely, depressed Don, who wants to not just visit the grave of his long-time love Martha but to unite with her, first needs to find his dog Chapatti a caring home. We learn about Don and Betty’s memories and present feelings through intriguing monologues. They meet not-so-cute at a vet’s and then cuter when he fatally runs over Peg’s cat.

Marie J. Kilker
Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Evolution
Next Act Theater

Some of the best local actors, as well as a promising newcomer, add polish to the world premiere of Stephen Massicotte’s 10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher. This mouthful-of-a-play closes Next Act Theater’s current season.

Anne Siegel
Biograph Theater

Existential voids come in all shapes and sizes. Samuel D. Hunter's begins in an unnamed assisted-living facility located (unsurprisingly) in the hinterlands of a likewise remote Idaho city. Its corporate owners are closing it down at the end of the week, leaving certified nursing assistants Faye and Ginny, staff supervisor Jeremy, and part-time cook Ken to care for the three remaining residents—surly Tom and cheerful Etta, who remain unperturbed, and Etta's 90-year-old husband Gerald, who chafes under advanced dementia.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Season on the Line
Chopin Theater

This is a play aimed at audiences who know how plays are made—or who want to know how plays are made. The playmakers, in this case, are the Bad Settlement Theater Company (BSTC) and its season line-up: The Great Gatsby, Balm in Gilead and an original adaptation of the American classic, Moby Dick.(Chicago theater history buffs may recall pioneering productions of these same plays, mounted by the Wisdom Bridge, Steppenwolf and Remains companies in 1991, 1980 and 1982, respectively.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Night Alive, The
Steppenwolf Theater

Conor McPherson may have forsaken alcohol after his brush with the Grim Reaper, but his universe is still that of a pub-crawler down to his last euro, reliant on the grudging charity of family and friends. In this myth-infused underworld realm, demons wear steel-toed boots—the better for kicking the weak and helpless—while angels in blue jeans dispense grace in the form of back-alley cut-rate hand jobs for shamefaced men too timid to expect anything more. (This is Ireland, after all.)

Mary Shen Barnidge
At Home at the Zoo
Edgewater Presbyterian Church

Edward Albee's curmudgeonly decision to affix an addendum, written in 2004, to his career-making one-act play, The Zoo Story, written in 1959, shouldn't be surprising. Far from solving mysteries probed for over five decades by learned scholars and acting-class students alike, though, his revision only further muddies the expository waters.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Bird Feeder Doesn't Know, The
Raven Theater

The playbill gives the period as 2006, but in Herman and Ingrid's cozy countryside living room, it might as well still be 1962. This is because the sweethearts who met while serving in the Korean War vowed that their marriage, like the house Herman built them with his own hands, would be a "bunker" against disturbing events in an uncertain world. The birth of a child afflicted with a crippling disease intensified their insularity. What happens, though, when people sworn to shelter one another find themselves no longer capable of doing so?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Neil Simon Theater

Gigiis sparkling fun, mainly because the title character is played with enthusiasm by the vivacious Vanessa Hudgens. She’s delightful in the role of the irrepressible youngster who turns into a beautiful young woman, seemingly overnight. Even in the second act, which drags considerably, Hudgens lights up the stage. She’s pretty, has a good strong singing voice, and dances very well. A flaw in any of these attributes, and she’d be wrong for the part.

Michall Jeffers
Murder Ballad
Flatiron Arts Center

We know upon entering the Flat Iron Arts Center's smaller studio—reconfigured into the King's Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side, complete with drinks, tables and a few elevated seats for the more cautious and/or less thirsty—that before our play is over, somebody will kill somebody else: The band invites us to sing along with a rockabilly version of the venerable broadside ballad "Tom Dooley" and, in the very first song, our storyteller reaffirms the promise of the show's title.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Never Givin' Up
Eli & Edythe Broad Stage

Anna Deavere Smith is the theatrical equivalent of Studs Terkel: a master at interviewing people and turning the text into a book (or non-book, as some critics have said). In Smith’s case, of course, she takes the text and gives voice to it, like the skilled actress she is.

Willard Manus