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Fall theater: 10 shows that excite Chris Jones the most

September 07, 2018 at 12:53 PM

Original Article: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ae-fall-2018-theater-top10-0909-story.html#

There’s a new work from Bruce Norris likely to prove incendiary. Performance artist David Cale stages a piece drawn from his own family history. It’s another day at the office for the 94-year-old actor Mike Nussbaum. “Tootsie” tries out in Chicago, even as “Hello, Dolly!” struts. And "Frankenstein" is everywhere! Hey, it’s all happening this fall in Chicago theater. I’ve had to leave out some potential doozies (for now, the proof always being in the pudding). Here are the 10 shows that excite me the most.

“Caroline, or Change”: Firebrand Theatre is the young, audacious and worthy creation of the actress-director Harmony France. It’s an ambitious, Equity-affiliated musical company dedicated to progressive works that explore female empowerment. Firebrand’s fall offering, in collaboration with TimeLine Theatre Company, is the first Chicago production in some years of the exquisite Tony Kushner-and-Jeanine Tesori musical set in Louisiana and mining the complexity of Kushner’s relationship with his family’s African-American domestic staffer. The rising Lili-Anne Brown directs, with Rashada Dawan essaying the hugely challenging title role. Sept. 22 to Oct. 28 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-697-3830 and thedentheatre.com

“Curve of Departure”: The dean of Chicago actors is, at this point, accustomed to playing roles considerably younger than himself. In the centerpiece of the fall season at Northlight Theatre, the inimitable Mike Nussbaum plays opposite the ascending Chicago actor Sean Parris in Rachel Bonds’ intergenerational and interracial saga, first seen at the South Coast Repertory Theatre in California last fall. Set in an airport hotel room, “Curve of Departure” is about a family brought together by a funeral. Returning to his long-comfortable perch at Northlight, Nussbaum plays a brash octogenarian named Rudy, locked in a confined space with his own crazy-making family. Sept.13 to Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Skokie; 847-673-6300 and www.northlight.org

“Downstate”: Any new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bruce Norris — the 58-year-old author of such works as “Clybourne Park,” “The Qualms, “A Parallelogram” and “The Unmentionables” — represents a significant cultural event in Chicago. But “Downstate” is likely to garner attention for another reason: it is a play about sex offenders that reportedly offers some empathy for its protagonists’ predicament as it homes in on whom and what we have decided is beyond redemption. Following its Chicago premiere, director Pam MacKinnon’s production will transfer to London’s National Theatre in the spring (Britain’s leading nonprofit theater is a co-producer). Given Norris’ knack for probing the limits of an audience’s comfort zone and his longstanding disdain for liberal complacency, this is likely to be the water-cooler show of the fall, upstate and down. Sept. 20 to Nov. 11 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org.

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“Frankenstein”: Bizarre as it may seem, four Chicago theater companies are producing versions of “Frankenstein” during the 2018-19 season: Lookingglass Theatre, Court Theatre, Remy Bumppo Theatre and Lifeline Theatre. Why? It’s the 200th anniversary of the Mary Shelley novel, and theaters don’t usually talk to each other in advance. We might be “Frankenstein”-ed out by the time we’re done, but hopes are high for the Court Theatre version because it’s powered by the brilliant creative minds at Manual Cinema, the remarkable Chicago company that blew me away this past summer with the gorgeous “The End of TV.” Expect an immersive performance with cool shadow puppets and a live band. Nov. 1 to Dec. 2 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; 773-753-4472 and courttheatre.org.

“Hello, Dolly!”: So we’re talking Betty Buckley rather than the incomparable Bette Midler, but the hugely entertaining Jerry Zaks revival of one of the great all-American musical spectacles is still parading through Chicago in all of its ebullient retro glory. And past experience tells us that Buckley will deliver a star performance of the old school. This show was a blast on Broadway, not just for the sumptuous production values and showy choreography (by Warren Carlyle), but because it was just so much darn fun to be a part of such an adoring audience. Oct. 23 to Nov. 17 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.,; 800-775-2000and www.broadwayinchicago.com.

“Little Shop of Horrors”: Kelly Felthous was fabulous in the Paramount Theatre production of “Cabaret” last year and as Roxy Hart in the Drury Lane Theatre production of “Chicago.” In fact, she’s done so well in Chicago that she recently moved here from her previous base in New York. Up next for Felthous is the role of Audrey in the justly beloved Alan Menken-and-Howard Ashman musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” in a new production directed by Scott Calcagno. The cast also includes the longtime “Mamma Mia!” cast member Melanie Brezill, another happy returnee to this green Midwestern patch. Through Oct. 28 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace; 630-530-0111 and www.drurylanetheatre.com.

“Nell Gwynn”: With origins at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, “Nell Gwynn” is a new comedy about the 17th-century actress with the variously spelled but perennially famous name. Gwynn not only was a renowned Restoration actress, but had two sons by King Charles II, whose mistress she became. Known for her wit and with a biography that implies great fortitude, Gwynn attracted the attention of British writer Jessica Swale; her comedy premiered in 2015, enjoyed a commercial transfer to London’s West End and currently is being developed as a film. Chicago Shakespeare has snagged the show’s American premiere: Christopher Luscombe, who directed the original production, is working on the piece in Chicago with the British actress Scarlett Strallen in the title role and Chicago's Timothy Edward Kane playing the King. Sept. 20 to Nov. 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier; 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com.

“Private Peaceful”: If, like me, you loved “War Horse,” you likely will be intrigued by this dramatic adaptation of another World War I story by the great Michael Morpurgo. Although staged in tight quarters at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park, this is really a small international tour helmed by a company called Pemberley Productions. Widely acclaimed in Ireland and Britain, “Private Peaceful” is a poignant show focused on a young solider from the Great War, charged with cowardice and now facing a firing squad. The Irish actor Shane O’Regan stars as Private “Tommo” Peaceful. Oct. 17 to Nov. 11 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-404-7336 and www.greenhousetheatre.org.

“Tootsie”: The last in a line of 2018 pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago, “Tootsie” is the new Broadway musical adaptation of the 1982 movie (starring Dustin Hoffman) about an intense actor who is willing to do almost anything to boost his career. The score is by David Yazbek, known for his formative excellence and jazzy wit, and the book is by Robert Horn. Scott Ellis, who trained in Chicago, is the director of what will become one of the major openings of the 2018-19 Broadway season. Santino Fontana is in the lead role. Sept. 11 to Oct. 14 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com.

“We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time”: The writer-musician-actor-monologist David Cale has been performing at the Goodman Theatre for decades; many of us recall such profound prior Cale pieces as “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky” and “Somebody Else’s House.” But for his latest work, this deeply sensitive and richly hued performer is mining his own difficult family history from his childhood in working-class Luton, England; Cale was the child of a volatile marriage that culminated in his mum being murdered by his dad. Eventually, the artist had to come to terms with his own story. “We’re Only Alive” is a musical piece with a five-piece band; Cale collaborated with young composer Matthew Dean Marsh. And direction for this world premiere is by Robert FallsSept. 15 to Oct. 21 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-380 and www.goodmantheatre.org.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5(at)chicagotribune.com