It’s fall. Like every year — and, as a loyal reader will understand, there have been a few — I’m looking for something smart, new, risky and exciting. Ideally something like that to see every night.
Coming this Sunday: My top-10 list of Chicago shows that I hope will fulfill all those desires, being as a theater critic in September is not unlike the schoolteacher, or the baseball fan in April: the juices of optimism are flowing fast and free. A major new venue comes on board this fall with the opening of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Yard on Navy Pier; it’s opening quietly but with huge potential. And if there’s one thing I like more than a new show, it’s a new show in a space where the paint has yet to dry.
But here’s a fascinating disconnect between the critic and the ticketbuyer: A lot of folks want something they know and can trust.
There’s no shame in saving up for a beloved musical you’ve seen five times, or in wanting your kid to have the same experience you had at “Wicked” (and, yes, it now has been that long). Here, then, is a fall preview of familiar titles.
Which beloved shows are coming back to town, and can you still trust them?
“Les Miserables,” Oct. 11-29 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre: Lots of readers have been asking me about “Les Miserables.” This is not the original Trevor Nunn production — that’s gone, too expensive now — but it is the Cameron Mackintosh-sanctioned tour of the 2014 Broadway revival, even though the tour actually came first. This Equity staging (no turntable, fresh orchestrations, similar vibe) from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell was last in Chicago in 2014, although you’ve had a chance to see better local productions since then. If you want a ticket, don’t wait around. The downtown Chicago run is short by historical “Les Mis” standards and already heavily sold. Good news: the cast will be fresh. The 2017 tour features Nick Cartell and Josh Davis as John Valjean and Javert, with Melissa Mitchell as Fantine and Phoenix Best as Eponine.
“Wicked,” Dec. 6 to Jan. 21, at the Oriental Theatre: If Idina Menzel’s ersatz “Defying Gravity” on her concert tour didn’t make you close your eyes and leap, you’ll be thrilled with the return of “Wicked.” This is exactly the same Equity production as every previous visit to Chicago, including the famous sit-down engagement that did so much for our ability to sustain long-running shows. And it’s a close duplicate of what you can see on Broadway, where the show has been running (and selling out) for 13 years. Casting has not been formally announced for Chicago, but the “Wicked” tour currently features Jessica Vosk as Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda.
“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” Dec. 5 through Jan. 28, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre: You’ve also got another strikingly hefty shot to see this fall to see “Beautiful,” as directed by Marc Bruni, who was just in the Chicago area working on “Trevor.” Abby Mueller, who headlined the tour last time it was here, moved on to the Broadway cast. Sarah Bockel will perform the lead role of Carole King in Chicago.
“Motown the Musical,” Oct. 3-8 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre: If you’re up to see the reprise engagement of “Motown,” be aware that is a very different proposition from previous visits. This is now a non-Equity show, designed mostly for small cities, so you’ll be seeing performers without Broadway or similar experience. I haven’t seen this version, which arrives in Chicago direct from Owensboro, Kentucky.
Something else to think about: see a local version of a beloved Broadway title. “Rock of Ages,” for example, is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. A new production of the longtime hit “Million Dollar Quartet” opens Sept. 16 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora — hopefully, they will have beefed up the production values. Gary Griffin’s homegrown version of the Tony Award-winning “Fun Home” is coming to the Victory Gardens Theater. And Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago is forging a new, intimate take on “Billy Elliot,” where the ballet boy will be escaping from the pits just a few feet from your seat.
Proven works, all. I’ll be sure to let you know how they turn out.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.