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Fall theater preview: New stages, new shows come to Chicago

'Maestro: The Art Leonard Bernstein'

"Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein"

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Updated: November 17, 2011 12:46AM

Chicago’s fall theater season is already under way with a slew of hot properties on stages throughout the city and suburbs, and hundreds more productions slated throughout the 2011-12 season. But beyond the shows, there also is much to savor in terms of both new and rehabbed real estate, and several important leadership shifts.

Bricks and mortar first. After years of bringing audiences together for powerful, spirit-raising musical revues staged in a dreary Uptown community center, the Black Ensemble Theatre will be moving just a few blocks away to a new, sleek, ultra-modern, multi-stage permanent home at 4450 N. Clark, opening Nov. 18 with “The Jackie Wilson Story.” Chester Gregory is in talks about a possible return to reprise his galvanic performance in the title role in the show that jumpstarted his Broadway career.

Meanwhile, with a new, fully transparent facade, stylishly redesigned lobby, rehabbed stages and improved sound, Stage 773, the veteran multi­plex at 1225 W. Belmont, is ready to join its recently rebuilt and flourishing neighbor, Theater Wit, at 1229 W. Belmont. Together these buildings create a genuine “corridor” of activity for many of Chicago’s excellent smaller theater companies.

Other new spaces under construction include a permanent home for Griffin Theatre and major new arts and theater buildings on the campuses of both the University of Chicago and DePaul University.

When it comes to new faces and fresh energy, there are at least three new artistic directors prime for watching.

Veteran Chicagoan Michael Weber, newly arrived at Porchlight Music Theatre, already has raised the quality bar as producer of “Putting It Together,” the Sondheim revue that is the company’s sensational fall opener.

At Remy Bumppo Theatre there is Timothy Douglas, who is initiating his tenure at this always brainy and polished company with “Mourning Becomes Electra,” one of several O’Neill classics to be revived in Chicago this season. The Long Island-born director, actor and educator has worked throughout the country, including at Yale Rep, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, the Actors Theatre of Louisville and Off Broadway. And his adventurous, out-of-the-box spirit was on display this summer as he gathered the Remy Bumppo ensemble and scores of other Chicago theater people for the reading of the Declaration of Independence that opened Grant Park Orchestra’s July 4th celebration.

Finally there is Chay Yew, who has taken charge at Victory Gardens Theatre. A busy director who served as the head of the Mark Taper Forum’s Asian Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles for 10 years, he has written plays produced by New York’s Public Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre in London, the Mark Taper Forum, the Manhattan Theatre Club, and many others. His directing credits include stints at the New York Theatre Workshop, American Conservatory Theatre and the Long Wharf Theatre.

Here is a highly condensed look at some of the more intriguing shows opening here in the next several months. But as I note each fall, some of the very best productions might fail to make this list yet pop up thrillingly and unexpectedly along the way.

Art is life

“Red” (through Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre), John Logan’s 2011 Tony Award winner that captures the volatile spirit and intelligence of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko at a moment of profound turmoil in his life.

Musicals grand and small

“Follies” (Oct. 4 through Nov. 6 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), Stephen Sondheim’s grand-scale fantasia about a reunion of former Follies girls looking at their past and present lives, and conjuring their lovers, husbands and regrets, is being directed by Gary Griffin and will feature an all-star Chicago cast.

“Violet” (through Oct. 16 in a Bailiwick Repertory production at the Mercury Theater), a small musical with a beautiful score by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, and a story, set in the 1960s, about a young, deeply scarred rural woman and the black soldier she meets on her journey of healing.

“Urinetown” (through Oct. 23 at Circle Theatre), the ever-zany Mark Hollmann-Greg Kotis satire about public bathrooms, political corruption and crazy liaisons.

“Snapshots” (through Oct. 23 at Northlight Theatre), a romantic comedy, with a book by David Stern, that uses both familiar and lesser known songs by Stephen Schwartz (of “Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell” fame) to look at a middle-aged couple’s ups and downs.

“Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” (Nov. 1-Dec. 30 at the Royal George Theatre), a dramatic and musical portrait of the charismatic composer, conductor, teacher and conflicted genius as only actor-pianist-writer Hershey Felder (whose previous one-man shows focused on George Gershwin, Beethoven and Chopin) can conjure it.

“Starting Here, Starting Now” (Sept. 23-Nov. 6 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre), the David Shire-Richard Maltby Jr. revue that explores a multitude of romantic relationships.

“Memphis” (Nov. 22-Dec. 4 at Cadillac Palace Theatre), the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro about race and rock ’n’ roll in 1950s America.

“Spring Awakening” (Nov. 27-Jan. 8, in a Griffin Theatre production at Theater Wit), the Tony Award-winning Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical about adolescents in late 19th century Germany who are at odds with themselves and society. Expect director Jonathan Berry to put his special touch on things.

Sex and the cities

“Clybourne Park” (through Nov. 6 at Steppenwolf Theatre), Bruce Norris’ 2011Pulitzer Prize-winning play about race and real estate in Chicago that riffs on “A Raisin in the Sun” and shifts from 1959 to 2009.

“In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” (now through Oct. 9 at Victory Gardens Theatre), Sarah Ruhl’s spicy comedy about sex, race and social norms set in late Victorian America.

“Becky Shaw” (Sept. 23-Nov. 6 at A Red Orchid Theatre), Gina Gionfriddo’s story of a marriage, a blind date and sexual deception.

“The Real Thing” (through Nov. 20 at Writers’ Theatre), the Tom Stoppard classic about sex, betrayal, theater and rock ’n’ roll.

“Under the Blue Sky” (Oct. 13-Nov. 19 at Steep Theatre), British playwright David Eldredge’s tales of high school teachers in the classroom and the bedroom.

Updated Greek classics

“Mourning Becomes Electra” (Sept. 21 through Oct. 30, in a Remy Bumppo Theatre production at the Greenhouse Theater Center), the Eugene O’Neill epic that feeds on the Orestes/Electra stories of Greek tragedy, but brings their web of lust, incest, adultery, murder and revenge into the world of Civil War-era America.

“An Iliad” (Nov. 11-Dec. 11 at Court Theatre), the Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare adaptation of the Homer epic that gives all the storytelling and action to one actor — in this case Timothy Edward Kane.

“Penelope” (Dec. 1-Feb. 5 at Steppenwolf Theatre), Irish writer Enda Walsh’s zany riff on “The Odyssey.”

Drawn from history

“The Fever Chart: Four Visions of the Middle East” (through Oct. 30 in an Eclipse Theatre production at the Greenhouse Theater Center), tales from left-leaning playwright Naomi Wallace that look at Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans before the so-called Arab Spring.

“The Amish Project” (Sept. 23-Oct. 23 at the American Theatre Company), Jessica Dickey’s drama based on the 2006 case of the cold-blooded schoolroom murders of three Pennsylvania Amish girls, and the almost inexplicable forgiveness the community finds within itself.

“The Great Fire” (Sept. 21-Nov. 20 at Lookingglass Theatre), John Musial’s multimedia evocation of the 1871 conflagration that altered the destiny of Chicago.

“Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards” (Nov. 13-Dec. 4 at the Bank of America Theatre), a one-woman show featuring Emmy Award-winning stage and screen actress Holland Taylor as the irrepressible former Texas governor.

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