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Critic's Picks for Year-End Theatergoers

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For those hoping to catch up on their theatergoing during the holiday fortnight, Reader critics offer their recommendations on shows running into the New Year. Check listings for addresses, phone numbers, schedules, and prices.

Dead pop stars never get old or fade away. They live on, eternally young, in musical-theater tributes like Buddy. . . the Buddy Holly Story (Apollo Theater Center) and Always. . . Patsy Cline (Victory Gardens Theater). Buddy, starring John Mueller, retells the hiccupping Holly's life story; Always...Patsy Cline, now in its second year, features Phoebe Fuller in a sweet tale of the country-music queen's sisterly friendship with a female fan. Both shows, of course, replay the singers' classic tunes. In the same vein are the fictitious Four Plaids--heroes of the long-running musical comedy Forever Plaid (Royal George Theatre Center cabaret)--but unlike Buddy and Patsy they don't even rate a plane crash. Terminated in an auto accident on their way to a 1964 gig, they return in this charming, funny fantasy to harmonize on hits from the heyday of male vocal quartets like the Four Lads.

--Albert Williams

Recipe for excellent holiday theater: Take one big dollop of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse's wit. Add one heaping tablespoon of Mark Richard's sputtering aristocrat Bertie Wooster and a dash of Page Hearn's unflappable butler Jeeves. Stir in a couple of delectable supporting performances, a loony plot, and a deliciously clever set design. Let sit for two hours. The result is City Lit Theater's Jeeves in the Morning (Ivanhoe Theater). Yummy.

--Adam Langer

Lookingglass Theatre Company's The Arabian Nights (Steppenwolf Studio Theatre), adapted by director Mary Zimmerman from the over 300 tales that make up the original Thousand and One Nights and embellished with lots of beautiful costumes and exotic music, provides a view of Middle Eastern civilization you won't often find in scenes of the Nativity. --Jack Helbig

Seven years after its premiere, Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack (Torso Theatre) is still remarkably tight and timely, shock tactics graphically spotlighting its scathing criticism of a society in decline.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

This was a good year for the Neo-Futurists, with new productions and a CD of their pieces that's apparently being played even in Iowa. They're taking a well-deserved rest over Christmas and New Year's, but their long-running late-night show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (Neo-Futurarium)--with its 30-plays-in-60-minutes format--returns January 2, just in time for you to plunge back into the brave new postholiday world of 1998. --Carol Burbank

The immediate draw for director Michael Halberstam's first-rate revival of Noel Coward's masterwork Private Lives (Writers' Theatre Chicago) is Shannon Cochran, best known for her portrayal of the extraterrestrial Sirella in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Teamed with the equally adept William Brown in this sparkling comedy, Cochran is even more formidable, a deft comedian with all the right moves: Coward's charmer has rarely provoked so many knowing smiles. The Midas touch is everywhere. --Lawrence Bommer

You Can't Take it With You (Raven Theatre) is hardly the most daring play a theater could choose to produce. But this revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's chestnut is funny, fresh, and very real--quite a contrast to the glitzy, false bonhomie of many holiday shows. --Jack Helbig

The facade of Marshall Field's may have turned into one big capitalist Christmas card, but Building Sympathy: The Richard Nickel Story (Center Theater Ensemble) puts a different face on Chicago architecture, replacing holiday banality with a sardonic sense of history. Combining puppets, philosophy, film, and old-fashioned storytelling, Jessica Thebus's playful, intelligent biography combines whimsy with a healthy respect for the ironies of Nickel's obsessive, almost spiritual martyrdom to the cause of architectural preservation. --Carol Burbank

A mighty ship and a historical tale of heroism are the inspiration for John Reeger and Julie Shannon's musical about a Lake Michigan captain transporting Christmas trees to Chicago (Bailiwick Repertory), a holiday treat that improves with every viewing. And the Melville-size set for The Christmas Schooner makes for one hell of a storm at sea--even an inland sea.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

In the 19th century people celebrated Christmas by telling ghost stories--so it's appropriate that the Free Associates are still running their Halloween show, Back in the Shadows Again: The Lighter Side of "Dark Shadows," a fully improvised parody of the cult horror soap opera Dark Shadows. The troupe has also brought back Cast on a Hot Tin Roof: A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas, its seasonal spoof of Tennessee Williams's melodrama; the two comedies run as a New Year's Eve doubleheader (Ivanhoe Theater). --Jack Helbig

Once you dive into their whimsical techno-pop world, you may want to join Blue Man Group (Briar Street Theatre) instead of your family over the holidays: the show's a perfect escape from the pressures of grown-up ho ho hums. Here the quality of the experience matches the steep ticket price: a tightly choreographed string of magical scenes efficiently deconstructs our postmodern culture as it reconstructs our sense of wonder.

--Carol Burbank

Eye of God (Profiles Theatre), Tim Blake Nelson's brooding, bone-chilling tale of innocence lost, intertwines the lives and fates of a dozen residents of a small Oklahoma town. This nearly flawless production boasts stellar direction and a handful of amazing performances. --Nick Green

The rare case of a Broadway hit that deserves its acclaim, Jonathan Larson's rock musical Rent combines contemporary urban grit with a joyful yet irreverent embrace of the miraculous in its tuneful tale of a group of AIDS-impacted friends and lovers in New York's East Village. This buoyant work plays in a top-flight national edition at the Shubert Theatre.

--Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rent photo by Joan Marcus/Carol Rosegg/uncredited Buddy...the Buddy Holly Story photo/uncredited Blue Man Group photo.

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