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Critics' 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 (most have special New Year's Eve performance-party packages). Check listings for addresses, phone numbers, schedules, and prices.

Lookingglass Theatre Company's recently extended Metamorphoses turns the stage of the Ivanhoe Theater into a shallow swimming pool, in and around which a graceful ensemble reenacts classic myths of love, loss, and transformation. Like one of the play's heroes, King Midas, director Mary Zimmerman seems to have a golden touch with this material (drawn from the ancient Roman poet Ovid's verse classic), reminding us of the enduring insights in the timeless tales of Eros and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, and other fabled figures....While Metamorphoses splashes around in the Ivanhoe's main auditorium, the theater's two smaller stages host several long-running fringe hits: Famous Door Theatre Company's Hellcab depicts the trials and tribulations of a taxi driver, Late Nite Catechism turns the audience into a Catholic-school class undergoing offbeat instruction from a quirky nun, and the Free Associates use audience suggestions as the basis for their improvised spoofs BS (a lampoon of TV doctor dramas) and Cast on a Hot Tin Roof: A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas, the holiday play Tennessee Williams might have written but never did.

--Albert Williams

Expertly directed and perfectly cast by Michael Halberstam, George Bernard Shaw's Candida at Writers' Theatre Chicago is one of the most sophisticated, intelligent, and entertaining romantic comedies in recent memory. Littered with witticisms and astute observations on political and sexual behavior, Shaw's 1897 critique of Victorian notions of domestic and romantic love is a consistent delight. Scott Parkinson shines as the petulant teenage poet trying to win the title character away from her clergyman husband.

--Adam Langer

Since its founding in the early 80s, the ImprovOlympic training center and theater has turned from a mere novelty--amateur improv teams compete for not so valuable prizes--into a serious purveyor of comedy. The quality varies widely, but at their best ImprovOlympic's shows are sharp, daring, hilarious, and liberating. The brilliant Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement & Hootenanny features a rotating ensemble of ImprovOlympic alums (some famous, most not), and the resident improv team's Baby Wants Candy is always a fully improvised one-act musical; this group headlines ImprovOlympic's New Year's Eve blowout....Also on the improv front, the always playful ComedySportz features comedy teams competing for the audience's approval (and valueless prizes too!)....And the Second City is presenting new shows on both its stages: the just opened main-stage revue, The Psychopath Not Taken, directed by Mick Napier; Jeff Richmond directs the still-in-previews The Revelation Will Not Be Televised at the Second City E.T.C.

--Jack Helbig

All you need to get ahead in showbiz is a Ruthless! streak--or so say Joel Paley and Marvin Laird in their merrily malicious musical about a murderous child star, presented by the Effective and Porchlight theaters at the Athenaeum Theatre. This savvy send-up of Broadway cliches--overbearing stage mothers, cutthroat critics, and other predators--pays homage to (or steals from, depending on your point of view) such classic cautionary tales as All About Eve, Gypsy, and The Bad Seed. --Albert Williams

So your inner brat's been whining lately about living in the body of a working adult? Appease the greedy holiday troll-child with the fantastical, smart-ass, artsy vaudeville of Blue Man Group (see performance listing) at the Briar Street Theatre.

--Carol Burbank

In Lifeline Theatre's A Wrinkle in Time, three smart, sensitive adolescents brave the mysteries of time, space, physics, mathematics, and the universe as we knew it in 1962 (now that's scary!) to rescue a space-race scientist from hostile mind controllers. This low-tech, high-style adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's juvenile classic has all the excitement, suspense, and wonder of a Star Wars prototype, making this an emotionally and intellectually satisfying experience for all ages.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

Chicago's three biggest suburban dinner theaters both explore and exploit the nostalgia of three well-loved musicals--in each case with the valuable contribution of inexhaustible director-choreographer-performer Marc Robin. His staging of West Side Story at Drury Lane Theatre Evergreen Park loses nothing in the translation of this urbanized Romeo and Juliet to an in-the-round stage; inspired by Jerome Robbins's original, Robin's choreography rampages all over the graffiti-ridden space (startling some blue-haired patrons)....As choreographer of Crazy for You at Drury Lane Oakbrook--a "new" Gershwin musical whose clever script, by Ken Ludwig, improves on Girl Crazy's creaky plot while showcasing a slew of great old songs--Robin reinvents tap-dancing delirium; director Ray Frewen shows off such solid Chicago talents as Andrew J. Lupp in the role of a feckless playboy....And The Wizard of Oz at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire successfully adds a third dimension to the beloved 1939 MGM musical; Dominic Missimi's staging will enchant new generations, thanks largely to bravura turns like Mary Ernster's good-hearted Glinda--and Robin's lovable Scarecrow, who shares a newly restored quartet with three mocking crows.

--Lawrence Bommer

Who says everything has to be about sugar plums? Mary-Arrchie Theatre's recently extended production of The Freedom of the City--Brian Friel's taut, tense story of poverty and privilege in Northern Ireland--will add political spice to your celebrations.

--Carol Burbank

The Royal George Theatre Center's long-running cabaret show Forever Plaid may just live up to its name. This spoof-cum-salute to early-60s male vocal groups charms with the doo-wop harmonizing and sweetly silly antics of the Four Plaids, a quartet of teen angels who return from the afterlife to present their heavenly renditions of "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Sixteen Tons," and an unforgettable Ed Sullivan Show medley....Also at the Royal George, the Zeitgeist Theater's comedy Flanagan's Wake welcomes viewers to an interactive, partly improvised Irish wake; Musical! the Musical uses audience suggestions as the basis for an improvised Broadway show; and Michael Gross stars on the main stage in Art, Christopher Hampton's translation of French playwright Yasmina Reza's comedy about male friendship and modern art.

--Albert Williams

An unaccustomed preholiday opening raised fears of a year-end without Bertie and Jeeves, but fortunately City Lit Theater Company has extended Mark Richard's adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves!--a revival of the 1993 production that inaugurated the troupe's P.G. Wodehouse series. An agile cast--led by Richard as the frivolous Bertie Wooster and Page Hearn as his resourceful valet--makes this precision-timed exercise in artifice a delight, as eagerly anticipated by devotees as the arrival of Santa Claus.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

Why kill yourself trying to entertain the suburban in-laws this holiday season when singer Ron Hawking is ready to do it for you? His homage to Frank Sinatra--His Way: A Tribute to the Man and His Music, recently extended at the Mercury Theater--seems tailored to please the most mainstream of mainstream audiences, rarely veering from the Nelson Riddle-Billy May hit parade of the Chairman's middle years ("The Coffee Song" is about as far afield as he wanders). Still, Hawking is an engaging performer backed by a hot band; once you get past the gratuitous Rat Pack impersonations, you're in for a ring-a-ding time.

--Justin Hayford

Veteran entertainer Joel Grey brings a master's minimalist touch to Chicago, the touring edition of the Broadway hit now playing at the Shubert Theatre. Grey (who's in the show only through January 3, though it continues the rest of the month) turns the supporting role of a cuckolded husband into a tiny treasure of vaudevillian comic pathos....Down the street at the Oriental Theatre, director Frank Galati has turned E.L. Doctorow's historical novel Ragtime into a musical-theater storybook for the stage, using lovely, ingeniously created images to depict class and racial conflicts in turn-of-the-century America.

--Albert Williams

When the stories that put the mental in sentimental send you over the edge, check out the SweetCorn Playhouse's daring camp parodies Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer and of The Madonna in Spite of Herself (a Common Nativity Story), which give two classic Christmas tales--of Santa Claus and of the Immaculate Conception--irreverent queer twists. God bless

us everyone!

--Carol Burbank

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater stills from: Right Ho, Jeeves; Candida; The Freedom of the City photo by Daniel Guidara; Metamrphoses photo by Liz Lauren.

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