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Our top five theater picks for fall

Moby-Dick, Follies, Spring Awakening, and more

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Moby-Dick

Six Ishmaels attempt to narrate Herman Melville's unwieldy story in the Building Stage version of Moby-Dick. But like the warring voices in that sprawling 1851 novel, they spend as much time sending things off on beguiling, befuddling tangents as they do forwarding the tale of Captain Ahab's ever-escalating obsession with the white whale. Tag-team Ishmaels is one of many ingenious conceits in this heady, tumultuous chamber piece. But when it premiered in 2006, adapter-director Blake Montgomery failed to capitalize on one of his best ideas. In the middle of act one the Ishmaels start passing around a dark overcoat and whoever wears it becomes Ahab. The act climaxes when one of them refuses to relinquish the coat—or even break for intermission. It's as though Ahab's madness has infected him. Unfortunately, Montgomery let the semimad Ishmael return to normal in act two, and the story plunked dutifully along to its conclusion. "I cannot believe we didn't do anything with that idea after intermission," Montgomery says. Now he'll get the chance. He's remounting the show with a reworked second act—though, thankfully, not entirely reworked. Montgomery isn't touching the climactic representation of Ahab's death: a simple, abstract gesture that packs an emotional wallop. —Justin Hayford Previews 9/15-9/18. Opens Mon 9/19, 7:30 PM. Through 10/30: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 4 PM, the Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter, 312-491-1369, buildingstage.com, $12-$22.

Follies - PETER BOSY
  • Peter Bosy
  • Follies

Follies

Stephen Sondheim's 1971 Follies is a metatheatrical meditation on illusion and disillusion, set in a once-grand, soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater where veterans of the glamorous Weismann Follies have gathered for a reunion. As these old friends and former lovers reconnect, they drift into a dreamworld—part memory, part fantasy—in which their vintage routines reflect real-life disappointment and despair. Featuring nods to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and Kurt Weill, the score brilliantly blends period pastiche with the harmonic, rhythmic, and verbal complexity that mark Sondheim's best work. Harold Prince's original production re-created the grandeur of old-style, Ziegfeld-like revues. For Chicago Shakespeare Theater's revival, director Gary Griffin plans to downplay spectacle—much as he did with his inventively stripped-down rethinkings of My Fair Lady, Pacific Overtures, and A Little Night Music—and emphasize relationships by bringing the cast out onto CST's thrust stage, close to the audience. Griffin has assembled a top-notch ensemble of Chicago talent, including Susan Moniz, Hollis Resnik, and Mike Nussbaum, who share the stage with Broadway actors Brent Barrett and Robert Petkoff and Australian singer-dancer Caroline O'Connor. —Albert Williams 10/4-11/6, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $44-$75.

Death and Other Excitements: Baudelaire in a Box Episode 3

Admittedly, I don't know him all that well, but it looks to me like Dave Buchen is having a sweet life. A founding member of Chicago fringe titan Theater Oobleck, he's written and performed in loads of plays, often under a pseudonym like Dave Boo-Khaloom. At some point he found love and moved to sunny Puerto Rico. Now he's embarked on an act of extravagant artistic idiosyncrasy—a grand geste. Buchen and composer Chris Schoen are leading an effort to adapt Charles Baudelaire's initially notorious, now classic book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, for the stage. Not just any old stage, either. Their goal is to create a separate cantastoria performance for each poem in the 1861 edition.

Cantastoria is a 1,400-year-old art form in which a performer tells or sings a story keyed to a set of illustrations. The illustrations can be displayed in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they're all laid out at once and the performer points to the appropriate picture as the narrative advances. Sometimes the illustrations are wound up on a scroll and unspooled. Buchen and Schoen are going the scroll route. Schoen sings his own English translation of a given poem while Buchen cranks images through a box with a big window cut in its side. It's like a very, very, very primitive TV.

Buchen and Schoen plan to have all 126 poems boxed and ready by 2017, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Baudelaire's death. You can gauge their progress this fall when they present cantastoria performances of the six poems that make up the "Death" section of Les Fleurs plus the magnificent "Anywhere Out of This World." —Tony Adler Wed-Sat 10/19-10/22, 8 PM, Links Hall, 3435 N Sheffield, 773-281-0824, theateroobleck.com, $15.

Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville

In the heyday of vaudeville, a cartel called the Theater Owners Booking Association controlled the touring circuit for African-American performers—who claimed the acronym TOBA really stood for "tough on black asses." This fall the Old Town School of Folk Music re-creates that era with Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville, which combines the talents of ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson, tap dancer Reggio "The Hoofer" McLaughlin, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina string band whose CD Genuine Negro Jig won the 2010 Grammy for best traditional folk album.

The show concerns a southern black woman, played by the Chocolate Drops' extraordinary Rhiannon Giddens, who heads north in search of a better life. The score features traditional tunes ("Old Corn Liquor"), Tin Pan Alley classics ("There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight"), gospel hymns ("We'll Understand It Better By and By"), blues (Ma Rainey's 1924 "See See Rider"), and jazz (including the title song and "Darktown Strutters' Ball"). Victory Gardens Theater resident director Andrea Dymond stages this ambitious new work, the first theater piece to play the Old Town School. —Albert Williams Thu-Fri 11/3-11/4, 8 PM, Sat 11/5, 3 and 8 PM, Sun 11/6, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, oldtownschool.org, $41-$45.

Spring Awakening

The Broadway production suggested chamber-theater possibilities by seating audience members onstage. Functioning as feverish interior monologues, songs like "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked" make the same suggestion. Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's rock musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1892 play about restless youth in a repressive German burg, deserves an intimate staging—and thanks to Griffin Theatre and director Jonathan Berry, it's getting one. (Berry also makes his Manhattan debut this fall with Andrew Hinderaker's Suicide, Incorporated, which Berry first directed in 2010, at Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park.) Wedekind's stew of premarital sex, abortion, abuse, rape, homosexuality, and—yes—suicide should mesh well with Berry's ability to anatomize the pathos of industrial small-town life, demonstrated in his takes on two Simon Stephens plays, Port and On the Shore of the Wide World, both for Griffin. Berry also dipped his toe in musical waters last year, helming Griffin's version of Company—a show that, like Spring Awakening, confronts our contradictory desires for independence and connection. —Kerry Reid Previews 11/27-12/3. Opens Sun 12/4, 7 PM. Through 1/8: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $28-$38.

Read our profile of director Max Truax or check out the rest of our Fall Arts coverage

Also this fall . . .

SEPTEMBER

Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo's psychological thriller about a blind date gone awry. 9/22-11/6, A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, 312-943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org, $15-$30.

Riff Raff The bonds of brotherhood and friendship are tested when a drug heist goes bad in Laurence Fishburne's drama. 9/22-10/30, Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan, 773-871-0442, maryarrchie.com, $5-$22.

The Amish Project The limits of Amish forgiveness are tested after the 2006 schoolhouse shooting. 9/23-10/23, American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, 773-409-4125, atcweb.org, $10-$50.

OCTOBER

Rodgers & Hart: A Celebration A revue featuring the duo's classic ballads, staged by Light Opera Works. 10/2-11/6, McGaw Children's Center Auditorium, 1420 Maple, Evanston, 847-869-6300, $27-$42.

Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher recounts stories of her Hollywood life in this confessional one-woman show. 10/4-10/16, Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, 800-775-200, broadwayinchicago.com, $22.50-$62.50.

The Great Fire John Musial's homage to the fire that rocked Chicago exactly 140 years ago. 10/5-11/13, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $27.50-$62.

The Spirit Play A new Strange Tree Group play in which hoax becomes reality for three fraudulent "spirit mediums" in Victorian Chicago. 10/5-11/6, Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, 312-742-8497, dcatheater.org, $10-$20.

The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams's drama about memory and fragility, staged by Oak Park Festival Theatre. 10/6-11/13, Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park, 708-445-4440, oakparkfestival.com, $20-$25.

OVERWEIGHT, unimportant: MISSHAPE—An European Supper Yasen Peyankov directs the U.S. premiere of this black comedy. 10/6-11/12, Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland, 773-384-0494, trapdoortheatre.com, $20-$25.

Dartmoor Prison Carlyle Brown's new play, set in a British prison yard in the wake of the War of 1812, kicks off the Goodman's New Stages Amplified series. 10/13-10/23, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $10-$25.

Mary Poppins The flying nanny returns. 10/13-11/6, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, 312-977-1700, broadwayinchicago.com, $25-$98.

Musical of the Living Dead A satirical zombie musical. 10/13-11/12, Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton, 773-871-9046, thecharnelhousechicago.com, $20-$25.

Beauty of the Father An American woman travels to Spain to meet her estranged father in this Pulitzer Prize-winning romantic drama staged by UrbanTheater Co. 10/14-11/20, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green, 312-239-8783, urbantheaterchicago.org, $20.

Circus in Progress: An Evening of Daring New Work This installment of the Actors Gymnasium performance series features new circus acts in development. 10/15, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston, 847-328-2795, actorsgynasium.com, $10.

A Behanding in Spokane A mysterious man searches for his lost hand in this black comedy by Martin McDonagh. 10/16-12/4, Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, 773-549-1815, profilestheatre.org, $30-$40.

Momma's Boyz Cándido Tirado debuts as Teatro Vista's resident playwright with his acclaimed drama, which begins with the end and works backward to investigate the death of a young man. 10/23-12/4, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago, 312-666-4659, teatrovista.org, $20-$25.

NOVEMBER

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein In a mixture of music and first-person narrative, Hershey Felder plays the legendary maestro. 11/1-12/30, Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, 312-988-9000, theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.

Broke-Ology Two brothers clash over the issue of their ailing father in Nathan Louis Jackson's drama. 11/3-12/18, eta Square, 7558 S. South Chicago, 773-752-3955, etacreativearts.org, $15-$30.

fml: or how Carson McCullers saved my life A free reading of Sarah Gubbin's new play which highlights the transformative power of literature in the life of a gay teen in suburban Illinois. 11/3, Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. steppenwolf.org. F

The Nutcracker The House Theatre of Chicago restages the classic ballet as a musical. 11/3-12/30, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 773-251-2195, thehousetheatre.com, $25.

The Caretaker Writers' Theatre presents Harold Pinter's tragicomedy about three men and their troubled interactions. 11/8-3/25, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $45-$60.

An Iliad A one-man adaptation of Homer's epic, written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare. 11/10-12/11, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $30-$60.

Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards Holland Taylor stars as the late Texas governor. 11/13-12/4, Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, 312-977-1700, broadwayinchicago.com, $20-$85.

Peer Gynt A new translation reimagines Ibsen's drama as a version of America's history. 11/15-12/18, Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, 312-742-8497, dcatheater.org, $10-$20.

The Christmas Schooner A family musical about Christmas tree transport in the late 19th century. 11/16-12/31, Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, 773-325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com, $30-$49.50.

Burning Bluebeard Jay Torrence directs this investigation of the connections between the legend of Bluebeard and the fiery destruction of Chicago's Iroquois Theater in 1903. 11/17-12/30, Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, 773-275-5255, neofuturists.org, $10-$15.

Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs "A Christmas Carol." Again Artistic director Blake Montgomery stars in this piece about Dickens's relationship to one of his most famous novels. 11/17-12/24, the Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter, 312-491-1369, buildingstage.com, $12-$22.

A Christmas Carol Larry Yando is Scrooge in the Goodman's annual production. 11/18-12/31, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$80.

It's a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! American Blues Theater's annual treatment of Frank Capra's holiday classic in retro radio broadcast form. 11/18-1/1, Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, americanbluestheater.com, $20-$50.

Fiddler on the Roof The classic musical set in a Russian shtetl on the eve of revolution. 11/22-11/27, Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, 312-977-1700, broadwayinchicago.com, $26-$100.

Memphis Last year's "Best Musical" Tony honoree follows a young DJ in the 1950s amid the emergence of rock 'n' roll. 11/22-12/4, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, 312-977-1700, broadwayinchicago.com, $32-$95.

Changes of Heart Remy Bumppo artistic director Timothy Douglas sets Marivaux's classic French romance in 1960s Chicago. 11/23-1/8, Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Mainstage, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, remybumppo.org, $20-$55.

Pirates of Penzance The Hypocrites revisit Gilbert and Sullivan's swashbuckling operetta. 11/24-1/22, Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, 773-989-7352, the-hypocrites.com, $28.

It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play American Theater Company's tenth annual production of Frank Capra's holiday story, transformed into a radio spectacular. 11/25-12/24, American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, 773-409-4125, atcweb.org, $35-$50.

The Santaland Diaries David Sedaris's account of his time as a Macy's Christmas elf, adapted for the stage. 11/25-12/31, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $18-$30.

Elizabeth Rex Queen Elizabeth confronts an actor from Shakespeare's theater company in this drama. 11/29-1/22, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $44-$75.

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