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SPRING MUSICAL REVIEW Singing and swinging through spring
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Chicago will see and hear 20 musicals between now and late May.

Some are touring hits calling again, such as Jersey Boys ( Nederlander Theatre, April 2-7 ) and Falsettos ( Nederlander, May 28-June 9 ); and others are new productions of old favorites, such as The Little Shop of Horrors ( Mercury Theater, open run ) and Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical ( Hell in a Handbag Productions at The Edge, through April 28 ). Many, however, will be new to Chicago audiences and they are the focus of our attention, listed by production dates.

—Southern Comfort, Pride Films & Plays, through March 31: Chicago premiere of a 2016 musical about a transgender circle of friends in contemporary rural Georgia, centering on Robert and his new love, Lola. As unlikely as it may sound, it's based on a 2001 documentary film. The authors are the team who created Trevor, a huge hit about a gay teen at the Writers Theatre in 2017 ( that Windy City Times enthusiastically reviewed ). All six roles in Southern Comfort are played by trans actors, supported by a five-piece acoustic band. Info:

—Mahalia Jackson, Moving Through the Light, Black Ensemble Theater, through April 14: Born in New Orleans, the world's greatest gospel singer called Chicago home from age 16 until her death in 1972 at age 60. In Chicago, the father of gospel, Thomas A. Dorsey, helped shape the profound artist and person she became. Mahalia Jackson recorded 30 albums, sang at Carnegie Hall and the March on Washington, won four Grammy Awards and earned a Hollywood Boulevard star. This is her life and music, as interpreted by writer/director Jackie Taylor and staged in the Black Ensemble's customary bravura style. Info:

—Bright Star, BoHo Theatre at the Greenhouse, March 16-May 5: Comedian Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are co-authors and co-composers of Bright Star, which was nominated for four 2017 Tony Awards. It's another musical with Southern roots—Martin is a traditional music enthusiast—set in North Carolina and cutting between the 1920s and post-WWII 1940s. The quite serious story follows a young writer and an older editor with a dark personal history, and the odd ways their lives intersect. You can bank on a strong production from BoHo. Info:

—Hands on a Hardbody, Refuge Theatre Project at Preston Bradley Center, March 18-April 14: This 2012 Broadway flop ( 28 performances ) has had a robust regional theater life, including a 2014 production in Crystal Lake, Illinois. It's a new show, however, for most Chicago theatergoers. Such overlooked musicals are Refuge Theatre's specialty and they do good work, although some musicals deserve to be overlooked. Christopher Pazdernik directs, Jon Schneidman is choreographer and Ariel Triunfo is musical director. FYI: "Hands on a Hardbody" is not a gay man's dream; it refers to a hardbody pick-up truck. Info:

—Djembe, Apollo Theater Center, March 19-June 9: A djembe is a West African drum played with the hands, not sticks. Djembe, the show, is the U.S. premiere of an audience-interactive storytelling, drumming and singing performance that's been touring Europe. It features African and Western musicians playing African, Caribbean and American music, and everyone in the audience joins the drumming. Djembe is billed as family-friendly ( ages 6 and older ). A portion of proceeds will benefit Lighting Up Lives, a philanthropy to improve healthcare, education, cultural exchange, energy and employment for the people of West Africa. Info:

—Anastasia, Nederlander Theatre, March 26-April 7: Any musical with book by Terrence McNally and music/lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty is well worth seeing. This one, which closes on Broadway March 31 after 800-plus performances, is based on the famous movie of the same name. No, not the 1956 drama starring Ingrid Bergman ( who won an Oscar ) and Yul Brynner, but the 1997 Disney animated musical. The grand, lush, romantic show bears absolutely no resemblance to history. Six songs from the film are in the show, plus a number of new ones. Info:

—A Chorus Line, Porchlight Music Theatre @ Ruth Page Center, April 10-May 26: Who better than Porchlight in its roomy new digs to stage this legendary musical about dance, dance and more dance? A Chorus Line has a specific context—the world of Broadway musicals—but a universal message of what we all do for love, conveyed through an evocative and memorable pastiche score ( composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban ). Award-winning veteran Brenda Didier directs, with choreography by Chris Carter and musical direction by Linda Medonia. This is spring's don't-miss revival. Info:

—Matilda, the Musical, Drury Lane Theatre ( Oakbrook Terrace ), April 25-June 23: This is the Tony-winning version of Roald Dahl's scary tale of a schoolgirl confronting a dystopian family and a truly monstrous head mistress, with the promise of a better world held out by a teacher and a librarian. It's an unusual story ( although not more unusual than, say, Harry Potter ) with a driving, fascinating score ( music and lyrics by Tim Minchin ) perfect for the show although not filled with hummable tunes. This is the regional premiere of Matilda, seen here previously only in its national tour. Info:

—La Havana Madrid, Teatro Vista & Collaboraction at The Den, May 11-June 22: This Teatro Vista smash hit sold out at the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf in 2017 and now returns for a too-brief re-staging. Despite the title, it largely concerns Puerto Rican working-class immigrants to Chicago in the post-WWII 1940s-60s, and their favorite gathering spot, the real-life La Havana Madrid nightclub at Belmont and Sheffield avenues. This play, with music by Sandra Delgado ( who also takes the lead role ), re-creates the vibrant nightclub with live band, singers and dancers. Once again, Cheryl Lynn Bruce is the director. Info:

—Queen of the Mist, Firebrand Theatre at The Den, May 25-July 6: Anna Edson Taylor was 63 when she became the first person to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel and live ( lucky rather than smart ). She sought fame and fortune, but fame was fleeting and money skipped town. This 2011 musical is her colorful story ( it wasn't just Niagara ), with book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Stellar veteran Barbara E. Robertson portrays Taylor, and Elizabeth Maroglius directs for Firebrand, the ambitious and capable female-focused musical theater company. Info:

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