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SPRING THEATER PREVIEW Musicals: Fresh flowers and old chestnuts
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-03-21

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If quantity is your thing, it's a great spring for musical theater; you'll be up to your ears in singers and dancers.

On the other hand, the pickings are sparse if you're looking for originality, innovation or something new as familiar and old-hat rule the roost. They may be great shows, but do we really need yet another Sweeney Todd, another Company, another Oklahoma, another South Pacific and another Jesus Christ Superstar? Jesus Christ, I don't think so ... but we're gonna' get 'em anyway! Look them up online if you want to see them. Here are some fresher possibilities.

—Pretty Woman the Musical, Oriental Theatre through April 15—Dominant commercial presenter Broadway In Chicago stands nearly alone as a purveyor of something new: the pre-Broadway world premiere of a musical based on the hit 1990 film romance. Music and lyrics are by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, with direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, so one has high hopes. BroadwayInChicago.com

—A Taste of Things, Broadway Playhouse through April 29—A new-to-Chicago original with an intentionally-retro sound, this small-scale musical comedy is about four mid-1950s housewives whose limited lives—bound by the PTA, Betty Crocker and homemaking—begin to change under the influence of rock 'n' roll, Freedom Riders and ... the Kinsey Report! BroadwayInChicago.com

—Grand Hotel, Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, April 15-May 25—While this isn't a new show, it's not one that's been done to death and Kokandy does reliably good work. It's an evocative adaptation of Vicki Baum's 1929 German novel and MGM's famous 1932 film version, set in a Berlin luxury hotel. Music and lyrics are by Robert Wright, George Forrest and Maury Yeston, with a book by Luther Davis. The Kokandy team is John D. Glover ( director ), Aaron Benham ( musical director, fresh from Merrily We Roll Along at Porchlight ) and Brenda Didier ( choreographer ). KokandyProductions.com

—Memphis, Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center, April 19-June 3—Still relatively unknown here, this winner of the 2010 Best Musical Tony Award is set against racial attitudes of the 1950s when even music was segregated in many parts of the country ( although not in Chicago ). In Memphis, a lone white DJ begins to play Black music on his station. The book is by Joe De Pietro with music and lyrics by David Bryan. PorchlightMusicTheatre.org

—Once, Paramount Theatre ( Aurora ), April 25-June 3—This intimate, romantic musical, based on the 2007 film, took home eight 2012 Tony Awards including Best Musical. Set in Ireland, it concerns a Girl and Guy ( that's how they're identified ) with baggage who fall in love anyway. Enda Walsh wrote the book for the musical, with folkloric-sounding music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Paramount artistic director Jim Corti is the director. ParamountAurora.com

—The Cher Show, Oriental Theatre, June 12-July 15—Yeah, it's a jukebox musical of familiar 1960s-1990s hits, but it's a Broadway-bound world premiere nonetheless, and it tells the life story of the oft-married singer, dancer, star and all-time gay fave, so why not? The book is by Rick Elice, who did a pretty good job fashioning Jersey Boys into a hit. BroadwayInChicago.com

And now for the rest, very briefly, and they include Sweeney Todd, Sondheim, Theo Ubique Theatre at No Exit Café through April 29; On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical about Emilio and Gloria Estafan, Cadillac Palace through April 8; Company, Sondheim again, Venus Stage ( new tiny cabaret space ) at the Mercury Theater on Southport Avenue, April 5-June 3; South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, April 4-June 17; 9 to 5: the Musical, music/lyrics by Dolly Parton, Firebrand Theatre at The Den, April 7-May 20.

Also, there are The Sound of Music, Rodgers & Hammerstein's ( again ) long-touring production, Cadillac Palace, April 10-15; Oklahoma!, Rodgers & Hammerstein ( again, again ) 75th( ! )-anniversary production, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, April 11-June 10; Jesus Christ Superstar, Rice & Lloyd Webber, the first-ever rock production at Lyric Opera of Chicago, April 27-May 20 ( extension possible ); Cinderella, Rodgers & Hammerstein ( again, again and again, and not their best work, originally a TV special ), Cadillac Palace, April 27-May 6; and Dirty Dancing, based on the film, this long-circulating tour comes back to the city where it began, Cadillac Palace, May 29-June 3.

Kary M. Walker, for 21 years the executive producer of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, ignored frequent requests from his middle-aged-and-up audience for familiar shows. "People who like Rodgers and Hammerstein have one foot in the grave!" he once said to me. Although he did, eventually, produce Oklahoma, Walker preferred to bring more recent work to his stage and try out world premiere shows. It's not a question of execution—Marriott and Drury Lane Oakbrook and Firebrand and Theo Ubique and the rest almost always do fine work—but of artistic policy and planning. Our local theaters, which build fresh productions rather than present tours, should offer much more diverse fare as Firebrand did it with its first production, Lizzie.


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