2011 FALL THEATER GUIDE

New theaters. Renovated playhouses. Hot dramas. Nervous new artistic directors. Stephen Sondheim and his “Follies.” A celebration of Stephen Schwartz, a dissection of Mark Rothko, and a look at the tragedy that befell the Amish of Pennsylvania. “The Kid Thing” by Chicago Dramatists and About Face. “The Real Thing” in Glencoe. All kinds of things at Theater Wit. With apologies to Oscar Hammerstein II, the fall is busting out all over.

NEW SPACES

Three new or newly renovated Chicago theaters are set to open in the coming weeks. The all-new Black Ensemble Theatre on Chicago's North Side opens its doors with "The Jackie Wilson Story" (Nov. 18 to Jan. 8 at 4450 N. Clark St.; 773-769-4451 or blackensembletheater.org) — the fruition of a long-held dream from this most inclusive and joyous of Chicago theater companies.

The Second City will add to its comedic arsenal with Up, a space designed for stand-up and other kinds of comedy theater and slated to host a new, tourist-oriented show about the history of Chicago (secondcity.com).

And Stage 773 — a venerable Lakeview rental venue formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago — will reopen following a massive renovation, creating four high-end theaters of varying sizes where there used to be a scruffy three. No wonder the Artistic Home, which is staging Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet" (Oct. 2 to Nov. 6 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; $28-$32, 773-327-5252 or theartistichome.org), wants to move in.

There's nothing new about the historic Paramount Theatre in Aurora. But for a generation or more, the Paramount has just presented touring musicals, versus its own productions. That all changes; the Paramount is premiering its own production of "My Fair Lady," as directed by Jim Corti (Sept. 14 to Oct. 2 at 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora; $34.90-$46.90, 630-896-6666 or paramountarts.com). This is a bold step in a tough economy. But audiences in the Fox Valley seem to be responding: The theater claims more than 10,000 subscribers.

NEW FACES

From an audience member's perspective, the people doing theater are more important than the space in which it is being done. There, too, the Chicago theater is seeing an uncommon amount of change. New artistic directors are everywhere.

Chay Yew joins Victory Gardens Theater, although longtime associate director Sandy Shinner is taking the reins for "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)" (Sept. 9 to Oct. 9 at the Biograph; $15-$50, 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org) — the much-anticipated Chicago premiere of the wry comedy by Sarah Ruhl.

Timothy Douglas at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company is putting his stamp on O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra"  (Sept. 21 to Oct. 30 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.; $35-$55, 773-404-7336 or remybumppo.org).

Michael Weber at Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago has adopted the slogan "American musicals. Chicago Style." Porchlight is opening the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together"  on Tuesday (through Oct. 16 at Theater Wit; $38, 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org).

HEAVY HITTERS AND LIGHTER FARE

Over the last couple of seasons, a trip to the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre has frequently meant taking a risk on a new play — and that's a good thing. But this fall, these two big theaters are staging surer bets:

Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park"  (Sept. 8 to Nov. 6 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; $20-$75, 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org) is a play that many discriminating Chicagoans are dying to see. The winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama (full disclosure: I was on that jury) is a meditation on that great Chicago drama, "A Raisin in the Sun."

John Logan's "Red" (Sept. 17 to Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $25-$89, 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org) I first saw and greatly admired in London. Logan, who lived for years in Evanston, penned a thrilling and crystal-clear script about the great expressionistic painter Mark Rothko and the moral dilemmas faced by any artist when confronted with someone waving a massive check in his face. In the Goodman's production, Robert Falls, who knows Logan, his work and the temptation of big checks, will take on the play.

So Broadway producers looking for new material will instead have to find their way to Skokie, where Northlight Theatre will stage "Snapshots" (Sept. 16 to Oct. 23 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie; northlight.org). This is a revue drawing from the music of that phenomenally successful pop composer Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked, "Godspell," "Pippin"). It's not entirely a new show, but it has been radically retooled, rewritten and reproduced for its Northlight debut.

National attention will also likely land at American Theater Company, where PJ Paparelli will direct "The Amish Project" (Sept. 23 to Oct. 23 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.; atcweb.org), Jennifer Dickey's piece about that harrowing day in 2006 when the Amish community of Pennsylvania realized that they could not keep out the violent modern world.

And Lookingglass Theatre, housed in one of the only downtown buildings to survive the Chicago Fire, takes on that inferno with "The Great Fire," a look at how a shining city emerged from embers that would have deterred less hardy souls. (Sept. 21 to Nov. 20 in the Water Tower Water Works; $20-$68, 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org)

For lighter fare, you might try the off-Broadway comedy "Love, Loss and What I Wore"  (Sept. 14 to Oct. 23 at the Broadway Playhouse; broadwayinchicago.com), Nora and Delia Ephron's look at life's joys and travails through our clothes choices.

And it's all laughs at "The Doyle and Debbie Show"  (coming Oct. 11 to the Royal George Theatre Center; theroyal georgetheatre.com), a well-regarded show from Nashville that aims to poke some affectionate fun at country music. More than enough for one season.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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