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Fall Theater 2012: The Top 10 shows to see

Chris Jones

2:54 PM CDT, September 7, 2012

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Of the scores of shows slated to open in Chicago this busier-than-ever fall season, here are ten marquee attractions that suggest particular promise. They're listed in alphabetical order; opening dates include preview performances.

'The Book of Mormon': Unless you've been hiding away in Utah, you'll surely know of the impending Chicago sit-down production of the megahit Broadway musical, as penned by the creators of "South Park" and the composer of "Avenue Q." On Broadway (where the average ticket price is now pushing $200), the show made the case, better than any other musical in memory, that no topic, no matter how sacrosanct or painful, is beyond the range of the skilled satirist. The show offers genuinely nasty hilarity, laced with some sweetness just when the acid starts to corrode. The Chicago production will be a duplicate of the New York original, supervised by the original creative team, and will be fresh and new for the Bank of America Theatre.

Begins Dec. 11 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; $55-$115; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

'The Catholic Repertory': Artistic direction is not just about picking shows, but also about crafting how shows are put together. In Chicago, American Theater Company's PJ Paparelli has been at the vanguard of interesting pairings of quality dramas: in 2008, he put together "Topdog/Underdog" and "True West." This fall, he combines John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" (a play about faith and possible priestly conduct) with John Peilmeier's "Agnes of God" (a 1984 play about a nun who gives birth but claims her child was the product of a virgin conception). Both works probe the intersection of faith and truth, authority and submission and, crucially, spirituality and rationality. ATC is dubbing the pairing "The Catholic Rep." Surely, each drama will lend resonance to the other.

Sept. 27 to Nov. 4 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.; $33-$43; 773-409-4125 and atcweb.org

'Good People': A fine match for a moment when the economic decks seemed so stacked against ordinary Americans, and when political debate rages over who built what for whom, David Lindsay-Abaire'smoving drama looks at a successful man who comes home to his old Boston neighborhood. It's a piece about envy, community, letting go and giving back and, unlike so many politicians, this play shirks not from the exploration of how "we built it" and "it takes a village"; both have their truths. "Good People" was one of the best Broadway plays of 2011. The new Steppenwolf production will be directed by K. Todd Freeman.

Sept. 13 to Nov. 11 at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.; $20-$86; 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org

'Hamlet': Michael Halberstam, the ambitious artistic director of Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, has found a formidable group of actors, Chicagoans past and present, to help him with the challenge of staging one of the great, if not the greatest, dramas of Western civilization. With Scott Parkinson (Hamlet), Shannon Cochran (Gertrude), Michael Canavan (Claudius), Timothy Edward Kane (Laertes), Larry Yando (Ghost) and Liesel Matthews (Ophelia) all in the house, this a roster to relish, especially when speaking such verse in such close quarters. Although New York-based now, Parkinson has a formidable array of past work in Chicago.

Through Nov. 11 at Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe; $35-$70; 847-242-6000 and writerstheatre.org

'Kinky Boots': Chicago is justly proud of its status as try-out central, and this fall's slate includes a first look at a brand new musical by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstien, headed for a Broadway berth next spring. Based on the British movie of the same name, it's the story of a family footwear factory that hits hard times but finds a new lease on life making high heels for drag queens. Jerry Mitchell directs and choreographs. The Lauper score is an original — her newest single, "Sex is in the Heel," is taken from the show. Stark Sands and Billy Porter are the stars of the cast.

Oct. 2 to Nov. 4 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; $33-100; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

'School for Lies': Up in Stratford, the names Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay aren't quite on a par with favorite son Justin Bieber, but this lively married couple of classical actors are both marquee names when it comes to the spoken theatrical word. This juicy-sounding show — a witty David Ives adaptation of the Moliere comedy "The Misanthrope" — promises to offer a great deal of eloquent amusement. Director Barbara Gaines also has cast the former Chicago actor Greg Vinkler, who'll be making a holiday homecoming.

Dec. 4 to Jan. 20 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.; $48-$78; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com

'Sunday in the Park with George': The last time Gary Griffin revived a Stephen Sondheim musical (that would be "Follies") the results were sublime. As the main attraction on Navy Pier this summer, Griffin's Chicago revival of "Sunday in the Park with George" (not to be confused with the recent production in New York's Central Park) will feature Jason Danieley ("Candide" on Broadway) and Carmen Cusack singing one of the most wise and beautiful scores ever composed.

Sept. 26 to Nov. 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.; $48-$78; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com

'Sweet Bird of Youth': David Cromer rose to fame in Chicago without directing at the Goodman Theatre. The Goodman puts that omission right this fall by staging Cromer's new production of the Tennessee Williams drama about an aging star and her affection for a fast young man. Cromer was first associated with this play for a Broadway production that was to star Nicole Kidman. Those plans did not work out, but the separate Goodman incarnation features Diane Lane (see profile) and Finn Wittrock, recently a star of Mike Nichols' Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."

Sept. 14 to Oct. 25 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $27-$88; 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org

'Unspeakable': This new show — a biographical exploration of Richard Pryor — is wholly unproven. But Pryor's life, especially his fraught early years in Peoria, is fine fodder for a biographical show. Advance word is this is a dark show, unstinting in its treatment of Pryor's addictions and self-destructive tendencies, but embracing his formidable talent. The cast includes James Murray Jackson, Jr., as Pryor (Jackson's performance, seen in a New York workshop, has many admirers) and Isaiah Washington.

Oct. 16 to Nov. 25 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.; $49.50-$62.50; 312-988-9000 or ticketmaster.com

'War Horse': This remarkable theatrical attraction — a colossal hit in London and New York — is based on the children's story by Michael Morpurgo, wherein a young man and his beloved horse search for each other through the deadly quagmire of World War I. The show, a collaboration between the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, is a family-friendly experience yet intensely emotional. It includes Joey, one of most beloved and lucrative puppets ever created for the theater. The Chicago run is short and tickets likely will sell out.

Dec. 18 Jan. 5 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; $30-105; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

cjones5@tribune.com