SUMMER THEATER PREVIEW

by ANNE SPISELMAN

Court Theatre takes a break after “The Adventures of Augie March,” but there are plenty of shows to see all over town during the summer. Here, in the order of their opening, are 10 to keep on your radar, plus a few extra just in case. Call ahead for times, tickets, and schedule changes.

“If I Forget,” June 7-July 7, Victory Gardens Theater (773-871-3000)

Set shortly before 9/11, this Chicago premiere of a sharp drama by Steven Levenson, who wrote the book for “Dear Evan Hansen,” focuses on family conflicts about everything from history to identity between an ailing 75-year-old Holocaust survivor, Lou Fischer (David Darlow); his liberal son, Michael (Daniel Cantor), a Jewish studies professor who’s written a controversial scholarly work, and Michael’s sisters Holly (Gail Shapiro) and Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo). The New York Times (ital) named it a Critic’s Pick that “speaks to both the head and the heart.”

“Elizabeth Rex,” June 12-July 21, Oak Park Festival Theatre (708-300-9396, Ext 101)

Wendy Robie, who doesn’t perform nearly enough in Chicago nowadays, stars as Elizabeth I on her  worst night ever in Timothy Findley’s fanciful history directed by new artistic director Barbara Zahora. The queen’s favorite and rumored lover, the Earl of Essex, has been found guilty of treason and is slated to be executed in the morning so, seeking distraction, she visits her stables where William Shakespeare and his company are staying after a court performance of “Much Ado about Nothing.” There she spars about how to be both a ruler and a woman with Ned (Niko Kourtis), the actor who plays the Bard’s greatest leading ladies. The Festival Theatre’s second show of the summer is, you guessed it, “Much Ado About Nothing,” July 25-Aug. 31.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” June 14-July 28, Theo Ubique (773-347-1109)

Hedwig Schmidt, the “genderqueer glam rock ‘n’ roll goddess” from East Germany whose botched sex-change operation engendered the play’s title, hasn’t been here in a while, so it will be fascinating to see how her in-your-face style fares in the cabaret-like setting of Theo Ubique’s new home on Howard Street.  Toma Tavares Langston directs, Jeremy Ramey is music director, and Will Lidke plays the diva with a difference in Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s 1998 musical, one of the first to explore issues of gender identity.

“Ada and the Engine,” June 19-Aug. 4, The Artistic Home Theatre (866-811-4111)

Lauren Gunderson was the most produced playwright in the U.S. last year, and it’s hard to resist the Chicago premiere of her historical drama about Ada Byron Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of   British Romantic poet Lord Byron—even if it is a feminist fable. A math and music prodigy in poor health, Ada find her “soul mate” in Charles Babbage and, prevented from marrying him by a domineering mother and constraining social mores, she helps him invent the first mechanical computer and change the future. Gunderson’s sources included the extensive notes Ada wrote to accompany her translation from Italian of Babbage’s lectures about “an Analytic Machine.” A press release calls the play “Jane Austen meets Steve Jobs.”

“The Music Man,” June 29-Aug. 4, Goodman Theatre (312-443-3800)

Mary Zimmerman’s eagerly awaited major revival of Meredith Willson’s masterpiece, hailed as “one of the sunniest musicals ever,” features 27 actors led by Geoff Packard as the charismatic con man Harold Hill who charms River City, Iowa, with the promise of a marching band. Monica West is Marian Paroo.  the local librarian who teaches him a thing or two about responsibility, and the stellar cast also includes Matt Crowle, Mary Ernster, Heidi Kettenring, and Bri Sudia. Jermaine Hill leads the 11-member orchestra in hummable favorites such as “Goodnight My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Gary, Indiana,” and “Till There Was You.” Tony Award-nominated choreographer Denis Jones makes his Goodman debut. Speaking of Tonys, “The Music Man” beat out “West Side Story” for Best Musical in 1957.

“True West,” July 5-Aug. 25, Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre (312-335-1650)

“True West” put Steppenwolf on the national theater map after it transferred Off-Broadway in 1982—with director Gary Sinise replacing Jeff Perry as Austin opposite John Malkovich as Lee—and now the company is reviving Sam Shepard’s explosive play for the first time, but with a twist. African American actors Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood are the volatile, violent estranged brothers trapped in their mother’s empty house with little more than a typewriter and a set of golf clubs. They are joined by Jacqueline Williams and original cast member Francis Guinan; Randall Arney returns to direct.

Before that, Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre hosts the world premiere of “Ms. Blakk for President” through July 14. Ensemble members Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight” Academy Award) co-wrote the play inspired by the little-known true story of America’s first black drag queen presidential candidate. Landau directs, and McCraney stars as the incomparable Ms. Joan Jett Black in what’s billed as “part campaign rally, part nightclub performance, part confessional, and all party.”

The summer LookOut Series in Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre includes late-night “Ms. Blakk for President” events, a reunion reading of The Inconvenience’s “Hit the Wall” by hot Chicago playwright Ike Holter, a new work from drag collective Sadhaus, a new, universally accessible devised adaptation of “Medusa,” and much, much more.

“Wolf Play,” July 11-Aug. 18, The Gift Theatre (773-283-7071)

Hansol Jung, who wrote “Cardboard Piano,” which recently was staged by TimeLine Theatre Company, also crafted this Chicago premiere that grapples with the meaning of “family.” After deciding to “un-adopt” their young Korean son because they have a newborn, an American couple “re-homes” him with a lesbian couple they find in an internet chat room. One of the women is desperate for a child, while the other is fighting for her career. The boy, who thinks he’s a wolf but really is a puppet, adjusts to his new life by forming unlikely bonds, even as the parents fight over what is “best for the child.” Guest artist Jess McLeod directs.

“The Spitfire Grill,” July 12-Aug. 17, American Blues Theater at Stage 773 (773-654-3103)

Based on Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film, James Valeq and Fred Alley’s 2001 musical about a female parolee who finds redemption and renewal working in a small-town Midwestern grill pushes all the expected emotional buttons—but in a good way. It tends to do well in intimate theaters, so this production directed by Tammy Mader with musical direction by Malcolm Ruhl and a small band that includes him on accordion should be a winner.

“The Comedy of Errors,” July 18-Aug. 18, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks (www.chicagoshakes.com/parks)

This annual tradition is a great excuse to hang out and picnic in your local park, and happily the production—this year’s is directed by David H. Bell—usually is at a very high level, even if the sound system and weather don’t always co-operate. At the park across the street from me last year, the show for many was their first exposure to Shakepeare, and that’s a big plus. Of the 25 performances, the closest to Hyde Park are Garfield Park July 23, Ellis Park Aug. 4, and Ping Tom Memorial Park Aug. 18. Maybe they’ll include a really local park next year!

“Come From Away,” July 30-Aug.18, Cadillac Palace Theatre (800-775-2000)

A special kind of moxie is required to create a feel-good musical about 9/11, but this Canadian-born 2017 Broadway hit by husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, is a heart-warming tribute to our northern neighbors. It’s based on the true story of a small Newfoundland town that took in close to 7,000 travelers whose planes were diverted there after the attacks. The same actors portray both the residents and the visitors, which is no easy feat.

Other shows presented by Broadway in Chicago include “Les Misérables” at the Cadillac Palace July 9-27 and “Cats” at the Nederlander Theatre July 16-Aug. 4. You can catch selections from these and other musicals at the annual free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Aug. 12.

Finally, a few to catch before they close:  “The Winter’s Tale” at Goodman Theatre through June 9, “Next to Normal” directed by David Cromer at Writers Theatre through June 16, “Six” about the wives of Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 30, Firebrand Theatre’s “Queen of the Mist” starring Barbara E. Robertson at the Den Theatre through July 6, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” at Lookingglass Theatre Company through Aug. 4. And don’t forget “The Adventures of Augie March” at Court Theatre through June 9.