Chicago Theatre plays and musicals

"American Theater is IMPLODING Before Our Eyes!" howled the perpetually-alarmed New York Times last month, as it warned of an impending "crisis" in the arts. Does this sound familiar? Didn't we hear this same outcry at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and in 2016. when gentrification displaced several storefront venues, or, even earlier, following on the "death of irony" airstrike in 2001? Have we forgotten the conference of the American Theatre Critics Association in 1990, when op-night regulars commiserating over censure by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Reagan administration were brought up short by a reminder that there were a hundred plays running in Chicago that same week.

Recent reports of theater's extinction may be exaggerated, in other words. Chicago still offers a wide variety of live performance entertainment in playhouses big as barns and small as closets, ornate as museums and spartan as schoolrooms, shiny as lighthouses or cozy as boudoirs, featuring a diversity of players appealing to all ages, sizes and ethnicities. The boom years when—as Chicago's longest-working critic Jonathan Abarbanel once claimed—you could see two plays a day on every day of the year in our city and still be missing some, may not have returned yet, but the Fall season is just around the corner and that gives you time to mark your calendars. (Don't forget, too, to check the many theaters lying outside the city limits.)


MJ, Broadway in Chicago at the Nederlander Theater, through Sept 2. Lynn Nottage wrote the book for this biomusical showcasing the life and greatest hits of the immortal Michael Jackson.

The Swordswomen of San Gimignano, On the Spot Theater Company at the Greenhouse, through Sept. 3. A revival of the 2011 swashbuckler featuring clashing rapiers, surprise plot twists and romantic entanglements.

Today, Tomorrow, Soon, Theatre L'Acadie at Loyola Beach, through Sept. 3. It may look to us like the Lunt Street shoreline of Lake Michigan, but for the sisters in Melanie Coffey's world premiere play, it's their last hope of escape from a world in ruin.

Rock of Ages, Mercury Theatre, through Sept. 10. If you once stitched together the lyrics of pop songs to make up your own narratives, you'll feel right at home with this jukebox fantasy fashioned from vintage 1980s classics.

Murder, Rewrote, Hell In a Handbag Productions at The Den, through Sept. 16. Angela Lansbury's long-running television series didn't include singing, but George Howe and Ed Rutherford have contributed a full musical score for this latest parody recounting the adventures of New England widow-turned-detective Bessica Feltcher from Chicago's favorite drag-comedy troupe.

The Writer, Steep Theatre at the Edge, through Sept. 16. A young playwright strives to achieve success without compromising her ethics in the U.S. premiere of Ella Hickson's diatribe on modern litbiz.

A Hit Dog Will Holler, Artemisia Theatre at the Den Theatre, through Sept. 17. In an age of Covid, Trump and blatant racism, what's a coupla girls gotta do to survive?

Gay Card, Pride Theatre at the Pride Arts Center, though Sept. 24. It's not enough to be gay, if you're not AWESOME gay—or so our naive hero allows himself to believe.

Moon at the Bottom of the Ocean, Curious Theater Branch at Chicago Dramatists, Sept. 1 - 23. Who's that mooning a poor blocked writer from the floor of Davy Jones' Locker in this new comedy by Bryn Magnus?


A Taste of Soul, Black Ensemble Theater, Sept. 3-Oct. 15. Rooted in the African-American traditions of Rhythm & Blues and Gospel, the Soul music of Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and many others emerged in the 1960s to embrace audiences globally.

The Innocence of Seduction, City Lit Theatre, Sept. 3-Oct. 8. Not only was America threatened by Communism and nuclear bombs during the 1950s, but even comic books presented a danger to society, triggering government investigations and destroying careers.

A View From the Bridge, Shattered Globe at Theatre Wit, Sept. 8-Oct. 21. The sorry fable of a working-class patriarch who ultimately inflicts suffering on his own family and those they would welcome, is as socially relevant today as in 1955 when Arthur Miller first told it.

The Duchess of Malfi, Babes With Blades Theater Company at the Factory Theater, Sept. 9-Oct. 21. John Webster's tragedy of the lovestruck duchess and her cruel brothers was a shocker in 161?3, but look to Chicago's foremost female stage combat squadron to lend meaning and depth to the Jacobean-age violence.

Welcome to Matteson, Congo Square at Abbott Hall on the Northwestern University campus, Sept. 10-Oct. 1. When the Cabrini-Green projects were demolished, its residents were resettled in the southwest suburbs to forge themselves a home amid the cultural alienation.

Cat's Cradle, Lifeline Theatre, Sept. 12-Oct. 22. Lifeline Theatre's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's satirical 1963 novel premiered in 2000, but has the world really changed since its author first warned us of technology gone rogue?

Hamilton, Broadway in Chicago at the Nederlander Theater, Sept. 13-Dec. 3. Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical of our rapping forefathers seeking harmony in our nation's independence paved the way for a new kind of history lesson.

Motherhouse, Rivendell Theatre, Sept. 14-30. If you missed last spring's runaway hit premiere of Tuckie White's kitchen-table analysis of intergenerational sororal dynamics, the all-star production now offers us a second chance-but only for two weeks-to experience the magic of its auspicious debut.

Jane: Abortion and the Underground, Idle Muse Theatre Company at the Edge Theater, Sept. 14-Oct. 14. Back before abortions were legalized in 1973, "Jane" was the code name for an underground network, run by a collective of housewives and students, that provided thousands of women safe and affordable medical services.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Gift Theatre at the Filament playhouse, Sept. 14-Oct. 21. The heroine of Jim Cartwright's romantic fairy-tale isn't a princess, just a shy young girl from an abusive home in the Scarborough projects, albeit blessed with an uncanny vocal talent for musical mimicry, ultimately ensuring her rescue by, not a prince, but a gallant young tradesman.

Sanctuary City, Steppenwolf Theatre, Sept. 14-Nov 18. The course of true love was never smooth, but a pair of immigrant teenagers in Newark, New Jersey, struggling with the eternal troubles faced by the young find their happiness further impaired by the threat of deportation.

Revolution, Red Orchid Theater, Sept. 16-Oct. 8. Brett Neveu's latest play introduces three young women celebrating a birthday with a party held in an alley-and that's just the beginning.

Blues For an Alabama Sky, Remy Bumppo Theatre at Theater Wit, Sept. 18-Oct. 16. Amid the razzle-dazzle of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s, Pearl Cleage's grim tale of artists and their ambitions reminds us that sometimes dreams continue to be deferred.

The Lehman Trilogy
, Timeline Theatre Company at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place, Sept. 19-Oct 29. A playhouse tucked into the side of a former multi-story shopping mall is an appropriate site for this saga of the Lehman Brothers and how they built a financial empire, only to see it collapse after over two centuries of prosperity.

The Nacirema Society, Goodman Theatre, Sept. 16-Oct. 15. It's 1964 in Montgomery, Alabama and protesters march in the streets, even as the snobbish African-American dowagers of the Nacirema (spell it backward) Society fuss over their daughters' debutante-ball gowns and marital prospects-oh, by the way, it's a comedy.

The Pragmatists, Trap Door Theatre, Sept. 21-Oct. 28. Are we in a torture chamber, a recital chamber or a "chamber" of a human heart-only playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) and director Zeljko Djukic know for sure.

American Psycho, Kokandy Productions at the Chopin, Sept. 29-Nov. 26. Bret Easton Ellis' novel of Reagan-era decadence is now a musical with a score, described by director Derek Van Barham as "slick and sexy ... also highly disturbing and sickeningly upbeat."

BUT WAIT! With so many to choose from, what if you don't know yet what you want to see?

You can play it safe with Second City, the 65-year-old company that turned improv comedy into an industry, or with Late Nite Catechism, since 1993, presenting a humorous glimpse of Catholicism as an American cultural phenomenon, or Blue Man Group, where for 30 years, the enigmatic azure-faced mimes have blended acrobatic stunts, video montages, interactive spectacle and sensory overload for multiple generations to bask in..

You can also stroll the heart of Lakeview's Belmont Avenue Theater District and see what's playing at the brightly-lit Annoyance Theater complex, a loft encompassing two theaters, six studios and a reception-sized bar & lounge, where every night of the week, you can have your pick of sketch/improv comedies with titles like Rat Mass and Hitch*Cocktails.

Finally, there's The Den in Wicker Park, housing five theaters, two piano lounges, three bars, a popcorn machine and dozens upon dozens of comfortable chairs in what was once a Woolworth department store. With a program encompassing serious plays, cabaret revues, Wednesday Night stand-up comedy, a Sunday afternoon crafts market and a panoramic lobby view of the hipsters who frequent the district, surely you can find something that appeals to you.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer