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2016 Spring Arts Preview —Theater

Chaon Cross and Scott Parkinson will star in the Writers Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," inaugurating the company's lavish new home in Glencoe. (Photo courtesy of Writers Theatre)

Spring may conjure thoughts of romance for the poets of this world. But for Chicago it means the opening of even more theater productions than usual — as difficult as that might be to fathom.

Here is a list of some of the most intriguing shows set to open on area stages between March 4 and May 31, along with a glimpse of three distinctive talents whose work will be on display in various ways in the coming months.

Behzad Dabu (actor in Thornton Wilder’s play, “The Matchmaker,” running March 5 – April 10 at the Goodman Theatre; www.goodmantheatre.org)

Actor Behzad Dabu.
Behzad Dabu

In such plays as “Disgraced” (at the Goodman and beyond), “Samsara” (at Victory Gardens), and “The History Boys” (at TimeLine Theatre), Dabu, who describes himself as “having an Indian blood line with parents of Persian/Zoroastrian descent,” has been cast more or less according to ethnic type. But the American-born actor is determined to break free of such categorization, and he gets a chance to do just that in “The Matchmaker,” playing Barnaby Tucker, an apprentice in merchant Horace Vandergelder’s store in Yonkers, NY (circa 1900).

A wonderfully physical actor, with a palpable energy, Dabu noted: “I start with the physical — with how the character feels emotions in his body before he speaks them – and then I work from the outside in.” He also confessed he has never seen a production of either the Wilder play, or its fabled musical offshoot, “Hello Dolly!,” although “my mom was a massive Barbra Streisand fan and played the [film] recording all the time.”

Dabu also is heeding the words of his director, Henry Wishcamper: “Henry said my character has a conflict that many face: Do you take the bull by the horns and live in the moment, or are you afraid of losing control and balance? My character is all about those extremes, and there is something comical about him, too, because he is such an innocent.”

Choreographer Katie Spelman. (Photo courtesy of The Hypocrites)
Choreographer Katie Spelman | Photo courtesy of The Hypocrites

Katie Spelman (choreographer for “Adding Machine: The Musical,” the Joshua Schmidt-Jason Loewith musical based on the Elmer Rice play, running March 18 – May 15 at The Hypocrites; www.the-hypocrites.com)

A veteran Hypocrite, Spelman has choreographed that company’s ingenious productions of “American Idiot,” “Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado,” and, most recently, created the stunningly re-envisioned ballet sequences for “Oklahoma!” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, where she also worked on “Rent,” “In the Heights” and “Hair.

Spelman admits she has come to “Adding Machine” as a blank slate, having seen neither the 1923 play, nor the musical, which began life at Evanston’s now defunct Next Theatre in 2007 and became a hit in New York. (In brief, it’s the story of Mr. Zero, who hates his wife and his life, and who, after he is suddenly replaced by an adding machine after 25 years on the job, murders his boss.)

“When [director] Geoff Button presents me with a weird idea and says ‘make this tangible,’ I get excited,” said the choreographer. “‘Adding Machine’ is not a big ‘movement show,’ but the actors shift in and out of character, and the idea here is for the ensemble to push Mr. Zero through the story. My goal is to turn pedestrian movement into a gestural language. And that certainly feeds into the idea that Mr. Zero has led a terribly monotonous life for 25 years, so there is this repetitive, machine-like ensemble that moves him through the day as he comes home from work, gives his wife his overcoat, eats dinner, undresses and goes to bed, wakes up, dresses, puts his coat on and heads off to work again. This recycles three times, and each time it speeds up.”

Spelman, who worked as associate movement director on the Broadway and national touring productions of “Once,” will soon be heading off to New York again where she will work as an associate movement director on Duncan Sheik’s “American Psycho – The Musical,” which begins previews on March 24. Then it’s back to Chicago as choreographer for Lookingglass Theatre’s “Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure,” which begins performances June 1.

Music director and pianist Jeremy Ramey. (Photo courtesy of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater.
Music director and pianist Jeremy Ramey | Photo courtesy of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater

Jeremy Ramey (music director and pianist for Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” running March 11 – May 1 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater; www.theo-u.org)

When Jeremy Ramey is at the piano in the intimate confines of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (where he has music directed such shows as “Blood Brothers,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “My Way… A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra”), he makes you think an entire orchestra is at work, though usually he is joined by only a percussionist and bass player.

“For ‘Rent’ we’ve got four pieces — piano, electric guitar, electric bass and drums – and our set designer, Adam Veness, has really outdone himself, finding a way to accommodate us, and a cast of 14 — the largest we’ve ever had for a Theo Ubique show. Our director, Scott Weinstein, is approaching ‘Rent’ as if it has never been seen or done before. He wants to be creative while also maintaining a loyalty to the material, because Larson’s music is so iconic, and people feel so strongly about it. It will be a real surround-sound experience with so many people in such a tiny space and un-miked voices coming from every corner of the space.”

Next up for Ramey will be Theo Ubique’s production of its summer “Songbook Series” show, “A Tribute to Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse,” after which he will head “home” to visit his family Tennessee. But before the musician heads South he plans to see “War Paint,” the new musical about cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden whose pre-Broadway tryout at the Goodman Theatre begins June 28.

“I played for [composer] Scott Frankel during auditions here, and the score is amazing,” said Ramey.

Among the many other shows to catch this Spring:

“Mary Page Marlowe” (March 31 – May 29 at Steppenwolf Theatre; www.steppenwolf.org): This world premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts follows the title character over the course of six decades, with 7 different actresses (in a cast of 19) portraying her at various ages. Anna D. Shapiro directs.

“Arcadia” (March 16 – April 24 at Writers Theater; www.writerstheatre.org): This multi-layered Tom Stoppard classic about the architectural and romantic history of a grand English country home and its inhabitants will be the inaugural production directed by Michael Halberstam at Writers’ own grand new home in Glencoe, designed by architect Jeanne Gang.

“Blood Wedding” (March 2 – April 24 at Lookingglass Theatre; lookingglasstheatre.org): Among the most thrilling aspects of this production of the Federico Garcia Lorca’ classic about a blood feud set in motion on a wedding day is that it is being directed by Daniel Ostling, the scenic design genius.

“Chimerica” (May 12-July 31 at TimeLine Theatre; timelinetheatre.com): British playwright Lucky Kirkwood’s London hit, directed here by Nick Bowling, homes in on the man who, in June, 1989 — as the Chinese government cracked down on a pro-democracy rally in Tiananmen Square – stood alone in front of a military tank. Twenty years later, a photojournalist searches for the truth about that mysterious “Tank Man” in this exploration of two superpowers – China and the United States.

“United Flight 232” (March 11-May 1 at The House Theatre of Chicago; thehousetheatre.com): This world premiere, adapted and directed by Vanessa Stalling, is based on Evanston-based writer Laurence Gonzales’ book of the same name — the tale of the harrowing July 19, 1989 flight bound for Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fasten your seat belts.