Discovery is the name of the game on Chicago stages. An astonishing pool of young talent is at work in this city right now (with many of the performers barely out of university theater programs, and quite a few not even finished with high school), and they have joined the many layers of exceptional performers who have made this city their home for decades. The mix can be incendiary.
Along with this comes eye-opening international programming — from the first Chicago International Latino Theater Festival to interactive experiments as part of the Stage Series at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s brick-and-mortar growth, too, most notably the opening of The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s gargantuan, shape-shiftable new space on Navy Pier and the newly rehabbed Theatre on the Lake.
Here is a sampling of the widely varied dramatic and musical offerings this fall:
“A View from the Bridge” (through Oct. 15, Goodman Theatre; GoodmanTheatre.org): Set against the Brooklyn docks in the 1950s, Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy about immigration, homophobia and forbidden love remains a play for our time. This production is a remount of Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s imagining of the play that was a recent hit in London and on Broadway.
“The Rembrandt” (through Nov. 5, Steppenwolf Theatre; Steppenwolf.org): Who has never been tempted to touch the canvas of an Old Master painter and commune with the artist’s fingerprints? Jessica Dickey’s play, co-starring Francis Guinan and John Mahoney, explores that impulse in a story about what happens when a museum guard “goes rogue” and touches a masterpiece he was hired to protect.
“The Toad Knew” (Sept. 19 – 23 at Chicago Shakespeare’s The Yard; chicagoshakes.com): Opening this formidable new space is French nouveau circus star James Thierree and his Compagnie du Hanneton. The spectacle, a combination of circus, burlesque and more, is billed as “an intertwining of dreams with childhood terrors and the love shared by siblings.” Meanwhile, on the mainstage, Barbara Gaines will stage a starry all-female “Taming of the Shrew.” The framing device for this re-imagined comedy is set in 1919, as Suffragettes are marching, and members of a Chicago women’s club have convened to rehearse their production.
“Hard Times” (Oct. 4, 2017 – Jan. 14. 2018, Lookingglass Theater; lookingglass.com): Set against the Industrial Revolution, this stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ tale of nightmarish life in the Victorian English village of Coketown was first staged by the company in 2001 and is an imaginative telling of the story in which the fact-bound schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, is challenged by an orphaned circus girl who knows the value and power of the imagination.
“The Heavens are Hung in Black” (through Oct. 21 at Shattered Globe Theatre; sgtheatre.org): The time is 1862 and President Abraham Lincoln is mourning both the battlefield losses of the Civil War and the death of his beloved son. James Still’s 2012 play, receiving its “Land of Lincoln” debut, considers Lincoln’s thinking in the months leading up to his signing of The Emancipation Proclamation in a fantasia sprinkled with text drawn from the man’s letters and speeches.
“Choir Boy” (Sept. 27 – Nov. 12 at Raven Theatre; raventheatre.com): In this coming of age story by Tarell Alvin McCraney (best known these days as the source of the story behind the 2016 Oscar-winning film, “Moonlight”), a gay youth at a prestigious prep school for African American boys is named leader of the school’s celebrated gospel choir and is determined to be the best in its 50-year history, but first he must find the courage to deal with the truth of who he is.
“The Belle of Amherst” (Nov. 2 – Dec. 3 at Court Theatre; courttheatre.com): Although she enjoyed little success or happiness in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson, the enigmatic New England poet, has become quite the hot property at the moment, with a film and museum exhibits putting her work in the spotlight anew. William Luce wrote this one-woman show for Julie Harris in 1976, but now it’s actress Kate Fry’s chance to conjure Dickinson, and that is reason enough to see this production at Court.
Chicago International Latino Theater Festival (Sept. 29 – Oct. 29 at multiple venues; www.clata.org/festival-schedule): With productions imported from Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Cuba, alongside those from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, this ambitious festival, under the umbrella title “Destinos” (“Destiny” or Destinations”).
“Five Guys Named Moe” (through Oct. 8 at Court Theatre): This exuberant showcase of the hit songs of Louis Jordan (“King of the Jukebox”) the Swing Era bandleader and songwriter whose jazz riffs paved the way for 1950s rock and roll, features a stellar cast of Chicago’s African American song-and-dance men, plus Felicia P. Fields. Pure fun. (courttheatre.org)
“Million Dollar Quartet” (Sept. 13 -Oct. 29 at the Paramount Theatre, Aurora): On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash had a fateful meeting at the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. History was made. And if you know director Jim Corti, and his work at Paramount, you know this show will rock the roof. (ParamountAurora.com)
“Billy Elliot The Musical” (Oct. 6 – Nov. 19 at Porchlight Music Theatre): For its first production in its new home at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, the company has chosen the poignant, dance-driven musical by Elton John and Lee Hall that is set against the labor chaos of Britain’s troubled Thatcher era, and tells of the boy who develops a passion for ballet rather than boxing. (porchlightmusictheatre.org)
“A New Brain” (Sept. 15 – Oct. 29 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre): This is the last season to catch this dazzling musical theater operation in its magically intimate storefront space (it is moving to a new home next Fall). The opener is William Finn’s autobiographical 1998 show about his harrowing experience with with a serious arterial malformation and the healing power of art. (theo-u.com)
“School of Rock” (Nov. 1 – 19 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre): Based on the hit film, this high energy hit musical – which features 14 new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a cast of kids playing their instruments live – follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher who turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, mind-blowing rock band. Next up on the Broadway in Chicago schedule will be “Escape to Margaritaville” (Nov. 9 – Dec. 2 at the Oriental Theatre ), a pre-Broadway run of the musical featuring both a slew of Jimmy Buffett classics and some original songs, all laced into the story of a romance between two people with clearly clashing lifestyles. (BroadwayInChicago.com)