Places, everyone! Our NewsWorks fall theater preview opens the season

The theater season has begun, and in a region with about 50 professional theater companies you can get anything you want over a few months. Comedy? Plenty of laughs in store. Serious stuff? No problem. Musicals? Sure. Shakespeare mixes with new playwrights. World premieres play down the street from old chestnuts.

What follows is my list of shows you may want to consider during the first half of the season, opening from now through December. (We’ll be back when the new year begins for a look at the late winter and spring offerings.) I base my picks on productions I think could work well, plays and musicals I like, and enticing work I know little or nothing about. (New plays, for instance, or some that never have been done here.)

I’m not listing plays that local theater companies are performing as part of the Philly Fringe Festival, which runs through Sept. 21. You can find reviews of many of those on this site.

And I offer a caveat: Even if I’ve seen a certain play or musical before, a new production can be a wholly different experience. So I can’t vouch for these productions. I can only suggest them as theater-going possibilities.

Directions for use:

This list is presented in chronological order of each show’s first performance. The openings listed here signify the night when a show’s previews begin – from one to four performances before an official opening night when critics, theater company board members, donors and the like are invited along with subscribers. The exception is the Broadway musical tour of “Newsies,” which has no previews here.
If you want to visit the Web site of a theater company for any show, click on the title of the show and you’ll be automatically linked.
Buy two tickets and call me in the morning.

9 TO 5. This Dolly Parton musical – she wrote the score — didn’t make it to 200 performances after it opened on Broadway in 2009. But it’s a sprightly piece, despite characters even more stereotyped than those in the 1980 movie that spawned it. A humiliated housewife, a put-upon office supervisor and a secretary who’s treated like a girl-toy gang up on their boss for revenge. The plot’s pretty much the same as in the flick. The show dove-tails nicely with the last musical the Walnut produced, “How to Succeed In Business…” which also plays with a sexism theme. On the Walnut Street Theatre main stage now through Oct. 19.

ROUNDING THIRD. This “Odd Couple” pairing, involving two very different baseball coaches of kids’ teams, was extended at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse before performances began. Richard Dresser’s 2002 comedy has never been on Broadway, but it sure has plenty of fans. At Act II Playhouse now through Oct. 12.

COMMUNICATING DOORS. To flee from an uncomfortable situation, a woman – a dominatrix – enters the communicating door, the one between two rooms. What she finds there is even stranger than being a dominatrix. The show by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is at Hedgerow Theatre just outside Media, now through Oct. 5.

LA BETE. As much a commentary on the popularity of entertainment versus the merits of art, this show about an over-the-top, megalomaniac actor who is called in for a role had ’em in stitches in a Broadway revival five seasons back, partly because the inimitable Mark Rylance imbued the character with an intelligence that was both revolting and magnetizing. Scott Greer, one of the city’s most visible comic actors will take the role at Arden Theatre, where the play runs from Sept. 11 through Oct. 12.

LOVE LETTERS. At the same time it’s being revived on Broadway, Delaware Theatre Company is staging A. R. Gurney’s bittersweet 1989 play that consists of two characters reading the letters they wrote each other through the years. In Wilmington, they’ll be played by Michael Learned (three Emmys for “The Waltons” and on Broadway she was in Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”) and Daniel Davis (on Broadway, “The Invention of Love,” plus TV’s “The Nanny”). It runs Sept. 17 through Oct. 5.

THE CIVIL WAR. Not a lot of theater companies produce this1999 Frank Wildhorn musical, which ran a few months on Broadway before closing. That may be because of its scope – it’s apparently writ large – and it may be because Wildhorn is not everyone’s idea of excellence. In any case, Eagle Theatre – the area’s newest professional theater, sitting on the edge of metro Philly in Hammonton, N.J. – is tackling the musical, from Sept. 19 through Oct. 11.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Based on Charles Addams’ cartoon characters, this musical had a respectable Broadway run, despite being largely dismissed by critics. But here’s the thing: While it may offer nothing new or wildly inventive, it’s good fun, centering on the downtrodden Addams parents who cope with the mismatched infatuation between their teenage daughter and a perfectly normal (gasp!) American boyfriend. Philly faves Jennie Eisenhower and Jeff Coon play Morticia and Gomez, the macabre mom and dead, er, dad. The Media Theatre production runs Sept. 24 through Nov. 2.

ARCADIA. Researching the past can highlight the present – and both mesh, or maybe collide, in Tom Stoppard’s masterful play. Modern scholars try to interpret the whys and wherefores of a 19th-century family’s relationship, while we see that family interacting in their time. Lantern Theater Company stages “Arcadia” from Sept. 25 through Nov. 9. 

AS YOU LIKE IT and RICHARD II. Mount Airy’s Quintessence Theatre Group, with a mission to present classics, stages these two Shakespeare plays in repertory, with an all-male cast appearing in both – a bow to Elizabethan tradition. At the beginning of its fifth season, Quintessence’s “As You Like It” will be the first of the Bard’s comedies the company has staged, and Quintessence is billing “Richard II” as its production of a political thriller. “As You Like It” runs Oct. 1 through Nov. 14. “Richard II” runs Oct. 9 through Nov. 16. 

BAD JEWS. So who owns grandpa’s necklace, the one with the charm made of Hebrew letters than spell out “life?” Is it Daphna (whose boyfriend is Israeli) or her cousin (whose girlfriend is not Jewish)? A comedy about Jewish family culture – oy, what else could you want? It’s been a hit Off-Broadway. The show is from Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio, on the third floor, from Oct. 7 through Nov. 30.

OLD JEWS TELLING JOKES. Five actors in a night of singing, one-liners and routines all fashioned from material of old – oy, what else could you want? It’s been a hit Off-Broadway. This production from the year-old Penn’s Landing Playhouse, inside Independence Seaport Museum, runs Oct. 8 through Nov. 30.  

CIPHERS. Who are we, really? An undercover agent named Justine is caught up in so many schemes and identities, she may have forgotten how to answer that question accurately. British playwright Dawn King’s play is performed by Inis Nua Theatre Company, Oct. 8 through 26.

RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN. Hot playwright Gina Gionfriddo creates a celebrity professor who reunites with her old grad-school pals – a little homecoming that starts her thinking about her own life as well as the trajectory American women have taken over the past century. You can call it a razor-edged comedy, from all reports. Wilma Theater produces the play Oct. 8 through Nov. 8.  

DETROIT. Fretting over money, the way they relate, and whether they can get ahead, two suburban couples strike up an acquaintance. One couple has been living in the neighborhood for some time, and the other couple has just moved in next door to a house without furnishings. Lisa D’Amour’s play, done at Playwright Horizons in New York two seasons back, is produced here by Philadelphia Theatre Company from Oct. 10 through Nov. 9.

TIL DIVORCE DO US PART: THE MUSICAL. Society Hill Playhouse has done well with musical comedies about life cycles – “Menopause,” for one example, ran there about a decade. Now, the Playhouse presents a song-and-dance show about the end of a relationship. It’s on from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7.

THE SYRINGA TREE. This used to be a one-woman play, but now two women perform it in most theaters – and that’s the case at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, where the bittersweet play is set at a particular type of tree. It’s the story of how one family coped with apartheid in South Africa, and the way the racist laws skewed life for blacks and whites alike. It runs Oct. 16-Nov. 9.

HENRY V. Once a playboy and now a beloved king, the subject of Shakespeare’s historical play sets out to conquer France. Zut alors! The production from Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre runs Oct. 22 through Nov. 16.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Arthur Miller’s classic, in a production marking the late playwright’s 100th birthday, will be performed in a room set up for a shiva – the post-burial gatherings Jews hold to honor the dead and connect with the remaining living family members. Ego Po Classic Theater produces the play from Oct. 22 through Nov. 9.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It’s been a while, friends, so let’s do the Time Warp again. At Bucks County Playhouse from Oct. 23 through Nov. 2.

CAUGHT. Can you really believe Lin Bo? The Chinese artist is known for his no-holds-barred account of his imprisonment in China, but wait – an American publisher is not so certain it really happened that way. How do you know when you’re being smoothly conned? InterAct Theatre Company produces the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s play Oct. 24 through Nov. 16.

ASKING FOR IT. This adult entertainment is from Adrienne Truscott, who’s performed it in several festivals and elsewhere. It’s said to be a raw; for starters, she performs with nothing on below the torso except for shoes. The show explores, through comedy, whether it’s possible to laugh about rape. It includes bits of commentary from other comedians and is set to rock music. It was popular this year in the Edinburg Fringe Festival. Simpatico Theatre Project is bringing Truscott here to perform the show Oct. 24 through Nov. 16.

QUILLS. Scandalous author Marquis de Sade has been ordered to an asylum, but he’s determined that the authorities, who’ve taken away his quills and his paper, will not stop him from writing. The play by Doug Wright, who later wrote “I Am My Own Wife,” will be performed by Luna Theater Company from Oct. 25 through Nov. 15. 

NEWSIES. The Disney-produced musical, which closed this summer on Broadway after a two-year run there, is a neatly wrapped but sincere story taken from history at the turn of the last century. New York’s newsboys went up against the city’s monolith of newspaper publishers by refusing to work — an early instance of trade unionism, but this time with over-the-top dancing that will make you want to stomp on your newspaper in a whole different way. The show’s national tour launches here Oct. 28 through Nov. 2.

RED SPEEDO. On the eve of the Olympic trials, a swimmer looks forward to making the team and getting an endorsement contract from Speedo. But there are sudden problems. Lucas Hnath’s play had its world premiere in Washington, D.C., last year and is being done here by Theatre Exile, from Oct. 30 through Nov. 23. 

THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE. Madeleine George’s play looks at the ways technology has affected human relationships through a slice of history. She uses four characters to do so, including Dr. Watson (of the Sherlock Holmes stories) and the assistant to Alexander Graham Bell. Azuka Theatre presents the play, Nov. 5 through 23.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING. Ernest J. Gaines’ novel about an innocent and slow-witted young man condemned to death in Louisiana in 1948 has been adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney, and comes from Iron Age Theatre Company in Norristown, Nov. 8 through Dec. 1.

LOST IN YONKERS. Neil Simon’s Tony Award winner, a coming-of-age story about two boys suddenly living at their grandmother’s house, is considered by some to be his best play – a comedy with a serious edge. Bristol Riverside Theatre produces it Nov. 11 through Nov. 30.  

THE MATTER OF FRANK SCHAFER. Curio Theatre Company in West Philadelphia is creating this play about the Rev. Frank Schaefer, the Methodist minister from Lebanon, Pa., who was defrocked after he officiated at his son’s same-sex marriage ceremony, against the rules of the United Methodist Church. He was later “refrocked,” and now ministers in California. It runs Nov. 12 through Dec. 6.

GREETINGS! Souderton’s Montgomery Theater calls this play by Tom Dudzick “a balm for pre-holiday anxiety.” It’s about a young man who brings his sweetie home on Christmas Eve. He and his family are Catholic. She’s Jewish, but an atheist. Will Santa come anywhere near this chimney? It runs Nov. 12 through Dec. 7.

ARTHUR AND THE TALE OF THE RED DRAGON. This world-premiere panto – a traditional form of rowdy musical comedy in Britain and a trademark of People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern – follows the adventures of young Arthur, the would-be king. A red dragon’s on the loose and Arthur’s job is to set things right. He has panto-like help, of course: Merlin, the Dame of the Lake and a host of others. The holiday show runs Nov. 19 through Jan. 11.

THIS IS THE WEEK THAT WAS. The annual satirical take on local and national politics – this is its ninth year – is a staple of 1812 Productions, the city’s stage company devoted to laughter. The show changes a bit each night, according to the news of the day, and is generally packed with skits, musical numbers and impressive multi-media. It runs Nov. 28 through New Year’s Eve.

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