The Philadelphia theater season swings into spring

 The cast of

The cast of "Lizzie", a rock musical about Lizzie Borden, from 11th Hour Theatre Company. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Kontz)

The extraordinary range of productions on Philadelphia-area stages this spring is proof that theater here is vibrant – and that local audiences who support it welcome an impressive array of ideas. The shows I’ve chosen to spotlight represent about half the productions planned by local professional companies during the spring season, which runs from now through mid-summer.

I can’t vouch for them, of course – except for a couple of shows that just opened, they’re yet to be staged. But they’re ripe with promise because the casts and crews have proved themselves time and again, or the plays have had buzzes in other cities, or the playwrights are worth watching or … well, they just seem like they could provoke interest.

For more information about any of them – specific times, dates and venues – Google the names of the theater companies.

Far-out and unexpected. “Constellations,” just now opening in a production by Wilma Theater, was an engrossing experience on Broadway two years ago – as well as big surprise. It’s a play that repeats itself again and again, each time with increased meaning. … “Hand to God” at Philadelphia Theatre Company, involves a demonic hand puppet and an outré plot. It also played Broadway two years ago. People tend to either greatly dislike the play (count me in!) for its desperation and smuttiness, or celebrate it for precisely the same things, even comparing it to morality plays of yore.

Brand new (and possibly brave). Theatre Horizon presents the world premiere of “White,” by the impressive local theater artist James Ijames. It’s about an artist who hires an actress to call his work her own in order to give it a “new perspective” that might attract a museum, and it promises to explore race, gender, sexuality and art. … Karen Hartman’s “Project Dawn,” a world premiere opening at People’s Light in June, is about a Philadelphia revolutionary court founded by a funny group of women who try to transform the lives of other women repeatedly convicted of prostitution. … The 19th-century painter Edward Hicks inspires another admired local theater artist, Mary Tuomanen, whose stage fable “Peaceable Kingdom” gets a world premiere from Orbiter 3 in May. The theater company was founded to present new work by Philadelphia playwrights over three years, and this is its third year.

Brand new (and possibly spooky). The talented Philadelphia-based playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger gets a world premiere at Azuka Theatre in May with “The Arsonist.” It’s about a woman whose dad dies in an arson, and who embarks on a journey with his ghost. … “Adapt!” opens mid-March and is the first full-length play by Blanka Zizka, at the Wilma Theater she helms. It involves a young woman who (like Zizka) flees from Czechoslovakia and who (probably unlike Zizka) encounters a woman from an extinct Slavic tribe.

The surreal. In InterAct Theatre Company’s “You for Me for You,” two North Korean sisters, attempting to flee, are separated at the border and must race across time and space to be reunited. It opens in late March.

The American Songbook. You probably can’t get a more respected Philly cast of actors this spring than the Arden offers in its production of the storied musical “Gypsy,” opening mid-May. … “West Side Story” takes the stage of Media Theatre, opening mid-March.

Possible dark horse. You never know what’s going to be a dark-horse hit. But you may have a feel for it. I’m going with “Lizzie,” a rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden story, 40 whacks and all. The musical production, on now, is from 11th Hour Theatre Company.

New Jersey stages. Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J., presents the musical “John and Jen.” It examines the relationships between a brother and sister, and a mother and son, and opens in mid-March. … Cape May Stage opens “Billy Bishop Goes to War” in late May – lasting through the first part of the Shore season. The energetic musical (there’s a martial arts sequence) marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.

Old standards. Agatha Christie’s enduring “Witness for the Prosecution” plays Bristol Riverside Theatre in May. … “Anna,” created by theater-maker Brenna Geffers and the ensemble of Ego Po Classic Theater, is a world-premiere adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” beginning at the end of March. … Another new adaptation, from Matt Tallman and Hedgerow Theatre Company just outside Media, is “The Prisoner of Zenda.” The adventure, about a secret stand-in for a king, was written by 19th-century novelist Anthony Hope and this stage version opens at the end of March. 

From Broadway. The Tony-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” was terrific on Broadway, where the story about an inventive boy with autism just ended its run. This national tour, part of the Kimmel Center’s Broadway tour series, should echo the quality of the Broadway production, which offered constant surprises in its staging and plot. It’s a bona-fide theatrical experience  — and apart from most Broadway tours, not a musical.

On the way to New York. Prolific Philly-based playwright Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” which looks at racial bias from different perspectives, plays at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company in February, then moves Off-Broadway in March.

Laffs, we got a million of ‘em. Oscar Wilde’s deliciously elegant “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a bracing commentary in the form of a comedy, opens in mid-March on the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre. … It’s “Happy Birthday” when Bernard decides to fete his mistress, with his wife present. 1812 Productions, the nation’s only theater company devoted fully to comedy, opens the show in late April. … In late March, Bucks County Playhouse opens the one-man show “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy,” noted for its funny-bone look at, well, what the title says. … Curio Theatre in West Philadelphia presents “The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary,” which tickles the original tale in a version by Britain’s loopy Peepolykus theater group. It opens at April’s end. … Isis Performs, presenting a show a year in the 5th-floor space of Walnut Street Theatre, is doing “The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s mostly funny play about a dying man surrounded by his mouthy family.

Blasts from the past. Jean Giraudoux’s “The Enchanted,” about a French schoolteacher obsessed with the super-natural, opens in February from the spirited Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. … In the 1600s, John Ford wrote “The Broken Heart,” about a woman who’s married off to a powerful man instead of the poor student she adores. Quintessence Theatre Group in Mount Airy presents the drama, beginning at the end of March. …Also in the 1600s, John Webster wrote “The White Devil,” about a woman charged with murder, her questionable brother, and betrayal. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective stages the play in May.

A Grab Bag. (No specific category here, but a range of productions worth considering.) The recently revived series of productions at New Freedom Theatre includes “Mother Emanuel,” a play with music about the mass shooting and hate crime in 2015 that killed nine people at Bible study inside one of America’s oldest black churches, in Charleston, S.C. The show, opening in April, couldn’t be more germane; the white supremacist murderer has recently been sentence to death. … Three thinkers oppose each other in a battle of intellects in Lantern Theater Company’s “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” opening in June. … Love and security are at war in “Ironbound,” named after the Newark neighborhood where a Polish woman tries to sort through her encounters with the American dream. Simpatico Theatre stages the play in March. … Theatre Exile presents “Buzzer,” about a black attorney and his white girlfriend in their new Brooklyn apartment, and a guy who comes straight from rehab to crash with them. It opens in May. … “Tomfoolery” is a revue of songs by the satirist Tom Lehrer, opening at the end of February in Ambler’s Act II Playhouse. …  “Leper + Chip” is a Dublin story of boy-meets-gal during a nasty argument, staged in February by Inis Nua Theatre Company. …  “Sisters of Swing: The Story of the Andrews Sisters,” is just what it says. The singing sibs and their music are depicted at Montgomery Theatre in Souderton, beginning mid-April.  

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