The two biggest box-office draws of the stage season will be musicals with elements of the supernatural: Famous Artists’ Wicked and the Syracuse Stage-Syracuse University Drama Department co-production of Mary Poppins. We’ll have a record number of new works, unknown titles, and revivals of almost forgotten works like Carlo Gozzi’s King Stag. Many shows court controversy, like The Tomkat Project on the Church of Scientology, or Disgraced, about Islam in America. And zombies will walk the earth in Night of the Living Dead.
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Two musicals. Two slices of comfort food. And for an element of risk, two Pulitzer Prize winners, one of them a recent controversial Broadway hit. Although this fall marks the beginning of artistic director Robert M. Hupp’s tenure at Syracuse Stage (820 E. Genesee St.; 433-3275), these six selections are legacies of the lessons Timothy Bond learned in his time here.
A co-production with Cleveland Playhouse, Charles Dickens’ How I Learned to Drive (April 5-23) launches the season. Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation of the sprawling Victorian novel assigns 40 characters to six players. Not a spoof like 39 Steps or Baskerville, Daly’s Expectations respects the integrity of familiar characters like convict Magwitch, the embittered Miss Havisham and the beautiful Estella while charting orphaned Pip’s rise to respectability.
In thinking about Mary Poppins (Nov. 26-Jan. 8), the big holiday co-production with SU Drama, the first name to remember is adapter Julian Fellowes, best-known for the PBS series Downton Abbey. He cuts much of the treacle from the 1964 Walt Disney film while retaining most of the musical numbers and adding many more. Living legend choreographer Anthony Salatino and one of the company’s favorite directors, Peter Amster (Baskerville), guarantee satisfaction.
Although only 90 minutes long, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Disgraced (Jan. 25-Feb. 12) will be the most controversial production since Scorched three years ago. Amir Kapour, a deeply assimilated Pakistani-American, affluent and successful with a beautiful American wife, loses it all at an explosive dinner party. This is not an escape from the tensions we live with, but a penetrating look into them. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (March 1-26) revives one of the supreme poets of Tin Pan Alley, Fats Waller.
Then it’s back to controversy with Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive (April 5-23). The girl known as Li’l Bit remembers her potentially hurtful relationship with an older relative and how it changed her. Time has been kind to Ira Levin’s masterwork thriller, Deathtrap (May 10-28). Writers no longer use typewriters, and photocopiers assure us against the destruction of a single manuscript, but the central premise of the play about the perfect play remains vital and surprising.
A 75-minute drive from Clinton Square, the always innovative Kitchen Theatre Company (417 W. State St., Ithaca; (607) 272-0570) continues to draw Central New Yorkers to professionally produced, cutting-edge shows. Robert Askins’ outrageous Hand to God (Sept. 4-25) depicts the inherent dangers in running a church puppet club in Cypress, Texas. One of them might be possessed by the Devil himself.
The original musical Precious Nonsense (Oct. 16-Nov. 6) features a score by Sir Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, with new lyrics by Kitchen artistic director Rachel Lampert. The first act takes music from little-performed G&S shows to portray a struggling theater company trying to round up a cast for a production of The Pirates of Penzance. The second act, a truncated version of Pirates, allows for a side-by-side comparison to see how well Lampert did. The rhythm fast-forwards to hip-hop in the British musical, Darian Dauchan’s Death Boogie (Nov. 15-Dec. 4). It’s a solo performance, with multiple characters, about an ordinary office worker who dreams of revolution.
The new year begins with the world premiere of Birds of East Africa (Jan. 29-Feb. 12) by Wendy Dann, a company regular. Marion is unprepared to deal with the loss and sudden death of her young husband. The area premiere of Laura Eason’s Sex With a Stranger (March 12-April 2) depicts what happens when a 20-something blogger finds himself waylaid in a remote cabin with a 40-ish mid-career novelist. Eason, from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater, is also a writer for Netflix’s House of Cards.
The revival of Alexander Thomas’ Throw Pitchfork (April 23-May 7) is an autobiographical exploration of masculinity in black America. Finally, Brian Dykstra burst upon the scene in Ithaca 10 years ago with Clean Alternatives (June 4-18), an incisive, hilarious ecological satire. It won acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe; this is a chance to see it again.
Generations of Central New Yorkers have been introduced to Broadway glamour through Famous Artists/NAC Enterprises (241 W. Fayette St.; 424-8210), the series Murray Bernthal founded after World War II. Four shows run at the Landmark Theatre (362 S. Salina St.). Jersey Boys (Sept. 15-18) time-warps audiences back to the creation of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The prequel to Oz, the box office smash Wicked (March 15-26), will be one of the biggest local draws of the year. Beautiful (April 18-23) pays tribute to the music of Carole King, while Motown (May 16-21) is all about the Detroit sound.
The Mulroy Civic Center’s Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater (411 Montgomery St.) will host a trio of Famous Artists musicals. Multiple Tony-winner Once (Oct. 18-20) adapts the sleeper Irish film about a street musician. Rent (Nov. 15-17), the update of Puccini’s La Boheme, is on a 20th anniversary tour. Also celebrating 20 years is the high-stepping Irish show Riverdance (Feb. 28-March 2).
Artistic director Lawrence Loh will open the 42nd season of Syracuse Opera (411 Montgomery St.; 476-7372) with Gioacchino Rossini’s much-loved but little-seen La Cenerentola or Cinderella (Oct. 28, 30). The Ugly Stepsisters are not to be missed, but the ending is reassuringly realistic. The vengeful dwarf in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (Feb. 10, 12) returns to Syracuse for the sixth time. Less often seen but sure to be an audience favorite will be Tchaikovsky’s three-act Eugene Onegin (April 7, 9), sung in Russian. The productions will take place at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater (411 Montgomery St.).
There are also a few shows left in the pipeline from Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (Emerson Park, 6877 East Lake Road (Route 38A); 255-1785, (800) 457-8897). The season continues with homages to Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis as the Million Dollar Quartet (Sept. 15-Oct. 1), the Rosemary Clooney musical salute Tenderly (Oct. 5-19) and the jazzy review Smokey Joe’s Cafe (Nov. 2-19).
Press releases from the Redhouse Arts Center (201 S. West St.; 425-0405) assure us that despite the abrupt midsummer departure of the previous producing artistic director, Stephen Svoboda, we can expect completion of the company’s announced plans. The move to Redhouse@City Center (formerly the Sibley’s department store on South Salina Street) will continue. Familiar faces including Laura Austin, John Bixler, Bell Wells and Aubry Panek will still be seen. And many items from the ambitious and diverse schedule announced in early summer will be completed.
First up is the R-rated, Tony-winning puppet musical Avenue Q (Sept. 15-Oct. 1). A recent college graduate named Princeton finds that life has not worked out the way Sesame Street had promised in childhood. Entirely G-rated is one of the most successful of all Alan Menken-Howard Ashman Disney adaptations, Beauty and the Beast (Dec. 1-17), the 2003 Tony winner. Hillside Family of Agencies will partner for this production.
Ron Ruggiero’s review, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn (Jan. 19-28), will be seen only in the small, upstairs Lab Theater. Syracuse native Marissa Mulder will return to the main stage for her review, Forever My Friend: The Songs of Ray LaMontagne (Feb. 9-11). The witty and brilliant Six Degrees of Separation (March 9-19) is John Guare’s greatest play, exposing hypocrisies of race and class. A smooth con man wheedles his way into the household of a privileged family by pretending to be the son of black actor Sidney Poitier.
And the repertory productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and The Bomb-itty of Errors (May 4-20) continues a Svoboda-era tradition. Two works are performed with largely the same cast, on mostly the same set, inviting the audience to see how one work interrogates the secrets of the other. Both are deconstructions of the Bard’s texts, Bomb-itty with a rap beat.
Artistic director Dustin Czarny’s Central New York Playhouse (Shoppingtown Mall; 885-8960) boasts a 4,500-square-foot theater space that will field the most diverse offerings of anybody: Sondheim and punk rock, the Bard and the dead, as well as original works by local playwrights. This fall brings Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (Sept. 16-Oct. 1), followed by a staged version of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (Oct. 21-Nov. 5). The highlight of the fall will be the premiere of Len Fonte’s Melagrana (Nov. 11-19), about an American woman’s misadventures in Sicily. Audiences for workshop productions with Armory Square Players have been highly enthusiastic. For the holidays it will be a fully staged version of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (Dec. 2-17), not a one-man recreation or a spoof.
In the winter slot, the playhouse will present the celebrated board game Clue (Jan. 13-28), followed by Sarah Ruhl’s offbeat Eurydice (Feb. 10-18), a new realization of the ancient myth, and John Steinbeck’s realist classic Of Mice and Men (March 10-25). The revival of Neil Simon’ s The Odd Couple (April 14-29), once the most visible of stage comedies, was voted by current patrons as the production they’d most like to see from the company’s previous incarnation as Not Another Theater Company, which ran from 2009 to 2012 at the Locker Room on Hiawatha Boulevard. Also on the slate: Shakespeare’s tragic moor Othello (May 12-20) and what Czarny says will be the blowout of the season, John Kander and Fred Ebb’ s Chicago (June 16-July 1). The company has been struggling to get the rights at its inception and will pull out the stops with this one.
Now in its 12th year, Dan Tursi’s always adventuresome Rarely Done Productions (performances at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.; 546-3224) has released the titles for four productions at press time, with two more still in negotiation. Del Shores’ Sordid Lives (Oct. 7-22), a black comedy about white trash, features three generations of a Texas family gathering for a funeral where we learn some sad truths. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Tell Me on A Sunday (Nov. 4-19) features Erin Williamson Sills as an English girl journeying across America in search of love and adventure. Jamie Morris, author of The Facts of Life: The Lost Episodes, pays raunchy homage to a landmark 1991 movie thriller in The Silence of the Clams (Feb. 10-18).
In what promises to be one of the season’s most controversial productions, Brandon Ogborn’s The Tomkat Project (Feb. 24-March 11) employs actual interviews to disclaim the marriage of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and the Church of Scientology; her first divorce, his third. Finally, Sara Weiler and Paul Thompson will portray the two lovers in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years (April 21-May 6), the musical deconstruction of a love affair and marriage over a five-year period.
Baldwinsville Theatre Guild (performances at the Presbyterian Educational Center, 64 Oswego Road, Baldwinsville), the area’s longest-running community theater group, will finish outlining its 75th season in mid-September, but two dates are certain now. William Edward White will direct Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (Sept. 23-Oct. 8), based on the life of grotesquely deformed John Merrick of Victorian England, and unrelated to David Lynch’s 1980 on the same subject with the same title. And Henry Wilson will stage a revival of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (Jan. 27-Feb. 11).
Now in its 57th year, Jack Skillman’s dinner theater company Onondaga Hillplayers (673-2255) continues to thrive at the Marcellus Golf Club (formerly the Links at Sunset Ridge), 2814 W. Seneca Turnpike, Marcellus. This year offers Neil Simon’s California Suite (Oct. 28-Nov. 6), with veteran director Robert “Tank” Steingraber in charge of the antics.
While much in evidence in Thornden Park during the summer, when the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival (476-1835) comes indoors, it chooses different roots. Although details were sketchy at press time, veteran director Judith Harris will helm Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session (Dec. 2-4), about the great psychologist’s encounter with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, at the Community Foundation Ballroom, 431 E. Fayette St. Other productions take place at the Cantor Warehouse Theater, 350 W. Fayette St., including the Marx Brothers musical Animal Crackers (Feb. 10-19) and Cormac McCarthy’s Sunset Limited (April 1-9), with Tony Brown directing.
Young at Heart
At the Syracuse University Drama Department (820 E. Genesee St.; 443-3275), faculty directors fight any impulse for group think, and each one points the company in a different direction. Anthony Salatino points toward famed Italian director Federico Fellini for a production of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s Nine (Sept. 30-Oct. 8), a musical version of the master’s classic film 8 1/2, to be performed in the Archbold Theatre. New faculty member Katherine McGerr will introduce us to Laura and the Sea (Nov. 4-13), a new comedy about depression and a meditation on human connection in the digital age, which involves a top travel agent who never leaves the office. Next comes Mary Poppins (Nov. 26-Jan. 8), the aforementioned co-production with Syracuse Stage.
Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806), one of the ultimate champions of commedia del’arte, might be unfamiliar to many playgoers but is hardly unknown. Broadway director Julie Taymor’s revival of Gozzi’s Stag King (Feb. 17-26) helped to launch her career. Felix Ivanov directs here. The best-known title of the season is Major Barbara (March 31-April 9), one of George Bernard Shaw’s most enduring social comedies. Undershaft the arms manufacturer battles the Salvation Army for men and women’s souls, under Gerardine Clark’s direction. Finally, experienced song and dance man David Lowenstein will bring us Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill (May 5-13). How many people realize that the man who wrote “Mack the Knife” also wrote “September Song”?
Performances from Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Drama Club (1419 Salt Springs Road; 445-4523) take place at the state-of-the-art facility of the W. Carroll Coyne Center for the Performing Arts. Professor Matt Chiorini, one of the most skilled directors in the area, is jolting the company in an entirely different direction. He made his mark here with literary modernism, like Eugene Ionesco, Federico Garcia Lorca and Mikhail Bulgakov, but this season the fare is more what might be called broad market.
Heathers: The Musical (Feb. 16-25) is a recent off-Broadway hit based on the landmark 1989 film with a young, bitchy Winona Rider. Marc Camoletti’s Boeing, Boeing (March 16-25) is a classic French sex farce, with successions of slamming doors, each one revealing a stewardess from a different nation. Once flattened into a Jerry Lewis movie, it was restored to glory by Mark Rylance in the last decade.