Summer is by no means a drought for local theater. Playgoing and picnicking are in full swing at American Players Theatre, and both Music Theatre of Madison and Mercury Players Theatre have shows this weekend.
Still, it's not too early for stage aficionados to start planning ahead. From bat-human hybrids to political skewering, it promises to be another eclectic season, with a show for every taste and budget.
Overture Center remains the place to be for splashy Broadway musicals like Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which swoops in for a brief run Dec. 6-11. Based on the animated film, it should be an appealing introduction to musical theater for young ones.
Blue Man Group is next in Overture's Broadway series. The shaved-headed, ultramarine-hued dudes bring their showy fusion of music, tech and all-around weirdness Jan. 24-29.
Shifting from film adaptations to TV, the ooky, spooky Addams Family arrive May 1-6. Like others my age, I grew up on reruns of the 1960s TV series that permanently lodged the theme song into my brain (I'd like that space back, please). The stage musical is in the same goth-with-giggles mold.
Rounding out the Broadway season are two time-tested shows: the classic Fiddler on the Roof (Feb. 24-26), with its memorable songs ("Tradition," "If I Were a Rich Man") and Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline spectacle Cats (March 16-18).
Overture isn't the only place to experience musical theater. You've got loads of options.
This weekend (July 28-30), Music Theatre of Madison stages The Glorious Ones at the Bartell Theatre. Set in the world of 16th-century commedia dell'arte, the show promises, according to promotional materials, "Sex, insolence, oratory, unrequited love, oddity, drama - and that's all before setting foot on the stage!" The New York Times dubbed it "both joyfully naughty and totally innocuous." While not well known, this 2007 show received numerous Drama Desk nominations, and MTM presents its Wisconsin premiere.
Madison Theatre Guild and Four Seasons Theatre join forces at the Bartell for Rent (Dec. 2-18), Jonathan Larson's rock opera about struggling to get by and create on New York's Lower East Side.
Also in the rock-musical genre is Encore Studio's You Name It, written by executive/artistic director KelsyAnne Schoenhaar. As the area's professional theater company for people with disabilities, Encore has earned a reputation for original subject matter that doesn't often appear on stage.
First produced in 2005, You Name It has been revamped for a fresh run at the Mary Dupont Wahlers Theatre (Jan. 5-14). Brodie, a support provider for people with disabilities, deals with the challenges of work, love, his band, turning 30 and a serious accusation.
Also this summer, Middleton Players Theatre stages Kander and Ebb's Chicago (Aug. 5-13), and Four Seasons Theatre presents My Fair Lady (Aug. 19-21) at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Lerner and Loewe's chestnut, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, includes such hummable tunes as "I Could Have Danced All Night," accompanied here by a full pit orchestra.
Next spring (March 25-27), in Overture Center's intimate Playhouse, Four Seasons stages the Great American Songbook Cabaret, featuring the work of our nation's greatest composers: Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and others.
Spring Green's American Players Theatre reprises its holiday musical The Gift of the Magi, drawn from the famed O. Henry short story. It's directed and co-written by APT's own James DeVita (Nov. 25-Dec. 18).
University Theatre begins the fall semester with a brief revival of its summer musical, [title of show] (Sept. 9-18), and ends it with Bat Boy: The Musical (Nov. 18-Dec. 10), based on the now-infamous tabloid tale about a boy/bat hybrid found living in a cave. Mixing camp horror with serious themes like hypocrisy, scapegoating and acceptance, this won't be standard fare.
If it's drama you're after, one of your best bets is Forward Theater, now entering its third season presenting plays at Overture Center. Things kick off with The Farnsworth Invention (Nov. 3-20), about the birth of television. The script was penned by Aaron Sorkin, better known for his film and TV work (The Social Network, The West Wing).
Next up is the premiere of A Thousand Words (Jan. 19-Feb. 5), by local playwright (and Forward communications director) Gwendolyn Rice. The concept is certainly intriguing: the art world is rocked by the discovery of long-lost photographs by Walker Evans, a legend best known for his iconic images of the Great Depression. The plot unfolds both in the 1930s and in the present.
Concluding Forward's season is Love Stories (April 12-29), a collection of three one-act plays on the theme of love. If that sounds sappy, consider the writers: George Bernard Shaw, Dorothy Parker and Bertolt Brecht. A socialist, a sharp-tongued member of the Algonguin Round Table, and a purveyor of the theater of alienation are not likely to drown us in mushy goo for an evening. Talented American Players Theatre actors Colleen Madden and James Ridge, married in real life, form the two-person cast.
Other promising dramas are in the schedules of resident Bartell companies Madison Theatre Guild, Strollers Theatre and Mercury Players Theatre. They include Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, to be staged by Madison Theatre Guild (Sept. 23-Oct. 8). This personal, Pulitzer-winning play is based on Albee's tense relationship with his adoptive mother. Other shows in the MTG season are Yankee Tavern (Feb. 24-March 10), a dramatic thriller by Steven Dietz, and Bridget Carpenter's quirky, bittersweet Up (May-29), not to be confused with the Pixar film.
Strollers takes on David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole (Aug. 26-Sept. 17), recently adapted into a film with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. It's a searing look at the toll the loss of a child takes on a marriage, yet it's not without some humor.
Becky Shaw, about a newlywed couple that fixes up two friends, will be staged by Mercury (May 4-19). Its dark twists and turns sound like classic Mercury fare.
University Theatre also has dramas on tap: poet and playwright Derek Walcott's Ti-Jean and His Brothers (Oct. 28-Nov. 12), based on a Caribbean folktale; and August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (March 2-17), which probes the exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
Kids will find a varied season at Children's Theater of Madison, beginning with The American Girls Revue (Oct. 8-23), based on the historical-fiction book series accompanying the popular dolls. For the holidays, A Christmas Carol returns (Dec. 9-23), featuring APT's James Ridge as Scrooge.
The rest of CTM's season offers two cute, critter-based shows based on popular children's books - Bunnicula (Feb. 11-19) and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (May 5-23) - and a darker one, Lord of the Flies (March 24-April 1). The stage adaptation of William Golding's classic novel should push local perceptions of children's theater (it's not just for kids, and it's not always cuddly) with its story of castaway schoolboys surviving in the absence of adult guidance and social order.
University Theatre stages a youth-oriented production each year. Pedro and the War Cantata, by Argentinean playwright María Inés Falconi, is the 2012 selection (March 23-31). Overture Center's touring plays for kids include Imaginocean (Oct. 16), Magic School Bus Live: The Climate Challenge (Jan. 21) and Twinkle Twonkle (March 10).
Those seeking new plays by Wisconsin writers have several places to turn, from Forward's A Thousand Words to Mercury Players' Talking Out of School: Plays by Wisconsin Teachers (Jan 5-21).
Broom Street Theater continues its tradition of responding to current events with The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, opening July 29 and running through Sept. 4. Given the state of our state, writer Doug Reed scrapped his plans to write a light comedy and instead delivers a political work he calls "Fakespeare" or "Fauxlizabethan." Later in Broom Street's season, you can catch The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Nov. 11-Dec. 18).
Other work by local playwrights will be staged at Encore Studio's Acts to Grind IV (Sept. 23-Oct. 8), its annual showcase of short plays, and its production of The Gentlemen (April 13-28), which explores the strengths and frailties of eight men, loosely based on individuals in its own company.
Kathie Rasmussen Women's Theater will hold an open-mike event Oct. 2, plus other readings throughout the fall, leading up to a spring 2012 production.
Also next spring, TAPIT/new works, never a company to shirk timely issues, will explore elder care in an original show, The Nora Play, at the Overture Center.
Heartfelt comedy features prominently in Strollers' upcoming season, Rabbit Hole notwithstanding. Neil Simon's The Good Doctor (Oct. 28-Nov. 19) is a briskly paced collection of vignettes inspired by Chekhov. After that, a blackout sets the stage for hilarity in Black Comedy (Jan. 20-Feb. 11). Strollers concludes its season with Beautiful Bodies (April 6-28), which illuminates women's bonds through a baby shower thrown by a group of longtime friends.
Other lighter picks include StageQ's Ghost of a Chance (Oct. 21-Nov. 5), which finds eight women snowbound at a B&B with a ghost, and its holiday romp Scrooge in Rouge (Dec. 1-17). After most of a theatrical production's cast members are stricken by food poisoning, it's up to three actors to soldier on and play all the roles themselves. And while not strictly comedic, StageQ's annual Queer Shorts play fest usually includes quite a few lighthearted segments. For holiday laughs, the Bricks Theatre will present The Santaland Diaries at an as-yet undisclosed location.
And if it's Shakespearean comedy you're after, University Theatre will stage Two Gentleman of Verona, helmed by frequent American Players Theatre director Ken Albers (April 20-May 5).
In these challenging times for the arts, local companies and venues - big and small - could use your support. With so much theater to choose from, you can treat yourself and feel good about supporting your arts community, too.