This fall's theater offerings seem to abide by the old adage of "everything old is new again"—or, more accurately, that everything new comes from something old. Whether it's revivals, updates or just examining history from a new perspective, the past weighs heavily in local theater, and plenty of it is worth reliving.
Here are some highlights:
Burning Coal's slate of darker, edgier contemporary productions takes a short break with its staging of one of the great old-school musicals, Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon (Sept. 6–23). Lest you think they've gone soft, their next production is Deirdre O'Connor's Jailbait (Sept. 27–Oct. 7), the tale of two high school girls posing as college students who run afoul of a couple of amorous thirtysomethings at a club. Justice Theater Project opens its fall with a play that went on to become an award-winning film with Frost/Nixon (Sept. 7–23), while Common Ground Theatre stages Owl Tree Theater for the People's production of Cary playwright Jesse A. Lowe's The Death of the Oldest Dog in the World (Sept. 13–22), a tale involving a quirky hero redeeming his life with help from his dead dog, superheroes and Sasquatch. Common Ground also hosts Ghost & Spice's production of Harold & Maude (Sept. 28–Oct. 13), the classic cinematic dark comedy of a suicidal rich boy who finds meaning in life thanks to an 80-year-old woman who crashes funerals.
For more dark comedy, Theatre in the Park opens its fall season with its production of the Pulitzer-winning Broadway hit Next to Normal (Sept. 7–23), perhaps the most successful musical ever to deal with bipolar disorder (directly, anyway). Perhaps appropriately enough for a hot show about bipolarity, there will be a second mounting in March, by Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theatre.
PlayMakers examines the past from alternate perspectives, first with the updated take on Homer's epic, An Iliad (Sept. 5–9), and then a trip into the mind of renowned painter Mark Rothko with John Logan's Tony winner, Red (Sept. 19–Oct. 7). In Durham, we're preparing our designated driver to accompany us to Richie, an all-female production of Shakespeare's Richard II that is also a pub crawl, produced by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern (Sept. 6–22). Finally, there's Manbites Dog's production of The Brothers Size (Sept. 13–29), Tarell Alvin McCraney's contemporary remix of West African myths in a wry, modern context that includes elements of poetry and hip-hop.
Summer is over, but it's worth checking out Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's production of Souvenir (Oct. 3–14), a musical look at Florence Foster Jenkins, one of the best bad singers in history. If you've never heard her work, go on YouTube—it's awful, hilarious and somehow strangely compelling.
The theatrical snob in me is reluctant to recommend N.C. Theatre's production of the Broadway version of the Reese Witherspoon hit Legally Blonde (Oct. 9–14), though I'll admit I saw a filmed production on MTV and the song "Omigod You Guys" is still going through my head. If you want your film adaptations a little more old-fashioned, check out the comic remake of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (Oct. 12–28) at Raleigh Little Theatre; PlayMakers' new update of Molière's Imaginary Invalid (Oct. 24–Nov. 11); or Deep Dish's production of Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (Oct. 26–Nov. 17)
Should you want something a little more offbeat, check out Manbites Dog's Other Voices production of Torry Bend's The Paper Hat Game (Oct. 18–Nov. 3), which combines puppetry, soundscapes, video and more to create an entire city within a paper hat. Previously produced for a limited run at Duke in 2011, it promises to be a surreal evening.
Of course the biggest (or at least most promoted) theatrical event of the month, if not the fall, is the touring production of War Horse (Oct. 2–7) at the Durham Performing Arts Center. The nonmusical tale of a boy, his horse and World War I has driven grown men to tears around the world and inspired last year's Spielberg film, and tickets are still sold out for ages on Broadway. Having attended a media preview of the show a few months ago, which included an encounter with the main horse puppet, Joey, I can say that the creation's effect is uncannily like that of a real horse, and I look forward to having my tears jerked.
November is a particularly good month to hang out at Raleigh's Progress Energy Center. A number of offbeat productions head through, starting with Broadway Series South and N.C. Theatre's production of Catch Me If You Can (Nov. 6–11), the musical of the hit Spielberg con artist film that never quite made it on Broadway. Will the touring production find its audience? There's also the Carolina Ballet's production of Nutcracker (which plays dates between Nov. 23 and Dec. 30 in DPAC and UNC's Memorial Hall in addition to Raleigh) and the North Carolina Symphony's special concert of The Wizard of Oz (Nov. 23–24). Both are excellent productions for your kids, though they'll be more likely to want to see Shrek: The Musical (Nov. 27–Dec. 2), another film adaptation, and another case of a big-scale musical that didn't make back its investment on Broadway, hitting the tour circuit.
If you need something more adult after all that kiddie stuff, we recommend Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's ambitiously conceived production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County (Nov. 29–Dec. 9), the tale of an Oklahoma family whose dysfunction would make Eugene O'Neill go "Damn!"
Independent contributor Adam Sobsey co-directs with Akiva Fox a revival of Manbites Dog's first production, Jeffrey M. Jones' Seventy Scenes of Halloween (Nov. 29–Dec. 15). Continuing the spooky theme, Burning Coal offers a production of Conor McPherson's Irish ghost story Shining City (Nov. 1–18), then goes non-spooky for a production of the Bard's As You Like It (Nov. 29–Dec. 6).
And to kick off the holiday season, try PlayMakers' offbeat take on It's a Wonderful Life (Nov. 28–Dec. 16), which takes the form of a 1940 radio play version of the movie (odd, as the story the film was based on was actually published several years later, and the film came out in 1946). It's likely to be much shorter than Gatz, the similarly styled production of The Great Gatsby off-Broadway a few years back.
The theater scene slows down a bit at the end of the year, but there's always Ira David Wood's annual production of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 6–12 at Progress Energy Center and Dec. 15–16 at DPAC), with its musical numbers, lavish sets and numerous local/ topical references.
For a more offbeat take on the holidays, there's Common Ground Theatre's Durham-set A Trailer Park Christmas (Dec. 9–22), or on a more serious note, the Justice Theater Project's staging of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity (Dec. 20–23). There'll also be a few throwbacks to old-style rock, starting with the touring production of Million Dollar Quartet (Dec. 4–9) at DPAC, a fictionalization of the 1956 jam session between Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; check YouTube for footage of the actual Jerry Lee playing with the cast at a show.
If you can't get tickets for Quartet, stick around for Under the Street Lamp (Dec.14–15) at Progress Energy Center, in which a mix of former Jersey Boys leads do a jukebox compilation of old-time rock hits. It might be recycling twice-over, but like we said earlier, everything new is old again this fall—which is not always a bad thing.
Byron Woods' take on the fall season appears next week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Curtain raising."