Shakespeare Theater's Richard III is one production in the company's lineup.

Season of the Switch

I hesitate to expect too much from any theater season, but the upcoming calendar of plays and musicals certainly looks more interesting than the last several have. This season, old Will is hotter than ever, and there are more musical tributes than you can shake a baton at. If there are few surprises on any company's roster, the list of risky and oddball programs is longer than usual and a lot more exciting.

Shakespeare nuts will delight in a veritable Bard-o-rama from theaters large and small: Arizona Theatre Company kicks off its season with a big-budget Much Ado About Nothing, and Actors Renaissance Theater is winding up its successful run of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Even the teeny Is What It Is Theatre is planning a deconstruction of Macbeth in October -- all this in addition to full seasons from both Southwest Shakespeare and Shakespeare Theater, which has settled into its new home on Phoenix Theatre's Cookie Company stage.

The former gypsies of Nearly Naked Theater have taken up residency on the same stage; they will present provocative plays at night in the same spot where PT entertains kiddies during the day. Several other companies have relocated as well: After more than two decades, Black Theatre Troupe has abandoned its very own Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts as it prepares for residency at the Herberger Theater Center; this season, BTT will perform half of its season on Herberger's Stage West, the other half at Phoenix College's John Paul Theater. Ensemble Theatre, evicted from its Scottsdale playhouse last season, has yet to turn up anywhere, despite rumors about its new Camelback home.

Unfortunately, and as ever, there's the usual pile of Neil Simon comedies (insert retching sounds here). Algonquin Theater is sullying its reputation with Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Anything-for-a-buck-as-long-as-it's-humdrum Tempe Little Theater is surprising no one by including Plaza Suite on its roster, and two separate companies are preparing to unleash Rumors on their audiences. Run screaming!

Not every community theater is playing it safe. Actors Renaissance Theatre is planning an Oscar Wilde Festival in January, and Arizona Jewish Theatre is dusting off Clifford Odets's stunning but rarely seen Awake and Sing. I'm looking forward to Black Theatre Troupe's season opener next month: the little-known courtroom fantasy The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae.

The big guys also are tossing out some enticing and atypical fare. Actors Theatre of Phoenix continues to push the artistic envelope, most notably with Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Angels in America; Millennium Approaches and Perestroika will be performed on alternating days in September and October. The same company is hoping to entice sports fans (do they even know what the Herberger is?) with Richard Dresser's baseball comedy Rounding Third in March. And Arizona Theater Company has scheduled a groundbreaking wind-up to its season with RepFest, a repertory of three plays that will play simultaneously in May.

The usual musical suspects are being trotted out again; you'll have to duck to avoid the likes of Camelot and A Chorus Line and two different productions of The Fantasticks. But a run on musical revues might just take the edge off: Black Theatre Troupe's Dinah Was celebrates Dinah Washington, and Phoenix Theatre toasts Mr. Porter with Red Hot and Cole. Faraway Desert Foothills Theatre will weigh in with Sweet and Hot: The Songs Of Harold Arlen; meantime, I'm counting the days until that company's October-slated Simply Sammy, because a revue about the life, times and tunes of Sammy Davis Jr. can't help but be cool. Let's hope they've enticed local Concord Jazz artist Dennis Rowland to play Sammy; if not Dennis, then who?

Speaking of locals, our own playwrights are given short shrift this season, although former Phoenician Michael Grady's wonderful Baylin's Monster will be revived by Nearly Naked in April, and Guillermo Reyes will premiere a new English-language play, Places to Touch Him, at his own Teatro Bravo later this month.

None of this will matter to those among us who visit the theater only once a year, and only then to see bus-and-truck musicals. Those folks are biding their time until Valley Broadway swings in with The Full Monty in December or, more likely, the road company of The Producers, which begins an extended run at Gammage in January. For the rest of us, there's more of the same and some little extras to look forward to. For everybody else, there's David Cassidy Live! in April.


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