Culture News

Robrt Pela's Guide to Theater in Phoenix During the 2015-16 Season

The good news is that no one among us will go broke seeing every single interesting and innovative theater production this coming season. The bad news is that commerce dictates another year of More of the Same. The exceptions are worth noting.

Perhaps taking a cue from Phoenix Theatre, which has recently partnered with indie company Nearly Naked to produce some riskier material (like the sexy rock musical Spring Awakening in 2012), Arizona Theatre Company has added a seventh show, a co-production with edgy indie Stray Cat Theatre. The season-opening Sex with Strangers is Laura Eason's lurid comedy about what happens when a trick turns into something more complicated — a premise less chaste than ATC audiences are accustomed to.

Elsewhere, ATC is planning an expensive Of Mice and Men, another Hershey Felder program (this time he's Irving Berlin), a Stephen Schwartz revue (titled Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook, it collects some of Schwartz's biggest hits along with lesser-known material in a new book musical) and August Wilson's Fences. More exciting is its late-fall production of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, the critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit about race and identity.

Black Theatre Troupe is taking another swipe at The Black Nativity, then using those holiday ticket sales to pay for a pair of chancy plays by Kansas City playwright Frank Higgins. The Taste Test, Higgins' randy meditation on race identity, will be directed by Anthony Runfola, while Higgins' Black Pearl Sings, inspired by the discovery of American music legend Lead Belly, will close the season. In between, BTT will present Looking Over The President's Shoulder, yet another adaptation of the life of Alonzo Fields (the movie Lee Daniels' The Butler is better known), the White House butler who gave up his dream of becoming an opera singer to wait on presidents.

Southwest Shakespeare will this year offer The Merry Wives of Windsor and another go at Othello, and will open with Terry Johnson's must-see Hysteria, a Royal Court Theatre smash from 1993 that imagines a tea party donnybrook between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí.

If Phoenix Theatre's mainstage season — Chicago, The Wizard of Oz, Calendar Girls, Evita, and a Walt Disney bio called When You Wish — reads like a list of worn-out retreads and super-safe jukebox musicals, that's because it's a list of worn-out retreads and super-safe jukebox musicals. PT is offsetting this unusually-dreary-even-for-them lineup with some slightly hipper work in its second-stage Hormel Theatre. These include The Toxic Avenger, a musicalization of the 1984 Michael Herz/Lloyd Kaufman film, a third rerun of Avenue Q, and The Magic Books, an original piece for young audiences written by artistic director Michael Barnard and resident dramaturge Pasha Yamotahari. This one reimagines famous fairy tale characters interacting in contemporary settings, because Stephen Sondheim did not already do this.

Stray Cat Theatre, nomadic this season while it prepares its 2016 residency at Tempe Center for the Arts, is making its own freshman attempt at musical theater with Heathers: The Musical, based on the Daniel Waters film and directed by Louis Farber with choreography by Nicole Olsen of Scorpius Dance Theatre. That one's at Tempe Performing Arts Center, while company founder Ron May will direct Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird, a sort-of adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts in March. May also will direct Green Day's American Idiot, a sung-through adaptation of the punk band's rock opera.

Rather than dabbling in cutting-edge musicals, the newly founded A/C Theatre Company intends to produce nothing but. Its first season of to-be-determined shows, one in March and another in July, will be offered at Phoenix Theatre's new Hardes Theatre space.

No word yet on what's coming from Nearly Naked Theatre, Teatro Bravo, or Arizona Women's Theater Company, although we can assume none of these three will bring us West Side Story or Auntie Mame. Please, God?

Childsplay bills itself as "Theater for Children and Families," but if his past work is any indication, no one of any age or orientation will want to miss Dwayne Hartford's Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan in April. iTheatre Collaborative has Irish playwright Conor McPherson's three-monologue Port Authority in October. And while Peoria's Theater Works is taking the musical low road with such as Man of La Mancha and a Neil Diamond jukebox, it will be interesting to see what they do with Christopher Durang's angsty Vania and Sonia and Masha and Spike next year. Also in the West Valley, Glendale's Brelby Theatre continues to take risks with mostly original work from its writers circle, including a summertime piece based on L. Frank Baum's Oz stories.

Fans of warhorse musicals, fear not: Scottsdale Musical Theatre hasn't forsaken either Gypsy or Hello, Dolly!, and Desert Stages has promised to trot out Hair, Annie, and Thoroughly Modern Millie for the umpteenth time. Mesa Encore Theatre knows we can't have a theater season without Fiddler on the Roof and The Wiz, and Theater League, well, just throw a handful of darts at a list of done-to-death musicals, and you can finish this paragraph — and this column — for me.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela