Hail to the chiefs: 44 Plays for 44 Presidents at Forward Theater.
The 2012-13 theater season brings sheer abundance. There are international blockbusters and works by local folks, and many companies are undertaking ambitious projects: new work or selections that aren't easy choices, whether in scale or subject matter.
Home to four companies, the Bartell Theatre is an important fixture in the Madison scene. Recently it has faced significant financial struggles, but things are looking up, according to Sarah Hoover of the Bartell Theatre Foundation. Donations have more than doubled, she says, and while the Bartell can still use help, it looks like the doors will stay open this season.
The Bartell's saga is a good reminder that your support matters. Whatever you do this year, go see some shows.
Love is in the air
A few shows stand out as especially love-centric. The Story of My Life (Feb. 1-16), at StageQ, takes a sweet look at our earliest friendships through the story of two lifelong pals. Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music (Aug. 10-19) at Four Seasons Theatre sets love, in all its variations, to music.
Four Seasons continues the theme with She Loves Me (Dec. 7-16), a love story about two anonymous pen pals. They fight in daily life, not knowing the one they love to hate is also the one they love. More complicated affection - this time, between a mentor and her mentee - is dissected in Collected Stories (Jan. 17-Feb. 3), produced by Forward Theater Company.
Those who don't learn from history are doomed to miss out on a good laugh. Perfectly timed with the upcoming presidential election, Forward Theater Company's 44 Plays for 44 Presidents (Sept. 20-Oct. 7) narrates the lives of U.S. presidents - all 44 of them. Five actors take audiences on a romp through their biographies, using music, comedy and dance.
Mercury Players Theatre heads back to the McCarthy era in The Opiate of the Missus (Oct. 12-27). Congressman Willie Moore's campaign is going great until his wife climbs into a tree house to hear God's voice. This show is made up of the stuff we don't talk about at dinner parties - politics, religion and the voices we hear in our own heads - which means it's likely to be funny and strange.
Set in 1926 Wisconsin, Strollers Theatre's Paragon Springs (Sept. 14-Oct. 6) is an adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Paragon Springs examines the power of capitalism and greed when the "healing waters" of a small town are poisoned.
In Lettice and Lovage (Sept. 21-Oct. 6), the lines between history and fiction get tangled when a docent at a British historical home decides to spice up her tours. Madison Theatre Guild presents this comedy by Peter Shaffer, who also penned Amadeus and Equus.
Someone else's shoes
Theater helps us understand the complexities of the human experience. This season, shows offer insight into the lives of others.
Written and directed by Broom Street Theater's Callen Harty, The Bottom of the Sea Is Cruel (Sept. 14-Oct. 6) looks at the life of poet Hart Crane, specifically his struggle with his sexual identity and alcoholism.
Encore Studio for the Performing Arts is one of very few professional theater companies for people with disabilities. The company's Going to Temple (Jan. 25-Feb. 9) is the tale of the cross-country trip of a woman with autism. In the spring, Encore reprises Real Life (April 12-27), which it's produced to sold-out houses. Real Life is a documentary-like look into the lives of four people with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome. More than an account of how the characters survive, Real Life shows how they thrive.
Madison Theatre Guild presents the rock musical Next to Normal (Nov. 30-Dec. 15), a choice that is ambitious and exciting. Next to Normal has gotten a lot of buzz since it opened on Broadway in 2009, and it has been recognized with three Tonys and a Pulitzer. Honest but hopeful, it follows the life of a mother with bipolar disorder.
After that, MTG presents The Road to Mecca (Feb. 22-March 9). Set in South Africa in the 1970s, it's the story of a woman who, inspired by a vision, turns her home into a work of art, filling her yard with statues and adorning the walls with mosaics of broken glass. Inspired by the life of artist Helen Martins, this play considers the concept of outsider art.
StageQ's The Normal Heart (Oct. 19-Nov. 3), by Larry Kramer, focuses on the 1980s HIV-AIDS crisis in New York. Largely autobiographical, The Normal Heart tells the story of Ned Weeks, a gay Jewish-American writer and activist. It is unapologetically confrontational. Meanwhile, in spring 2013, TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater mounts Don't Ask. Do Tell., which explores prominent figures in gay history.
Actors also put themselves in other people's shoes courtesy of the Kathie Rasmussen Women's Theatre. The company's Wrong for the Part (Aug. 26) features monologues and scenes with unusual casting.
Described by The New York Times as a "doomsday comedy," boom (April 19-May 4), produced by Madison Theatre Guild, begins with a personal ad. Intrigued by a description of "sex to change the course of the world," a young woman finds herself in a basement laboratory, considering the end of humanity and what it would mean to start over again.
When Orson Welles' War of the Worlds was first broadcast, millions of radio listeners freaked out at the realistic account of Martians' attack on Earth. On Oct. 5 and 6, Music Theatre of Madison hosts a staged reading of Panic, Stephen Dolginoff's still-in-progress musical that brings to life the story of the notorious broadcast.
Tales for Another Millennium (Nov. 30-Dec. 22) takes audiences a thousand years into the future. A man arrives in heaven, only to find it totally empty. Broom Street Theater's production is the final installment of Brian Wild's Millennium trilogy.
For the kids
The youngest audience members will find something to love this season. Children's Theater of Madison offers an excellent lineup for children of all ages. For the littlest ones, there's Too Many Frogs! (Feb. 16-24), a story about sharing. It features many, many frogs and sounds like the cutest play ever.
While Charlotte's Web (Oct. 20-Nov. 4) is my must-see, the surefire hit for CTM will be Disney's Aladdin (May 9-13). This new adaptation is bilingual - English and Spanish - and features the Academy Award-winning music from the animated film.
CTM has a reputation for theater that gets young audiences thinking. And Then They Came for Me: Remembering Anne Frank (Mar. 9-17) tells a story that's painful but important to hear. In addition to live actors, this production uses archival film and photographs to tell personal stories of the Holocaust.
The Overture Center continues its series of live plays for kids with shows like 3-Legged Tale (Nov. 25) and The Little Prince (Feb. 3).
Not for the kids
Looking for a show to make your skin crawl? Check out these spooky productions.
Plainfield, Wis., was home to one of Wisconsin's most infamous men, Ed Gein. Mercury Players Theatre's The Arsonists (May 10-25) looks at the impact of Gein's horrific crimes through the eyes of two couples amid their small town's sudden barrage of infamy.
Even more adults-only is Broom Street's Svengali's Follies (Oct. 19-Nov. 10), a collection of four super-creepy one-acts. A reference to the "French Grand-Guignol tradition" in the show's description sends me running, but if realistic horror is your thing, this show is a must.
Names you know
There are lots of classics this season. University Theatre features Samuel Beckett's I Can't Go On. I'll Go On. (Oct. 18-Nov. 3) and Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine (April 19-May 4). A dinner party gets out of hand in Neil Simon's Rumors (March 22-April 6), produced by Madison Theatre Guild. Strollers Theatre heats things up this winter with Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Jan. 11-Feb. 2).
If you didn't get your fill of Shakespeare at American Players Theatre this summer, you can catch the Bard's work all year long. Strollers Theatre presents A Midsummer Night's Dream (May 3-25), and the Acting Company offers As You Like It (Feb. 7-8) in the Wisconsin Union Theater event series. For a version that's bound to have some crazy twists, check out Pericles (Aug. 10-Sept. 1) at Broom Street Theater.
This holiday season, Children's Theater of Madison brightens the spirits of young and old with their beloved production of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 14-23). American Players Theatre continues a recent tradition of its own with The Gift of the Magi (Nov. 30-Dec. 22), a version of O. Henry's tale at the indoor Touchstone Theater.
The yuletide gets a little gayer with StageQ's The Holiday Stops (Nov. 30-Dec. 15). It's a sequel to Eric Lane Barnes' Stops, which introduced audiences to the songs and silliness of the North American Lady Organists Guild. Now the ladies, played by men, are presenting a Christmas show, sans a member who's running late. Holiday hilarity ensues.
Songs that stick in your head
Between a ton of musicals from local theater companies and a stellar lineup of touring Broadway musicals at Overture Center, get ready to have some delightfully catchy songs stuck in your head.
Middleton Players Theatre's Into the Woods (Aug. 10-18) is an award-winner with remixed fairytales and an excellent Sondheim score. Also featuring timeless tunes, Four Seasons Theatre's The Gershwin Songbook (March 8-10) boasts a cast of 10 local singers and a jazz trio.
Overture Center hosts such Broadway musicals as Jersey Boys (Nov. 7-25) and Rock of Ages (Dec. 4-9). And next summer, Four Seasons presents Broadway darling Avenue Q (Aug. 9-18, 2013).
This isn't a complete list, but I hope your appetite has been whetted. It is shaping up to be great season, full of beloved favorites and new, daring productions.