A Quick Peek Keep an Eye out for These Upcoming Productions That May Shape the Direction in Which Chicago Theater Is Going

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Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

Everyone agrees this is a time of transition for Chicago theater, but what it might be changing into remains open to debate.

Some see the opening of several large theaters in the Loop as the first step in a theater renaissance. Others bemoan the competition these larger theaters will force upon our own local Off-Loop companies.

Still others point to the growing number of theater companies striking out for the suburbs.

Likewise, audience expectations are changing. While older audiences, raised on radio, still crave the classics - clear, linear stories with strong beginnings, middles, and ends - boomers weaned on TV and Top 40 radio prefer theater experiences that more closely resemble concept albums or visually stunning movies.

How do producers and artistic directors cope with such divergent audience desires?

Beats me.

But I do know that for theater lovers like me, it's great to live in interesting times.

Since there is no sure-fire formula for success, the upcoming season is wonderfully diverse, promising everything from inflated musicals to small, one-person storefront shows to media-soaked extravaganzas that deliver sensory

overload for the whole family.

In this spirit I give you my admittedly biased list of the 10 shows I am most looking forward to in the upcoming season.

1. "Ragtime" is, of course, THE opening of the season. The inaugural production in the recently renovated Oriental Theater (renamed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts), "Ragtime" is also the first major opening in what many hope will become Chicago's downtown theater district.

With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and directed by Chicago's own Frank Galati, "Ragtime" received partly cloudy reviews on Broadway. But these reviews can't hold a candle to the major pan Garth Drabinsky, the mastermind behind "Ragtime," got recently from Livent, the Toronto organization producing the show. Demoted from Chairman of Livent to Vice-Chairman and Chief Creative Director earlier this summer, Drabinsky was recently forced out when "accounting irregularities" were found in Livent's books. It seems Livent has been hemorrhaging red ink.

These scandals have cast a pall over "Ragtime," and even Drabinsky's strongest boosters are wondering if Livent is going to be able to come up with another show to play in the Ford Center after "Ragtime" closes.

Of course, it's just possible that "Ragtime" will be successful enough in Chicago that we won't have to ask that question for a while.

2. "Master Class." One of the stalwarts of the Off-Loop theater movement, Northlight suffered several mediocre seasons and the loss of many subscribers when the company moved from Evanston to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Now, under the leadership of a new artistic director, veteran actor B.J. Jones, Northlight has a chance to carve out a new niche for itself in suburban theater.

The first show under Jones' tenure is nothing to knock your socks off: "Master Class," Terrence McNally's witty homage to Maria Callas. Like so many other Off-Loop companies, Northlight has gotten into the habit of presenting local versions of shows that played recently in New York, but under the guidance of a lively, inspired artistic director like Jones, even a predicable choice like this one can be a hoot.

And later in the season, Jones has programmed some real fireworks, including a new David Mamet play, "The Old Neighborhood," and a work I am really looking forward to, Paula Vogel's controversial "How I Learned to Drive."

3. "An American Daughter" at the Organic and 4. "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" at the Court Theatre are two more examples of shows being staged in Chicago because they were anointed last season by the New York theater establishment. …