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In The Heights debuted last season at the Aurora Theatre. It is now playing downtown at the Rialto Center for the Arts. (Photo by Chris Bartelski)

Preview: The shows you don’t want to miss as Atlanta’s 2016-17 theater season kicks off

With world premieres galore and all sorts of intriguing fare, the 2016-17 Atlanta theater season promises to be a lively one, with promising shows all over the place. ArtsATL theater critics Andrew Alexander and Jim Farmer look at some of the productions that most excite them.

Andrew Alexander: Hi, Jim! This season seems like it will be a busy one with a lot of interesting shows; I take it as a sign that the economy is limping along towards recovery. Atlanta has gone mad for big, flashy musicals lately, and I’m predicting fans should be pretty happy this season. But there are also a lot of smaller shows that are worth taking note of. So I’m curious. What’s at the top of your list as we enter the new season?

Jim Farmer: Hi, Andrew. Yes, this seems like a crazy busy year. The 2016-17 season is a loaded one. Near the top of my list is True Colors Theatre’s Proof. Admittedly I am a Proof snob. I saw it on Broadway with Mary-Louise Parker and I’ve been disappointed in every version I’ve seen since. But the combination of Tess Malis Kincaid directing and Danielle Deadwyler starring in the production has me intrigued, and True Colors’ most recent production, Smart People, was damn good. What’s at the top of the “Andrew Alexander gotta see” list?

Danielle Deadwyler
Danielle Deadwyler

Alexander: I’m curious about Proof, too. Though I haven’t been a fan of previous productions I’ve seen, the talent on this one is enough to pique my interest. I’m also excited about Chicago theater company Lookingglass bringing its production of Moby Dick to the Alliance in October. The reviews from Chicago, where the critics are not known for being especially generous with praise, were pretty exultant. The show involves a lot of acrobatic Cirque-style rigging and stage flight, which sounds pretty wild; I don’t remember anyone flying in Moby Dick, but whatever. Some shows coming up in the next couple weeks on the radar, as well: In the Heights, which was a hit at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre, is now downtown where Theatrical Outfit is staging it at the Rialto through September 18. Also for musical lovers, 7 Stages’ new production of The Threepenny Opera, which I imagine as fittingly dark and sinister, runs through September 25. Anything coming up very soon you’re excited about?

Farmer: I look forward to seeing what the Alliance Theatre can do with The Prom. It has a snappy concept and I hope director Casey Nicholaw can bring it all together. In a couple weeks, Horizon Theatre hosts the world premiere of Freed Spirits, by local playwright Daryl Fazio. It’s about a ghost in Oakland Cemetery and what happens when a freak tornado blows through. It could be fun. For shows that are opening at the beginning of 2017, two seem particularly intriguing. One is The Crucible at Actor’s Express. Arthur Miller’s drama just enjoyed an all-star Broadway remount. Its themes are still topical now, and I have my fingers crossed the Express can snap out of a disappointing run of late and make this one powerful. I can’t wait, either, to see Topher Payne’s new comedy/drama Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance is Required at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. The story of a retired schoolteacher who begins a journey after opening an email in her spam box; it seems right up Topher’s alley.

Alexander: Definitely. Tip of the hat to Payne’s recent success, and I’m curious about that world premiere, as well. Emory will soon be hosting an exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio which is slowly making the rounds around the country. The university will have tons of related eventsincluding talks and performances. In that realm, I’m especially interested to hear the somewhat reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wit and Atlanta resident Margaret Edson come out of hiding to speak about Shakespeare and her role as a teacher of young people. There will also be a reading of Decatur native and Emory grad Lauren Gunderson’s new play about Shakespeare’s actor-friends who guided the First Folio to publication. And Theater Emory will be doing some Shakespeare. Musical fans should take note: the company is also doing The Boys from Syracuse, Rodgers and Hart’s musical version of The Comedy of Errors. It’s a classic 1930s musical, the source for the standard “This Can’t Be Love” and other great songs, but opportunities to see a full production are rare.

Margaret Edson
Margaret Edson

Farmer: Okay, let’s move on to my jam — musicals. I have marked my calendar for quite a few. The Alliance’s Troubadour is a romantic comedy by local playwright Janece Shaffer with music by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush. I adored Shafffer’s most recent The Geller Girls and the combination of her voice set to Kristian Bush music — well, I’m there. I didn’t love Tim Burton’s film Big Fish, but I am curious to see what the stage musical is like, especially in the hands of Theatrical Outfit who had a hit with their recent The Light in the Piazza. I don’t know much about the musical Baby Case, dealing with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, but I applaud Stage Door Players for bringing  it to town. I’m also jazzed about one of Serenbe Playhouse’s 2017 musicals, which Brian Clowdus has sworn me to secrecy until he announces. Yet when it comes to musicals, I am most stoked about The Bridges of Madison County, which didn’t have a spectacular run on Broadway but my New York friends loved it. It’s being staged by Aurora Theatre. With Memphis, In the Heights (both collaborations with Theatrical Outfit) and Into the Woods behind them of late, it’s no exaggeration to say that no one else in town is producing musicals like Aurora is.

Alexander: A musical about the Lindbergh baby sounds like something from The Simpsons. I’m open to being won over by it, I suppose. Speaking of unusual shows, I’m curious about Greg Wohead, who will be at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center in mid-October. He does really unusual non-traditional performances. There’s one where you listen to directions on a pair of headphones, and they prompt you to go to a new location and contemplate past and future versions of yourself. For another, you sit in a car one-on-one with the performer. At the end of September, Deer Bear Wolf will create an immersive theatrical experience based on the work of Oz-creator L. Frank Baum, which sounds pretty trippy. Another unusual show right around the corner: Serenbe Playhouse will do a site-specific production of Yasmina Reza’s talky-fighty Art at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in mid-September. As for big musicals, I’m excited for Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s upcoming A Chorus Line opening October 21. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a full production, just the execrable movie. Anything weird and wonderful on your list?

Greg Wohead
Greg Wohead

Farmer: Plenty of it. Synchronicity Theatre’s Strait of Gilbraltar is a play about a Jewish woman who meets a Muslim man from Morocco. Sparks fly, bodies get horizontal and then — bam! This romantic comedy makes a U-turn. 7 Stages’ White Woman in Progress is also on my calendar. It’s Tara Ochs’ one-woman show about civil rights, privilege, race and social justice.

Good grief, Andrew, this is a lot and we are just scratching the surface. We are going to need to clone ourselves to be diligent theater critics this year!

Alexander: I agree. We could do two of these and not mention every worthwhile show. Some final shout-outs for shows right around the corner, if I could. I’m glad that Process Theatre is doing a timely production of David Mamet’s election-year satire November, opening September 16. Anne Boleyn opening September 23 at Synchronicity, should be interesting, especially for fans of Wolf Hall and all of that. Pinch ‘n’ Ouch returns with a world premiere show opening September 15, Girls Life by artistic director Grant McGowen, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past. Appropriate opening at Actor’s Express October 29 sounds like it could hit the spot as a darkly funny, family-unfriendly comedy, and Slur at the Alliance in November sounds intriguing. It’s a new performance for middle-schoolers about bullying devised by Paideia teacher Greg Changnon and his students. Any last-minute shout-outs on your list?

Farmer: I am glad you mentioned November. My shout-outs would be An American in Paris and Cabaret at the Fox Theatre as part of Broadway in Atlanta, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical at Out Front Theatre and all sorts of productions at the Center for Puppetry Arts, including Oliver Twist. Long lists for both of us. See you at opening night(s)!

Alexander: Looking forward to it!