The winter theater season upon us is as varied and unexpected as we've seen in many a year, with tempting offerings issuing forth from all quarters — including classic plays and musicals, notable contemporary regional premieres, original stage pieces and play readings, Broadway blockbusters, ballet and even folk dance. For a town whose entertainment dollar always appears to be stretched perilously thin, its local theater artists seem to be espousing only a philosophy of abundance, so three cheers to them for their energy and vision in a still-recessionary environment. As for the rest of us: Time to throw on a sweater and get out to feel the theatrical heat.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival kicks off the new year with The Tempest, the Bard's magical island fantasy, which works humor and romance into its more serious underlying message about our obligation to our fellow humans. Brian Webb Russell as the sorcerer Prospero re-creates a role he first performed at Shakespeare in the Park in 1999. He's well-supported by Denice Hicks, Jon Royal and others, under the direction of Claire Syler. Performances are Jan. 14-31 at Belmont University's Troutt Theater.
Upon converting its Neuhoff Site rehearsal space into a performance venue seating 50, Actors Bridge Ensemble will present the Nashville premiere of David Budbill's Judevine, a play that crosses the essential simplicity of Thornton Wilder's Our Town with the energy of one of Moises Kaufman's ensemble pieces. Set in a poor, rural mountain town in northern Vermont, Budbill's work offers a series of interrelated scenes featuring 24 characters. The parade of lives runs the gamut from young to old, encompassing love and devotion, loneliness, jealousy, madness, repressed passion and more, all of it narrated by a poet who observes the individual players from his own isolated but involved distance. Ross Bolen directs a cast that includes Rachel Agee, Rebekah Durham, Aly Ingman, Ken Jackson, Jeff Miller, Alice Raver, Elliott Robinson, Kurt Schlacter, Linda Speir and Joseph Stanley. Performances are Feb 5-14.
Proof, David Auburn's well-crafted play about family ties, madness and mathematics, was a huge success when Tennessee Repertory Theatre first staged it in 2003. The company resurrects the drama as a part of its 25th anniversary season, with a cast that includes Chip Arnold, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, Erin Whited and Nashville newcomer Anna Felix. René Copeland directs. In addition, playwright Auburn will be in town the last week in January, participating in a panel discussion at Vanderbilt Jan. 28 and also mentoring writers in the Rep's New Works Lab. He'll present a new play of his own at the company's New Works Festival in May. Proof runs at TPAC's Johnson Theater Feb. 6–20.
In celebration of Black History Month, Christ Church Cathedral's Sacred Space for the City Series presents a dramatization of James Weldon Johnson's African-American verse folk sermons, God's Trombones. The production, conceived by Ted Swindley (Always, Patsy Cline) and co-directed by Shawn Whitsell, promises a colorful and unusual theatricalization with original music, including jazz and new age along with traditional gospel songs and dance. The director of the five-piece instrumental ensemble is Rollie Mains, and choral direction is by Dr. Jane Warren of the Belmont University School of Music. Musical selections include "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," "This Train Is Bound for Glory," "Go Down Moses" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." The cast features Delores Nicholson, and noted actor/orator Barry Scott will make a special cameo appearance. The show runs Feb. 11-12 at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway.
In the contemporary parlance of the Internet and social networking, they're called BBWs (Big Beautiful Women). To many other people, they're just fat girls. But leave it to lightning-rod playwright/screenwriter Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, In the Company of Men) to probe the issues of body image, attraction and love in a contemporary setting. Fat Pig investigates what happens when a regular guy enters into a satisfying relationship with a larger lady, much to the chagrin of his svelte ex-girlfriend and his disdainful work crony. Maybe we can never learn the lesson too much: "Beauty's only skin deep." In his typically galvanizing fashion, LaBute raises the stakes on a weighty psychosexual issue whose legs seem even firmer in an America where obesity has become a common concern — though apparently not to everybody. GroundWorks Theatre gives Nashville its first look at this provocative drama from 2004, and an ample audience response might be expected. Paul Cook directs. Performances are March 5-13 at the Darkhorse Theater.
TPAC's Broadway Series enters the new year with musicals galore — The 101 Dalmatians Musical (Jan. 19-24), The Drowsy Chaperone (Feb. 9-14) and (again!) the ever-popular Mamma Mia! (March 2-7). But the bigger-ticket item happens as winter segues into spring, when Nashvillians get a chance to experience co-producer Oprah Winfrey's big-stage extravaganza The Color Purple. Winfrey co-starred, of course, in the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, then went out on a limb ($10 million worth) in financing this musical version, written for the stage by Marsha Norman ('night, Mother, etc.) with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The original Broadway production opened late in 2005 and ran for more than 900 performances, and has been in high-profile touring mode ever since. A lot of heartache and personal triumph are packed into the show's nearly three hours, with the gospel, blues and pop score showcasing talented voices. The show runs Mar. 23-28 at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall.
• The Diary of Anne Frank, Jan. 19-Feb. 7 at Nashville Children's Theatre's Hill Theatre
NCT stages Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's adaptation of a sensitive Jewish girl's recollections of her family's life on the run from the Nazis during World War II.
• Middle of Nowhere, opening Jan. 29 at Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadour Theater
This new musical, written and produced by Bill Bauer, finds a modern-day farm family up against personal challenges and the intrusions of the 21st century.
• John & Jen, Feb. 4-20 at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre's Backstage
Male and female relationships of all kinds are explored in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's two-handed pop/rock musical. The local premiere benefits from serious star power, including Martha Wilkinson and Patrick Waller, dubbed Music City's top actors in the Scene's 2009 Best of Nashville issue.
• Fiddler on the Roof, Feb. 5-27 at The Factory at Franklin
One of Broadway's big musical classics comes to Boiler Room Theatre. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's score includes familiar numbers such as "Tradition," "Matchmaker" and "If I Were a Rich Man."
• The Petty Chronicles, Feb. 11-20 at Bongo After Hours Theatre
Local author Rachel Gladstone's original script offers an edgy, satirical take on the subject of divorce. Valerie S. Hart directs, and the cast features Trish Crist, Catherine Fleming and the playwright.
• American Originals, Feb. 12-14 at TPAC's Polk Theater
Nashville Ballet pays homage to music's more popular forms, with dancers interpreting the songs of country troubadour Hal Ketchum (who performs live) and re-creating the choreography of George Balanchine in a celebration of the music of George Gershwin.
• All My Sons, Feb. 18-28 at Belmont's Troutt Theater
Actors Bridge Ensemble offers a rare local staging of Arthur Miller's 1947 Tony Award-winning morality tale involving unpleasant family business and the harsh aftermath of war. Bill Feehely stars, supported by students from Belmont University's Department of Theatre and Dance. Don Griffiths directs.
• Madea's Big Happy Family, Feb. 24 at Nashville Municipal Auditorium
Playwright/filmmaker Tyler Perry arrives in Music City for one night only, appearing in his latest live stage comedy featuring the beloved character of Mabel Simmons (aka Madea).
• Secrets of a Soccer Mom, Feb. 26-March 14 at Looby Theatre
Tennessee Women's Theatre Project presents the local premiere of Kathleen Clark's lighthearted look at the plight of three modern-day moms.
• 10x10x2, March 4-6 at Belmont's Trott Theater
People's Branch Theatre's Second Annual Festival of Short Plays offers writers a chance to get their original work in front of an audience, with staged readings featuring talented local actors.
• Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? March 19-April 3 at Darkhorse Theater
ACT I presents Edward Albee's verbal marital slugfest. More than 40 years old, the play still packs a wallop. Michael Roark directs.
• Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, March 20-April 10 at TPAC's Johnson Theater
Tennessee Repertory Theatre adds to the local commemoration of 100-year anniversary of Mark Twain's death with this award-winning musical featuring a score by songwriting great Roger Miller.
• Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, March 25 at Ingram Hall
Great Performances at Vanderbilt presents one of the foremost dance companies of India, whose sensual and lyrical folk stylings are performed to the works of the leading composers of classical Indian music.
• The Fantasticks, March 26-April 24 at The Factory at Franklin
Hard to believe that Boiler Room Theatre has never before mounted this enduring Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical. It's a charmer, with a tuneful score and a warm message about the nature of true love.
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