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Fall preview: Theater

Medea rages in Los Angeles, Hamlet broods in New York and the music of Green Day rocks a stage Berkeley. And don't forget the haunting 'Parade' about to start.

September 13, 2009|Charles McNulty | THEATER CRITIC

LOCAL

'Medea'

Few roles are as ferociously inviting to powerhouse actresses as Medea, the title character of Euripides' ancient masterpiece who sets out to teach her two-timing husband, Jason, a lesson he surely will never forget. Essaying the role in UCLA Live's production, directed by Lenka Udovicki, is Annette Bening, who will get to exercise her more menacing muscles. No stranger to dramatic malice, Bening won Oscar nominations for her portrayals of chilly connivers in "The Grifters" and "American Beauty." But Euripides takes the wrath of a scorned woman to a fatal peak in this tinderbox tale of marital vengeance. Udovicki, an international theater and opera director making her U.S. debut, attempts to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary worlds in a stylized production that includes onstage musicians and a 12-person chorus.

UCLA Live, opens Sept. 23.

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'Sammy'

The singer who made "The Candy Man" a hit is the subject of this bio-musical about a celebrity who once described himself as a "short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew." Yes, we're talking about "Mr. Wonderful," triple-threat Sammy Davis Jr., the Harlem-born entertainer whose flamboyant style and showbiz pizazz made him a natural in Vegas. Created by Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the book, lyrics and music (some songs with the late Anthony Newley), the show traces Davis' journey from child star working the vaudeville circuit, through chain-smoking Rat Packer in duds that redefined "dandy," and beyond. Obba Babatunde stars as the diminutive dynamo with the fleet feet and soulful swing, not to mention a complicated personal story that was jagged with contradictions. Keith Glover directs this world premiere.

Old Globe Theatre, opens Oct. 2.

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'Parade'

This 1998 musical with a book by Alfred Uhry (a Pulitzer Prize winner for "Driving Miss Daisy") notably marked the big-league emergence of composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who won a Tony for his score. The show, based on the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man convicted on ginned-up evidence of murdering a 13-year-old girl, serves a darker meal than usual for Broadway musicals. Perhaps this accounts for the mixed reception this ambitious song-filled work about a miscarriage of justice originally received. Rob Ashford's production, which garnered critical praise when it was done at London's small yet amazingly fertile Donmar Warehouse, affords us the opportunity to reassess this challenging offering. T.R. Knight, formerly of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," will play Leo Frank, with Lara Pulver reprising the role of Lucille, Leo's wife and staunch defender.

Mark Taper Forum, opens Oct. 4.

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'Equivocation'

History plays, a genre that enlivens documentary sources with imaginative conjecture, is overdue for a comeback. Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon" showed just how effective the past can be as a gripping source for modern-day dramatic material. Bill Cain takes us further back than the scandal-ridden 1970s -- all the way to Jacobean England and the infamous 1605 Gunpowder Plot intended to destroy James I's hold of power. Cain's fictionalized account centers on Shakespeare, who has received a commission to dramatize the foiled assassination attempt. This order masquerading as an invitation is a test of the playwright's political wiliness -- how can he expose the conspiratorial truth without stepping on land mines in a society fractured by Catholic-Protestant strife? A story about a writer's conscience, the play, which premiered this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and will be produced at Manhattan Theater Club early next year, is also the tale of a theater company attempting to survive in an era even more paranoid than our own. David Esbjornson directs the Geffen production of a work that narrows the distance between then and now.

Geffen Playhouse, opens

Nov. 18.

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'The Pee-wee Herman Show'

Everyone's favorite bicycle-riding, bow-tie-wearing man-boy, Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-wee Herman), is back with "The Pee-wee Herman Show," a re-imagining of the theatrical extravaganza that helped launch his delightfully bizarre career. That show, which premiered at the Groundling Theatre in 1981 before moving to the Roxy, brought Reubens much acclaim when it was taped for HBO. Talk-show appearances, a cult TV show and several hit movies followed. This new version hopes to capture lightning in a bottle twice for a faded (if, ahem, not still tarnished) icon who has made his name by refusing to put away childish things. Much of the old gang will be on hand, including Miss Yvonne, Mailman Mike, Cowboy Curtis and Jambi the Genie as well as Pee-wee's talking chair, Chairry, Pterri the pterodactyl, robot Conky, Magic Screen and Randy, among countless loony others. If you cup your ear, you just might be able to hear that perverse heckle toddling near.

The Music Box @ Fonda, opens Nov. 19.

OUT OF TOWN

'American Idiot'

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