Call me cynical but I read Theatre Memphis's inclusion of The Sound of Music, Driving Miss Daisy, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on its 2009-2010 season as a clear and unmistakable sign that troubled economic times are upon us. And it's not just Theatre Memphis. All around the town our professional and community playhouses are playing it safe by producing material with a proven track record for attracting large crowds. That's probably a smart move for the theaters and its certainly good news for fans of the shows. On the other hand, such news can be a bit depressing for regular theatergoers who tired of the “Lonely Goatherd” when they were 16 (going on 17). That doesn't mean '09-10 doesn't have plenty to offer more discriminating consumers. Here's a user-friendly guide to next season's 11 must-see shows.
1. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Can you spell "homunculus"? What about "palaestra," "catarjunes," or "flugaloom"? Okay, those last two aren't real words, but that doesn't mean you won't have to spell them if you're selected to participate in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This wickedly funny, Tony Award-winning one-act combines all the elements of a traditional musical with all the unexpected surprises of improvisation and audience participation. Bee opens at Playhouse on the Square on Aug. 7and runs through Sept. 6
2. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Unfortunately the title of this musical revue is a damn lie. The Belgian-born singer/songwriter died in 1978. In his lifetime he influenced a vast array of artists including Ray Charles and David Bowie. Even honk tonk diva Dottie West took her shot at his desperately romantic classic “If You Go Away.” Brel's lyrics are so astonishing and his arrangements are so inventive that even people who usually hate musical theater walk away impressed. Circuit Playhouse, April 16-May 9.
3.Hairspray: Okay, so there's already a film version of this John Waters movie-turned-musical about a big-hearted girl with an uncontrollable need to dance. It's still a fun night in the theater.Playhouse on the Square, June 25-July 18.
4.Gem of the Ocean: The first installment of August Wilson's 10-decade cycle is a poetic, sometimes absurd look at the African-American struggle to connect history and identity. Circuit Playhouse, Jan. 15-Feb. 7.
5.Is He Dead: Who knew Mark Twain was a playwright? What this very funny cross dressing farce lacks in satirical bite it more than makes up for in zany comic situations. The script, unproduced in Twain's lifetime, was adapted to the stage by All in the Timing playwright David Ives. Germantown Community Theatre, September 11-27.
6.Frost/Nixon: So you've already watched the movie on DVD. So what. The clash between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon is something you'll want to see live. Playhouse on the Square, March 19-April 3.
7.Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Compleat Female Stage Beauty playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has found a spot of sympathy for Robert Louis Stevenson's brutal Mr. Hyde, who is played by various actors representing various aspects of his personality. Theatre Memphis, October 16 - November 1, 2009
8.Gorey Stories: Happy Halloween! If you're the sort of person who prefers Coraline to Hannah Montana you'll probably want to check out Gorey Stories, a musical based on characters and situations devised by the macabre yet comical cartoonist Edward Gorey. Germantown Community Theatre, October 16-November 1.
9.Pippin — This surreal musical about King Charlemagne's hunchbacked son has been knocking around regional theaters for 30 years. But it's the show pegged to open Playhouse on the Square's new state-of-the-art theater. Playhouse on the Square: Jan. 29-Feb. 21.
10.La Cage aux Folles: "We are what we are and what we are is an illusion." Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's tuneful 1983 adaptation of the popular French/Italian film isn't fresh but it's fun and will offer Theatre Memphis' costume designer Andre Bruce Ward many opportunities to dazzle. Theatre Memphis, March 26 through April 11, 2010.
11.Souvenir: Before Mrs. Miller proved there was a market for really awful singing in the 1960's there was Florence Foster Jenkins, who didn't let her inability to sing on key or in time stop her from making music in public. This is Jenkins' story as told by her accompanist. The Next Stage: September 25-October 11.