Philly's fall theater scene: rural mysticism, Jane Austen and a lesbian Romeo & Juliet

By J. Cooper Robb
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The great American musical "Parade" premieres at the Arden next week.

As Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival winds down its 17th year of performance-art innovation across scores of city stages, it’s time for the city’s theater companies to make their 2013-14 debuts. This fall promises Philadelphia theatergoers a wide variety of offerings to sample.

The Walnut Street Theatre’s new season gets underway with an exciting production of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights (through Oct. 20). Featuring a spectacular book by Pulitzer Prize-winner (and proud Philadelphian) Quiara Alegria Hudes, the exuberant, poignant musical is set in a Latino neighborhood in New York City. Filled with rousing songs and memorable characters, the Walnut’s production succeeds on the strength of its marvelous cast, which, under Bruce Lumpkin’s skilled direction, executes Michelle Gaudette’s sweaty, sexy choreography with tremendous skill and verve.

Jane Austen’s legion of fans will no doubt take delight in the Lantern Theater Company’s theatrical adaptation of her popular novel, Emma (Sept. 19-Oct. 27). Often adapted for film, Emma is the tale of a young, pretty, somewhat meddlesome matchmaker. This playful stage adaptation focuses the audience’s attention on the characters, as opposed to the visual extravagance of the Emma movies, with their grand estates and vistas of the bucolic English countryside.

The great American musical Parade is the opening production at the Arden Theatre Company (Sept. 26-Nov. 3). Penned by immensely talented composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), Parade is the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager and a transplanted northerner—played by the supremely talented Ben Dibble—accused of murdering a young girl in 1913 Atlanta. Featuring a spectacular score, the musical tells a hugely involving tale of anti-Semitism and social justice set in a Confederate state, where ancient prejudices are slow to die.

Simpatico Theatre Project opens its season with The Brothers Size (Oct. 2-Nov. 3), a scorching drama from brilliant young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Presented by one of Philly’s hottest small theater companies, the play is set in the backwoods of rural Louisiana. Featuring perhaps McCraney’s most penetrating and poetic script, The Brothers Size draws on Yoruba mythology and the mystical world, speaking the truths of two brothers headed down very different paths.

The Wilma Theater changes gears from producer to presenter with their season-opening presentation of The Convert (Oct. 9-Nov. 10).  Part of a program instituted by the Wilma as a way for audiences to experience work by the nation’s top companies, The Convert is produced by Washington, D.C.’s legendary Wooly Mammoth Theater. Penned by Danai Gurira, the drama tells the story of a young girl who escapes a forced marriage and discovers Christianity in 1895 South Africa.

Curio Theatre Company flips its script with a unique gender-bending version of William Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 11-Nov. 2). Directed by Krista Apple-Hodge, this staging imagines both Romeo and Juliet as young women. The first production of Curio’s season of gender exploration, its same-sex lovers offer another explanation for why the ill-fated teens are compelled to hide their romance from their respective families.

Amy Herzog’s Obie Award-winning 4,000 Miles (Oct. 11-Nov. 10) kicks off Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 2013-14 session. Moving and often extremely funny, this intimate play focuses on Leo, a young man who pedals across the country on his bicycle and arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of his feisty grandmother in Manhattan’s West Village. It’s directed by Barrymore Award winner Mary B. Robinson, who is responsible for several of PTC’s most successful productions, including Molly Sweeny and Three Viewings.

And finally, tongues will certainly be wagging at Theatre Exile with its provocatively titled starter Cock (Oct. 17-Nov. 10). A huge hit in Britain, the play explores the complicated story of a man torn between his boyfriend and a woman. An exploration of labels, stereotypes and forging an identity that rejects the usual definitions allowed by society, director Deborah Block’s emotionally charged production takes place in Exile’s intensely intimate converted Studio X garage stage.

Fall comedy

IN THE CITY // Helium Comedy Club: The Sklar Brothers, Sept. 19-21. Jimmy Shubert, Sept. 25. Chris Kattan, Sept. 26-28. Sarah Colonna, Oct. 3-5. Craig Robinson, Oct. 11-13. Jonathan Kite, Oct. 17-19. Tim Lee, Oct. 20. Sebastian Maniscalco, Oct. 23-26 (w/Vanessa Marcil on Oct. 26). Keswick Theatre: Cheech & Chong, Oct. 27. The Capitol Steps, Nov. 3. Eugene Mirman, John Hodgman and Tristen Schaal, Oct. 15. Steven Wright, Nov. 3. John Pinette, Nov. 30. Underground Arts: @DadBoner Live with Matt Braunger, Nov. 5. Tower Theatre: Bill Burr, Nov. 9. 

WORTH THE DRIVE // Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem: Mike Epps, Sept. 21. Andrew Dice Clay, Sept. 24. Jeff Foxworthy, Sept. 28. Kathy Griffin, Oct. 4. Joan Rivers, Nov. 1. Kevin James, Nov. 7. Soveriegn Performing Arts Center, Reading: Drew Carey, Nov. 23 Gypsies, Mount Pocono: Amy Schumer, Oct. 5. Jeff Ross, Dec. 7.

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