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Promissory Nites 

Highlights Of The Season's Second Half

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Crystal-balling the '09 half of the 2008-09 theater season, more than a few promising items materialize through the prophetic mist.

PlayhouseSquare has the year's most anticipated billing, with the much-awarded musical version of Mary Poppins. But that assured blockbuster won't arrive until summer (July 17-August 9). Before then, the downtown showcase launches the '09 national tour of Rent. Next comes a touring edition of Frost/Nixon (January 13-25), a fictionalized version of the notorious TV interview with the disgraced ex-president by British talk-show host David Frost. It stars Stacy Keach as Tricky Dick and boasts dubious timing, since it vies for attention with the current Ron Howard film adaptation.

That's followed by Spring Awakening (March 3-15), winner of eight Tonys and ballyhooed as the first of a predicted new wave of American rock musicals. The self-descriptive An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin (May 5-17) features the veteran Broadway luminaries fortissimo-ing and falsetto-ing their way through Richard Rodgers, Steven Sondheim, et the familiar al. PlayhouseSquare will also attempt to install another of its trademark long-distance runners into the 14th Street Theatre with the cuddly romantic I Love You Because, scheduled January 21-May 17.

For its spring repertory (March 25-May 3), Great Lakes Theater Festival alternates the early Shakespeare farce A Comedy of Errors with The Seagull, the first of Anton Chekhov's quartet of towering masterworks. The theater has set itself a pair of stiff challenges. The Russian classic is monstrously difficult, with its elusive mix of comedy, pathos and tragedy. One can only wish a New Year's mazel tov to leading actors Laura Perrotta and Andrew May, along with the rest of the numerous cast.

As for the Shakespeare, the task is equally onerous in the opposite sense. It's a woefully weak concoction that requires miraculous staging to enliven. Indeed, its most successful incarnation is the basis for the delightful 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys From Syracuse - which just might have been a cannier programming choice.

The Cleveland Play House will rely heavily on adaptations of notable novels, reaching back to the 19th century for inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's pathologically brooding anatomy of a murder, Crime and Punishment (February 27-March 22), and, in stark contrast, Jules Verne's lighthearted geographical romp, Around the World in 80 Days (January 9-February 1). CPH will also re-imagine Thornton Wilder's 1935 novel, Heaven's My Destination (April 24-May 17), the humorous tale of a fervently religious textbook salesman picaresquely bumping up against the immorality of Depression America. To round out its agenda, the theater will focus on celebrated women, with Mahalia: A Gospel Musical (January 30-February 22), honoring Mahalia Jackson, the acknowledged queen of the genre, and The Lady With All the Answers (Mar. 27-April 14), about the personal and public tribulations of the queen of the advice columnists, Ann Landers.

The back end of Beck Center's season will match several newer entries against a couple of well-worn regulars. To be helmed by Victoria Bussert, the Tony-decorated Grey Gardens (February 27-March 29) is a depiction of the scandalous antics of legendary East Hampton loonies Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, not-distant-enough cousins of Jackie Kennedy. The Lakewood institution will also debut locally The Farnsworth Invention (March 13-April 14) - by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin - which details the historic race to perfect the medium of television between a mom-and-pop tinkerer versus the well-heeled resources of RCA mogul David Sarnoff; and Evil Dead: The Musical (May 8-June 14), drawn from Sam Raimi's cult '80s films. Also ticketed are August Wilson's quarter-century-old Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (January 30-February 22) and the ever-present The Little Shop of Horrors (June 26-August 2), both of which by now have certainly earned a meritorious and lengthy hiatus from public exposure.

Cleveland Public Theatre stays true to its premiering mission with Aperture (March 12-28) by rising political playwright, Sean Christopher Lewis. It deals with the relationship between an American female photographer and an African ex-boy soldier; Alice Seed (March 19-April 4), a family horror-story drama by area author Michael Sepesy, that reputedly blends Poe, Rod Serling and the Coen Brothers; and No Children ... (April 9-25), a one-woman autobiographical indictment of the education system by a former Bronx high-school teacher. The theater closes its season with Cut to Pieces (April 30-May 30), a performance/video conglomeration created by soloist Chris Siebert and CPT boss Raymond Bobgan. It starts as a standard whodunit and quickly morphs into "an epic of violence, love and the quest for self-knowledge."

The aforementioned Lewis also has a play about the Iraq war, Militant Language (February 19-March 21), slated among a combined nine productions by the Bang and Clatter Theatre Company at its Cleveland and Akron venues. Doggedly plumbing the depths of what's charitably called contemporary life, BNC will again feature a pair of efforts by that poster boy of egregious nastiness, Neil LaBute: Wrecks (Akron, April 23-May 23) and Reasons To Be Pretty (Cleveland, May 14-June 13).

There are plenty more potential treats. Thomas Gibbons' A House With No Walls (January 23-February 15) intelligently explores enlightened liberalism as related to racial identity; it's the third of Gibbon's works mounted by Karamu. Ensemble will stage the late great August Wilson's last play, Radio Golf (April 10-26). Three theaters will present spanking new creations situated in North Coast neighborhoods. Actors' Summit's Tremont (April 16-May 3), delineates a '60s conflict between differing generations about staying in or leaving their longtime homes. Cleveland Heights (February 26-March 15), commissioned by the Jewish Community Center, portrays Jewish family life in that suburb. And Dobama's Dream/Home (May 15-June 7), by respected local playwright Sarah Morton, concerns the timely and agonizing difficulty of buying and holding onto houses in today's economy.

On balance, it's not unreasonable to expect that a substantial number of these theatrical investments might pay off with profitable interest on their promissory notes.

arts@clevescene.com

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