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The New Season: ‘Sweet Bird’ lifts Goodman into a lineup feathered with 3 world premieres

Submitted by on Sep 4, 2012 – 7:12 pm

13th in a series of season previews: Mary Zimmerman’s new musical adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” commissioned by Disney, honors the animated film’s 35th anniversary. Season opens Sept. 14.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Three world premieres punctuate an ambitious slate of nine productions at the Goodman Theatre in the coming season. Two other shows are Chicago premieres. The red-letter lineup begins with Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” following up on last season’s high-profile account of Williams’ “Camino Real.”

“We have felt for years that one of the duties of a major American company is to develop work that will become part of the American repertoire for generations to come,” says associate producer Steve Scott, who collaborates with Goodman artistic director Robert Falls in developing each season’s play list.

Surely the most glittering world premiere will be Mary Zimmerman’s musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” commissioned by Disney for the 35th anniversary of its animated film. “Disney has admired Mary Zimmerman’s work for a long time and jumped at the chance to work with her,” says Scott, adding that the project will be large-scale and that Goodman has already been working on it for a year.

That means it’s headed for Broadway, right? “What that means,” he replies coyly, “we’re not sure.”

The first world premiere on the docket is Connecticut-born playwright Christopher Shinn’s “Teddy Ferrara,” a strark look at gay life on college campuses inspired by the 1991 suicide of a Rutgers University student after he was outed by a fellow student using a webcam.

Goodman also will present the world premiere of “The Happiest Song Plays Last” by Quiara Alegría Hudes, whose play “Water by the Spoonful” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. She also wrote the book for the Tony Award winning musical “In the Heights.”

The 2012-13 season in brief:

  • “Sweet Bird of Youth” by Tennessee Williams (Sept. 14-Oct. 25): Beach boy-gigolo Chance Wayne has returned to his hometown in the South with a drunken, faded Hollywood star in tow, his old girlfriend on his mind and his dreams filled with film stardom that’s almost within reach. Somewhere in this mix falls grim reality. “We still live in a culture that is youth-obsessed,” says Scott. “But what happens when you get older, and how do we deal with the loss of youth and what it promised us? We’ve wanted to work with (Chicago-based director) David Cromer for a long time, and this is what he wanted to do.”
  • “Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men” by Dael Orlandersmith (Chicago premiere, Sept. 29-Oct. 28): Playwright-performer and New York City native Orlandersmith, who performed her one-woman show of many characters “Stoop Stories” at the Goodman in 2009, returns to portray five different males who share little but their histories of violence and abuse. “She’s sharing a whole culture of violence in the 21st century, from victims and perpetrators to social workers,” says Scott. “Not everybody in this play is in the ghetto. Violence is also a sub rosa part of the middle class. Dael asks the question: What can we do about it?”
  • “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (35th anniversary production, Nov. 17-Dec. 29): Unlike Marley, who was dead as a doornail, the perennial visitation of Goodman’s “Christmas Carol” seems imperishable, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. “It has continued to do well for us because we take it very, very seriously,” says Scott, who directs this anniversary show, which will feature new sets. “We try to infuse new blood without losing the things that make it an audience favorite – the scary ghosts, the singing.” As for the message that keeps this carol alive: “It’s a journey of redemption,” says Scott. “This horrible old man is part of humanity. He must learn to honor other people, and thus to honor himself.”
  • “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz (Chicago premiere, Jan. 12-Feb. 17): Brooke Wyeth arrives at her conservative parents’ Palm Springs mansion on Christmas Eve with a package, but it’s hardly a surprise her folks are prepared for. Brooke’s bundle is a tell-all manuscript about the family, and it incites instant panic. The play becomes an argument over issues of propriety — and with the debate come revelations. “Parents’ and children’s views of a family can be quite different,” says Scott, “and in this family there are things the parents feel are best kept secret – skeletons in the closet. Baitz’s writing is lovely.”
  • “Teddy Ferrara” by Christopher Shinn (World premiere, Feb. 2-March 3, 2013): Gabe’s in his senior year of college, president of the Queer Students Group, happily settled in a single room and dating a terrific guy. Then a campus tragedy that makes national news throws his whole world off track – and he’s forced to confront some hard questions. “I think young gay people who see this play will be aware that they can no longer define themselves as a subjugated minority,” says Scott. “I am a gay man myself. We cannot present ourselves as victims to the rest of the world. That’s ultimately demeaning.”
  •  “Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare (March 9-April 14): When the Duke of Vienna pretends to leave the city on official business, the famously severe judge Angelo is left in charge. But Angelo forgets his righteousness when opportunity presents itself to obtain sexual favors. Meanwhile, the Duke is still in town, disguised as a friar. “This is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays, but also particularly relevant because its contrast between prudishness and licentiousness mirrors our own society,” says Scott. “The play is a clash between those extremes and it points up the hypocrisy on both sides.” Robert Falls will direct.
  • “The Happiest Song Plays Last” by Quiara Alegría Hudes (World premiere produced in association with Teatro Vista, April 13-May 12): While a traumatized young Iraq war veteran finds a change of pace in an ancient Jordanian town – as an action film hero – his cousin in Philadelphia devotes herself to providing hot meals and clean beds for the needy. It’s a year in the lives of two characters in search of love, meaning and hope. “He’s been at war, she’s spent her life nurturing everybody else, and they’ve both ended up alone,” says Scott. “The title refers to the extensive use of Puerto Rican music.” But does that means there’s a happy ending? “Sometimes we do happy shows,” he says with a laugh.
  • “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” by Lynn Nottage (April 27-June 2): Nottage’s “Ruined,” winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama, received its world premiere at the Goodman in 2008. Vera Stark is an African American film actress of the 1930s, fictional but of a historical type: She is gifted, and steals scenes with a few lines and a riveting presence. Flash forward 70 years, to when a group of scholars assess Stark’s career, its meaning, its cost and her decline – all with hilarious flights of comedy to leaven the play’s message. “The limited arc of Vera Stark’s career is emblematic of African American women in popular culture,” says Scott. “The play mirrors the way roles for African American artists have evolved a certain extent and yet in some ways have not.”
  • “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Mary Zimmerman (World premiere, June 22-July 29): It’s Zimmerman’s retelling of this classic children’s story of Mowgli, the orphan boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India. The new production, under the musical direction of Doug Peck, will include music from the film revamped to feature instruments indigenous to India. “Just as our production of ‘Candide’ went back to Voltaire’s novel while preserving Bernstein’s score, we’re doing the same thing with ‘The Jungle Book,’” says Scott. “Mary is taking a fresh look at Kipling’s original stories. She has always been fascinated by the temperament and philosophy of Asian culture. That’s what excited her.”

Getting there:

The Goodman Theatre, founded in 1922, moved into its present home at 170 N. Dearborn, in 2000. Its  Loop location places the Goodman at the heart of Chicago’s cultural and dining scene.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Playwright Tennessee Williams. Descending: Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” was published in 1894 after the stories were printed in magazines. Director David Cromer. Playwright Dael Orlandersmith. Goodman associate producer Steve Scott. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz.  Playwright Christopher Shinn.  Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. Playwright Lynn Nottage. Playwright-director Mary Zimmerman. Below: Scene from Goodman’s 2011-12 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” The spectacular set for the 2011-12 production of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real.” (Production photos by Liz Lauren) The Goodman Theatre at night.  

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