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Spring on the stage

'The Wiz,' Shakespeare Festival highlight the season.

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Strictly speaking, the first day of spring is March 20, but it feels like the season has already arrived. It's not just the weather or the early-blooming flowers; for theatergoers, spring is being ushered in early by colorful, fun, flouncy and big entertainment.

Musical fans should be pleased with three major titles hitting stages first thing in March. The Rep grabs the spotlight this weekend when it opens the Tony Award-winning musical "The Wiz" (March 9-April 1). The retelling of the classic "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is performed to a funk-inflected score by a cast of black actors. Expect flashy and outrageous costuming by Rafael Colón Castanera, whose original designs also shone in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Bring on the sequins.

Celebrity Attractions debuts a different green villain this month with Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" at Robinson Center Music Hall (March 6-8). It was inspired by Brooks' classic 1974 film starring Gene Wilder.

Not to be outdone, the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville hosts the touring production of Broadway's stunner "In the Heights" (March 8-9). The Tony Award-winning musical tells the story of a vibrant Latino-American community in New York City. The Mouse House's family-friendly (but recommended for Disney-loving adults, too) "Mary Poppins" flies in for a few performances as well (April 17-22).

The Walton Arts Center will also welcome two international circus shows and two musical tribute acts. The Peking Acrobats is a troupe of jugglers, gymnasts, contortionists and more (March 14) and the steampunk-style Circus Oz from Australia awes with live music, acrobats and aerial artists (March 29-April 3). There are also nostalgia trips with self-explanatory titles: "All-New Original Tribute to the Blues Brothers" (March 16) and "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles" (May 7).

If you prefer your theater with fewer frills and more drama, don't fret. There's plenty for you this spring, too. The Rep takes a gamble on the genre-busting "Next to Normal" (May 4-20), which is billed as both a drama and a musical. Yet another Tony Award winner (in 2009 for musical score), this show also won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. This tale of a manic-depressive housewife is rock opera.

The Rep's season closes with a play from William Inge, though not one of his Broadway and film successes "Picnic" or "Bus Stop." It will stage the 1959 drama "A Loss of Roses" (June 15-July 1), about the struggle among a widow, her adult son yearning for independence and a beautiful actress.

Fayetteville's TheatreSquared presents "The Fall of the House" (April 12-May 6), an experimental piece written by the theater company's own artistic director, Robert Ford. The mind-bending play is a mystery with an Edgar Allan Poe motif, though don't expect a "whodunit" style thriller. The audience must piece together the century-spanning story to discover the surprising connections between seemingly disparate characters.

TheatreSquared also brings back the annual Arkansas New Play Festival, in its fourth year, which will feature four new works from new Southern writers. The Rep will host readings and performances of the plays in Little Rock (May 17-18), before they're presented in Fayetteville (May 18-20).

The Weekend Theater's March show is a familiar story, made famous by the 1962 film of the same name. "The Miracle Worker" (March 9-24) tells the inspirational story of Annie Sullivan's triumph in teaching her blind and deaf student, Helen Keller, how to communicate. In May, Geoffrey Nauffts' original new work, "Next Fall" (April 6-21), examines the humor and problems that come in a relationship between two gay men, a devout Christian and his non-believer boyfriend. The theater's season finale, "A ... My Name is Alice" (May 4-20), is a humorous musical revue with 20 numbers and sketches performed by a variety of women.

No spring and summer theater season is complete without a Shakespeare festival. Though the content is classic, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (June 7-July 1) will mix it up this year by performing in new locations. The festival returns to the Village at Hendrix in Conway for an outdoor production of "Twelfth Night" (June 7, 9-10, 15, 17) and will make its debut at Wildwood Park for the Arts (June 22-24), dressing up the gardens with hanging lanterns and banners.

"Richard III," "The Tempest" and the season's non-Shakespeare show, "Big River" (a musical based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"), play indoors at the University of Central Arkansas's Reynolds Performance Hall, but with a twist. For the intimate production, the auditorium seating will be closed off and the audience will share the stage with the actors.

It's not over until the fat lady sings; wrapping up the performing arts season is the Opera in the Ozarks series (June 24-July 20), with powerhouse singers from across the nation performing "La Boheme" "Die Zauberflote" and "A Little Night Music."

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