The fall season for Arkansas theater was dominated by crowd pleasers: lots of big cast musicals with recognizable titles. There was a sense that theaters needed to put the shiny names out front while hanging on as aftershocks of the economic recession rippled through the state. The spring and summer of 2010 isn't as predictable--oh sure, there will be a few known commodities on the schedule--and that makes for a more interesting time all the way around for theater fiends.
Let's start with “Glorious” (March 12-28), the new comedy by English playwright Peter Quilter that comes to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre a mere five years after its London debut. The play is a true-life story of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, who gained dubious notoriety as one of the worst singers in history. Anybody who has watched the early rounds of “American Idol” knows that bad vocalists can equal comic gold.
Speaking of strivers, Walton Arts Center brings “Runt of the Litter” (April 23-May 2) to Fayetteville. This one-man show stands out in the theater crowd because it's about football, a subject that's rarely, um, tackled on the American stage. Former Houston Oiler defensive back Bo Eason relates a semi-autobiographical tale of sibling rivalry and the struggle for an undersized player to make it in the NFL. The show snagged solid reviews in its New York City debut.
Douglas Carter Beane is a much-admired New York playwright with work that's been done at the Rep (“As Bees in Honey Drown”). “The Little Dog Laughed” (March 19-28), which arrives in Little Rock thanks to the Weekend Theater, is Beane's 2007 Tony-nominated comedy about an actor who won't stay in the closet. A few months later the Weekend Theater goes blue when the desperate real estate hucksters of David Mamet's “Glengarry Glen Ross” (May 14-29) drop F-bombs galore to score that prize set of steak knives.
Theatresquared in Fayetteville has an intriguing offering in Theresa Rebek's “Mauritius” (March 26-April 11), which deals with the seamy underside of, wait for it, stamp collecting. A case could be made for Rebek being one of America's most popular playwrights and “Mauritius” promises suspense and laughs. The lineup of Theatresquared's Arkansas New Play Festival (May 20-23) has yet to be announced but discovery and surprise is what's fun about a three-day binge of readings of brand new work.
Some of the wind might have slackened in the sails of the Rep's production of “Frost/Nixon” (April 23-May 9) due to Ron Howard's movie of Peter Morgan's stage drama. But political junkies will have a feast on Morgan's tight (on stage at least) recreation of David Frost's post-Watergate interview with Richard Nixon. Morgan's success pivots on his ability to communicate the high stakes involved for both the disgraced former president and the jocular, popular TV host.
The 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” (June 21-23) is considered a treasure and Celebrity Attractions is counting on that when a stage version — decked out with some fancy special effects — of the indestructible tale sets up at Robinson Center Music Hall. Taylor Hicks won “American Idol” but didn't move much product so he's spending time as the Teen Angel in the touring production of “Grease” (May 4-9) at the Walton Arts Center. The Rep's “Smokey Joe's Cafe” (June 4-27) is a return of the wildly popular jukebox musical that's stocked with the tunes of pop/rock songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.
You can't get more popular than William Shakespeare and the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival (June 16-July 3), performing for the fourth season at Conway's Reynolds Performance Hall. The rotating repertory pairs “A Comedy of Errors” with the history play “Henry V,” which attempts to approximate the “vasty fields of France.” The non-Shakespeare part of the Festival has scares in “Dracula” and something for younger audiences in “Alice in Wonderland.”