Our Chicago theater top 10 for summer 2023

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Elijah Rhea Johnson as Michael Jackson, and cast, in the Broadway production of “MJ the Musical” at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. (Matthew Murphy)
From a Pinter play to the music of Lloyd Price to the kid who sure plays a mean pinball, Chicago theater has enough excitement to rival NASCAR or Lolla this summer without any need to close a road or bare a midriff. And theater can be a balm for those suffering the current pain at Chicago’s ballparks.
We’ve curated a list of 10 intriguing and (we hope) exciting shows to tempt you out of the house. It hardly needs repeating that this city’s famous theater scene is in need of support, so here are some options for all those out-of-town guests and for those warm evenings that whisper to you: “Get out on the town.”
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Enjoy. And please turn off your phones.
“A Distinct Society”: Inspired by the real-life Haskell Free Library, a building that straddles the border between Canada and the United States, Kareem Fahmy’s new play imagines a cultural collision of five people from around the world taking refuge there, including an Iranian family, a head librarian, a U.S. Border Patrol officer and a teenager. This Writers Theatre production is billed as the play’s Midwest premiere. June 22 to July 23 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe; tickets at 847-242-6000 and writerstheatre.org
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“MJ the Musical”: The Michael Jackson musical, a jukebox show with thrilling, justly acclaimed choreography by Christopher Wheeldon and a plethora of the King of Pop’s greatest hits performed live, was supposed to have a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago but that plan was scuppered by the pandemic. Instead, downtown theater presenter Broadway in Chicago gets to launch the hit Broadway show’s much-anticipated national tour; it’s an eye-popping affair, and given the relatively short run, it’s likely to be the hottest theater ticket of the Chicago summer. Aug. 1 to Sept. 2 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; tickets at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com
Jim Corti is the artistic director of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (The Paramount Theatre / HANDOUT)
“Next to Normal”: The Paramount Theatre’s so-called Bold series (located in the smaller theater across the street from the historic venue in downtown Aurora) had a big hit last summer with “Fun Home” — and now turns its summer attention to a similarly serious musical, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal” with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It’s the story of the mental health struggles of a seemingly ordinary wife and mother who has to negotiate between her own functionality and what makes her unique. Director Jim Corti is at the helm of what’s likely to be an intimate and intense staging. July 26 to Sept. 3 at the Paramount’s Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora; tickets at 630-896-6666 and paramountaurora.com
“Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical”: Likely a pre-Broadway tryout, this new biographical jukebox musical celebrates the life and work of Lloyd Price, a groundbreaking Black musical artist and the composer of such famed songs as “Personality,” “Stagger Lee” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The commercially produced show has a book penned by B. Jeffrey Madoff, who had lengthy conversations with Price before his recent death. Sheldon Epps is the director and a cast filled with Broadway veterans is led by Saint Aubyn. Broadway is the aim here and the show also offers audiences a chance to see the newly restored Studebaker Theatre. June 2 to Sept. 3 at the Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets at 312-753-3210 or fineartsbuilding.com
The veteran Chicago actor E. Faye Butler, here in 2018, will direct this summer at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
“Marie and Rosetta”: The veteran Chicago actor E. Faye Butler takes the director’s role for this new play with music about the American singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the so-called Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who influenced artists from Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix. George Brant’s play with music imagines Rosetta’s first rehearsal with a young protégée, Marie Knight, as they prepare for a tour. Bethany Thomas and Alexis Roston star. July 6 to Aug. 6 at Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; tickets at 847-673-6300 and northlight.org
“The SpongeBob Musical”: Kokandy Productions offers up the first local production of the offbeat musical about the beloved TV character created by Stephen Hillenburg, a show that had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. First put together by Tina Landau and set in Bikini Bottom, “SpongeBob” has songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley. Fun! June 22 to Aug. 20 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St.; tickets at kokandyprodctions.com
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Jeff Perry, here in the ABC series “Alaska Daily,” will return to the theater this summer to star alongside Austin Pendleton and Michael Patrick Thornton. (Christopher Willard/ABC via Getty Images)
“No Man’s Land”: Two of Steppenwolf’s most beloved members, Austin Pendleton and co-founder Jeff Perry, return to Chicago along with Michael Patrick Thornton (“A Doll’s House” on Broadway) to appear in the late British playwright Harold Pinter’s famed 1974 play, a perplexingly sparse, intense and mysterious drama that features a pair of aging heavy drinkers who find themselves exploring the gulf, or maybe the crossover, between life and death. Director Les Waters is in charge of the famous Pinter pauses. July 13 to Aug. 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; tickets at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org
“Passing Strange”: When “Passing Strange,” an offbeat new musical by the longtime musician and singer Stew, opened on Broadway in 2008, it was a groundbreaker. As penned by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the autobiographical show looked at the hipster Black author’s long quest in search of stability, truth and self-knowledge as he traveled across the United States and Europe. It’s a rarely seen piece now (the last professional production here was at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in 2011), but the ambitious Theo Ubique is offering a fresh and intimate summer staging of one of the most innovative musicals ever to appear on Broadway. June 9 to July 30 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater, 721 Howard St., Evanston; tickets at 773-939-4101 and theo-u.com
“Shaw vs. Tunney”: The famed Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw had an unlikely friendship with Gene Tunney, the American world heavyweight boxing champion, and his wife Polly Lauder Tunney. Douglas Post’s new play is based on the book “The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw” by the Chicago writer Jay Tunney, who happens to be Gene Tunney’s son. The Shavian expert Nick Sandys directs the world premiere from the Grippo Stage Company. Through July 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.; tickets at 773-975-8150 and theaterwit.org
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The Who’s album “Tommy” in 1975 was adapted into a movie directed by Ken Russell. (Robert Stigwood Organisation)
“The Who’s Tommy”: The Who’s narrative-heavy, rock-opera vinyl from 1969, “Tommy” — which included such masterful tracks as “I’m Free,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard” — was in 1992 turned into a hit Broadway musical about the most famous “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in the universe. The original director, Des McAnuff, is returning to the Pete Townshend composition for this high-profile Goodman Theatre revival, or rather a re-imagining, which is already slated for a national tour and a potential Broadway run next season. The 28-strong Goodman cast includes Ali Louis Bourzgui in the title role and John Ambrosino as (Wicked) Uncle Ernie. June 13 to July 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; tickets at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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