Theater is returning in a big way, under some of the most challenging circumstances the performing arts have ever faced. With masks fastened and vaccination cards in hand, playgoers (fingers crossed) will reenter spaces that have been dark for a year and a half — an absence that would have seemed unfathomable if we hadn’t all lived through it. The uncertainties that linger perpetuate the anxieties of the covid-19 era: Will patrons feel secure enough to fill seats, night after night? Will the health of performers be sufficiently protected for the shows to go on?
One question, though, has already been answered. From the big Broadway houses to the tiny black boxes of small regional companies — ambitious plans have been laid for a live nationwide comeback. Here, in no order at all, are a few of the projects that have me eager to be back in a seat on the aisle.
In the midst of a pandemic, how do you measure a year in the life? “Seasons of Love,” the emblematic anthem of Jonathan Larson’s mid-1990s megahit, will reverberate on Signature Theatre’s main stage, under the guidance of the company’s new artistic director, Matthew Gardiner. Promising a rethink in the manner of his 2019 restaging of “A Chorus Line,” Gardiner joins music director Mark G. Meadows and choreographer James Alsop to invigorate “Rent” with new inspiration while retaining its rebellious spirit. Nov. 2-Jan. 2 at Signature Theatre. sigtheatre.org.
'A Strange Loop'
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, a company with a tradition of outrageousness, is taking on a unique role this fall: as a tryout platform for a Broadway-bound musical. The show, songwriter Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning “A Strange Loop,” had a successful pre-pandemic run at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. The story of a high-spirited, aspiring theater writer named Usher whose neuroses take melodious, corporeal form, the musical is being buffed by director Stephen Brackett to what is hoped will be a long-running sheen for Times Square. Nov. 22-Jan. 2 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. woollymammoth.net.
Take a sharp young songwriting team from Cambridge University, a sextet of electric actress-singers and the stories of six vivacious if super-stressed wives of King Henry VIII, and you’ve got — a potential Broadway smash hit. “Six” was supposed to mark its official Broadway opening on March 12, 2020, which was also — guess what? — the day that Broadway and the rest of the American theater shut down. (It was also the last musical I saw before stages went dark, my review left in digital limbo.) Now, at last, the show will embark on its pop-royal processional. Previews resume Sept. 17 (opens Oct. 3) at Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York. sixonbroadway.com.
The Kennedy Center has announced a hugely ambitious in-person musical-theater season, and it starts with the Tony-winning musical of 2019. A stylish if earnest retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, to a bluesy score by Anaïs Mitchell and enhanced by the sparkling direction of Rachel Chavkin, “Hadestown” got a Broadway audience ecstatically on its feet when it restarted there on Sept. 2. The Kennedy Center Opera House is an even bigger space to fill; producers of the national tour and the arts center’s front office will be watching closely for how robustly a show with art-house leanings performs there. Oct. 13-31 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.
'The Thanksgiving Play'
Here’s a comedy that may be deliciously in touch with our walking-on-eggshells moment: A drama teacher devises a school play that strives to avoid the contemporary potholes of White privilege — and tell the story of Thanksgiving. Described by Olney Theatre Center as “a satire on the politics of representation,” Larissa FastHorse’s play is directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, artistic director of D.C.’s Theater Alliance. Let’s hope Olney’s production is a tonic for a society that seems, at times, to have lost its sense of humor. Sept. 29-Oct. 31 at Olney Theatre Center. olneytheatre.org.
'Trouble in Mind'
Out of the distinguished and all too neglected archives of great American plays springs Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Alice Childress’s vinegary backstage comedy-drama. The 1950s play is at last getting its Broadway premiere, and thank goodness; the piece has so much to say about race relations in America, it could have been written last weekend. Set during the rehearsals of a sincere melodrama packed nevertheless with cringing stereotypes, the play is what I called “a portrait of the psychological segregation being practiced even among enlightened people” after I saw it at Arena Stage a decade ago. Under the direction of Charles Randolph-Wright and with a cast headed by LaChanze, this one has special written all over it. Oct. 29-Jan. 9 at Roundabout Theatre Company. roundabouttheatre.org.
'Once Upon a One More Time'
Hands down (and maybe feet down, too), this is the season’s wildest wild card: a feminist musical set in the world of fairy tale make-believe, sung to the tunes that Britney Spears made famous. The directorial team of Keone and Mari Madrid has never attempted a potentially Broadway-bound musical before — and neither has the company producing it: Shakespeare Theatre Company. Is it all’s well that ends well with this one? Or much ado about nothing? We shall see. In the meantime, we’ll have to think of the organization as the ShakesSpears Theatre. (Sorry!) Nov. 30-Jan. 2 at Shakespeare Theatre Company. shakespearetheatre.org.
Round House Theatre has been a fascinating portal for plays throughout the pandemic — and most memorably, with its Adrienne Kennedy festival, co-produced digitally with McCarter Theatre Center. So the relaunch of live theater on its Bethesda stage merits special attention. A modern adaptation of Cervantes’s beloved epic, Octavio Solis’s play — directed by Lisa Portes — transfers the story to a Texas border town and sets it to the Tejano music of the region. Bravo to Round House for offering a variety of options to playgoers, including nights with socially distanced seating, a video version that goes online later in the month and tickets with a flexible conversion policy, from in-person to digital. Through Oct. 3 at Round House Theatre. roundhousetheatre.org.
'Flying Over Sunset'
The pedigree is platinum-plated: The music is by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”); the lyrics, by Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”) and the book, by James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George”). This story of Hollywood in the 1950s features Carmen Cusack, Tony Yazbeck and Harry Hadden-Paton as, respectively, Clare Boothe Luce, Cary Grant and Aldous Huxley — and an occasion on which they all took LSD. I’m betting that whatever else happens, the dream sequences will be doozies. Previews start Nov. 11 (opens Dec. 13) at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York. lct.org.
'Is This a Room'/'Dana H.'
If you want evidence that change is in the air around Times Square, look no further than this Broadway venture in mini-repertory. Producers are amalgamating two productions with harrowingly topical stories for a run on alternating nights at the Lyceum Theatre. Both were staged to acclaim at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre: Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room” is based on transcripts of the FBI’s controversial 2017 arrest of Reality Winner, a National Security Agency contractor who later pleaded guilty to mishandling government secrets. Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” is a monologue out of the experience of Hnath’s own mother, a hospice worker (played by Deirdre O’Connell) who was held hostage by a mentally ill client. Sept. 24-Jan. 16 at Lyceum Theatre, New York. thelyceumplays.com.
Back into the habitat of blue-collar workers goes Lynn Nottage, who won her second Pulitzer in 2017 with “Sweat,” a play about racial tensions among the employees of a Pennsylvania factory cutting jobs and exporting them out of the country. Teaming up again with director Kate Whoriskey for this Broadway production by Second Stage Theater, Nottage builds the tale of a truck-stop eatery and the abrasive relationships between its owner and the employees behind the counter. Starts Nov. 3 at Second Stage Theater. 2st.com.
'My Lord, What a Night'
Two gifted originals in divergent pursuits — music and physics — come together in this Ford’s Theatre production, based on the true story of the friendship between contralto Marian Anderson and scientist Albert Einstein. Deborah Brevoort’s play, directed by Sheldon Epps, traces that relationship in the run-up to Anderson’s historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, where she sang operatic arias, gospel music and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Felicia Curry portrays Anderson, and Christopher Bloch is Einstein. Oct. 1-24 at Ford’s Theatre. fords.org.