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Familiar musicals highlight the season’s theater offerings.

ABBA LIVES ON: In "Mamma Mia!"
  • ABBA LIVES ON: In "Mamma Mia!"

An American economy held together by Popsicle sticks and gum  has left everybody shaky and the theater companies, which struggle even in robust times, are understandably looking to put sure-fire crowd pleasers on the boards.

 The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is bringing back two favorites from the past, starting off with season opener “Always ... Patsy Cline” (Sept. 11-Oct. 4), a warm and funny jukebox musical by Ted Swindley centered on Cline's real life friendship with Louise Seger, a fan she met before a Houston show.

 The other pageant from the past for the Rep is the return of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” (Dec. 4-Jan. 3). The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical will be presented like a big and bright Christmas gift, especially to theatergoers who happen to like Egyptian pharaohs who strut and sing like Elvis Presley.

 Speaking of huge camp hits, “Mamma Mia!” (Oct. 6-8) skips back into Little Rock to kick off Celebrity Attractions' season. Whether you find the music of ABBA as blissful fun or something that creates blisters on your brain, you have to admire its sheer economic power. Even before “Mamma Mia!” hit the big screen, the stage show was ringing up cash registers around the world. The plot — oh c'mon, you know, the girl, the island, the three fathers — is the right mixture of corn and heart, and anyway there's “Dancing Queen.” The Celebrity Attractions production will offer the decided benefit of not having vocally challenged Meryl Streep or Pierce Brosnan in the cast.

 Fayetteville's Walton Arts Center is getting in on the blasts from the past with a musicalized version of the Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore romcom “The Wedding Singer” (Sept. 28-29). Broadway versions of New Wave hits might be suspect, but the show received decent reviews when it ran in New York City. There are plenty worse things that have been turned into musicals.

 You have to hand it to the Weekend Theater. The scrappy troupe is probably the only company in a 500-mile radius to stage one of the most produced works of American theater — that would be Thornton Wilder's evocative, indestructible “Our Town” (Sept. 11-26) — alongside plays that are so obscure only the playwrights' families know of their existence. Neil LaBute has written a lot for the stage (along with movies of course) but “A Dark Dark House” (Nov. 6-21) is a work that has flown under the radar. The title ain't no joke either, as the plot of the play examines two brothers dealing with repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. LaBute might not be everything his ardent followers believe but that doesn't mean that “A Dark Dark House” won't be worth investigating.

 On a lighter note, Second City (Oct. 7-18), Chicago's improv institution, returns to the Rep and, sure, improv is a hit or miss game, but we'll go out on a fat limb and say there will be laughs. Audiences shouldn't have any trouble appreciating Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night” (Oct. 15-18; 22-25). The joint production of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre and the UALR Department of Theatre and Dance, presented at UALR's University Theatre, deals in eternal themes like love, thwarted social ambition and cross-dressing.

 You might not have kids (or you have them and only take them out to see movies) but you really ought check out one of the fall offerings over at the Arkansas Arts Center Children's Theatre. “Rio Grandie Candi ... and the Mummy” (Oct. 23-Nov. 8) is a Children's Theatre original written by Alan Keith Smith. The show is tied to the Arts Center's blockbuster World of Pharaoh's exhibit and ought to feature bright sets and clever jokes aimed at adults and kids. Students who aren't old enough to drink will show off singing and dancing skills to match Broadway vets for the compilation show “Follie Holidays” (Nov. 5-14) directed by Nicole Capri Bauer at the Rep. 

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