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A musical fall 

Johnny Cash and Shrek inspire productions.

click to enlarge ACTING LIKE CASH: Jason Edwards stars in The Rep's season opener, "Ring of Fire."
  • ACTING LIKE CASH: Jason Edwards stars in The Rep's season opener, "Ring of Fire."

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's reopening in renovated quarters (New seats! New lobby! New bathrooms!) is the biggest news in theater this fall, but there's more stage action to spotlight.

The Rep's season opener, "Ring of Fire" (Sept. 14-Oct. 9), a jukebox musical that brings to the stage "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line" and more classic songs identified with the Natural State's most prominent performer, is just one of several musical revues to be staged this fall.

There's big budget escapism with Celebrity Attractions' "Shrek — The Musical" (Oct. 28-30) at Robinson Center Music Hall. There's a key Arkansas connection to this transformation of the animated hit film: The Broadway production was directed by Fayetteville native Jason Moore. Though "Shrek — The Musical" was not treated kindly by critics — most notably the one at the New York Times — the show had a year-long run and is pulling in audiences with a number of different tours.

At the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, the dancing gangs Sharks and Jets are facing off again in "West Side Story" (Oct. 25-30), part of its Broadway Season program. Stephen Schwartz's "Pippin" (Oct. 7-23) is not nearly as well known as his "Godspell" or more current "Wicked," but the Weekend Theater production aims to bring to life a dark, fantastical musical that's had a solid fan base since it appeared in 1972.

"101 Years of Broadway" (Sept. 29), stopping in Conway as part of the UCA Public Appearances series, offers a more concentrated dose of theater music with an evening of songs from "The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and more. "That 80s Show" (Oct. 25-Nov. 5) is a musical revue starring the fresh-faced performers in the Arkansas Rep's highly competitive Summer Musical Theatre Intensive program. Whether the texting teens of 2011 will recover from exposure to the Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100 is another matter altogether.

More contemplative productions are to be had at Little Rock's Weekend Theater, where "The Guys" (Sept. 16-17 and 23-24) is now playing, timed to run during the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This drama takes place in New York two weeks after the attacks as a grieving fire captain and an editor come together to speak about the loss and the heartbreak. Weekend Theater will also present "The Quality of Life" by Jane Anderson, about a couple struggling to deal with the death of their daughter (Nov. 4-5, 11-12, 18-19) and "Judgment at Nuremberg," Abby Mann's drama about the Holocaust (Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17).

Fayetteville's pro theater company, TheatreSquared, opened its new season with a door-slamming humdinger, "Boeing-Boeing" (through Sept. 25). The 1960s French farce about a lothario trying to keep his three stewardess girlfriends from finding out about each other, was revived to great reviews on Broadway in 2008. TheatreSquared's young, energetic troupe should be a nice fit for this comedic track meet.

The Christmas season brings a new stage adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life" (Dec. 8-Jan. 1) to TheatreSquared and "A Christmas Carol, The Musical!" to the Rep (Dec. 2-25), with music by Disney-favorite Alan Menken. Whatever Rep audiences think of the timeless Dickens tale set to music, you know they will be a little more forgiving than usual as they will be relaxing in comfortable, still relatively new seats.

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