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From ‘Elephant’ to ‘Shrew’ 

The season’s big and intimate offerings.

COMING TO ROBINSON: 'Jesus Christ Superstar'.
  • COMING TO ROBINSON: 'Jesus Christ Superstar'.

Though there will be the usual array of crowd-pleasing musicals in Arkansas theaters this spring, the next few months also offer notable variety and a number of artistically ambitious productions.

One of the most intriguing will be “The Elephant Man” (Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts hosts the Rep production, April 24-May 10), a work that few would suggest is overproduced. Currently in its 30th anniversary year, the play follows a severely deformed man who is rescued from a freak show by a sympathetic yet self-interested doctor. Though the story may be familiar to some through David Lynch's adaptation, the stage version features none of the grotesque makeup that John Hurt donned onscreen. Steve Wilkerson, a Rep veteran, will play the lead role — without prosthetics. It will be interesting to see how this powerful material translates to Wildwood's stage.

Another production with high potential is “Rabbit Hole” (Weekend Theater, May 8-9, 15-16, 22-23), a family drama centered on the death of a child. Though the play won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, critics shrugged at its script while praising its acting upon its New York debut. Little Rock's version should provide a fine opportunity to assess the quality of the Weekend Theater's acting talent.

The Weekend Theater's tight space seems a natural location to stage “Truth! Reconciliation?” (March 27-28, April 3-4, 10-11), a dialogue-heavy play that local historian Grif Stockley adapted from his most recent book, “Ruled by Race.” Characterized by Stockley as a “no-holds-barred discussion of race relations in Arkansas,” this premiere production portrays a diverse group of Little Rockers as they plan to commemorate the integration of Central High. Though historical themes dominate the play, Stockley has created romantic tension between his characters as well.

“Truth! Reconciliation?” is this spring's newest stage work. The oldest will be performed in Conway, where UCA presents the third year of its Shakespeare Festival. This year's plays: “Macbeth” (June 10-11, 20, 28), the tragic telling of a Scottish king who comes to the throne through bloodshed, and the comedic “Taming of the Shrew” (June 12-13, 21, 26, 28).

Two Little Rock plays should bring a bit of quirk to the stage this season: “The Foreigner,” which is continuing at the Rep until March 29, and “Vincent,” playing at the Weekend Theater April 24 and 25. “The Foreigner” is in its fourth running at the Rep; it has been one of the theater's most-requested productions since its last appearance in mid-1990s. Set in rural Georgia, the play depicts an English visitor so shy that he pretends to be unable to speak English. Comedy ensues as his new Southern companions proceed to act with a total lack of discretion in his presence. “Vincent,” which tells the story of Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of his brother, should be a quieter affair. A one-man play written by Leonard Nimoy, it also appears to establish a Weekend Theater trend of putting on solo acts by unusual playwrights. (Its recent production of “The Fever” was written by Wallace Shawn.)

Then there are the musicals. The furthest from the beaten path is the Rep's production of “Tommy” (June 5-28). The Who's creation is better known from the original 1969 album and the 1975 film, a Ken Russell camp classic. But the absurd material — which loosely traces a pinball-playing, hearing-and-vision-impaired teen as he stumbles across a series of colorful characters — is tailor-made for the musical stage. Lynne Kurdziel Formato, who directed the Rep's production of “The Full Monty” among others, will guide a cast of 20.

Also worth noting is Theatre Squared's Arkansas New Play Festival (March 27-28) in the Nadine Baum Studios of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. Werner Trieschmann's “Disfarmer” is among those debuting. Also worth mention is the Walton Arts Center's production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (May 12-17). The production features Chaim Topol, who starred as Tevye in the London premiere and the 1971 film, and it is being billed as part of the actor's farewell tour.

The musical lineup is robust at other theaters as well. “Jesus Christ Superstar” comes to the Robinson Center (April 20-22); Murry's playhouse will run “Little Shop of Horrors” through April 26; the Weekend Theater has “Oliver!” (June 5-28); and even the Shakespeare Festival gets in on the action with “The Producers” (June 18, 19, 21, 24, 25, 27).

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