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The Wicked Witch of the West, Eva Peron and Alfred Hitchcock inspire some of the season's most anticipated stage plays.

click to enlarge ROBINSON GETS 'WICKED': Vicki Noon and Natalie Daradich star.
  • ROBINSON GETS 'WICKED': Vicki Noon and Natalie Daradich star.
What with the heat, this summer was a good one to spend in movie theaters. Fingers crossed, fall will be a bit more temperate, although that shouldn't keep you from indoor entertainment — especially something more highbrow than Hollywood. The season's theater offerings are an even better excuse than 100-degree weather to give up a few hours in a dark, air-conditioned room.

Misunderstood characters are best pitied on the stage, and sympathetic theatergoers this fall will not be disappointed. The Arkansas Repertory Theater opens its 35th season with Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's "Evita" (Sept. 10-Oct. 3), the story of Eva Peron's rise to fame as the wife of a strongman president and her ambiguous relationship with the Argentine people. The musical makes its way back to the Rep after it first ran there 14 years ago.

Following that at the Rep is Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Oct. 29-Nov. 14), easily one of the most compelling dramas ever written. Although it has been adapted countless times to the screen and lent elements of its plot to many other stories, the brooding prince of Denmark is best suited to the stage as he ponders vengeance and suicide. Shakespeare is timeless, and his most tragic protagonist hasn't endured since the Renaissance because he didn't entertain.

Shedding a more humorous light on tragic characters that suffer against the world, Celebrity Attractions presents "Wicked" (Nov. 3-14) at Robinson Center Music Hall. One of the longest running shows on Broadway since its debut there in 2003, it tells the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West before Dorothy "dropped" in and spoiled her reputation. Based on Gregory Maguire's bestselling novel, the play is revisionist storytelling at its best and one of the most highly acclaimed new musicals of recent memory.

The Weekend Theater, despite the limitations of its black box space, lacks no ambition this season. "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" (Sept. 10-25), a 1995 drama by Lynn Nottage, is a coming-of-age story about an African-American family in Brooklyn during the 1950s. After that is Kander and Ebb's jailhouse musical set during Prohibition and Broadway's most popular revival show, "Chicago" (Oct. 8-24). Its vaudevillian tunes and edgy plot dealing with saucy female criminals might be a challenge for the compact stage of The Weekend Theater, but chances are it won't disappoint. Returning from the 1920s, the theater's next show is Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" (Nov. 5-20), which finds the characters of the "Peanuts" comic strip re-imagined as teens. Because of copyright laws all the names have been altered, and it departs from the happy-go-lucky innocence of the original concept (at the beginning of the play the main character must bury his dead dog).

In Conway, UCA's Reynolds Performance Hall features the musical "Forever Plaid" (Nov. 8) by Stuart Ross, about a 1950s boy band that returns from the dead after a bus crash and gets a second chance to become a musical legend. If you're into Hitchcock and inside jokes, Fayetteville's Walton Arts Center offers "The 39 Steps" (through Sept. 19). Patrick Barlow's farcical take on the classic thriller by Alfred Hitchcock calls for a cast of only four actors and throws out plenty of references for audiences to enjoy.

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