MCL Chicago's musical Ayn Rand in Love Credit: Michael Shepherd Jordan

Ayn Rand in Love It appears “Communism has come to Hollywood,” laments a button-downed Ayn Rand in this delightful new musical by Gregory Dodds. Loosely based on the real-life Rand’s chance encounter with director Cecil B. DeMille before the height of her fame, this imagined scenario isn’t concerned so much with Rand’s politics as it is with her calculated love affair with actor Frank O’Connor (they subsequently maintained an open marriage for decades). Here she’s the curt, methodical, practical embodiment of the objectivist philosophy she famously championed–everything the easygoing Frank isn’t. Still, opposites have a tendency to attract, and even the most conservative folks enjoy “fonding” every once in a while, as Rand likes to say. It makes for some good comedy and even better musical numbers. The show is part of MCL’s musical series Premier Premieres. —Matt de la Peña

Einstein’s GiftCredit: Ron Goldman

Einstein’s Gift In 1909 chemist Fritz Haber, a German Jew who’d renounced his faith to advance his career, successfully demonstrated the feasibility of artificial ammonia production. His discovery led to the production of nitrogen fertilizer, saving Europe from starvation, and to the creation of chemical weapons–including Zyklon B, the gas used in Nazi death camps. Haber’s is a cautionary tale with global implications, and while Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s 2003 dramatization of Haber’s rise and fall has its clunky moments, it gives big questions about personal and scientific responsibility deep resonance–as does Genesis Theatrical’s stilted but earnest production, directed by Elayne LeTraunik. Thiessen shoehorns Einstein into the mix unsuccessfully, but his Huber is a towering tragic figure betrayed by his principles and his nation, compellingly captured in Chris Saunders’s unstinting portrayal. —Justin Hayford

First Floor Theater’s FitzfestCredit: Ariela Subar

Fitzfest The name F. Scott Fitzgerald is synonymous with a generation; it conjures a world of stags and debs, highballs and champagne, college boys and filles de joie. His novel The Great Gatsby, which flopped hard when it first appeared in 1925, continues to signify the primeval American fascination with wealth and power, as it probably always will. First Floor Theater’s Fitzfest showcases eight one-act responses to Fitzgerald’s life and work. The best one, from playwright Calamity West, is inspired by the short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Shockingly for an event of this nature, West appears to be the only author among the group who’s ever felt moved by Fitzgerald’s writing. The rest of the bill, I’m sorry to say, is filled with ugly drubbings of his life and gender politics that depict the author of Tender Is the Night as a kind of gigantic oppressor. —Max Maller

Black Ensemble Theater’s The Jackie Wilson StoryCredit: Danny Nicholas

The Jackie Wilson Story Kevin Rolston Jr.’s charismatic presence and thrilling vocals anchor this portrait of influential singer Jackie Wilson, aka “Mr. Excitement.” Known for his falsetto wails, athletic dance moves, strutting swagger, and sexy interaction with women in the audience—all of which Rolston re-creates impressively—the Detroit-born Wilson started out as a boxer before switching to a career in music and becoming one of the most influential performers in the development of R&B into soul during the 1950s and ’60s. Directed and written by Jackie Taylor, with dynamic choreography by Rueben Echoles, the show doesn’t whitewash the downbeat side of Wilson’s saga—his drinking, his womanizing, his volatile temper, his depression following the murder of his teenage son, his exploitation by corrupt record executives, and his final years in a semicomatose state following an onstage heart attack in 1975. But the production’s raison d’etre is the music—rousing renditions of classic hits such as “Lonely Teardrops,” “Reet Petite,” “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend,” the 1967 crossover smash “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and even Wilson’s gospel-tinged reworking of the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” —Albert Williams

Mother and MeCredit: Anthony Bianciella

Mother and Me Halfway through Broadway veteran Melinda Buckley’s one-woman show chronicling her fraught, codependent relationship with her glamorous but erratic Hungarian-immigrant mother (think working-class Gabor sister), Buckley has the increasingly demented octogenarian involuntarily committed to a psych ward. As the debilitated diva disappears behind steel doors, she hisses at her daughter, “I never want to see you again.” It might be an emotionally devastating moment, but like most everything in these unrelentingly manicured 75 minutes, it reads as a sharp bit of crafty acting. Under Kimberly Senior’s direction, Buckley is so poised and precise (the Broadway training is always evident) there’s hardly room for spontaneity or vulnerability—even the tears seem to arrive on cue. The material is poignant; less acting and more candor might give it emotional depth. —Justin Hayford

Babes With Blades’ The Promise of a Rose GardenCredit: Steven Townshend

The Promise of a Rose Garden To date, no women have graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, the psychologically and physically demanding 86-day crucible soldiers must pass through in order to become commanders. Dustin Spence’s new play imagines the first class of female candidates in which some are successful—fertile ground for some sophisticated ideas about the politics of tokenism and the unique burdens carried by trailblazers. Elyse Dawson’s production capitalizes on those themes at fleeting moments; overall, though, the play is so dramaturgically clumsy that it starts spinning its wheels two-thirds of the way through. Nonchronological storytelling, outsize performances, and military platitudes further hinder the emotional impact Babes With Blades seems to be aiming for. —Dan Jakes

Muse of Fire’s Queen MargaretCredit: Teresa J. Foote

Queen Margaret Mark Van Doren once called the three parts of Henry VI a “massive and masculine performance.” Queen Margaret is Henry VI made less massive and less masculine, a brief, spirited adaptation for Muse of Fire that highlights the arc of one female character, Margaret of Anjou (Annelise Dickinson). It’s an intriguing exercise. The Bard himself later mocked his style here—the young Shakespeare had wandered out of his depth, and only survived his overwrought speeches and clanging, leaden lines by being a kind of genius. Playwright and codirector Jemma Alix Levy has chiseled away a redaction that retains everything said by Margaret while throwing in some relevant bits from Richard III. Dickinson’s performance is dynamic and heartfelt. Still, even with the drastic cuts—Levy deletes Joan of Arc entirely—Margaret is nullified onstage by the advent of Richard (Jon Beal), the deformed human wrecking ball. —Max Maller

Baby Wants Candy’s Thrones! A Musical ParodyCredit: Courtesy Carol Fox and Associates

Thrones! The Musical Parody Created by well-known Chicago improv ensemble Baby Wants Candy, this Game of Thrones musical parody makes its U.S. debut after playing at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Full disclosure: the character I most closely related to is Brad (played by a versatile and high-energy Nicholas Druzbanski), the only one who’s never seen the HBO juggernaut. If you like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and you like porn, you’ll love this show, the other characters confidently assure him. What follows is a genre-bending, do-it-yourself living-room musical put on by Brad’s friends to catch him up on the plot. Endless inside jokes and spoilers had the audience falling out of their chairs on the day I attended—I just enjoyed the knockout vocal harmonies, particularly from Caitlyn Cerza. —Marissa Oberlander

Reutan Collective’s Two Gentlemen of VeronaCredit: Jennifer Hickey

Two Gentlemen of Verona Critics often deride this Shakespeare comedy as one of his flimsiest, but Two Gents has more to offer than a precursory glimpse at some of the Bard’s future greatest hits. In this version from the Reutan Collective, replete with old-school verse and Baz Luhrmann-like touches (Cosmo, Starbucks, board shorts), Valentine and Proteus are bros turned foes in pursuit of the Duchess’s daughter, Silvia, which is to say nothing of Proteus’s scorned lover, Julia, who’s determined to gain some type of closure by donning drag. Love, infidelity, betrayal . . . much of this has a familiar ring to it—it’s a little bit Romeo and Juliet, a little bit Othello, and thanks to an excellent cast, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
—Matt de la Peña

Unelectable You

Unelectable You You’d think this wretched presidential campaign would at least be good for comedians, but as NPR host Peter Sagal explained to Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg earlier this summer, the glut of low-hanging fruit together with the ugly, not-at-all funny stakes can be a rotten combination for parodists. A collaboration between Slate and Second City, this cathartic political revue vents frustration while managing to find joy in the 2016 election’s absurdities. That said, the sketches are frequently safe and public-domain generic rather than opinionated—more Capitol Steps than The Daily Show. Mischievous crowd work, though, is reliably hilarious. —Dan Jakes v