Ben Barker in Music Theater Works' Candide Credit: Brett Beiner

[Recommended] Candide Leonard Bernstein’s operetta—premiered in 1956 and much revised over the decades—uses a buoyant, quasi-classical score to illustrate Voltaire’s 1759 philosophical satire, about a naive young man whose optimistic ideals are shattered by the harsh realities of war, religious persecution, and the infidelity of his lover, Cunegonde. Bernstein’s score—featuring lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself—is a dazzling pastiche that evokes the work of Mozart, Offenbach, Strauss (Johann and Richard), and Mahler. Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s staging for Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) is a triumph, striking a near-perfect balance between the score’s elegant exuberance and the pitch-black humor of the script (crafted by John Caird for a 1999 Royal National Theatre production). The excellent principals include Gary Alexander as the patter-singing narrator Voltaire, Ben Barker as Candide, and Cecilia Iole, who scores a home run with her coloratura aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” as Cunegonde. The choral singing is superb, and it’s a treat to hear Bernstein’s music played so well by a full orchestra under Roger L. Bingaman’s baton. —Albert Williams

<i>Clued In</i>, at Judy's Beat Lounge
Clued In, at Judy’s Beat LoungeCredit: Tyler Davis

Clued In: An Improvised Murder Mystery This modest 50-minute Second City show, in which five performers invent a vaguely noiresque potboiler on the spot, is a kind of improv appetizer. It’s light, tidy, and insubstantial—and when you hit the part that’s really tasty, you wish you had a whole plate of it. On opening night an audience suggestion set the mystery at a barbecue festival, where detective Randy Manders found three half-eaten bodies slathered in spicy sauce, and the festival’s only vegetarian, a devotee of the lettuce-on-lettuce booth, had a particularly slippery alibi (did all that fiber really go right through her?). When the performers stayed true to the form’s deadly serious style, thing were delicious. Their readiness to laugh at their own material, however, left an amateurish aftertaste. —Justin Hayford

Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's <i>Gidion's Knot</i>
Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s Gidion’s KnotCredit: Katie Hunter

[Recommended] Gidion’s Knot At first Johnna Adams’s two-hander, presented here by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, feels like a standard-issue message play: a parent and teacher confront each other over a student driven to suicide by his classmates. But as this intense, well-written story unfolds, we soon see Adams is after something much more complex and troubling than reminding us that bullying is bad. Instead, she strips away the veneer of civility, showing us what happens when two lonely, raw, damaged people clash and clash again, each seeking to destroy the other—or at least to find someone else to blame for the tragic death. It helps that Michelle Annette and Julie Partyka feel so free to play so rough—by the end of the play the two look as shaken as the audience by what has unfolded before our eyes—and that director Katherine Siegel succeeds in making her production riveting but not histrionic. —Jack Helbig

<i>Hair</i>, at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre
Hair, at the Metropolis Performing Arts CentreCredit: Ellen Prather

Hair I’ll admit I lost heart when I saw the lobby display featuring two beanbag chairs, a lava lamp, and a peace poster. Having already ventured beyond my suburban comfort zone to see the “American tribal love-rock musical” in Arlington Heights, I took this cheesy evocation of the 60s as a bad sign. An audience member posed in front of it, a flower in her hair. But if she thought she was in for a night of hippie kitsch, she was mistaken. Instead, a fierce, fiercely talented cast showed us Hair‘s blasphemy and rage along with its famous love. Director Lauren Rawitz undercuts the immediacy somewhat with her subtlety-starved take on the Vietnam war draft. She more than compensates, however, by opening up new sexual territory—particularly through the introduction of a trans character, given show-stealing life by Noah Spiegel-Blum. —Tony Adler

Lifeline Theatre's <i>Her Majesty's Will</i>
Lifeline Theatre’s Her Majesty’s WillCredit: Cole Simon

Her Majesty’s Will Shakespeare’s largely unknown personal life has long inspired novelists and playwrights of all stripes, and the only slightly less obscure career of Christopher Marlowe has attracted its share of attention too. Here, though, there is no scrap of gossip about them, no rumor too unfounded to be seized upon if it will make for a buddy-buddy comedy of espionage on the streets of 16th-century London. Adapted for Lifeline by Robert Kauzlaric from a 2013 novel by Chicago writer and theater artist David Blixt, this play spins a bizarre and circuitous tale implicating the roguish playwrights in a counterplot to save the Virgin Queen from Catholic terrorists. With so much grunting swordplay and pastiche soliloquizing, it’s a bit like a theme-park ride through the swashbuckling Elizabethan underground. But Peter Greenberg is a memorably gouty Robert Greene. —Max Maller

<i>Improvised Jane Austen</i>, at the McKaw Theater
Improvised Jane Austen, at the McKaw TheaterCredit: Richard Mobley

[Recommended] Improvised Jane Austen Every week a seasoned all-female comedy team uses audience suggestions to create a title for a show inspired by Austen’s classic works; what follows is a completely improvised hour-long production. A recent week’s title, Laughter and Lamb, resulted in countless laughs and many wandering lambs. Each cast member brought something memorable: Kate Parker’s effortless one-liners, Ana Silva’s endearing authenticity, and Stephanie Jones’s show-stealing performance as the Vicar, a lamb-herding, growly old man with a bizarre and boisterous laugh. The performance succeeds for many of the reasons Austen’s stories do. The English novelist used sarcasm and irony to find humor in her society; the current troupe takes advantage of this approach, finding comedy in 19th-century English cliches and Austen’s plot devices. What results is a whimsical homage to the illustrious author. —Emily Wasielewski

Windy City Playhouse's <i>King Liz</i>
Windy City Playhouse’s King LizCredit: Michael Brosilow

King Liz Liz Rico (Lanise Shelley) is a take-no-prisoners NBA agent on the cusp of assuming the reins of her company after 22 years of toil when she takes on troubled high school hoops phenom Freddie Luna (Eric Gerard) as a client and is forced to confront the cost of her relentless drive for success. While the underlying theme of Fernanda Coppel’s play about how difficult it is for a woman of color to make her way in the corporate world certainly rings true, much of the dialogue sounds like a recitation of stats and figures rather than human interactions. A lot of information is conveyed, often with urgency and at a high volume, but there are rarely any moments to empathize because these are archetypes rather than actual people. Chuck Smith directed. —Dmitry Samarov

Ada Cheng in <i>Not Quite</i>
Ada Cheng in Not QuiteCredit: Elizabeth McQuern

Not Quite: Asian American by Law, Asian Woman by Desire Midway through Ada Cheng’s 45-minute autobiographical monologue, she recounts having to surrender her green card a few hours before her naturalization ceremony. She insists she was “illegal” for this brief span, tearing through a ten-minute jag about how vulnerable she and her fellow immigrants suddenly were to deportation. Well, no; turning in your green card doesn’t affect your legal status, and the overcooked episode becomes emblematic of Cheng’s broad, simplistic, and occasionally suspect analysis of America’s current anti-immigrant fervor. Like many artists addressing their own otherization, she spends great energy embellishing a selective sense of victimhood, maintaining, for example, that her students don’t attend to her lectures because she’s short, female, and Asian—although her own ineffective communication style offers a more likely explanation. —Justin Hayford

Griffin Theatre Company's <i>Ragtime</i>
Griffin Theatre Company’s RagtimeCredit: Michael Brosilow

Ragtime So much goes right in Griffin Theatre Company’s warm, welcoming revival of Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s 1998 musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel—director Scott Weinstein’s staging is strong, his ensemble tight and energetic, and William Boles’s inspired scenic design pulls it all together—that it makes the flaws in the show all the more apparent. For one thing, the three stories lifted from Doctorow’s novel, each illustrating a pre-WWI American demographic (upper-middle-class white, urban African-American, and fresh-off-the-boat immigrant), aren’t equally interesting—Denzel Tsopnang is so powerful as the wronged black man, Coalhouse Walker, I kept wishing the whole musical was about him. To make matters worse, the book and score aren’t well married; time and again the tunes slow the action and interfere with character development. —Jack Helbig

<i>Richard III</i>, at Indian Boundary Park
Richard III, at Indian Boundary ParkCredit: Courtesy Fury Theatre

[Recommended] Richard III This Fury Theatre production is bold and demanding, timely and relevant. It’s also outdoors, which means Shakespeare’s mammoth drama about one man’s insatiable desire for control and power can be enjoyed against the serene backdrop of nature. But of course any production of Shakespeare ultimately depends on the skill of the players tasked with speaking the lines, and here Nathan Agin’s portrayal of the seditious, scheming title character entices with wicked delight, as does a supporting cast that musters a sense of foreboding throughout—the play’s famous ghoulish encounters are all the better for it. Director Mark Dodge and fight choreographer David Gonzalez engineered the superb fight scenes, and there’s more than enough medieval steel to keep even the youngest audience members engaged well into the evening. —Matt de la Peña

<i>Save Ferris: The Unofficial Sequel to </i>Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Save Ferris: The Unofficial Sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day OffCredit: Gaby Fernandez

[Recommended] Save Ferris: The Unofficial Sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off OK, so this play is hilarious. It does the pop-culture extension thing better than any number of face plants I’ve seen in that risky genre. But maybe it was inevitable—we all sort of knew what would happen after the mother of all ditch days. In Christian Missonak and Andrew Bentley’s spoof, Ferris (played by Missonak) has become a colossal deadbeat. The hour-long play follows him through a nightmarish inverted version of his day off as he scrambles to revive a nonexistent relationship with his estranged daughter, Reagan (Kayla Cole), by dragging her out of school for her 18th birthday. Missed cues and flubbed transitions abound, but on the whole this is a spirited take on the sordid aftermath of a teenage legend. —Max Maller

<i>Shrimp Boys Present: Seinfeld</i>
Shrimp Boys Present: SeinfeldCredit: Courtesy Shrimp Boys

Shrimp Boys Present: Seinfeld A nagging question persists in this lopsided show from comedy troupe the Shrimp Boys: What does any of it have to do with Seinfeld, whether we’re talking about the man or the TV series? A guess: like the inspiration of this bizarre tribute, it’s a show about nothing, as it were. But even a show about nothing needs some semblance of direction, and here there’s no logical thread to the zaniness. Instead, the Boys give a taste of the Seinfeld treatment early on only to drop it in favor of loud, frat-boy-style sketch comedy that’s then oddly interrupted by sets from two different stand-ups. That’s not to say the show isn’t funny in fits and starts—it’s just hard to know how everything fits, or even where it starts. —Matt de la Peña