Spamilton Credit: Michael Brosilow

Flanagan’s Wake The Improv Institute’s original 1994 production of Jack Bronis’s interactive, mostly improvised Irish wake ran for more than a decade. Now Chicago Theater Works disinters these stereotype-laden, intermittently amusing 90 or so minutes, and even brings back Bronis to direct. The results are decidedly musty (think drunk Irishmen jokes), and the challenging acoustics and overlapping, brogue-heavy dialogue make comprehension a regular chore. But the seven improvisers graciously accommodate some delightfully dopey audience participation, giving the evening a refreshingly communal feel. On the night I attended, they even managed to turn one audience member’s perfectly inept rendition of “Danny Boy” into the show’s emotional highlight. —Justin Hayford

Jack Hickey in ShawChicago’s Heartbreak HouseCredit: Dakota Sillyman

Heartbreak House George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 comedy-drama—written in reaction to the social upheavals of World War I and inspired by a weekend Shaw spent with writer Virginia Woolf and her husband at their country home in 1916—is a portrait of a bohemian English family and the outsiders drawn into their eccentric world. This production by ShawChicago, which specializes in concert readings of Shaw’s works, features an excellent ten-member ensemble delivering their lines from scripts at music stands. This approach allows the audience to savor the wordy play’s elegantly constructed dialogue. But as the physical action escalates in the final act—with the arrival of unidentified enemy aircraft dropping bombs on the estate—the production runs out of steam, constricted by the limitations of the readers’ theater format. —Albert Williams

Euan Morton in Hedwig and the Angry InchCredit: Joan Marcus

Hedwig and the Angry Inch There’s something of the period piece about this musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, presented here in a touring production. Part of that is calculated: German drag queen Hedwig is shaped in all too many ways by growing up fey on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall. But another part has to do with cultural evolution. Hedwig’s wigs, glitter, and sass just aren’t as transgressive now—not outside North Carolina, anyway—as they probably seemed in 1998, when the earliest version of the show premiered. In 2017 the focus would be better placed on Hedwig’s personal journey through deep trauma to a form of self-acceptance. Trouble is, Michael Mayer’s big lights/loud noise directorial approach kills all chance of intimacy. A chamber version might work better—preferably one featuring Hannah Corneau, who stands out as Hedwig’s doormatty husband, Yitzhak. —Tony Adler

The Livingroom’s Hot MessCredit: Shym Jamín

The Livingroom: Hot Mess I’m doing OK now, the performers insist in this night of solo one-acts from the Livingroom. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be on this stage. I might be dead. I might still be dating a cheater. I might never have crawled out of that box of Thin Mints that was making me fat and slimmed down on a diet of salad and boiled chicken. But let me tell you a bit about the heinousness life threw at me before I could achieve this very precarious happiness. Let me tell you about dating a guy with the same name as my widowed mother’s new boyfriend. Let me explain to you what it’s like to be trapped in the 80s. Let me empty my ex-boyfriend’s actual clothes onto the stage for you to pick through while Beyoncé’s “Sorry” plays. Love me. Validate me. Please. —Max Maller

Tabitha Rooney and Alex Garday in Purity Ball: The MusicalCredit: Nikki Loehr

Purity Ball: The Musical High-schooler Isabel (Tabitha Rooney) wants to be a good wife when she grows up, just as her evangelical community has groomed her to be, but sexual urges and longing for the wider world make her break free. In this musical by Brad Kemp and Molly Miller there’s incest, embezzlement, a lousy first love, and a saintly, adopted, gay older brother (played by Alex Garday with enthusiasm matching Rooney’s) to show Isabel life in all its contradictory splendor. But every character is such an on-the-nose grotesque that it’s difficult to take Purity Ball seriously as the send-up of religious intolerance it aspires to be. Director Tiffani Swalley lets Rooney belt out the best numbers, which she does with abandon. —Dmitry Samarov

Yando Lopez and Eric Andrew Lewis in SpamiltonCredit: Michael Brosilow

Spamilton Even folks who’d diagnose themselves with Hamilton exhaustion would do well to check out Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini’s off-Broadway cabaret-comedy hit. In it Lin-Manuel Miranda (Yando Lopez)—an indefatigable theater nerd who, in the vernacular of kids these days, is overwhelmingly “extra”—examines the Disney and Jukebox Broadway Industrial Complex and, with the guidance of a Ben Franklin-ized Stephen Sondheim, sets out to create an “all-you-can-eat word buffet” pop culture phenomenon. Part celebration and part roast, the production features a stellar Chicago-sourced cast who belt out show-tune parodies that, alongside expected jokes about the difficulty of getting Hamilton tickets and the cascading density of its plot, throw fiercely witty shade and air the sort of grievances about industry antics that normally crop up at cast parties a few drinks in. —Dan Jakes

24Words, at Stage 773Credit: Charles Kouri

24Words Although the Equal Rights Amendment—referenced by the title of this 90-minute musical revue—began life in 1923, when it was first introduced in Congress, book and lyric writer Charles Kouri charts the struggle for American gender equality going back to 1776, when Abigail Adams tried unsuccessfully to rein in her husband’s period-perfect gynophobia by urging him to “remember the ladies.” The show’s gap-heavy time line alternates between specificity (the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention) and nebulousness (“the 60s”), the episodes staged with abundant conflicting metaphors and ever-shifting rules of engagement, all choreographed to the point of indifference. It’s a well-meaning jumble that rarely finds adequate focus. Still, composers Gary Bragg and Dean Schlabowske know their way around a pop ballad, and director Margaret Baughman’s young ten-person cast can harmonize with the best of them. —Justin Hayford

Jose Nateras and Aissa Guerra in Filament Theatre’s The Van Gogh CafeCredit: Dominick Maino

The Van Gogh Cafe Filament Theatre’s revival of this dinner-theater production finds a perfectly dreamy home in Fannie’s Cafe. Based on Cynthia Rylant’s classic children’s book, Andrew J. Lampl’s play brings to life the magical world of the Van Gogh Cafe in Flowers, Kansas, home of affable owner Marc (Les Rorick) and his precocious ten-year-old daughter, Clara (Aissa Guerra). Over the course of five chapters, each with its own course, the cafe hosts a series of whimsical vignettes featuring everything from a mysterious possum to a lovesick silent film star to a flock of seagulls looking to hitch a ride back to California. With a kid-friendly menu that mixes sweet and savory and its engaging audience participation on a shoestring (animal ears, Band-Aids, paper snow, etc), it’s an uplifting opportunity to suspend your disbelief. —Marissa Oberlander

Kokandy Productions’ The WizCredit: Michael Brosilow

The Wiz Like most Broadways hits, William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls’s 1975 musical version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was created to fill a huge stage with actors and dancers and lots of dazzling spectacle. (When it played in Chicago it was at the 4,250-seat Arie Crown Theater.) The beauty of Kokandy Productions’ revival, directed by Lili-Anne Brown and choreographed by Breon Arzell, is that it retains the show’s energy and glory despite being squeezed into a storefront space smaller than many traditional theater lobbies. The secret is casting: Brown packs her ensemble with powerful singers and dancers, all of whom bring the best out of the sometimes dated, corny material. Sydney Charles is especially fine as Dorothy, a role that requires her to play the full range of emotions, from meek and confused to bold and plucky, then end the show with some full-throated gospel. —Jack Helbig