Two components of many a Chicago summer of live entertainment are absent this year — there's no Cirque du Soleil tent at the United Center and no Riverfront Theater at the Tribune Company's Freedom Center. So you'll have to go camping for fun under a canvas roof. But if you prefer your theater in air-conditioned comfort, Chicago venues big and small are offering a plethora of promising attractions. You can find musicals, classic dramas, silly farces and weighty new plays on our list. Not to mention some illustrious visiting Italians.
Here are 10 of what might well turn out of be the hottest shows of an essential Chicago summer — and after the kind of springs we get, aren't they all essential?
'The Glass Menagerie'
Tennessee Williams' 1944 drama is a masterpiece, and Hans Fleischmann's Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. production renders its abiding brilliance in all its fragile beauty. That was our take last December when Fleischmann's remarkable piece of directing (he also stars as Tom) first opened — and sold out — in this gritty off-Loop venue. "The Glass Menagerie," replete with its original cast, is back this summer. This brilliant conceptual notion shapes Tom as a St. Louis vagrant looking back on his past, with Laura's fragile figurines tinkling like liquor bottles in his head. Through June 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-975-8150 and theaterwit.org.
Most summers, the Drury Lane departs from its usual slate of musicals into the realm of murder mysteries and familiar farces. This year, it's presenting the 2008 Broadway hit "Boeing-Boeing," replete with a cast led by "SNL" veteran Nora Dunn. The play isn't new; it was written in 1965 by Marc Camoletti, but it has been retooled for an age when the very notion of an affair du coeur with a trifecta of stewardesses packs a certain glamour. June 13 to Aug. 4 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace; drurylaneoakbrook.com
Disney's theatrical arm developed "The Lion King" with astounding success. But in recent years, Disney has released its beloved properties to favored artists in regional theaters. If it doesn't work, the Mouse has a certain remove, but if it's a hit, there's a Broadway show in the making. Disney already has a significant financial investment in Mary Zimmerman's new take on "The Jungle Book," the beloved tale of Mowgli et al., but this acclaimed Chicago artist has free artistic reign, including the opportunity to go back to the writings of Rudyard Kipling, reattach the work to its Indian heritage, and meld all of that with the famous Sherman Brothers songs and the animated movie that has been a part of so many childhoods. June 21 to Aug. 4 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
Charles Newell's experimental double bill of Moliere comedies — mostly featuring an African-American cast — had a rough start with "The Misanthrope." But this hugely creative director's ideas for "Tartuffe" sound much more intriguing and better rooted in truth. The notion here is that the family duped by this famous hypocrite is a prominent African-American household in either Hyde Park or Kenwood. Many masterful actors are in the cast and, if the show lives up to the promise of its clever premise, it should be a highlight of the summer. June 20 to July 14 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; 773-753-4472 and courttheatre.org
'The Color Purple'
In the midst of its ambitious first year of producing its own musicals, the Mercury Theater on Chicago's North Side offers up an intimate, Equity-affiliated production of the 2005 Broadway musical, featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman. It's based, of course, on Alice Walker's beloved 1982 novel about the hardscrabble life of a young but resilient African-American woman in rural Georgia in the 1930s. August, Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.; 773-325-1700 and mercurytheaterchicago.com
The centerpiece of the summer at the Biograph Theatre is the world premiere of this drama by Luis Alfaro, slated to be directed by Chay Yew, the artistic director of Victory Gardens. It's a reimagining of Euripides' tragic "Medea" (the one wherein a mother sacrifices her own children) set in the Pilsen neighborhood. If the success of Alfaro's devastating "Oedipus El Rey," which relocated Sophocles to the barrios of Los Angeles, is any guide, this likely daring and wrenching drama is not to be missed. July 12 to Aug. 11 by Victory Gardens at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-871-3000 and victorygardens.org
William Petersen always prefers to work in Chicago in the summer — when there's no ice on the sidewalks. But this Chicago stage actor-turned-TV star is welcome any time. This show, written by Greg Pierce and directed by Randall Arney, was a late addition to the Steppenwolf slate. A two-character drama set in Costa Rica, it's about the relationship between an uncle and his niece (played by Rae Gray), following a terrible accident at a house party on the East Coast. Both are running away from something; each finds the other. July 18 to Aug. 25 in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org
There are many reasons to admire "Next to Normal," the very serious musical from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, but the most important one is the way this show captures how family life in today's overscheduled world gets shoved into ever smaller and smaller boxes, with togetherness compromised by ubiquitous electronic devices. At the Drury Lane, this is challenging programming for an audience more used to lighter and classic musical fare. Aug. 15 to Oct. 6 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace; 630-530-0111 and drurylaneoakbrook.com
Founded in 1947, the Piccolo Teatro di Milano (or "The Little Theatre of the City of Milan") is one of the most important of the Italian theater companies. Its visit to Chicago with this play by the late Eduardo De Filippo is part of the Year of Italian Culture in the U.S. Chicago will be the first city to which the Piccolo Teatro brings this lesser-known 1948 work by a tragicomic writer known for his frank descriptions of life among the Neapolitan working classes. June 25-29 by Piccolo Teatro di Milano at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com
No writer has risen faster these last two or three years than Amy Herzog. "Belleville," which premiered at Yale Repertory in 2011, is a play set in Paris, a city synonymous with romantic love. But it's actually a drama about the unraveling of a 5-year-old marriage. Anne Kaufmann directs. June 27 to Aug. 25 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org