A Critic Looks Ahead: Top Picks for 2023-24 on DFW Stages

American regional theater is dying. That’s what everyone is proclaiming, from The New York Times to the L.A. Times, and honestly, they might be right. The theatrical landscape has certainly changed here in Dallas-Fort Worth since I began reviewing it in 2010, then one of a handful of critics who regularly got to see, ponder on, and then write about dozens of shows a year. Now I’m one of the few arts writers left standing, though in recent years my writing assignments have shifted more toward features and news than reviews. I don’t attend every opening night anymore, though a few theaters graciously still offer me press tickets in exchange for whatever coverage I can cobble together. But even though my reviewing has slowed, I’m still inextricably bound to this community. I care about the folks who continue to pour their time, energy, and money into this frustratingly addictive artform, and try to champion their work whenever possible.

That said, I have some thoughts about their upcoming seasons. In some cases, programming now seems to depend even more on safe choices and crowd favorites, as subscriptions slow and theaters are desperate for new audiences. The most obvious example is Dallas Theater Center, our Tony-winning regional theater that recently cut staff and returned its acting company to a per-show basis instead of salary. DTC is bringing back The Rocky Horror Show this Sept. and Oct., which was a huge, kinky, sequined good time in 2014 at the Wyly Theatre (Lyric Stage also recently produced this show). Now it’ll be scaled down to fit the Kalita Humphreys Theater, though no other details have been released other than that Blake Hackler is directing and Kelsey Milbourn is choreographing. Besides DTC’s annual Christmas Carol and the giant Public Works in summer 2024—this year an ambitious musical, Disney’s The Little Mermaid—which relies on a few professional actors but mostly free participation from the community, the rest of the season is small or one-person casts that are being co-produced with other theater companies. I sincerely hope this breather of a season helps DTC become sturdier on its feet, but as it’s one of the companies that has stopped inviting press without a review and rarely responds to press inquiries, I likely won’t get to see any of the results for myself.

One show I am excited to see—and likely will—is POTUS: or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive by Selina Fillinger at Stage West in March 2024. Recently on Broadway in 2022, this ensemble comedy is right in Stage West’s wheelhouse: timely, clever, quick, and full of juicy roles for women. Another choice that made me nod appreciatively is Bondage by Star Finch, being presented by Undermain Theatre in Sept. and Oct. of this year. Undermain mainstay Rhonda Boutté stars in this gothic tale of race, which should challenge and unnerve audiences in the way only this Deep Ellum theater company can. Equally intriguing is This Time, a workshop production happening at Undermain in early 2024. The 2022 recipient of the Katherine Owens/Undermain Fund for New Work, Brian Dang’s play is also dark and unsettling, with murder on its mind. Since it’s a new work, all I know is from the marketing blurb: “Jane holds a knife. It’s bloody. Hester lies on a table. She’s bloodied. Peregrine blows out a candle. Go back in time.” I’m hooked.

Lyric Stage is stretching itself a bit this upcoming season, complementing its lineup of great American musicals at the Majestic Theatre with two immersive productions in its new, experimental, Design District studio space. And what better shows to step into than Sweeney Todd and The Great American Trailer Park Musical? Sweeney Todd proved Off-Broadway that it excels in this intimate format, and honestly, I cannot wait to get a little trashy while visiting Armadillo Acres in Sept. 2023, complete with hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. This is so not Lyric Stage, and that feels pretty brilliant.

A much harder sell for most audiences will be Girl From the North Country, which Broadway Dallas is bringing to town April 2024. I saw this show when it premiered in London and adored it, but a Bob Dylan musical is a tough sell (anyone remember The Times They Are a-Changin’?), especially one that’s set in Depression-era Minnesota. A bouncy jukebox musical it is not, but that’s precisely what worked for me.

Speaking of jukebox musicals from recording legends, there’s no shortage of those coming to DFW either. MJ, Tina! The Tina Turner Musical, and The Cher Show are all taking their larger-than-life stage counterparts on tour, and I’m truly curious to see how audiences react. In November 2023, MJ might win audiences over with Michael Jackson’s signature choreography, but will people welcome a musical that celebrates such a polarizing figure? Tina Turner’s recent death should (morbidly) ensure a hit for her bio musical, which arrives in early 2024, while Cher’s over-the-top life story, complete with glittery Bob Mackie costumes and three different performers playing the woman herself, could be exactly what audiences are longing to escape to during the 2023 holidays. But those planning to buy tickets should take note: MJ and Tina! both have healthy runs scheduled through Broadway Dallas, while The Cher Show is only here for four performances, as has been the norm lately with AT&T Performing Arts Center. Will Cher also be non-equity, as most recent ATTPAC tours have been? Unclear, but there is always the alternative to go see local, regional productions. Just a suggestion.