Michael McElroy and Tyrone Giordano in Big River(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Michael McElroy and Tyrone Giordano in Big River
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
After a splendid 2003-04 campaign, the Mum Puppettheatre kicks off its new season with The Puppetmaster of Lodz (through November 20), Gilles Segal's poignant play about a puppetmaster who escapes Auschwitz and hides in a small attic. Hearing that the war has ended, he mistakenly believes that the factual reports are a Nazi plot to lure Jews out into the open. Remaining in his hiding place as the years creep by, he tries to reclaim what he's lost during the war -- his wife, family, home and friends -- by recreating them as puppets. Directed by Robert Smythe, talented young Barrymore Award winning actor Tobias Segal portrays the forlorn puppetmaster. The production features over 80 puppets, including a number that Segal constructs live during the performance.

If you compiled a list of the most physically demanding characters in theater history, the role of John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man would likely be near the top of the list. For the Centre Theatre's production at their small Norristown theater (through November 21), Jered McLenigan takes on the difficult role in Pomerance's lovely play about the power of human dignity.

Presented by Baryshnikov Dance Foundation in association with the local organization Dance Affiliates, the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov arrives in town not in a sumptuous dance spectacle, but as a man who believes he is a car in Rebo Gabriadze's new play Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient. Set on a stormy Christmas Eve in a small Soviet Georgian town in the 1950s, Forbidden Christmas is a poignant absurdist drama about loss, lunacy and self-discovery. A great example of a legendary performer who refuses to rest on his laurels, the acclaimed touring show's brief run (November 4-6) is one of the season's most anticipated events.

An extraordinary mix of Greek choral tragedy, English drawing room comedy, and Yoruban ritual and dance, Wole Soyinka's 1986 Nobel Prize winner Death and the King's Horseman is noble, poetic, and devastating. Directed by the talented Bill Roudebush, if the Lantern Theater Company production (Nov 5-Dec 12) does the play justice (and with one of the city's finest actors, Frank X, starring it has a chance), Horseman has the potential to be a rare and immensely rich theatrical experience.

The nation's oldest continuously operating theater and the city's largest, the Walnut Street Theatre has long been the city's leader in staging blockbuster musicals. And they don't come any bigger than Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. For the Walnut's new production (November 9-January 9) set in Philadelphia, scenic design Peter Barbieri's set (which includes local newspapers and a special holiday flavor) will extend out into the audience, and the production will include the rarely performed "The Ballad of Billy McCaw."

The Eternal Spiral Project is opening their season with Victoria's Stewart's examination of race, gender, and ethics, Live Girls. The play focuses on an African-American performance artist creating a docudrama and an adult film star who questions the role of docudramas in the creation of a female public image. The production (November 10-December 5) is led by Deborah Block, one of the city's best -- and least appreciated -- directors.

All of Philadelphia's finest theater artists will be on one stage when the 10th annual Gala Barrymore Awards Ceremony takes place November 15 at the Academy of Music. Recognizing excellence in Philadelphia Area theater, one of the highlights of the ceremony (besides the humorous and vaguely naughty banter from host Tony Braithwaite) is the performances from the five shows nominated for outstanding musical. The musicals selected for the 2003-04 award are the Delaware Theatre Company's Constant Star, the Prince Music Theater's splendid world premiere of Cy Coleman's The Great Ostrovsky (which led all productions with 10 nominations), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from the upstart Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center, Villanova Theatre's brilliant production of Jason Robert Brown's Parade, and the City Theatre Company's staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Academy of Music is where you will find the Deaf West Theatre's astonishing production of Roger Miller's musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (November 23-28). Featuring numerous performers from the recent Broadway staging, the production mixes deaf and hearing actors. But instead of viewing the performers' deafness as a handicap, the Tony Award-winning show incorporates it into a beautiful and uplifting production.