Six spring theater shows in Seattle, from Hairspray to Wolf Play

Adoption, integration and turmoil among a Shaker sect are some of the complicated topics taking center stage this season.

On a colorful stage set, people in brightly patterned outfits do splits in the air as onlookers watch; the lighting is bright hues of purple, blue and pink

The touring musical ‘Hairspray,’ which had its world premiere in Seattle 20 years ago, arrives at The Paramount Theatre in early April. (Jeremy Daniel)

Like those daffodils and crocuses poking up around town, Seattle’s spring 2023 theater season is starting to blossom. And it feels more like old times than have the past few springs — when theater offerings were far sparser and audiences more wary about joining a live audience for in-person shows.

While larger companies revved back up this past fall and continue to offer new productions, some smaller troupes are just getting back into gear. In a wide field that includes lively musicals, solo shows and numerous Seattle premieres of contemporary dramas, here are six picks landing on the boards in the coming weeks.

As It Is in Heaven

Founded in the 18th century, The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing — commonly called the Shakers — is a Christian sect that at one point had 5,000 members in nearly 20 communities around the U.S. As of 2022, there was just one Shaker outpost left, in rural Maine, with only two inhabitants.

But curiosity about this austere utopian group continues, evident in the 1984 Ken Burns documentary on PBS as well as in Arlene Hutton’s 2001 play, which is now receiving its Seattle premiere from Taproot Theatre.

The Off Broadway drama is set in a thriving Kentucky Shaker community in the 1830s, and features the a cappella vocal music the sect used for worship (including, most familiarly, the hymn “’Tis a Gift to Be Simple”). The story depicts the tense dynamic between the community and a young woman who joins the group and sparks a female rebellion against its strictures.

If you go: As It Is in Heaven, Taproot Theatre, March 22 - April 22 ($25-$51)

(Left to right) Jenny Cross, Ashleigh Coe and Chloe Michele in ‘As It Is in Heaven’ at Taproot Theatre. (Robert Wade)

The Standby Lear

For three decades, Larry and Jeanne Paulsen have been mainstays of the Seattle stage — actors you can rely on to give strong, nuanced performances.

The married couple have been together since they were college students at University of Northern Iowa. And they have each excelled onstage — sometimes in separate productions, sometimes in the same cast — at regional theaters in Seattle and around the country.

Jeanne has also performed on Broadway, winning a Tony Award nomination for her stint in The Kentucky Cycle, and Larry recently played an idealistic teacher in the stirring production of Choir Boy at Seattle's ACT Theatre.

It is apropos, then, that the pair will play long-married actors in the Thalia’s Umbrella production of The Standby Lear. In John Lowell’s extended one-act, Larry portrays an understudy who gets a chance on short notice to play the role of a lifetime: Shakespeare’s King Lear. Jeanne is his wife who, though retired from acting, proves an indispensable coach for the most daunting performance of her nervous spouse’s career.

If you go: The Standby Lear, 12th Avenue Arts, March 30 - April 15 ($1-$50)

Seattle’s Jeanne and Larry Paulsen star in ‘The Standby Lear,’ a relationship comedy about a Shakespearean tragedy. (Thalia’s Umbrella)


This upbeat, tunesome charmer, based on the John Waters film of the same name, began its journey in 2002 with a world premiere at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. That was followed by a lengthy Broadway stay that fetched eight Tony Awards, a popular movie version and a live television performance.

Twenty years after its debut, audiences are still beguiled by heroine Tracy Turnblad, the sassy 1960s Baltimore teen with the gumption to spur the racial integration of an “American Bandstand”-style TV dance party. As the big number “You Can’t Stop the Beat” promises, the show goes on and on.

As part of a new national tour, Hairspray is back in its birth city — this time at the historic Paramount Theatre. With its positive message in a feel-good package wrapped in zesty songs, Hairspray has long-lasting hold.

If you go: Hairspray, The Paramount Theatre, April 4 - 9 ($35-$190)

Andrew Levitt (left) and Niki Metcalf (right) play Edna and Tracy Turnblad in the national touring production of the musical ‘Hairspray.’ (Jeremy Daniel)

The Niceties

Intiman Theatre continues its season of politically charged plays with this 2018 Eleanor Burgess two-hander set on a contemporary college campus, rife with divisive tensions.

In a production staged by noted local director Sheila Daniels, actors Amy Thone and Varinique ‘V’ Davis go toe to toe as a seasoned liberal professor and an affluent Black student — the latter of whom resents the racism she has experienced in her elite academic institution.

What begins as a cordial meeting in the prof’s office escalates into a provocative clash between women of different generations, experiences and expectations. It isn’t an easy exchange, nor a simplistic debate. And it raises concerns and sensitivities that that should get audiences thinking and talking after the final curtain.

If you go: The Niceties, Erickson Theatre, April 18 - 29 ($5-$80)

Amy Thorne (left) and Varinique ‘V’ Davis play two progressive academic women whose ideologies clash in ‘The Niceties’ at  Erickson Theatre. (Intiman Theatre) 

How I Learned What I Learned

In 2003, the illustrious Seattle-based playwright August Wilson nervously but boldly stepped into the spotlight himself in a loosely strung, autobiographical solo show at Seattle Repertory Theatre. 

A gifted and entertaining raconteur, Wilson spoke about his roots in Pittsburgh, his own formative experiences of racism, poetry, music and friendship, and the circuitous path to becoming one of the most celebrated dramatists of his era as the author of the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.

Before he had an opportunity to revise How I Learned What I Learned; or, as he’d planned, take it on the road to New York; or pen the sequel he was considering, Wilson fell ill. He died of liver cancer in Seattle in 2005 at age 60.

After his passing, his semi-improvised show was transcribed from an audiotape. And it has endured as a popular one-man play as co-conceived by Wilson and his creative associate Todd Kreidler and performed by actors in theaters around the country. 

This spring the Rep brings the piece back in a production first seen last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It is performed by Steven Anthony Jones (a standout in the cast of Wilson’s play Jitney at Seattle Rep back in 2020) and staged by former Seattle theater pro Tim Bond, who has directed numerous Wilson plays and knew the playwright well.

If you go: How I Learned What I Learned, Seattle Repertory Theatre, April 21 - May 14 ($20-$97)

Actor Stephen Anthony Jones stars in ‘How I Learned What I Learned,’ by esteemed Seattle playwright August Wilson, at Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Jenny Graham) 

Wolf Play

According to the U.S. government, in the past 15 years, some 260,000 children from foreign countries have been adopted by Americans. But the challenges and rewards of adopting a child from a different country are not always foreseeable — neither for the adoptive parents nor the adoptee.

Hansol Jung’s imaginative, allegorical 2021 play addresses what happens when an adopted 6-year-old South Korean boy is wrenched from one American home to another — from a single father to a couple in which one parent is non-binary — sparking an unsettling custody battle.

But here’s where Jung’s script departs from a conventional account of a problematic adoption scenario: The little boy is embodied by a life-sized puppet, and believes he is a wolf searching for his pack. 

Described by New York theater critics as “exhilarating,” “sweet” and “powerful” in its 2022 Off Broadway debut, the play is getting a first mounting here from ACT, with esteemed Seattle director Rosa Joshi at the helm.

If you go: Wolf Play, ACT Theatre, May 5 - 21 (Pay what you can-$89)

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About the Authors & Contributors

Misha Berson

Misha Berson

Misha Berson was the chief theatre critic for The Seattle Times for 25 years, now working as a freelance writer and teacher.