Once upon a time, Chicago was a magic town. You could buy tricks and apparatus at Marshall Field's and get a full-blown magic show with your dinner at Schulien's. The waiters there invented what became known as the Chicago style of magic. It was up-close and personal, not too grand, but still astonishing, and best of all, it made the audience part of the show. David Parr and Joe Diamond re-create this golden age in The Magic Cabaret, using homely objects like books and light bulbs and (naturally) playing cards to bring their stories of old-time magic to life. The result is by turns funny, surprising, and spooky. But here's the most amazing part: it really is fun for the whole family, not just the kids.—Aimee Levitt $20http://magic-cabaret.com
The latest iteration of the Waltzing Mechanics' long-running homage to the Chicago Transit Authority tries to encapsulate comedy, tragedy, and the triumph of the spirit in vignettes that play out in an onstage train car. It inhibits itself in one important way: the "el stories," based on interviews, are told verbatim—and I found the likes, ums, and buts distracting (and perhaps a troubling metastatement on how language has devolved). Linguistics aside, nothing in Chicago is more relatable than the el, and some standout bits resonated with a universal truth: the drunk bro's inappropriate advances, the sick passenger making everyone else wish they could teleport to safety, and the impromptu late-night sing-along. —Marissa Oberlander $15
Re-creating a legendary 1956 jam session involving Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, this crowd-pleaser is basically a vehicle for crackling renditions of classic tunes, including "Blue Suede Shoes," "That's All Right," and "Great Balls of Fire." The show's emotional center is Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, a man caught between competing personal and business pressures. —Albert Williams $25-$70
It's that time of year when we all get really excited about looking at lots of very small lightbulbs. This evening, Lincoln Park Zoo flips the switch on its holiday display as Zoolights opens for the season. Besides strands of twinkling lights wrapped around things, Zoolights also features photos with Santa, live ice-carving demonstrations, festive 3-D displays, and ice skating.
Six local comics tell autobiographical anecdotes. $5
A bona fide born-in-Chicago international hit, this simultaneously nostalgic and satirical comedy by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan concerns a nun instructing her students—that's you—on the dos and don'ts of dogma. —Jack Helbig $30
You want funny? Go to the website that inspired this revue, where actual old Jews—no comedians, no actors—spend maybe a minute each relating their often jaw-droppingly perverse gags. Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent's stage version is funny, too, filled as it is with classic old bits, most of which come down to Leibowitz, Moskowitz, Gottleib, Kaminsky, Cohen, Kaplan, and/or Saperstein getting fucked by the world if not by their wives. I laughed. I also admired the crack five-member cast. Yet something crucial is missing. Between sappy monologues about the role of humor in Jewish lives and Marc Bruni's strenuously charming direction, OJTJ never gets at the sublimated rage that gives Jewish wit its worldview and its bite. Bruni's biggest mistake is showing clips of Alan King performing a routine whose hilarious savagery demonstrates all too clearly what the rest of the show lacks. —Tony Adler $49-$59
Baby Wants Candy--a tight troupe now famous for its improvised musicals--began in 1997 as one of the dozens of ImprovOlympic teams formed every year. Somehow they've avoided the usual dissolution of such groups. More impressive, they've never experienced the artistic conservatism that paralyzes improvisers eager to "do it right"--and reap the reward, presumably, of a career in NYC or LA. Instead the troupe has become the very model of smart, physical, quick-thinking, and just plain silly long-form improvisers; they still play well together and manage to entertain. Inspired by the improbable suggestion "So this is it" at the show I saw, nine actors (backed by the five-member Yes Band) improvised a complicated, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tale of three partnerships on the rocks--two marriages and a professional relationship--and the narrator who helps bring the couples back together. --Jack Helbig $15
A reading series featuring "the best established and rising Chicago authors reading new and published stories." New stories each half hour from 6 to 8:30.http://detzner.com/brendan/theater.php
This latest variation on Vicki Quade's long-running Late Nite Catechism is an occasionally amusing one-woman show in which a genially overbearing Mother Superior talks about the lives of various saints (Valentine, Patrick, Rose of Lima) and sinners (Judas, Pontius Pilate, sinner-turned-saint Augustine) and takes questions. The premise is that the audience is a fund-raising committee for a parish so financially strapped that--says Mother Superior, in a line that exemplifies the show's good-natured but not very clever humor--"we're down to six deadly sins." Viewers steeped in Catholic-school tradition may enjoy bantering with the bossy nun (played alternately by Quade's cowriters Lisa Buscani and Elaine Carlson), and the environmental set--a musty classroom adorned with out-of-date maps, portraits of President Kennedy and Pope Benedict XVI, student artwork, and a penmanship guide--is a treat. --Albert Williams $30http://nuns4fun.com/
Showcase for local comedians. $5
What can I say? The movie is a damned classic among classics. I know every line of it—and, more, every frame and inflection. As far as I'm concerned, that moment at the Bedford Falls train station—when Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey finally realizes he'll never fulfill his dream of seeing the world—is film poetry right up there with the baby carriage in Battleship Potemkin. And yet American Blues Theater's 90-minute stage version more than holds its own against any prejudice. It's delightful. ABT's uncredited adaptation treats George's dark night of the soul as the subject of a World War II-era radio broadcast, complete with musical commercial breaks touting local businesses. At once tongue-in-cheek and utterly wholehearted, it's not for cynics: you will be expected to laugh, weep, sigh, and sing Christmas carols. You may feel a twinge of class solidarity, too, if your politics run that way. Under Marty Higginbotham's direction, there doesn't seem to be a rule of thumb about imitating the movie (Kevin Kelly's George hasn't a smidge of Stewart while John Mohrlein is pure Lionel Barrymore as the evil Mr. Potter). The Frank Capra buoyancy, though, is always present. —Tony Adler $19-$49
Butterfly habitat; displays on regional ecosystems.