The new season: Think small for the fall 

There is much to be said for major theater companies offering big, expensive productions (and we’ll list some of those here), but smaller is — if not necessarily "better" — just as satisfying when it’s done well. There are more than 300 theater companies in the Bay Area, so seek and ye shall find.

Small and inexpensive go together; one way to have your theater and eat dinner too is using TixBayArea.com by going online or dropping by the Union Square half-price ticket booth. On Oct. 2, the organization will institute a regular "Free Night of Theater" giveaway.

Also, don’t miss the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which is under way in various venues, mostly around Union Square.

Big and small

Here’s an example of big and small combined. Big daddy American Conservatory Theater is producing Stephen Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd" (Aug. 30 to Sept. 30), N. Richard Nash’s "The Rainmaker" (Oct. 25 to Nov. 25), and David Mamet’s "Speed-the-Plow" (Jan. 4 to Feb. 3).

Yet the ACT Conservatory and graduate students are providing inexpensive, intriguing plays in the intimate (meaning tiny, 140-seat) Zeum Theater in Yerba Buena Center. There, students and faculty work together, providing performance opportunities for the young artists, novelty and witnessing promise of future greatness for the audience.

In October, two great stage veterans — Barbara Oliver and Ken Ruta — direct classic Shaw plays: "Candida" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," respectively, running in repertory Oct. 10 to Nov. 3. ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s "Tosca Project" (in collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet) is due Oct. 26 to 28.

» ACT productions are at 415 Geary St., San Francisco; Conservatory productions are at Zeum, 221 Fourth St., San Francisco; (415) 749-2227; www.act-sfbay.org

Got Magic?

Highlights of the medium-size, always pioneering Magic Theatre’s season include world premieres such as Bill Pullman’s "Expedition 6" (Sept. 8 to Oct. 7), Rebecca Gilman’s "The Crowd You’re in With" (Nov. 10 to Dec. 9), Betty Shamieh’s "Territories" (Jan. 12 to Feb. 12), and a musical adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s "Tir na Nog" ("Land of Youth").

» Magic Theater is in Fort Mason, Building D, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco; (415) 441-8822; www.magictheatre.org

Big-time dinner theater

Lest you take Teatro ZinZanni for granted, know that the theatrical-musical-acrobatic dinner show at Pier 29 will feature theater great Geoff Hoyle as Le Chef, now through Nov. 11.

» Pier 29, San Francisco; (415) 438-2668; www.love.zinzanni.org

Best of Broadway

In the department of really big shows, the SHN (née Shorenstein) Best of Broadway series is especially promising in the coming season: the rock musical "Spring Awakening" and Lisa Lambert’s "The Drowsy Chaperone" (both multiple Tony winners), a British-Indian production of Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" and the pre-Broadway premiere of Des McAnuff’s revival of "The Wiz."

The big fall opener, however, is Oprah Winfrey’s production of "The Color Purple," featuring Jeannette Bayardelle and Felicia from the Broadway production, along with Michelle Williams, formerly of Destiny’s Child, and local fave LaToya London of "American Idol" fame. The show runs Oct. 9 to Dec. 9.

» Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco; (415) 512-7770; www.shnsf.com

Living history

TheatreWorks presents "Golda’s Balcony," about the rise of Golda Meir from Russian schoolgirl to Israeli prime minister from Oct. 6 to Oct. 28. The show was written by Tony Award-winner William Gibson.

» Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 200 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 903-6000; www.theatreworks.org

Show tunes up close

"Words & Music" promises to be a one-of-a-kind evening with Tony Award-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, best known for "Ragtime," "Once on This Island," "Seussical" and more. Their music will be performed by Tony-nominated Broadway stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley is a production presented by Broadway by the Bay; the show runs one weekend only, Nov. 8 to 11.

» San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo; (650) 579-5568; www.roadwaybythebay.org

Fall arts preview

» Today: Theater and dance

» Wednesday: Classical and popular music

» Thursday: Visual arts and family events

» Friday: Film

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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