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Chicago is a regular stop on the big-name entertainment circuit, whether it's musicals such as Wicked or pop music acts. High-profile shows that went on to great success in New York, including Monty Python's Spamalot and Mel Brooks's stage version of The Producers, had their first runs here before moving on to Broadway.

Thanks to extensive renovation of historic theaters, performers have a choice of impressive venues to strut their stuff. The Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., between Michigan and Wabash avenues (tel. 312/922-2110; www.auditoriumtheatre.org), may be the most beautiful theater in Chicago -- and it's also a certified national landmark. Built in 1889 by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, this grand hall schedules mostly musicals and dance performances. Even if you don't catch a show here, you can stop by for a tour.

The city's other great historic theaters are concentrated in the North Loop. The Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph St., and the Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St., book major touring shows and are well worth a visit for arts buffs. The Oriental's fantastical Asian look includes elaborate carvings almost everywhere you look; dragons, elephants, and griffins peer down at the audience from the gilded ceiling. The Palace features a profusion of Italian marble surfaces and columns, gold-leaf accents a la Versailles, huge decorative mirrors, and crystal chandeliers. (If you'd like to get a look at these historic theaters for a fraction of the standard ticket price, guided tours of both start at 11am Sat and cost $10 per person; meet in the Oriental lobby.) The Bank of America Theatre (formerly the Schubert Theatre), 18 W. Monroe St., was built in 1906 as a home for vaudeville shows; today it books mostly well-known musicals and sometimes comedy performers. For show schedules at all three theaters, call tel. 312/977-1700, or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., at Lake Street (tel. 312/443-1130; www.thechicagotheatre.com), is a 1920s music palace reborn as an all-purpose entertainment venue, playing host to pop acts, magicians, stand-up comedians, and more. (Both the Chicago Theatre and the Bank of America Theatre, above, are quite large, so be forewarned that the cheaper seats are in nosebleed territory.) Arie Crown Theater, in the McCormick Place convention center at 23rd Street and Lake Shore Drive (tel. 312/791-6190; www.ariecrown.com), books musicals and pop acts, but compared to the venues listed above, the massive hall feels somewhat impersonal.

Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard (tel. 312/294-3000), is the building that encompasses Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The building holds a six-story sky-lit arcade, recital spaces, and the fine-dining restaurant Rhapsody. While the CSO is the main attraction, the Symphony Center schedules a series of piano recitals, classical and chamber music concerts, a family matinee series, and the occasional jazz or pop artist.

Chicago has a few other major venues for traveling shows, but they are not as convenient for visitors. The Rosemont Theatre, 5400 River Rd. in Rosemont, near O'Hare Airport (tel. 847/671-5100; www.rosemonttheatre.com), is a top suburban stop for family-friendly musicals and concerts. The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd., in the northern suburb of Skokie (tel. 847/673-6300; www.northshorecenter.org), is home to the well-respected Northlight Theater troupe, the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra, and a series of nationally known touring acts, including comics, dance troupes, and children's programs.

Tip: Finding a Better Seat -- Most of Chicago's grand old theaters have balconies that go way, way up toward the ceiling -- and if you're stuck in the cheap seats, you'll be straining to see what's happening onstage. While theaters are very strict about checking tickets when you arrive, the ushers relax during intermission, so scope out empty seats during the first act, and then move down to better (and much pricier) spots for the rest of the show.

Classical Music

Not surprisingly, the world-class talent of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- considered one of the best in the country -- dominates the classical music calendar. However, many orchestra members play in smaller ensembles around town on a semi-regular basis; a few independent musical groups have also built loyal followings with eclectic programming.

To find out what's playing when you're in town, check out the Chicago Classical Music website (www.chicagoclassicalmusic.org), maintained by a consortium of the city's leading music groups.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is considered among the best in the world.

The oldest all-volunteer civic chorus in the country, Apollo Chorus of Chicago (tel. 312/427-5620; www.apollochorus.org), was founded in 1872, 1 year after the Great Chicago Fire. Today, it's best known for its annual holiday-season performances of Handel's Messiah at Orchestra Hall. The group also presents at least two other concerts during the year at various downtown venues.

The Chicago Chamber Musicians (CCM; tel. 312/819-5800; www.chicagochambermusic.org), a 15-member ensemble drawn from performers from the CSO and Northwestern and DePaul universities, presents chamber music concerts at various locales around the city. The season runs September through May, and you can always find the CCM performing free noontime concerts on the first Monday of the month (except Sept and Mar) on the second floor of the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop. The Chicago String Quartet is affiliated with the group.

The Chicago Sinfonietta (tel. 312/236-3681; www.chicagosinfonietta.org), with its racially diverse 45-member orchestra and a wide-ranging repertoire, seeks to broaden the audience for classical music. Concerts combine works by masters such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn with music from Latin America, Asia, and others. Playing about 10 times a year at Orchestra Hall and other venues, the group often takes a multimedia approach to its multicultural mission, collaborating with dance troupes, visual artists, museums, rock bands, and gospel choirs.

Music of the Baroque (tel. 312/551-1414; www.baroque.org) is a small orchestra and chorus that pulls members from both the CSO and the Lyric Opera orchestra, and features professional singers from across the country. The ensemble performs the music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, in appropriately Gothic church settings in various neighborhoods. The group has made several recordings and has introduced lesser-known works by composers such as Mozart and Monteverdi to Chicago audiences.

Dance

Chicago's dance scene is lively, but unfortunately it doesn't attract the same crowds as theater or music performances. Some resident dance troupes have international reputations, but they spend much of their time touring to support themselves. Dance performances in Chicago tend to occur in spurts throughout the year, with visiting companies such as the American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theater of Harlem stopping in Chicago for limited engagements. Depending on the timing of your visit, you may have a choice of dance performances -- or there may be none at all.

Dance lovers should schedule their visit for November, when the annual "Dance Chicago" festival (tel. 773/989-0698; www.dancechicago.com) is held at various locations around town. Featuring performances and workshops from the city's best-known dance companies and countless smaller groups, it's a great chance to check out the range of local dance talent. Another phenomenon that has enlivened the local scene is the scintillating Chicago Human Rhythm Project (tel. 773/281-1825; www.chicagotap.com), a non-profit group that brings together tap and percussive dancers from around the world for a series of workshops and performances in the summer and fall.

To find out what's going on at other times of the year, visit the website for the non-profit group See Chicago Dance (www.seechicagodance.com), which gives a comprehensive roundup of local performances. Another good reason to check out the site: You can often find links to discounted tickets.

The major Chicago dance troupes perform at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. (tel. 312/334-7777; www.harristheaterchicago.org), in Millennium Park. The 1,500-seat theater feels fairly stark and impersonal -- the gray concrete lobby could be mistaken for a parking garage -- but the sightlines are great, thanks to the stadium-style seating.

Theater

Ever since the Steppenwolf Theatre Company burst onto the national radar in the late '70s and early '80s with in-your-face productions of Sam Shepard's True West and Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, Chicago has been known as a theater town. As Broadway produced bloated, big-budget musicals with plenty of special effects but little soul, Chicago theater troupes gained respect for their risk-taking and no-holds-barred emotional style. Some of Broadway's most acclaimed dramas in recent years (the Goodman Theatre's revival of Death of a Salesman and Steppenwolf's August: Osage County, to name a couple) hatched on Chicago stages. With more than 200 theaters, Chicago might have dozens of productions playing on any given weekend -- and seeing a show here is on my must-do list for all visitors.

The city's theaters have produced a number of legendary comedic actors, including comic-turned-director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge, Primary Colors), as well as fine dramatic actors and playwrights. David Mamet, one of America's greatest playwrights and an acclaimed film director and screenwriter, grew up in Chicago's South Shore steel-mill neighborhood and honed his craft with the former St. Nicholas Players, which included actor William H. Macy (Fargo, Boogie Nights).

The thespian soil here must be fertile. Tinseltown and TV have lured away such talents as John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Dennis Franz, Gary Sinise, George Wendt, and John Cusack. But even as emerging talents leave for bigger paychecks, a new pool of fresh faces is always waiting to take over. This constant renewal keeps the city's theatrical scene invigorated with new ideas and energy. Many of the smaller theater companies place great emphasis on communal work: Everyone takes part in putting on a production, from writing the script to building the sets. These companies perform in tiny, none-too-impressive venues, but their enthusiasm and commitment are inspiring. Who knows? The group you see performing in some storefront theater today could be the Steppenwolf of tomorrow.

The listings below highlight the troupes that consistently present high-quality work, but they represent only a fraction of Chicago's theater scene. For a complete listing of productions that are playing while you're in town, check the comprehensive listings in the two free weeklies, the Reader (which reviews just about every show in town) and New City; the weekly Time Out Chicago magazine; or the Friday sections of the two daily newspapers. The website of the League of Chicago Theatres (www.chicagoplays.com) also lists all theater productions playing in the area.

Getting Tickets -- You can buy tickets for most shows directly from each theater's website. Individual box offices also take credit card orders by phone, and many of the smaller theaters will reserve seats for you with a simple request under your name left on the answering machine. For hard-to-get tickets, try Gold Coast Tickets (tel. 800/889-9100; www.goldcoasttickets.com).

Special Value: Half-Price theater Tickets -- For half-price tickets on the day of the show, drop by one of the Hot Tix ticket centers (tel. 312/977-1755; www.hottix.org), located in the Loop at 72 E. Randolph St. (btw. Wabash and Michigan aves.), and the Water Works Visitor Center, 163 E. Pearson St. The website lists what's on sale for that day beginning at 10am. You can buy tickets to most shows online, but you'll have to pay Ticketmaster's irritating "convenience" charge. Branches are open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday 11am to 4pm; on Friday you can also purchase tickets for weekend performances. Hot Tix also offers advance-purchase tickets at full price.

In addition, a few theaters offer last-minute discounts on leftover seats. Steppenwolf Theatre Company often has $20 tickets available beginning at 11am on the day of a performance; stop by Audience Services at the theater. Also, half-price tickets become available 1 hr. before the show; call or stop by the box office, or visit www.steppenwolf.org. At the Goodman Theatre, if a show doesn't sell out, half-price tickets for that evening's performance are available starting at 10am at the box office; you can also buy them on the theater's website.

Tip: Theater for All -- Visitors with disabilities will find that some local theaters go the extra mile to make their performances accessible. The Steppenwolf, Goodman, and Lookingglass theaters offer sign-language interpretation for deaf patrons and audio-described performances for visually impaired audiences. Victory Gardens Theater schedules special performances throughout the year customized for audiences with different disabilities. The theater even offers deaf patrons special glasses that project captions of dialogue onto the frame of the glasses.

Comedy & Improv

In the mid-1970s, the nation was introduced to Chicago's brand of comedy through the skit-comedy show Saturday Night Live. Back then, John Belushi and Bill Murray were among the latest brood to hatch from the number-one incubator of Chicago-style humor, Second City. Generations of American comics, from Mike Nichols and Robert Klein to Mike Myers and Tina Fey, have honed their skills in Chicago before making it big in film and TV. Chicago continues to nurture young comics, affording them the chance to learn the tricks of improvisational comedy at Second City, the ImprovOlympic, and numerous other comedy and improv outlets.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.