<i>Variety</i>’s top picks

What we're looking forward to

Variety’s most anticipated events of the upcoming year:

Nothing says summer lovin’ like a trip to the Cineplex in August to see “Hamlet 2” with Steve Coogan and a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and Elisabeth Shue as … Elisabeth Shue!

Dressed as a trannie or not, Eddie Izzard’s comedy kills — not to mention his stage and TV work. Izzard’s at Radio City Music Hall three days in late June. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, Izzard’s dependably brilliant.

If I do get over my preference for watching standup on DVD from the comfort of my couch, put me down for Ricky Gervais in Gotham at the WaMu Theater in mid-July. Ditto for Chris Rock, also touring. Truth is, about the couch I mean, I like to watch at home so I can hit rewind, because if you think the rule of three in comedy is funny, it’s thrice as funny when you watch it three times in a row.

Jack White is some kind of supergenius. He goes note for note and toe to toe with Mick Jagger in “Shine a Light” without looking awestruck or too cool for school. I’m partial to the White Stripes, but I’d happily catch him with his autre band, the Raconteurs, at Terminal 5 on May 30.

While Neko Case toys with another small-engagement mini-tour to play songs from her next unrecorded album, I can busy myself with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the WaMu in mid-June. Their “Raising Sand” collaboration made time stop and should claim a spot on best-of lists permanently.

Winter Miller, Variety film reporter

The Public Theater’s 40th anniversary concert staging in Central Park of “Hair” last summer proved this often-problematic period piece can summon urgent contemporary relevance to back up its eclectic rock score. The 1967 tribal hippie musical can induce cringing when its peace-and-love mantra is staged with faux earnestness. But director Diane Paulus and her youthful cast struck just the right note with their happening under the trees, returning this year for a full run, July 17-Aug. 22.

No choreographer so successfully straddled ballet and Broadway as Jerome Robbins, and no dancemeister gave such fluid illustration of how each form is influenced by the other. Whether he’s wrangling Sharks and Jets or sailors on the town, Robbins’ work is always a highlight when it turns up in the New York City Ballet program. The Jerome Robbins Celebration, running April 29-June 29, offers the chance to pick from 33 ballets created over more than 50 years. Until Arthur Laurents’ planned revival next year, “West Side Story Suite,” Robbins’ distillation of the musical’s dance segs, is the next best thing.

Choreography on Broadway tends to be much less expressive now than in Robbins’ day, but the arrival of “Billy Elliot” will shift dance back to centerstage in musical storytelling. The transfer of Stephen Daldry’s crowdpleasing London production opens Oct. 16. While the emotional arc of a young boy finding release through dance and the struggle of striking mine workers should resonate just as much this side of the Atlantic as the other, the show’s biggest challenge will be connecting American audiences to the politics of early-1980s Britain.

The Thatcher years also are scrutinized in Caryl Churchill’s incisive examination of the role of women through the ages in the Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of “Top Girls, opening at the Biltmore Theater on May 7. The writer’s stinging wit and brutal economy with words have an ideal match in director James Macdonald’s spare aesthetic. And ever since she redefined “Hedda Gabler” at New York Theater Workshop in 2004, Elizabeth Marvel has been waiting for a role like employment agency empress Marlene.

When “Saved” premiered at Sundance in 2004, watching outraged conservatives storm out of the theater was almost as much fun as the indie comedy’s wry satire of religious hypocrisy in a Christian high school. Given the track record of Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons at shepherding unconventional musicals (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “James Joyce’s The Dead,” “Grey Gardens”), the adaptation, bowing June 3, should be one to watch.

David Rooney, Variety chief theater critic

Aficionados of the avant-garde and nabobs of noise eagerly await the return of the annual No Fun Festival (May 16-18) — the ear-shattering analog of the swallows descending on Capistrano. This year’s edition at the Knitting Factory has more than its share of potentially eye-opening appearances, from recently reunited Krautrock pioneers Cluster to violinist Tony Conrad, who pretty much set post-rock in motion with the (original) Dream Syndicate in the early ’60s. Three dozen sets over the course of three days — including solo perfs by Sonic Youth string-slingers Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo — promise both horrible noise and transcendent beauty.

Love him or hate him, Billy Joel perfectly defines a certain breed of New York City pop, making him the perfect headliner for what’s been dubbed “The Last Play at Shea.” The Piano Man’s two-night stand at Shea Stadium (July 16 and 18) will dot the last “i” in the 44-year concert history of a stadium that’s hosted the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad and the Clash. Trumping all of the above, Billy will become the only performer to have pulled off the daily double of treading the boards at both Yankee Stadium and this venue — at which he’s sure to get a standing O when he trots out the line “they said that Queens could stay.”

Long before his personal foibles consigned him to latenight punchline status, George Michael earned pretty much unanimous acclaim as his generation’s greatest blue-eyed soul singer. Neither those troubles nor intervening years seem to have taken a toll on Michael’s voice, so fans who waited a decade and a half for his return to a Stateside stage shouldn’t be disappointed when he appears at Madison Square Garden July 21 and 23 — unless, of course, they’re pining for a guest spot by his old Wham-mate Andrew Ridgely.

The folks behind Coachella will try to put a Big Apple spin on the high desert fest’s success with the two-day All Points West event slated to unspool in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty Aug. 8-10. The huddled masses may not breathe quite as free on the banks of the Hudson as in Indio, but a lineup that includes Radiohead (in their only Gotham appearance), Jack Johnson and the Roots — as well as up-and-comers like CSS and Earl Greyhound — will light up the skyline with panache.

David Sprague, Variety contributing pop critic

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