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For appetites big and little

Charlotte's theater community dangles between hope and anxiety this year, with audience expectations staying high but budgets getting lower. Yet all enter the 2010-2011 season determined not to let theatergoers see a decrease in quality, whatever the turmoil behind the scenes may be.

The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has two blockbusters: Disney's "Mary Poppins" (now at Belk Theatre) and "Billy Elliot," the Tony-winning musical about a miner's son who longs to dance. Yet some of the lesser-known titles are the most exciting: "Next to Normal," a rock musical about a mother with bipolar disorder, and "In the Heights," a musical with a Dominican flavor.

As usual, Children's Theatre of Charlotte starts with an extravaganza - "Aladdin," another musical based on a Disney film - and moves on to more thoughtful fare, such as "Lyle the Crocodile" or "Tomás and the Library Lady." The High School Ensemble will tackle "Lord of the Flies."

Actor's Theatre of Charlotte offers five off-Broadway-style shows that tickle the imagination. The most intriguing may be "Blue Door," Tanya Barfield's drama about an African-American professor who was left by his wife after refusing to join the Million Man March and now sees the ghosts of his ancestors.

Theatre Charlotte takes a risk this year with a staged version of the beloved 1967 movie "The Graduate." Otherwise, the slate is mainstream, from "The Glass Menagerie" to "Annie."

Two of Charlotte's alternative theaters have established a firm footing in recent years: Carolina Actors Studio Theatre and Queen City Theatre Company. The former will do a mix of modern classics ("The Elephant Man," "Agnes of God") and far-out recent work ("Popcorn"). The latter will cap its season with the terrific musical "Chess," written by the guys from ABBA.

Want to go farther out conceptually? Try Citizens of the Universe, which often turns cult films ("Trainspotting") into staged works, or Machine Theatre, where core artists collaborate on every aspect of production to reinvent plays ("Miss Julie").

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