Sometimes you just reach the chill-out stage. Even during summer in Chicago -- that season you dreamed about a few months ago as temperatures dropped below zero -- there comes a time when it's better to find your fun inside.

As thermometers hit 95, sunburned skin peels and mosquitoes poke, it makes sense to head to an air-conditioned theater to see a live production. (No, not a movie. A live show. Hey, how many times can you see "Men in Black" anyway?) Scores of dramas, musicals and comedies take place all year long throughout Chicago. Many companies never have dark stages, even during the doldrums of August. There are the Big Events ("Chicago" at the Shubert Theatre) and the quieter, more contemplative dramas ("A Fair Country" at Steppenwolf Theatre). Then there's all-out crazy fun ("The Blob" at Live Bait Theatre).

So leave the insect repellent, SPF 30 lotion and water squirters behind. They won't be needed where we're venturing. We'll start with the respectable theaters (the kind you can take visiting relatives to) and work on down to the funky houses (if you're up for adventure).

Scooping the Loop

It is, excuse the expression, the hottest ticket in town: "Chicago" at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe St., in the Loop. Just extended through Sept. 21, this Broadway musical has taken its namesake city by storm.

All the sudden acclaim for "Chicago" is fairly amusing. The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, which features Bob Fosse's sexy choreography, has been around since 1975. Since the show focuses on the Chicago's gangster-era past (a bit of an embarrassment to any civic booster), Fosse's show wasn't too popular in the Windy City at first.

But during the 1980s, dinner-theater companies and plenty of small Off-Loop houses discovered this little gem. Soon it was being produced from Hyde Park to Lincolnshire.

A massive re-working of the show for the 1996 Broadway production brought Kander and Ebb's honky-tonky tale new respectability, six Tony awards and this current much-anticipated bus-and-truck tour.

Although the Shubert version doesn't star Bebe Neuwirth (who revitalized the show in New York), it still has a top-notch cast, featuring Charlotte D'Amboise (daughter of dancer Jacques D'Amboise), actress and former Alvin Ailey Dance Company dance company member Jasmine Guy, and "Chicago Hope" actor Obba Babatunde.

Tickets are available at Ticketmaster. Call 312-902-1500.

Over at the venerable Goodman Theatre, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" continues through Aug. 10. Despite its funny title, this play by August Wilson is an expose of white recording companies ripping off black blues artists of the 1920s. Critics have gone wild over the vivid portrayal of a young trumpeter play by Harry J. Lennix. Tix are available at the box office. Call 312-443-3800.

No matter what's playing at the Goodman, its outstanding Art Institute/Grant Park location makes it perfect for families or singles on a date. After taking in the play at 200 S. Columbus Drive, cross over to Grant Park, meander down to Buckingham Fountain and watch the light show. It's magic.

Opera options

How about an aria on a summer night? The Lyric Opera of Chicago season doesn't start until fall, but Chicago Opera Theater -- a hard-working company of solid professionals -- is in the middle of its summer season at the Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo in the Loop. COT is doing "Shining Brow," a biopera about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It might sound unlikely, but operas have been written about everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Richard Nixon, so just stay with this new work by Daron Ario Hagen, which covers Wright's tempestuous relationship with Louis Sullivan, his scandalous affair with a client's wife and the horrible fire at Taliesin, their Wisconsin hideaway.

"Shining Brow" will be performed on July 25, 27, 31 and Aug. 1. Tickets are available at the box office or by calling 773-292-7578.

Light Opera Works and Pegasus Players are pooling their resources to present a fully orchestrated production of "One Touch of Venus." In Kurt Weill's musical (with book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash) inspired by the story of Pygmalion, a statue of the goddess Venus comes to life.

Performances are Aug. 16, 17 and 22-24 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. Tickets are available at the LOW box office at 927 Noyes St., Evanston, or by calling 847-869-6300.

Obligatory 'Shear Madness' plug

There's no way around it: "Shear Madness" is still bringing in the audiences. When this play opened in 1982, it had all the hallmarks of a conventioneer's delight: simpering gay jokes, lots of topical references and a murder-mystery "solution" that changed with the audience's whim. Another draw: Monday night performances.