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WEATHERWISE, you never quite know what you'll get as September rolls in. As a justly obscure poet once said, Fair Aurora will decorate the balconies of the east (translation: The morning sun will shine). Or she won't. It's bright, it's dull, it's rainy, it's balmy. One never knows.

What one does know is that September is the month when theater returns in force to the city. It is the month when fickle, weather-buffeted moods of summer turn more serious in preparation for another lively Buffalo theater season.

And the catapult for this new theater season is, as always, that fabulous event -- now a proud 17 Septembers old -- Curtain Up! This year's theater kickoff celebration will happen next Friday in the Theater District and beyond. It will encompass 13 plays by 13 theater companies.

Though it has had its imitators in cities around the country, there is still nothing quite like Curtain Up! anywhere else. Gavin Cameron-Webb, artistic director of the Studio Arena Theatre, has nothing but praise for the event: "It is a great celebration that recognizes the beginning of theater, as it recognizes the beginning of autumn. It welcomes back to the city everyone -- wherever you have been -- to a new season."

Curtain Up! is presented by Theater District Association and M & T Bank, in cooperation with the city Department of Community Development and Buffalo Place Inc.

The festivities begin at the Market Arcade Complex, 617 Main St., from 5 to 6 p.m. with something called the Mayor's Prologue, a public reception hosted by Mayor Masiello. This year Curtain Up! will honor a philanthropic organization that has had a profound impact on the arts in Buffalo over the years. A special award will be presented to the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation for its major and ongoing contributions to the performing arts community.

The celebration continues at 6 with a Gala Black Tie Dinner (reserved seating) and a Premiere Party (5:30 to 8:30) by Rising Stars, featuring specialty martini bar and food under the marquee at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Of course, the culmination of anyone's evening at Curtain Up! is apt to be found in one of those 13 plays. All begin at 8:30, the late curtain giving those taking advantage of Buffalo's many fine restaurants time to finish that chocolate mousse without undue anxiety. The variety of theater offered is phenomenal. There are musicals of a few different sorts, various brands of comedies, spoofs with serious points, and dramas.

At Studio Arena, for instance, is the American premiere of "Things We Do for Love," a comedy by London playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Its riotous plot features a loving couple split up by a most unlikely affair.

Romance of a different sort happens in Dante Dincecco's "Celebrity Fish, Purveyors to the Stars," a world premiere at Alleyway Theatre. In this light romantic comedy, two couples -- one young, one older -- find love in a Brooklyn fish market.

"The Colored Museum" by George C. Wolfe, at Ujima Theatre, is set in a bizarre museum of racial stereotypes, which becomes the springboard for a lampoon on both white and black America.Though both feature criminal types, nobody is apt to confuse Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls" and Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera." Vincent O'Neill, artistic director of the Irish Classical Theater Company, which is presenting the Brecht work, doesn't think of "The Threepenny Opera" as a musical in the ordinary sense. "It's a strong drama with a satirical edge that happens to have some great musical elements," he says.

Bob Waterhouse, associate director of the Kavinoky Theater, sums up his high feelings about the Kavinoky's production of "Guys and Dolls" with a two-word description. "The smash," he calls it. Smash or not, the musical can't help but be a rousing beginning to a season that includes William Luce's "Barrymore" -- according to Waterhouse a "pretty naughty" take on actor John Barrymore's notorious life -- and "Dealer's Choice," a play from Patrick Marber, whom Waterhouse decribes as "England's Mamet."

Joyce Stilson, Alleyway's director of public relations, says that of the five world premieres the theater is presenting this season, "Patch of Earth" is perhaps the most challenging. Written by Kitty Felde, the play deals with the Balkan crisis, specifically with the first war crimes trial. Stilson says it is a topic that Felde has observed close-on as a correspondent for National Public Radio.

Among the other plays offered Friday night are Buffalo Ensemble Theatre Company's "Les Belles Soeurs," a comedy by Michel Tremblay, and Jeff Baron's comedy/drama "Visiting Mr. Green" at Buffalo United Artists.

Also on tap is a showing of "Singin' in the Rain," on the big screen at Shea's Performing Arts Center, and a photo exhibit presented by CEPA at its downtown site in the Market Arcade Complex.

The entertainment continues after the theater lets out with musical acts at three outdoor stages in the Theater District. At the Fountain Plaza Stage will be Wendel Rivera and Lance Diamond. Caribbean Extravaganza and Runnin' Blue will hold the stage at City Centre. And Lissy K & the Revolvers, Little Bit of Texas and the Jump Kings perform on the Michael Bennett Lane Stage.

With its wide array of happenings, all centered around the exceptional theater that is by now so part of Buffalo's cultural life, Curtain Up! is the city's most graceful goodbye to summer and its most festive prelude to autumn.

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