This spectacular year in Chicago theater featured many shows with social conscience along with the usual crop of musical revivals. Here are my picks for the top 10 Chicago shows in 2015:
#1. Shining Lives: the Musical – Northlight Theater
Joanna McKenzie Miller was perfectly cast as the lead of this production about Catherine Reed, a young mother who bonds with her fellow workers at Chicago’s Radium Dial Company. The four women’s friendship emphasizes the tragedy as each falls sick and dies after decades of licking brushes lined with radium. The minimalist set and costuming were a perfect match for the subdued but haunting score.
#2. Grand Concourse – Steppenwolf Theater
As a nun running a soup kitchen in the Bronx, Shelley (Mariann Mayberry) struggles with faith, but more importantly she struggles with her ability to give when the supply of needy people is ever increasing.
#3. Spill – Timeline Theater
Leigh Fonakowski’s extensive interviews with people most closely affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill combines journalism and drama to show the extent of the tragedy. While television news simplified the catastrophe into one-minute sound bites and then forgot about the Gulf, Spill is a reminder that long-term effects to both people and the environment remain inconceivable.
#4. Pippin – Cadillac Palace
This traveling production of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, direct from a Broadway run, combines old-school Fosse choreography and astonishing acrobatics with one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories in musical theater. Credit director Diane Paulus for this production that manages the unthinkable by unseating Wicked as the best Schwartz musical.
#5. Three August Wilson Plays – Goodman Theater, Court Theater, DePaul Theater School
Three decades of August Wilson’s Pittsburg Cycle were honored this year in Chicago with exceptional productions, starting with Goodman Theater’s Two Trains Running which looked at the slow progression of Civil Rights in the Northern states. Court Theater followed with Gem of the Ocean and the DePaul Theater School continued with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, plays that explored the lasting impact of slavery and the Great Migration.
#6. Never the Sinner – Victory Garden
Victory Gardens’ revival of this 1988 play by John Logan combines the best elements of courtroom drama and psychological character study. Whether or not Clarence Darrow will save these unsympathetic murders from the death penalty is a secondary question—the real focus is the two twisted psyches of Leopold and Loeb that might have excelled later in life if the two had never met.
#7. Sad Songs for Bad People – Rough House
Seven different types of puppetry explore the visions of nine songwriters that explored death through memorable ballads. Perfectly suited for the small house at the north side’s Neo-Futurarium, this production led by Mike Oleon included some of the most memorable theater visuals of the year.
#8. Anything Goes – Marriott Theater
Anything Goes is always a good bet given its still-funny script and memorable Cole Porter songs. Add in exceptional tap dancing, as was seen at the Marriott, and Anything Goes stands alone atop the pyramid of old-school musicals. Stephanie Binetti energized the stage as Reno Sweeney.
#9. The Little Foxes – Goodman Theater
Goodman Theater made Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play new again with a lavish set and an ensemble cast that relished their roles as the selfish, blackmailing Hubbard clan. Larry Yando and Mary Beth Fisher both played against type as the scheming Oscar and as his alcoholic wife Birdie while Shannon Chochran personified greed as Regina.
#10. Once – Cadillac Palace
Once is focused not on a plot but on a series of emotions as the nameless protagonists try to fill their internal emptiness with music. This was the second touring company in Chicago, and the unique choreography and strings-dominated music are more powerful with each viewing—not to mention the show-stealing “Falling Slowly.”