With so many phenomenal theater offerings in 2016, I took the easy road and split my “Year’s Best” list into Musicals and Non-musicals.
First, my picks for the top five musicals (check back tomorrow for the non-musicals):
Yes, the leads were fantastic. And, yes, this Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim collaboration delivers one classic number after the next. However, director Jim Conti’s vision for a grittier, more modern West Side Story was the true star of this production. From beginning to end, the actors sizzled with rage, channeling deeply rooted perceptions of injustice into their singing, their choreography, and their fighting with the rival gang. A much needed reboot for a show that has clung stubbornly to the daintier interpretation immortalized 55 years ago by the film version.
Sometimes a theater-goer wants to flashback to the golden era—where a plot about people putting on a musical comedy is enough to hold together a musical comedy. Broadway regulars Clyde Alves and Robyn Hurder lead the huge cast, who expertly performed dance number after dance number featuring Matt Crowle’s exhilarating choreography. The tap rhythms continue to echo through audience members’ minds long after the curtain call.
The musical version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir achieves a perfect emotional balance: childish glee (“Welcome to the Fun Home”); sad nostalgia (“Raincoat of Love”); personal exploration (“Ring of Keys”); and tragedy (“Telephone Wire”)—to name just a few of the highlights. The touring company—which included Chicago actress Susan Muniz as Helen—captured every volt of the power created by the Broadway production of this Tony winner for Best Musical.
This script may have some imperfections, but they are buried deep beneath the memory of Angela Ingersoll’s tour de force as Judy Garland, who struggles through her final performances despite a debilitating dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs. Concert scenes parallel Garland’s mental state with highlights including Judy pulling herself together to bring jubilation to “The Trolley Song” and a climactic rendering of “Over the Rainbow” which was all the more powerful for its subdued elegance.
I can never quite wrap my mind around the sheer size of the Lyric Opera, which turned out to be the perfect venue for a musical primarily set within a lavish palace. No expense was spared on the scenery, costumes, and sizable cast (including what seemed like dozens of adorable children). Paolo Montalban anchored the show as the King caught between his traditional beliefs and his desire to Westernize, and Kate Baldwin also amazed with both powerhouse vocals and comic timing as the equally stalwart Anna.
NOTE: 2016 was also the year of Hamilton in Chicago. I have not yet seen Hamilton, but I am looking forward to finally getting a seat in 2017.