Chicago provides such extensive theater offerings that I try to choose shows from as many theaters as possible when creating my end-of-the-year lists. In 2017, however, Writer’s Theater and the Paramount (along with Hamilton) stole the spotlight for their edgy musical productions.
Every song in this production (directed by Ron Kellum) brought to life the struggle of a man exhausted by the expectation that he should be everything for everyone. The 26-member, astonishing cast was led by Mykal Kilgore (Judas), Felicia Boswell (Mary Magdelene), and Evan Tyrone Martin (Jesus)—each supplying an emotionally draining performance along with superlative vocals.
Leo Frank is guilty of nothing more than being an outsider and a Jew in this heart-shattering musical, which presents Frank’s persecution and eventual lynching in 1913, when he is blamed for the death of a teen girl who works in his factory. This musical co-conceived by Harold Price was not popular in its 1988 Broadway premiere, so thank you to Writer’s Theater for reviving a treasure that deserves to be seen again and again.
There was much to love about this musical phenomenon. Looking back, what stands out the most is the precision and pacing. With so many characters doing so many things on stage and telling such a complex story, the plot never feels overstuffed. Among the many memorable songs, “Wait for It” (sung by Gregory Treco as Aaron Burr) has emerged as one of my favorite songs in all of musical theater.
The team behind Trevor hoped this world-premiere at Writer’s Theater would be a stepping stone to Broadway, and it will be a tragic lose if that jump never happens. Middle school is a difficult time, particularly for someone as out-of-place as Trevor (played by Eli Tokash and Graydon Peter Yosowitz), a flamboyantly gay, Diana Ross-loving teen in the 1990’s. The script and generally upbeat songs by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis bring dignity to each of the young characters, allowing them to be real people whose sense of right and wrong does not always overcome their insecurities.
The slums of London came alive though the shadow-heavy production design by Jim Conti. Paul-Jordan Jansen was well deserving of his Joseph Jefferson award for best actor in a musical. Jansen’s Sweeney was a man on a singular mission, and every musical note and facial gesture communicated his laser focus on revenge. Bri Suda and Patrick Rooney were also notable in their soles as Mrs. Lovett and Anthony Hope (the later’s perfect rendition of “Johanna” would not leave my head for days).
This emotional musical gained a level of intimacy from Victory Gardens’ more minimal staging, and the always dependable Rob Lindley was at the top of his game as Bruce Brechdel.
Nathaniel Stampley and Kathy Voytko created the year’s most empathetic duo—two people living life but not loving life until they met each other.
Hedwig might be more fitting in venues smaller than the Oriental, but the music and Broadway-caliber performances have propelled Hedwig to one of my all-time favorite musicals.
I enjoyed the original London and Broadway productions, but the plot holes were undeniable. To my surprise, there is a “North American” version, which keeps the fantastic songs and dancing, while also tightening up those problematic script issues.
An example of what Porchlight does best—a small ensemble show with good music and exceptional singers. Bethany Thomas belting “That Boy Can Foxtrot” was particularly memorable.