This list focuses on local Chicago productions as opposed to the traveling companies, which also provided some exceptional offerings in 2018 (most notably Miss Saigon at the Cadillac).
Thank goodness Chicago audiences embraced this musical about the city’s infamous Haymarket Affair of 1886. The folk music score by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld is a fitting tribute to labor leaders like Albert Parsons (Erik Pearson), Lucy Parsons (Bridget Adams-King) and August Spies (T.J. Anderson), who were in the process of unifying working people around the cause of an eight-hour workday when a bomb destroyed their peaceful protests. I was able to see Haymarket on its second extension at its second theater; hopefully we’ll see another remounting in the near future.
Perhaps the scales are tipped a bit with this choice considering my affinition for Pippin, Stephen Schwartz’s masterpiece about overcoming temptations while finding one’s purpose in life. The concept of Pippin, in which all the actors are players in a company, is a perfect fit for the Venus Cabaret Theater, and the close proximity to the ensemble enhanced the sexual undertones of L. Walter Sterns’ direction. Every member of the cast (led by Koray Tarhai and Donterrio Johnson) shined, but a particular favorite was Chicago-legend Don Forston as King Charlemagne.
This 1997 musical seemed destined for obscurity until a 2014 Broadway revival reintroduced the energizing bluegrass score to new audiences. Griffin’s production starring Lauren Laurenzi as Violet managed to coordinate a musical that is big in sound and scope onto a small, two-level stage at the Den Theater. Check out this clip of “On My Way” for one example of director Scott Weinstein’s creative staging.
“And I am mean, and I am tough but… 30 dollars ain’t enough.” Three months after seeing Caroline, or Change, I still cannot get Caroline’s anthem from “I Got Four Kids” out of mind. Firebrand’s production starring Rashada Dawan as a particularly embittered Caroline highlighted the protagonist’s pessimism that change will ever come. But where does one find the strength to be hopeful when she devotes every ounce of strength just to earn $30 a week?
Be More Chill debuted in 2015 but was so slow in gaining steam that Stage Door (a Hinsdale-based educational theater company for teenagers) was able to sneak in a production just prior to the musical’s Broadway premier this spring. The rock songs by Joe Iconis are the perfect accompaniment for this comedy-thriller and a teenage outsider who has an evil computer chip called a SQUIP implanted in brain to make himself cooler.
The challenge of Merrily We Roll Along is that audience members must constantly remind themselves how depressing the three main characters will become even while the characters themselves become younger and more hopeful as their lives are told in reverse. This production emphasized what Porchlight does best—fantastic singers (including Neala Barron as Mary) belting memorable songs in under-produced musicals.
Two-and-a-half hours of perfect tap dancing is the highlight of this thin-on-plot show about a small-town girl who gets to star in a Broadway show after its original lead bows out. Kimberly Immanuel as Peggy Sawyer led a large cast who were flawlessly in-sync for each of choreographer Jared Grimes’ numbers, which progressed from impressive to down-right jaw-dropping.
Kokandy’s production performed at Theater Wit emphasized the style in this 1989 Tony-winning musical about a group of characters in the Weimar Republic who are trying to be something that they are not. I had not seen this musical since a 1992 staging at the Marriott. In both productions, my favorite character is the one-eye Colonel Doctor (Jerry Miller), who watches over his fellow hotel patrons with a hint of prophecy of the disastrous turns Germany is about to take.
Porchlight makes the list again for bringing E. Faye Butler to the stage as Mama Rose. Given that no one in Chicago can belt a tune like Butler, her renditions of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” were feats well worth anticipating. Also, give credit to her co-stars Daryn Whitney Harrell (Louise) and Aalon Smith (June) for going face-to-face with Butler’s Mama and proving to be formidable foils.
Year after year, Paramount stuns with revivals of classic musicals. Cabaret, starring Kelly Felthous as Sally Bowles and Joseph Anthony Byrd as the Emcee, downplayed the corny Emcee banter that has become popular since the 1988 Broadway revival and focused instead on the characters and the despair each feels as the world around them tumbles out of control. The song “Cabaret” remains one of the most meaningful showstoppers in musical theater.