Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

#1. Six (Chicago Shakespeare)

Six_Chicago Shakes
Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack & Anna Uzele (each will be reprising her role on Broadway starting February 13)

I was skeptical about a rock musical starring the wives of Henry VIII until I learned that my friend’s teenage daughters were already devoted fans. Six (like Hamilton before it) is a testament to the power of using reimagined history to tell a story that reflects our contemporary world. Every song is a winner—particularly “Don’t Lose Ur Head” and “All You Wanna Do”—in this fun, inventive musical with a powerful feminist conclusion.

#2. Into the Woods (Writer’s Theater)

Into the Woods
Michael Mahler, Brianna Borger & Bethany Thomas

Attempts at this often-produced musical tend to pale in comparison to the easily accessible, filmed version of the original Broadway cast… but not director Gary Griffin’s production. Unique staging designed by Scott Davis made audience members feel like we were eavesdropping through the trees at this perfect cast led by Bethany Thomas, whose epic voice seemed tailor-made for both the ominous tone of “Last Midnight” and the sincerity of “Children will Listen.”

#3. Come From Away (Cadillac Palace)

Come From Away
The cast of the traveling company of Come From Away, which will return to Chicago in 2010 from August 25 to September 6.

Fair warning to anyone about to see Come From Awayyou will leave the theater with the refrain “I am an Islander / I am an Islander” running through your head… and it will stay for weeks along with the joy and compassion felt from this unlikely story about the Newfoundlanders who cared for stranded travelers on 9-11.  Among the many wonderful performers was Chicago-actor James Earl Jones II, who was hilarious in a snippet where he was instructed to “steal” grills off his generous hosts’ lawns.

#4. The Color Purple (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

The Color Purple
Eben K. Logan & Sydney Charles

The extraordinary songs by Brenda Russel, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray culminate in “I’m Here,” Celie’s emotional realization that, despite the degradation she has endured, she is talented, valued and beautiful. Drury Lane’s moving production starring Eben K. Logan as Celie was a fitting successor to the 2013 London revival that brought new life to this musical, which was underappreciated during its original 2004 run.

#5. Dear Evan Hansen (Nederlander)

Dear Evan Hansen
Ben Levi Ross and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen

“Waving Through a Window” and “You Will be Found” are wonderful songs, but I was even more impressed by the work of book writer Steven Levenson. He first develops the unique voice of Evan Hanson (Ben Levi Ross), a teenager preoccupied with the fear that no one would care if he ceased to exist, and then manages to resolve a series of complex and emotional conflicts without resorting to implausibility or oversimplifying his characters.

#6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Theo Ubique)

Hedwig_Theo Ubique
Jacob Gilchrist, Brittney Brown, Will Lidke and Adriana Tronco

I loved John Cameron Mitchell’s rock musical three times in large theaters knowing—with its personal stories and outrageous jokes—it was better suited for a smaller venue. Theo Ubique’s intimate space is a perfect match for this cabaret show starring an unknown songwriter, who paid a tremendous price to escape Communist Berlin. Will Lidke showcased tremendous talent in Hedwig’s high-heeled shoes and gigantic wigs.

#7. The Music Man (Goodman)

Music Man
Geoff Packard and members of the 30-person cast (including Charlie Cowell and Bri Sudia)

Productions directed by Mary Zimmerman elevate both the depth of the text and the actors who bring the text to life. Under her direction, Geoff Packard as Harold Hill was refreshingly more scoundrel than gold-hearted drifter, Monica West as Marian was always the smartest in the room, and “Rock Island”—the opening number set on a train—told a fascinating story about the life of a salesman (rather than settling as a showcase for fast dialogue).

#8. The Spitfire Grill (American Blues Theater)

Spitfire Grill
Jacquelyne Jones, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Karl Hamilton, Catherine Smitko & Donterrio Johnson

American Blues Theater with its focus on grittier ensemble works proved a good fit for this musical about a paroled murder, who finds a new life working in a small-town restaurant. The enjoyable folk-music score by James Valcq and Fred Alley, sung by a strong cast led by Jacquelyne Jones as Percy and Catherine Smitko as the tough-as-nails Hannah, makes one wonder why this magnificent musical is not produced more often.

#9. The Producers (Paramount)

Blake Hammond, Elyse Collier & Jake Morrissy

The Paramount always brings fresh ideas to classic musicals, and the decision to redesign “Along Came Bialy” as a swim number reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood was a fun update. Still, the unforgettable highlight (and please forgive me for mentioning race, but it seems relevant given Hitler’s racism) was Sean Blake as the flamboyant, African-American star of Springtime for Hitler. I left convinced that seeing a woman in the role would also be fun way to breathe new life into a future staging.

#10. Big Fish (BoHo)

Big Fish
[front] Tommy Thurston & Sean Michael Barrett; [back] Joshua Bishop, Alli Atkenson, Robert Quintanilla, Caitlin Dobbin, Michaela Shapiro & Matt Frye
I did not much enjoy this musical on its 2013 pre-Broadway tryout (directed by Susan Stroman) because it was more focused on lavish visuals than story. BoHo’s production at the Greenhouse Theater found the correct balance between the opulence of Edward Bloom’s stories and more grounded realities of his elder life, with Tommy Thurston as the charismatic Bloom and Robert Quintanilla standing tall in the supporting role of Karl the Giant.

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

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