Year in Review–2022’s Best Non-musicals

Here are my choices for the top 10 non-musical productions of the year.

#1 Good Night, Oscar (Goodman)

Ben Rappaport & Sean Hayes

Sean Hayes brought in sell-out audiences for his portrayal of Oscar Levant – a man that manages to earn a laugh with every sardonic, controversial, self-deprecating statement that escapes his mouth. Doug Wright’s script, which focuses on a night when Levant took temporary leave from a mental asylum to appear on Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show, climaxes with Hayes’ jaw-dropping performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Hayes won the Jeff Award for his performance, and I suspect he will be a frontrunner for the Tony Award when Good Night, Oscar premiers on Broadway in April.

#2 Choir Boy (Steppenwolf)

Tyler Hardwick, Richard David, Gilbert Domally, Sheldon D. Brown & Samuel B. Jackson

Like Good Night, Oscar, Steppenwolf’s Choir Boy incorporates music to explore its characters’ tribulations. The exceptional cast sings acapella as the choir at a prestigious African-American prep school and performs a rousing step number highlighting the inner pain felt by its five teenaged characters. The effeminate Pharus (played first by Tyler Hardwick and later by Jos N. Banks) is a foil for this setting with its deeply rooted traditions, and the most intriguing aspects of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script focus on the consequences Pharus’s character faces when he flips microaggressions back at those who are hostile toward him.

#3 Relentless (Timeline)

Jaye Ladymore & Ayanna Bria Bakari

A word-of-mouth hit, Relentless started at Theater Wit in the winter and earned a second run at the Goodman’s Owen Theater in the spring. Set in 1919, sisters Janet (Jaye Ladymore) and Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) return to their mother’s home in Philadelphia following her death. While a full generation has passed since the end of slavery, each of the main characters responds differently to the continued persecution they cannot escape despite relative economic prosperity. Many of the questions in Tyla Abercrumbie’s script are explored through flashbacks to Janet and Annelle’s mother and the off-balance relationship she has with her mistress, who is just a few years older.

#4 The Chinese Lady (Timeline)

Glenn Obrero & Mi Kang

Timeline continued their extraordinary season with The Chinese Lady, which boasted a breakout performance by Mi Kong (who was still a student at Northwestern at the time). Afong Moy, credited as the first Chinese woman to travel to the United States, performs multiple times a day in a small set within Barnum’s museum circa 1835. While many of the early scenes provide humor within the absurdity of Moy’s situation, the tragedies of her life become more present as her known history disappears amidst events like the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

#5 The Bluest Eye (DuSable Art Museum)

Puppets designed by Janni Younge

My admiration for Toni Morrison’s novel drew me to the University of Chicago campus for this play, which was performed only three times over one weekend. Presented as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, The Bluest Eye shows how puppetry can add new dimensions to an already engrossing story. The puppets by Janni Younge are stunning as their human counterparts communicate the tragic story of a girl so neglected that she becomes obsessed with the color of her eyes.

#6 All’s Well that Ends Well (Chicago Shakespeare)

Tanya Thai McBride, Alejandra Escalante, Christiana Clark & Emma Ladji

In a year when Chicago Shakespeare went all in on high-concept shows (As You Like It with Beatles music; Measure for Measure set in Havana), their much simpler offering proved to be the most fun. With an easy-to-follow plot, the talented actors vividly played out this tail of Helen (Alejandra Escalante) as she travels to Italy to trick her fleeing betrothed Beltram (Dante Jemmott) into fulfilling his obligation to her. By the final bow, one leaves wondering why this wonderful play is not among Shakespeare’s most performed comedies.

#7 Steel Magnolias (Drury Lane)

Cordelia Dewdney, Lillian Castillo, Janet Ulrich Brooks & Amy J. Carle

Drury Lane’s decision to add a straight play to each subscription series provides an opportunity to see classic plays—like Deathtrap or The Gin Game in years past—with top-notch actors and lavish sets that rival Broadway productions. True to form, Steel Magnolias featured Chicago greats like Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo among an ensemble cast that seamlessly switched between comedy and drama. I cannot imagine an audience member witnessing Amy J. Carle’s performance of Annelle’s famous Act II speech without shedding a tear.

#8 Sweat (Copley Theater, Aurora)

Shariba Rivers, Randy Steinmeyer & Tiffany Bedwell

Kudos to the city of Aurora and its commitment to providing great theater. As the inaugural production of Paramount Theater’s new Bold Series, this Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 drama provides a poignant look at the lives of workers in America’s factory towns. Playwright Lynn Nottage explores the events that precipitate companies sending their jobs overseas along with the economic and emotional tolls faced by the workers left unemployed. Shariba Rivers was a standout cast member as Cynthia, a line worker promoted to management during turbulent times.

#9 Fences (American Blues Theater)

Ajax Dontavius & Kamal Angelo Bolden

In a year with three acclaimed August Wilson productions (the other two being Two Trains Running at the Court and Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman), Fences benefitted from the most intimate setting at Theater Wit. Kamal Angelo Bolden, who has performed lead roles in just about every major Chicago Theater, brings the perfect amount of bravado to his Troy, who doubles down on his decisions at the moments when he is most wrong. Shaneshia Davis also delivered an empowering performance as Troy’s overshadowed wife Rose.

#10 Routes (Remy Bumppo)

Terry Bell & Lucas Looch Johnson

Remy Bumppo provided a deep look into the lives of those most affected by immigration policies with Routes. Many of the scenes take place in a juvenile detention center where Bashir (Terry Bell) and Kola (Lucas Looch Johnson at the performance I saw) are both stranded and eventually develop a strong bond. Bashir is a Somalian immigrant hoping for a path to citizenship while Kola is a British citizen whose mother cannot control him. While set in London and written by British playwright Rachel De-lahay, Routes has much to communicate about one of the issues that most divides modern America.

Also Notable: National Geographic Live at the Auditorium Theater

photo by National Geographic photographer and presenter Ronan Donovan

While not specifically a play, National Geographic Live presentations at the Auditorium were among the most enjoyable and informative events held at Chicago theaters. 2022 featured Spinosauraurus: Lost Giant of Cretaceous with paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim explaining the difficulties of finding fossils, Wild Hope with photographer Ami Vitale’s stories about an elephant sanctuary, and Social by Nature with Ronan Donovan’s photographs of wolf packs in desolate Arctic conditions. 2023 will feature presentations on January 29 (Greenwood: a Century of Resilience), March 26 (How to Clone a Mammoth), and April 30 (Coral Kingdom and Empires of Ice).

Year in Review–2022’s Best Non-musicals

One thought on “Year in Review–2022’s Best Non-musicals

  1. NORM HORLER says:

    Jeff,

    I enjoyed your reviews of the top 10 non-musical plays for 2022 (and the National Geographic review). I look forward to the top 10 musicals.

    Dad

    >

    Like

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