Year in Review – 2018’s Best Musicals

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).

#1. Haymarket (Underscore Theater)

Haymarket

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.

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Year in Review – 2018’s Best Musicals

Broadway Shows — 12/22/18 & 12/23/18

Network

Network 2

To start with the greatest asset of this adaption of a 1976 movie: Bryan Cranston. Not just his acting, but the effects that propel a close-up of Cranston’s face across the entire back of the stage during Howard Beale’s iconic breakdown. From my seat in the front row, I saw Cranston run up the aisle in a state of dementia and then shed tears as he decries a country where corporate money dominates the needs of everyday citizens. And, yes, I felt angry as Cranston stood in dead silence, and then exploded in Beale’s mantra: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (if you want, you can purchase a $20 coffee cup with the slogan in the lobby)

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Broadway Shows — 12/22/18 & 12/23/18

Love Never Dies—Cadillac Palace (2/19/18)

Before diving headfirst into the many reasons that Love Never Dies is ridiculous (and it is very, very ridiculous), let’s take a moment to remember how The Phantom of the Opera ends. The Phantom forces Christine to choose: allow her lover Raoul to die and she can go free, or save Raoul but spend her life underground with the Phantom. Christine kisses the Phantom delicately on the deformed side of his face. The Phantom screams for them both to go and collapses in agony as Christine and Raoul reprise “All I Ask of You” while rowing away. The Phantom disappears behind a sheet, which is pulled away by the adorable Meg to reveal that the Phantom has disappeared.

The Phantom of the Opera might not be one of my favorite musicals, but one must admit—that’s quite a way to end a show.

Love Never Dies_01
Gardar Thor Cortes and Meghan Picerno

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Love Never Dies—Cadillac Palace (2/19/18)

Violet—Griffin (1/15/18)

I remember the first time I saw Shrek: the Musical back in 2010. My expectations were low, having tired of the concept of putting cartoons on stage. Then the music started, and within a week I had taken another trip to the Cadillac Palace to see Shrek again. The songs (“I Know It’s Today,” “Who I’d Be,” “The Ballad Farquaad,” to name a few) were just that good.

Yet, I never made an important connection between many of my all-time favorite musicals: composer Jeanine Tesori. Paging through the program of Griffin Theater’s production of Violet, I discovered that the composer for this small musical, which I had never heard of despite a 2014 revival on Broadway starring Sutton Foster, had also written the music for Caroline, or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, and Fun Home. In fact, Tesori is one of a small number of women to earn a Tony for Best Original Score (along with Lisa Kron for Fun Home).

Violet 2
Will Lidke, Stephen Allen and Nicole Laurenzi

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Violet—Griffin (1/15/18)

Year in Review – 2017’s Best Musicals

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.

#1. Jesus Christ Superstar – Paramount Theater

Jesus Christ Superstar
Mykal Kilgore, Felicia Boswell and Evan Tyrone Martin

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.

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Year in Review – 2017’s Best Musicals

Fun Home—Victory Gardens (11/1/17)

“Welcome to the Fun Home” is one of those songs that stays in my head long after the show has ended. The three Bechdel children, standing in front of an open coffin, perform a joyous advertisement, which they wrote and choreographed, for their father’s funeral parlor. Every line from lyricist Lisa Kron masterfully captures the voice of childhood starting with… “Your uncle died / You’re feeling low / You’ve got to bury your mama / But you don’t know where to go.”

Fun Home 2
Stella Rose Hoyt, Leo Gonzalez and Preetish Chakraborty

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Fun Home—Victory Gardens (11/1/17)

Hamilton—CIBC Theater (10/4/2017)

Before I reveal my reactions to Hamilton, I’ll share a quick anecdote. I bought my ticket in July, and the best I could manage three months in advance was a restricted-view box seat for full price. Meanwhile, a group from my school coincidentally chose the same night to attend with students. Work generally seeps into every aspect of my life, so I hold theater as my one mecca for separation. Knowing 75 students would be in the theater filled me with a bit of anxiety—but since I could not ask the students to go another day, I decided to keep a low profile. Keep my head down; arrive just a minute before the curtain. That failed! Within seconds I was spotted. I received a text which indicated, to my surprise, that the students mistook the “Lincoln seats” as being a place for minor celebrities, and their excitement in seeing me in one was “palpable.”

Hamilton 1
Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton (with cast).

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Hamilton—CIBC Theater (10/4/2017)