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.
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).
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.
“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.”
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.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall inspires one of the most striking images from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The stage goes black following the searing, heavy metal song “Angry Inch,” and when the lights fade in, Hedwig stares straight into space. And the audience laughs—not out of cruelty, but because, as Hedwig says, “I laugh, because I would cry if I don’t.”
Yes, the leads were fantastic. And, yes, this Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim collaboration delivers one classic number after the next. However, director Jim Conti’s vision for a grittier, more modern West Side Story was the true star of this production. From beginning to end, the actors sizzled with rage, channeling deeply rooted perceptions of injustice into their singing, their choreography, and their fighting with the rival gang. A much needed reboot for a show that has clung stubbornly to the daintier interpretation immortalized 55 years ago by the film version.