Year in Review–2022’s Best Musicals

My list of the top 10 musicals of 2022 is a little belated. Note that I focused on Chicago-based productions, but this was also an outstanding year from Broadway-in-Chicago with traveling companies of Hadestown and Come From Away visiting early in the year, and Six holding a residency for several months at the CIBC.

#1 Fiddler on the Roof (Lyric Opera)

Steven Skybell & Drake Wunderlich

In the opening scene of director Barrie Kosky’s production (which he originated in Berlin), a modern American boy opens his bedroom closet to find not just Tevye but the entire tremendous cast stream through a set of double doors onto the crowded stage. The impact is a masterful articulation of the way that Fiddler connects the decedents of immigrants to the cultural hardships their ancestors reluctantly left behind. Steven Skybell as Tevye led an outstanding cast, and set designer Rufus Didwiszuz created the most memorable effect I can even remember viewing by covering the vast Lyric Opera stage with snow for the second act.

#2 Titanic the Musical (Milwaukee Rep)

Jeffrey Kringer & Steve Pacek

The opportunity to see this rarely performed 1997 Best Musical Tony winner inspired my first visit to this wonderful theater complex in downtown Milwaukee. A true ensemble show with actors performing multiple roles, Titanic engages the audience with the stories of characters from different social classes, who communicate their hopes and dreams via songs from composer Maury Yeston. The heart-wrenching second act was beautifully orchestrated on the gigantic Quadracci Powerhouse stage with fantastic scenery and lighting design.

#3 Fun Home (Copley)

(front to back) Milla Liss, Elizabeth Stenholt & Emilie Modaff

Perhaps because it is one of less extravagant, more cerebral Broadway successes of the last decade, Fun Home has enjoyed a number of strong Chicago revivals. With music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron, every song conveys an important puzzle piece as the three versions of Alison Bechdel explore the clues of her father’s closeted homosexuality. Emily Rohn (Helen) received exceptional reviews as Alison’s conflicted mother, and Milla Liss (who shared the role of Small Alison with Maya Keane) was another standout.

#4 Godspell (Theo Ubique)

Anna Marie Abbate, Alix Rhodes & Quinn Simmons

After seeing productions at the ultra-intimate Theo Ubique, I often wonder how I could ever view that same musical again on a larger stage. The experience works particularly well with Godspell in which the audience is meant to feel like we are watching the musicalized gospels from a close distance. Austin Nelson, Jr., and Anna Marie Abbate led the young cast in which every member of the ensemble impressively soloed one of Stephen Schwartz’s songs.

#5 Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Mercury)

Shaun White, Josh Houghton & Honey West

The costumes are always center stage in a production of Priscilla, and costume designer Bob Kuhn did excellent work contriving the fashions as three drag queens drive in their bus across a desolate stretch of Australia. The show, led by Josh Houghton (Tick/Mitzi), Shaun White (Adam/Felicia), and Honey West (Bernadette), is at its best during the full company numbers like “Go West,” “I Love the Nightlife,” and “We Belong.”

#6 Evita (Drury Lane)

Richard Bermudez, Addie Morales & Sean MacLaughlin

Evita ranks high on my list of all-time musicals (and tops among Andrew Lloyd Weber’s works) largely because every song is a winner. Drury Lane’s production directed by Marcia Milgroom Dodge built upon this strong foundation with emphasis on the ways that memories from Evita’s past propelled her later ambitions. Richard Bermundez’s very mellow and melodic vocals as Ché complimented Addie Morales’s powerful belting as Ava.

#7 The Notebook (Chicago Shakespeare)

John Cordoza, Jordan Tyson, John Beasley, Maryann Plunkett, Ryan Vasquez & Joy Woods

So far I can tell, there is still no word as to whether The Notebook is finally going to make its intended leap to Broadway. If it does, maintaining the lavish set design by David Zinn should be a priority. The various locations within this small New England town perfectly reflect the two main characters at different points in their lives. The music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson add credibility to this emotional story of two people whose love has endured for 55 years.

#8 Life After (Goodman)

Paul Alexander Nolan & Samantha Williams

This daring work by Canadian Britta Johnson (who is the bookwriter, composer, and lyricist) plays out as a compact, one-act mystery as the teenaged Alice (Samantha Williams) tries to trace why her father (Paul Alexander Nolan) ended up in a fatal car accident one night when he was supposed to be far away on a book tour. Alice struggles to communicate with a variety of characters including her mother and sister, but the flashback interactions between Alice and her father are the backbone of this musical.

#9 The Pajama Game (Roosevelt University)

Jackson Mikkelsen & Caleigh Pan-Kita

I am elevating this college production above some fantastic professional shows partly because I had no idea how much fun this 1953 musical is. The plot about union relations at a pajama-making factory might be a thin, but that doesn’t matter much when songs are as catchy as “I’m Not at All in Love,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and (my favorite) “Seven-and-a-Half Cents.” The talented cast included notable performances by Caleigh Pan-Kita as Babe and Ashton Norris dancing to Bob Fosse’s original choreography for “Steam Heat.”

#10 Hello Dolly (Marriott Lincolnshire)

Heidi Kettenring (center)

A few other professional shows in 2022 might have been more consistent, but Marriott’s Hello Dolly featured two of the most memorable numbers of the year. The first was “Elegance,” which was particularly fun with Chicago stalwarts Alex Goodrich as Cornelius and Rebecca Hurd as Irene Molloy. The second was the titular “Hello, Dolly.” Atop a series of platform lifts surrounded by the ensemble of waiters, Heidi Kettenring drew out all of the correct emotions from this infectious Jerry Herman standard that I was still humming weeks later.

2022 Honorable Mentions:

Camelot (Musical Theater Works)
Avenue Q (MadKap)
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella & The Sound of Music (Paramount)

Year in Review–2022’s Best Musicals

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.

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Year in Review–2022’s Best Non-musicals

Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

#1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Red Tape)

All Quiet on the Western Front_2
The gender-blind cast of All Quiet on the Western Front

The script by Matt Foss is a tribute to Erich Maria Remargue’s novel—a no-holds-barred criticism of war as seen through the eyes of WW1 soldiers, who have accepted that their survival means nothing to the unseen figures calling the shots. Elena Victoria Feliz as Paul moves through the most inventive staging of the year—war is played out on top of old pianos, and colored powders communicate the impact of bombs and bullets.

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Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

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.

Continue reading “Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals”

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

#1. Indecent (Victory Garden)

indecent_victory gardens

The Chicago premier of Indecent was just as triumphant as the Broadway production (which I made a specific trip to New York to see in 2017). The play spans more than 30 years and travels to two continents in telling the story of a Yiddish theater troop performing the controversial play The God of Vengeance. One aspect that particularly stood out to me on this second viewing was the conviction held by every member of the troop that art (and theater in particular) must be continued even when society turns its back.

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Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

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)


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

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

Year in Review – 2017’s Best Non-Muscials

#1. Gloria – Goodman Theater

Gloria_best of
Jeanine Serralles and Ryan Spahn

With just six actors (each playing multiple roles), Gloria creates a panoramic of the modern workplace complete with winners, losers, and those stuck in between. Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s script ends the first act with the only scene of the year that literally left me shaking in my seat—so much so that I found myself purchasing the last ticket in the house for Gloria‘s last performance so I could take it all in a second time.

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Year in Review – 2017’s Best Non-Muscials

Year in Review – 2016’s best non-musicals

#1. Sunset Baby – Timeline Theater

(left) Phillip Edward Van Lear and AnJi White; (right) AnJi White and Kelvin Roston, Jr.

If you have never heard Nina Simone sing “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” you need to click here.  Dominique Morisseau’s masterpiece script embodies the pain and desperation of Simone’s song (which serves as a backdrop).  The struggles Nina (AnJi White), Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear), and Damon (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) face in escaping crime are all the more heartbreaking with the realization that not all three will find the happiness they seek. Each is a soul whose intentions are… if not “good,” at least essential for survival. A stellar script (second in recent memory only to Bruce Norris’s The Whale) thrives with three award-worthy performances and expert direction from Ron OJ Parson.

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Year in Review – 2016’s best non-musicals

Year in Review — 2016’s Best Musicals

With so many phenomenal theater offerings in 2016, I took the easy road and split my “Year’s Best” list into Musicals and Non-musicals.

First, my picks for the top five musicals (check back tomorrow for the non-musicals):

#1. West Side Story — Paramount Theater

The Jets included Aaron Patrick Craven (Diesel), Samuel Owen Gardner (Snowboy), James Lee (A-Rab), Ryan McBride (Action), Liam Quealy (Big Deal) and Jonny Stein (Baby John).

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.

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Year in Review — 2016’s Best Musicals