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.
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.
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.
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.
Joanna McKenzie Miller was perfectly cast as the lead of this production about Catherine Reed, a young mother who bonds with her fellow workers at Chicago’s Radium Dial Company. The four women’s friendship emphasizes the tragedy as each falls sick and dies after decades of licking brushes lined with radium. The minimalist set and costuming were a perfect match for the subdued but haunting score.