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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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):
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.
This spectacular year in Chicago theater featured many shows with social conscience along with the usual crop of musical revivals. Here are my picks for the top 10 Chicago shows in 2015:
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.