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

Godspell—Theo Ubique (7/16/22) & Jesus Christ Superstar—Cadillac Palace (7/20/22)

I’ll begin with the disclaimer that this comparison of productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar might imply a strong bias for Chicago’s storefront theaters over the Broadway in Chicago touring companies. I love both, but it does happen that this production of Godspell from Theo Ubique exemplifies the best of storefront theater, and the 50th Anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar is all volume and glitz with no substance.

Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are linked in many ways. Both premiered in the early 1970’s (Godspell Off-Broadway in 1971; JCS on Broadway in 1972) and explored the concept of Jesus as an anti-establishment hippie. Godspell is the first hit from American composer Stephen Schwartz, and Jesus Christ Superstar is the first hit from British composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, who was notably born just 18 days after Schwartz. Behind The Lion King, Schwartz’s Wicked and Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera rank as the second and third most profitable musicals of all time.

Austin Nelson, Jr., directs a parable with Matthew Hunter at the center.

One of the advantages of a storefront theater like Theo Ubique is the potential for an intimate connection between the cast and audience. One of director Christopher Pazdernik’s main conceits for Godspell is that the actors are all playing versions of themselves. The exceptional lead Austin Nelson, Jr., is referred to as Austin (rather than Jesus) as he manically conducts the rest of the cast in acting out parables. The evidence of Nelson’s conviction to his role is present in the layer of sweat that streams down his face from beginning to end. Anna Marie Abbate is referred to as Anna Marie (rather than Judas or John the Baptist), and she plays the role with commendable subtly, displaying skepticism toward Austin’s teachings that foreshadows the character’s later betrayals. The entire cast is given a great freedom in acting out the parables, and they often insert modern allusions for comedic effect.

(front) Austin Nelson, Jr., Izzie Jones, Hannah Efsits & Ashley Saul

The set is a path running across the floor creating a perception that the characters are meeting in a park, and the audience are passersby who cannot help but watch the scenes emerging before them. The main cast of 10 manages to perform intricate choreography that never feels limited by the long, narrow shape of their stage, but the most significant highlight is the singing. Each of the 10 leads performs a song beginning with Izzie Jones’s infectious “Day by Day.” Matthew Hunter is another standout using powerful lead vocals in “Light of the World” before sending the audience into the intermission. All told, Godspell succeeds beyond expectations at using its small space to provide a memorable experience for its audience, who is close enough to touch the action.

Jesus Christ Superstar, on the other hand, seems to be working toward the opposite ambition of isolating its audience from the emotions of a powerful musical. Early on, I realized that the presentation was more consistent with a rock concert than a performance of musical theater. The lead actors held microphones and often played guitar during their solos (remaining mostly stationary to the action), which is an interesting idea for a rock opera. However, in practice it led to a sense that each song was its own separate entity. Therein lies the main problem with this production. When the talented Jenna Rubaii as Mary sings a countrified version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” she is more reminiscent of Carrie Underwood singing on stage rather than a character dealing with complex issues. Similarly, Aaron LaVigne as Jesus seems to be channeling Steven Tyler during “Gethsemane” (known by the repeating lyric “I’d Want to Know, My God”). He demonstrates his frustration at God by throwing the microphone stand upstage, but such antics are a distraction when the song itself—usually my favorite in the musical—communicates so much about Jesus’s mindset. Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas focuses more on jumping around his significant vocal range than articulating what Judas had to say. What astonished me most was I left the theater not humming a song, which was far from the case after my two viewings of the superior 2017 production at the Paramount Theater.

Aaron LaVigne (Jesus) & Jenna Rubaii (Mary)

The concept is consistent with the origins of this official 50th anniversary tour, which began at the open air theater at Regent’s Park in 2016, and what I sat through in Chicago would have worked well in an outdoor amphitheater with half the seating of the Cadillac Palace. At the very least, the opening chords of the overture would have been less ear-splitting in their volume. This production is not unbearable, but it needed someone at some point to consider that less can be more when starting with a compelling story and a full roster of memorable songs.

Both Godspell at Theo Ubique and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Cadillac Palace run through July 31.

Godspell—Theo Ubique (7/16/22) & Jesus Christ Superstar—Cadillac Palace (7/20/22)

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