Fresh Air: My Best Theater of 2014

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atc the humans_best ofAfter what I thought was a dismaying year in 2013, Chicago theater bounced back with impressive aplomb this year.  There were a lot of world premieres (some much readier for primetime than others), fresh voices and story-telling, searing examinations of America and the world, lots and lots and LOTS of Sondheim,  a 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek tragedies, and exemplary work from a host of renowned artists, from celebrated actors such as Michael Cera and Sandra Oh to award-winning directors like Joe Mantello and Chicago’s pride, incoming Steppenwolf Artistic  Director Anna Shapiro to exciting, ascendant playwrights like Marcus Gardley and Lisa L’Amour and exciting, established playwrights like Rebecca Gilman and Bruce Norris.  Then of course there was The Evil Dead: The Musical.  Chicago theater in 2014 had something for every theatergoer out there, from discerning to indifferent and back. Here then is the eight edition of my best theater productions of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

The Vanishing

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goodman brigadoonOnce a long, long time ago (well, the 1940s and the 1950s) the word musical theater didn’t really mean a collection of jukebox hits that your parents listened to, or a musical version of either a Disney film or a gritty British movie with music written by pop culture icons. The dirty phrase “Andrew Lloyd Webber” was mercifully unknown.  During that time a musical meant a show with gorgeous, lush scores, transportive stories that can still at times stretch credulity, unabashed emotionalism that can border on the silly and campy.  Though American musical theater at its height was the last unapologetic bastion of feel-good escapism during the time when film and dramatic plays were moving towards heightened naturalism and raw portrayal of emotions, it still produced some of the most unforgettable music existing from the incomparable talents of Rodgers and Hart, then Hammerstein; Leonard Bernstein; Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe.  So when I heard that the Goodman Theater was going to stage a revitalized, possibly re-envisioned take on Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s 1947 classic about a Scottish village that only appears once in a hundred years, I was intrigued but unconvinced. Can I, a 21st century musical theater queen ravenously brought up on a diet of realistic Sondheim, literary Boublil and Schoenberg,  grounded Ahrens and Flaherty, cerebral Guettel, with pop-music drizzles from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper, actually like a show with a story as incredible as this? Plus I wasn’t a fan of Gene Kelly’s stilted film version (the elegant, aristocratic Cyd Charisse is about as believable as an 18th century Scottish peasant maid as Matt Bomer is as my massage therapist…I mean really?). But as I’ve said so many times on this blog over the years, I love going to the theater and becoming inexplicably, memorably astounded. Brigadoon, marking the significant Goodman debut of Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s most talented theater directors, is enthralling, superb, inarguably enjoyable, lingering with you days after you see it, setting a high bar for musical theater in Chicago and regional theaters as a whole.

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First Look

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exit strategy jackalopeChicago theater audiences are a lucky bunch. With the abundance of world premieres in this city, we are almost always able to say, “Yep, I saw that first.”  The Chicago Tribune just reported that Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced, which premiered in a much-admired Chicago production in 2012, will bow on Broadway this fall directed by its Chicago director, Kimberly Senior.  One of the things to remember though about seeing world premieres almost on a weekly basis is that some of them are going to be very, very good, and many of them will, to put it lightly, need further revisions.  Here are my thoughts on two world premiere productions currently playing in Chicago.

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The Grey Zone

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luna gale goodmanOver the years I’ve had a rollercoaster relationship with the plays of Rebecca Gilman.  As an avid fan and advocate of Chicago theater, I’m thrilled that despite her national renown and her Pulitzer Prize nomination, she continues to live and work and premiere her latest works in hometown Chicago.  But as I said when writing about a 2009 production of her Blue Surge which I admired: “I’m still not completely sold on her plays (I feel some of her writing comes off academic and intellectual versus emotional and visceral, see Spinning into ButterDollhouse, etc.)”. And in 2010’s True History of the Johnstown Flood, truly one of my most deplorable theatrical experiences, the writing was also chaotic and confounding.  But I think after all these years, I’ve finally come across a Rebecca Gilman play that I really, really like, no, make that really, really love: Luna Gale, in a world premiere production at the Goodman Theatre, is extraordinary, the first must-see play of 2014– emotional and visceral, yes, and also intelligent, urgent, complex, painted on a canvas of varying hues of grey, full of characters deep with flaws, warts, and scars, but kindnesses too. If you call yourself a theater lover, you’d be a fool to miss Luna Gale.

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Bold Face

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big lake big cityJuly has traditionally been a quiet, laidback month in Chicago theater, with the major Equity houses wrapping up their current seasons with lower-profile offerings and the storefronts already on hiatus preparing for their new seasons, some of which already begin in late August. And most of the audiences that packed theaters year-round will be on their boats on Lake Michigan, on the lawns of Ravinia or Millennium Park listening to concerts, or will just quietly take a break from theatergoing to re-charge for another busy cultural year ahead. But this July for us avid theatergoers those boats and outdoor concert lawns and stay-at-home evenings will need to wait since there is a ton of exciting things going on our city’s stages. There are a lot of bold-faced names running around town right now. Over at A Red Orchid Theater, Michael Shannon, fresh off his mega-blockbuster hit Man of Steel, is headlining a revival of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico.  A little west at Steppenwolf, one of the country’s most buzzed playwrights Amy Herzog has been in town working with director Anne Kauffman to stage the Chicago production of Belleville which was universally acclaimed earlier this year when they premiered it off-Broadway. Additionally, William Petersen will be opening Slowgirl at Steppenwolf later in July. And over at Victory Gardens, another acclaimed playwright, Luis Alfaro, has been working on his world-premiere production of Mojada, which relocates the Medea story to Pilsen. But the biggest, boldest, most ambitious productions, both world premieres, have already opened this week within days of each other:  at Lookingglass Theater, David Schwimmer is directing A Steady Rain and Mad Men scribe Keith Huff’s Big Lake Big City while at the Goodman Theater, Mary Zimmerman, with support from Walt Disney Theatricals, just unveiled her musical adaptation of The Jungle Book.  Although flawed to various degrees, Big Lake Big City and The Jungle Book demonstrate what makes Chicago theater the leading theater scene in North America – both have immensely talented and creative theater makers taking risks and creating new work in different, aspirational ways. Despite what the Chicago theater critics have said about them (they have been mixed), I say, so what, these productions should be embraced and supported by ordinary audience members like me and you, my dear blog readers, who passionately care about our city’s theatrical life.

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My Theatrical Year

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Where did those twelve months go? It just seemed like yesterday when I was washing the champagne and various other substances out of my hair (yep, that was quite the 2011 New Year’s Eve shindig), and now we are at the end of 2012, or the end of the world as we know it if you’re one of those Mayan Calendar Doomsday groupies.  I’ve compiled my sixth annual best theater in Chicago list, and I gotta say that this was probably the most difficult of the lists to put together since I began. I know I say this every year, but 2012 was quite the fantastic year in Chicago theater, with many, many notable actors, writers and theater artists coming to the city to work on truly stellar, world-class, only-in-Chicago productions.  But our storefront theater scene, which gave rise to and nurtured theatrical giants like Cromer and Letts, continued to be unparalleled in the country.  I’ve added and crossed-out the productions on this list several times despite the fact that I missed several shows (it was just impossible to balance my day job, extensive travel, and all that theatrical bounty). It’s also notable that for the first time in six years, I have no non-Chicago production in the top ten – that’s how great 2012 was. When New York magazine called Chicago theater the “farm team” for Broadway and off-Broadway, I scoffed and knew that that New York hack couldn’t really tell his sunken derriere from his skeletal face, because I know, and hundreds of Chicago audiences know, how good we have it here in the city, much better than those high-horsing New Yorkers.  Here then are my best Chicago shows for 2012, as well as the next 5: Read the rest of this entry »