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 »

Hit List, Part Two: Titanic

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Griffin Titanic musicalContinuing my musical theater queen recertification process (not that I ever lost my designation as beloved BFFs and theater buddies can attest), the third musical I saw this past week was Griffin Theatre’s staging of a new, minimalist take on Maury Yeston’s Titanic, the 1997 winner of the Tony for Best Musical, a version that was widely acclaimed in London last year when it was staged by Southwark Playhouse. Interestingly, I was actually planning to see a planned North American premiere of this version in Toronto last summer, billed as a pre-Broadway tryout, which was then subsequently cancelled due to the lack of an available Broadway theater for the 2014-2015 season (looks like this pre-Broadway Toronto run has been re-started for spring 2015 though with opera superstar Ben Heppner headlining as reported here).  So I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Griffin Theatre was going to go ahead and stage the North American premiere (hooray for Chicago theater!) though a very small part of me couldn’t help but wonder: could a Chicago storefront theater, even one such as Griffin with a highly-regarded track record of artistic success, match the aspirations and vision of a production that was being primed for Broadway? Well, that little nagging voice could go bury itself back inside that skeptical second-city insecurity box it sprung from, because this surprising, superb, stirring production of Titanic, elegantly and richly directed by Scott Weinstein and performed to heart-breaking perfection by 20 of Chicago’s best actors is one of the can’t-miss shows of the fall. I don’t think the Toronto production could have done any better.

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Roundup

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As I was tweeting about this week, there’s so much Chicago theater and so little time.  Which is a great thing.  But I’ve seen several shows this spring season that I really wanted more from.  For me, ultimately, the best theater boils down to the best writing.  If the text is lacking, or fragmented, or seemingly-unfinished, or needing three more drafts to make it watchable, then the play is still unsatisfactory despite the best direction, acting, or design that it may have.  Here’s a roundup of some recent shows I’ve seen.

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High and Low Cs

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Despite what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might have said, you can’t just put up a musical in a barn. Musicals are tricky stage business.  The composer and book writer should convince the audience that it makes sense for their subject matter to be sung, rather than talked about, or narrated, or demonstrated.  The director of a musical, on the other hand, should have the ability to make the audience truly believe that it makes sense for people to suddenly break out into song in the middle of a conversation, or a jaunt along the park, or amongst the remnants of a clambake, and not interrupt the narrative flow of the piece as well.  I have a lot of friends who like going to the theater, but who just happen to not like going to musicals, because the latter requires a lot more unnerving suspension of their disbelief.   And musicals have taken somewhat of a bad rap among people of my generation and younger simply because there have been so many poorly-produced productions of great musicals which look and sound like they’ve indeed been produced inside a barn, or worse, a karaoke joint.  So I’m somewhat thrilled, and also quite apprehensive, that there is a preponderance of musical theater in the Chicago fall arts and culture season, especially since many of our theater companies seem to be more comfortable chewing into Stoppard or Mamet, instead of Rodgers and Hart. The centerpiece musical theater production of the season is arguably Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s new version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Goodman Theater – a lush though somewhat chaotic production, most memorable for musical director Doug Peck’s rendering of that gorgeous, unsurpassable Bernstein score.  Surprisingly (well, for me, at least), Griffin Theatre and the much-acclaimed young director Jonathan Berry have also unveiled a minimalist version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, one of my favorite musicals of all time.  I’m not going to talk about Griffin’s Company at length (more on that later), but I do want to say that I firmly believe that just because you want to sing Sondheim doesn’t mean you should.

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