Based on the title alone, Antoinette Nwandu’s “BREACH: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” does not sound like a comedy. And yet in BREACH, Nwandu has written a laugh-out-loud satirical piece that also has a real beating heart in its exploration of race and identity in modern-day America. Nwandu’s characters are intentionally broadly drawn and the play has many outsized comedic moments, but BREACH also has humanity running through it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber diehards rejoice: LOVE NEVER DIES, the sequel to that opulent music theater classic THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has arrived in Chicago. Every single element of this production is overblown and visually stimulating. Webber’s score is big, dramatic, and lush. And while the score has the kind of beauty and magnificence expected from Webber, book writer Ben Elton’s storyline is crammed full of superfluous plotlines and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are mostly full of musical theater clichés. That said, I was highly entertained throughout the entire evening. This is escapist musical theater fun at its finest.
Porchlight Artistic Director’s intimate staging of Sondheim’s 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG vividly brings to life this piece that chronicles the lives of three close friends as they attempt to gain professional success as artist. While composer Frank Shepard strikes it big as a Hollywood film composer and producer, he leaves his closest friends—lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas and writer Mary Flynn—in the dust. Despite its sunny title, MERRILY is a rather cynical musical about friendship and the revelation that it’s quite lonely at the top. The twist—and one of the main reasons why MERRILY is rarely produced and challenging to stage—is that the musical takes place in reverse chronological order. We see these three “Old Friends” move from jaded success stories back to idealistic hopefuls just starting their careers and forging their tight-knit friendships. MERRILY makes a great deal of sense right now because we are living in mighty cynical times—and watching these central characters contend with the demands of Hollywood has an added sting in this moment.
Court Theatre Artistic Director Charles Newell lends a deft hand to this stunning, newly searing production of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS. Though Miller’s classic play takes place in 1946, the all-star ensemble makes the plight of the crumbling Keller family feel raw and altogether present. From the moment “thunder” comes shattering down on John Culbert’s set as the play begins (lights by Keith Parham and sound by Andre Pluess), ALL MY SONS spirals towards an inevitable tragic end. While this foreboding scene alludes to the darkness to come, Newell’s staging still has a lovely progression in which the tragic moments amount to a larger, all-encompassing gloom.
Eric John Meyer’s world premiere play THE ANTELOPE PARTY opens on a meeting in an apartment setting notable for its vast and bright collection of MY LITTLE PONY memorabilia (kudos to set designer Joe Schermoly and properties designer Jesse Gaffney for this delightful visual). In this moment, we meet the members of the Rust Belt Brony Meet Up group. The bronies (sometimes referred to as Pegasisters when they’re female-identifying) are adult fans of the children’s show MY LITTLE PONY. The members of the Rust Belt group, in particular, identify with the show’s messages of magic and friendship and find solace among their brony counterparts.
Aziza Barnes’s BLKS is often funny, often vulgar, and sometimes heartbreaking. Now in a world premiere staging at Steppenwolf, BLKS chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three young black women in their early 20s living in New York City. Barnes’s playwriting is achingly real and naturalistic, while also showcasing the playwright’s poetic chops. In Octavia (Nora Carroll), Imani (Celeste Cooper), and June (Leea Ayers), Barnes has given us three unique and beautifully written characters navigating a tumultuous moment in their young lives.
Griffin Theatre’s stunning production of VIOLET will simultaneously make hearts ache and soar. With music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley, director Scott Weinstein’s raw, heartfelt staging has a stellar cast that finds every moment of joy and sorrow possible in the material.
BEAUTIFUL THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL, one of the most well-constructed and delightful jukebox musicals I’ve ever seen, has arrived back in Chicago just in time for the holiday season. This empowering musical about singer-songwriter Carole King has enough emotional impact to make your heart burst. This is my third time seeing BEAUTIFUL, and I remain struck by the emotional depth behind this show. In BEAUTIFUL, we see the title character not only learn to find her voice as an artist in a male-dominated industry but also as an independent young woman who breaks free of a toxic relationship with her former husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. And though that storyline hardly sounds light and airy, BEAUTIFUL is also an unabashedly joyous celebration of King’s music and that of other 1960s artists who worked alongside her—perhaps most significantly her friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
Tracy Letts’s world premiere THE MINUTES, now making its debut at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, unfolds in an unsuspecting manner. Both because the play has a smart structure that shifts over the course of the 100-minute runtime and also because the content left me contemplative for days after seeing it. Here Letts uses the framework of a small town’s council meeting as a microcosm of a larger discussion on the current political climate (though this play is not overtly about Trump’s presidency) and the desire to cling to certain ideologies in the name of order and group preservation, though those long-held beliefs may not be true. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, Letts has written a play that compellingly examines the appeal of “truthiness” in this contentious political environment.
In just over two hours, the Chicago premiere production of Joshua Harmon’s SIGNIFICANT OTHER made me laugh so hard I almost couldn’t breathe and then proceeded to have me very close to tears at the end. Harmon’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking gem of a play acutely articulates the plight of protagonist Jordan Berman. Jordan is a single Jewish gay man in his late 20s, living in New York City and watching as his three best female friends find love and marriage. On the page, Harmon so beautifully expresses the nuances of shifting friendships and the fear of being left behind by those one holds dear, and he also nails so completely the complex neuroses that come with dating, loneliness, and being lost in one’s own head. Director Keira Fromm and an outstanding local cast bring Harmon’s expertly crafted words to life, finding both maximum amounts of humor and gut-wrenching emotion in the piece.