2019 was officially declared the Year of Chicago Theatre…and it did not disappoint. After reviewing more than 50 productions this year, I’m sharing some of my favorites from the past calendar year (listed in chronological order).
RED REX at Steep Theatre
Ike Holter’s RED REX, the sixth out of seven plays in his cycle about the fictitious Rightlynd ward here in Chicago, is the most meta-theatrical entry in the collection. RED REX was a fully conceived and clever part of Holter’s play cycle. I loved the play both for the fact that it was a production about a storefront theater staged in a storefront theater, which was in many ways a playful nod to the audience, but also because Holter didn’t shy away from also asking those same audience members to question what they were doing. It was a brilliant twist, and Jonathan Berry’s staging and the cast certainly did the script justice. This was undoubtedly one of the strongest entries in the Rightlynd Cycle as a whole.
A CHORUS LINE at Porchlight Music Theatre
Under the direction of Brenda Didier and with show-stopping choreography from Christopher Chase Carter, Porchlight’s A CHORUS LINE captured the emotional heart of this classic musical and had plenty of pizzazz. I’ve never so keenly felt the hope, desperation, and passion all tied up in one of the fictional actors aspiring to make it into the chorus line of a Broadway musical. Porchlight’s production capitalized on this classic musical’s emotional capacity, while also delivering on the excellent vocals and pristine choreography that audiences would expect from any A CHORUS LINE staging.
NEXT TO NORMAL at Writers Theatre
Writers Theatre’s intimate and raw production of the Tony Award-winning NEXT TO NORMAL was the most powerful staging of this musical I’ve seen. Director David Cromer’s vision and Writers’ excellent cast made me feel every ounce of emotion in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s musical about a family whose matriarch struggles with bipolar disorder. All the members of the Goodman family were superbly cast, and kudos must be given to Keely Vasquez for her take on Diana. NEXT TO NORMAL was rightfully electrifying.
SIX at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
I could not get enough of the fabulous queens in this U.S. premiere musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I loved the production so much I went back to see it a second time. By imagining the six wives of Henry VIII as a contemporary female power pop group, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss invented a musical that speaks so well to the current moment. SIX was endlessly inventive, and it was also one of the most fun and energizing productions of the year. I’m so thrilled that the queens are headed to Broadway this spring with the same cast we saw here.
TRUE WEST at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
TRUE WEST was a quintessentially Steppenwolf show in the best way possible: It provided a fresh staging of a gritty American drama with a first-rate cast and production values. Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood were superlative as rival brothers Austin and Lee, who become increasingly more savage over the course of Sam Shepard’s play. They played out the battle royale between these two characters to maximum effect—and as brutal a play as TRUE WEST is, they also managed to suffuse it with a good deal of humor (The toaster scene was particularly inspired). Director Randall Arney’s production gave this iconic American play a renewed sense of urgency, and Hill and Smallwood’s performances made the production feel immediate and raw. TRUE WEST was nothing short of peak Steppenwolf.
DANA H. at Goodman Theatre
Lucas Hnath’s DANA H. was truly a one-of-a-kind piece of theater. Suffice it to say, I had never seen anything quite like DANA H. before. The playwright’s insightful decision to have one actor lip sync to interview recordings of his mother Dana Higgenbotham as she recounted her five month-long kidnapping was a compelling way to give a voice to a survivor. Not only was Dana’s story itself enthralling and legitimately stranger than fiction, but Hnath’s choices in terms of how to relay Dana’s perspective was also unique in the theater world. I look forward to seeing more of Hnath’s work produced in Chicago.
OSLO at TimeLine Theatre Company
TimeLine’s production of OSLO, presented in collaboration with Broadway In Chicago, was powerful and filled with remarkable performances. J.T. Rogers’s play about the real-life peace negotiations that took place between diplomats from Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the early 1990s was nearly three hours long but progressed quickly. The play was a beautiful portrait of the human capacity to forge relationships and find connections, even across seemingly insurmountable barriers. Add to that as well Bri Sudia’s performance as Mona Juul and Scott Parkinson as Terje Rød-Larsen, a married Norwegian couple who helped facilitate the negotiations between Israel and the PLO, and it made this staging of OSLO all the more potent. It was also lovely to see TimeLine’s work in front of many new audiences at the Broadway Playhouse.