korde arrington tuttle’s graveyard shift, now making its world-premiere following an initial workshop production during Goodman Theatre’s 2018 New Stages Festival, is a haunting and beautiful reflection on police brutality against Black Americans. Inspired by the legacy of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in her prison cell in 2015 after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change, graveyard shift is also remarkable in its capacity for empathy and its meditation on shared humanity. graveyard shift is an undeniably brutal play, as it should be given its subject matter, but tuttle also writes his dialogue in such a poetic way that I was equally stunned by the play’s beauty.
While Donna Summer may be “Hot Stuff” when it comes to iconic songwriting and singing, SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL is a lukewarm entry in the genre of biographical jukebox musicals. The musical features many of Donna Summer’s notable hits—and this national touring cast has the talent to take them all on—but the storyline gave me whiplash. With a book by Colman Domingo and Robert Cary and direction from Des McAnuff, SUMMER careens between the major events of Donna Summer’s life at an often breakneck pace.
Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation EMMA, now making its Chicago debut at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is lovely, whimsical, and thoroughly grounded in the Victorian England period in which Austen’s original 1815 novel is set. Under the direction of Chicago Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, the whole production has an airiness to it. Gordon’s score and lyrics seem to float up from the performers. The score exudes a charm befitting Austen’s particular kind of sly social commentary and satire. Music director Roberta Duchak ensures that the band performs the music with this same lightness of being. Scott Davis’s set design, which is sparse and flanked by billowing curtains and chandeliers that dangle from the ceiling, and Mariann Verheyen’s pastel costume designs, further inform the overall loveliness of EMMA.
Steppenwolf’s production of ensemble member Tracy Letts’s BUG is positively skin crawling, with magnificent central performances from Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood that make the play all the more unnerving. While Letts’s 1996 play may have seemed far-fetched and ahead of its time when it debuted in the nascent days of the internet, it reads eerily prescient now. BUG’s dual exploration of paranoid schizophrenia and government surveillance becomes even more unsettling in the current digital era.
Liliana Padilla’s HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF offers a brilliant examination of collegiate life, and, more specifically, the ways in which rape culture and the entirely real possibility of sexual assault affect university students. But what makes Padilla’s play so powerful, fascinating, and entertaining is that their playwriting never becomes preachy or pointed. By capturing the parlance and cadence of the language that college students use with acute accuracy, Padilla allows the expertly fleshed out characters to reflect on these issues in a grounded and compelling manner.
DUKE ELLINGTON’S SOPHISTICATED LADIES is a classic Porchlight show: an ebullient musical revue showcasing both the esteemed song catalog of Duke Ellington and also the formidable talents of some of the city’s finest musical theater performers. Conceived by Donald McKayle and here featuring direction and choreography from Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris and music direction from Jermaine Hill, SOPHISTICATED LADIES is a production immense in its capacity to entertain. The revue has no plot, though the ensemble members take on various personas throughout the evening. While some of the performers are given cheeky titles in the program, such as “The Soubrette” or “The Chanteuse,” to name a couple examples, the actors themselves are listed next to each number. It’s a charming twist, for it makes this production unapologetic in its revue identity. Above all, SOPHISTICATED LADIES not only highlights the musical stylings of Duke Ellington, but also the actors themselves.
Lisa Loomer’s ROE offers a timely exploration of the history behind the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the ongoing political debate around abortion and a women’s right to choose. While Loomer’s text is not necessarily nuanced in the way that it presents the argument around abortion, ROE does consider both sides of this divisive issue. The play is perhaps most compelling in its capacity to pull back the curtain around the original Roe v. Wade case and reveal the case’s history. ROE centers on two critical women, the lawyer Sarah Weddington, who was only in her mid-twenties when she brought this case before the Court, and Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff under the pseudonym “Jane Roe.” Before I saw this play, I had never heard these women’s names before. But now, thanks to Loomer’s work, I won’t soon forget them. For Loomer interestingly not only presents both sides of the United States’ debate over a woman’s right to choose but also puts forth Sarah and Norma’s two differing perspectives on the events that transpired before and after Roe v. Wade was decided.
The national tour of Michael Arden’s Tony Award-winning revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND has arrived in Chicago in a blaze of color and light. While Arden’s production makes clear that the tropical island in the French Antilles where the musical takes place is no stranger to the devastating effects of natural disasters, it’s also a staging filled with joy and rich visuals. Dane Laffrey’s found objects aesthetic for the scenic design also conveys the musical’s occupancy between the nebulous space of reality and the mystical world of the four gods that guide the musical’s protagonist Ti Moune on her journey.
The first national tour of the MEAN GIRLS musical has arrived in Chicago, and it’s totally fetch. Original screenwriter Tina Fey has partnered with composer Jeff Richmond (her husband), lyricist Nell Benjamin, and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw to create a show in line with its pop musical contemporaries. MEAN GIRLS has an unabashedly pop score, filled with a combination of big belty numbers and upbeat tunes. Benjamin’s lyrics cleverly recreate many iconic moments from the original 2003 film through music, while Fey’s book also introduces many new jokes—particularly when it comes to the use of social media. Cady Heron’s initiation into the vicious halls of North Shore High, and her encounter with reigning clique The Plastics, will surely delight fans of the movie.
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).