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).
The Chicago premiere of Clare Barron’s DANCE NATION, now at Steppenwolf with direction and choreography from Lee Sunday Evans (who also helmed the original production at Playwrights Horizons), is alternately wild, messy, and confusing—much like the experience of early adolescence for the play’s characters. Some moments of Barron’s script beautifully capture the growing pains of what it’s like to be 12 or 13 years and learning how to navigate the terrain of changing bodies and the shifting dynamics of pre-teen friendships. Stylistically, DANCE NATION is all over the place. The play’s opening scene features the cast tap dancing in sailor suits, transporting audiences to the fierce world of competitive pre-teen dance. It’s heightened and satirical, seemingly a mockery of shows like DANCE MOMS.
Scenario Two’s production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, one of the few contemporary musicals written in a style that harkens back to the Golden Age, is beautifully sung with the composer’s complicated and melodious score performed by a superb orchestra. The production has arrived at Lyric Opera for a special holiday engagement. The musical focuses on Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara, who take a vacation to Florence, Italy in the summer of 1953-and find their lives forever changed after Clara has a chance encounter with Fabrizio Nacarelli, a young Italian man. It should come as little surprise that Renèe Fleming has a radiant turn as Margaret. Vocally, Fleming’s take on the role is pristine, but she also plays out the tension between Margaret’s fiercely protective instincts when it comes to her child and her yearning to empower Clara to lead her own life as a young adult. While I wish to avoid spoilers, it’s key to share that the musical has a twist that includes a revelation about Clara that shines light on precisely why Margaret feels so compelled to keep watch over her daughter.
The ceaselessly cynical Crumpet the Elf has returned to Goodman Theatre for the second year in a row. This year Steven Strafford takes the lead in David Sedaris’s THE SANTALAND DIARIES under the direction of Steve Scott. While Strafford’s take on David/Crumpet remains as foul-mouthed and blunt as ever, the actor’s take on the role has some real vulnerability. Strafford gives us the sense that Crumpet wears his cynicism like armor, using it as a defense mechanism to combat his loneliness and discontentment with his current career status (Crumpet’s declaration that being an elf seems like a “terrifying” job opportunity rings especially true here). Although Strafford’s Crumpet has a deft emotional center, he still never compromises on the humor—but his delivery is smartly such that audiences may land on different moments as the funniest in Sedaris’s text (adapted by Joe Mantello for the stage).
The Q Brothers Collective puts a highly inventive and endlessly delightful twist on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale with Q BROTHERS CHRISTMAS CAROL. While the production’s narrative follows the traditional story of the greedy Ebenezer Scrooge and the four spirits that haunt him on Christmas Eve as a harbinger to change his miserly ways, the Q Brothers Collective finds creative ways to breathe new life into their staging at every turn. This hip hop musical, deemed an “ad-rap-tation” of the original CHRISTMAS CAROL, incorporates more modern music influences into the story—as well as contemporary stylings when it comes to the show’s sense of humor.
Although Goodman Theatre is now producing A CHRISTMAS CAROL for the 42nd year, and although I have seen the production four times myself, it still has an immense capacity to tug at the heartstrings. While the Goodman’s production has few surprises to reveal for repeat viewers at this point, the emotions of delight and humor I experienced on opening night reminded me why this production feels magical for so many. And because I attended the show with a first-time viewer, it was particularly special to share the Goodman’s brand of holiday joy.
Firebrand Theatre’s ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE is both a lovely tribute to female friendship and Patsy Cline’s iconic song catalog (the musical features more than 25 of Patsy’s songs). Ted Swindley’s show, here directed by Brigitte Ditmars, is based on the real-life friendship between Patsy and one of her most fervent fans, Louise Seger. After a chance encounter at one of Patsy’s concert engagements in 1961, Louise and Patsy struck up a friendship that lasted the rest of the singer’s life. Because the musical incorporates so many of Patsy’s iconic country songs, however, it manages to avoid becoming too trite in relaying its story. Instead, ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE becomes unquestionably enjoyable as it’s presented more as a concert with a storyline. It’s a format that works, and works well.
Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of LINDIWE, a collaboration between ensemble member Eric Simonson and acclaimed South African music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, finds the most success in its musical moments. The production, co-directed by Simonson and Jonathan Berry, features new music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to tell the love story of the titular Lindiwe and her boyfriend Adam. It helps that the narrative focuses on Lindiwe’s experience as a singer touring with Ladysmith Black Mambazo—and, indeed, the group literally accompanies her at several moments throughout the production. Lindiwe explains that she never goes anywhere without her “guys,” as she affectionately refers to them. Thus, Ladysmith Black Mambazo functions as a kind of Greek chorus underscoring the romantic storyline at the play’s center. The conceit also allows for the play to utilize the group’s original music.
There’s nothing subtle about Lyric Opera’s staging of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s contemporary opera DEAD MAN WALKING. Based upon the novel of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, DEAD MAN WALKING focuses on Sister Helen’s relationship with 29-year-old Joseph De Rocher, a prisoner on death row in Angola, Louisiana convicted of the murder of a young couple (and the sexual assault of a young woman). While DEAD MAN WALKING clearly aims to be morally complex in its exploration of capital punishment and the notion of whether or not we should also treat criminals as human beings, the piece feels overwrought. The debate at the opera’s center is painted with broad strokes; at one point, we literally see protestors outside the prison holding picket signs depicting both sides of the argument.
The Passage Theatre’s production of Preston Choi’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER simultaneously centers on the immensity of the universe and the intimate, everyday moments that make up our human lives. Choi’s play, presented as 43 distinct but related vignettes, reflects the human desire to search for familiarity and meaning in all that we come across. As embodied by the play’s title, that includes the human need to explore and find answers to the unknown: Is there life on Mars? And what is the meaning of our existence here on Earth relative to the rest of the universe?