The lovable and lewd puppets of AVENUE Q have returned to Mercury Theater in a remount of the company’s successful 2014 production. I have a soft spot for this musical gem—which beat out WICKED in 2004 to take home the Best Musical Tony Award—and Mercury’s production reminded me precisely why that appreciation runs so deep. With a book by Jeff Whitty and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (the latter of subsequent THE BOOK OF MORMON and FROZEN fame), AVENUE Q strikes a delectable balance between outrageously funny and unabashedly heartfelt.
Category: Rachel’s Picks
The pre-Broadway engagement of THE CHER SHOW has made its way to Chicago in a blaze of colorful, over-the-top energy and replete with the artist’s chart-topping hits. Three utterly talented women share the title role: Broadway veteran Stephanie J. Block as Star, Teal Wicks as Lady, and newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe. Together, these actors deliver a powerhouse trio of performances worthy of Cher herself. Diehard Cher fans will be pleased to know that such iconic songs as “I Got You, Babe,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and, of course, “Believe” are in more than capable hands.
As the old adage goes “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Rajiv Joseph’s GUARDS AT THE TAJ asks precisely how far we might go to defend that which is beautiful, even if great human suffering and violence are involved. The play centers on Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed), two low-ranking guards at the Taj Mahal in 1648. The two are so low-ranking, in fact, that their job requires them to face away from the mausoleum. Joseph’s narrative provides his interpretation of the legend that guards like Humayun and Babur were asked to do the unthinkable in order to make sure that the Taj Mahal remained the most beautiful place on earth: cut off the hands of the 20,000 laborers and the architect who constructed the monument.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR ignites the Lyric Opera stage in a never-ending burst of electrifying energy. This production is brilliant from start-to-finish, and it beautifully unites Lyric Opera’s commitment to providing first-rate talent and stunning visuals with director Timothy Sheader’s contemporary, invigorating vision. Originally staged at London’s Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, the Lyric’s production is big and bold in every aspect. Set and costume designer Tom Scutt’s rock concert atmosphere design combines a stark, modern look with a backdrop of lush greenery—a nod to the play’s outdoor theater roots.
Hockadoo! Porchlight Music Theatre’s MEMPHIS bursts onto the stage with joy and earnest energy. Under the direction of Daryl Brooks, this musical sheds light on timely historical issues while milking the show’s sweetest, most exuberant moments for all they’re worth. Set in the 1950s, MEMPHIS follows the fictional white DJ Huey Calhoun (based on the real-life DJ Dewey Phillips) as he strives to overcome the city’s racial barriers—and attract radio listeners—by showcasing music from black artists on the radio. Along the way, Huey meets the aspiring young black singer Felicia Farrell. He aims to help Felicia find her place in the spotlight, and of course, also find a spot for him in his heart. Written by Daryl Adams and Joe DiPietro, MEMPHIS does not at all hide the realities of life in Memphis under the laws of Jim Crow. Yet the musical overall treats its subject matter with an optimistic sunniness and places the emphasis on Huey’s attempts to forge racial unity.
Stephanie Allison Walker’s THE MADRES, now in a Teatro Vista production as part of a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network, is a gut punch of a play. Set in 1979 Buenos Aires, Argentina, THE MADRES follows three generations of women in a family during La Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”). Under the Dirty War, the Argentine military went after anyone within the country thought to be subversive or connected to socialism. Those taken hostage became known as Los Desaparecidos (“The Disappeared”). The titular Madres in Walker’s play are the mothers of the disappeared, who would march in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires to demand the return of their loved ones. Though Walker’s play highlights a moment in Argentina’s history, her portrait of the silencing of voices, the torture of loved ones, and the women who rose up against injustice finds complete alignment with the present moment.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s THE DOPPELGANGER (AN INTERNATIONAL FARCE), now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is a wild, swift-moving, and hilarious ride. As indicated by the numerous doors on Todd Rosenthal’s opulent set, Erlbach’s play employs many of the hallmarks of classic farce. And under the direction of Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau, the production’s first-rate and comically expert cast take Erlbach’s combination of zippy one-liners and absurd physical antics and run (sometimes literally).
Boo Killebrew’s world premiere play LETTIE is profoundly heartbreaking and brilliantly conceived. Under the direction of Artistic Director Chay Yew, the production devastatingly unfolds the narrative of the titular working class ex-convict Lettie. Both Killebrew’s masterful, raw writing and Yew’s superlative ensemble—with Caroline Neff in the title role and doing some of the best work so far of her career—bring immense pathos and a swirl of shifting emotions upon the audience.
Sheila Callaghan’s WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD, now in a Chicago premiere at Theater Wit, opens with just that: Three women (Echaka Agba, Jennifer Engstrom, and Daniella Pereira) sit on a park bench, eating from large bowls of lettuce in complete silence. The silent salad consumption becomes more intense as the scene continues, but the energy completely changes when Guy (Japhet Balaban) emerges on the scene. Suddenly, all three salad-eating actors become more interested in attracting his attention. In this initial scene, Callaghan launches us into the hilarious and absurd world of her play—a world which director Devon de Mayo’s superlative cast fully embraces.
With her Pulitzer Prize finalist THE WOLVES, young playwright Sarah DeLappe has beautifully, movingly, and realistically captured the tenuousness that comes with being a teenage girl navigating the thorny terrain of high school. DeLappe has captured so precisely the agony and nuances of high school female friendship. In this 90-minute play about an indoor high school girls’ soccer team, DeLappe presents the achingly real challenges of life as a teenage girl in suburban America. While the nine members of the eponymous Wolves are fierce soccer players on the field, these three-dimensional characters have much more to contend with once they step off.