Under the direction of David Cromer, Writers Theatre presents a NEXT TO NORMAL that is raw and electric. Tom Kitt’s music and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics have an utter immediacy to them in this production (and each note sounds great thanks to the music direction of Andra Velis Simon and the six-piece band.) It’s beautifully cast and even more beautifully delivered. Each member of the cast rises to the dual challenge of conveying the messy, deeply personal experience of emotional pain while also hitting the notes of Kitt’s complex score with precision.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines has staged a HAMLET that captures both the universality of Shakespeare’s language and the equally universal—but also profoundly personal—experience of grief for the title character.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the catchy pop hits of the ‘90s, CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE ‘90S MUSICAL is just the ticket. By far the most enjoyable element of this musical adaptation of the 1999 film (itself inspired by the 1782 French novel LES LIAISIONS DANGEREUSES) is discovering the surprising ways in which the show incorporates some of the most iconic ‘90s jams. The musical plays somewhere between a faithful recreation of the film and a parody. In detailing the devious exploits of lustful stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont, the original 1999 film was already fairly out there. The musical takes all of that manipulation and teenage lust and heightens it even further. While fans of the original film will recognize the most iconic traits of each character here, all of the teenagers (and Mrs. Caldwell, the lone adult) become even more like caricatures.
Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT, now in its Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, focuses on a group of blue-collar factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Bound together by the toils of working-class life in the town’s steel-tubing factory, these friends and family members gather at a local bar to let off steam and celebrate special occasions. And though the work at the factory may not be fulfilling, Nottage makes clear this work is vital for the characters’ livelihoods. For many of them, a life of working at the factory dates back generations. As the play toggles between 2000 and 2008, Nottage also reflects how her characters’ lives intersect with current events and questions of race, class, and success in America.
In HANDS ON A HARDBODY, now making its Chicago premiere with Refuge Theatre Project, the mobility offered by that titular hardbody truck is not just of the wheeled variety. Instead, the contest among 10 working class Texans to be the last to have their hands on that Nissan truck also becomes a rather obvious symbol of the American Dream. While book writer Doug Wright, lyricist Amanda Green, and composers Green and Trey Anastasio are not subtle in their treatment of that metaphor, HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a thoughtful meditation on how elusive that dream can be.
The national tour of A BRONX TALE, now playing Broadway In Chicago’s newly renamed James M. Nederlander Theatre, tries to fit in many themes in its swift run time of just two hours. Based on the play by Chazz Palminteri, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, the musical introduces us to Calogero, a young man living, of course, in the Bronx. At the age of nine, young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) does a favor for Sonny (Joe Barbara), a mob man of sorts living in the neighborhood. As thanks in kind, Sonny takes Calogero under his wing and tries to teach him the ways of the world. But Calogero’s mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena) and father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake, reprising the role from the Broadway run), espouse an entirely different life philosophy based on hard work. Lorenzo, in particular, tells his son he despises nothing more than wasted talent. As Calogero (Joey Barreiro) reaches high school, he must decide how to develop his own moral compass.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…, currently onstage as the second production in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ season, opens up challenging questions about history, who has the right to tell what story, and how best we can represent critical moments from the past without complete information. In the play, Drury lays bare the white washing of much of history and how the identities that we bring into the room shape our understanding of the past. Under the direction of Hallie Gordon and Gabrielle Randle, the six actors of the ensemble dive into the complexities of this play with full force and with a clear trust and respect for one another. WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…offers up issues that are not only provoking and challenging for students, but for any audience member.
Rebecca Gilman’s world premiere TWILIGHT BOWL, now playing in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, introduces us to six women contemplating the challenges of young adulthood in vastly different ways. Five of these young women are residents of the small town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. The titular Twilight Bowl refers to a neighborhood bar and bowling establishment, designed with realistic, painstaking detail by Regina Garcia, where the five Wisconsin women gather. Many of them have also worked at the Twilight Bowl, whether to pass the time in the summer or as a way to make a living. Though the lives of these young women may initially seem quaint to some, the introduction of an outsider from Winnetka, Illinois in the play’s second scene indicates that we all in some ways occupy our own “bubbles.”
Much like its companion piece THE MADRES, Stephanie Alison Walker’s THE ABUELAS starts out as a slow, compelling burn that builds to a torrent of emotions. While THE MADRES took place in 1979 and introduced us to three generations of Argentine women fighting for the survival of the youngest, Belen, who is among “Los Desparecidos” taken by the government—THE ABUELAS transports us right here to Chicago, 37 years later. José Manuel Diaz’s polished and urbane apartment set, implied to be located on Lake Shore Drive, paves the way for a narrative that starts out as an almost mundane portrait of a modern family. But soon secrets are revealed that connect back to the characters of THE MADRES in a heartbreaking and powerful fashion.
Both profoundly moving and profoundly disturbing, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is one of the most deeply troubling musicals I’ve seen. I left DEAR EVAN HANSEN with a swirl of mixed emotions. With book by Steven Levenson and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and direction by Michael Greif, this 2017 Tony Award-winning musical wants desperately to send a message about the possibility of hope amid the isolating times of high school and the swirling of social media feeds, but the show feels weighed down by its morally dark storyline.