In this season premiere production of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, Victory Gardens Theater is dishing out advice with a spoonful of Sugar. Quite literally, the writer Cheryl Strayed (perhaps best known as the author of the memoir WILD) served as an advice columnist using the pen name Sugar for a column she wrote for the online publication THE RUMPUS between 2010-2012. Here, Nia Vardalos translates Strayed’s book of letters into a stage play. The script invites Sugar (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and three Letter Writers (Jessica Dean Turner, August Foreman, and Eric Slater,) all to share the same physical space. Director Vanessa Stalling’s staging often places Sugar centerstage, underscoring the fact that the common thread among the characters is that they have all come to her seeking advice. Courtney O’Neill’s charming and serene modern coffee shop set features a rich teal blue color scheme (one will note that even the props themselves are shades of teal), and costume designer Theresa Ham has the cast dressed in a palette of orange and deep blue. The production’s carefully cultivated color palette not only lends the set design a sense of calm—even though the material of the letters Sugar receives is often anything but—and also conveys that all of the letter writers (and Sugar herself) are united by a common humanity and the answers they seek.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s season opening production of Lauren Yee’s THE GREAT LEAP combines the energy of the final moments of a major sporting event alongside moments of great intimacy and intensity for which the company is largely known. Set designer Justin Humphries has transformed the Upstairs Theatre into a small-scale basketball court, while Keith Parham’s lighting and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s clever sound cues (pay close attention to the intermission playlist, as it’s particularly inspired) mimic the spectacle you’d see at a sports stadium. The design is exceedingly clever, and while it doesn’t quite reach the immensity of a Bulls game at the United Center, the production on the whole is a unique theatrical experience.
The Seattle-based circus, comedy, and cabaret spectacle Teatro ZinZanni has arrived in Chicago with the hybrid show LOVE, CHAOS AND DINNER. And ZinZanni serves up entertainment with a capital “E” in this production. The evening alternates between decidedly low-brow slapstick comedy scenes, musical numbers, and some stunning aerial and circus acts.
Director Mary Zimmerman lends her whimsy to THE MUSIC MAN at Goodman Theatre in a production that pays homage to the small-town charm and iconic score of Meredith Willson’s classic musical. Under Zimmerman’s direction, this MUSIC MAN becomes a joyful company piece showcasing, in particular, the talents of the formidable actors in the supporting and ensemble roles. The production finds all the earnest humor embedded in THE MUSIC MAN, and Jermaine Hill’s music direction ensures that each note rings out fully from the 12-member orchestra.
In IF I FORGET, Steven Levenson provides a close study of the kitchen sink family drama. At its center, the play addresses fundamental questions about what it means to be Jewish in America at the turn of the 21st century (the first act of the play takes place in July of 2000, while the second jumps to the post 9-11 moment of February 2001). IF I FORGET centers on the Fischer family as a means to pose those questions in a specific context through the family’s three generations. In each individual scene, Levenson displays a knack for realistic and specific dialogue. Devon de Mayo’s direction and the tight-knit ensemble also portray family tensions that feel altogether too real.
With MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT, co-creators Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney have created a raucous and welcoming celebration of Queer culture by bringing to life a true story that few audience members might have known previously. The play’s title refers to Joan Jett Blakk (given name: Terence Alan Smith), a drag queen who ran first for mayor of Chicago and then for President of the United States in 1992. By staging a piece about Blakk, McCraney and Landau have poetically brought forward a story that might otherwise have been forgotten by the general populace, just as many American citizens who identify as Queer are often erased from consideration and representation in this country. MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT fully explores this issue of erasure without making the production one that’s defined by tragedy.
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.