Griffin Theatre’s stunning production of VIOLET will simultaneously make hearts ache and soar. With music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley, director Scott Weinstein’s raw, heartfelt staging has a stellar cast that finds every moment of joy and sorrow possible in the material.
BEAUTIFUL THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL, one of the most well-constructed and delightful jukebox musicals I’ve ever seen, has arrived back in Chicago just in time for the holiday season. This empowering musical about singer-songwriter Carole King has enough emotional impact to make your heart burst. This is my third time seeing BEAUTIFUL, and I remain struck by the emotional depth behind this show. In BEAUTIFUL, we see the title character not only learn to find her voice as an artist in a male-dominated industry but also as an independent young woman who breaks free of a toxic relationship with her former husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. And though that storyline hardly sounds light and airy, BEAUTIFUL is also an unabashedly joyous celebration of King’s music and that of other 1960s artists who worked alongside her—perhaps most significantly her friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
Tracy Letts’s world premiere THE MINUTES, now making its debut at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, unfolds in an unsuspecting manner. Both because the play has a smart structure that shifts over the course of the 100-minute runtime and also because the content left me contemplative for days after seeing it. Here Letts uses the framework of a small town’s council meeting as a microcosm of a larger discussion on the current political climate (though this play is not overtly about Trump’s presidency) and the desire to cling to certain ideologies in the name of order and group preservation, though those long-held beliefs may not be true. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, Letts has written a play that compellingly examines the appeal of “truthiness” in this contentious political environment.
In just over two hours, the Chicago premiere production of Joshua Harmon’s SIGNIFICANT OTHER made me laugh so hard I almost couldn’t breathe and then proceeded to have me very close to tears at the end. Harmon’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking gem of a play acutely articulates the plight of protagonist Jordan Berman. Jordan is a single Jewish gay man in his late 20s, living in New York City and watching as his three best female friends find love and marriage. On the page, Harmon so beautifully expresses the nuances of shifting friendships and the fear of being left behind by those one holds dear, and he also nails so completely the complex neuroses that come with dating, loneliness, and being lost in one’s own head. Director Keira Fromm and an outstanding local cast bring Harmon’s expertly crafted words to life, finding both maximum amounts of humor and gut-wrenching emotion in the piece.
Washed up wannabe rockstar Dewey Finn and his ragtag band of lovable prep school students have arrived in Chicago for a rocking good time. SCHOOL OF ROCK is a faithful and fun-loving adaptation of the 2003 film that starred Jack Black as a “lovable loser” who poses as a substitute teacher and turns his timid class into a band of talented, self-assured rockers. With a score by musical theater icon Andrew Lloyd Weber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes, SCHOOL OF ROCK captures the frenetic energy and most of the tongue-in-cheek sass that characterized the original film.
Under the direction of frequent company collaborator Brenda Didier, BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL electrifies the mainstage at the Ruth Page Performing Arts Center, Porchlight’s new home. Based on the eponymous film about an adolescent boy from a working class British mining town who aspires to be a ballet dancer, this production finds the deep emotional core in its story about community and acceptance. With music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, this BILLY ELLIOT bursts with heart and passion.
Timeline Theatre Company has brought Sarah Ruhl’s IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY back to Chicago in a moment in which it has undeniable relevance and impact—and a magnificent cast to carry out out Mechelle Moe’s direction. This play fundamentally contemplates one woman’s needs and wants in the wake of the invention of the electric light—and a new electrical invention designed to stimulate women’s bodies as a cure for hysteria. Through the journey of Catherine Givings (beautifully played by Rochelle Therrien in a charmingly, spirited, and ultimately deeply felt manner) as she contemplates her husband Dr. Givings’ (Anish Jethmalani) administrations of this new treatment in the next room, Ruhl opens up a window into a timely discussion about making women’s private desires openly expressed.
If you like your musicals dark—tragically, unceasingly dark—with a complicated score that’s well sung, BoHO Theatre’s MARIE CHRISTINE is just the production to see as the fall days grow ever shorter. Under Lili-Anne Brown’s keen direction with spirited choreography from Breon Arzell (who is becoming an ever more deft choreographer), Michael John LaChiusa’s show charts one wronged woman’s journey as she goes to dire lengths to seek revenge when her lover abandons her. Based on the Greek tragedy MEDEA, the titular Marie Christine is a privileged New Orleans woman with a gift of voodoo. She falls in love with the ship captain Dante, who later abandons her when he decides to pursue a political career and can no longer be seen with a woman of mixed race. Thus, though MARIE CHRISTINE takes place in the 1880s, the show’s contemplation of one woman’s desire to gain power in a society and to set herself on equal footing with a lover that will not fully accept her has great resonance with the present.
Under the deft direction of Audrey Francis, Steep Theatre Company treats audiences to an intimate, intense Chicago premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s THE INVISIBLE HAND.
As I took my seat for acclaimed director Ivo Van Hove’s production of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, I could see only a rectangular box of sorts on the stage—surrounded by audience members seated on benches on either side. This stark, minimalist presentation reflects Van Hove’s stripped down, Brechtian, and utterly gripping vision for Arthur Miller’s classic play. As the production opens, the box slowly lifts to reveal a grey, open space flanked by a glass border upon which the actors can sit. Though Jan Versweyveld’s set and An D’Huys costumes are artfully simple, they provide the backdrop for an evening of intense energy and uneasy tragic foreboding.