Top 10 shows of the year

 

Lyric Opera House (J Jacobs photo)
Lyric Opera House (J Jacobs photo)

Chicago area theaters put on so many excellent productions that picking our top 10 shows is not merely challenging, it also reflects individual points of view, entertainment preferences and theater and music backgrounds. Readers are welcome to disagree and comment with their own suggestions.

This year, we also are including Broadway in Chicago and Lyric Opera contenders because Chicago audiences attend those productions and support those organizations with subscriptions.

A bit about our reviewers: Reno Lovison, Pam McKuen, Francine Friedman, Mira Temkin and editor Jodie Jacobs are professional writers who have contributed over the years to a variety of publications. Read more in the About section of Chicago Theater and Arts. Their selections could each have extended to five and more but were narrowed down to two apiece.

 

Reno Lovison

“Haymarket”

“Haymarket” was an important Chicago story, well performed and included appropriate Bluegrass music reminiscent of labor-oriented folk songs. See review of this Underscore Theatre Company’s production at Haymarket.

“The End of TV”

“The End of TV” made me a Manual Cinema fan, offering a fresh way to experience live performance utilizing old and new technologies. See review of the Manual Cinema production at The End of TV.

(***: In spite of my two picks I find myself periodically thinking about “Arcadia” and “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich” but probably more as a result of the playwright than the players.)

 

Pam McKuen

“Once”

A Paramount Theatre production, “Once” is a sweet but short-lived romance with an imaginative set and an upbeat cast of congenial music-makers that was put on at a suburban jewel. See review of Once.

“On Your Feet”

A Broadway in Chicago presentation at the Cadillac Palace, “On Your Feet” is the life story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. It has everything you’d want in a musical: global hits, glitzy costumes, dramatic lows and comedic punches. I’d see it again. See review at On Your Feet.

 

Francine Friedman

“Miss Saigon”

Loosely based on the opera “Madame Butterfly,” the musical “Miss Saigon” embraces the relationship between an American GI and a young Asian woman while it follows the final days of the Vietnam War.  The play’s touring company of wonderful actors, singers and dancers, along with real photos of orphaned, war-born American/Asian children displayed in its second act, brought the musical to life.  See review at Miss Saigon.

“Women of Soul”

At the Black Ensemble Theater through Jan. 21, 2019, “Women of Soul” is a tribute to many well-known female singers, covering their different genres and numerous years.  In addition to the wonderful performers who sing their famous tunes, many newly-revealed details of how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives ended adds insight to their backgrounds. And the closing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, brought everyone to their feet. See the review of Women of Soul.

 

Mira Temkin

“The Buddy Holly Story”

An American Blues Theater production, this high-energy biopic of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly kept the music going at a frenetic pace as a testament to the amazing talents of star, Zachary Stephenson and the entire cast. Even though “it was day the music died, according to Don McLean,” the audience never wanted it to end. See review at Buddy Holly Story.

“A Shayna Maidel”

What is family? Can it be created or reborn? “A Shayna Maidel” performed as a revival by TimeLine Theatre, answers these  thoughtful questions in a most profound way. See review at A Shayna Maidel.

(*** Also agree that “Miss Saigon” is among the year’s best. This new versio, now on on tour ,takes out all the stops in theatrics, wowing audiences as one of the most spectacular musicals ever written and produced. Contemporary theatre goers can’t help but get caught up in the past, knowing how the war ended with the cost in human life and how many Vietnamese orphans the U.S. left behind.)

 

Jodie Jacobs

“La boheme”

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La boheme” was extraordinary theater. It had everything from inventive scenery and creative staging to exceptional acting, singing and orchestration. Fortunately, it continues in January, 2019.  See the review at La boheme.

“Steadfast Tin Soldier”

Audiences have come to expect unusual presentations from Lookingglass Theatre. However, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation and direction of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” has to be seen to really appreciate its outstanding pantomime and puppetry. See the review at Steadfast Tin Soldier.

 

Winter WonderFest

 

Navy Pier celebrates winter
Navy Pier celebrates winter

We had a great time visiting the Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier.

The event is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank and even though it is geared primarily toward the little ones there is plenty of fun for the whole family.

Essentially this is an indoor carnival. In fact the brochure claims “thrills without the chills.”

For the little tykes, designated as under 46 inches tall, there are two bouncers and other games in the Jingle Jym Junior area right by the entrance.

WinterFest at Navy Pier is a fun family experience (Photos by Reno Lovison)
WinterFest at Navy Pier is a fun family experience (Photos by Reno Lovison)

Of course the Kringle Carousel which is the first thing you see when you enter is fun for anyone looking for a classic carnival experience. My wife never misses an opportunity to ride a carousel.

There’s mini golf artic style and an artic plunge is a giant inflatable slide topped by an enormous polar bear.

The Lighthouse takes those 36” and taller up a roughly thirty foot lighthouse then unexpectedly drops them repeatedly for a bit of a thrill.

The Winter Tube is a slippery snowless toboggan-like slide, only rather than a sled, you ride a kind of colorful inner tube style ring.

Ice skating at WinterFest
Ice skating at WinterFest

I think a feature for many is the star spangled ice skating rink. This seems like it might be an attraction for teens looking for a fun date night, especially if mom makes you take your little brother along.  But indoor ice skating is actually my idea of enjoying the sport.

Kids love to climb and what could be more fun than making your way to the rafters via the Snowy Summit Climbing Wall?

The gigantic Christmas tree is beautifully decorated offering a perfect back drop for a photo or just to be enjoyed from virtually every vantage point within the fair.

Gaze up at the wonderful Christmas tree.
Gaze up at the wonderful Christmas tree.

The Cliff Hanger is certainly the most visual and most exciting offering, whirling you at break-neck speed in a kind of hang glider looking contraption, ultimately landing you gently back the ground.

The psychedelic lighting of the Winter WonderWhirl adds a lot to the sense of excitement.

There are bumper cars, an excursion train, Tilt’a Whirl and spinning Hot Cocoa Cups.

Enjoy plenty of holiday photo ops which you can do yourself or take advantage of the photo package available for purchase on site.

There are snacks, additional rides and attractions and as a nice bonus each ticket also includes a ride on Chicago’s very own Centennial “Ferris” Wheel.

This is a good excuse to get off the couch and do something together as a family or just another nice way to enjoy a trip to Navy Pier.

DETAILS: You will find the Fifth Third Bank Winter WonderFest at the West end of Navy Pier on the Lakefront at Illinois Street through Jan. 6, 2019. For tickets and information visit NavyPier.org

Reno Lovison

 

 

 

Cendrillon perfect for family outing

Siobhan Stagg in Cendrillon at the Lyric Opera
Siobhan Stagg in Cendrillon at the Lyric Opera

4 stars

Adults and youngsters alike should easily laugh, applaud and fall in love with “Cendrillon,” Jules Massenet’s operatic interpretation of “Cinderella.”

Certainly the version now at the Lyric has been traveling the opera circuit since opening at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006, but the telling clue to its humor is that when it premiered in 1899 it was at Paris’ Opéra-Comique where it was also remounted in 1911.

That the opera is a fairy tale comes across immediately with Barbara De Limburg’s delightful storybook set design.

That this opera, unlike Gioachino Rossini’s operatic drama “Cenerentola” (Cinderella), is a lighthearted version of the familiar fairy tale,  becomes obvious with Laurent Pelly’s hysterical, balloon-shaped costumes for the step sisters and the comedic costumes worn by the step mother and other female hopefuls at the prince’s ball.

From left: Kayleigh Decker, Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Pogorelc in “Cendrillon.” (Todd Rosenberg photos)
From left: Kayleigh Decker, Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Pogorelc in “Cendrillon.” (Todd Rosenberg photos)

And that the prince also stepped out of an amusing story book comes across when Pelly, who is also the opera’s director, introduces him as somewhat peevish, uncooperative, hardly charming, pajama-wearing kid in his bed chambers.

Revival choreographer Karine Girard (and original choreographer Laura Scozzi) play up the  opera’s nose-thumbing, pseudo-sophistication side with wonderful marching steps by palace couriers and the introduction of females who hope to win the prince.

But humor aside, the Lyric’s Cendrillon is still an opera that requires fine voices. And they are.

English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is superb in the “trouser” role of the prince and a good contrast (as it should be) to Australian soprano Shobhan Stagg’s quieter, sweet, Cendrillon in her American debut.

Bass-baritone Derek Welton, another Australian making his American operatic debut, convincingly portrays Cendrillon’s comically pathetic father, Pandolfe. And French-Canadian coloratura Marie-Eve Munger stands out in her Lyric debut as the Fairy Godmother.

Cinderella (Siobhan Stagg) far left, Fairy godmother (Maie-Eve Munger) atop the books center and Prince charming (Alice Coote) far right kneeling with cast of Cenrillon at the Lyric Opera.
Cinderella (Siobhan Stagg) far left, Fairy godmother (Maie-Eve Munger) atop the books center and Prince charming (Alice Coote) far right kneeling with cast of Cenrillon at the Lyric Opera.

In the step family, American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop making her Lyric debut is a perfect Mme. De la Haltiere. She’s backed up by daughters Noémie sung by American soprano Emily Pogorelc, and American mezzo-soprano Dorothée sung by Kayleigh Decker, both a Ryan Opera Center members.

As with many fairy tales there still is a poignant side, but the story still turns out well.

Although Rossini’s “Cenerentola” has appeared at the Lyric, Massent’s “Cendrillon” has only now come to town. It’s magic is perfect for the holiday season or anytime.

DETAILS: “Cendrillon”  is at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago through Jan. 20, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs. 45 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Two drinks or desperate for sophomoric comedy needed for this show

 

Cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

2 1/2 stars

The “clues” are all there before “The Play That Goes Wrong” supposedly starts that the title is justified.

Now at the Oriental Theatre the farce that goes over-the top to be wrong begins with audience interaction when the “manager,” says something about ticket problems and the guy at the controls and his stage crew member point out problems with the set and auditorium as needing more duct tape.

More than duct tape is needed to fix this farce, a touring “hit” of a show that began in England then moved to Broadway.

But audiences are warned that what they will see is supposed to be an amateur production by a university drama society of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” an Agatha Christie- “Mousetrap” style mystery somewhat akin to the “Noises Off” farce.

Thus scenery mishaps and missed lines and are to be expected. After all, this is supposed to be farcical take-off of an amateur college production.  And some of the antics are funny.

The problem is that the longer the show goes on, sophisticated theater audiences will find it less witty and more juvenile. It probably does belong in the category frat house entertainment for visiting parents.

That said, designer/prop maker Chris Bean who is also the director, costume designer, voice coach, etc. etc. etc. nicely creates a flawed British manor house where doors don’t work, pictures fall of the walls and windows don’t open as they should.

DETAILS: “The Play That Goes Wrong” is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randoph St., Chicago through Dec. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (800) 775-2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago Shows.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

This ‘Hellcab’ not worth the ride

(left to right) Adam Mengesha, Jack Schultz, Audrey Gladson and Regina Linn (Photo by Katie Reynolds)
(left to right) Adam Mengesha, Jack Schultz, Audrey Gladson and Regina Linn
(Photo by Katie Reynolds)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

This popular play by Will Kern has been trotted out by several companies since its debut in the nineteen- nineties and was even made into a movie in 1998.

“Hellcab” is comprised of a number of vignettes all taking place within the confines of a cab trolling the streets of Chicago during an evening leading up to the Christmas holiday.

There are highs and lows, there is happiness and sadness, violence and love. Some people are in good cheer, others not so much.  Through each experience the stoic cabbie (in this case played by Regina Linn) absorbs the emotional impact of each encounter. Read More

Santa’s elf gives us a break

Matt Crowle as Crumpet the Elf in the Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Erik Erik Scanlon photo)
Matt Crowle as Crumpet the Elf in the Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Erik Erik Scanlon photo)

3 stars

“The Santaland Diaries,” a humorous, naughty-nice take on the holidays now at  Goodman Theatre, evolved more than 25 years ago from an essay written by the then unknown comedian David Sedaris. Coupled with other stories, he told on the nightclub circuit, it was picked-up by the National Public Radio broadcast in 1992 as the “Santaland Diaries.”

The rest, as they say (whoever they are) is history. Sedaris published the collection in 1994 and his reputation took off as a humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor.

Adapted by Joe Mantello, “The Santaland Diaries”presented in Goodman’s more intimate Owen Theatre, is a one-man, hilarious tale about becoming a department store elf for the season.

Played by Matt Crowle, the fabulous actor talks non-stop to the audience as he tells them he has decided to take a job at Macy’s in New York City as a Santaland elf by the name of Crumpet.

The audience gets to know Crumpet very well, as he changes his clothes on stage from casual, worn clothing to the elf’s red-and-white striped tights, attractive green velvet jacket, adorable elf boots and flashy hat.

Crumpet portrays the different elf jobs that he takes on—appearing in Macy’s windows, greeting visitors, and directing the people waiting in line to see Santa.

No one is spared as he describes what’s happening with the various parents who bring their children to sit on Santa’s lap.

The challenge is to keep a smile pasted on as the job becomes less enchanting and more boring.

Directed by Steve Scott, the play’s humor is endless. The audience feels as if they are traveling every minute with Crumpet, an elf whose imperfect behavior and naughty remarks make everyone laugh out loud.

“The Santaland Diaries” gives audiences a break from their overwhelming pre-holiday schedule.

DETAILS: “The Santaland Diaries” is at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through Dec. 30, 2018. Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and other information, call (312) 443-3800 or visit Goodman Theatre.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

1940’s come alive in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

If you haven’t been invited to a holiday party yet or are just feeling ready to get into the Christmas spirit, you can’t do much better than the American Blues Theater’s staged radio show version of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life-Live in Chicago!.”

In this production, the theater is set up to give the illusion that you are part of the studio audience for a live radio broadcast in 1944 at WABT Studio on Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

There is a spinet piano, stage left, and three old-timey microphones on stands across the front where most of the action takes place.

Stage right is an array of apparatus where Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie will add sound effects. Above the piano is a lighted sign which displays the words “On Air” and “Applause.”

Read More

‘The Nutcracker’ magic still exists

Cara Marie Gary (Marie) and The Joffrey Ballet. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)
Cara Marie Gary (Marie) and The Joffrey Ballet. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

4 stars

Imagine what if. What if Marie Stahlbaum’s nutcracker Christmas gift and her dream, a tale by E.T. A. Hoffmann, and adapted by Alexandre Dumas that was first presented with Tchaikovsky’s music in 1892, changed location and style.

What if it moved from a wealthy, European estate to Chicago where dreams were possible for a young girl who lived in a shack. And, what if the story kept the late 19th century date.

What was going on in Chicago that year was preparation for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition also called the Chicago World’s Fair. It celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’1492 landing in the “new world.”  Indeed, the Chicago World’s Fair dedication was in 1892 but the fair didn’t open until 1893.

Imagine all the possibilities the fair with its multi-cultural pavilions and its noted (first) Ferris Wheel as a background might hold for a ballet.

Read More

Bah humbug turns around!

4 stars

“A Christmas Carol” was written 175 years ago by Charles Dickens—and its popularity has never wavered since, as it appears on stages all over the country. For the past forty years, Goodman Theatre has presented “A Christmas Carol” until going downtown Chicago to see it has become a tradition for many families.

Directed  for several years by Henry Wishcamper, the play tells a basic story of the redemption of the leading character, Ebenezer Scrooge by giving him a glimpse at his past, present and what the future might hold if he doesn’t change..

Played by Larry Yando, Scrooge is the embodiment of what the name has come to represent since written by Dickens. He hates Christmas and only begrudgingly allows his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit (Thomas J. Cox) to take off Christmas Day. He refuses to donate to good causes with comments about where the poor should go.

Scrooge’s selfish business partner, Jacob Marley who died years earlier returns as a ghost (Kareem Bandealy). Clanging chains wrought by miserly deeds, Marley warns Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits and that Scrooge must listen or be cursed and carry even heavier chains.

Read More

‘The Safe House’ at City Lit is a safe bet

 

 marssie Mencotti, L. and Kat Evans in City Lit's The Safe House. (Photo by Steve Graue)
marssie Mencotti, L. and Kat Evans in City Lit’s The Safe House. (Photo by Steve Graue)

3.5 Stars

This world premiere slice of life drama is sure to strike close to home.

For many, the place they have lived and raised a family is more than an assembly of bricks and wood, it is a repository of memories and the physical manifestation of a life’s work. When it comes time to consider leaving it behind there are more considerations than a change of address.

“The Safe House,” commissioned by City Lit and based on a true story by Chicago playwright Kristine Thatcher, is expertly supervised by Producer/Artistic Director Terry McCabe.

You get a feeling you know where the cookie jar is in designer Ray Toler’s cozy retro kitchen/dining room stage setting It brings us right into the domain of “Grandma” Hannah (marssie Mencotti) who must confront the realities of her changing condition and abilities.Read More