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.

 

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

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.

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‘Miss Saigon’s’ heat is on!

Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Matthew Murphy photo)
Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Matthew Murphy photos)

4 stars

After its 25th anniversary revival on Broadway in 2017, “Miss Saigon” is reappearing this year on a national tour.  Directed by Laurence Connor, the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.

Loosely based on Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,”  “Miss Saigon” follows the final days of the Vietnam War.

The first lead character that opens the show is The Engineer played by Red Concepcion. The Engineer runs Dreamland, a steamy bar and brothel in Saigon that’s packed with beautiful Vietnamese women whom he has lined up for American soldiers.

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A salute to the queen . . . and other fabulous women

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Cast of A Woman of Soul at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan Davis photo)
Cast of Women of Soul at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan Davis photo)

The Black Ensemble Theater, founded in 1976 by Jackie Taylor, has been dazzling audiences ever since with original musicals.  Its current production, “Women of Soul,” written and directed by Associate Director Daryl D. Brooks, is a tribute to many powerful female singers who cover different genres and numerous years.

The female cast includes Cynthia Carter, Robin DaSilva, Hannah Efsits, Jerica Exum, Colleen Perry, Rhonda Preston, Jessica Seals, Ariel Williams and Jayla Williams-Craig.

These nine talented women —with one wonderful male cast member, Dwight Neal who plays their various partners—portray well over fourteen famous soulful singers.

The production also includes these fabulous musicians: Robert Reddrick, Adam Sherrod, Gary Baker, Mark Miller and Dolpha S. Fowler.

Cast members give the background of each of the well-known singers plus some newly-revealed details such as how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives unfortunately ended. Then the singer portrayed performs one of her hits.

From Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” to Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be An Everlasting Love,” the fabulous cast practically rocks people out of their seats.

An amazing salute to female vocalists, the production also includes hits of  Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Janet Jackson, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan and more.

The musical ends with a medley of songs giving tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, with “Ain’t No Way,” ” I Say a Little Prayer for You,” ” Respect” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”

When the cast lined up in the lobby while audience members were leaving the theater, two statements came from my heart: their performances were fabulous and the closing tribute to Aretha Franklin brought joyful tears to my eyes. “Women of Soul” celebrates all women!

DETAILS: “Women of Soul” is at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago, through Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 769-4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

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Seeking true ecstasy

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Donterrio Johnson (Leading Player) and Koray Tarhan (Pippin); (Photo by Brett Beiner)
Donterrio Johnson (Leading Player) and Koray Tarhan (Pippin);
(Photo by Brett Beiner)

Young Prince Pippin, played by Koray Tarhan, is searching for many things to help him fulfill his happiness.

From his glory of the battlefield to his political aptitude and his sensual seductions, not only does he come closer to finding his jubilation, but the audience gets to know Prince Pippin increasingly better by the minute.

Pippin’s imaginative journey is at the heart of Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz’s classic musical ‘Pippin’ which won four Tony Awards in 2013.

The new Chicago production at Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret Theater is delightful. Its captivating tunes “Corner of the Sky” and “Magic to Do” are beautifully played by musicians Courtney Anne McNally, Andrew Milliken, and Diego Salcedo.

At the end of the play, Pippin finally discovers where his happiness lies. His message is a worldwide, all-embracing theme.

Cast of Pippin at Mercury Theater Chicago (Photo by Brett Beiner)
Cast of Pippin at Mercury Theater Chicago
(Photo by Brett Beiner)

A fabulous cast keeps the delighted audience at the edge of their seats as they watch with amazement as each member displays proficient, multiple skills. The  singing is beautiful and the dancing is incredible.

Leading Player is performed by Donterrio Johnson who brings Pippin together with the following characters: King Charlemagne the Great—aka Charles—Pippin’s father played by Don Forston; his half-brother, Lewis, played by Adam Fane and his grandmother, Berthe, played by Iris Lieberman.

The cast also includes  Nicole Armold, Kayla Boye, Michael Rawls, Gabriel Robert and Sawyer Smith.

“Pippin” is directed by L. Walter Stearns with music direction by Eugene Dizon and choreography by Brenda Didier.

DETAILS: “Pippin” is at the Venus Cabaret Theater of Mercury Theater Chicago, 3741 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, through Dec. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 hours. For tickets and other information, call 7(73) 325-1700 or visit Mercury Theater Chicago.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ – a silly little musical that feeds on blood

RECOMMENDED

Will Lidke and Kelly Felthouse in Little Shop of Horrors at Drury Lane Theatre. (Brett Beiner photo)
Will Lidke and Kelly Felthouse in Little Shop of Horrors at Drury Lane Theatre. (Brett Beiner photo)

With Halloween 2018 on the horizon, “Little Shop of Horrors” plays into the spookiness of the season. The sort-of-dark musical comedy is now running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. It’s more spirited, shall we say, than scary.

The action centers around a dilapidated flower shop on Skid Row and its hard-scrabble denizens. The two central characters are Seymour, a hapless employee played by Will Lidke, and Audrey, his tartly dressed coworker and the object of his affection played by Kelly Felthous. Mr. Mushnik, their boss played by Ron E. Rains, is just as down on his luck as everyone else.

Seymour suddenly is offered success beyond his imagination by a demanding, carnivorous, exotic plant on a growth spurt. The condition? The plant is blood thirsty.

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Dark ‘Color Purple’ rings true in revival

The Color Purple at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The Color Purple at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

RECOMMENDED

After being told in Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize novel of what Celie Harris, a young African American girl, endured in the first half of the twentieth century and how she survived aided by two other females, her story was turned into a movie in 1985 and a musical that won several Tony nominations in 2006.

What is in now appearing at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre  through July 29, 2018, is the National Tour of the musical’s revival begun in London in 2013. It went on to Broadway to win Tony Awards in 2016 including Best Revival of a Musical.

Directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle, the current tour features Adrianna Hicks as Celie, Carla R. Stewart as friend Shug Avery and Carrie Compere as friend Sofia. Read More

‘Girl Found’ looks back and forward from heartbreak and abuse to hope and love

 

RECOMMENDED

L to R front, Clara Byczkowski and Tricia Rogers, Standing, Katherine Swan in Girl found at Idle Muse theatre. (Photo by Steven Townshend)
L to R front, Clara Byczkowski and Tricia Rogers, Standing, Katherine Swan, in Girl Found at Idle Muse Theatre. (Photo by Steven Townshend)

Idle Muse Theatre Company presents the world premier of “Girl Found” which was written by Barbara Lhota and inspired by true events.

The play begins with a very happy ending. An eleven-year old girl disappears from her Detroit home and six years later a 17 year-old called Sophie (Clara Byczkowski) turns up at a homeless shelter in Canada.

Except for her name, she cannot recall much about her past. The lost girl is now found, her family is notified, and they are so relieved. Her Aunt Ellie (Katherine Swan) travels to Canada to pick up Sophie and bring her back home.

“Girl Found” brings up all kinds of questions as the family tries to adjust their past with the present.

While attempting to rectify everything, the play leads the audience into a complex world of drugs, human trafficking and child abuse. Ellie is Sophie’s legal guardian because her sister, Sophie’s mother, Eva (Tricia Rogers), is a former drug addict who finds it difficult to tell the truth.

Noah (James Mercer) is Ellie’s ex-fiancé and Sophie’s father figure who left town after Sophie vanished

Sophie’s return brings Ellie and Noah back together, yet their problems don’t evaporate because trying to attain a compatible domestic life is difficult with the myriad past troubles that are revealed.

As the audience tries to fit the pieces together of Sophie and her family’s missing years, the play is set on a stage that is simultaneously split into various locations with different characters: Sophie’s home and her childhood friend (Whitney Dottery); the Canadian shelter and its social worker (Sara Robinson); an FBI office; and a psychologist, Dr. Cole (Kathrynne Wolf), whose therapeutic sessions with Sophie try to produce explanations of what went on in the past, while uncovering traumas.

Directed by Alison Dornheggen, Idle Muse’s “Girl Found” features a high-quality ensemble of actors.

DETAILS: ‘Girl Found’ is at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway St., Chicago, through June 10, 2018. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 340-9438 or visit IdleMuse.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows, visit TheatreinChicago

 

 

For ‘Once’ it’s about music and love and chance encounters

RECOMMENDED

Every once in a while, someone remarkable touches our lives for a short time-and changes everything.

Such is the heartwarming theme of ‘Once,’ the Tony Award-winning musical now playing at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Helmed by artistic director Jim Corti and musical director Tom Vendafreddo, it’s the musical’s first Chicago-area regional staging.

In case you haven’t heard the buzz, ‘Once’ is a story about a couple of Irish musicians in modern-day Dublin who meet and fall in love as they write songs together.

Tiffany Topol (Girl) and Barry DeBois (Guy) perform the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” in Once, at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Lauren photos)
Tiffany Topol (Girl) and Barry DeBois (Guy) perform the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” in Once, at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Lauren photos)

It started out as a low-budget indie movie in 2007 and its signature song, “Falling Slowly,” won an Oscar for Best Original Song the following year. The film was directed by John Carney; the music and lyrics were written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who also played the lead roles.

‘Once’ saw second life as a Broadway musical based on the book by playwright Enda Walsh. In 2012, it took home eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

But back to Paramount. As the story goes, the encounter between the two leads is so fleeting, only a week, that we never learn their names. Tiffany Topol plays Girl and Barry DeBois plays Guy. Both actors have ‘Once’ national touring credits in real life.

In the Paramount production,  Girl and Guy are accompanied, quite literally, by a cast of congenial music-makers who double as the orchestra. They’re a fun bunch to watch, even though the lyrics sounded muddled half the time.

Topal and DeBois duet well with adequate chemistry, but she stands out better on her own. She’s an enchanting vocalist and charmingly funny without seeming to try.

Other noteworthy players include Alex E. Hardaway, a stuffy bank manager with performance dreams of his own. It’s written as a humdrum role with a solo, “Abandoned in Bandon,” that Hardaway executes as a champion. And Jon Patrick Penick shows great comedic chops as rough-and-tumble music shop owner Billy.

The starlet of the show is red-headed lassie, 6-year-old Everleigh Murphy as Girl’s daughter Ivonka.

Not only is she adorable, but she’s a fine Irish step-dancer and violinist as well. Her talent runs in the family. Cousin Madeleine played the same role on Broadway.

Also, just as on Broadway and in the national tour, the stage is designed as an operational pub. The audience is invited to step up and purchase beverages pre-show and at intermission. With a few props and a little imagination, the stage is segmented for additional scenes. Scenic designer is Jeffrey D. Kmiec.

DETAILS: “Once” is at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, through June 3. For tickets and other information, call (630) 896-6666 or visit Paramount.

Pamela Dittmer McKuen

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago