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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‘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

‘Arcadia’ is close to ideal

Chris Smith, Megan DeLay, Chris Woolsey (Photos by Tim McGrath, TCMcG Photography)
Chris Smith, Megan DeLay, Chris Woolsey (Photos by Tim McGrath, TCMcG Photography)

3.5 Stars

“Arcadia” begins with thirteen year-old Thomasina Coverly (Meghann Tabor)asking her tutor Septimus Hodge (Chris Woolsey) the meaning of the term “carnal embrace.” Hodge replies essentially that the word carnal is derived from the Latin “carne” meaning meat and it is therefore referring to an embrace with a “side of beef” or “leg of mutton.”

From this opening dialog playwright Tom Stoppard is creating an atmosphere of inquiry and humor. He is sending a message that though this may be challenging at times, we are going to have fun with it.

The action takes place around a table in an historic and aristocratic English manor house in which there are two intersecting story lines set roughly two hundred years apart.

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‘Joseph:’ A Citadel show of biblical proportions

Joseph (Jacob Barton) shows off his “coat of many colors” to his jealous brothers. (Photo by North Shore Camera Club)
Joseph (Jacob Barton) shows off his “coat of many colors” to his jealous brothers. (Photo by North Shore Camera Club)

3.5 stars

First performed on Broadway in 1982, this interpretation of the Old Testament’s story of Joseph and his brothers through contemporary eyes is a fun, high-energy show featuring a delightful chorus of local children.

Based on Joseph’s “coat of many colors” from the Book of Genesis, the story shows what can happen when a parent plays favorites.

From the get-go, the show begins with two narrators instead of the traditional one and takes off like a rocket from the very first musical number, “Any Dream Will Do.”

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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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Love’s Labour’s Lost – A timeless tale

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

L-R: Amber Cartwright, Katherine Duffy, Rachael Soglin, Raina Lynn (Photos by Brian McConkey Photography
L-R: Amber Cartwright, Katherine Duffy, Rachael Soglin, Raina Lynn
(Photos by Brian McConkey Photography

This delightful Invictus Theatre experience proves once again that little has changed since Shakespeare penned this early comedy about the powerful drive of the passions of youth.

The young Ferdinand King of Navarre (Chad Bay) challenges his three besties  Berowne (Charles Askenaizer), Longaville (Taylor Glowac) and Dumain (Sam Cheeseman) to forsake romance and other distractions of the flesh such as eating for the purpose of devoting themselves fully to their studies for three years.

The pact does not last long due to the hunger of youth and the arrival of a young French Princess (Raina Lynn) and her posse of eligible young maids in waiting Rosaline (Rachael Soglin), Katherine (Amber Cartwright) and Maria (Katherine Duffy). Conveniently there is the requisite number of each sex for the two respective royal crews to square off.

The young men have soon forsaken their fasting and studies and have instead turned their hand to verses of love, while the ladies delight in disguising themselves and otherwise confounding their suitors for sport.

As with most of The Bard’s theatricals there are a few side trips not the least of which is a Spanish Lord Don Armado (Martin Diaz-Valdes) and doltish slave Costard (Johnny Kalita) pursuing the same country wench Jaquenetta (Daniela Martinez); and the play-within- a-play featuring the self-important teacher Holofernes (Alisha Fabbi) and his sycophant the curate Nathaniel (Jack Morsovillo).Read More

Stories of Chicago in Music

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Baiocchi performance (Reno Lovison photo)
Baiocchi performance (Reno Lovison photo)

Created as part of the Bach+Beethoven Experience, “Chicago Stories: Book 2” challenges local composers to write a musical suite that utilizes baroque instruments to tell a story about Chicago.

One of the hallmarks of Bach+Beethoven Experience is to create a casual relaxed atmosphere to enjoy music of vintage instruments. There is nothing stuffy about this experience and I venture to say it can be enjoyed by virtually anyone regardless of musical tastes or preferred musical genre.

The premiere performance was presented Sept. 29, 2018 in the Sky Room at the Loyola Park Field House in Rogers Park overlooking Lake Michigan.

The first suite, “Stories of the Bloomingdale Trail” by Ronnie Kuller, was created to evoke memories of the trail’s past as part of an industrial corridor and rail line that contrasted with the present sounds of the walkers, runners, and bicyclists who enjoy the narrow elevated green space. The trail cuts a nearly three-mile path parallel to North Avenue from Ashland on the east to roughly Central Park on the west.Read More

‘A Shayna Maidel’ packs powerful punch for Holocaust Remembrance

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Lusia (Emily Berman) left, and Rose (Bri Sudia) are two sisters trying to reconnect after years of separation brought on by the Holocaust. (Photo by Lara Goetsch)
Lusia (Emily Berman) left, and Rose (Bri Sudia) are two sisters trying to reconnect after years of separation brought on by the Holocaust. (Photo by Lara Goetsch)

 

What is family? Can it be created or reborn? “A Shayna Maidel” answers these  thoughtful questions in a most profound way. Written in 1984 by Barbara Lebow and now performed as a revival by TimeLine Theatre, the play confronts the horrors and aftermath of the Holocaust.

Two sisters and their father, reunited after years of separation, are now forced to examine their roles, responsibilities and guilt.

Daughter Rose and father Mordechai Weiss were fortunate to escape from Poland before the war. Not so lucky were daughter Lusia, who had scarlet fever and their mother who were left behind. Read More