Imagine what it was like in 1964 when Judy Garland and her daughter, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli, performed together for the first time at The Palladium Theatre in London. This was the only time these two superstars performed in a live concert together and it was electrifying.
Now, Chicago theatre-goers can experience the thrill of “Judy & Liza — Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert – A Tribute” at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The show is co-produced by Greenhouse and Nancy Hays Entertainment, Inc.
A “Salute to the Duke” with concept by Donald McKayle, direction and choreography by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker Harris, “Sophisticated Ladies” celebrates Porchlight’s 25th Anniversary Mainstage season by taking the big jazz band era of the Duke to new heights.
Featuring music by jazz composer, pianist and band leader Duke Ellington who composed thousands of songs during his 50-year career, the Duke is recognized as one of the most important composers in American musical history.
The show, a Porchlight Theatre production, takes the audience through Duke’s legendary career with a treasure trove of hits, that include “Mood Indigo,” “Take the “A” Train,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Satin Doll.”
Prepare to be dazzled by Ronnie Marmo who plays the tragic Lenny Bruce in “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce,” now extended at the Royal George Theater.
Written by and starring Marmo, the playwright/actor plays Bruce and other characters as he takes audiences through the highs and lows of Bruce’s life, including his relationships with his mother, wife Honey Harlow and daughter Kitty.
Of course, theater audiences want different things before going ahead to spend money and time on a show. Some folks prefer musicals, others like Shakespeare and some gravitate to shows that are different or particularly creative. Because opera is also dramatic theater that requires excellent acting, compelling story lines and fine voices, we include Lyric Opera productions when applicable.
Here is Chicago Theater and Arts reviewers’ list of favorite productions seen during 2019 which was designated by the City of Chicago and the League of Chicago Theatres as the Year of Chicago Theatre.
Francine Pappadis Friedman
“Jersey Boys” at the Auditorium Theatre in April, 2019. I headlined it: ‘Oh, what a night!” Amusing dialogue was interspersed with tremendous songs by four guys, the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons who were living in New Jersey. Not only did their songs keep the audience laughing, but even younger audience members were swinging and swaying in their seats. And many of their songs sang about love!
“Falsettos” at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in May/June 2019. I headlined it: “Let’s live life through music.” It was a fabulous musical taking place in New York in the 1970s, with a psychiatrist, gay men and women, and a little boy—one of the main characters—who was worried about his father’s sexuality when his parents got divorced. The story moved along with songs and the boy, whose father sang “Father to Son,” that said he’d always be there for him.
“Next to Normal” at Writers Theatre, Glencoe in June. Writers Theatre unerringly brought to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill. Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.
“Oslo” a Timeline Theatre production at the Broadway Playhouse in October, brilliantly revealed the behind the scenes negotiations in Norway that led up to the famed handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. What “Oslo,” the multi-award-winning play by J. T. Rogers does is introduce audiences to Mona Juul, superbly acted by Bri Sudia whose sensible but passionate portrayal of the Norwegian diplomat who initiated the behind the scenes action, glides from serious to charming to comic, and to Scott Parkinson who as facilitator Rød-Larsen has the difficult task of making all the players in the sensitive negotiations, look good.
Don Giovanni” at the Lyric Opera House in November and December is an 18th century Mozart opera in perfect tune with #MeToo times. If you knew before seeing Lyric’s outstanding production of “Don Giovanni” that (Il dissouto punita, ossia il Don Giovanni), translates as “The Rake Punished, namely Don Giovanni “ (also The Libertine Punished), you would have some idea that the opera was not about a lover but about a powerful man who felt entitled to take sexual liberties. However, directed by Robert Falls, artistic director at Goodman Theatre, the Lyric production skillfully makes the comic moments funnier, the sexual attempts more offensive, the violence more dramatic and the punishment more tumultuous.
“International Falls” by Agency Theater Collective and End of the Line Production at the Nox Arca in August. It was an intimate play with truthful dialog that was well acted.
“My Life as A Country Song” by New American Folk Theatre at Chief O’Neill’s in October. It had very good original music.
My favorite is a theatrical event: the 3rd Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. More than 100 performances of 24 shows were given by professional puppeteers from 11 countries at 19 venues. I had the privilege of seeing “Ajijaak on Turtle Island,” the story of a young whopping crane who was accidentally separated from her parents during her first migration. Along the way to unification, she learned valuable life-lessons about herself and living in harmony with nature. Puppets of all sizes and styles, their handlers, musicians and dancers interacted seamlessly to present an engaging and unforgettable experience.
Comedy Kills in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” at Porchlight Music Theatre” mid January to mid March. This was my favorite show of the year because of the fine acting of Jefferson- Award Winner Matt Crowle who plays multiple roles of both men and women. This hilarious musical comedy tells the story of Monty Navarro, a conniving, down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds out he stands to inherit the earldom of Highhurst and substantial wealth if only he could eliminate his eight pesky relatives who stand in his way. Quickly as you can imagine, things start to go awry. But Navarro must keep on his toes with both his mistress and his fiancée… and not get put in jail. And those darting eyes… hysterical!
Well, even though the designation of Year of Chicago Theatre is about over, all of us at Chicago Theater and Arts think we’re lucky to have great theater on stages large and small throughout the Chicago area every year.
We know that the theater season doesn’t go by the calendar year at every venue but no matter how the season is divided, we are very much looking forward to seeing and reviewing the best of 2020.
We wish everyone an interesting theater experience in the new year.
Can a brilliant Jewish philosopher and her celebrated German professor, turned lover, exist on two opposite tracts? The answer, of course, is no.
But the production of “Hannah and Martin” by Shattered Globe Theatre takes the audience through an ideological and moralistic journey with deep, thought-provoking, dialogue.
Written by Kate Fodor, the play is based on the clandestine love affair between German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt and her teacher, the well-known German philosopher Martin Heidegger. After the war, Arendt was considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century.
On a collision course with politics and destiny, this powerful drama takes place in Germany from 1924 – 1946. Disappointment looms when Arendt discovers that her beloved Heidegger is working to promote the goals of the Nazis.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.”
Catch “On The Town,” a high-energy wartime musical about three sailors on a 24-hour leave who are looking for love and adventure in New York City. Performed by the Highland Park Players through October 28, this Tony Award-nominated musical features thrilling music by Leonard Bernstein with playful lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
What makes this show so unique (and challenging) is the blending of musical comedy with ballet, just as the young Bernstein envisioned and would go to recreate in “West Side Story” as well. If you listen carefully, you can hear some of the same musical arrangements made famous in “West Side Story,” yet Bernstein was only 26. The Highland Park Players pull it off with amazing choreography, beautiful singing and impressive costumes.
Based on the 1944 Broadway show and 1949 film starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin, On the Town captures a time when anything and everything was possible. While humor runs throughout the show, it leaves the audience with an uncertain, but hopeful ending.
“On The Town” is directed and choreographed by Dina DiCostanzo. The production stars Aaron Stash as Ozzie, Christopher Johnson as Gabey, Steven Schur as Chip, Brittny Goon as Claire, Justine Klein as Hildy, Ariana Cappuccitti as Ivy, Naomi Hershman as Madame Dilly and Geoff Isaac as Pitkin.
Cast standouts include Goon who has an amazing powerful voice and Hershman is hysterical as the drunken Madame Dilly. Mention must be made of Cappuccitti who oozes charm and innocence as “Miss Turnstyle of the Month.”
Music Director/Conductor Aaron Kaplan leads a dazzling 22-piece orchestra that has never sounded better. Also, kudos to scenic designer Brett Baleskie for his imaginative subways cars used throughout the show and to Rachel Parent for her authentic costume designs that reflect the times.
DETAILS: “On the Town” is at Northbrook Theatre, 3323 Walters Ave., Northbrook. Running time: Approximately 2.5 hours with intermission. For tickets and other information, call the Northbrook Theatre at (847) 291-2995 or visit Highland Park Players.
Roald Dahl’s timeless 1964 classic comes to life on stage in this phenomenal, highly-imaginative production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now playing through October 21 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
Capturing the dreams of the young and young at heart, the musical tells the story of the world-famous chocolatier Willy Wonka. Sales of his candy are down, so he holds a contest to award a tour of his factory to five lucky “golden ticket” winners.
Featuring a cast of zany characters, including an impoverished Charlie Bucket, the children and their families go on a life-altering journey through Wonka’s factory with surprising results.
With direction by three-time Tony Award® winner Jack O’Brien, the show features music by Grammy®, Emmy® and Tony Award® winner Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Grammy® and Tony Award® winners Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.
Superb scenic and costume design by Mark Thompson recreates the colorful world of Willy Wonka. Innovative choreography by Joshua Bergasse highlights the show.
Gene Wilder starred in the 1971 film with such wonderful songs as “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man,” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket.” New music has been added to the show from the songwriters of “Hairspray,” including the powerful and visually beautiful, “The View from Here.”
It was fun to watch the numerous children in the audience as they experienced the Oompa-Loompas, eye-popping visuals, glass-elevator and crazy demise of the “spoiled” children.
My only issue with the show is the lack of consistent sense of place. Charlie’s family looks like they’re from the 1940s, Mike Teavee’s mom is straight out of the 1950s, while Mike has an I-PAD and Violet Beauregarde is a contemporary “Queen of Pop.”
Noah Weisberg is delightful as the purple-caped, top-hat-wearing Willy Wonka. He portrays Wonka with innocence and charm, yet a touch of evil.
Henry Boshart (Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood alternates) steals the show as the downtrodden Charlie Bucket. He dreams of a better life for himself, his widowed mom and four beloved grandparents. He’s adorable, high energy with a sweet singing voice.
The real stars of the show are the Oompa-Loompas, creatively imagined as puppets and humans dancing together and the incredible dimensional visuals showcasing a world of candy, color and animation that are pure magic. The entire show is a graphic feast to behold.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is an ideal show to introduce children to the world of musical theater.
DETAILS: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. through Oct. 21, 2018. Running time: 2 hrs. 30 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information, visit Broadway in Chicago.
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.