“Riverdance” has played for a quarter of a century. Now appearing in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the company is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, Riverdance’s folk-driven exciting sounds and steps have been loved by people of all ages.
In 1995, the show’s premiere was in Dublin with Irish and international music and dance. Then it went to London followed by a hugely successful tour begn in New York in 1996.
During the next two decades, “Riverdance” toured North America, Asia, Europe, Oceania, South Africa, and South America. It has been a favorite Grammy Award-winning show all over the world!
The Riverdance Irish troupe was 24 dancers, with the six principals being Will Bryant, Maggie Darlington, Anna Mai Fitzpatrick, Patrick O’Mahony, Jason O’Neill, and Gianna Petracic.
The Riverdance tappers were Lamont Brown and Tyler Knowlin. And there were also additional dancers in the Russian folk dance troupe.
Not only was the audience thrilled with the dancing, but the singers, drums, saxophone, fiddles and whistles made the music fabulous. And the background showed many places, beginning with the river and continuing through many areas with spectacular lighting and beautiful costume designs.
DETAILS: “Riverdance” is at Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago through Feb. 9 2020/. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call Broadway In Chicago at (800) 775-2000, or go visit Broadway in Chicago.
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.
The Second City began in Chicago in December of 1959, and will have its 60th anniversary next month. It was called “The Second City” because a journalist in New York had written a book titled Chicago: The Second City. Back then, Chicago was the second largest city next to New York City.
Now,six decades later, The Second City is still going strong with its 108th Mainstage Revue “Do You Believe in Madness?” The show is expected to run at least until the famed improv theatre’s 60th anniversary Dec. 16, 2019.
Directed by Ryan Bernier with musical direction by Nick Gage, the show is written and performed by six fabulous actors: Mary Catherine Curran, Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa and Adam Schreck.
Even though the production features several different scenes the format works because the transition is so smooth. One scene takes place in a high school where a teacher tells her most misbehaved students that they are the reason that all of the teachers went on strike.
Another scene deals with many people whose dogs and cats were lost or died, and the owners relate it to deaths of siblings. Then a human family has a bird in the house, and then a bird family has a human in the house – both are unsettling to the families.
A scene with a dating couple asked each other why they were so normal. They felt that normal must be something wrong! The revue’s title, “Do You Believe in Madness?” seems very appropriate.
Most of these fun scenes include jumping around, dancing, singing, laughter, background music and more. Perhaps in the future, these professional actors and actresses may follow in the footsteps of those from The Second City many decades ago – Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Tina Fey, and others.
DETAILS: “Do You Believe in Madness?” is at The Second City Mainstage Theater. 1616 N. Wells St., Chicago as an open run. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call (312) 337-3992 or visit Second City.
In the 1960s, C.S. Lewis was a well-known British author whose collected works made him one of the most famous literary writers of the 20th century. Lewis died over 50 years ago.
David Payne, another Brit was an actor and playwright who hoped he would get a minor role in a previous play about C.S. Lewis. Instead, Payne got the lead role of C.S. Lewis, launching a terrific acting career.
When many audience members saw David Payne playing that lead role, they felt that they had discovered the real C.S. Lewis!
David Payne had read quite a lot of C.S. Lewis’s writing—even Lewis’s personal diary. And Payne was always asked many questions about Lewis. One day, Payne decided it would be fun if he could be Lewis himself and could answer these questions. That’s why Payne wrote, directed, and stars in “An Evening with C.S. Lewis,” a wonderful play which is now being shown at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse.
In Act I, Payne plays the author sitting in Lewis’s living room and hosting a group of American writers in his home near Oxford. Lewis recalls the many events that affect his life and his large number of close friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, an English author and poet.
In Act II, Payne playing Lewis says he eventually believes in Christianity. He also tells how he just met a divorced woman by the name of Joy who decides to come from the United States and live in London.
It reminds her so much of New York City where she had lived with her previous husband and family. Although Lewis describes London as “noise and chaos.”
He marries Joy who eventually lives with him in his house. Lewis goes on to say how their relationship turned his life upside down.
DETAILS: “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” is at the Broadway Playhouse at 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, through Nov. 3, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call (800) 775-2000, or visit BroadwayInChicago.
Glass Apple Theatre is presenting the world premiere of “Shadows of Birds” written by Richard James Zieman and Joel Z. Cornfield.
It focuses on a young adult woman, Nicole (Tara Bouldrey), who’s been in rehab for months because of her addiction to drugs. But now Nicole’s counselor, Jennifer (Sydney Genco), feels Nicole is ready to return home and live with her mother, Barbara (Elizabeth Rude).
Her mother also has an older adult son, Kyle (Bobby Bowman). Neither Kyle nor Nicole knew their father because he left when their mother was pregnant.
Because of Nicole’s many years of mixed messages from her mother and brother, she was very insecure and became a drug addict. Now Nicole isn’t sure that she could live with her mother again.
In 2017 when “Falsettos” returned to Broadway, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including the Best Revival of a Musical. Now two years later, this fabulous musical is in Chicago, directed by playwright James Lapine with music and lyrics by William Finn.
Taking place in New York in the 1970s, we meet a charming, neurotic gay man, Marvin, played by Max Von Essen; along with his 10-year-old son, Jason, played by Thatcher Jacobs.
We also meet psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire) and Marvin’s wife Trina (Eden Espinosa)whom he leaves for his lover, Whizzer (Nick Adams).
“Falsettos” second act introduces two lesbian neighbors of Marvin’s, Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell).
Performed by phenomenal voices, “Falsettos’ ” wonderful songs tell the story throughout the show.
Opening in New York in 2005 and winning the Tony and Grammy Awards for Best Musical in 2006, “Jersey Boys” has now been seen by more than 25 million people. And I’ll bet that some have seen it more than once—like I have.
The book, “Jersey Boys,” was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Amusing dialogue is interspersed with the tremendous songs that keep the audience laughing.
Directed by Des McAnuff, “Jersey Boys” is the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons—four guys from New Jersey who weren’t known at all until they started singing outdoors on a corner. And once they did, their songs became more than popular and played on radios every day and night.
The songs by The Four Seasons in “Jersey Boys” not only bring back so many memories, but have younger audience members swinging and swaying in their seats.
Songs such as “Walk Like a Man,” “Sherry,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Rag Doll,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” hook-up with the musical’s story of a gang leader with a money problem that involves the mob and the record industry, along with many things that relate to true friendships and loving relationships.
The original Four Seasons were Bob Gaudio, the musical composer played by Eric Chambliss, Frankie Valli, played by Jonny Wexler, Nick Massi, played by Jonathan Cable and Tommy DeVito, played by Cory Greenan. The lyricist and producer, Bob Crewe, is played by Wade Dooley.
“My Boyfriend’s Back” is sung by the Angels portrayed by Ashley Bruce, Chloe Tiso, and Jessica Wockenfuss, all of whom also play other female roles.
The rest of the fabulous cast is Tony L. Clements, Caitlin Leary, Jeremy Sartin, and Kit Treece. Many of the cast members move on stage as they play musical instruments.
A Broadway in Chicago presentation now at the Auditorium Theatre, it’s a show not to miss . . . “Let’s Hang On to What We’ve Got!”
DETAILS: “Jersey Boys” is at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells (Congress Pkwy. at Michigan Avenue), Chicago, through April 7, 2019. Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call Ticket Master at 1-800-775-2000, or visit BroadwayInChicago.
Few plays open in song or in verse giving advice to the audience that if they are too weak to listen to a story of revenge and punishment, they’d better leave the theater.
However, it’s laughter that greets the Porchlight Music Theatre’s ensemble when they sing the warning to open the 2014 Tony Award-winning Best Musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.”
Taking place in turn-of-the-century England, the “gentleman” is Monty Navarro played by Andres Enriquez. Monty is very poor, but Miss Shingle, played by Caron Buinis, helps him discover that he’s an heir to a fortune. Unfortunately, Monty is so far back in line he has to eliminate eight D’Ysquith relatives ahead of him.
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.
“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.