This has been the year of Chicago theatre for me. While I’ve always considered myself a fan of our vibrant theatre scene, this year I made a conscious effort to amp it up, as it were. A typical week had me seeing three or four shows — sometimes all in one weekend. I hope 2010 is just as fulfilling.
I should note that I’m not including any Broadway in Chicago productions, as that’s not *really* Chicago theatre, as far as I’m concerned. (Otherwise In the Heights might have been included). Click on the show’s title to read my original thoughts (please note that many of the links point directly to my EDGE review).
1) A Minister’s Wife @ Writers’ Theatre: I think a lot of people forgot about this beautiful production. Maybe because it was so understated and charming? After all, there were no half-naked wrestlers yelling in your face. Everything about it was subtle perfection: from Kate Fry’s enchanting leading-lady performance to Liz Baltes as the bitter second banana (for which she won a Jeff award) to Joshua Schmidt’s rapturous score. Schmidt is the next major voice in musical theatre.
2) The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity @ Victory Gardens: Powerful, funny, fresh, exciting. Who’d have thought wrestling would make an arresting topic for a two-act play? My tolerance for WWE is around 10 minutes, before all the noise, yelling and dramatic pratfalls overwhelm the senses. But Kristoffer Diaz’s hilariously satirical new work found a compelling metaphor in wrestling, featuring an inner world of capitalism, pseudo-celebrity, and racism in American pop culture. Equal parts action, humor, entertainment and passion, this show was a winner.
3) Calls to Blood @ The New Colony: This compact, raw drama explored some agonizing emotions. It was like a punch to the gut. And, as was the case with last season’s Tupperware: An American Musical Fable, The New Colony has proven yet again that they have the resources and talent to produce compelling new works with sensitivity, emotional heft and a good dose of well-placed humor. The cast, specifically Sarah Gitenstein, was amazing.
4) The Man Who Was Thursday @ New Leaf Theatre: Bilal Dardai inventively adapted G. K. Chesterton’s darkly satirical novel into a an evening steeped in intrigue and contradictions. And director Jessica Hutchinson’s neck-twisting and head-scratching staging kept you figuratively (and, at times, literally) on your toes. Also: it was really the only time promenade-style staging was done well and appropriately this season.
5) Hairspray @ Marriott Theatre: I saw this damn show two times. There wasn’t a single dull moment, and the cast was filled with gems, including Chicago divas Hollis Resnik and E. Faye Butler — both of whom can do no wrong in my book. Director/choreographer Marc Robin used Marriott’s round stage to great effect. It was like theatrical Xanax.
6) Follies @ Actors Theatre Company: In looking back at 2009, I can’t recall being more pleasantly surprised with a production than I was here. Yes, it was community theatre. Yes, there was some occasional clunky acting and a few ill-fitting wigs and costumes. Yes, they didn’t have a million-dollar budget and Boris Aronson’s sets. However, where it counted, this Follies really delivered — particularly in some key performances aided by strong direction.
7) The Light in the Piazza @ Marriott Theatre: Yes, another Marriott production in my top ten. And, again, I saw this production twice. Friggen Mary Ernster stole my heart this season (see my #10 below). And, along with Summer Smart as Clara and Max Quinlan as Fabrizio, this was one of the most rapturously sung musicals I’ve seen in ages. And that score! Sigh…
8) The Dastardly Ficus, and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery @ Strange Tree: Funny, twisted, poignant, macabre, and a little sad: this was an evening I won’t soon forget. While scant on plot, Dastardly Ficus offered a voyaristic look into two highly eccentric and reclusive women who live with their own rules, march to their own drummer, talk their own language. Think Grey Gardens meets Tim Burton with a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace. Completely original and endlessly charming.
9) The Pillowman @ Redtwist Theatre: “To do white hot drama, in a tiny black box, with a little red twist.” That’s Redtwist theatre’s tagline, and they are boldly demonstrating it in their intense production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman — which is still playing. Go see it!
10) Wings @ Apple Tree Theatre: Aww, Apple Tree. I barely got to know you before you closed up shop. Sad. However, I’m glad I caught your lovely production of this rarely-seen little musical. And this was my introduction to the wonder that is Mary Ernster. Such a warm, delightful performer. Looking back, my “review” of this show wasn’t glowing, but it’s a production I still think about quite fondly.
Honorable mentions: Northlight’s classy production of Souvenir; Court’s zany The Mystery of Irma Vep; Rivendell’s haunting production of The Walls, and Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler all were among the top, too.