Chicago Theatre Addict’s TOP TEN of 2011

Hollis Resnik in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Follies”

Why, yes! It’s yet *another* top 10 list!

This year I was actually on top of shit and maintained an honest-to-god spreadsheet of all the shows I’ve seen in 2011. In total, I saw 104 plays and musicals — nearly all of them in Chicago. And next to each show, I listed an overall reaction point, ranging from 10 (balls-to-the-wall awesome) to 1 (slit-my-wrists-dear-god-make-it-stop awful). So, to start outlining my top ten, all I had to do was sort by the points column to get a glimpse at the very best stuff I’ve seen this year.

And it surprised me.

I had very few 10s. But a WHOLE SLEW of 9s. So, the challenge came into culling down the 9s to form a top ten. Furthermore, I’m not including touring shows or non-resident shows (such as Broadway in Chicago or visiting companies). If that were the case, en route, Being Harold Pinter and Black Watch would certainly be listed here.

I’m also a hopeless musical fan, so I fully realize my likes lean toward the showtunes inclined.

With that, here it goes — in order of preference (click on the show title to read my original review):

1) Follies. It’s rare thing when I revisit a show after opening night (especially when said show requires a mind-numbing trek to the obnoxious Navy Pier). But I did — two additional times, in fact (on my own dollar, including closing night) because I simply needed to soak in the brilliance before it vanished. It may sound super-gay, but I was so overcome by Gary Griffin’s heart-stopping production of this Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman masterpiece, I nearly forgot to breathe more than once (one of those times during Hollis Resnik’s searing “I’m Still Here”). I also had the luxury of seeing the current Broadway revival, and I can attest that this production more than holds its own to that mega million-dollar spectacle.

2) Merry We Roll Along. It takes a lot to get me up to Highland Park, but this is one of those shows I’ve been bitching about no one producing in the city, so when The Music Theatre Company announced they were staging this challenging Sondheim musical in their 100-seat venue, I felt it my duty to see it. And then I saw the cast list. Jessie Mueller (who’s currently stealing the spotlight from Harry Connick Jr. in the Broadway revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever) and Alan Schmuckler (who enjoyed a hit run in Murder for Two at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this summer)? Yes: this I had to see. And if I lived closer to Highland Park, I would have revisited this super intimate production (ingeniously directed by Jessica Redish) many, many times. I wish Sondheim could have seen it.

3) The Original Grease. I hate the movie Grease. Like, puke-in-my-mouth-a-bit-whenever-I-happen-to-flip-past-it-on-cable hate it. So, the fact that I not only didn’t puke upon seeing this “restored” version of the working-class musical, but LOVED it, speaks volumes. This gritty retelling of the coming-of-age story brimmed with hormones, insecurities, a raging desire to belong and attitude, attitude, attitude!

4) Festen. Steep Theatre’s production was like a punch in the gut. But a theatrically satisfying punch in the gut, if you can imagine such an abstract thing. Director Jonathan Berry’s smart staging magnified the power play between a son and a father as an explosive family secret gets detonated during a celebratory dinner. Amazing ensemble acting made this an unforgettable theatrical highlight for this theatre addict.

5) In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play. Sarah Ruhl’s play — which has the rare combination of being as equally entertaining as it is thought-provoking — has many provocative things to say about impact of electricity on society and sexual liberation. However, it was Kate Fry’s funny, complex and completely human performance as the buttoned-up Victorian housewife yearning to break free that made this show so memorable for me.

6) Putting it Together. If this smart and sophisticated production was any indication of what else is in store, I’m delighted to say it seems new artistic director Michael Webber has injected Porchlight with a much-needed point of view.

7) A Twist of Water. During the original run of Route 66 Theatre Company’s production at Theatre Wit, which I unfortunately missed, Twist was praised by critics and audiences, and even the Mayor Elect attended days after winning the seat. When a new play creates this much buzz, you have to take notice. And I’m so glad I was able to catch this bold and stunning new work, which perfectly set the tone for the re-opening of the Mercury Theater.

8) Eurydice. This is why I went the spreadsheet route this year. Because if I hadn’t, I’m certain I would have overlooked this subtle and magical production. My high “gut reaction” score immediately reminded me of the deep emotional response I had following Filament Theatre Ensemble’s loft-based production. Truly, a magical evening of theatre.

9) Chinglish. Through his smart observations of cultural differences impacting our rapidly changing business landscape, David Henry Hwang found the uncomfortable hilarity in the art of global negotiation in his latest play. Aside from the stellar acting under director Leigh Silverman, David Korins’ ingenious rotating and interlocking set design was a mind-puzzling star unto itself.

10) Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Why this show? Quite simply: I can’t recall the last time I’ve laughed so hard in the theatre. The New Colony offered much-needed release in their ridiculous and riotous ensemble-based comedy. I hope, much like their production of Frat, this gets a commercial production — and it includes the original brilliant cast (including the fierce Mary Hollis Inboden).

Honorable mention: The Madness of George III. Two words: Harry Groener. His blazing, Jeff Award-winning star turn elevated this entertaining, yet somewhat by-the-numbers, production into the stratosphere.

Related: read my top ten of 2010 >

4 thoughts on “Chicago Theatre Addict’s TOP TEN of 2011

  1. You hate Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing in the film version of “Grease”??? Oh, Bob, I might have to take away your gay card for that blasphemy. However, I do agree that American Theater Company’s production of the original “Grease” was a theatrical highlight of the year. Thanks for sharing your Top 10.

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