Wednesday, December 31, 2008


In no particular order, the following were my top 10 most outstanding trips to the theater outside of Chicago:

1. "Ivanov" (LONDON: Donmar Warehouse at the Wyndham's / West End) - Michael Grandage's production of this rarely performed Chekhov play (new translation by Tom Stoppard) was pitch perfect and was led by a voracious performance by Kenneth Branagh.

2. "Macbeth" (NYC: Brooklyn Academy of Music) - As directed by red hot director Rupert Goold, this rendition of the Scottish Play was played out as a relentless horror flick. The main draw may have been Patrick Stewart in the title role, but it was Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth that really got my skin crawling.

3. "Sunday in the Park with George" (NYC: Broadway, Studio 54) - This fine, fine revival featured the best blend of theater and computer animated projections I had yet encountered. One couldn't ask for a better ensemble, with Daniel Evans (as George) giving an emotionally resonant performance straight from the heart.

4. "South Pacific" (NYC: Broadway, Vivian Beaumont) - Perfect in every way, Bartlett Sher's full, glorious revival seethed authenticity without reverting to hokeyness. As Nellie, Kelli O'Hara gave an honest, beguiling breakthrough performance that was also gorgeously sung.

5. "Gypsy" (NYC: Broadway, St. James) - Despite its threadbare looks, this revival was a firecracker, with a trio of definitive performances: Laura Benanti was utterly believable at every step of Louise's transformative joureny; Boyd Gaines as Herbie was effectively solid as a rock until his heartbreaking departure; and Patti LuPone gave a focused, galvanic performance that will be remembered for generations.

6. "The Seagull" (NYC: Broadway, Walter Kerr) - Ian Rickman's production went down in my book as the best representative of Chekhov performance I have seen to date, with every moment balanced between comedy and tragedy. The regal Kristin Scott Thomas led a true ensemble with her fiery, volatile performance.

7. "Arias with a Twist" (NYC: Off-Broadway, HERE) - I had never seen anything like this show, which can be best described as a hallucinatory B movie sci fi adventure told through drag performance and puppet arts. Ridiculously talented master puppeteer Basil Twist framed legendary drag artist Joey Arias in some of the most provocative stage pictures of the year.

8. "Fuente Ovenjuna" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Laurence Boswell's engaging, rock solid revival of Lope de Vega's scantly done play was a true highlight of my first ever visit to the revered Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. There was an overwhelming sense of community among the cast members here that I found extremely moving.

9. "The Music Man" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Susan H. Schulman's lovely, pristine production of this Meredith Wilson classic not only basked in the joyous exuberance of early 20th century Americana, it also highlighted the piece's sophisticated writing and structure. May it have actually deserved its Best Musical Tony over the much-loved "West Side Story"?

10. "Hamlet" (STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, Royal Shakespeare Company) - Gregory Doran's crystal-clear "Hamlet" was headlined by David Tennant's Danish prince. I am happy to report that Mr. Tennant's (aka Dr. Who) interpretation was worth the hype; his performance had an accessibly modern appeal and possessed a manic charisma. He was supported step by step by an exceptional cast, with Patrick Stewart's sympathetic take on Claudius being the best I'd ever seen.

Honorable Mentions:
-"O" (LAS VEGAS: Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio in Las Vegas) - the most spectacular thing I had ever seen; really pleasantly surprised by its dark, almost impenetrable world
-"Lipsynch" (LONDON: Barbican) - Robert Lepage's nine hour epic was not perfect, but it had moments of breathtaking stagecraft
-"Now or Later" (LONDON: Royal Court) - a timely, edge-of-your seat study on the intersection between the personal, political, and the media
-"The Merry Wives of Windsor (LONDON: Shakespeare's Globe) - a disarmingly charming production, made even more irresistible by its setting
-"Piaf" (LONDON: Donmar Warehouse) - I could care less about the uneven play, but I was very impressed by the passionately explosive performance from diminutive Elena Rogers in the title role
-"In the Heights" (NYC: Broadway, Richard Rogers) - successfully brought hip hop to Broadway, but at heart, this sentimental musical was as traditional as they come
-"Passing Strange" (NYC: Broadway, Belasco) - one of the few Broadway shows ever to truly rock; oh yeah, the show was also a successful experiment on the limits of the musical theater form and an an existential mediation on life
-"Dividing the Estate" (NYC: Broadway, Booth) - a new Horton Foote on Broadway (a cause for celebration in and of itself), and it's pretty darn good
-"The Women" (SAN DIEGO: Old Globe) - stylish and very funny, one of the few unadulteratedly enjoyable experiences this year
-"Hamlet" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Ben Carlson was even better in Adrian Noble's stylish and stark production than in his Jeff Award-winning performance at the Chicago Shakespeare last year

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


In no particular order, here are my top ten Chicago theater experiences:

1. "Our Town" (The Hypocrites) - David Cromer is the director of the hour (I've been an adamant fan since his thrilling "Angels in America" for the Journeymen a decade ago), and his searing interpretation of Thornton Wilder's American classic delved right to the heart of the text like a bolt of lightning. The production is headed to New York.

2. "A Flowering Tree" (Chicago Opera Theater) - It was a true treat to hear John Adams conduct his own fragrant fairy tale of an opera. His stage director Nicola Raab and her team of singer/actors and designers understood that the most fulfilling of fairy tales are rooted in pain and consequently took their audiences on a potent emotional journey. This production was a triumph in collaboration -- all aspects of production colluded to create an unbreakable spell.

3. "Caroline, or Change" (Court Theatre) - I found Court's production to be an improvement upon George C. Wolfe's original New York staging. It seemed much more balanced under Charles Newell's insightful direction, with E. Faye Butler sharing the spotlight with Kate Fry's invaluable supporting turn.

4. "The Brothers Karamasov" (Lookingglass Theatre) - Lookingglass at last proved its storytelling maturity, as well as confirmed its unmatched sense of the theatrical, with its sprawling, muscular, and wholly successful adaptation of Dostoevsky's epic novel.

5. "Eurydice" (Victory Gardens Theatre) - This wonderful production of Sarah Ruhl's playful, wistful deconstruction of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was the first time I'd seen the Biograph mainstage used to its utmost effect, thanks to Jessica Thebus's simple yet expansive staging.

6. "Gatz" (Elevator Repair Service) - An epic project which understood that sometimes prose is inextricable to the essence of a novel (certainly the case for F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby) and made unforgettable theater out of it. Bravo, MCA, for giving Chicagoans a chance to experience this.

7. "Dublin Carol" (Steppenwolf Theatre) - The best Chicago McPherson production in a year which has seen some excellent, very high profile productions ("The Seafarer", also at the Steppenwolf; and "Shining City" at the Goodman) from this acclaimed Irish playwright. "Carol" was a haunting, impeccably acted production, and despite being a downer, the best holiday show of the season.

8. "Ruined" (Goodman Theatre) - Lynn Nottage's powerful world premier at the Goodman impressed with some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking performances of the season. Kudos to director Kate Whoriskey, as well, for staging a production of great authenticity and compassion. Along with Cromer's "Our Town", this one's headed to New York.

9. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, visiting company) - Tim Supple's exciting and authentic South Asian production oozed youthful energy and sexuality and was hands down the finest production of "Midsummer" I had ever seen.

10. "Don't Dress for Dinner" (British Stage Company) - The single funniest evening spent in a theater all year. This production of the famous farce did not make a false move and its execution looked downright effortless.

Honorable Mentions:
-"Shining City" (Goodman) - very fine performances of a very fine Conor McPherson play
-"As You Like It" (Writer's) - cozy, wistful production of my favorite Shakespeare comedy
-"Eugene Onegin" (Lyric Opera) - this exquisitely minimal production of the famous Tchaikovsky opera had an enormous emotional impact
-"The Trip to Bountiful" (Goodman) - Lois Smith was breathtaking in this beautiful, gentle production
-"Les Miserables" (Marriott) - (almost) erased memories of the original staging; that's a pretty big compliment
-"Sweet Charity" (Drury Lane) - Drury Lane reinstated themselves as one of the big guns with this joyous, Broadway-quality production
-"Speech and Debate" (ATC) - the most truthful play about teenage angst I have ever seen
-"Funk It Up About Nothin'" (Chicago Shakespeare) - I didn't think it was possible, but the follow-up to "Bombity" was just as fun and clever
-"Lulu" (Lyric Opera) - Lyric deserves enormous credit for staging this tough Berg classic in such pristine, uncompromising fashion
-"Picnic" (Writer's) - director David Cromer once again proves his worth with his claustrophobic, heartbreaking take on this Inge classic

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet) - 12/20/08

To me, a trip to the Joffrey's "The Nutcracker" really puts me in the holiday spirit. It's a real treat from beginning to end, and the Joffrey dancers are in fine shape here. Many dismiss "The Nutcracker" as mere fluff, but I disagree; I think it works wonderfully on its own terms as a full-length ballet. As always, I find the first act a real stunner; the sense of mystery and wonder of the narrative really holds the audience. However, while the second act remains utterly enjoyable, it is basically a series of dance turns with really no sense of forward movement. This is a heartwarming holiday tradition for me and will continue to be so. Happy holidays everyone!

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A House with No Walls (TimeLine Theatre) - 12/18/08

TimeLine's production Thomas Gibbons' "A House with No Walls" is a thoughtful study of race and identity. I had missed his "Permanent Collection" at the Northlight a few years back, so I was eager to catch this one ("House" is part of the same trilogy as "Collection"). We've all seen this before: it's a play that preaches how the past informs us, and in turn, how we should work together to make a better future. The performances here are very good all-around, with the women fairing particularly well. Both Amber Starr Friendly and Leslie Ann Sheppard are giving luminous performances here.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Marriage of Figaro (Remy Bumppo Theatre) - 12/17/08

Historically, Remy Bumppo has focused on careful, thoughtful readings of classic texts, much of the time to the detriment of the staging. Indeed, I find that many of their production veer on the (overly?) safe, conservative side. Hence, in this go-around, I applaud Remy Bumppo for taking a chance on an uber-stylish and stylized staging of Beaumarchais's (as as adapted by Ranjit Bolt) farce, "The Marriage of Figaro", the play immortalized by Mozart's opera. I also applaud the committed cast for working over-time to amuse the audience. However, unlike the concurrent production of "Don't Dress for Dinner", this one lacks the infectious giddy energy to hit this one out of the ballpark. I'd like to blame director Jonathan Barry and his stylized production (as opposed to the capable actors) for this; much of the show is I think too choreographed to set the characters free to rely on their individual comedic chops. Now only if these folks can strike the perfect balance, as these folks did years ago with their stunning production of Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood".

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Don't Dress for Dinner" (British Stage Company) - 12/16/08

Marc Camoletti's farce, "Don't Dress for Dinner", is receiving an absolutely smashing revival at the Royal George Mainstage. I think it's the funniest thing I've seen since the same playwright's "Boeing Boeing" in London last year. Both plays are remarkably similar in plot: both involve a playboy and his sidekick juggling the women in their lives. Needless to say, as I've said before, plot is secondary to how a farce is performed. The cast here is wonderful and is quite expert in gracefully and effortlessly escalating the hilarity. I have to single out, however, Spencer Kayden, as the deadpan cook at the center of it all. Hers is the single funniest performance I've seen all year.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

America: All Better! (Second City, Mainstage) - 12/14/08

The Second City's new mainstage show, "America: All Better!" varies in quality, and I would say, it falls in the middle of the pack in terms of enjoyability. Topics covered are the usual suspects: current political and social stories/environment. I found the first half somewhat lacking on the funny scale, but the second half, I felt, was very, very funny. As always, the ensemble is the star here, and this group is as endearing a group as I have seen.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

The Maids (Writer's Theatre) - 12/14/08

Jean Genet's impressionistic classic "The Maids" is currently being staged in stimulating fashion by the dependable Writer's Theatre in Glencoe. The play involves a pair of frustrated maids who escape through role playing. The production exudes decadence, from the luscious sets and costumes down to the text itself. The performances are very good, and once again I am extremely impressed by Helen Sadler's searing strong/vulnerable performance as the younger maid. She's one to watch and has historically taken on really tough roles (in "A Taste of Honey" and "Blasted").

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Seafarer (Steppenwolf Theatre) - 12/12/08

With "Dublin Carol" in the Upstairs Theatre and "The Seafarer" Downstairs, the Steppenwolf is not only hosting a mini Conor McPherson festival, it's also playing home to the best pair of holiday shows in the city. Granted, they're both riddled with booze and lives unsuccessfully lived. However, they both end with a powerful sense of hope, which is few other holiday shows can claim. I saw "The Seafarer" on Broadway and thought it featured one of the most tight-knit ensembles I had ever seen. Although Steppenwolf's rendition does not quite attain the same level of ensemble spark and Irish authenticity as its Broadway counterpart, it does feature an unforgettable performance by Francis Guinan as a lost character literally playing poker for his soul.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Christmas Schooner (Bailiwick Repertory) - 12/11/08

This was a truly bittersweet performance. With this edition of "The Christmas Schooner", Bailiwick Repertory closes its storied doors for good. This is a heartwarming holiday show that chronicles the treacherous annual trips Michigan sailors took to supply Christmas trees to Chicagoans, and it's performed with heart by a dedicated cast. So long Bailiwick!

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Porgy and Bess" (Lyric Opera of Chicago) - 12/9/08

Lyric Opera is putting on an emotionally open production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess". Last year in London, I caught a critically well-received musical version of "Porgy" directed by Trevor Nunn (of "Cats" and "Les Miz" fame). However, I found that production to be emotionally distant. Why? Doesn't intimacy in the theater invite a stronger connection to the performers? Not in this case; "Porgy and Bess" was written for the opera house, and only in the that setting and performance style can it be fully appreciated. Surprisingly, Lyric is putting on its first ever "Porgy", and they've done it proud. With the full orchestra and big voices, Francesca Zambello's sturdy production feels true to its material. The typically mannered sold out Lyric audience I was in recognized this, giving this one a boisterous curtain call.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Visiting Company at Chicago Shakespeare) - 12/6/08

Director Tim Supple's all-South Asian, multi-lingual "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is miraculous. Indeed, this is a radical departure from how the Shakespeare's romp has been historically performed, but I found this to be, in spirit, the most genuine and affecting of the numerous "Midsummer's" I've seen. Mr. Supple understands that manic, almost reckless sexual energy is key to the play, and his youthful and attractive players provide that in spades. It doesn't much matter that they are speaking in unintelligible South Asian dialects half the time, their intent oozes out of their every movement and the exotic, seductive music (played live) which accompanies them. Darn good theater.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Winter Program (Hubbard Street Dance) - 12/5/08

Hubbard Street Dance continues to wow and seduce with their excellent, joyous Winter Program:

"Strokes Through the Tail" (revival) - Danced to Mozart's Symphony #40, this is a whimsical ensemble play on gender.

"One on One" (new) - Probably the weakest work of the program, this dance to the music of Vivaldi is a broodingly mysterious collection of snapshots in the lives of a diverse set of people.

"The Set" (new) - Wonderfully comic depiction of a love triangle, with yet another gender twist.

"Walking Mad" (new) - A manic, loose work set to Ravel's "Bolero", this piece reminds one of greatly played farce. And with all successful farces, it's all about the execution and less about the motivation. The folks at Hubbard understand this.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Autumn Garden (Eclipse Theatre) - 12/4/08

Lillian Hellman's "The Autumn Garden" is getting a rare production courtesy of Eclipse Theatre Company. It's an interesting play that creates drama out of mature relationships; listening to the text, one truly gets a sense of the history behind these characters. However, Eclipse's production is wildly uneven. This is an ensemble piece, which means that the show thrives on the collective energy the actors emit (Ian Rickson's "The Seagull" hit the bulls eye). The women fare better than the men, but most of the time, these actors individually look like they are acting in a void (note: louder does not necessarily equate to better). Also, a decent-looking set turns out to be sight line-wise.

Rating: ** (out of *****)